TagGrid Chicago

Sayonara to Grid Chicago, hello Streetsblog Chicago

John and I met at Taqueria La Zacatecana in May 2011 to discuss combining forces. 

In case you don’t follow my “big” blog, Grid Chicago, you must know that we’ve moved. My blogging partner John Greenfield and I work for OpenPlans and launched Streetsblog Chicago on Tuesday, January 22, 2013.

Here’s the Grid Chicago origin story that I wrote to signal the change:

Back in 2010, I started corresponding with Streetsblog’s Ben Fried about getting a version of the site started in Chicago. Streetsblog was my favorite transportation blog and I viewed it as the gold standard in local, grassroots transportation news writing. I wasn’t alone. Getting a Streetsblog up and running in Chicago had been an elusive goal for many people involved in the local sustainable transportation and planning scene.

On a visit to New York that year, I met Ben at the OpenPlans office in Lower Manhattan. We spoke about how Streetsblog NYC started in 2006 and how they launched each subsequent city. What I took away was that in order to produce a site like Streetsblog, you need the funding to hire people who can devote a lot of time to it. I left New York excited about all theprogressive transportation changes taking place there, but thinking that I probably wouldn’t be starting a Streetsblog in Chicago.

I’d had my personal blog, Steven Can Plan, since 2007, and that’s where I expressed my perspectives on cities and transportation, but I wanted to publish more frequently and reach a wider audience. I needed a partner. Fast forward to spring 2011. I was speaking to my friend Kevin Monahan about my desire to create a more popular blog to discuss transportation issues in Chicago, with a bent on advocating for more and better walking, biking, and transit infrastructure.

Kevin told me to get in touch with John Greenfield, an acquaintance of mine who, like me, had previously worked on bike parking projects at the Chicago Department of Transportation (he left a bit before I started there). At the time John was writing a sustainable transportation blog called Vote With Your Feet, and he was also interested in creating a more ambitious website.

I contacted John in May to propose a partnership. We met at Taqueria La Zacatecana in Avondale and for an hour, munching on burritos, we hashed out our goals for this website we both wanted to build. While we knew we’d be spending a lot of time on the site and would need to earn money from it, that wasn’t as important as launching quickly. What made the timing so crucial was that Mayor Emanuel had released a groundbreaking transition plan with several bold goals to improve bicycling. We had to be there to cover it. We launched Grid Chicago in June 2011, and we quickly gained a loyal readership and a roster of talented guest contributors.

By early 2012, we started considering the possibility: What if Grid Chicago could somehow morph into Streetsblog Chicago? We already had a large readership along with good ad support from local businesses. By launching Grid Chicago we’d proven there was a demand for in-depth transportation news and analysis from two guys who’ve been walking, biking, and taking transit in the Windy City for years.

Last winter Ben started contacting people about funding the new site. In March he came to Chicago and presented at the Metropolitan Planning Council, talking about how Streetsblog makes an impact with its reporting. The momentum started to build in a serious way. Thanks to funding commitments from The Chicago Community Trust and the Rockefeller Foundation, not to mention the hard work of many people – especially Peter Skosey of theMetropolitan Planning Council and Randy Neufeld of the SRAM Cycling Fund – Streetsblog is finally coming to Chicago.

With the launch of Streetsblog Chicago, Grid Chicago will stop publishing new content, but the site will remain online as an archive. We’re looking forward to providing you with more frequent, wide-ranging coverage of the local movement for effective transit and safer streets. And by joining the Streetsblog family, our readers are going to get plugged in to transportation policy stories of national significance, and more people around the country are going to be following Chicago’s progress on walking, biking, and transit issues than ever before.

We’d like to thank Ben, Peter, Randy and all the other folks in Chicago and New York who have made this moment possible. And we want to thank you, our readers, for giving us a reason to schlep around the city attending public meetings and stay up into the wee hours banging out the next day’s posts. We’re jazzed about finally getting Streetsblog Chicago off the ground, and we couldn’t have done it without you.

Steven Can Plan isn’t changing. I’ll still be blogging here on the same irregular schedule. 

How I created a map of Illinois Amtrak routes in TileMill in less than 30 minutes

This interactive map was created for a Grid Chicago article to show the cities and Amtrak routes mentioned. Click and drag it around or hover your mouse on the red train station markers. 

Want to create a map like that and publish it on your own website? It’s easy. I’ll show you how to do it in less than 30 minutes. First, download the following files:

All shapefiles are from the United States Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics’s National Transportation Atlas 2012 edition except for Illinois places, which comes from the Census Bureau’s TIGER project.

At the end of this tutorial, you’ll have a good introduction on how to find geographic data, build a map with TileMill, style the map, and publish it for the public. Your map will not look like mine as this tutorial doesn’t describe how to add labels or use the hover/info feature.

Tutorial to make Amtrak Illinois map

  1. Unzip the four ZIP files you downloaded and move their contents into a folder, like /Documents/GIS/Amtrak Illinois/shapefiles. This is your project folder.
  2. Install TileMill and open it.
  3. Set up a project. In the Projects pane, click “New Project”. In the filename field, title it “amtrak_illinois”. Ensure that the checkbox next to “Default data” is checked – this shows a world map and helps you get your bearings (but it’s not absolutely necessary).
  4. Get familiar with TileMill’s layout. Your new project will open with the map on the left side and your Carto style code on the right side. There are four buttons aligning the left edge of your map. From top to bottom they are: Templates, Font list, Carto guide, and Layers.
  5. Add a layer. We’re going to add the four shapefile layers you downloaded. Click the “Layers” button and then click “Add layer”. In the ID field, type in “amtrak_routes”. For Datasource, browse to your project folder and find “amtrak.shp” – this file has the Amtrak route lines. Then click “Done”. Click “Save & Style”.
  6. Style that layer. When you click “Save & Style” after adding a layer, your attention will be called to the Carto style code on the right side of TileMill. A section of code with the “amtrak_routes” #selector will have been inserted with some default colors and styles. If you know CSS, you will be familiar with how to change the Amtrak routes line styles. Change the “line-color” to “#000″. After “line-color”, add a new line and insert “line-opacity: 0.5;”. This will add some transparency to the line. Press the “Save” button above the code.
  7. Add remaining layers. Repeat Step 5 and add 3 more layers: “amtrk_sta.shp” (ID field: “amtrak_stations”), “state.shp” (ID field: “states”), and “tl_2012_17_place.shp” (ID field: “illinois_cities”).
  8. Hide bus stations. The Amtrak stations layer shows bus and ferry stations as part of Amtrak’s Thruway connections. You probably don’t want to show these. In your Carto style code, rename the #selector from “#amtrak_stations” to “#amtrak_stations[STNTYPE='RAIL']“. That makes the following style code only apply to stations with the “rail” type. Since there’s no style definition for things that aren’t of that type, they won’t appear.

Screenshot of my map.

Prepare your map for uploading

TileMill has many exporting options. You can save it as MBTiles and publish the map for free using MapBox (TileMill’s parent), or you can export it as image files (but it won’t be interactive), or you can display the map using the Leaflet JavaScript map library (which I use for the Chicago Bike Map app). This tutorial will explain how to export MBTiles and upload to MapBox, the server I’m using to display the map at the top of this page.

  1. Change project settings. To upload to MapBox, you’ll have to export your project as MBTiles, a proprietary format. Click the “Export” button above your Carto style code and click “MBTiles”. You’ll be asked to provide a name, description, attribution, and version. Input appropriate text for all but version.
  2. Adjust the zoom levels. Adjust the number of zoom levels you want (the more you have the longer it takes to export and upload your project, and you might exceed MapBox’s free 50 MB account limit). My map has zoom levels 8-11.
  3. Adjust the bounds. You’ll then want to draw your bounds: how much of the map’s geographic extents you want to export. Zoom to a level where you can see the entire state of Illinois in your map. Hold down the Shift key and drag a box around the state, plus a buffer (so viewers don’t fall of your map when they pan to the edges).
  4. Export your map. Click Export and watch the progress! On a four-year-old MacBook it took less than one minute to export the project.
  5. Bring the export to your project folder. When export finishes, click the “Save” button and browse to your project folder. Click the file browser’s save button.
  6. Upload to MapBox. Login to MapBox’s website and click “Upload Layer”. Browse to your project folder, select the .mbtiles folder, and click “Upload file”. Upon a successful upload, your map will display.
  7. Embed it in your website. Click the “Share” button in the upper left corner of your map and copy the embed code. Paste this into the HTML source code of a webpage (or in a WordPress post) and save that (I’m not going to provide instructions on how to do that).

Now you know how to find geographic data, build a custom map using the TileMill application, begin to understand how to style it, and embed your map for the public on a website or blog.

N.B. I was originally going to use QGIS to build a map and then publish a static image before I realized that TileMill + MapBox (the website) can build a map but publish an interactive feature instead of a static image. I’m happy I went that route. However, I did use QGIS to verify the data and even create a new shapefile of just a few of the key train stations on the Lincoln Service (the centerpiece of my Grid Chicago article).

Tucson’s neighborhood friendly ordinances

I’m moving to Tucson so I can bike on Dutch-style separated bike paths.*

My Grid Chicago writing partner John Greenfield visited Tucson, Arizona, earlier this month. His post about their bicycle facilities is on our site today. I published two posts about my visit in 2010, first Tucson has every kind of bikeway and Rialto theater in downtown Tucson.

In John’s post, he describes that the proliferation of bikeways (of all kinds!) are in part due to a city ordinance that requires they be installed in all road projects. Think Complete Streets but where you actually have to make one instead of just “considering” making one, which is what happens here.

I started digging into the city code to find the ordinance and its exact language. I haven’t found it yet, but I did find this:

Chapter 15, Section 13 is about going to the voters to approve or reject the city’s involvement in any project to construct “freeway, parkway or other controlled-access highway” or “grade-separated interchange”. So, in a regular or special election, the city must ask voters whether or not the city should be involved in building big roads, on a project by project basis.

Imagine that. What if the voters of Chicago could reject the destruction of their neighborhoods because of expressway construction for the Dan Ryan, Eisenhower, and Kennedy? Well, first of all, would people approve or reject those projects?

“(e) If the voters reject the proposed project, the mayor and council shall request that the state department of transportation not include the proposed project in the state highway system.”

An approval for a project is valid for five years. If no construction happens in that time, then the project approval has lapsed and the voters must be asked again. I’m sure many people (especially the people proposing the project) would find this law an enormous barrier to “progress”, but it ensures some level of public participation.

* Just kidding.

The first raised crosswalk I’ve seen in Illinois

The raised crosswalk, a view looking northeast, from the sidewalk. 

Forest Park was a client of mine in 2012 via my work for Active Transportation Alliance; they’re a technical consultant for cities that had grants from the Communities Putting Prevention to Work program. I visited the village with one of their staffers to identify great locations for bike racks (that also included advice on their existing rack inventory, and suggestions for exactly which models to buy).

We would drive around town and then stop and walk a lot. One place where we did a lot of walking was in their downtown, on Madison Street (the same Madison Street as in Chicago). I was pleasantly surprised that their signage reflected the “stop for pedestrians in crosswalk” law, replacing the now-irrelevant “yield for pedestrians in crosswalk” signs. And to top it off, they had talking and lighted signals at some of the crosswalks. I do not support any widespread installation of these: I think they help move our culture in a direction that perpetuates the low respect we have for pedestrians. I believe there are other ways to enforce driver compliance that do not require this kind of equipment.

Forest Park has installed one of those ways: it’s a raised crosswalk (also known as a speed table). It looks like a speed hump, but is much wider, has a flat top, and carries a marked crosswalk (see my article on Grid Chicago “What is an unmarked crosswalk?“). It causes drivers to slow down and has an added – subjective – benefit of intimating that the driver is entering a “protected space”, one for people on foot and that it should be respected. They bring the roadway up to the pedestrian’s level instead of dipping the sidewalk down to the driver’s level.

I don’t know of one in Chicago, but three guys are working to get several installed in a Logan Square traffic circle redesign.

Note: If you are interested in knowing exactly which models of bike racks to buy, learn more at Simple Bike Parking, or contact me directly. I may charge a fee.

The raised crosswalk as seen from a car moving westbound. 

New map tutorials

A screenshot of using BatchGeocode to take a spreadsheet of addresses and turn it into a nice map. 

Over at Grid Chicago, my other blog that sucks all the time from this blog, I’ve recently written tutorials on how to create online maps, first with Google My Maps (which they renamed to My places) and secondly with BatchGeocode (which renamed itself to BatchGeo because it does more than geocoding now).

Google My Maps is primitive as far as map making goes, but it has the lowest learning curve and it’s easy: you just click on the map where you want something to go and fill in the info window. Read that tutorial.

BatchGeocode is slightly more advanced, but takes your tabular data (most likely from a spreadsheet) and throws it on a map you can embed on your website. They do have pay features. Read the tutorial for BatchGeocode.

I’ve written about BatchGeocode for QGIS, as it was once the only way to do geocoding in QGIS. But now BatchGeocode doesn’t give you a results table that has the latitude and longitude (apparently this is against Google Maps’s terms of service). But I updated the article to talk about using other methods for geocoding in QGIS.

I will be writing two more tutorials, one about GeoCommons and one about Google Fusion Tables.

Meeting readers

I was at the Streets for Cycling Plan 2020 meeting last night in the Garfield Park Conservatory. I was walking behind someone towards the meeting room and he turned to me and said, “Are you Grid Chicago?” (I realize he may be reading this.)

I said, “Yes,” and he immediately said “I read it every day. Thank you.”

I thanked him for reading. I like it when people tell me they read that blog and they appreciate what John Greenfield and I are writing. It definitely lets you know that (in addition to the comments that people leave) that the work we’re doing is important.

Anyway, I never know what to say to people who let me know they read Grid Chicago. I used to ask what their favorite article is and no one seemed to know how to respond so I stopped asking. To this reader, I asked, “Do you comment?” Also a lame question.

Sorry!

This photo of a bus with double articulation has nothing to do with this post. I didn’t have a relevant photo ready to go. 

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