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Chicago wards with the most landmarked places

Montgomery Ward Complex

People float by the Montgomery Ward Complex on Kayaks. Photo by Michelle Anderson.

Last week I met with the passionate staff at Landmarks Illinois to talk about Licensed Chicago Contractors. I wanted to understand the legality for historic preservation and determine ways to highlight landmarked structures on the website and track any modifications or demolitions to them.

I incorporated two new geographies over the weekend: Chicago landmark districts, and properties and areas on the National Register of Historic Places (both available on the City of Chicago open data portal).

I used pgShapeLoader to import them to my DigitalOcean-hosted PostgreSQL database and modified some existing code to start looking at these two new datasets. Voila, you can now track what’s going on in the Montgomery Ward Company Complex – currently occupied by “600 W” (at 600 W Chicago Avenue) hosting Groupon among other businesses and restaurants.

Today I was messing around with some queries after I saw that the ward containing this place on the National Register – the 27th – also had a bunch of other listed spots.

I wrote a query to see which wards have the most places on the National Register. The table below lists the top three wards, with links to their page on Licensed Chicago Contractors. You’ll find that many have no building permits associated with them. This is because of two reasons: the listing’s small geography to look within for permits may not include the geography of issued permits (they’re a few feet off); we don’t have a copy of all permits yet.

[table “15” not found /]

4 wards don’t have any listings on the National Register of Historic Places and nine wards have one listing.

What’s up from Europe: how much is car-free when cycling on a Dutch intercity path?

I posted this photo of Daniel riding with me from Rotterdam to Delft and Justin Haugens asked, “Was this a bike path the whole way?” and added, “[This] would be similar to my work commute.” He rides on the Chicago Lakefront Trail from Rogers Park to South Loop, but must ride off-path from Morse to Ardmore and about Monroe to Roosevelt.

Daniel lives in Rotterdam and works in Delft. The Dutch Cyclists’ Union’s (Fietsersbond) Routeplanner says the shortest path is 11.47 kilometers, or 7.12 miles. We took the short route on a Saturday, but chose the scenic route on Sunday (the day I took this photo) so Daniel could show me the airport, underground high-speed rail tracks, and various geographic features along the way.

I responded to Justin:

It was a dedicated bike path for probably 90% of the way. The thing about Dutch intercity cycle routes is that they separate cycle paths from car paths when the two modes can’t safely share. They can’t safely share when there’s a desire for moving cars quickly or moving big autos (like trucks and buses).

So, there were some points on this journey when the cycle-only path merged with a local road or a service drive [the case in that photo, actually, which you can see better here], but even then the cyclist always has priority and rarely are the junctions configured/signed so that the cyclist has to stop (not requiring the cyclist to stop is a way to make cycling a convenient mode).

In the Netherlands connectivity of bicycle-priority ways is as important as the infrastructure used. When I first visited the Netherlands, in 2010, I arrived in Amsterdam from Bremen, Germany, and rented a bike the next day. I was personally shocked that morning when I rode upon streets with conventional bike lanes (these would be the ones in door zones in the United States) on some streets.

Why was I shocked? I came to the city under the impression that all bicycle infrastructure were cycle tracks, meaning a bike path between the roadway and the sidewalk, on a level slightly above the roadway and below the sidewalk. Since then I’ve learned a lot more about why the Dutch cycle so much and how the bicycle is sometimes used more often than public transit and automobiles.

On our journey from Rotterdam to Delft we must have ridden on every kind of bicycle path the Dutch have designed. These photos sample what we encountered.

The route followed an arterial road for the first portion, but we turned off after only about a mile.

An RET metro train follows the cycle path for a portion of the route we took.

This was my favorite part of the journey to Delft: we came across a shepherd, her two sheep dogs, and her flock of sheep grazing on the bank between the cycle path and the creek.

I’m no longer in Europe but I’ve kept the title prefix, “What’s up from Europe”. Read the other posts in this series

Building permits for new and changed things in 2014 is going up

New City 19-story residential tower under construction near Lincoln Park.

The building permits data that powers Licensed Chicago Contractors has 11 permit types and I analyzed five of them to show the “new stuff” activity in Chicago this year through May 26, 2014. “New stuff” is the economic indicator to show that things are getting built. It includes the permits issued for new construction, renovation and alteration, porches, easy permit process (which can include things like kitchen renovation, or a new garage), and electric wiring where the estimated project cost is greater than $1.

You can see there was a small dip between January and February but since then has been climbing. See How’s Business? for more business-based metrics of the Chicago economy.

After publishing this chart I decided I’ll include signs because that is part of the “new stuff” activity I am trying to visualize. The other five permits are for scaffolding (a job indicator but not a “new stuff” indicator), elevator equipment (these aren’t always about new or replacement projects), wrecking and demolition (these permits usually don’t include estimated costs), and permits that represent extensions and reinstatements.

Bike lane mileage is the wrong metric for your city to publicize

Sometimes I tweet things that get pretty popular and then I need to go into more details. Case in point:

Which I followed by tweeting:

Knowing how many miles of bike lanes you have has little importance in determining if I’m going to bike in your city when I visit, or if I’m considering moving there, or if I want to add you to a “bicycle friendly cities” list.

What’s more important is how much the number of people bicycling on those bike lanes has changed. This number will reflect the quality of your bike lanes. Are they still in good shape or have they faded a lot? Do they connect to each other to create a network, or are there gaps that increase the stress of a route? How have you treated the bike lane at intersections, the place where a conflict and crash is most likely to occur?

Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin touched on these points in his recent critique, one of the few worthwhile articles the Tribune has published in the last year about bicycling, by interviewing an organization that tries to make it politically palatable to build unconventional – in the United States – bike lanes.

“Chicago has made incredible progress over the last few years,” said Martha Roskowski, vice president at People for Bikes, a Boulder, Colo.-based advocacy group. But, she added, “Chicago also has a ways to go.”

That’s saying it nicely.

Addressing the gaps in the city’s network of protected bike routes, Roskowski said: “People evaluate a potential bike ride on the basis of the weakest link, the scariest part of the trip, which might be a really busy road you have to ride along or across. People have tolerance for a little bit of that. But if it’s sustained or if it feels dangerous, they just won’t do it.”

Enter Close Calls, deteriorating bike lanes, bumpy pavement, and constant obstacles and you get Chicago’s ridiculously low bicycle commute to work numbers.

Since Emanuel took office in 2011, Chicago has installed 52 miles of protected bike lanes [it's only installed 16 miles of protected bike lanes], which use a variety of means — plastic pylons, striped pavement markings and non-curbside parking spaces — to separate bikes from vehicles. That brings the city’s total bicycle lanes to 207 miles.

That’s cool that we have 207 miles. How many miles of streets without bike lanes do we have? It’s 4,000 and some change minus 207.

Why doesn’t Mayor Rahm Emanuel talk about how many people have taken up bicycling since he took office, or how many more trips Chicagoans made (and where) because of those 52 miles of new buffered and protected bike lanes?

He can’t say how many people are riding their personal bikes because the city doesn’t track this.

Conversely we can track Divvy bike-share use down to the minute and the company announced that Saturday, May 24, they had their most trips ever. Only to be eclipsed by almost 4,000 more trips on Sunday, May 25 (helped in no small part by the Bike The Drive event where people can bicycle on a Lake Shore Drive that’s closed to vehicles).

In another blow to good data for Chicago, Divvy will only be releasing trip data twice a year, while Citibike in New York City will be publishing it monthly, an improvement of Capital Bikeshare’s quarterly data releases.

If you’re not tracking who’s using your infrastructure, will you be able to know if the people you set out to attract have come out?

What’s up from Europe: A train station that looks like a train station

Walking towards the Hoxton station on Cremer Street. 

Train stations – metro and commuter rail – in the United States, outside city center terminals, are often simply queuing areas, with zero amenities (some don’t even have a shelter). In some locales, people getting dropped off in a car will sit in the car with their driver (a friend or family member) until they see a sign that the train is arriving.

In Europe, train stations are places. Places to hang out, conduct errands, and eat, so that your time is enjoyable and, to put it frankly, used efficiently.

One of my favorite train stations in London was Hoxton serving Overground trains. Overground trains started less than a decade ago and provide near-rapid transit levels of service (meaning they come almost as frequently as Underground trains). They use refurbished track and are almost always elevated. Bombardier built the trains to look a lot like the newest Underground trains.

The station plaza on Geffrye Street. I have a feeling this street used to ferry cars, but now it forms a car-free piece of the walking and bicycling network. 

Overground trains have a lot of space for sitting, standing, and moving about – after all, they’re articulated giving them the roomy feel and allowing one to board at one end and find a seat at the other.

When you approach Hoxton you’ll see that you’re near a train station because of the iconic Transport for London “roundel” on the tracks over the street. Just before you arrive the walls break open and there’s a large gap that opens into a plaza with the Beagle café.

The plaza also hosts a Barclays Cycle Hire (Boris bikes) and plenty of seating to relax and wait for a colleague. The station entrance stands out with a large, glass canopy, and noticeable, polished-metal walls flank the doorway.

You know you’re at a train station now. Feel free to stick around before or after your journey.

A northbound Overground station at Hoxton. You can see in this photo the only feature I disliked about the station: the narrow corridor that doesn’t allow you to see around the corners. 

Oh, by the way, I’m not in Europe anymore – I got back on Saturday and the first thing I did was eat a burrito, something I sorely missed.

Top 20 most active general contractors in Chicago this year so far

River Point tower is under construction at 444 W Lake Street by James McHugh Construction. Its associated building permit, which only comprises the base/train cover structure depicted, has an estimated project cost of $27,050,000. Photo by Bart Shore.

Here I go again not talking about urban planning on Steven Can Plan. With my Licensed Chicago Contractors & Construction Activity website I’ve ingested a lot of data from the City of Chicago’s open data portal that has a LOT to say about what’s going on.

Nearly all permits include a reasonable value that estimates the project’s cost – like $13,150,000.00 for converting Lafayette Elementary School into a performing arts high school. (All demolition permits show $1 and some permits cost over $6 billion, which we know is false.)

I recently reorganized the data (migrating from MySQL to PostgreSQL which supports the JSON datatype) to expand the ways I can extract info and I’ve sorted it by general contractor’s aggregate project value for this year.

This is a list of the 20 most active general contractors in Chicago for 2014 until May 13, 2014. I define “activity” purely by the companies’ involvement in a Chicago-based project and corresponds to that project’s estimated cost. (The data doesn’t specify a level of their involvement in a project.)

[table “11” not found /]

Do any names ring a bell, or surprise you?

What’s up from Europe: frequent diesel trains

I’m staying in Groningen for three nights, the northernmost big city in the Netherlands, with about 190,000 inhabitants. About 20 meters from my bedroom window is a passenger train line on which diesel multiple units (DMU) running frequently.

I hear the train come very often and I snapped a few photos, of course. As I saw the train frequently run, with 1-2 diesel cars, I thought that Metra – Chicago’s hub-and-spoke commuter rail system – needs to implement a nimbler operation with more runs to make it more convenient to use transit. I tweeted that thought.

The train is a “Stoptrein” because it makes all stops. This is one of four passenger train classes: “Intercity” trains make few and distant stops, the “Sneltrein” offers express service to a small number of local stops, the “Sprinter” class makes a medium number of local stops.

I can see from the schedule on 9292.nl that the train, after 21:00, runs every about every 26 minutes in each direction. At other times of the day there may be two trains four minutes apart or 15 or 24 minutes apart. Stadler in Switzerland built these “GTW” DMUs which accelerate faster which could improve the timetable.

I suggested that Metra run this rolling stock on the UP-West and UP-North lines because of their existing ridership and closely spaced stations. Also, UP-North doesn’t have freight trains so it should be easy to get a waiver from the Federal Railroad Administration to use lighter weight European trains. UP-West is another “streetcar suburb” line having trains stop frequently during rush hour in city centers; stations are 4-10 minutes away from each other so the train can’t reach high speeds quickly between them.

(I wish the train didn’t run so frequently here because I have only a single-pane window.)

What’s up from Europe: London pedestrian spaces

I found walking around in London a tad stressful, as crossing the street can only be safely done at signalized intersections, or at zebra crossings with the flashing yellow globe. Crossing the street safely is then compounded by the left-driving traffic. The “< Look Left” and “Look Right >” messages aren’t printed at all intersections and there’s a delay at signalized intersections because you can’t cross every other phase: you have to wait until the all-walk phase (when signals stop traffic in all directions).

However, London still has a lot of great pedestrian spaces and alleys (with bars and pubs) scattered around the town. It doesn’t have as much car-free space as city centers in the Netherlands and Germany. These three photos show three spaces on my many long walks around the town during my three-day trip there*.

Hay’s Galleria, seen on my Thames Path walk along the south bank. It was redeveloped in 1987 to the design and condition you see here. Like many pedestrian spaces I passed by and walked through this one is privately owned (and monitored). 

This pedestrian space off of St. John’s Road near the Clapham Junction station (with National Rail and London Overground services) was created simply by blocking car traffic from entering or exiting St. John’s Road. It has distinct pavers that match the high street – it’s not exactly a shared space as buses have priority but there is limited traffic otherwise because only delivery and construction workers can access the road. 

Old Spitalfields Market has been redeveloped – it maintains the old buildings and look on the edges with shops and restaurants but has a modern glass and steel roof with modern construction on the interior for more shops and restaurants. Even if you aren’t shopping here passersby can use it as a shortcut through the block. 

View more photos as I upload them directly from my iPhone to Flickr.

* Calling it three days is a stretch because I was tired and slept a lot, missing precious walking and exploring time. I still managed to spend over an hour walking around Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and go shopping at Westfield Stratford City for about two hours.

Respect the corner!

Buildings on corners should have corner entrances or minimally deviate.

Contractors work on building the new entrance.*

The residential building on the northwest corner of Milwaukee Avenue and Halsted Street was built in 2003 with a first-floor commercial space with an entrance on the Milwaukee Avenue side. Normally this wouldn’t be such a big deal – Milwaukee is a busy street and this side of the street has a fair amount of foot traffic. But the other side of the building, on Halsted Street, faces one of two entrances to the Grand Blue Line subway station and a major transfer bus stop.

7-11 is moving into the building and have built a new entrance out of the corner space with floor-to-ceiling windows. Now it’ll be much easier for transit riders to get to a convenience store. The other advantage is the added visibility: seeing the entrance from far away, from all sides, saves milliseconds in our internal GPS processing time – make a bee-line to the entrance instead of “hunting” it down after you make your way in the general direction of the building.


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* You can see that there’s a step here so it’s not currently accessible. Originally this wasn’t the entrance so that makes sense. I don’t know what these contractors are doing but 7-11 must make the entrance accessible.

Welcome to the Land of No

No bike riding!

The Lincoln Park Zoo has a Nature Boardwalk at the South Pound near 2000 N Cannon Drive. Each venue has their own signs listing the rules for their respective properties.

Each sign employs a different symbol to communicate the same thing – bicycles cannot be ridden in the parks – but their designs take two approaches.

One says no and the other says yes.

  • The Zoo’s symbol uses the color red, a line slashed over a bicycle, and “Please do not:” text to prohibit the activity of riding a bike.
  • The Pond’s symbol uses the color blue and suggests walking your bike, accompanied by the text, “Please walk your bike”.

Please walk with your bicycle. 

Bicyclists – and drivers for that matter – are constantly being told no. Might there be a friendlier, more positive way to communicate rules?


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