A Green Line train zooms by industrial and residential areas on the West Side

Another short aerial video I shot this month in Chicago’s West Garfield Park community area. This part of the neighborhood has a lot of industrial uses, but which abut residential, both of which are conspicuous in the 20 second clip.

Equipment is a DJI Mavic Pro.

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.

Looking back on my winter holiday in Europe two months ago

A pretty tram in Budapest

A tram travels along the Danube river in Budapest, Hungary

I’ve posted a few articles about my trip to four countries in Europe over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, so this is purely a recap to link to them.

I visited Germany, Hungary, Netherlands, Germany again, and Switzerland. It was a multimodal trip by train and plane, and some local transit buses. There are hundreds of captioned photos on my Flickr, but check out these three articles:

  • Five common “best practices” that every city with a high-use transit system in Europe has that the transit agencies in Chicagoland should adopt.
  • Day 1 in Switzerland on Mapzen’s Transitland blog – I discuss how amazingly interconnected Swiss public transport systems are, and how their single schedule data source makes it possible to get a route for a journey from Zürich to the top of a nearby mountain via four modes of public transport.
  • Day 2 in Switzerland where I spent a lot of time riding trams, buses, funiculars, and a cog railway to get around Zürich and visit a couple of museums.


Day two in Zurich: Combine transit and museums on a single pass

Zurich, Switzerland

I was taking pictures of the tram and when I got home I saw that all three people were staring at my camera. At Bellevue in Zurich.

The post for day 1, Friday, when I went to Mount Rigi, hasn’t been written yet. 

Today was a busy day, which is expected when you travel Steven Vance-style: efficiently (meaning you see a lot of stuff without wasting any time), alone, with a very good sense of what you want to do, where they are, and how you’ll get around.

I’m staying at Hotel Bristol, which came up in an Orbitz search as being a decent place less than $100 per night – that’s hard in Zurich, and even harder if you want a place near the Hauptbahnhof (Hbf). I knew that’s where I would be coming and going a few times to get to Lucerne, the mountains, or to buy cheap (relatively) dinner.

This morning, after eating a continental breakfast in the hotel, I walked a couple of blocks from the hotel to the Hbf – I’m measuring blocks in a Chicago-sense. It was about 4-5 minutes to the nearest station entrance to buy the ZurichCard.

Getting the card was a no-brainer because for 24 CHF (Swiss Francs, about $25) you get a 24-hour public transit card and free entry to dozens of museums. It includes the city zone and the adjacent zones, including the airport. I have to leave for the airport tomorrow by 10 AM and I validated the card at 11 AM so I’m covered there.

After checking out and riding the city’s two funiculars and single rack railway, I visited the tram museum and national museum (Landesmuseum). Add to that the dozens of trams and buses I rode to reach the hill transport and two museums.

Consider that the cost of the train to the airport is 6.40 CHF, the tram museum is 12 CHF, and the Landesmuseum charges 10 CHF, I’d say I got more than my money’s worth.

What’s really great about the ZurichCard is that you can purchase it at any of ticket vending machine, including the ones labeled “SBB CFF FFS”* that also sell national railway and supra-regional tickets. You have to remember to validate the card right before your first use, either at a ZVV (Zurich regional public transport union) ticket vending machine.

My first transit trip this morning was on a fantastic double-articulated bus. That means it has three sections with five doors! These buses are only used on routes 31 and 33 in the city center, and they’re electric and silent, running on overhead trolley wire. The bus has the same priority and comfort as a tram, and multiple screens attached to the ceiling showing the next stop and its connections (transfers).

Zurich, Switzerland

The front two sections of a bi-articulated bus. It’s normally not possible to bring a bike on a bus or tram in Europe, except when the bus has been specially outfitted for the bike to be on the inside. Buses in Europe aren’t allowed to have bike racks on the front.

The tram system in the city center is the perfect complement and support for having so little driving here. Some of the streets restrict driving, and other streets have only a single lane in one direction, or just two lanes, one in each direction. Many of the major intersections within a mile of the Hbf surprisingly have no traffic controls.

Trams and buses load and unload passengers very fast because you can board through any door. “Winter mode” is enabled on many of the vehicles to keep passengers already on board more comfortable by opening doors at the stop only upon request (you push a button on the door).

Streetfilms published a video in 2014 discussing how the city administration has capped the number of parking spaces across the city: if a new parking space is built, a parking space has to be removed in the city center.

Driving in the city center is thus primarily for leaving your parking space for elsewhere in the city or region, or the reverse. Trips are extremely convenient by tram or trolley bus.

Motorists are obliged to stop for people who want to cross the road in zebra crossings, and trams which are turning across the lanes. Then, unless a road sign or marking dictates the priority of a lane, the rule “yield to the motorist on your right” reigns.

I never waited more than 7 minutes for a tram (I know because the countdown signs never exceeded 7 minutes for the route I was going to ride) and the average was probably closer to 4 minutes. It seems that a majority of the time trams run in exclusive right of way and traffic signals are set up to prioritize their movement.

Transit signal priority isn’t a given in all cities with trams; in Amsterdam and Budapest it seemed the tram waited just as long for a “green” light as adjacent, same-direction motorists did.

At the tram museum I talked to a staffer there who was pointing out features in a model created by a city task force which was investigating a potential U-bahn (underground) system for Zurich. He said that a couple of years ago the museum hosted an event to talk about whether the city was better off without the system.

The consensus amongst the attendees was that the city was indeed better off without a subway because the trams have a higher frequency than what the subway would have had. Another point made was that the connections between trams are easier and faster than between other modes.

Nevertheless, a few underground stations were built, but they aren’t subways. Two tracks, 21 and 22, carry the two routes of the Sihltal Zürich Uetliberg Bahn (SZU), One goes up the Uetliberg mountain in the city and the other serves the Sihl valley suburbs. There are also three underground tram stations away from the city center on line 7.

Traffic on the local transit was lighter than yesterday. Many riders I saw today were headed to a hill to go sledding. It might also be a coincidence that I rode all three hill-climbing funicular and rack railway lines, as well as the train that goes up “Mount Zurich” (870 meters; its real name is Uetliberg).

The Dolderbahn heads up the hill from Romerhof to the Dolder recreation area. At least half of the passengers today were children going with their parents and friends to sled down a hill there.

The Dolderbahn is a rack (cog) railway that heads up the Adlisberg mountain from Römerhof to the Dolder recreation area. At least half of the passengers today were children going with their parents and friends to sled down a hill there.

The last word on Zurich: It’s very expensive to eat here. I paid 11.50 CHF (about the same in USD) for a “döner box” which is something I paid about $5 in Rotterdam. A döner box is fast food. The cheap beer that went along with it was $5, which I could probably get for less than $2 in Rotterdam.

* “SBB CFF FFS” is a set of three acronyms that when expanded mean “Swiss Federal Railways” in German, French, and Italian, respectively. It’s normally abbreviated to SBB – German is the most commonly spoken language in Switzerland. Each of the acronyms plus dot “ch” has its own website that loads the organization’s website in the respective language.

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.

How to extract highways and subway lines from OpenStreetMap as a shapefile

It’s possible to use Overpass Turbo to extract any object from the OpenStreetMap “planet” and convert it from a GeoJSON or KML file to a shapefile for manipulation and analysis in GIS.

Say you want the subway lines for Mexico City, and you can’t find a GTFS file that you could convert to shapefile, and you can’t find the right files on Sistema de Transporte Colectivo’s website (I didn’t look for it).

Here’s how to extract the subway lines that are shown in OpenStreetMap and save them as a GIS shapefile.

This is my second tutorial to describe using Overpass Turbo. The first extracted places of worship in Cook County. I’ve also used Overpass Turbo to extract a map of campgrounds

Extract free and open source data from OpenStreetMap

  1. Open the Overpass Turbo website and, on the map, search for the city from which you want to extract data. (The Overpass query will be generated in such a way that it’ll only search for data in the current map view.)
  2. Click the “Wizard” button in the top toolbar. (Alternatively you can copy the code below and paste it into the text area on the website and click the “Run” button.)
  3. In the Wizard dialog box, type in “railway=subway” in order to find metro, subway, or rapid transit lines. (If you want to download interstate highways, or what they call motorways in the UK, use “highway=motorway“.) Then click the “build and run query” button.
  4. In a few seconds you’ll see lines and dots (representing the metro or subway stations) on the map, and a new query in the text area. Notice that the query has looked for three kinds of objects: node (points/stations), way (the subway tracks), relation (the subway routes).
  5. If you don’t want a particular kind of object, then delete its line from the query and click the “Run” button. (You probably don’t want relation if you’re just needing GIS data for mapping purposes, and because routes are not always well-defined by OpenStreetMap contributors.)
  6. Download the data by clicking the “Export” button. Choose from one of the first three options (GeoJSON, GPX, KML). If you’re going to use a desktop GIS software, or place this data in a web map (like Leaflet), then choose GeoJSON. Now, depending on what browser you’re using, a couple things could happen after you click on GeoJSON. If you’re using Chrome then clicking it will download a file. If you’re using Safari then clicking it will open a new tab and put the GeoJSON text in there. Copy and paste this text into TextEdit and save the file as “mexico_city_subway.geojson”.
Overpass Turbo screenshot 1 of 2

Screenshot 1: After searching for the city for which you want to extract data (Mexico City in this case), click the “Wizard” button and type “railway=subway” and click run.

Overpass Turbo screenshot 2

Screenshot 2: After building and running the query from the Wizard you’ll see subway lines and stations.

Overpass Turbo screenshot 3

Screenshot 3: Click the Export button and click GeoJSON. In Chrome, a file will download. In Safari, a new tab with the GeoJSON text will open (copy and paste this into TextEdit and save it as “mexico_city_subway.geojson”).

Convert the free and open source data into a shapefile

  1. After you’ve downloaded (via Chrome) or re-saved (Safari) a GeoJSON file of subway data from OpenStreetMap, open QGIS, the free and open source GIS desktop application for Linux, Windows, and Mac.
  2. In QGIS, add the GeoJSON file to the table of contents by either dragging the file in from the Finder (Mac) or Explorer (Windows), or by clicking File>Open and browsing and selecting the file.
  3. Convert it to GeoJSON by right-clicking on the layer in the table of contents and clicking “Save As…”
  4. In the “Save As…” dialog box choose “ESRI Shapefile” from the dropdown menu. Then click “Browse” to find a place to save this file, check “Add saved file to map”, and click the “OK” button.
  5. A new layer will appear in your table of contents. In the map this new layer will be layered directly above your GeoJSON data.
Overpass Turbo screenshot 4

Screenshot 4: The GeoJSON file exported from Overpass Turbo has now been loaded into the QGIS table of contents.

Overpass Turbo screenshot 5

Screenshot 5: In QGIS, right-click the layer, select “Save As…” and set the dialog box to have these settings before clicking OK.

Query for finding subways in your current Overpass Turbo map view

This has been generated by the overpass-turbo wizard.
The original search was:
// gather results
// query part for: “railway=subway”
/*relation is for "routes", which are not always
well-defined, so I would ignore it*/
// print results
out body;
out skel qt;

The new CTA budget

[I published an edited version of this post on Streetsblog Chicago.]

The Chicago Transit Authority gleefully tweeted that “fares [will] stay the same” and they’ll continue to “maintain/improve existing services”.

There are so many points to be made.

The medium on which they sent this message is irrelevant because Mayor Rahm Emanuel will parrot this at his press conference this afternoon at the Addison Blue Line station. He’ll say something that he’s holding fares down in order to support working families, yet he (because he runs the agency) can still get projects done, like renovating the Addison station to be accessible.

Fares should go up frequently, instead of making big jumps every 3-5 years. The price of things changes much more frequently and it’s what an agency providing such an important transportation service needs to do to be less constrained in making buses and trains run. And planning and funding for more buses and trains, under the strain of growing ridership. The CTA has the expertise to develop a long-term plan that sets out fare increases annually, removing the surprise, “Will this be the year?”

Fares should go up in increments smaller than quarters of a dollar! 0.25, 0.50, 0.75, and 1.00 are not the only choices available. Requiring riders who pay in cash – who become rarer each day – to pay with dollar bills and quarters isn’t a “convenience”, it’s annoying. It gives the CTA less flexibility in settling on the right price, and it means I can’t use these dimes and nickels that are piling on my nightstand. Quarters are for laundry.

“Fares will stay the same” is what Emanuel said two years ago when the price of passes was increased. Apparently causing people to spend more money to ride the train the same amount of times, if they have passes, is not a fare increase. This year none of the prices are changing. Hiking pass prices and keeping the base fare (single rides + transfers) the same can still hurt a low income rider: it puts the discounted fare further out of reach. Many Chicagoans are unable to put down $25 at a time for a ticket that would pay for all of their rides that week, so they pay per use, and end up paying more.

What holding the line on fare increases does is detrimental to riders and to CTA workers. It continues to defer fixing the problem of underfunded transit. The CTA, and its fellow transportation providers, Metra and Pace, are unable to pay for what people need them to do.

Additionally it’ll mean that, in order to keep costs in check, the CTA might freeze wages again. Because professionals providing Chicagoans with quality transportation services are the city’s and state’s piggy bank, and should sacrifice their wages due to “hard times”.

That’s the problem to be dealt with “soon”, but there’s an immediate problem, that Jon Hilkevitch explains in the Tribune:

The governor and lawmakers in Springfield have not agreed on a 2016 budget and the state still owes the CTA $221 million in capital-improvement funding that was expected in 2015, transit officials said.

But hey, “air quality” money is going to pay $18 million to widen a bunch of intersections so people can drive faster through them – until more people switch to driving through that fast intersection.

Chicago’s TOD rule is the only reason multi-family is being built in neighborhoods

This is the ordinance that says residential developments have to provide 0.5 car parking spaces per home, and that the minimum home size can be smaller.

How many units? At least 1,500. Here’re the 19 buildings I know about that are being built within 600 and 1,200 feet* of a Chicago Transit Authority ‘L’ station – the only areas, essentially, where multi-family housing can be developed.

Why can’t dense housing be built elsewhere? Because the most desirable living areas in Chicago – along retail streets in Logan Square, North Center, Lincoln Park, Lakeview, and West Town – are zoned for single-family use. (And ad-hoc zoning districts taking the place of community land use planning.)

How do I know popular neighborhoods are zoned for single-family use? Because Daniel Hertz’s new Simplified Chicago Zoning Map makes it easy to see. Yep, even along those dense business districts and even outside the train stations.

Do the single-family home zones contain single-family homes now? Absolutely not! Much of the buildings in areas zoned for single-family homes have everything but! The particular view of the map that Hertz uses in his blog post shows that even adjacent to CTA stations, and within 1 block, there are only single-family zones (in red). There are many multi-family buildings in these red zones.

Red areas are zoned for single-family homes only.

Red areas are zoned for single-family homes only. View the map.

What ends up happening there? Teardowns. And the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce finds believes that non-matching zoning – it matches neither the existing uses nor the needs for the neighborhood – and teardowns are going to cut into consumer spending on its lively retail streets. Lakeview is seeing a population change to families which tend to have less disposable income.

More housing in a popular neighborhood means more shoppers, more property taxes, more “boots on the ground”, more “pedestrian congestion” in front of our local businesses.

Doesn’t the ordinance make station-adjacent parcels friendly to multi-family housing because of the TOD ordinance? Yes, and no. As Hertz points out, “virtually every sizable development involves a zoning variance or planned development process that goes beyond the zoning you’ll see on the map”.

The TOD ordinance is 19 months old and working exactly as intended, building more housing next to train stations, and giving more people the opportunity to have access to affordable transportation. So it needs an upgrade to be able to do more. Since, in Chicago, zoning is our land use plan, we need the best kind of zoning rules and this is one of the best.

Imagine what the TOD ordinance could do if it were expanded. Think, making the parking requirement relief and allowing different unit sizes by-right instead of going through an arduous and expensive zoning change process. Then, expanding the rule to include more than just 600 feet (which is less than a block) from a train station – people walk several blocks to get to CTA stations, and bike even more. And, beefing up the affordable housing requirements.

Let’s do this, Commissioner Andrew Mooney. Let’s do this, housing advocates. Let’s do this, transit advocates. I’m looking at you, Latin United Community Housing Association (LUCHA), Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA), We Are/Somos Logan Square, Pilsen Alliance, Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), Active Transportation Alliance, and the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT).

* The distance depends on existing Pedestrian Street zoning. If the property is on a designated Pedestrian Street then the station can be up to 1,200 for the ordinance to apply, double the normal 600 feet.

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.


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.

Jefferson Park station renovation highlights train station planning deficiencies

Jefferson Park train station rendering

Jefferson Park train station rendering from the City of Chicago. The only difference you see is canopies. What you don’t see is a walkable connection ut thisetween shops southeast of here and the train station – they’re separated by a strip of parking.

Plans for the renovation of the Jefferson Park CTA station are illustrative of the City’s failure to think deeply about how to design the projects that is funding in a way that maximizes potential for residential and commercial development around train stations.

The changes proposed for one of Chicagoland’s most important transit centers are weak. There’s no development plan, or any kind of neighborhood plan or “Corridor Development Initiative” for the Jefferson Park transit center.

Current city policy identifies train stations as optimal places to build new housing and commercial uses.

Without challenging the design to respond to this policy the transit center will continue to use neighborhood space inefficiently and doesn’t respond to demands from residents to improve pedestrian and bicyclist safety and increase economic development.

Judging by the renderings, nothing is changing at the Jefferson Park Blue Line station (4917 N Milwaukee Ave). All of the improvements save for the canopy are invisible in this rendering. The CTA’s list of improvements reads like the superficial makeover that many stations got in the Station Renewal program almost three years ago, a stopgap measure until Your New Blue could begin.

There will be LED lighting, new paint, new escalators and stairs, new paving, and a new canopy. Only a few of those things make the station easier to access and use.

Jefferson Park is a major asset to the neighborhood and the city. The station serves CTA trains, Metra trains, CTA buses, and Pace buses to Chicago’s suburbs. The CTA’s September 2014 ridership report [PDF] said there are an average of 7,420 people boarding the Blue Line here each weekday, a 0.1% increase over September 2013. It’s the busiest Blue Line station outside of the Loop and O’Hare airport.*

On Twitter I said that the station should be surrounded by buildings, not bus bays. I’m not familiar with how many routes and buses use the station daily, and I’m not suggesting that space for buses go away. I’m challenging the Chicago Transit Authority and Mayor Rahm Emanuel to come up with a better plan for vehicle and pedestrian movements, and to start welcoming new development.

I pointed out the new Wiehle-Reston Silver Line station in Virginia where a residential building was constructed atop a bus bay (where I transferred from the Washington Flyer bus from Dulles). A plaza connects the bus bay to and apartment lobby and the Metrorail station.

Bus bays under an apartment building in Reston

The bus bay at the Wiehle-Reston Silver Line station in Reston, Virginia, is under an apartment building and plaza linking it to the Metrorail station.

The Metropolitan Planning Council conducted a consultation for the Logan Square Blue Line station – Your New Blue will make upgrades here, too – and the next door city-owned parking lot. Their consultation involved 700 people to decide what development at this station should look like. Their desires were pretty specific: there should be affordable housing, but not any higher than six stories.

The current policy, enacted as an ordinance and expressed in other city documents, allows developers to build more units in the same plot and save them and their tenants money by building less parking. But this policy is insufficient in that has no design review or public consultation attached. It also provides no zoning recommendations to expand the number of places to which it can apply.

A development plan, for which the CDI serves as a good, starting model, would bring residents – and people who want to live in the neighborhood – to discussions about if and how the neighborhood should change. It would hook into another city proposal, from the Chicago Department of Transportation, to build protected bike lanes on Milwaukee, but which ultimately failed. The process would probably uncover latent demand to build new housing in the neighborhood that’s stymied by incompatible zoning.**

The city’s recent choices for development and (lack of) urban design at this station as well as across from the Halsted Green Line station in Englewood where the city is selling vacant land to build a Whole Foods-anchored strip mall demonstrates how little deliberation there is in maximizing transit-oriented development, or TOD.

Their suburban forms are the antithesis of how we should be designing the stations and their environs – they should have higher densities and walkable places.

* Metra has published its 2014 station-level counts! This station had 599 daily boardings, yet not every train stops here. The Union Pacific Northwest (UP-NW) line that stops at Jefferson Park saw a 3.8% increase in ridership [PDF] from January to September 2014 versus the same period in 2013.

** There are no parcels near the Jefferson Park transit center that allow the transit-adjacent development ordinance to take effect; developers have to go through an arduous and sometimes costly process to persuade the alderman to change the zoning. The ordinance only affects Bx-3 districts (where x is 1-3 and -3 is the allowable density identifier).

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