CategoryMobility

The on-time trains and wonderful transit workers of Japan

I’m watching this mini-doc about the Tokyo Metro subway and they focus on customer service for a few minutes. They don’t explain why there’s a need to have so many staff at each station dedicated to customer service, aside from the plethora of passengers. I think one of the reasons is that the system is so vast and complex that so many people always have questions. Indeed I saw many Japanese confused or looking for where to go.

I experienced some of this great customer service myself. (In the video, skip to 14:00 to watch the segment on customer service training.)

I was at Ōmiya station in Saitama prefecture, north of Tokyo, and I wanted to ride the New Shuttle a short distance from Omiya to Tetsudō-Hakubutsukan to visit the Railway Museum, but I first wanted to get a “Suica” reloadable smart card so I didn’t have to keep buying single-ride tickets.

The scene outside Ōmiya station is a lot of mixed-use and malls

Oddly I noticed at least five different kinds of ticket vending machines at different stations. They all will display in English, and a sign above each lists some of its functions. There are many overlapping machines. After I tried to buy one with one machine I asked a worker how I can buy a Suica card.

Ōmiya station (JR side)

He didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Japanese but his colleague understood my unaccented pronunciation of Suica, and informed him what I was looking for.

People wait in prescribed queues for the New Shuttle

It turns out that the machines at the New Shuttle “side” (more on this later) of the Omiya station don’t sell new Suica cards. The man walked me over to the JR side of the station and introduced me and my problem to a Japan Railways East worker. This second man spoke English and guided me through buying a personalized Suica card; a card with my name printed on it.

What was impressive was that the first man walked with me 570 feet away to the other side of the station, where he doesn’t work, instead of trying to point me in a direction. Even if he could verbally describe where I should go, that still wouldn’t solve my problem of obtaining a card because I would still probably have to ask someone else.

My personal Suica card for transit and convenience stores in Japan

This wasn’t unique in being “walked” to a destination. The next day in Chiba I bought a bento box “lunch set” (complete meal with veggies, meat, and rice) in the food hall of the Sogo department store, where there are dozens of independent shops selling fresh food.

After I bought the food I wanted to know where there was a place to eat it. Again, I didn’t speak Japanese and the woman who sold me the food didn’t speak English. I mimed my problem, by looking around, pointing, and making an eating motion. She nodded and walked me over to a small eating area at the edge of the food hall.

In Taiwan my host advised me that this would happen, and she also said to not hesitate asking someone for help. It happened one time in Taipei, but I don’t remember the circumstances. In a separate and similar occasion, however, a worker at the Taipei Discovery Center (which is similar to the city gallery in Singapore, Hong Kong, and many cities in China) approached me while I studied an exhibit. He talked to me about Taipei history, what I had seen so far during my visit (nothing, as this was my first stop on day one), what I planned to see (a lot), and then recommended more things for me to see (I checked out a couple things).

Station sides

I measured the 570 distance the New Shuttle worker walked with me to introduce me to a JR East worker who showed me how to buy a Suica card. Transit in Japan is privately operated and New Shuttle is one company (Saitama New Urban Transit Co., Ltd.) that operates one part of a station, and JR East operates the majority of the station. Tobu Railway also operates the station because it terminates a single commuter line here. Depending on how you look at it they are separate buildings but when you’re inside transferring from one to another there’s no distinction; the building connections are seamless.

To slow down drivers, we must speak up to our own drivers

Backseat view of drive to Oak Park

We have a lot of power from the backseat to influence our drivers to drive better. We only have to speak up.  Photo: John Bracken

I’ve had a lot of experience with a major “transportation network company” this weekend. TNCs are also known as e-hail car services, and, inaccurately, “ride share”, because a car arrives at your location after pressing a button on an app.

I rode in one four times from Friday to Sunday because my visiting friend had a broken bone and couldn’t ride a bike – that was our original plan. Instead we had a multi-modal weekend and relied on walking, public transportation, another friend’s personal vehicle, and the TNC to go out.

These experiences reminded me that advocates for safe streets and better active transportation service and infrastructure – including myself – must directly battle entrenched norms about the “plight of the driver”.

In our final ride, on our way to the airport to drop off my friend, the TNC driver asked about the timing of our trip, if we were in a rush so the driver could know if they needed to drive a certain way.

I said that we were not, that we had budgeted plenty of time, and that Google Maps showed green lines on the local streets and highway between where we had dinner in Ukrainian Village and O’Hare airport.

As he was driving the car northbound on Western Avenue toward the Fullerton Avenue on-ramp to the Kennedy, my friend asked him about the app he was using that was speaking the turn-by-turn directions, and how it knew what the road conditions were.

The app uses the Waze service, which collects data from transportation departments, other drivers, and databases of upcoming road closures. The driver said he liked that it warned him of the locations of red light and speed cameras, too.

“I’ve gotten four speed camera tickets in the last year”, he said, “and they were all $100 each.”

I have written about Chicago’s speed cameras several times in Streetsblog Chicago, and I thought the cost was different so I asked, “Isn’t it lower for the first time?” Nope, he said.

When I looked it up at home I remembered why I was mistaken: The fine is $100 if you are traveling 11 miles per hour or more over the speed limit. The fine is $35 for traveling six to 10 miles per hour or more over the speed limit, but the cameras aren’t enforcing this range currently.

That was the end of our conversation, but I should have kept on.

The conversation we should have had would have questioned his driving behavior. I should have asked, “Why are you driving so far so often?” and “Why aren’t you slowing down? Don’t you know that speeding is dangerous to you, your passengers, and other people outside the car?”

I was spineless and didn’t challenge how he was contributing to unsafe streets in the city. My silence was tacit agreement that four $100 speeding tickets – for driving 41+ in a 30, or 31+ in a 20 in a school zone if a child was present – was a personal burden and not a necessary enforcement tool to try and reduce the number of injuries and deaths in car crashes in Chicago.


Later, on the Kennedy Expressway, he was traveling a bit over 70 miles per hour, or more than 25 miles per hour greater than the speed limit. Again I said nothing.

Another of the TNC drivers this weekend was likely high on marijuana. I shouldn’t have accepted any of these situations.

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.

Chicago has too many traffic signals

IMG_2496

People wait at a stop light on the first major ring road in the city center of Amsterdam. Photo: Northeastern University, Boston

I was flabbergasted to learn today that there are only 5,500 signalized intersections in all of the Netherlands. I was reading Mark’s blog “Bicycle Dutch” and he interviewed a city traffic signal engineer in Den Bosch, who described how different road users are prioritized at different times based on the complex programming. (Watch the video below.)

In Chicago there are more than 3,000 signalized intersections. And I believe this is way more than we need.

I understand more than the average person how traffic moves in each place and how it “works”. There is such a thing as too many traffic signals because at some point the signals (their proximity and their programming) start causing delays and conflicts.

Saying that traffic – of all kinds, bikes, trucks, buses, delivery vans, and personal vehicles – moves better in cities in the Netherlands than in Chicago is an understatement.

Aside from their impacts on traffic (which can be good in some situations, but aggravating existing problems in other places), signals are very expensive to purchase, install, and maintain.

In Chicago, an alderman (city councilor) can use part of their $1.3 million “menu” money annual allocation to purchase a traffic signal for $300,000. That’s money that won’t be used for transportation investments that reduce the number of severe traffic crashes as well as reduce congestion like bus lanes and protected bike lanes.

Let’s review

I compared their populations (about 17 million in the Netherlands and 2.7 million in Chicago) and saw that Chicago has a lot more traffic signals per person.

On Twitter, however, I was challenged to find the number of traffic signals per mile driven, not per capita.

So, I did, and I was surprised by the result.

This assumes I collected the right statistics, and converted the driving figures correctly.

The surprise: There are more passenger miles driven (known as VMT) in the Netherlands, per capita, than in Chicago. I actually can’t even get passenger miles driving in Chicago – I can only find “all miles” driven. And that includes trips on interstates that pass through Chicago but where the driver or passengers don’t stop in Chicago.

Here’s the analysis, though.

Driving

  • According to the OECD, there were 145,400 million kilometers driven on roads, for passenger transport, excluding bus coaches, in the Netherlands in 2013 (the latest year for which data was available in the Netherlands). That’s 145.4 billion kilometers. (Source, no permalink.)
  • According to the Illinois Department of Transportation, there were 11,150,109 thousand miles for all kinds of road transport, in Chicago in 2013. That’s 11.2 billion miles, which converts to 17.9 billion kilometers. (Source)

Population

  • In 2013, the Netherlands had 16,804,430 inhabitants (they had declared reaching 17,000,000 this year), according to the OECD.
  • In 2013, the City of Chicago had 2,706,101 inhabitants, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2009-2013 ACS 5-year estimate.

Signals

Results!

  • The Netherlands has over 39 signalized intersections per billion kilometers traveled.
  • Chicago has over 167 signalized intersections per billion kilometers traveled.

I finally heard “My best friends are bike lanes” at a meeting

Augusta @ Washtenaw

Yes, more bikes, but keep them in the parks! Unrelated photo by Josh Koonce.

Last night at a ward transportation meeting I finally got to hear it: “My best friends are bike lanes”. AKA the plight of the motorist.

In many words, bike lanes and other kinds of infrastructure that make bicycling in a city safer and more comfortable must be impinging on driving and the needs of the motorist must be considered.

Okay, it wasn’t exactly uttered “my best friends are bike lanes”, but no one ever says that verbatim.

It went more like this: “We’re all for more biking. Biking in the park, more of that, that’s great. But you have to consider the motorist because there’s very little bicycling in our neighborhood and most of us don’t ride bikes.”

No one ever says that they oppose the act of riding a bicycle. Doug Gordon keeps a diary of the different ways these phrases are coded. They say something that sounds like the opposite: “I’m not against cycling” and “We’re not opposed to bicycle lanes”.

Yes, they want more biking…but not if it affects driving.
Well, that’s just not possible.

And we’re not even starting from a place of equality, either, regardless of how many people in the neighborhood are riding bikes versus driving cars.

No, instead, there is zero infrastructure for bicycling, and all infrastructure is optimized (er, “accommodating”) for driving. However the city staff at this meeting said there are some times, evident from their traffic counts, when bicycles made up 10 percent of traffic on certain streets in the neighborhood.

So there are people bicycling, yet are not accommodated. Driving is fully accommodated and anything less than that is essentially impinging on this motorist’s right to drive and park for free on publicly-funded streets.

Why the next downtown Chicago cycle track shouldn’t be two-way

Divvying in a suit and a skirt

Riding south, in the gutter pan, on Dearborn’s two-way cycle track.

 

There are many problems inherent to having a two-way cycle track (or protected bike lane) on a one-way street in a busy urban center. I’ll list them here to convince you that the next time the Chicago Department of Transportation proposes a two-way cycle track on a one-way street you should heavily question it (except in one circumstance I’ll outline in the discussion).

In two-way cycle tracks on one-way streets…

0. It’s less safe than one-way cycle tracks on one or both sides of a street. (See OECD passage below.)

1. It’s hard to pass same-direction cyclists. A cyclist who wishes to pass someone going in the same direction must watch for oncoming traffic, increasing the danger of passing if they miscalculated when they should go and reducing the opportunities to do so. It also presents a hazard for all cyclists, who have to watch out for oncoming cyclists who are passing a same-direction cyclist!

2. It’s unlikely there will be space to offer turn lanes. Busy cycle tracks need turn lanes, to separate cyclists who are going to slow and turn or stop before turning (in the case of pedestrians crossing), and those who are going straight. A turn lane could be accommodated if the cycle track can widen at intersections, but in practice it seems to be easier to split the cycle track into turn and through lanes.

3. It costs more. Opposite direction cyclists can’t use existing traffic signals and must have costly traffic signals with bike symbols (which also cost a lot to program). The need to have a yellow center line also means a two-way cycle track requires more paint.

Erik pointed out in the comments how this isn’t right. I mostly agree, but then I changed my mind on how important this is: The appropriate and best design for a bicycle facility shouldn’t have its quality compromised because of cost.

4. It interferes with decades of intuition gained from crossing one-way streets. Most pedestrians around the world are used to monitoring a single direction of traffic on a one-way street.

5. They’re anti-social. Two-way cycle tracks are narrower than one-way cycle tracks because the city street engineers likely have the same space to work whether they allow one- or two-way cycling. This means you can’t cycle and chat next to a friend.

6. They require that someone has to ride in the gutter. When two-way cycle tracks are built curbside on existing roadways, one direction of cyclists will always have to ride in the gutter, a slanted area of the road filled with water and debris. We could eliminate this by building raised cycle tracks with a new drainage system (either drain into the roadway, or into new grates).

7. There’s less room to avoid obstacles. If there’s a rock, pothole, or upraised manhole cover in your path, you go around it. But if there’s someone coming in the other direction you’ll just have to hit it and take the beating.

8. They don’t provide cyclists access to both sides of a street that has destinations on both sides. This is a conditional item, and moot if the options are a two-way cycle track on one-side or a one-way cycle track on one side. A cycle track on each side of a one-way street will provide bicycle access to destinations on both sides.

Keep reading for a deeper discussion on the situations where a two-way cycle track could be good.

Note: A two-way cycle track is scheduled to be installed on the left (east) side of southbound Clinton Street as part of CDOT and CTA’s Loop Link bus lanes project.

There may be a place for two-way cycle tracks

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published a review of international best practices for growing cycling and keeping cyclists safe (hat tip to Copenhagenize). The authors concluded (page 177):

  • “Bi-directional cycle tracks along roads invariably lead to non-conventional maneuvers at junctions and where such tracks terminate. These situations entail a significant risk of crashes. Two-directional cycle tracks along roads generally should be avoided, unless the advantages are very clear or the space constraints for two unidirectional cycle tracks insurmountable.” [Grand Avenue is under discussion right now and I would say that the street has a lot of excess space. It has a “pair” on Illinois Street, with similar excesses.]
  • Opposite direction cycling on streets where cyclists don’t need linear protection from motor vehicles (because of lower volumes or traffic speeds; like Chicago’s side streets) is a very different ballgame.

None of this is to say that having two single direction cycle tracks, on each side of a one-way street is bad. They’re better than having a two-way cycle track because cyclists would then have a bigger, direct network of good places to ride and reach destinations.

A two-way cycle track to access bike parking at a train station. It wouldn’t make sense here, in a car-free environment, to have a one-way cycle tracks on either side of something in the middle (there wouldn’t be a something in the middle). Photo: Jennifer Judge and Ben Russell

The Dutch have installed many (probably hundreds of) miles of two-way cycle tracks, but they are more akin to our two-way off-street multi-use trails as they’re only mildly aligned with streets, or they’re used in very particular situations – for example, to carry a busy segment of the cycle network on one side of a large road to a bridge on the other – and not in dense, tight, uniformly dimensioned urban street grids that dominate American cities and are rarer in Dutch cities.

Quite often the Dutch will build a two-way cycle track on each side of the street to accommodate their cycle route networks, avoid a busy junction or train station area, work in harmony with intersections that prioritize tram and bus traffic but that can still keep certain directions of cyclists moving without any delay, or to provide access to both sides of a busy retail area. Learn more about the geometry and engineering of two-way cycle track design on Peter Furth’s website.

Speaking of networks, two-way cycle tracks on one-way streets must be integrated into a bicycle route/path network differently. This isn’t to say it cannot be done, but it takes a different and more complicated approach because of the nature of the other streets that would have to be modified to “receive” bicyclists turning off of the two-way cycle track. It has so far not been implemented well in Chicago.

Furth’s website describes the advantages of a two-way cycle track as listed in the Dutch street design manual called CROW. They are convincing! Yet Dearborn Street in Chicago, the first urban two-way cycle track on a one-way street in a big American city, doesn’t fit those criteria. And neither does building two-way cycle tracks on other one-way streets in the central business district.

You wouldn’t have to reject the proposal for another two-way cycle track on a one-way street, though, if there was a single, thoughtful design plan – the evolution of a network proposal like Chicago’s Streets for Cycling Plan – for all of the streets and intersections involved attached with dedicated funds for the appropriate infrastructure redesigns. However, three years after the Dearborn cycle track was installed, it still doesn’t bicycle facilities connecting it to the Kinzie cycle track. There, a network plan and a design plan failed to materialize.

A local example of a complicated and deficient intersection design is that cyclists going northbound on Dearborn Street (a northbound, one-way street with a two-way cycle track) and want to turn east onto two-way Kinzie Street (which has no bicycle facilities) have no way to do so without putting themselves and others at risk or burden.

Here’s how I would make that turn: if the Dearborn light is green, come to a complete stop in the intersection and wait for the Dearborn light to turn red and the Kinzie light to turn green – ignore that I’m blocking northbound cycle traffic. If the Dearborn light is red, signal to cyclists behind you that you’re turning right, and then watch for Kinzie traffic, turn right, and merge into it. Neither situation is preferable.

It’s imperative to redesign intersections when adding cycle tracks, and two-way cycle tracks on one-way streets require a more intensive and complex design but add little to no benefit over having a single, one-way cycle track, or one-way cycle tracks on either side of the street.

This slide from an APBP webinar briefly lists why a two-way cycle track may be better than a one-way cycle track.

This slide from an APBP webinar briefly lists why a two-way cycle track may be better than a one-way cycle track.

P.S. I laughed when I saw these three reasons [PDF] supporting a two-way cycle track over a one-way cycle track, because all of them are the same labels I’ve used to denote the disadvantages of using a two-way cycle track.

  1. Space limitations. Advantage: You don’t have enough room to put in two, appropriate-sized one-way cycle tracks, so you build a two-way cycle track. Disadvantage: Each cyclist now has personal space limitations.
  2. Wrong-way bicyclists. Advantage: You provide a space for people who choose to cycle the wrong way. Disadvantage: A two-way cycle track is less an accommodation for this rider, and more an admission that your cycle network doesn’t accommodate the rider.
  3. Difficult street crossings. Advantage: I don’t think there are any! Disadvantage: Start reading from the top of this post.

Use Turf to perform GIS functions in a web browser

Turf's merge function joins invisible buffers around each Divvy station into a single, super buffer.

Turf’s merge function joins invisible buffers around each Divvy station into a single, super buffer –all client-side, in your web browser.

I’m leading the development of a website for Slow Roll Chicago that shows the distribution of bike lane infrastructure in Chicago relative to key and specific demographics to demonstrate if the investment has been equitable.

We’re using GitHub to store code, publish meeting notes, and host discussions with the issues tracker. Communication is done almost entirely in GitHub issues. I chose GitHub over Slack and Google Groups because:

  1. All of our research and code should be public and open source so it’s clear how we made our assumptions and came to our conclusions (“show your work”).
  2. Using git, GitHub, and version control is a desirable skill and more people should learn it; this project will help people apply that skill.
  3. There are no emails involved. I deplore using email for group communication.*

The website focuses on using empirical research, maps, geographic analysis to tell the story of bike lane distribution and requires processing this data using GIS functions. Normally the data would be transformed in a desktop GIS software like QGIS and then converted to a format that can be used in Leaflet, an open source web mapping library.

Relying on desktop software, though, slows down development of new ways to slice and dice geographic data, which, in our map, includes bike lanes, wards, Census tracts, Divvy stations, and grocery stores (so far). One would have to generate a new dataset if our goals or needs changed .

I’ve built maps for images and the web that way enough in the past and I wanted to move away from that method for this project and we’re using Turf.js to replicate many GIS functions – but in the browser.

Yep, Turf makes it possible to merge, buffer, contain, calculate distance, transform, dissolve, and perform dozens of other functions all within the browser, “on the fly”, without any software.

After dilly-dallying in Turf for several weeks, our group started making progress this month. We have now pushed to our in-progress website a map with three features made possible by Turf:

  1. Buffer and dissolving buffers to show the Divvy station walk shed, the distance a reasonable person would walk from their home or office to check out a Divvy station. A buffer of 0.25 miles (two Chicago blocks) is created around each of the 300 Divvy stations, hidden from display, and then merged (dissolved in traditional GIS parlance) into a single buffer. The single buffer –called a “super buffer” in our source code – is used for another feature. Currently the projection is messed up and you see ellipsoid shapes instead of circles.
  2. Counting grocery stores in the Divvy station walk shed. We use the “feature collection” function to convert the super buffer into an object that the “within” function can use to compare to a GeoJSON object of grocery stores. This process is similar to the “select by location” function in GIS software. Right now this number is printed only to the console as we look for the best way to display stats like this to the user. A future version of the map could allow the user to change the 0.25 miles distance to an arbitrary distance they prefer.
  3. Find the nearest Divvy station from any place on the map. Using Turf’s “nearest” function and the Context Menu plugin for Leaflet, the user can right-click anywhere on the map and choose “Find nearby Divvy stations”. The “nearest” function compares the place where the user clicked against the GeoJSON object of Divvy stations to select the nearest one. The problem of locating 2+ nearby Divvy stations remains. The original issue asked to find the number of Divvy stations near the point; we’ll likely accomplish this by drawing an invisible, temporary buffer around the point and then using “within” to count the number of stations inside that buffer and then destroy the buffer.
Right-click the map and select "Find nearby Divvy stations" and Turf will locate the nearest Divvy station.

Right-click the map and select “Find nearby Divvy stations” and Turf will locate the nearest Divvy station.

* I send one email to new people who join us at Open Gov Hack Night on Tuesdays at the Mart to send them a link to our GitHub repository, and to invite them to a Dropbox folder to share large files for those who don’t learn to use git for file management.

The CTA must remove the Clark Junction bottleneck to modernize the Red Line

CTA Belmont bypass rendering

A CTA rendering shows what a bypass track for Brown Line trains north of the Belmont station might look like, alongside a new residential building on Wilton Street.

Ed. note: This is a guest post from Chicagoan Jacob Peters.

“Keep the RPM Project on Track – Uncouple the [Belmont Bypass] Roller Coaster” is the tagline for a new website called “Coalition to Stop the Belmont Flyover”.

Capacity is constrained at the Chicago Transit Authority’s Clark Junction track interchange (at approximately 3300 N Clark Street) which means that fewer Red Line trains can run than could be run if there wasn’t this conflict. In the same way there are opportunity costs in business, there are opportunity delays that are caused by this constraint on rail capacity.

For example, if there was no conflict at Clark Junction, then five more trains an hour could pass through the Red Line subway. This would increase Red Line capacity by 25 percent during rush hour, and fewer passengers would be left waiting for a train to arrive with space for them to board.

The way the website advocates against eliminating the bottleneck is hypocritical to the tagline of “keeping the Red Purple Modernization project” on track. That project, which would completely replace all track, viaducts, and embankments north of X station, and rebuild most stations (as well as widening and extending platforms) is largely based on a future service pattern that would run more and longer trains in the busiest transit corridor of Chicago.

This capacity increase would reduce their average commutes by a few minutes. Since the trains wouldn’t have to be spread out in order to maintain gaps in service for the Brown Line trains that need to cross the Red Line at Clark Junction, average wait times between trains would drop all along the Red Line at rush hour, further reducing commute times.

Lastly, when either the Brown, Purple or Red Lines are experiencing delays, and trains get bunched together, these delays ripple through the other lines. This happens because when a queue of delayed Brown Line trains are making their way through Clark Junction, Red Line trains must be held in order to let the delayed trains through the junction in an attempt to keep things moderately on schedule. If there was a bypass of this junction for northbound Brown Line trains, then a delay on either line would not affect the other. This would result in fewer days in which your commute is delayed.

Future capacity needs and current delay reduction is what the Belmont Bypass attempts to address. There may be other ways to achieve this with other alternatives, but the bypass would be far and away the cheapest and could be implemented soonest. Unless you plan to propose alternative means of resolving these conflicts, and funding mechanisms to make them possible, you are not really advocating to keep the RPM on track. Because without untying Clark Junction there is no true modernization.

Runoff election

The RedEye published on Monday an overview of the transit platforms from the two mayoral candidates that have made it into a runoff. (Mayor Rahm Emanuel didn’t receive a sufficient number of votes, 50 percent +1, in the February 24 election.) Chuy Garcia released his transportation and infrastructure platform about two days before the election.

Garcia paints a beautiful transportation issues platform, but when faced with a truly transformative project he is unwilling to uphold his call for “reliable transportation”. I want to vote for him again, but if he keeps on watering down projects to a point of inefficacy then how are you going to convince anyone to expand transportation funding? How can I trust him to bring about the change is needed on other important issues if on the issue that he received a masters in, he is unwilling to apply best practices?

Emanuel and Garcia should avoid grandstanding on issues of transportation because opposing a necessary transportation investment for political reasons is to let down the electorate that you are campaigning to serve. For both traversing Ashland Avenue by transit and riding Brown, Red, and Purple Line trains through Clark Junction, there is no way to move more people reliably through these areas without infrastructure improvements. Garcia shouldn’t oppose projects without explaining his alternate plan to address the same issues and achieve similar benefits – otherwise there isn’t leadership.

Alternatives

There are few alternatives. First, you could study how to use the existing CTA land around the Belmont stop more efficiently and eliminate track conflicts. It would need to be studied whether a new northbound Brown Line track and platform just to the east and a few feet higher than the current track it shares with the Purple Line could allow for the Brown Line to get high early enough to bridge over the Red Line closer to School.

This option would spare the buildings on the commercial thoroughfare of Clark, and focus demolition on residential streets.  I am not sure if it is possible given how the Belmont station was reconstructed in 2009, but I don’t have a record of it being studied or laid out why it is not an option. Seeing as the anti-bypass group is claiming that the destruction on Clark would turn it into a “permanent under-El wasteland” I would think they would want to prove whether this is possible or not.

Secondly, any alternatives analysis process [which the CTA hasn’t conducted] would include studying a subway alternative for this portion of the Red Line. In the RPM’s subway alternative there was no need for the bypass. The CTA considered a subway from Loyola station to Belmont station, but never studied each section of the potential subway separately. I truly believe that a subway with a portal at Clark Street and a portal just north of Irving Park Road would eliminate the property acquisition, station constraint, and construction phasing issues to outweigh the increased cost of going underground, without needing to consider a two-track alternative.

There was a neighborhood proposal from the 1980s for a subway between Belmont Avenue and Irving Park Road which would act somewhat as a “flyunder”, so to speak. It would include a new Wrigley Field Station that could be built to handle more than the existing constrained Addison Red Line station, including a Purple Line stop in order to match the Purple Line limited service that stops at Sheridan that’s provided on select game days.

The “flyunder” could allow the CTA to forego the large amounts of property acquisition that would be required in order to straighten out the kinks in the elevated north of Belmont, and to smooth out the curve at Sheridan. The CTA could then sell land currently under the tracks for development. In order to see if this is now feasible given the way Belmont was rebuilt, the CTA would have to study whether a bilevel tunnel from Clark Junction to Irving Park would be possible under Clark Street, and parallel to Seminary Avenue.

There is also the alternative of proposing that eliminating the realignment of the Red Line, included in the Belmont Bypass literature, would be a way to eliminate the amount of buildings affected in the scope of the bypass.  But I think that is somewhat tied into the discussion about the other two alternatives. The point is that the elevated bypass is a simple (although in the CTA’s current process, clumsy) solution to the question of how do you eliminate the Clark Junction bottleneck and the unreliability in the system that it creates.

Study recommends designing bike paths for bikes, not for sharing

running and bicycling on the lakefront trail

Some parts of the Chicago Lakefront Trail have a 2-foot wide side path designed for pedestrians but the study reviewed very cases where bicyclists crashed with pedestrians. It’s unknown if this side path results in fewer crashes than the parts of the Lakefront Trail without it. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

The Active Transportation Alliance posted a link on Facebook to a new study [PDF] in the Open BMJ from December 2014, a free peer-reviewed “version” of the British Medical Journal, and said it “conclusively shows separated space reduces crashes and the severity of injuries when crashes occur”.

The posting was in the context that bicyclists and pedestrians using the Lakefront Trail should have separate paths. I agree, but there’s a problem in how they stated the study’s support for separation.

I wouldn’t say that the study “conclusively” shows that bicyclists would fare better on paths without pedestrians. The study reviewed fewer than 700 crashes in two Canadian cities. Only 11% of those crashes occurred on multi-use trails and only 5.9% of the crashes were with a pedestrian or animal (the two were grouped) – this sample size is too low from which to draw that kind of conclusion.

The study didn’t report the association (correlation) between crash severity and pedestrians. The authors didn’t even recommend that bicyclists and pedestrians have separate paths, but instead wrote “These results suggest an urgent need to provide bike facilities…that are designed [emphasis added] specifically for bicycling rather than for sharing with pedestrians”.

While I don’t discount the possibility that separating bicyclists and pedestrians in off-street corridors will reduce the number of crashes and injuries when those two user groups collide, it’s imprudent to call this study “conclusive” when linking it to the measure of crashes between bicyclists and pedestrians.

The study’s primary conclusion was that bicyclists crash more often when there are high slopes, fast moving cars, or no bike lanes and the authors recommended that bike infrastructure be built for bicycling. That’s a solid recommendation and I recommended that you sign Active Trans’s petition advocating for separate facilities in the North Lake Shore Drive reconstruction project.

The City of Chicago should implement filtered permeability immediately at Green Street and Milwaukee Avenue

This is not a bikeable block

The multiple threats to bicyclists, to pedestrians, and to motorists, are pervasive in the depicted scene. There is low visibility for turning motorists which in turn causes them to encroach on the right of way of other street users, including other motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians.

This single image shows everything that is inefficient and dangerous to bicyclists and motorists about the intersection between north-south Green Street and diagonal Milwaukee Avenue in River West. Motorists should be physically blocked from entering or exiting Green Street at this point because of the danger inherent in the current intersection design. The block of Green Street south of Milwaukee Avenue is so insignificant to the driving network that no other design intervention should be implemented.

The situation depicted in this photograph demonstrates why the City should implement filtered permeability and close this entrance of the Green Street/Milwaukee Avenue intersection to motor vehicle movement. While motorists would be barred from entering or exiting Green Street here bicyclists would still have access to Green Street as part of the low-stress bicycling network of which Green Street is a part, between Milwaukee and Van Buren Street in Greektown.

I first wrote about this problematic intersection in June on Streetsblog Chicago and it remains an issue. One of the two motor vehicles ahead is blocking part of the bike lane while the second threatens to enter it. The bus on the left prevents the bicyclist in the bike lane from maneuvering around either vehicle. The photo below shows the situation from a different angle, that of the motorist wanting to turn left.

The vehicle operator on the left – a bus driver, in this case – has stopped the vehicle because they can occupy the intersection with the vehicle, or leave it open. Essentially, the bus driver has stopped to “let” the motorists on Green Street proceed across Milwaukee and further north into Green Street or turn left onto Milwaukee. Their movements would, again, put the bicyclist in danger, and put themselves and other motorists in danger because they are making nearly-blind turns into faster moving traffic.

The threats to the motorist are as limitless as the ones to the bicyclist (although the bicyclist will experience much greater injury if the threat is realized). As the motorist is paying attention to other motor vehicle traffic the bicyclist is coming down this bike lane – yep, I took the photograph – and is additionally obscured by the line of parked cars on the bicyclist’s right, and is in the shadow of the bus and the buildings. It’s like there’s a perfect storm of blind spots.

The quickest way to implement a system of filtered permeability and raise the significance and safety of the Green Street and intersecting Milwaukee Avenue blocks within the low-stress bicycling network would be to install a series of large planter boxes that prevent motorists from entering or exiting Green Street but allow bicyclists to filter through the planters.

And skip any traffic impact study. Not a single parking space will be lost or be made inaccessible with the implementation. A traffic study is not an experiment, but has practically been a foreboding document that has only ever said “things will be different”. (A good plenty of them have also suggested adding multiple $300,000 traffic signals.)

I read on Streetsblog USA recently about Pittsburgh’s new protected bike lanes:

“Instead of asking people to judge the unknown, the city’s leaders built something new and have proceded to let the public vet the idea once it’s already on the ground.”

Chicago maintains a Silver bike-friendly commenting ranking, yet my initial analysis shows that our metrics are below average among other Silver communities after which I’m led to believe we’re undeserving of the medal. Safety is a citizen’s number one concern when considering to use a bicycle for transportation and it will take an expansion of the low-stress bicycling network – currently not a priority – to deserve the current ranking or achieve anything higher.

Two bicyclists take different routes around this driver blocking the bike lane with their car

This photograph depicts a nearly identical situation but from the perspective of the motorist on Green Street approaching Milwaukee Avenue. Two bicyclists have taken two routes around the motorist blocking the bike lane with their vehicle.

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