Extremely short Europe trip update

Here’s a photo of the main railway station in Bremen, Germany.

What do you think its size and design says about train travel in Germany?

And here’s a photo of the funicular from Como to Brunate, Italy.

We’re going up the “Small Alps,” that is, the short mountain range before you get to the shared Italian and Swiss Alps.

Friday, I try again

Because of severe weather delays in the Midwest (ice and fog), my plane to JFK from ORD arrived almost 4 hours later on Tuesday. That meant I missed to Rome Fiumicino before I even left Chicago.

In a situation like that, one’s options are poor and limited.

I much prefer Midway to O’Hare. Weather delays are less of an issue there (mainly because there’re fewer flights) and it is 4x closer to my house (in terms of time to get there).

I could choose to take my flight to JFK, arriving there about 10:30 PM (local time). I would then talk to the gate agent in JFK (which gate) or the ticketing agent and ask to be placed on standby for a flight to Rome. The Chicago gate agent was extremely helpful to me but would not place me on standby on any Rome-bound flight from JFK. When I introduced myself to him, he said he had called me on the PA once or twice (which I didn’t hear) seeing that I was not going to make my connection.

He explained there was not an open seat to Rome for days (he was telling the truth, according to the ticket counter agent). I decided that waiting in New York City was less preferable to waiting at home in Chicago. He had a ground worker pull my bag from “baggage system” (remember, the plane it would be loaded onto hadn’t arrived).

I told him I would attempt rebooking later.

I went to sit down in an empty gate and mulled my options. It was extremely difficult. My friend in Rome was expecting to meet me at Stazioni Termini di Roma at noon (local time). There’s no free wifi in O’Hare (nor Midway) so I couldn’t email him without paying $9 for the privilege – I’d have to wait until I got home. And I had no idea when I would be getting home.

I got my bag from the “lost bags area” near the baggage claim and headed up to the ticket counter. Wow, there was not a single person in line. Much different than 3 hours ago when I was in line for 30 minutes just to drop off my bag (I’ve since rearranged my bag situation so that I can just carry it on). The ticket counter agent (“Alexis” – not her real name) sighed many times during our conversation as she searched for an alternate itinerary. She complained several times that my fare class made this harder, as the airline limits the amount of seats available on an airplane in any fare class. She was still helpful and found a workable alternative for me. I told her I had to think about it.

I sat down and just stared at my calendar. How would this work? How is it interrupting my trip? In the end, I realized that the new trip meant I only had to skip Rome and that everything else was intact. I went back to see Alexis and she booked me on the flight. Done, and done.

Fast forward to Thursday. I’ve repacked my things, but this time into a rollaboard (roll on, whatever). I was able to put back some things I was going to leave (like my heavy SLR camera) because of the different luggage dimensions (I originally was taking a Jansport hiking backpack). I checked in for my flight, and Delta gave me the option of changing my flight plan (again) at no charge. Weird! So I found a better flight than Alexis booked me on. It goes through Atlanta instead of JFK but cuts my layover in half (now 3 hours instead of 6).

Looking at tomorrow’s weather forecast, it’s supposed to be snowing when I’m riding the Blue Line at 8 AM to ORD.

Please follow my Flickr for trip updates.

Note: This is an unedited chronology of events I experienced on Tuesday. It was one of the most stressful days I’ve encountered. I was at the airport for almost 5 hours, and, including transit time, away from home for 8 hours (getting nothing accomplished, it turned out!).

Olgivanna Lloyd Wright had the right idea

According to my tour guide at Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona, it was Frank Lloyd Wright’s third wife, Olgivanna, who suggested that he open a studio in a warmer state as a place to spend winter. (His winter studio is in Spring Green, Wisconsin.)

Looking north at the studio (left) and dorms (above).

Our wonderful tour guide. She graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

See more photos of my Thanksgiving trip to Arizona, including to the Grand Canyon National Park.

What are you thankful for about your city?

Aaron asks on Urbanophile, “What are you thankful for about your city?” His own answer was

I won’t pick just one city, but I’m thankful that across America, no matter how thriving or struggling the city, it always seem there are people passionately making it a better place. From Austin and Chicago to Detroit and Braddock and Buffalo, there’s a passionate generation of urbanist out there fighting the fight for their city. I shudder to think where we’d be without them. This gives me hope that more places that we think that are struggling are going to ultimately make a turnaround.

My answer

This is not really about my city, Chicago, but about all cities of a similar density: I appreciate that it does not take 25 minutes of driving to get to a store (of any type) or my friend’s house. In 25 minutes, I can ride my bike to 15 full-service grocery stores and 10 friends’ houses. And I can do it safely because the roads are narrow which helps keep traffic speeds are low.

The nearest Dominick’s finally installed a bike rack after having been without one since its opening over a decade ago and its renovation two years ago.

This is in contrast to where I spent Thanksgiving, in Mesa, Arizona. The road that connects my family’s house to the bank I needed to visit is 90 feet wide, having a speed limit of 45 MPH but a design limit of at least 60 MPH.

Draft letter to my Alderman about the TSA

To my readers: I am concerned about transportation security in the United States. I am concerned that it grossly oversteps boundaries erected by my rights as a citizen. I am concerned about the effectiveness of security theater. I want to travel without my naked body being viewed, or my clothed body being touched, by strangers at the airport.* I want my elected politicians to do something. The first is to consider our options.

Below is a draft letter to my most local elected official, the 11th Ward Alderman of Chicago. I’ll send this to him to his office at 3659 S Halsted Street after Thanksgiving week.

Do you have ideas for making it better? My opinion is at the end.

Dear Alderman Balcer,

I understand that airports in the United States can elect to remove the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and provide their passenger screening services.

You have probably heard that is widespread confusion, anger, and disgust at how some people passing through America’s airports are being treated. Many object to having strangers view them naked, and others are reporting feeling groped by strangers – all in the name of preventing terrorism. The federal Government Accountability Office reported that it could not confirm if the current “Advanced Imaging Technology” (AIT) machines (either backscatter x-ray or millimeter wave) would have detected the explosive material someone attempted to use around Christmas 2009.

I haven’t yet decided if I will include this photo of a sleeping TSA officer at Chicago’s Midway (MDW) airport in 2007. Photo by Erin Nekervis.

As the City of Chicago owns O’Hare and Midway Airports, the City Council has power and authority over their operations.

I urge you and your colleagues to investigate the effectiveness of the TSA’s AIT machines, their protection or lack of protection of Chicagoans’ privacy, the level of training each TSA worker receives, and the possibility of using different passenger screening techniques in the Chicago Airport System, without the aid of the TSA.

I have enclosed an article by the Toronto Star from December 30, 2009, that briefly explains how security works at airports in Israel, a country under daily threats of bombing, and real bombing, without the use of expensive and unexplained machinery.

Steven Vance
11th Ward Resident

*I really want some high-speed rail.

Addendum, 11/19/10: After reading how an airline pilot refused to have his body groped or viewed naked, and describing his experience with the TSA on a message board, I wanted to post the pilot’s comments (via Gizmodo):

Roberts’s reply: “If your perspective prevails [that Roberts’s actions had no effect in changing TSA policy] – and I’m afraid it may – we may all live to find ourselves wishing we had fought in earlier days, when we still had a fighting chance.”

This reminds me of the “If you’ve got nothing to hide, then why are you against it?” position. At the rate the TSA is removing rights protecting Americans from unreasonable searches (Fourth Amendment), I eventually won’t have anything to hide because I won’t be allowed to have anything – no water bottles, no 7 inches long bike tools, no shaving cream. This government, and many other governments, conducts intensive surveillance and collects godawful amounts of data. The government is not always benign, will share the data, and does a poor job of securing the data. I am not doing anything illegal, but that does not mean I want to share all of my activities with the government or the police.

Read more TSA horror stories, in this roundup from the UK-based Daily Mail.

New York City, a dreamland

Rather than write a lengthy post here describing my recent trip to New York City (I went in the last weekend of August), I will invite you to peruse my 50 photo gallery. They are in order by date and time taken and fully mapped and described.

I was last in New York City in August 2001, for the MacWorld Conference where I saw Steve Jobs announce the iPod – I got that iPod for Christmas that year. I stayed in Connecticut. The first day, my dad and I drove into the city. The next day we took Metro North from Bridgeport. The only thing I remember doing on that trip is taking the subway from the Javits Center to the Hard Rock Cafe and over to Grand Central Station.

I’ll describe my 2010 trip as a “whirlwind tour.” In three days I rode over 100 miles on a too-small borrowed bike. I met fourteen people. I went up and down the island four times. I wouldn’t shut up at work about it for a week.

The first photo in the set, about the typography of the New York City yellow cab system.

The last photo in the set, about pedestrian craziness in the segregated bike lanes.

Full photo set. The set is sure to grow, so stay tuned to my Flickr photostream or Twitter feed for updates.

It helps to be loud

When in New York City, be as loud as possible. You’re going to have to get someone’s attention.

My reflection in the shiny bell while riding through Central Park (on a roadway closed to cars – imagine that!).

The bike I borrowed and rode over 100 miles on in three days during my four day trip to New York City this past weekend came without a bell (it’s required by law). I headed over to a store that sells Dutch bikes (where else?) to buy a pretty and loud bell.

After I installed this $8 beauty on my Trek Something Undersized, I couldn’t stop ringing it. For fun and for warning others.

People getting around this city are insane. I think that’s because there’re so many people going every which way, insanity is the only way to cope.

Looking through photos of other huge (by population) cities around the globe, it seems a similar transportational insanity exists. Think of the thousands of motorcycles and jitneys in Delhi, India, or the 1,000 people who cross this intersection in Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan.

Delhi, India, traffic by Chris Brunn.

Pedestrian crossing in Shibuya district of Toky, Japan, by Pasutadoll Pseangsong.

I saw all the movie and photo shoots in New York City

New York City doesn’t need Google Street View.

Every street has been captured at some time or another in a shoot for photos, music videos, or movies.

Two simultaneous photo shoots. I couldn’t tell if they were related. The one on the right might be pointed in the wrong direction and feature the people in the left. Right above this was a movie shoot on the High Line.

I saw one movie shoot, five photo shoots, and this music video shoot all while riding and walking around New York City. Just in three days!

A rap music video shot across the street from Recycle-A-Bicycle.

Everything in New York City is normal.

Travel grief

I came back to Chicago today after a trip to New York City.

The first thing I did when I arrived was imagine all the things that I want to change based on what I saw and learned in New York City. Someone told me this is travel grief, states of emotion and motivation in order to effect change.

What was the first thing I saw?

The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) has three types of ticket vending machines (TVM) in the O’Hare Blue Line station. One is the common TVM that can create cards with cash value, add value to existing cards, or add value to Chicago Cards (with cash). The second TVM did all of this and accepted credit cards. The third TVM issued single or multi-day passes (I don’t remember if it took credit cards).

The vending machines in the New York City subway perform the functions of all CTA three machines AND all accept credit cards. Since 1999.

There’s more. I tried to keep a list. As I process my 500+ photos, I’ll be reminded of the ones I forgot to write down.

Can we use location-based services to make urban planning “rise”?

Facebook launched a feature called Places that allows its users to “check in” to Places and to see where their friends are. People can also see where the most popular venue is at any given time (provided they have friends there).

SeeClickFix has mobile apps (and a website) that enables users (in participating locales) to report issues (like graffiti and potholes) in their neighborhoods.

Augmented reality apps for smartphones overlay the virtual world (of yellow pages and restaurant reviews) on the physical world depending on where you point your phone’s camera.

Is there something (an app, a concept, a teaching) that we can develop that uses these apps or the same technology to raise awareness of “urban planning” in all of our cities’ citizens? Such a scheme would attempt to educate and involve more people into the city’s social, cultural and built environments, the urban fabric (buzzword alert!), as well as the history of their surroundings.

Possible scenarios

1. While riding the train through a neighborhood, the new location-based service that encompasses everything about urban planning might aggregate information relevant to the location and activity. Perhaps the application would display to the user information about the history of this particular elevated train’s construction on this branch as well as pull up information on upcoming schedule changes. Lastly, the transit operator may ask the user to take a survey about this particular trip, looking for information on how the user accessed the station (via bike, walking, car, or bus?).

2. My friend Brandon Souba created a proof-of-concept app called Handshake that tells you about nearby app users with similar interests. But this hardly raises civic or urban awareness. Maybe non-profit organizations who need volunteers could create profiles in Handshake and when you’re near a staff member or the headquarters, your phone alerts you to a possible volunteer opportunity.

3. What are your ideas?

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