Tagphotography

Freight trains in the city: photos from Ping Tom Park

The train is entering the crossing. 

If you weren’t aware, Chicago has a ridiculous number of trains passing through here. We’ve been the freight train capital of the country for over 100 years (I’m not going to verify this). And apparently it takes a train the same amount of time to pass through Chicago as it takes to travel from here to Los Angeles.

One of the interesting places they pass through in Chicago is at Ping Tom Park, in Chinatown, on the Chicago River at 18th Street. A double track part of the CN line borders the park on the east, separating the park from rowhouses in Chinatown. The Chicago Transit Authority’s Orange Line elevated viaduct shares the right of way.

I was showing the park to some visitors from Spain after we ate at Joy Yee Noodles (2159 S China Place)*. The at-grade crossing bells starting to ring, and the red lights started to flash. Then the gates came down. We were trapped! That’s the neat thing about the freight railroad here and the park: there’s a single entrance that’s blocked by a train. And this one was long.

A pagoda in Ping Tom Park. Here’s another view of the pagoda where you can also clearly see the Orange Line viaduct. 

As we just arrived, we weren’t interested in leaving. We explored the new north section of the park. This outing gave me several opportunities to test out the capabilities of my new camera, a Panasonic GH1, and accompanying lens, a LUMIX G 20/f1.7mm (that means it’s fairly wide angle and has an enormous aperture)**. It takes great photos in the dark without a flash. I was photographing the train, using the “panning” technique – this means you set the focus beforehand and then move (pan) the camera with the object to ensure it appears in focus in the resulting image. I succeeded with 50% of the photos; my issue was choosing the right speed at which to pan the camera.

This photo is one of the better panning shots I created. 

The train, as many Illinois railfans probably expect, was carrying ethanol and empty flatbed cars, but also some hydrochloric acid. I’m going to guess some of the tankers were filled with America’s favorite artificial sugar: high-fructose corn syrup.

* There are two Joy Yee Noodles restaurants in the same Chinatown Square shopping center. They are of the same company.

** I bought the body from a friend and I bought the lens separately. I paid more for the lens than the body.

Too much talking, not enough documenting

I took this photo for several reasons: to show a sidewalk reconstruction project that forces people to walk in the street; to show that people bicycling will advance from where I took this photo to the location across Grand Avenue to get a “head start” on cycling across Halsted Street to Milwaukee Avenue. 

Or doing.

I talk to a lot of people about cycling in Chicago and they’ve good stories to share. Stories about positive experiences they’ve had, about negative experiences, or of problems they’ve seen others encounter. I always encourage people to do something about this experience. My advice almost always involves them documenting it in some way; things like reporting a bike crash to the police, even afterwards, or taking a photo of a major pothole. I might suggest they write down their thoughts to share privately with close friends. Or it might be as simple as calling 311 to report an abandoned bike.*

There are lots of things that we want to change. Keeping track of what they are can help focus energy on making that change happen. (That’s why I carry my camera with me at all times outside my home.) One way I’ve started to document and share is by writing about the good and “needs improvement” parts of Chicago transportation on my new blog, Grid Chicago.

If you cycle in Chicago, I implore you to attend the Streets for Cycling planning meetings – the first one is December 10th – so you can express your concerns and desires. There are one hundred other ways to be involved in supporting a change in Chicago, and I might be able to link you one you’re interested in.

Note: The CTA has started several online efforts to collect feedback from and communicate with customers, but they’ve always collected feedback through their email address, feedback@transitchicago.com, where they always respond. These new efforts are Facebook, Budget Ideas, and Twitter.

Let’s do this for bike crashes: I guess I’ll start a bike crash documentation project right now (January 5, 2012). Write up a report and share me a link, or leave a comment on one of these pages:

Another person bicycles across Grand Avenue to get that head start. 

*These are all things I do, but I encourage everyone to think creatively and do what interests them.

What downtown means

Not the guy from the story. 

I was “downtown” photographing situations that make it hard to walk (hard to be a pedestrian) on Sunday, November 13, 2011. While waiting for the light at LaSalle and Adams, a man wearing a Bears jersey in the front passenger seat of a taxicab asked me if I had pizza in my Yuba Mundo’s Go-Getter bag.

“No”, I said, adding, “It has my backpack in there”.

“It’s a very large bag”, he replied.

Realizing that he was sober and that we could hold a conversation, I explained, “It holds a lot of groceries”.

“Oh, you live downtown”, he ascertained.

Not quite. “I live a few miles outside of downtown”.

The light turned green and the driver moved on, but the guy left me with, “Have a nice day”. I said, “You, too”.

After I got home and was looking through my photos and recounted this story, I  realized that to him, “downtown” meant the entire City of Chicago. To me, downtown meant the Loop community area and some surrounding blocks. I might define “downtown” as a place bounded by Kennedy, Division, Lake Michigan, and Roosevelt. But to this suburban football fan, downtown is that big place that one has to travel a ways to get to. I remembered that I had the same understanding of downtown when I lived in Batavia, Illinois, a suburb 40 miles west of Chicago. You can access it by driving on I-290 and I-88, or by taking the Metra UP-West line to Geneva.

There’s at least one other assumption I can make from this conversation: If I shop for and carry groceries on a bicycle, I must live in Chicago; people in the suburbs are never seen shopping for and carrying groceries on a bicycle.

Another photo from my photo mission on Sunday. It’s Roosevelt University’s vertical campus building on Wabash and Van Buren. 

How do you enjoy the roses: Smell them or photograph them?

A tram in Milan, outside the Castello Sforzesco and near the Milano Cardona train station, where I arrived from a short trip from Como.

My mother is one to consistently tell me, a communications and photography obsessed traveler who bikes 60 miles per week with a camera around my neck, to “stop and smell the roses” instead of “stop and take their picture”. My 18,208 photos taken in the last 12 months are probably a testament that I’m doing more clicking than sniffing. But the photos I take are there to enhance my stories when I come home. I feel I enjoy my trips even if half the time my eyes are looking through the lens.

On my trip to Europe this year, I made a commitment to myself to not worry about costs – I had money to spend on a wonderful trip. This came after I spend 10+ hours calculating on the value of a Eurail Pass that would give me unlimited free trips on all local trains and discounted trips on high-speed trains. A simple rule eventually made the decision for me: the ticket took two weeks to mail and my trip was in five days. After all those calculations, and understanding the pass’s restrictions, I was moving towards a decision to buy my tickets à la carte, or as I needed them. I kept all of my receipts to monitor the cost of my journeys. Guess what? They came out the same: I spent $512.55 on 19 train trips (including metros; conversion made on January 25, 2011)*. A Eurail Pass that would have gotten me the same trips (and more if I wanted to) was $716 or $771. By keeping my mind focused on enjoying the trip instead of analyzing my costs.

Why do I bring all of this up now? Wired’s October issue has a “travel optimization” article and I love that the author was in a similar quandary:

Halfway through my visit I missed a text message that cost me $5,000 in lost income. At the moment the message arrived (or didn’t arrive), I was enjoying a eucalyptus steam bath with an old laborer who’d belonged to the Solidarity Union, which had helped defeat communism in Eastern Europe. His stories were thrilling, but were they $5,000 worth of thrilling?

Of course they were, I concluded on the flight back. When the mind of the traveler grows overly preoccupied with estimating opportunity costs, the capacity for discovery diminishes, displaced by the obsession with efficiency. The voyager may as well have stayed home, since he’s not really on a voyage anymore; he’s researching economics in the field.

That is exactly the state of being I wanted to avoid. And I did a pretty great job.

I’ve got another example: When it came time to pay the bill after dinner and drinks in Copenhagen, I opened my wallet and said (mainly because I was unfamiliar with how to convert kroner to dollars), “This is what I have”. Thankfully it was enough, although I had to visit the ATM a couple times per day in Copenhagen.

*Add on $85 for a flight from Milan to Hanover. I rode on trains operated by at least 10 different companies and agencies – it was one of the most splendid journeys of my life.

Let me help you plan your next vacation

Head to San Francisco, where they bike year round! (Amsterdammers and Copenhageners also bike year round, partly because they continue to have safe places to bicycle whereas Chicagoans deal with snowed-in bike lanes.)

Taken in November 2010.

Taken in January 2011.

Taken in January 2011.

All photos by Adrienne Johnson.

I value photography

I’ve made photography a very important feature of this blog. The photos help me tell the story. I spend an equal time taking and processing photos for the blog as I do writing it. I take over 200 photos each week. When I travel, I take 1,000 photos. Of 5,814 published photos, almost 64% have been added to the map, bringing more context to the subject and allowing it to be discovered geographically.

I think photography (and photos) is an important aspect of quality urban planning. When talking to the public and trying to get across your ideas, photos and other graphics make a vision come to life. They demonstrate what is and what could be. The right photo will invoke, without prompting, passion and enthusiasm – support you might need. The wrong photo may do the opposite, or have no effect at all. Take as many photos as needed so you ensure they will intimate the feelings you need for your project, or story.

What’s the story here? It could be several things. Simply, that it snowed recently. Or complexly, that while growth in this area has been phenomenal and immediately recognizable (most of the visible buildings starting at the blue-topped one and going south did not exist 10 years ago), our 100 year-old electric interurban train still runs.

I take photos for two reasons: to share on my blog, and to share them publicly, worldwide so that anyone who needs a photo can find it. A variety of my photos have been used to narrate events and ideas in organizational publications (with and without attribution), websites, and even a book!

I want my readers to take photography seriously. I don’t want you to be discouraged by that term, either. Don’t think you need a good camera or know how to take good pictures. Begin today and take one photo per day for a year. In one year, you will be an extremely proficient photographer (or “picture taker”). You’ll be able to tell your story, without a caption, in little time.

Read more about my photographic arsenal:

This photo tells us about the practice of designing malls, and designing malls for dense cities (like Chicago, where it’s located). The escalators are designed to get you in fast, but getting out requires a bit more walking.

Bikes and transit – share your knowledge

UPDATE: Why bikes and transit go together (PDF) – read this brochure from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).

While you’re reading up on the 80+ comments on the story about some Seattle bike riders suing the city, I want to take this opportunity to again promote the Bikes and Transit group on Flickr. The group’s purpose is to document interactions between bicycle riders, bikes, and transit vehicles, both buses and trains. The definition of “interaction” is quite loose.

Photo from the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition taken one 3rd Street during the May 24, 2010, Sunday Parkways.

Many times, bicycle riders are also transit users. If not, they’re riding in streets shared by streetcars, light rail, and buses. The pool of photos from around the world can help us learn about practices in other countries. Or we can find out that fat bike tires won’t fit in many bus-bike racks (see photo below).

Richard Masoner points out that 2.6 inch wide tires don’t fit into the bike rack on Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority buses, using the Sportworks Veloporter racks (common to bus operators across the United States).

Add your own photos! Or link me and I’ll invite your photos one by one.

Flickr is not a stock photo website

Contrary to popular belief, Flickr is not a stock photo* website with a cornucopia of beautiful and relevant photographs of people, objects, and infrastructure you need for your professional or academic project.

I have heard several stories, and witnessed on multiple occasions, workers and students appropriating photos they find on Flickr .

Flickr seems to have, on average, more interesting, and higher quality photos than other photo sharing websites, including Picasa, Photobucket, MySpace, and Facebook. But Flickr enables its users to display the rights visitors have to use their photos (if any). These are rights granted to content creators by the federal government the moment such content is created. These rights can then be sub-granted to others through licensing. Flickr users can identify their photos to visitors as having one of the Creative Commons licenses, or reserving all rights (this means visitors shouldn’t even download the photo to their computer).

A couple of months ago I started watermarking my photos on Flickr because I didn’t want someone to use my photo without following the rules of the Creative Commons license. (All of my photos have the Creative Commons-Attribution-Share Alike-Non-commercial license ascribed – this license allows anyone to use your work as long as they don’t make money by using it, they attribute you, the creator, and they share their work in the same fashion.) The photo above shows two uses of my photos where neither myself or my employer (who commissioned the photos) are credited.

This scheme also makes it easy for photographers on Flickr to share their work widely. In April, a professional association emailed me to ask if they could use a photo I posted on my Flickr photostream in an upcoming publication. The photo was clearly listed as having the Creative Commons license I described above. They didn’t need my explicit permission to use the photo. I understand, though, that the license permissions displayed on Flickr may not satisfy corporate or organization policy, and a written agreement is needed. That’s fine – when you require such an agreement, don’t then make it difficult for the original content creator (myself) to agree to it. The organization wanted me to print a document, sign it, and fax it to them. Or I could open the PDF agreement in Adobe Illustrator and attach my digital signature and email it to them.

Visitors to Flickr who are looking for high-quality, desirable photos to use in their own works should respect the licenses listed on every photo’s page. When a Flickr users reserves all rights to the photo, visitors can consider contacting the user for special permission to use the photo. Using someone else’s work without their permission or against their preferences is also rude and unprofessional.

*Stock photos are those taken expressly to be used in other people’s works and the photographers have agreed to either a payment given at once, or by royalties. iStockPhoto and Getty Images are major stock photo warehouses.

Seattle trip and new camera

My recent 6 night, 7 day trip to the Pacific Northwest gave me the perfect opportunity to test out my new camera that arrived only days before my departure.

I purchased a Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX5V (Sony should follow a simpler product naming scheme) from RitzCamera.com (which seems to be a different operation than Ritz Camera stores).

I bought the camera for its HD video (1080i60), decent image quality, wide-angle lens, and loads of neat features. I used the camera on every day of my trip and the results please me. The most significant neat feature is a mode called “Handheld Twilight.” The camera takes up to six shots (in one second) at different exposure and ISO settings, and then blends the photos together – and without flash. Because of this feature and the other low-light enhancing features, I don’t think I used the flash more than once or twice on my trip.

This photo of the Space Needle at Seattle Center demonstrates the image quality as a result of Handheld Twilight mode.

This photo shows the lens width. I held the camera at less than arm’s length.

Another mode that helps in low-light situations is Anti-motion Blur. I’m not really sure of the difference between this mode and the Handheld Twilight mode (both take multiple shots in quick succession), but whenever I saw the flashing hand that indicates a probably shaky picture, I switched the camera to Anti-motion Blur. Great photos emerged!

Annual trip to Phoenix, Mesa, Tempe

I have lots of family who live in the Phoenix Valley in southern Arizona. I take a trip out there annually to visit, usually around Thanksgiving or Christmas. I’ll be leaving in a week and I haven’t yet planned what I’m going to do. Neither of my siblings will be coming at the same time (odd), so I’m going to have a lot of me time. I know the Phoenix area has had some of the worst foreclosures and job losses in the country, and maybe I can try to find visual, apparent indications of this (not sure how, though).

I’ll have a car, a bike, or a light rail train!

So far, I’m thinking of these things:

  • Photoshoot of the construction of the new Bombardier People Mover at the PHX SkyHarbor airport. When the light rail opened last year in December (see my photos), the connection between the Valley Metro station at Washington and 44th and the northern terminal of the people mover was this disconnected, unadorned viaduct. I hear construction has progressed at a steady rate on the $1 billion, 1 mile system (keep in mind that the entire light rail system of 20 miles cost $1.4 billion to construct).
  • Visit the Phoenix Trolley Museum. I found this just now through someone’s Flickr photostream next to a photo of the people mover construction area. I’ve never heard of the place, and I don’t know anything about it right now, but it has at least one train, so why not go!
  • Visit Tucson! I’ve heard that the University of Arizona, Tucson campus, is very bike friendly (my former coworker, Christy, studied there). The Tucson Bike Lawyer keeps everyone apprised of the local comings and goings. The city is a 2.5 hour drive so I can easily handle it by myself in a day (or perhaps my dad or one of my cousins would come with). I don’t know what there is to do, but I get a lot of joy from walking and taking photos.
  • Lastly, I’m thinking of visiting Los Angeles. I’ve never been to L.A. and I want to go to test ride a bike I’ve recently started researching. I still have a big soft spot for Dutch bicycles, but the Yuba Mundo has caught my eye as a bike that can handle just as much cargo, costs less, and I can customize it with many Dutch bike attributes (like internal gearing, brakes, and dynamo-powered lighting). A Chinatown bus is $60 roundtrip, but the duration is 6 hours. Also, Amtrak no longer serves Phoenix but does stop in “nearby” Maricopa (not the county).

If you live around here and want to show me something neat, I am interested.

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