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Bicyclists in Chicago can travel pretty far in 15 minutes

Mapzen* released Mobility Explorer last week. It is the graphical user interface (GUI) to the Transitland datastore of a lot of the world’s transit schedules and maps.

It also has isochrones, which are more commonly known as “mode sheds”, or the area that you can reach by a specific mode in a specific amount of time.

I wanted to test it quickly to see what these mode sheds say about where I live, a block north of Humboldt Park. From my house, on a bicycle, I can reach the edges of an area that’s 25 square miles in 15 minutes.

Isochrones map of transportation distance from my house

The distance you can travel from my house at the north end of Humboldt Park in 15 minutes by three modes, assuming you leave at 2:21 PM today (in increasing distance/area): Transit (dark purple) Bicycling (burgundy) Driving (pink)

You can request these isochrones through this API call for any location and they’ll be returned as GeoJSON.

I’m still learning how isochrones work, and how they can be adjusted (to account for different rider seeds and route costs or penalties). One difference between bicycling and driving is that the driving area is increased by expressways while the bicycling area has a more uniform shape.

The bike shed is 25.7 square miles, and the driving shed is 52.0 square miles.

*I do contract work for Mapzen and maintain parts of the Transitland Feed Registry.

Big Marsh Bike Park is the coolest new city park

Big Marsh Bike Park opening day from Steven Vance on Vimeo.

Rahm Emanuel has opened a lot of cool new parks – Maggie Daley, Northerly Island, 606, and Grant Park Skate Park – since he became mayor. (Making arguments that the parking lot south of Soldier Field can’t be anything but a parking lot pretty lame.)

This morning Emanuel cut the ribbon on the Big Marsh Bike Park, first announced in July 2014. It’s still known as Park 564, until the Chicago Park District board adopts a new name.

It’s located at 11599 S. Stony Island Ave. in the South Deering community area in an area already known as Big Marsh. I mapped the park into OpenStreetMap based on a map from the architect, Hitchcock Design Group*.

I've traced an architect's map of the park into OpenStreetMap.

I’ve traced an architect’s map of the park into OpenStreetMap.

The single-track trails, terrain park, and pump track, are free and open to the public every day from dawn until dusk. It resembles the Valmont Bike Park in Boulder Colorado, which I visited in 2014.

Big Marsh was listed in the city’s Habitat Directory in 2005, noting, “Big Marsh is the largest individual wetland in the Calumet Open Space Reserve with approximately 90 acres of open water. Hiking and biking trails and canoe launch are ideas for this area in the future. As of this writing, the site is undeveloped.”

A map of the Big Marsh wetland in 2005 in the City of Chicago's Habitat Directory.

A map of the Big Marsh wetland in 2005 in the City of Chicago’s Habitat Directory. The bike park is mainly in the cleared space east of the #2 on the map.

The area is also part of the the State of Illinois’s Millennium Reserve program, a group of projects to restore natural areas, create new economic development opportunities in the area, and build more recreational sites.

There is no bike infrastructure to access the site, and many roads leading to the site are in bad condition, or have high-speed car traffic. There is a large car parking lot at the site.

* If you would like to help me map the bike park into OpenStreetMap, you can load the architect’s map of the site into JOSM using this WMS tile layer.

Panorama of the bike park, and the landfill to its south

A rider on the terrain park small trail

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.

Meet Chicago’s newest street view fleet: bikes

Bicycle holds an iPhone to take street view-style images

This position gives the smartphone an unimpeded view of the street but prevents the user from manipulating it.

I first used the Mapillary app on iPhone last fall, in August, and I uploaded one photo, of my arm, which I can’t delete from the website. I uploaded a couple more photos from a street in Roscoe Village in November.

This week, though, I uploaded 500 photos from a three mile journey on California and Milwaukee Avenues in Chicago – streets that no one else had photographed for the Mapillary street view service.

Mapillary is an open source (sort of) street view service, originally developed in Sweden, which allows the public to contribute photos taken with their smartphone app.

What’s “sort of” about Mapillary being open source is that it appears that the company owns the photos once you upload them. People are free to use the photos to edit OpenStreetMap, or publish elsewhere – for personal use only – with attribution that adheres to Creative Commons 4.0. People who want to use the photos in a commercial application must subscribe to a pay service.

Mounting an iPhone to a bicycle

I took the jump from contributing nothing to uploading a whole lot because I bought an iPhone mount for my bicycle. After months of research – okay, chalk it up to my being lazy and it being really cold outside – I settled on the DgRock Universal Bicycle Mount from Amazon for $9. I was perplexed that there was a gap in choices between this decent $9 product and the next group, hovering around $30-40.

After three days of use, I’m satisfied, despite limitations that are present in all mounts I surveyed. The DgRock mount is solid, barely moves even as the bike bounces along Chicago’s pothole-ridden streets, and securely holds the iPhone with a strong, spring-loaded grip. It’s universal in two ways: it holds nearly any smartphone (it probably can’t hold one with a screen 5″ or larger) and it attaches to most bicycle handlebars.

The first day I used the DgRock mount Mapillary complained with a red icon that it couldn’t get a proper fix on its location and therefore it wouldn’t start photographing. Fine, I was in downtown Chicago where connecting to GPS satellites can be hard. I figured the wifi positioning system that all smartphones and tablets use would suffice.

There are problems with the mount, but I think these apply to all bicycle smartphone mounts: When the phone is in position to take photos, meaning its horizontal and level to the ground, you can’t see the screen. That’s because the screen, mounted on the handlebars, is much lower than your eyes and faces vertically, instead of angled towards your face. The only way around this, I believe, is to either get an upright bicycle (like my WorkCycles Fr8) or an adjustable lens (I can’t find any).

Smartphone mount holding an iPhone on a bicycle

This position allows the user to manipulate the smartphone but you cannot take street view-style images.

The possible position angles of the smartphone when held by the mount was my main concern as I was shopping on Amazon: The mount need to have the flexibility to position the smartphone so its rear camera could be level with the ground. Smartphone mounts, though, are made to put the device in a position to be used and viewed frequently by the bicycle rider – it was unclear if many of the other smartphone mounts could accommodate the street view angles requirement.

The DgRock has no issue moving the iPhone into the right position, as you can see in the photos from my journey (or scroll to the end). Its issue, though, is that you have to put the smartphone in “backwards” so that the claw covers up part of the screen. I call it an issue but it doesn’t disturb the mount’s primary purpose when using Mapillary – the phone still has a clear view of the street.

Even with an upright bike like mine, though, it’s difficult to see the screen. I believe that Mapillary can actually design its app to help overcome this physical limitation.

Using Mapillary

The Mapillary app has improved greatly since the first version. It allows you to delete bad or undesired photos before uploading, and it has a simpler interface to go from opening the app to making your own street view. There are a couple changes I think would improve the user experience and lead to more contributions.

I would like to be able to turn off the screen while using Mapillary to save battery life. I think that the screen could fade to black and a small white dot or halo appears frequently to remind you that it’s working. I’d also like it to chime when iOS throws the “low storage” warning. Otherwise I may be riding along, thinking Mapillary is capturing the street, when iOS had actually run out of storage 10 minutes ago.

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?


View Larger Map

Divvy considers my suggestions in bike-share kiosk map redesign

The new design that will appear at the newest stations first and then rolled out to all stations. 

I posted two months ago a critique of the Divvy bike-share maps, seen at 284 stations scattered around Chicago, focusing on the clutter of having so many maps (with the third being useless), unclear labels and labels that covered map objects, and the low prominence of the smartphone app and map legend. Two weeks ago the Divvy public relations manager emailed me a screenshot of the new map design and said that these points had been changed. He said they considered four of my suggestions:

  1. Make CycleFinder, the official Divvy smartphone app, more prominent
  2. Change “You are here” design to make it clear where you are
  3. Make streets and streets’ label text smaller
  4. Removed service area map and make legend more prominent

I replied to the manager and suggested that the “You are here” label be made slightly transparent to show that the road does continue beneath it.

Close-up of the original “you are here” design that covered up other objects and wasn’t centered in the walking distance circle.

Why food and drinks cost more downtown

The Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority is a quasi-governmental body created by the Illinois legislature, similarly to how it created the Chicago Transit Authority. The authority is also known as McPier. McPier is able to add 1% sales tax to the sale of food and drinks in three areas in Chicago, apparently to support the operations of Navy Pier (a place I avoid) and McCormick Place. I’m writing this post because of an article I read on Crain’s Chicago Business about Chicago having the highest restaurant tax rate that failed to describe the area in question.

The main area is downtown, although the boundaries extend far beyond downtown. I first came encountered the tax as a manager of the Jamba Juice at 1322 S Halsted Street (at Maxwell Street) in the University Village development on UIC’s south campus. The other two areas encompass Midway (MDW) and O’Hare airports (ORD). I haven’t mapped them to see exactly how much land beyond the airports the areas encompass.

The downtown area is described in 70 ILCS 210, section 13, as follows:

(b) (3) that portion of the City of Chicago located within the following area: Beginning at the point 150 feet west of the intersection of the west line of North Ashland Avenue and the north line of West Diversey Avenue, then north 150 feet, then east along a line 150 feet north of the north line of West Diversey Avenue extended to the shoreline of Lake Michigan, then following the shoreline of Lake Michigan (including Navy Pier and all other improvements fixed to land, docks, or piers) to the point where the shoreline of Lake Michigan and the Adlai E. Stevenson Expressway extended east to that shoreline intersect, then west along the Adlai E. Stevenson Expressway to a point 150 feet west of the west line of South Ashland Avenue, then north along a line 150 feet west of the west line of South and North Ashland Avenue to the point of beginning.

View Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority boundaries in a larger map. I created this map by following the directions in the block quoted text above. Do not use this map to determine if your business is required to collect and remit the McPier tax. It’s not an accurate map: I didn’t measure 150 feet from any street line – I guessed.

Also interesting: all drinks (alcoholic and sodas) and food sold on boats that arrive at or depart Lake Michigan shores within the area described above are subject to the tax. And more interesting is that sales at stores whose principal income is from drinks (alcoholic and sodas) and food for off-site but immediate consumption are also subject to the tax. You can supply the Illinois Department of Revenue with your sales tax information.

I like what Bonnie McGrath said in the Chicago Journal last year:

Is this fair? Why should we South Loopers–not to mention the other neighborhoods near downtown–have to pay extra for restaurant food? What exactly are we getting that other Chicago residents don’t get that we have to pay an extra tax?

I’d also like to know why McPier needs additional revenue to supplement the millions (maybe billions?) it revenue it receives from vendor fees, events, rents, and other sources in the operation of Navy Pier and McCormick Place.

McPier also gets a cut of hotel room bookings.

Are protected bike lanes going in the right places?

Bike crash map of Ogden, Milwaukee, Chicago

Common bike-car crash locations in West Town. The bottom blue circle identifies Ogden/Milwaukee, where there is a yellow trap for northbound, left-turning motorists (from Milwaukee to Ogden) that makes them run into southbound bicyclists who have a green light.

My contribution to a discussion on The Chainlink, Are protected bike lanes going in the right places?

Kelvin, Milwaukee/Ogden/Chicago is the intersection along Milwaukee Avenue with the highest number of bicycle crashes. I created this table and map to show them, using data from 2007-2009.

The blue rings on the map are called, in GIS parlance, “buffers” and are circles used to select things (in this case, bike crashes) within a certain distance of the circle center. In this map I used 50 feet radius buffers (100 feet diameter). While this distance encompasses the intersection from center to all four curbs, it doesn’t encompass the crashes that happened just outside the buffer that were still most likely influenced by the intersection (like drivers’ turning movements).

I am working on a project with three friends to create a better map and “crash browser”. I mentioned it in the last story on Grid Chicago in this post. For this project, we are using 200 feet radius (400 feet diameter) buffers to ensure we encompass the entire intersection and the area in which it still has an effect. This also grabs the bike lane “pinch points”, places where a bike lane doesn’t start until 100-200 feet beyond the intersection.

I am also concerned with the strategy and approach CDOT is using to choose locations. It’s not transparent; at MBAC, CDOT said they were choosing locations “without controversy and that could be implemented quickly”.

Read more about Kinzie Street, Chicago’s first protected bike lane, and my other thoughts on protected bike lanes

Initial intersection crash analysis for Milwaukee Avenue

Slightly upgraded Chicago Crash Browser

This screenshot from the Chicago Crash Browser map shows the location of bike-car collisions at Ogden/Milwaukee, an intersection that exemplifies the yellow trap problem the city hasn’t remedied.

List of the most crash-prone intersections on Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago. Using data from 2007-2009, when reported to the Chicago Police Department. Dooring data not included on the bike crash map. I used QGIS to draw a 50-feet buffer around the point where the intersection center lines meet.

Intersecting street (class 4*) Bike crashes
Chicago Avenue (see Ogden below) 12 (17)
California Avenue 9
Halsted Street & Grand Avenue 7
Damen Avenue & North Avenue 6
Western Avenue 6
Ogden Avenue (see Chicago above) 5 (17)
Ashland Avenue 5
Diversey Avenue 5
Fullerton Avenue 5
Elston Avenue 5
Augusta Boulevard (not class 4) 5

Combine the six-way (with center triangle) intersection of Ogden, Milwaukee, Chicago, and you see 17 crashes. Add the 6 just outside the 50-feet buffer and you get 23 crashes. Compare this to the six-way (without center triangle) at Halsted, Milwaukee, Grand, where there’s only 7 crashes.

What about the two intersections causes such a difference in crashes? Let’s look at some data:

Ogden, Milwaukee, Chicago Halsted, Milwaukee, Grand
Automobile traffic Approx 58,000 cars per day Approx 50,000 cars per day.
Bicycle traffic Not counted, but probably fewer than 3,100 bikes More than 3,100 bikes per day*
Bus traffic Two bus routes Three bus routes
Intersection style Island; three signal cycles No island; one signal cycle

*Notes

Traffic counts are assumed estimates. Counts are taken on a single day, either Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday. Bike counts at Halsted/Milwaukee/Grand were actually taken on Milwaukee several hundred feet northwest of the intersection so DO NOT include people biking on Halsted or Grand! This means that more than 3,100 people are biking through the intersection each day.

Intersection style tells us which kind of six-way intersection it is. At island styles you’ll find a concrete traffic island separating the three streets. You’ll also find three signal cycles because there are actually three intersections instead of one, making it a 12-way intersection. Also at these intersections you’ll see confusing instructional signage like, “OBEY YOUR SIGNAL ONLY” and “ONCOMING TRAFFIC HAS LONGER GREEN.”

These intersections are more likely to have a “yellow trap” – Ogden/Milwaukee definitely has this problem. The yellow trap occurs at that intersections when northbound, left-turning motorists (from Milwaukee to Ogden) get a red light but they still need to vacate the intersection. Thinking that oncoming traffic has a red light but are just being jerks and blowing the red light (when in fact they still have a green for 5-10 more seconds) they turn and sometimes hit the southbound traffic. The City of Chicago acknowledged this problem, for bicyclists especially, in summer 2013 but as of November 2014 the issue remains.

Here’s a more lengthy description of one of the problems here as well as an extremely simple solution: install a left-turn arrow for northbound Milwaukee Avenue. The entire intersection is within Alderman Burnett’s Ward 27.

Source and method

I can’t yet tell you how I obtained this data or created the map. I’m still working out the specifics in my procedures log. It involved some manual work at the end because in the resulting table that counted the number of crashes per intersection, every intersection was repeated, but the street names were in opposite columns.

Crash data from the Illinois Department of Transportation. Street data from the City of Chicago. Intersection data created with fTools in QGIS. To save time in this initial analysis, I only considered Milwaukee Avenue intersections with streets in the City of Chicago centerline file with a labeled CLASS of 1, 2, or 3.

Gaps

A map that focuses on striped bikeways in downtown Chicago.

When you look at your bikeways more abstractly, like in the graphic above, do you see deficiencies or gaps in the network? Anything glaring or odd?

It’s a simple exercise: Open up QGIS and load in the relevant geographic data for your city. For Chicago, I added the city boundary, hydrography and parks (for locational reference), and bike lanes and marked-shared lanes*. Symbolize the bikeways to stand out in a bright color. I had the Chicago Transit Authority stations overlaid, but I removed them because it minimized the “black hole of bikeways” I want to show.

What do you see?

Bigger impact map

This exercise can have more impact if it was visualized differently. You have to be familiar with downtown Chicago and the Loop to fully understand why it’s important to notice what’s missing. It’s an extremely office and job dense neighborhood. It also has one of the highest densities of students in the country; the number of people residing downtown continues to grow. If I had good data on how many workers and students there were per building, I could indicate that on the map to show just how many people are potentially affected by the lack of bicycle infrastructure that leads them to their jobs (or class) in the morning, and home in the evening. I don’t know how to account for all of the bicycling that goes through downtown just for events, like at Millennium and Grant Parks, the Cultural Center, and other theaters and venues.

*If you cannot find GIS data for your city, please let me know and I will try to help you find it. It should be available for your city as a matter of course.

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