CategoryGovernment

There are still $1 lots that no one has applied for

I’d like to point out my story on the Chicago Cityscape blog highlighting the fact that ~1,800 city-owned lots that are being sold to $1 to nearby property owners that haven’t been applied for. The City of Chicago is selling 3,844 vacant lots for $1 in these 34 community areas, but the city has received only 2,031 applications.

Alder Pawar’s message to the 47th Ward – and all people

Alder Ameya Pawar emailed this story to subscribers of his 47th Ward newsletter. I am posting it here because there was no other way to view this online. I received it on Thursday, November 10, 2016, at 15:19.

—–

Dear Neighbor,

I am the son of Indian immigrants and my dad was just five years old during the British partition of India and Pakistan. The trauma associated with splitting one nation into two by religion is still felt by Indians and Pakistanis today. The impacts to his family were very real. It wasn’t until he came to the United States in 1972 that he experienced a life without food rations. My wife, Charna, is Jewish and her family is made up of recent immigrants and refugees and survivors of the Holocaust. Charna often talks about how Jews have spent millennia running from one place to the next in search of a stable home. And she often talks about how our families, and millions of immigrants and refugees come to the United States because our country is the freest place in the world. Her family’s experience led her to a career in human rights where she worked with and taught unaccompanied undocumented minors at the International Children’s Center, led the Heartland Alliance’s Refugee and Immigrant Community Services department resettling refugees from Sudan, Iraq, and beyond, and was one of the leaders in Chicago’s efforts to resettle over 10k Hurricane Katrina evacuees, America’s refugees. She did so out of a sense of service to our country, a country that allowed entry to her family and millions of others; and she did so to help make the world a better place.

So when the Presidential campaign devolved into denigrating and casting refugees and immigrants as weak, drains on our government, and people to be feared, we were offended and horrified. Charna often says that refugees and evacuees are the most resilient people on the planet. They walk continents, survive warehousing, flee their homelands to escape violence, or leave their homes after a massive natural disaster in search of safety and the dream of a better life for themselves and their families. And that search for safety, security, and a better life is the definition of the American experience. So as the campaign rhetoric escalated over the last year, Charna and I had a conversation about some of the anti-immigrant, racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and misogynistic rhetoric coming from the President-elect’s campaign. What would we do if he won? What would we do if he was serious about a religious litmus test? What we do if he began rounding up undocumented immigrants, immigrants, and refugees? What would this mean for our family and our friends and neighbors from diverse backgrounds? Based on our collective experience and from history, we know how ugly rhetoric can spin from just that into policies and actions. So we asked ourselves, where would we go if we unimaginably had to leave? And the irony of the last question? My wife said “Germany”, the country that part of her family fled to escape the Holocaust, the country that today takes in hundreds of thousands of refugees from around the world, is one country that we could consider due to WWII reparations for the descendants of families that were forced to flee. And that was saddest conversation of our life.

I say all of this because we know what if feels like to be seen as ‘the other.’ And I know most of the 48 million people who voted for the President-elect do not believe, subscribe to, or hold values which align with the rhetoric of his campaign. My guess is that for many people who voted for the President-elect, they too felt like ‘the other.’ Economic policies, widening income inequality, and a lack of investment in communities manifested itself in the results on Tuesday night. We must deal with these issues and hear people before suffering forces more people into the arms of a demagogue. That’s really all I have to say on this because there is so much I don’t understand about Tuesday.

All said, I will continue to push back on the idea that wealth equals competence in government. I will continue to push back against leaders who seek to create ‘the others’, whether they are immigrants, refugees, people with disabilities, people of color, women, LGBTQ, or members of unions. My commitment to social justice will never change. I do feel that the level of our discourse has been cheapened by social media and other platforms where people and politicians seek immediate responses and appeal to and act on one another’s most base instincts. So my office is going to take a break from the echo chamber that is social media and find better ways to engage and promote rational public discourse.

In the coming days and months, we should all start a new level of discourse by engaging and helping organizations that do the hard work of protecting American values and serving our neighbors in need. I hope you’ll join us and get involved with organizations like Planned Parenthood, La Casa Norte, the Sierra Club, Heartland Alliance, Apna Ghar, Thresholds, the Center on Halsted, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Consider volunteering your time or making a financial contribution to an organization of your choice. Let’s all do our part.

In closing, I don’t have a prescriptive idea today – writing this letter to you is cathartic for me and an expression of many conversations I’ve had with some of you over the last 48 hours. I’ll simply end this week’s letter by going back to my dad’s story. My dad is 5 foot 2. I am 6 feet tall. And there is a reason for why there is a major height difference between the two of us. In India, my dad battled typhoid as a young boy and lived off food rations; I grew up here with plenty of food to eat and without any health or public health concerns. In just one generation, and because of American immigration policies, my parents were able to see their son elected as the first Asian American alderman in Chicago’s history and watch their daughter graduate with a doctorate from Northwestern University. America is a great country. Americans are a good people. And nowhere else in the world is my family’s story possible. But today, it is the hope and dream realized by my parents and my wife’s family that we cling to for support and hope. We have to chart a course forward and we will.

Thank you for the opportunity to serve.

Sincerely,
Ameya

FOIA is great…if you know who and what to ask for

Dooring is dangerous (sometimes deadly) for bicyclists. Where's the data? Image via The Blaze

Dooring is dangerous (sometimes deadly) for bicyclists. Where’s the data? Image via The Blaze

tl;dr: This is the list of all citation types that the Chicago Dept. of Administrative Hearings “administers”.

The Freedom of Information Act is my favorite law because it gives the public – and me – great access to work, information, and data that the public – including me – causes to have created for the purpose of running governments.

FOIA requires public agencies to publish (really, email you) stuff that they make and don’t publish on their own (which is dumb), and reply to you within five days.

All you have to do is ask for it!

BUT: Who do you ask?

AND: What do you ask them for?

This is the hardest thing about submitting a FOIA request.

Lately, my friend and I – more my friend than me – have been trying to obtain data on the number of traffic citations issued to motorists for opening their door into traffic – a.k.a. “dooring”.

It is dangerous everywhere, and in Chicago this is illegal. In Chicago it carries a steep fine. $500 if you don’t hurt a bicyclist, and $1,000 if you do.

My friend FOIA’d the Chicago Police Department. You know, the agency that actually writes the citations. They don’t have bulk records to provide.

Then he FOIA’d the Chicago Department of Transportation, the Illinois Department of Transportation, the Chicago Department of Administrative Hearings, and the Chicago Department of Finance.

Each of these five agencies tells you on their website how to submit a FOIA request. You can also use FOIA Machine to help you find a destination for your request.

None of them have the records either. The “FOIA officer” for the Administrative Hearings department suggested that he contact the Cook County Circuit Court. So that’s what we’re doing.

Oh, and since the Administrative Hearings department doesn’t have this information (even though they have the records of citations for a lot of other traffic violations), I figured I would ask for them for a list of citations that they do have records of.

And here’s the list, all 3,857 citation types. You’ll notice a lot of them don’t have a description, and some of very short and unclear descriptions. Hopefully you can help me fix that!

I can grant you editing access on the Google Doc and we can improve this list with some categorizations, like “building violations” and “vehicle code”.

 

Vote “no” on the proposed constitutional amendment to create a “transportation lockbox”

Updated Oct. 10 with more examples of why this could be a problem. Updated Oct. 13 to include CMAP’s review of the amendment. I also posted an alternative version on my new Medium account

Illinois voters are being asked in the current election – early voting has started – to support or opposed a constitutional amendment that would restrict spending of certain revenue sources.

The amendment to the Illinois constitution says that revenues derived from transportation sources – gas and related taxes, license and registration fees, sales taxes for transit, airport fees – can only be used to fund transportation initiatives. (see full text below).

The problem this amendment intends to solve is that sometimes Illinois legislators spend transportation funds on non-transportation projects, people, and services, depending on their priorities at the time – even when existing laws says they can’t.

Your ballot says: “The proposed amendment adds a new section to the Revenue Article of the Illinois Constitution. The proposed amendment provides that no moneys derived from taxes, fees, excises, or license taxes, relating to registration, titles, operation, or use of vehicles or public highways, roads, streets, bridges, mass transit, intercity passenger rail, ports, or airports, or motor fuels, including bond proceeds, shall be expended for other than costs of administering laws related to vehicles and transportation, costs for construction, reconstruction, maintenance, repair, and betterment of public highways, roads, streets, bridges, mass transit, intercity passenger rail, ports, airports, or other forms of transportation, and other statutory highway purposes, including the State or local share to match federal aid highway funds.”

A “yes” vote means you want the Illinois Constitution to have this amendment.

A ChiHackNight member asked the #transportation channel in our Slack about this amendment.

Just got my copy of Proposed Amendment to the Illinois Constitution and bicycle and pedestrian paths are perhaps intentionally not listed as possible places to spend transportation tax revenue. Thoughts?

Very little (oh, so little) money is spent on bike and pedestrian things. Despite what you’ve read, there’s no way to guarantee that the recovered money – the small portion that’s being diverted – would be used to enlarge the pot spent on bike, pedestrian, or transit projects.

Existing laws dictate how the money is supposed to be spent

Many of the money categories in the amendment are already protected by either state or federal law. For example, the Passenger Facility Charge that each airline traveler pays to each airport on their itinerary can only be used on certain capital improvement and maintenance projects at that airport. The PFC differs by airport.

And just so we’re clear, there is no such thing as a “road tax” or “driving tax” in any part of Illinois. There is no fee for anyone to use the roads. What gas taxes are supposed to be spent on, first, and then allowed to be spent on, second, are defined in 35 ILCS 505/8 (from Ch. 120, par. 424). 

Bike lanes and sidewalks are rarely called out separately because they are part of streets and roads, which are funded, and I don’t think it’s significant that the constitutional amendment doesn’t list “bicycles” and “pedestrians”.

It’s up to IDOT and other agencies that have jurisdiction over a road to choose to include those things as part of larger road changes. This constitutional amendment won’t change any policies, which are already mildly supportive of bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

Priorities and policy makers are the problem

I oppose this on the grounds that it restricts setting state priorities while it doesn’t actually prioritize anything within transportation.

Sometimes there are things that are more important than what the state buys with transportation money.

I have a huge problem with those things it buys, though. The priorities that Illinois legislators have for spending transportation moneys isn’t going to improve.

The state built the MidAmerica-St. Louis airport in Mascoutah for $313 million to serve as a “secondary” airport to the St. Louis airport. It opened in 2000. There are only flights to tourist destinations in Florida; the St. Louis airport never had a capacity problem.

The Illinois Department of Transportation wants to extend the St. Louis light rail through rural areas for 5.3 miles, but is still obtaining funding. However, they are spending about $300,000 annually on something for this project.

Illinois budget line item screenshot

A screenshot of the Illinois FY17 enacted appropriations showing spending $330,010 annually for a project to extend a light rail station to an underused airport that cost the public $313 million.

That is exactly the kind of thing that has to stop and this amendment doesn’t do it. That money can still be spent on bad projects. There’s no shortage of bad projects, but there’s also no shortage of good projects that don’t get funded. States are already spending most of their money on new roads instead of maintaining existing ones.

Since projects are often selected and prioritized to serve political needs, and politicians oversee specific geographies, good projects will still linger in some geographies while bad projects are implemented in others.

In other words, the $300,000 on spending for the light rail extension to the underused airport can’t go to build pedestrian overpasses along well-used multi-purpose trails in DuPage County. It’s going to stay in that downstate legislator’s district because “economic development”.

Staff at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, Chicagoland’s designated regional planning organization, issued a memo to the board a few days before I wrote this describing that the amendment is “unclear” on so many topics. They cite their discussions with unnamed amendment proponents who explain how the lack of clarity won’t be a problem because the General Assembly can pass laws clarifying that bike lanes won’t need a dedicated user fee if the amendment passes and that it doesn’t impinge on the rights of home rule cities to use gas taxes as they need to.

Spending is based on politics, not performance or need

With the amendment, the state will have to dream up some other transportation project in that district – I see a highway widening in their future. Without the amendment, the state could use that money for an important project in that area, but even that isn’t supposed to happen because the state already has laws dictating how project-specific bond funds can be spent.

This is also the problem with the Illiana Tollway that Governor Quinn so much wanted to build to gain favor with Southland legislators.

Whatever the case is, adhering more to performance (merit) measures on transportation spending – rather than political and district appeasement – is the most important change we can make.

It makes us inflexible

Finally, I question the amendment text. It’s hardly possible or easy for us non-legislators to know if the text covers everything that transportation funds are currently allowed to be spent on. What if there’s some project that turns out not to be an eligible recipient for these funds? Do we wait for the next election when we can get another constitutional amendment on the ballot, or hope that the Illinois Supreme Court will interpret the amendment to favor that project?

In fact, we already have a lot of laws that say how transportation-derived moneys are to be spent. The amendment, then, is a solution to the problem of trusting our state legislators.

The Civic Federation says that money is transferred from the various transportation funds to close budget gaps. “Limiting access to transportation-related revenues such as motor fuel taxes and motorist user fees could put additional strain on the State’s general operating resources” and “similarly affect local governments”. They also said that year-to-year figures of transfers and diversions have been calculated differently.

Additionally, DOT workers’ pensions may be paid for by transportation funds. Does this amendment cover that provision? If not, where else in the state’s budget would their pensions be funded?

Some of the work done by staff at other state departments is funded by some transportation user fees. Would the lockbox cut off their funding supply? A little of the work each department can be considered transportation related, but will the road lobby proponents of this amendment see it that way?

I dislike the inflexibility the amendment creates. Constitutions are meant to protect our rights. I don’t think that there’s a right that gas taxes must be used to pay for roads, while a sliver goes to build new CTA stations.

My writing partner at Streetsblog Chicago, John Greenfield, wrote an article that interviewed leaders at three transportation advocacy groups who were all in favor of the proposed amendment. The Tribune editorial he responded to is against it because it seems like a scam that the road lobby is promoting.

I am not in favor of the amendment.

Should the Recorder of Deeds office go away?

House of the Day #33: 3302 S. Normal

A “house” in Bridgeport at 3302 S Normal Avenue. The photographer, Eric Allix Rogers, noted in the caption that he saw on the Recorder of Deeds website that it was in foreclosure (in 2010).

When you vote in Cook County the general election this fall, which has already started here, you’ll find a question on the ballot asking you if the Recorder of Deeds office should be folded into the Clerk’s office.

It should.

The referendum is binding, and would take effect in 2020, the year of an election for a county recorder. There’s an election this year for county recorder and incumbent Karen Yarbrough is the only candidate.

The move will save taxpayer money, according to the Civic Federation, but which Yarbrough doubts. The consolidation is one step towards having a single office manage all of the county’s property records.

Currently four offices – all of which are elected – manage information about property: The recorder keeps track of property ownership and transaction; the assessor determines property value; the treasurer collects property taxes; and the clerk sets the tax rates.

Yarbrough deserves credit for the electronic record keeping innovation she brought to the office. A consolation is a further innovation. Yarbrough is correct that the recorder and clerk offices don’t have overlap, but there are efficiencies that can be devised and implemented as these two offices – along with the other two offices – exist for the same purpose: to collect property taxes.

Chicago Cityscape also advocates that the four property tax offices adopt open data policies that make property ownership, value, and tax rate info accessible.

Barcelona’s superblocks are being implemented now to convert car space to people space

Most of the urban block pattern in Barcelona is this grid of right angles (like Chicago) with roads between blocks that range from small to massive (like Chicago). Barcelona’s blocks, called “illes”, for islands*, are uniform in size, too. This part of Barcelona is called Eixample, designed by ldefons Cerdà in 1859.

The city is rolling out its urban mobility plan from 2013 to reduce noise and air pollution, and revitalized public spaces. Part of this plan is to reduce car traffic on certain streets in a “superblock” (the project is called “superilles” in Catalan) by severely reducing the speed limit to 10 km/h.

Vox published the video above, and this accompanying article. The project’s official website is written in Catalan and Spanish.

My favorite quote from the video is when someone they interviewed discussed what tends to happen when space for cars is converted to space for people:

“What you consistently see is when people change their streetscapes to prioritize human beings over cars is you don’t see any decline in economic activity, you see the opposite. You get more people walking and cycling around, more slowly, stopping more often, patronizing businesses more. That center of social activity will build on itself.”

A superblock is a group of 9 square blocks where the internal speed limit for driving is reduced to 10 km/h, which is slower than most people ride a bicycle.

A superblock is a group of 9 square blocks where the internal speed limit for driving is reduced to 10 km/h, which is slower than most people ride a bicycle. That’s the second phase, though. The first phase reduces it first to 20 km/h. During phase 2, on-street parking will disappear. In addition to the reduced speed, motorists will only be able to drive a one-way loop: into the superblock, turn left, turn left, and out of the superblock, so it can’t be used as a through street even at slow speeds, “allowing people to use the streets for games, sport, and cultural activities, such as outdoor cinema” (Cities of the Future).

A grid isn’t necessary to implement the “superblock”; it can work anywhere.

In Ravenswood Manor, the Chicago Department of Transportation is testing a car traffic diverter at a single intersection on Manor Avenue, where drivers have to turn off of Manor Avenue. This effectively creates a small superblock in a mostly residential neighborhood, but one that is highly walkable, because schools, parks, a train station, and some small businesses are all within about four blocks of most residents.

The trial is complementary to an upcoming “neighborhood greenway” project to use Manor Avenue as an on-street connection between two multi-use trails along the Chicago River.

The Vox video points out that “walkable districts are basically isolated luxury items in the United States”. I agree that this is often the case, although NYC, pointed out as a place where people spaces are being made out of former car-only spaces, is spreading its “pedestrian plaza” throughout all boroughs.

Ravenswood Manor is a wealthy area, but the reason this project is being tried there and not one of the dozens of other places where a lot of car traffic makes it uncomfortable or dangerous to walk and bike is because of the need to connect the trails.

photo of a temporary car traffic diverter

These temporary car traffic diverters are set up at Manor Avenue and Wilson Avenue to force motorists to turn off of Manor Avenue while still allowing bicyclists and pedestrians to go straight. Photo: John Greenfield

The diverter should drastically reduce the amount of through traffic in the neighborhood. Its effect on motorists’ speeds will be better known when CDOT finishes the test in November.

A worker installs a barrier identifying the entrance to a “superilla” (singular superblock) last month. Calvin Brown told me, “I prefer the name ‘super islands’ because it is more poetic and captures the peaceful setting that they create.” Photo via La Torre de Barcelona.

I see a connection between the “superilles” plan in Barcelona, and what CDOT is piloting in the small neighborhood. The next step for CDOT is to try iterative designs in this and other neighborhoods and start converting asphalt into space for other uses, but we may have to rely on local groups to get that ball rolling.

I had the great fortune of visiting Barcelona a year ago, and I had no idea about the plan – but I was impressed by Cerdà’s design of Eixample. I will return, and next time I’ll spend a little time bicycling around.

Oh, how Chicago land use is controlled by spot zoning

If you only had a zoning map to try and understand how the different blocks in the City of Chicago relate to their neighborhoods and the city at large, you might have the idea that the city has no neighborhoods, but is actually a collection of tiny, randomly dispersed zones of differing land uses.

And then when you walked those areas you’d find that the zones, which attempt to prescribe a land use, at least nominally, don’t have anything to do with the restaurant, housing, and commercial building mix of uses actually present.

No plan would have been devised to create a map like this.

Over the last five years, and surely over the last 14, the City of Chicago has been divided (really, split) into an increasing number of distinct zoning districts.

The city’s zoning map is updated after each monthly city council meeting, to reflect the numerous changes that the 50 alders have approved individually. (Their collective approval occurs unanimously in an omnibus bill.)

Every few months I ask the Chicago Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT) for the latest zoning map, in the form of a shapefile (a kind of file that holds geographic information that can be analyzed by many computer programs). While Chicago has one of the country’s best open data offerings, some datasets, like zoning, don’t get updated in the catalog.

There are two ways I can analyze and present the data about the quantity of zoning districts. Both, however, show that the number of distinct zoning districts has increased. This means that the city is divided even more finely than it was just six months ago.

Analysis 1: Period snapshots

I have the zoning shapefile for five periods, snapshots of the city’s zoning map at that time. From August 2012 to now, May 2016, the number of discrete zoning districts (the sum of all B3-5, RS-1, DX-7, etc. zoning classes) has increased 7.8 percent.

Period Zoning districts change

August 2012

11,278

September 2014

11,677

3.42%

June 2015

11,918

2.02%

November 2015

12,015

0.81%

May 2016

12,162

1.21%

I collect the period snapshots to show the history of zoning at a specific address or building in Chicago, which is listed on Chicago Cityscape. For example, the zoning for the site of the new mixed-use development in Bucktown that includes a reconstructed Aldi has changed four times in four years.

aldi zoning history

Analysis 2: Creation date

The zoning shapefiles also have the date at which a zoning district was split or combined to create a new district, either with a different zoning class (RT-4, C1-1, etc.) or a different shape.

With the most recent zoning shapefile I can tell how many new zoning districts were split or combined and a record representing it was added to the list. The records start in 2002, and by the end of the year 7,717 records were created.

The following year, only 14 records were added, and in 2004, only 6. The Chicago City Council adopted a rewritten zoning code in 2004, and I guess that the zoning map was modified prior to adoption. After 2004, the number of new zoning districts picks up:

year zoning districts added by splitting/combining cumulative change

2002

7717

7717

2003

14

7731

0.18%

2004

6

7737

0.08%

2005

267

8004

3.45%

2006

497

8501

6.21%

2007

561

9062

6.60%

2008

592

9654

6.53%

2009

304

9958

3.15%

2010

245

10203

2.46%

2011

271

10474

2.66%

2012

277

10751

2.64%

2013

299

11050

2.78%

2014

397

11447

3.59%

2015

367

11814

3.21%

2016

173

11987

1.46%

none listed

175

12,162

It seems there’s a light relationship between the recession that started in 2008 and the number of zoning changes made. There are more made annually before the recession than after it. It actually seems to track with building permits (sorry, no chart handy).

The U.S. DOT should collaborate with existing “National Transit Maps” makers

The U.S. DOT demonstrated one idea for how a National Transit Map might look and work at a conference in February.

The Washington Post reported this month that the United States Department of Transportation is going to develop a “National Transit Map” because, frankly, one doesn’t exist. The U.S. DOT said such a map could reveal “transit deserts” (the screen capture above shows one example from Salt Lake City, discussed below).

Secretary Anthony Foxx wrote in an open letter to say that the department and the nation’s transit agencies “have yet to recognize the full potential” of a data standard called the General Transit Feed Specification that Google promoted in order to integrate transit routing on its maps. Foxx described two problems that arose out of not using “GTFS”.

  1. Transit vehicles have significantly greater capacity than passenger cars, but are often considered just vehicles because we are unable to show where and when the transit vehicles are scheduled to operate. The realistic treatment of transit for planning, performance measures, and resiliency requires real data on transit system operations.
  2. One of the most important social values of transit is that it makes transportation available to people who do not have access to private automobiles, and provides transportation options for those who do. Yet, we cannot describe this value at a national level and in many regions because we do not have a national map of fixed transit routes.

“The solution is straightforward”, Foxx continued, “[is] a national repository of voluntarily provided, public domain GTFS feed data that is compiled into a common format with data from fixed route systems.”

The letter went on to explain exactly how the DOT would compile the GTFS files, and said the first “collection day” will be March 31, this week. As of this writing, the website to which transit agencies must submit their GTFS files is unavailable.

What Foxx is asking for has already been done to some degree. Two national transit maps and one data warehouse already exist and the DOT should engage those producers, and others who would use the map, to determine the best way to build a useful but inexpensive map and database. Each of the two existing maps and databases was created by volunteers and are already-funded projects so it would make sense to maximize the use of existing projects and data.

“Transitland” is a project to host transit maps and timetables for transit systems around the world. It was created by Mapzen, a company funded by Samsung to build open source mapping and geodata tools. Transitland is also built upon GTFS data from agencies all over the world. Its data APIs and public map can help answer the question: How many transit operators serve Bay Area residents, and what areas does each service?

For the United States, Transitland hosts and queries data from transit agencies in 31 states and the District of Columbia. In Washington, D.C., Transitland is aware of four transit agencies. It’s a great tool in that respect: Not all of the four transit agencies are headquartered in D.C. or primarily serve that city. The app is capable of understanding spatial overlaps between municipal and regional geographies and transit agencies.

Transitland has a “GUI” to show you how much transit data it has around the world.

“Transit Explorer” is an interactive map of all rail transit and bus rapid transit lines in the United States, Mexico, and Canada. Yonah Freemark, author of The Transport Politic, created the map using data culled from OpenStreetMap, the National Transit Atlas Database (administered by the DOT and which shows fixed-guideway transit), and his own research. I wrote the custom JavaScript code for the Leaflet-powered map.

No other agency or project has collected this much data about fixed-guideway transit lines in any of the three countries, since the map includes detailed information about line lengths, ridership, and other characteristics that are not included in GTFS data. Transit Explorer, though, does not include local bus service or service frequencies, which the DOT’s map may if it incorporates the full breadth of GTFS data.

Transit Explorer also goes a step further by providing data about under construction and proposed fixed-guideway transit lines, which is information that is very relevant to understanding future neighborhood accessibility to transit, but which is not available through GTFS sources.

Finally, “GTFS Data Exchange” is a website that has been storing snapshots of GTFS feeds from agencies around the world for almost a decade, or about as long as GTFS has been used in Google Maps. The snapshots allow for service comparisons of a single agency across time. For example, there are over 100 versions of the GTFS data for the Chicago Transit Authority, stretching back to November 2009; new versions are added – by “cta-archiver” – twice a month.

Josh Cohen, writing in Next City, highlighted the significance of Google’s invention of GTFS, saying, “Prior to the adoption of GTFS, creating such a map would’ve been unwieldy and likely produced an out-of-date product by the time it was completed.” The DOT’s own National Transit Atlas Database includes only fixed-guideway (a.k.a. trains) routes, and hasn’t been updated since 2004.

Not all GTFS feeds are created equal, though. Some transit agencies don’t include all of the data, some of which is optional for Google Map’s purpose, that would make the National Transit Map useful for the spatial analysis the DOT intends. Many agencies don’t include the “route shapes”, or the geographic lines between train stations and bus stops. Researchers are able to see where the vehicles stop, but not which streets or routes they take. Foxx’s letter doesn’t acknowledge this. It does, however, mention that transit agencies can use some federal funds to create the GTFS data.

David Levinson, professor at the University of Minnesota, believes the map will bias coverage (geographic reach of transit service) over frequency (how many buses are run each day that someone could ride).

The U.S. DOT’s chief data officer, Dan Morgan, whom I met at Transportation Camp 2015 in Washington, D.C., presented at the FedGIS Conference this year one idea to demonstrate coverage and frequency in Salt Lake City, using the GTFS data from the Utah Transit Authority.

Levinson also tweeted that it will be difficult for a national map to show service because of the struggles individual transit providers have symbolizing their own service patterns.

Foxx’s letter doesn’t describe how planners will be able to download the data in the collection, but whichever app they build or modify will cost money. Before going much further, and before spending any significant funds, Foxx should consult potential users and researchers to avoid duplicating existing projects that may ultimately be superior resources.

Foxx can also take advantage of “18F” a new agency within the General Services Administration to overcome government’s reputation for creating costly and difficult to use apps. The GSA procures all kinds of things the federal government needs, and 18F may be able to help the DOT create the National Transit Map (and database) in a modern, tech and user-friendly way – or write a good RFP for someone else to make it.

Look for the National Transit Map this summer.

Adrienne Alexander tells ChiHackNight what she does as a union lobbyist

Adrienne Alexander speaking to ChiHackNight at Braintree. Photo by Chris Whitaker.

Adrienne Alexander speaking to ChiHackNight at Braintree. Photo by Chris Whitaker.

ChiHackNight is Chicago’s weekly event to build, share & learn about civic tech. Me and 100 of my friends (50 of whom are new every week!) meet in the Braintree auditorium on Tuesday nights at 6 p.m. on the 8th floor of the Merchandise Mart. Sign up for notifications on upcoming presenters. The content of my blog post is derived from real-time note taking.

Adrienne Alexander, or @DriXander on Twitter, came to ChiHackNight last night to tell us about her experience as a lobbyist working for the state’s largest public employees union. She lobbies the Chicago City Council and the Illinois state legislature for bills and budget modifications that would impact the members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees council 31.

Members of AFSCME (afs-me) are staff at numerous Chicago city departments and in state government. Alexander watches new bills that come in and analyzes what their impact might have on its members.

She gave the example of the privatization legislation that she lobbied, the Privatization Transparency and Accountability Ordinance, for three years. Salon reported on the PTAO in 2013, saying, “[it] is designed to help prevent abuses of privatization, and avoid the kinds of deals negotiated in the past that were intended to help close budget deficits but turned out to be massive boons for corporations and Wall Street while losing long-term revenue for the city.”

Alexander, however, had been battling efforts to privatize city functions earlier. In 2011, she said, Mayor Rahm Emanuel was trying to privatize the water billing group. This would have been realized by amending the budget and reducing the amount budgeted for that group of staff.

“We represented those folks”, she said. “It got a lot of aldermen upset, it was supposed to save $100,000 annually but also lay off 40 people.” It didn’t happen. And neither did the 311 privatization that Emanuel proposed in 2015 for the 2016 budget. 

Alexander said that it was hard to keep the press focused on this issue for three years, because nothing was happening. “If there’s nothing happening, they would say, then there’s nothing to write about”, she said.

It was passed in November 2015. “It’s hard to get things passed that don’t have the mayor’s support,” Alexander said. “A lot of the calls the aldermen get are not about policy, but about alleys, trash, tree trimming, these very ‘quality of life’ issues specific to their ward”. 

There’s a good reason – for them –in all of this, she explained. “You can be the most citywide alderman, really focused on policy, but if you don’t take care of the stuff in your ward then you will lose your election.”

Alexander gave some advice to ChiHackNight members who are building tools that explain why some policies aren’t working and should change. Claire Micklin asked how to get alders to “mobilize on and care about policy issues, and can they affect policy change from the ground up if the mayor isn’t necessarily generating or supporting that policy issue?”

Micklin led the development of “My Building Doesn’t Recycle”, a map where Chicagoans can report that their multi-unit building doesn’t have a third-party recycling service (required if the tenants of a building with 5 or more units request it).

Alexander said “I think there’s not so much a culture of [alders generating their own policy initiatives] here, but I think it’s possible”.

She advised Micklin, and anyone else who’s working to change a city policy, to:

  • Choose your sponsor carefully.
  • Be clear of what your expectations are, have a plan so you can help guide them
  • Have grassroots support, so it’s more than one person coming and talking to them about it
  • Make sure they’re hearing about it from different places, and find out who else they’re listening to.

In each ward, she said, there’s at least one organization that an alder really cares about, so if that organization is making something an issue, or it would be beneficial to that organization, then they could be helpful.

I’ve seen this kind of organization-derived influence a lot in property development matters. If there’s a neighborhood-based organization that purports to represent resident issues in a specific boundary, then the alder who’s receiving a new property development proposal will ask that the developer meet with the organization to gain their approval. I’ve seen situations, especially in the 1st Ward, where the alder supports the development if the organization supports the development.

Alexander concluded her response to Micklin’s question, saying, “It’s really helpful if you can do a lot of the legwork, and you can get the alderman plugged into the process.”

Which places in Chicago get the most building permits?

View from the CTA green roof

The Merchandise Mart in the Near North Side community area ranks second place in locations receiving the most building permits.

Ed. note: I changed the title of this blog post because one interpretation of the original, “Where are the most building permits issued in Chicago?”, has the answer “City Hall”, the location of the issuer. My bad. 

Without regard to type or construction cost, the most building permits in the City of Chicago are issued at 11601 W Touhy Ave.

Where is that? It depends on which geocoder you use.

Two buildings at 11601 W Touhy Ave from Google Street View. The City of Chicago has issued thousands of building permits to this address, but the work is actually distributed across the O'Hare airport grounds. Google Maps and the Cook County parcel map places these buildings in Des Plaines.

Two buildings at 11601 W Touhy Ave from Google Street View. The City of Chicago has issued thousands of building permits to this address, but the work is actually distributed across the O’Hare airport grounds. Google Maps and the Cook County parcel map places these buildings in Des Plaines.

Google Maps puts it on this building that’s on a street called “Upper Express Drive” and in the city of Des Plaines, Illinois. But the City of Chicago wouldn’t issue building permits in another city.

Our own geocoder converts the geographic coordinates given in the city’s building permits database for these permits to the address “399 E Touhy Ave, Des Plaines, IL”. The Cook County parcel for the same location has the address “385 E Touhy Ave, Des Plaines, IL”.

Now where is this building?

It’s at O’Hare airport, and it’s one of a handful of addresses* the city’s buildings departments uses to denote permits issued to work at O’Hare. Since 2006 to Saturday, December 12, 2015, there’ve been 2,403 building permits issued here. The permits’ work descriptions indicate that a lot of the work occurs elsewhere on the airport grounds.

13 buildings have had more than 400 permits issued since 2006 to yesterday.

address community area count
11601 W Touhy Ave O’Hare

2403

222 W Merchandise Mart Plz Near North Side

802

141 W Jackson Blvd Loop

538

233 S Wacker Dr Loop

518

2301 S Lake Shore Dr Near South Side

516

30 S Wacker Dr Loop

510

5700 S Cicero Ave Garfield Ridge

495

500 W Madison St Near West Side

482

227 W Monroe St Loop

422

55 E Monroe St Loop

421

875 N Michigan Ave Near North Side

408

151 E Wacker Dr Loop

407

350 N Orleans St Near North Side

401

A pattern emerges: 10 of these 13 buildings are in the Central Business District and the other three are O’Hare airport, McCormick Place (2301 S Lake Shore Drive), and Midway airport (5700 S Cicero Ave).

The first location that’s outside the Central Business District and not one of the city’s airport or its convention center is at 1060 W Addison St – better known as Wrigley Field – in the Lake View community area with 321 building permits issued. It ranks #30. If you keep running down the list, the next most frequently issued location is 7601 S Cicero Ave – that’s the Ford City Mall and I think the city’s only sprawl-style indoor mall. It ranks #39 because it pulls monthly electric maintenance permits.

The Merchandise Mart’s position at #2 is notable because the majority of its permits are for small amounts of work: there is a lot of electrical rewiring done because of the frequent shows and exhibitions in the interior design materials “mall”.

The Mart sees other activity, though, including multi-million renovations for technology companies like Motorola Mobility and Braintree. The Mart also received a permit this year for a new $3 million staircase construction, part of its building-wide renovation project.

Rendering of new main (south) lobby staircase at the Merchandise Mart

This rendering shows a new grand staircase that will be built in the Merchandise Mart’s south lobby jutting from the side of the lobby that’s between the doors on the Chicago River side, and the reception desk and central elevator bank. A building permit issued this fall puts the construction cost at $3 million.

If you want to know more about building trends in Chicago, send me a message through the Chicago Cityscape website and I can put together a custom report for you.

* Other addresses I’ve noticed are:

  • 10000 N Bessie Coleman Dr
  • 10000 W Ohare St
  • 11600 W Touhy Ave
  • 11555 W Touhy Ave

Of these only the two Touhy Ave addresses are logical: O’Hare Street isn’t a real road, and 10000 N Bessie Coleman Dr is much further north than the northernmost point in Chicago.

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