TagCTA

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.


View Larger Map

* 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.

What if Metra employees were late to work as often as Metra passengers?

trainmageddon

A malfunctioning Metra Electric train in January. Photo by Eric Rogers.

It was a big deal to news media this morning when new Metra CEO Don Orseno reported at an Illinois House mass transit committee hearing that the commuter-focused rail system experienced a 30% on-time rating in January, when the “polar vortex” hit. (Apparently polar vortex is not an event that happens to a place, but is the name of a climate pattern that’s always there hovering above Canada and occasionally dips down over the United States.)

Most Metra passengers are commuters, going to work. A hair over 300,000 travel each weekday; service is drastically lowered on weekends and holidays, offering less than half the service of weekdays.

What if the organization of Metra, including all 2,500 employees in addition to the contracted railroad workers (let’s say 3,000 people), showed up to work with the same performance rating that their passengers experience?

First, Orseno – a career railroader who drives to work from Manhattan where a train comes leaves three times each day – would miss 11 work days of work each year (of 260 work days), based on their overall 95.8% on-time rating in 2012. Some routes are worse and others better. But collectively 3,000 people would miss 32,760 work days each year. That’s a lot of missed work.

Put another way, everybody – all 3,000 of them – is going to show up 20.16 minutes late to work because they’re missing 87.36 hours each year (of 2,080 hours they’re supposed to work and being 4.2% hours late). But again, I have no idea who’s working 8 hours and who’s working longer. (One of the problems Metra had during #Chiberia is that many workers hit the federally mandated limit and there weren’t always workers to take their place.)

Thankfully the Chicago Transit Authority, Pace, and ever-expanding highways and tollways are available to pick up the slack in Chicagoland’s transportation supply.

Another thing, this post is full of averages of averages, so it’s really imprecise. Today, Metra was reporting delays on a single train run of 16-100 minutes – a pretty broad estimate, but another train had a possible delay of 26-110 minutes. During the worst storm Metra experienced on January 5th and 6th, some train runs dumped passengers on platforms in subzero temperature.

Orseno reported today at the committee hearing that a “I don’t want to say middle-level” manager at Union Pacific made the call to dump the passengers. This has been “corrected” by only allowing a senior level staffer at Union Pacific make this call. Metra, which doesn’t have any performance-related incentives in its contracts with the freight railroads, apparently cannot stop this decision.

I’m waiting for the day when Metra is run like a transit system and not a railroad.

Note: I excluded vacation days because, well, no law requires organizations to offer paid or unpaid vacation days and there are probably several tiers of vacation-giving at Metra that I don’t know about.

Chicagoland transit funding has no traction

An electric train would head to Aurora more frequently than the once an hour schedule of today’s lumbering diesel train.

I reviewed Metropolitan Planning Council’s short and easy-to-read report about existing funding conditions of Chicagoland transit (CTA, Metra, and Pace) for Streetsblog Chicago. It was more eye-opening that I expected, mainly because I didn’t realize how poorly we fund transit here compared to cities nationwide and around the world.

The bit about only Atlanta spending less than Chicago when you compare our regions’ funding levels to what it was 20 years ago really caught some people’s attention.

The other part of the report, co-authored by Yonah Freemark who writes the blog The Transport Politic, that got some attention was the above map that showed how the Chicago region had more rapid (frequent) rail transit in 1950 than 2010. Lower mileage and funding over the past three decades meant fewer riders – that part is obvious and has been known to me, transit planners and managers. But this much? I had no idea.

My tweet about this map – to which Eric Fischer, Mapbox map designer and map historian responded with a map from one of the predecessor departments* of the current Chicago Department of Transportation – was retweeted ten times and clicked on over 100. That more than 70% of Chicagoland workers drive to work alone is not surprising given that our rapid transit network is built around rush hour service to downtown, where a minority of jobs are located.

* The department name on the map, published in 1939, is listed as Department of Subways and Traction, headed by commissioner Philip Harrington. This became the Department of Subways and Superhighways. The map shows two cross-Loop (east-west) subways linking Michigan Avenue businesses and intercity electric trains (that travel south, southeast, and near southwest) with the Union and Northwestern train stations (where people board trains to the west, northwest, north, and southwest).

Wayfinding signs at Van Buren Street Metra station are incomplete

New RTA interagency transfer signage near Van Buren Street Metra Electric station

“B” marks a new bus boarding area near the Van Buren Street Metra Electric station.

The Regional Transportation Authority has spent $2 million to improve wayfinding between CTA, Metra, and Pace train stations and bus stops in a needed effort to connect newbies and long-time residents to their next transfer.

Some of the signs need to show better information, though. The RTA installed signs at the Van Buren Street Metra Electric station at Michigan Avenue that create “bus loading groups,” similar to bus bays at suburban park & rides.

It works like this: you come across the nearest bus stop – I happened upon boarding area B – hoping to find the route you need. Instead, though, that route stops at boarding area A. The sign at boarding area B points you in the direction of A and from where you stand you can see a sign that identifies A.

RTA’s signs have two issues. First, they don’t tell you that boarding area C is across the street – unless you inspect the small map – and instead point you in the direction of A (from B). If you walk in the direction of the arrow from boarding area B you will not run into boarding area C or a sign that tells you where to cross the street in order to access C.

The first issue creates the second problem: by reading and relying upon the sign’s text you can’t know at which boarding area, A or C, you should board a bus route that stops at both boarding areas. (Those who also study the maps on another side of the sign will have better luck.) That’s because the same route operates in both directions and if you’re not familiar with the route, you won’t know which direction takes you towards your destination.

New RTA interagency transfer signage near Van Buren Street Metra Electric station

Both boarding areas A and C will get you on the 3, 4, J14, and 26, but only the map on the other side tells you which direction they go. Also, while the arrow points in the direction of boarding areas A and C, only the map tells you that A is across the street.

The fix seems an easy one. First, point the arrows on A and B across the street instead of north or south towards B or A, and add an intermediary sign along the walking path that communicates that “boarding area C is across the street.” Then, update the signs to indicate which direction the bus routes are going so that travelers are assured they need to visit C across the street for King Drive buses going towards Bronzeville or A for King Drive buses going toward Streeterville.

The RTA has installed other signage in this program at 95th and Western (CTA & Pace), Joliet Union Station (Metra & Pace), and Davis Station in Evanston (CTA, Metra, & Pace).

CTA fare breakdown for Ventra and fares it replaces

This CTA graphic shows all the fare media Ventra replaces. 

The Chicago Transit Authority expanded its pilot contactless card fare payment technology systemwide in 2002, and introduced Chicago Card Plus, which added the benefit of linking to a credit/debit card, in 2004. After 11 years, the two cards were hardly “popular” as Jon Hilkevitch called them today. In the context of his article I believe he meant “liked” or “admired” and not widespread, as Ventra does not have the same admiration because of all of the issues people are experiencing.

While Chicago Card/Plus users likely preferred this fare payment over magnetic stripe, for their convenience and speed, a minority of passengers used it.

Data from CTA for January to July 2013, representing 1.6 million average weekday rides.

Magnetic Stripe: 75%
CCP & CC: 19% (17% & 2% respectively)
Bus Cash: 6%

Ventra? 69% this week.

What people will say when Ventra comes out

Ventra is not a replacement for the Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus. It’s a single card that replaces the following fare media*:

  • Transit Card (pay per ride)
  • 1-day pass
  • 3-day pass
  • 7-day pass
  • 30-day pass
  • 30-day reduced fare pass for seniors 65+ and customers with disabilities
  • U-Pass
  • Chicago Card (pay per ride, linked to personal credit/debit card)
  • Chicago Card Plus (pay per ride or 30-day pass, linked to personal credit/debit card)
  • Military Service Pass
  • There might be another pass type I’m forgetting

When people see how simple this really is, and how not inconvenient Ventra makes it for them and for CTA to administer, they will be shocked. You’ll hear things like:

“I can use my credit or debit card now to pay for passes at every vending machine?”

Previously, only certain stations had the correct vending machine. O’Hare airport is notorious for having three vending machines, none of which do the same thing but that do have overlapping functions.

“I can buy a 1-day or multi-pass at all 145 train stations, and not just at Walgreens or CVS, who tend to sell out? And with a credit or debit card?”

Yep. Isn’t that convenient?

“So you’re saying that when school is out and my U-Pass doesn’t get me unlimited free rides until the next semester, I can just hit up one of these 2,000+ retail locations and throw $20 – cash or credit, no difference – on there, or add a 3-day pass because I’m running around for internship interviews?”

Yes, that’s what I’m saying.

“Boarding this bus is way faster now that everyone has a contactless card. And this only took $5 at the vending machine, a 2 minute phone call after which I got that $5 back?”

You can even register online with your smartphone.

* Paper 1-day passes will be available. A single-ride paper ticket will be available.

This is not an acceptable way for transit operators to deal with slow bus traffic

The bus operator of a 36/Broadway bus drives illegally in the bike and parking lanes on Clark Street between Goethe and Schiller Streets in Old Town on October 30, 2012, at 17:24. I’ve already reported it to the Chicago Transit Authority’s feedback@transitchicago.com email address. Although the run number isn’t visible in the photo, you can see the bus number in my other photo. Couple that with the time and location and you can find the driver.

There are two better ways, but it’s a kind of Catch-22:

  1. Reduce the number of cars on the road by providing fast transit that attracts more passengers who used to drive cars.
  2. Provide fast transit that attracts more passengers who used to drive cars, by reducing the number of cars.

This pisses me off. Driving in the bike lane and parking lane, to bypass automobile traffic congestion, is not how to speed up bus traffic. Gabe Klein talked a lot about CDOT’s partnership with CTA in my interview with him (see below). I kept bugging him in the interview about CDOT can actually speed up CTA. He didn’t say anything that was meaningful or systemic, though. Sure he mentioned the Jeffery Jump and other BRT projects, but how do you speed up 100+ bus lines in the city and get more people on transit? You reduce the number of cars. That’s the only way. Or build more grade separated transit, which is extremely costly.

There are many ways to reduce the number of trips by car. I already told you one, in the Catch 22 above. But you can also improve the bicycling infrastructure. Except it’s useless if it keeps getting driven and parked in.

Vance: What about CDOT’s ability to manage congestion? That greatly affects the CTA’s ability to run buses reliably for over 1 million trips per day. Aside from signal optimization and upgrades around the city, including Transit Signal Priority, the plan doesn’t mention goals to change road congestion (like decreasing the number of single occupancy vehicle trips). Can you address this?

Klein: For one thing, we don’t have full control over the parking meters. In my prior life I was really working with the parking system to upgrade it, and to use that as a congestion pricing mechanism. However, the private entity that manages the parking. They’ve upped the prices, but it’s not dynamic (which I think is optimal) but we’re interested in working witht he company to give a better customer service experience with parkers. Like giving better information. If they knew about the parking and traffic situation downtown, they might use another mode.

Knowledge is power, and there’s way we can get the information out there.

We did have to prioritize what we want to do in two years. We’re a small DOT. We’ve a lot of work on our plate, but we don’t have a lot of resources.
800 people, includes front line workforce. With consultants, it’s over 1,000.

Even though we don’t run CTA, we work seamlessly with them. I feel comfortable doing transit stuff, especially on BRT. We’ve gotten $150,000 from Rockefeller to work on “soft costs”

BRT can help relieve congestion. It moves considerably and it can be an alternative to driving.

Carrot and stick, you see cordon pricing, parking pricing, parking info (seen in Europe).

We’re trying to use a lot of carrot. Give people a lot of options. So the SOV isn’t the default on every trip. I can walk my kid with me to the grocery store and not get run over. It’s about firing a lot of different cylinders.

Part of this interview was published in Grid Chicago in May 2012 about the Chicago Forward Action Agenda.

Converting shapefiles to GeoJSON, and other format conversions

To develop the Chicago Bike Map app, I had a problem I thought would be simple to solve: load train lines into a Leaflet-powered map. I had the train lines stored as a polyline shapefile but Leaflet can only read the GeoJSON format or a string of geographic coordinates representing lines.

I eventually found a solution (I can’t remember how) and I need to share it with you. The converter can do more than ESRI shapefiles to GeoJSON. It can reproject the data in the conversion. It can convert from several formats to several other formats.

The site is called MyGeodata Converter. You upload a ZIP file of geographic files – .shp and its companion files (.prj, .dbf, .shx), .kml, and .gpx. Let’s take the Chicago Transit Authority train lines shapefile straight from the City of Chicago’s open data portal. It downloads as a zipped collection of a shapefile and its buddies and we can take this file straight to the Converter and upload it. The Converter will unzip it and read the data; it will even identify the projection system (for Chicago-based geographic data, its common to use NAD83 Illinois StatePlane East FIPS 1201 Feet (SRID 102671, the same as SRID 3435).

The Converter will convert to one of the following formats, with same or new projection; accepts SQL statements to extract a subset of data:

  • ESRI shapefile
  • GML
  • KML, KMZ
  • GeoJSON
  • Microstation DGN
  • MapInfo File
  • GPX
  • CSV

WorkCycles Fr8 fits on the CTA’s bus-bike rack!

If you ride a bike more than you use other transportation modes, and you visit online forums, then you probably know that the correct number of bikes is n+1. I got a new bike this year, but it was partly to replace the cargo carrying capabilities I lacked after selling my Yuba Mundo in the spring.

Two weekends ago I passed by the Chicago Transit Authority headquarters to test if my WorkCycles Fr8 could fit in the Sportworks VeloPorter 2 bus-bike rack the CTA uses on most buses (it’ll eventually replace the red ones). I don’t know if Pace buses have the same model.

It fits! (I feel like saying “It blends!”)

I already knew that the WorkCycles Transportfiets would fit, having made a video of it last year. But they seemed to be of different dimensions (they probably aren’t) and I wanted to check ahead of time lest I embarrass myself and delay a bus if I tested it in the field.

Actually, I wasn’t worried that the Fr8 wouldn’t fit, I was worried that it wouldn’t fit securely under the spring-tensioned arm with the yellow grip. I have a burly front rack and metal fenders that wouldn’t be able to budge. See how that worked out for me in the photo below. Additionally, my bike weighs 50 pounds unloaded (and without the red basket) – the Sportworks specifications note that each bike tray holds 55 pounds. Phew!

Last weekend I took the Fr8 on its first ever train journey, from the Clinton Pink/Green Line station to the California Pink Line station. The Pink Line uses the 5000-series cars, which are brand new from Bombardier’s factory in New York. They have the distinction of providing two wheelchair-accessible spaces in every car instead of one. This means there are two fewer “modesty panels” in the vestibule. It offers more room to position and park your bike – it works out great; see photo below. It still doesn’t provide enough room for a passenger to bring a bike aboard, stay put, and let other passengers in and out of the door. Passengers with bikes will still need to pay attention to the announcements to know which door will open at the next station and move their bike accordingly.

Looking for a WorkCycles of your own? You can contact them directly in Amsterdam. Shipping is €200, which is a really good deal now. You can also contact J.C. Lind Bike Co. who will become a dealer soon.

Some reasons why the CTA doesn’t make its own mobile apps

Where’s the train?

“Twitter updated their app and now it sucks”. (Here’s some evidence.)

Have you heard that before? Thankfully there are tens – perhaps hundreds – more options to post to and read Twitter on your appy device.

The Chicago Transit Authority provides 1.7 million rides per day. A lot of passengers like to know where the trains and buses are. And it’s possible to know with many tools like Bus Tracker and Train Tracker, both of which are available through APIs, SMS, and websites.

Some people (eh, I can’t exactly point out who right now) have noted (complained?) that the CTA doesn’t make its own app for smartphones and tablets. I’m glad they don’t!

Here are more reasons why the CTA doesn’t make its own mobile apps:

  1. It would be racist of the CTA. (Pretty much everything the CTA does is racist according to someone but making an app would only be useful to those with compatible devices, so it’s probably more accurate to say income discrimination.)
  2. Bus service is getting cut but they’re spending money on making apps.
  3. There are 4 platforms to write apps for (at least 4 – not sure if any CTA passengers would demand Symbian or webOS).

The best reason?

Developers can do it better. So the CTA gives them the tools.

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