Tagtrain station

Transportation infrastructure is for more than transportation’s sake

Transportation infrastructure should be designed for more than carrying people through places. It also needs to be about carrying people to places, because transportation is for moving people as much for commerce as it is for being social.

The Dutch consider “social safety” when designing and redesigning streets (they’re constantly upgrading streets, roads, and entire neighborhoods to standards that seem to be frequently updated).

Mark Waagenbuur posted a new video this week showing a new tunnel under Amsterdam Centraal, the main train station in Amsterdam, and he highlighted several of its social safety features.

The screen grab I embedded above – and posted on Twitter where it got a lot of shares and likes – shows an aspect that’s common across all cycling facilities in built-up areas: it’s wide enough to ride side by side with your friend, mother, or lover, with still enough room on your left for people to pass you in the same lane.

Another aspect of this tunnel is that it has sound-absorbing panels. Often tunnels have a disturbing echo that inhibit comfortable communication – my new home office has an echo and it makes it hard to have conversations on the phone here because I hear an annoying feedback. The communication is important to be able to hear people cycling with you, but also to hear what other people are doing.

The tunnel has a final feature that supports social safety: clear, wide, and open sight lines. Not just from end to end, but also to the sides. It’s hard to hide around the corner because the breadth of vision is so wide that you would see someone lurking in the corner.

For Chicagoans who use one of the many old tunnels under Lake Shore Drive connecting the “mainland” to the nation’s most popular trail along Lake Michigan, the feeling of claustrophobia and invisibility of what’s around the bend is too common. New tunnels, which I prefer to bridges because you go downhill first, should be a priority when the State of Illinois rebuilds Lake Shore Drive north of Grand Avenue in the next decade. This is what those tunnels look like; sometimes they have mirrors.

We can sell ads on the Lakefront Trail underpasses, but they're still shitty to walk through

Morgan CTA station is fueling new West Loop development

First day of CTA Morgan Station serving the Green and Pink Lines

The Morgan Station was designed by Ross Barney Architects.

DNA Info Chicago discusses an informal study the Chicago Transit Authority conducted that showed, “since the [Morgan Green/Pink Line] station opened in May 2012, residential and business development in the surrounding neighborhood has continued at a faster pace than nearly all other markets within the city during the post-recession period.”

Morgan connects two major restaurant rows, one on Randolph Street that stretches much further east at Jefferson all the way west to Racine, and another on Fulton Market that starts at Carnavale (next to the Kennedy Expressway) and stretches to Morgan. Google’s huge new headquarters (under construction) and Coyne College – an HVAC institute – are within walking distance.

Using ridership information and commercial rents data, as well as information from the Chicago open data portal, CTA spokesperson Catherine Hosinski listed the following findings in the study:

  1. “A more than 20 percent increase in new business licenses.”
  2. “New construction and demolition permits spiked from one to 15. (The new construction/demolition permits issued after the opening of the station were compared to a 21-month period during the construction from August 2010 through May 2012)”
  3. “Average weekday ridership increased 30 percent between May 2013 and May 2014, according to information reflecting a 12-month rolling average over a 36-month period.”
  4. “Average weekend ridership increased more than 20 percent.”

Item #2 is data that we can see on Licensed Chicago Contractors. To help CTA planners and residents see this information more readily I’ve added all 145 CTA stations as places you can explore from the Places page.

How can you use this new place in connection with CTA’s study? With it you’ll be able to easily see building permits issued within half a mile from the CTA station and download this data for the last 9 years. You can also sort by projects’ estimated costs to find the biggest investments near the station.

Hosinski admits an important part of the study when she told DNA Info, “the West Loop was showing signs of becoming a booming neighborhood before the station was built…its presence has contributed to the migration of commuters and residents to the area.” Hosinski also said that you’ll find CTA stations at the heart of “most” Chicago neighborhoods and now CTA stations are part of the heart of tracking building permits.

Here’s how to track building permits (including demolitions and new construction) around any CTA station:

  1. Open the Places page on Chicago Cityscape
  2. Search for a station name (like Morgan), route name, or click “CTA Rail Station” in the right sidebar.
  3. Done! The list is sorted by the permit’s issue date, but click on any of the table headers to sort differently.
Morgan station on Licensed Chicago Contractors

We’re tracking over 1,700 building permits within a half mile of the Morgan station since July 2005.

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.

Stop locking your bike at the Clybourn Metra station overnight

Existing bike parking at the Clybourn Metra station

This is a resolution.

WHEREAS, I love GIS.

WHEREAS, I was reading this blog post on the Azavea company blog about bike theft prediction and trends in Philadelphia.

WHEREAS, I analyzed bike theft location in Chicago in 2012 and the Clybourn Metra station emerged as the most frequent Metra theft location.

WHEREAS, I searched the Chicago Stolen Bike Registry for “clybourn” and several thefts have been reported to the registry in 2013.

WHEREAS, I believe the Chicago Police Department still doesn’t allow searching of their database for bike thefts thus leaving the CSBR as the premier source of data.

WHEREAS, I am watching this show called The Bletchley Circle wherein a group of four fictional women who cracked codes in World War II are solving a murder mystery in 1950s London.

BE IT RESOLVED that you should not leave your bicycle parked at the Clybourn Metra station overnight as it is a terrible place to leave a bicycle parked. Why? No one is around most of the time to socially secure your bicycle.

New bike parking at the Clybourn Metra station

This is a great place to get your bike stolen. In the dark. Overnight. With no one around to see it happen. 

Chicago’s train stations are dead zones

Perhaps not all of them: Millennium Station, serving Metra Electric and South Shore Line trains, was rebuilt and given a facelift and new tenants (including a few restaurants) when the City of Chicago constructed Millennium Park atop it. And not Northwestern Station since it has two food courts, activity from the thousands of workers above, and the new(ish) French Market.

But look at Union Station and LaSalle Station – they tell passengers to stay away. It’s obnoxious (and noxious) to be in them. These two stations have quite the space available for pleasant activities and waiting areas. Union Station has the Great Hall and a bar but it’s also a Great Distance away from the platforms. LaSalle Station is probably the worst: a dozen machines squawk at waiting passengers – if there are any – to tell people who are blind where each track is. Every 3 seconds.

I made a video to demonstrate a little of how unlovable train stations are in the United States. Not every station has the squawk boxes right in the main, but empty, waiting area, but the desolation and difficult access is widespread.

There’s a whole lot of nothing at LaSalle Station. Photo by Jeff Zoline. 

Enter the Houten Fietstransferium, and other bikes and transit commentary

Video by Mark Wagenbuur, aka markenlei on YouTube. See his original blog post about it.

I’m going to take a wild guess and say that “Fietstransferium” means “bike transfer building”. It’s a structure underneath the train tracks at the Houten (in the Netherlands) main railway station (it has a secondary station on the same line a little bit south of the main one). You roll in directly from a car-free street in the center of a town, park your bike, and walk up to the platforms. Also available in the Fietstransferium are bike rentals (likely OV-fiets) and bike repair. It wasn’t open when I visited Houten in January 2011.

From the video (and from other sources) 60% of NS passengers arrive by bike. Good connections between bikes and trains helps maintain that access rate, but probably also helps increase it. Bike connections to major train stations in Chicago is woeful, even at the stations that are new enough to support a good connection. Let’s call Houten’s bike to train connection quality “roll in, walk 100 feet, service”: you roll into the bike parking area, and walk upstairs to your train (there’s even a ticket machine in the bike parking area). This differs from “roll on service” as that means you roll your bike into the train.

One shot from the video was taken from this vantage point, showing the bike parking, the staircase, the platform, and a train. Photo by Vereniging van Nederlandse Gemeenten VNG (Dutch Association of Municipalities). 

Chicago

The LaSalle Street Metra Station got an upgrade in bike connections this year when the “intermodal center” adjacent to it on Congress Parkway and Financial Place was added. It came with bike parking, an elevator, and a staircase with bike ramp. The station has other access points, which are very well hidden. Unguarded.

The LaSalle Street intermodal center. 

Northwestern Station lacks indoor and guarded bike parking, and any that’s available is far away from the tracks. The sheltered bike parking is very undesirable, dark, and dirty; I don’t recommend parking on Washington Street. Nor do I recommend parking on any of the sidewalks surrounding the station block.

Union Station is similar to Northwestern Station: all bike parking is unguarded and far from the tracks. Millennium Station. Same problems.

The nexus of bikes and transit is something I enjoy planning, and talking and writing about. Read my past articles on the subject. I’ve created the biggest and best collection of bikes and transit photos in the eponymous Flickr group. It’s an important part of the Chicago Bike Map app. You can load train stations on the map, search for them, and get information about when and how to board a train or bus with your bike. Coming soon is information on accessible stations (which have wide gate turnstiles making for self-service bike entry) and stations that aren’t accessible but have the same wide gate turnstiles (called TWA, or turnstile wheelchair accessible).

Additionally, none of these stations are accessible by good bike lanes. Only Union Station and Northwestern Station have adjacent bike lanes, and then only ones that are north-south (Clinton and Canal). As the Chicago Department of Transportation noted in its multiple presentations about the upcoming installation of the Union Station bus intermodal station, biking on Canal Street is not good and the bike lane will probably be reconfigured during the Central Loop BRT project. To summarize, the connection quality that Chicago’s downtown train stations provide is “confusing service”: where does one park? will the bike be safe? how does one get to the platform now?

Biking on Canal Street outside Union Station. It has multiple entrances and access routes but which one is best?  Another photo from biking on Canal Street.

Near Northwestern Station, the Washington Street bike lane ends abruptly three blocks away at Desplaines Street. The Madison Street bike lane doesn’t reach Northwestern Station, nor would it be effective with its current design, as it would constantly be occupied by things that aren’t bicycles.

Biking on Washington Street, a very wide fast street, whose bike lane ends very soon (in the middle ground) where then you find yourself competing for space with buses and right-turning cars. As soon as one is “competing” on a street, the street fails to provide good space for either mode. 

Harrison Street just south of the LaSalle Street Station is usually a good street to bike on, but it lacks the kind of bikeway infrastructure that attracts new people to transportation bicycling, and more trips to be made. (I’ve lately been thinking of ways to synthesize the argument about why protected and European-style bikeway infrastructure is necessary, so here goes: Bicycle usage will not increase without them.)

San Francisco

Photo of a man walking with his bicycle in a BART station by San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. 

BART in the San Francisco Bay Area tested in August policy of having no bike blackout periods on Fridays. That meant people could bring their bikes on the trains at all times on Fridays in August, and not just outside rush periods. Showing their high level of attention planning and policy, the agency evaluated the program with a proper survey. There’s a meeting tomorrow with the BART Bicycle Task Force; Chicago’s Regional Transportation Authority should have such a group!

A little street art does the body (and mind) good

“The Chicago Transit Authority [CTA] Series is an exploration of how a small change in a word can recontextualize otherwise expected results. David DuFault re-creates the CTA subway names of the original CTA stops with small modifications to change them into food names. Chicago loves its food after all. He limits himself by regulating the ‘rules’: only a maximum of two letters can be changed or by adding a word.” It should have been in the street art show, but the CTA removed it and doesn’t know what to do with it. If it returns the art, the CTA may appear to condone such trespassing of its property.

The Wellington Brown/Purple line station becomes “Beef Wellington.”

I went to the opening Chicago Street Art Show in Pilsen at the Chicago Urban Arts Society, 2229 S Halsted Street, this past Friday to check out what street artists have been up to. There was a lot of cool art on display via photographs. I believe the originator of the street art and the photographers whose prints were hung are two different people, but the exhibit didn’t make this clear. I couldn’t tell who the photographer was and who posted the street art.

The crowd at the gallery. Photo by Oscar Arriola.

I’ve seen this one. It’s on Milwaukee Avenue just north of Grand Avenue. It says, “I love you so much it hurts.”

I think Rod Blagojevich has been spotted running several times around Chicago (and the courts).

Some lessons learned in bike parking placement at train stations

Flickr user Jeramey posted the photo below showing empty bike racks inside the Damen Blue Line station in Wicker Park, Chicago. He took it on Wednesday, April 14, 2010, when the high temperature was 82°F – good riding weather.

He linked to a photo taken in July 2009 showing the full bike racks inside the Sox-35th Red Line station in Bridgeport/Bronzeville. It’s hot in July as well.

Both bike racks were installed in the same project in 2009. Two other stations received high-capacity bike racks: Jefferson Park Blue Line, and Midway Orange Line.

Jeramey’s implied question is, “Why are people using Sox-35th bike racks, but not Damen bike racks?” I have some hypotheses.

Damen Blue Line station bike racks

1.  The number of physical barriers someone with a bicycle must cross to access this space is too high. First there’re the narrow doors to the station house; second is the gate that must be unlocked by the station attendant (but is often found unlocked);third is the stairs; fourth is the high frequency of passengers in the staircase and first landing that the passenger with a bicycle must navigate through.

2. The lack of knowledge about this parking space’s existence. While there are small signs pointing towards these bike racks, they are easily ignored. Additionally, people riding bikes in Chicago tend not to look for signs as bike parking is almost always in view of the final destination (this is one of the rules of successful bike parking).

3. There is often available bike parking outside the station house. If the racks outside are available, those are more convenient. See hypothesis 1.

4. The station is too close to downtown, the destination of a majority of people bicycling to work. Instead of biking to the train station, they ride directly to work without riding the CTA. This map shows where people who bike to work call home and where they work. To test this hypothesis, I think some usage counts should be taken on multiple days per season. Expected results: In colder weather, people would combine modes and ride to the station and then to work. In warmer weather, they would only ride their bicycle.

Sox-35th Red Line station

Now let’s look at the Sox-35th Red Line station bike racks in the same categories.

1. No barriers. The station is newer, has wide doors, no stairs, and a wheelchair turnstile that people with bikes can use.

2. No need for signage or direction. As soon as one enters the station, the bike racks are visible.

3. They’re the only bike racks available. You can’t park securely outside the station house.

4. The route between Sox-35th and the center of Chicago is not as bike friendly as that between Damen and downtown. Milwaukee Avenue offers a direct connection between Damen and downtown, a critical mass of other people bicycling, and bike lanes for a majority of the length. State Street is the most direct to downtown from Sox-35th, but lacks bike facilities (not even a wide outer lane; King Drive has a bike lane but only goes so far as Cermak Road), or other people bicycling.

In future installations of bike parking like these two, we should look at the difficulty of accessing the bike rack as well as considering who will use them and what trips they may take (will people bike past the station to their destination?). Additionally, planners should count the number of bicycles parked at the stations before and after new parking fixtures are installed to better understand how and when it’s used.

Disclaimer: I was involved in 2009 and 2010 in selecting four CTA and Metra stations for the second round of Bike To Transit. The Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) awarded CDOT a $375,000 grant as part of its Innovation Coordination Enhancement program.

Italian train network looks modern and decrepit simultaneously

Italian trains and stations look modern and decrepit simultaneously. One of a thousand observations on my trip to Europe in December and January.

MODERN: Roma Termini (main station) has at least 50 automatic ticket vending machines that accept credit and debit cards and display text in multiple languages.

DECREPIT: Many train cars have copious graffiti. This train appeared as if it hadn’t moved in weeks, like the one on the right in this photo.

MODERN: But then Italy has something the United States will not have for several more years (go Florida!): a high-speed train. This one travels up to 300 KM/H (186 M/H). I caught my train going 247 KM/H from Roma to Milano.

In Chicago, I think there’s more of a balance to the train state of affairs: not so modern, but not so decrepit either. New stations opened on the Brown Line but without the fancy glass ceilings from the early renderings (had to cut costs). Train cars are 40 years old (new ones in testing). Subway stations have dismal lighting (coupled with the dirty windows it’s hard to tell the difference between the platform and the tunnel areas). Metra just started accepting credit cards at the downtown stations in 2010.

Another case for integrating biking and transit

Integrating biking and transit can reduce a user’s transportation costs.

A friend just instant messaged me to describe his “bike instead of transit” commute,

“I spent $440 on Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) this year and $300 on bike stuff. When I was just taking the CTA it was $1032 per year. I used to have the monthly pass deducted from my paycheck, $86 per month. Now I pay as a I go, and I go much less.”

In some places, and for other people’s situations, commuters could bike TO the train or bus and reduce their costs by eliminating a transfer. Transit also lengthens a bike rider’s possible trip distance when they combine the modes. In this sense, providing services or facilities for people riding bikes attracts new customers or maintains relationships with existing customers.

The Department of Transportation is now funding projects that improve bicycling (and walking) connections to bus and train stations. We should continue focusing on expanding and improving our bikeway networks by connecting them with our transit networks. By doing so, we make each system more robust and give people more options to choose the route that’s best for them.

Boarding northbound Caltrain at Palo Alto University Avenue station.

Some buses can hold three bikes (see Seattle and Silicon Valley). Highway 17 Express bus Santa Cruz bound at San Jose State University stop. Photos by Richard Masoner.

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