Category: Transit

Metra is confusing, part 57 – Boarding trains at low-use stations

Of the many things Metra does to discourage ridership, here’s a new one to me: You go up to the platform towards your destination and there’s a sign that says “your train might actually stop at the other platform, which is entered from the other side of the street”.

I was with two friends and we were planning to board a Metra UP-West train to Geneva, Illinois, to start a bike ride on the Fox River Trail.

What the sign actually says, as you can see in the photo, is “Notice! Some trains from Chicago board from opposite platform”, but I think my interpretation is accurate.

The sign at the station increases stress. It would be slightly more helpful if there was another sign that said which trains this situation would apply to.

We brought our bikes up to the platform that was labeled “trains from Chicago”, which Metra has labeled “Platform 2”. Union Pacific, which runs their freight trains and operates Metra’s trains, is a left-running railroad in Chicago, meaning trains run on the left track in the direction of travel.

A minute after we settled in to wait 10 minutes for the train, we noticed the sign. A freight train started down this track, and we’re wondering, “is this freight train the clearest indication that we should head now to the other platform?”

We even tried to deduce which track the outbound train would run on by watching signals (one will eventually turn green).

The container freight train passed our platform, preventing a Metra train from arriving there. But maybe the freight train would clear the tracks soon enough for the outbound Metra train to stop here?

When it looked like the freight train wasn’t gonna clear the track in time, we moved to the other platform. It’s good we did. About 1 or 2 minutes before the train arrived, an announcement confirmed our choice of platforms. Phew!

What made this maneuver of ours between platforms complicated was that we had bikes and it takes an extra moment to carry them down and back up stairs.

While the Metra approached and started slowing down, there was just the slightest fear it wasn’t actually going to stop. The train had more coaches than necessary for the demand and only the last car opened. So you watch like 7 coaches pass by.

This being the Kedzie station on UP-West, we were probably three of 10 riders here this whole week. In the current schedule, only 41 percent of the weekday trains stop here.

The announcement of the boarding platform was hard to hear over the freight train noise, the platform identification sign for “Platform 1” – the middle platform – took a moment to see and verify. But, and here’s the clincher to this part of the story, the announcement didn’t come with enough slack for us to have “run” over to the correct platform – with our bikes – and not feel stressed about what should be a seamless ride-up-to-the-platform-and-board start to the trip.

Photo from “Platform 1” (a center platform) with our arriving Metra train on the left and the freight train that ended up stopping in front of the original platform we ascended.

We took the last outbound train of the morning that stops at Kedzie to Geneva. Then we biked south on the beautiful Fox River Trail to Aurora. We missed the train and didn’t want to wait 2 hours (😬) for the next one so we biked northeast to Wheaton along the Illinois Prairie Path’s Aurora Branch and made it on that inbound train just in time to go home.

A map of our journey shows the 25 mile bike route from Geneva to Aurora via the Fox River Trail (cycling mostly on the west bank), and from Aurora to Wheaton via the Illinois Prairie Path’s Aurora Branch. Interurban trains used to run along both trails.

We saw a new piece of “regional” infrastructure on our trip, a new pedestrian and bike bridge over the Fox River in Aurora, Illinois. The verdict on their brand new pedestrian & bike bridge is…it’s very cool. I wish it had greenery, though.

The brand new Riveredge Park Pedestrian Bridge was opened on June 11, 2021.

The bridge is characterized by a large, central, vertical concrete beam that provides the structural spans. At the ends of the bridge, the beam separates the walking and biking paths, but at the center the decks rise up while the beam appears to drop down and there’s an open and combined deck at the center. The deck is also widened at the center so that there’s some gathering space outside of the paths of travel.

The deck rises up and the center structural beam appears to drop down as you reach the center of the span. The dropped beam creates some bench seating. The center seam is for illuminating the space above the bridge. Behind the photographer is an opening between the center beam to create a gathering space and a crossover point.

How to bike out to the Fox River Trolley Museum

Visiting the Fox River Trolley Museum is a fun day trip for anyone who likes Chicago train history or trolleys and streetcars generally. The FRTM is free to browse, and rides cost $5 each or pay $8 for unlimited rides (adult prices).

A Chicago Aurora and Elgin interurban electric train
Decades ago, it was possible to ride this Chicago Aurora & Elgin train all the way Batavia, Illinois, from Chicago. The CA&E’s former right of way is now the Illinois Prairie Path, the first rails-to-trails project in the United States.

The museum is not accessible to people with disabilities. It’s open Sundays from May to October and some holidays (check their calendar). The museum has two portable restrooms, but I recommend using the permanent and spacious ones in County Park.

Trip option 1, the short and direct option: Take Metra’s MD-West line to National Street and bike 15 minutes south along the Fox River Trail. The trail passes County Park, where there’s a playground, restrooms, and bike parking. Lock your bike here and walk on the gravel path from the park to the outdoor museum.

Trip option 2a, the really convenient option: Have a friend who loves planning multi-modal bike trips dig into the Metra schedules and send calendar invitations to everyone in the group so there’s great expectations as to when and where the trip starts and ends. Thank you, D.S.!

Trip option 2b, the longer one that incorporates more cycling: Take Metra’s BNSF line to Aurora Transportation Center (ATC). The BNSF line has Metra’s new bike cars on specific runs (check the schedules). This is important because it means you can bike with a larger group of people than before since your group’s size is less subject to capacity constraints for bikes on standard Metra trains – without bike cars – and unpredictable directions from Metra conductors. Additionally, on standard Metra trains, the posted bike capacity may be inaccurate if the conductors have not opened all of the coaches.

This is the bike car on Metra's BNSF line, at the Aurora Transportation Center
This is the bike car on Metra’s BNSF line, at the Aurora Transportation Center.

After disembarking at the ATC, ride to the north side of the center towards the river and use the signalized intersection to cross the high-speed road to the Fox River Trail. From here on out you’ll be following the FRT northward via its off-street and on-street sections. The trail is mostly off-street, so that’s fun, and it’s nice to have so much shade.

You can basically just bike north and follow the FRT signs but you may want to review a trail map ahead of time because it’s often possible to bike on either side of the Fox River and there are advantages to riding on one side over the other in some segments. For example, from downtown Batavia north to Fabyan Villa, I prefer the west side. At Fabyan Villa you’ll have to switch to the east side.

From Aurora, look for FRT direction signs that say “Batavia”, and then “Geneva”, and then “St. Charles”, and finally “South Elgin”. I believe the only option for cycling through downtown St. Charles is on-street, and there are some hills on its FRT street sections so be prepared or look for an alternative route.

This is as good a point as any to mention that you could shorten the bike trip by taking Metra’s UP-West line to Geneva, which is north of Aurora, and heading on downhill streets to the riverfront and crossing the pedestrian bridge underneath the Metra tracks to join the Fox River Trail on the east side to head north.

My two friends and I ate at Flagship on the Fox, an American restaurant and pub with seating indoors, on a covered patio, and outdoors. The Flagship Burger, with onion rings, avocado, bacon, and white cheddar cheese was delicious. Next door is Pollyanna Brewing Company, but which doesn’t sell food.

A lot of the FRT follows the old Aurora, Elgin and Fox River electric railway line! Can you believe that there used to be interurban trains running up and down the Fox River connecting the towns there (which I mentioned above)?

The Aurora, Elgin & Fox River Electric was an interurban offering both freight and passenger service between Yorkville and Carpenter, Illinois. Operations began as early as 1895 and closely followed the Fox River for its entire route. It underwent several mergers and names over its lifetime before eventually becoming 40 miles in length and operating two streetcar services in Aurora and Elgin.

As with most interurbans, the AE&FR was overtaken by buses and the automobile, and passenger service was discontinued in 1935. Freight service continued along portions of the route up until 1972.

AbandonedRails.com

The AE&FR ran on the Fox River’s west bank from Aurora to St. Charles, where it switched to the east bank. On approach to South Elgin, however, and due to a big bend in the Fox River, it kept going straight and found itself on the west bank again.

A bend in the Fox River moves the AE&FR interurban line from the east bank to the west bank again.
The former AE&FR bridge crossing the bend in the Fox River is now part of the Fox River Trail. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

A minute or two after crossing the bend in the Fox River on the former interurban’s bridge, you’ll encounter the southern end of the Fox River Trolley Museum’s demonstration track. Less than 10 minutes later and you’ll be arriving at County Park where I recommend parking your bike.

What’s the timing on this? I don’t know. My friends and I took our time cycling and stopping for photos and eating. The relaxed riding nearly prevented us from being able to ride a trolley. The museum runs a trolley once an hour every hour, and we arrived a few minutes after the most recent trolley left the station. We needed to be in Elgin to ride Metra’s MD-West line back to Chicago at 15:55, and the next full ride would take so long that we would miss that train, and since it’s Sunday, it’s safe to assume that the next Metra train runs two hours later.

The volunteer staff at the museum were sympathetic to our case and created a special charter for just the three of us! The two operators and an apprentice took us on a shortened journey down the line, from Castlemuir (the home station) to a switching yard of sorts halfway down the line. The yard is where trains could be rerouted to a track that joined up with former Illinois Central tracks going east-west.

Our motley crew. Eric captioned this, “NBD just a private excursion along the Fox River in an old North Shore Line car!” Photo taken by one of the qualified train operators.

We rode the former North Shore Line car 715. This car used to run between Chicago and several cities along the North Shore, including Evanston and Willmette (where the Chicago Transit Authority’s Purple Line runs now), Skokie (where the CTA’s Yellow Line runs), and further north to Milwaukee. Check out the North Shore Line’s route map on the Northwestern University Transportation Library’s website.

Former North Shore Line car 715 at the Fox River Trolley Museum

You would have also seen car 715 running around the Chicago elevated loop, and making stops at the existing Belmont and Wilson elevated stations (although both of those have been replaced and tracks re-aligned for slightly faster service).

Once you’re done enjoying the historic trains at the FRTM, get back on the Metra and go home. Check out Elgin’s riverfront if you have to wait, and there are restaurants in downtown Elgin.

Elgin, Illinois, riverfront

Chicago’s Lake Street ‘L’ was originally supposed to be a monorail

I bought a copy of The “L”: The Development of Chicago’s Rapid Transit System, 1888-1932, written by Bruce Moffat, a historian of electric trains in Chicago. Moffat currently works for the Chicago Transit Authority. (If there wasn’t a pandemic, you’d be able to request a hold on one of the 50 copies at the Chicago Public Library.)

The book is about the elevated trains that were built in Chicago, in competition with the street omnibuses (horse drawn), railways (cable cars and streetcars), and suburban trains (okay, some competition), prior to establishing the Chicago Transit Authority. The CTA is a State of Illinois authority, created by the legislature, that today owns and operates all of the historic and since-built elevated, subway, and at-grade ‘L’ transit as well as buses. It acquired all of the assets of all of the ‘L’, streetcar, and bus companies that were operating when it was established in 1945.

On with the story!

Back in December 1888, the Chicago City Council approved a franchise for the Lake Street Elevated Company to build a Meigs Elevated Railway above Lake Street from Canal Street to 40th Avenue (later named Crawford and now Pulaski Road), then the western border of Chicago. A tract of land west of 40th Avenue (Pulaski Road) was incorporated into the City of Chicago four months later on April 29, 1889.

If you go to the intersection of Canal and Lake Streets today you’ll see the Union Pacific railroad tracks above, heading into and out of Ogilvie Transportation Center, a skyscraper at 444 W Lake Street, a cigar store, and a vintage loft office building.

The Meigs Elevated Railway was a steam-powered elevated monorail – meaning each track had one rail to support a train.

You may not know this: I love monorails. When my family visited Walt Disney World my favorite ride was the inter-park and world famous monorail. I’ve also ridden the monorails in Disneyland (but I don’t remember my time there), Las Vegas, Seattle, Düsseldorf airport, Wuppertal, and three in Tokyo, Japan (Chiba City, Shonan, and Haneda airport; I missed the one in Tama).

I used to be obsessed with monorails. I became a member of The Monorail Society when I was a teenager and my first eBay purchase was a Disney monorail motorized toy in March 2000. I was jealous of my friends in elementary school who had a Lego monorail, and now they regularly sell for $200. I also built a SAFEGE-style monorail out of K’NEX in high school.

Drawing of the Meigs Elevated Railway monorail.
A drawing of the Meigs Elevated Railway monorail, originally published in Scientific American, July 10, 1886. Via Wikipedia; also printed in Moffat’s book where it is sourced from Railway Age, a trade journal founded in 1856 that still exists today.

It was invented by Josiah V. Meigs in Cambridge, Massachusetts; a 227-foot long demonstration line was built in 1886 on land that is now a Fairfield Inn hotel and before that was the Genoa Packing Co. (demolished in 2013).

The Meigs Elevated Railway Wikipedia article has two photos of a plaque that was on the exterior wall of the Genoa Packing Co. The new hotel building does not have the same plaque.

The Lake Street Elevated Company organizers (seven incorporators are listed in the book) hired Morris H. Alberger to be the president. According to Moffat’s book, “Alberger had convinced his fellow directors that their railroad should use an experimental and relatively complex elevated railway system developed by Joe V. Meigs”. Alberger was also the president of the Meigs Elevated Railway Company.

Moffat discusses an eighth company organizer: Michael Cassius McDonald, “politically well connected and influential”. He was the “chief sponsor” and “promoter” of the Lake Street elevated proposal which came to be known as “Mike’s Upstairs Railroad”.

The Meigs Electric Railway – the monorail – was never built. Moffat says that the reason the monorail was never built was because it was difficult to promote and raised funds by selling shares.

Almost a year after City Council approved the MER to run over Lake Street, they “deleted the Meigs requirement” in November 1890 so that the Lake Street Elevated Company could build a traditional iron structure. The trains would also be “traditional”. (The first elevated train started running in Manhattan and the Bronx on August 26, 1878 – that was the Third Avenue Elevated – ten years prior to the Meigs monorail being approved in Chicago.)

Even before City Council “deleted” the franchise’s requirement to build a monorail, the Lake Street Elevated Company had already started building the iron structure for a train in December 1889, at Lake and Clinton Streets, where the Clinton Green Line station is now.

That’s the end of the story for the monorail, but I’ll continue talking about the Lake Street ‘L’.

The Lake Street Elevated opens!

Construction had reached “just west of Ashland Avenue” by October 1892, less than three years after the first iron girder was erected at Clinton. A year after that last construction milestone at Ashland, the tracks for service were completed to California Avenue (2800 West).

The Lake Street Elevated Company’s first service was set to begin on October 30, 1893. The opening was delayed, however, until an inauguration on Saturday, November 4, 1893, to mourn the death of Mayor Carter Harrison, who was assassinated during his fifth term. Passenger service began two days later on Monday, November 6, 1893.

Service was extended into the Loop elevated tracks in 1895.

Map of the Lake Street Elevated, from Market Street (now Wacker Drive) to Harlem Avenue and South Boulevard.
Map of the Lake Street Elevated, from Market Street (now Wacker Drive) to Harlem Avenue and South Boulevard.

Heading closer to downtown Chicago

In early 1893, the Lake Street Elevated Company wanted to run their trains down Market Street (now Wacker Drive) from Lake Street to Madison Street.

Photograph showing the elevated stub track on Market Street. The view is looking east along Lake Street at Market Street, where the elevated train would turn south.
Photograph showing the elevated stub track on Market Street. The view is looking east along Lake Street at Market Street, where the elevated train would turn south. Photo taken by a Chicago Daily News, Inc., photographer in 1908. The caption in the Explore Chicago Collections database says,

The Market Street “stub” ran past the future site of the Civic Opera Building, opened in November 1929. Operagoers and workers in the office tower of the building would have ridden the ‘L’ here until the Chicago Transit Authority

The Lake Street Elevated’s Market Street stub terminated at Madison Street. The Civic Opera Building is on the left. Image is from the CTA’s collection. Market Street was renamed Wacker Drive when the street was reconstructed as a double decker street starting in 1948.

Extending further into the Garfield Park neighborhood

Tracks were built six blocks west of California Avenue, to Homan Avenue, but the stations were incomplete. Service to the Homan station started November 24, 1893, and four blocks further west to Hamlin Avenue in January 1894.

The Homan Avenue station no longer exists. Today’s Green Line over Lake Street was rebuilt from 1994 to 1996 and the Homan station was abandoned. According to Chicago “L”.org, the CTA decided to move the station two blocks west to Central Park Drive (3600 West). It was “completely deconstructed in spring of 2000 and put into storage”. It was renovated, made accessible, and opened as the Conservatory-Central Park Drive station in June 2001.

Chicago “L”.org notes that this visitors access to the Garfield Park Conservatory, evens out stop spacing, but does not intersect a bus route which Homan Ave does. The CTA closed Hamlin station on March 18, 1956. I don’t know when it was demolished.

Onward, to Austin and Oak Park!

Back to the Lake Street elevated timeline. Serviced operated to Hamlin Avenue in 1894. The next year it was operating to 52nd Avenue (now Laramie Avenue), the western boundary of Chicago. On the other side of that boundary was the Township of Cicero. Austin, a township neighborhood, was annexed by Chicago in 1899. The Village of Oak Park eventually emerged from the township, incorporating in 1902.

Austin was location of Cicero’s town hall. The town hall building, at the Central and Lake station, is now part of the Austin Town Hall Park and Cultural Center, owned and operated by the Chicago Park District.

Austin Town Hall in Chicago, Illinois
Austin Town Hall, the former town hall of the Township of Cicero. Photo taken in 2019 by Eric Allix Rogers.

Moffat’s book describes a lot of political controversy about extending the Lake Street Elevated into Cicero, which seems fitting for the Chicago region. Passenger service to Austin Avenue (now Boulevard) started April 19, 1899.

The next month, on May 14, 1889, trains that ran east-west above Lake Street came down a ramp – to the surface – onto north-south Lombard Avenue a couple of blocks south to Randolph Street. They turned west onto Randolph Street and continued until Wisconsin Avenue/Marion Street. The tracks on Randolph Street were in the middle of the street, and owned by Suburban Railroad, an interurban railway company.

The tracks were previously owned by Chicago, Harlem & Batavia Railway. I’m including that information because I grew up there. However, the railroad never made it that far: “No effort was made to extend the railroad to that distance place, but money was spent to purchase new locomotives and passenger cars and make other improvements.”

Residents here had the option of taking trains into downtown Chicago on the Chicago & Northwestern Railway. Those tracks are now owned by Union Pacific, which also operates the former C&NW lines as Metra’s UP-West Line. The line terminates at Ogilvie Transportation Center, which used to be called Northwestern Station, which was C&NW’s second location for their downtown terminal.

Moffat discussed these passengers’ choices, writing, “Although a ride on the nearby Chicago & Northwestern was faster, the “L’s” more frequent schedule, convenient Loop stops, and lower fare drew many riders away from the steam railroad”. The same is true today; the ‘L’ costs less than Metra but takes longer to reach the West Loop.

The story about the construction and operation of the Lake Street Elevated is almost done. I’m going to end it as soon as the train reaches the current terminus at Harlem Avenue in Oak Park.

Service to Marion Street started in late January 1901, on the street level of South Boulevard, thus ending service on Randolph Street a few blocks south. Trains started servicing the Harlem station on May 20, 1910. Remember that the reason the trains are now on South Boulevard is because Lake Street runs with a slight northwest diagonal, ends at the Chicago & Northwestern Railway embankment, and resumes a few blocks west. In 1961, the line was elevated onto C&NW’s embankment.

Even though the station is currently called “Harlem/Lake”, the station is at Harlem/South Boulevard, and Lake Street is one block north.


N.B.

Meigs’s railway was mentioned in an op-ed in the Boston Globe Magazine on Sunday, February 23, 1992, as the newspapers’s architecture critic, Robert Campbell, and Peter Vanderwarker, an architectural historian, lamented the towering car infrastructure proposed in the Central Artery/Tunnel Project (also known as “Big Dig”, the most expensive highway construction in the country), as well as the darkening effect of the elevated trains. It’s really quite an essay.

The op-ed in the Boston Globe Magazine, 2/23/1992

But competition was vicious. Arson and vandalism hampered Meigs, as did his insistence on old-fashioned steam power instead of electricity. Nothing besides the Cambridge test line was ever built. The Meigs monorail made its last run in 1894. Conventional elevated trains, modeled on those of Manhattan and far more massive than Meigs’, soon darkened Boston’s streets.

[snipped]

By the end of this decade, the view will have changed radically. A dramatic Babel of steel and concrete, perhaps resembling a great sports stadium, will rise like a gray mountain in the middle distance at the left of the photo. The introverted automobile will have won its long battle for supremacy over the sociable train.

“MEIGS ELEVATED RAILWAY – Changing TRACKS”, By Robert Campbell and Peter Vanderwarker

Meigs Field, a former airport in downtown Chicago that existed between 1948 and 2003, was named after Merrill C. Meigs, a pilot and former head of the Chicago Aero Commission. He believed that Chicago needed a third airport, within 10 minutes of downtown. The airport was built and named after Meigs in 1949. I haven’t found a relationship between the two Meigs.

Damn, Metra is expensive

tl;dr: Metra costs nearly twice as much for the same trip

I went to Pullman today for a preservation organization’s task force meeting hosted by Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives. Their office is in this weird US Bank office high-rise surrounded by open space, a golf course, warehouses, and an interstate.

There are many ways to get there. Some people drove their own cars from nearby neighborhoods, others shared a ride hail car, and I and at least one other person rode Metra, the region’s commuter rail service.

The Metra Electric District line has fast service between its downtown terminal at Millennium Station and 111th Street (Pullman), scheduled for a 36 minute run. The MED is Metra’s most regional rail-like service, with several electric train services per hour during some hours.

I rode a Divvy shared bike from the station nearest my office (300 feet away) to Millennium Station – in order to get to the station faster – and boarded the Metra about five minutes before it departed.

Us Bank tower in Pullman

Taking CTA, a separate transit operator in Chicagoland, is also an option. I could have taken CTA from my office at Madison/Wells to CNI’s office in the high-rise with less than 3/5th of a mile walking. Google Maps predicts that this trip would have taken 1:06 (one hour and six minutes). It would have cost $2.75 ($2.50+25 cents transfer)

Metra, on the other hand, excluding the marginal cost of my Divvy ride because I have a $99 annual membership that nets me unlimited free rides of up to 45 minutes, took 56 minutes (5 on bike, 36 on train, 15 on foot) and cost $5.25.

A 14 percent shorter trip via Metra cost me 90 percent more. If I wanted to have saved the 15 minute walking trip and taken a CTA bus, that would have been an extra $2.25. CTA and Metra do not have integrated fares ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle and the Cook County Government is trying to do something about the price differential, and reduce the prices on the faster (and more comfortable) Metra rides. Mayor Lori Lightfoot is blocking it. Go figure.

Update, February 16, 2021:

How much of the land within walking distance of a CTA station is zoned to allow multi-family housing?

I recently created the Zoning Assessment tool on Chicago Cityscape, which shows a map of aggregated zoning districts in a given community area, ward, or near a CTA or Metra station. Per Paul Angelone’s suggestion, you can now show the walk shed – the area within walking distance to the station, following the streets.

The maps in this post show where one can build apartments (including a simple and common two-flat) within a 15 minute walk to the Logan Square Blue Line station, which has 24-hour service. Try it yourself.

Thirty-one percent of the walk shed allows multi-family housing.

In a second version of the same map, I’ve marked in red the gaps in the zoning map. These are areas that are zoned to allow only single-family housing. That doesn’t make sense: The land near rapid transit stations should be much denser than the land away from the stations.

Sixty-four percent of the walk shed allows only single-family housing. The remaining five percent are planned developments (at least the Mega Mall is going to have a couple hundred dwelling units), manufacturing, and parks.

And if most of the block is already zoned to allow multi-family housing, why are these parcels skipped?

This is the same map as the one above, but with areas that allow only single-family housing marked in red (however, I skipped some areas to save myself time).

How it works
The walk shed boundaries are generated by Mapzen’s isochrone service. The Zoning Assessment map asks Mapzen for the polygon of a specified walk shed (walk or bike, 10 or 15 minutes), receives the polygon and sends that polygon to a custom API on the Cityscape server, which compares that to the server’s copy of Chicago’s latest zoning map. The comparison is then returned to the browser and replaces the default Zoning Assessment map.

The on-time trains and wonderful transit workers of Japan

I’m watching this mini-doc about the Tokyo Metro subway and they focus on customer service for a few minutes. They don’t explain why there’s a need to have so many staff at each station dedicated to customer service, aside from the plethora of passengers. I think one of the reasons is that the system is so vast and complex that so many people always have questions. Indeed I saw many Japanese confused or looking for where to go.

I experienced some of this great customer service myself. (In the video, skip to 14:00 to watch the segment on customer service training.)

I was at Ōmiya station in Saitama prefecture, north of Tokyo, and I wanted to ride the New Shuttle a short distance from Omiya to Tetsudō-Hakubutsukan to visit the Railway Museum, but I first wanted to get a “Suica” reloadable smart card so I didn’t have to keep buying single-ride tickets.

The scene outside Ōmiya station is a lot of mixed-use and malls

Oddly I noticed at least five different kinds of ticket vending machines at different stations. They all will display in English, and a sign above each lists some of its functions. There are many overlapping machines. After I tried to buy one with one machine I asked a worker how I can buy a Suica card.

Ōmiya station (JR side)

He didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Japanese but his colleague understood my unaccented pronunciation of Suica, and informed him what I was looking for.

People wait in prescribed queues for the New Shuttle

It turns out that the machines at the New Shuttle “side” (more on this later) of the Omiya station don’t sell new Suica cards. The man walked me over to the JR side of the station and introduced me and my problem to a Japan Railways East worker. This second man spoke English and guided me through buying a personalized Suica card; a card with my name printed on it.

What was impressive was that the first man walked with me 570 feet away to the other side of the station, where he doesn’t work, instead of trying to point me in a direction. Even if he could verbally describe where I should go, that still wouldn’t solve my problem of obtaining a card because I would still probably have to ask someone else.

My personal Suica card for transit and convenience stores in Japan

This wasn’t unique in being “walked” to a destination. The next day in Chiba I bought a bento box “lunch set” (complete meal with veggies, meat, and rice) in the food hall of the Sogo department store, where there are dozens of independent shops selling fresh food.

After I bought the food I wanted to know where there was a place to eat it. Again, I didn’t speak Japanese and the woman who sold me the food didn’t speak English. I mimed my problem, by looking around, pointing, and making an eating motion. She nodded and walked me over to a small eating area at the edge of the food hall.

In Taiwan my host advised me that this would happen, and she also said to not hesitate asking someone for help. It happened one time in Taipei, but I don’t remember the circumstances. In a separate and similar occasion, however, a worker at the Taipei Discovery Center (which is similar to the city gallery in Singapore, Hong Kong, and many cities in China) approached me while I studied an exhibit. He talked to me about Taipei history, what I had seen so far during my visit (nothing, as this was my first stop on day one), what I planned to see (a lot), and then recommended more things for me to see (I checked out a couple things).

Station sides

I measured the 570 distance the New Shuttle worker walked with me to introduce me to a JR East worker who showed me how to buy a Suica card. Transit in Japan is privately operated and New Shuttle is one company (Saitama New Urban Transit Co., Ltd.) that operates one part of a station, and JR East operates the majority of the station. Tobu Railway also operates the station because it terminates a single commuter line here. Depending on how you look at it they are separate buildings but when you’re inside transferring from one to another there’s no distinction; the building connections are seamless.

Looking back on my winter holiday in Europe two months ago

A pretty tram in Budapest

A tram travels along the Danube river in Budapest, Hungary

I’ve posted a few articles about my trip to four countries in Europe over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, so this is purely a recap to link to them.

I visited Germany, Hungary, Netherlands, Germany again, and Switzerland. It was a multimodal trip by train and plane, and some local transit buses. There are hundreds of captioned photos on my Flickr, but check out these three articles:

  • Five common “best practices” that every city with a high-use transit system in Europe has that the transit agencies in Chicagoland should adopt.
  • Day 1 in Switzerland on Mapzen’s Transitland blog – I discuss how amazingly interconnected Swiss public transport systems are, and how their single schedule data source makes it possible to get a route for a journey from Zürich to the top of a nearby mountain via four modes of public transport.
  • Day 2 in Switzerland where I spent a lot of time riding trams, buses, funiculars, and a cog railway to get around Zürich and visit a couple of museums.

 

Day two in Zurich: Combine transit and museums on a single pass

Zurich, Switzerland

I was taking pictures of the tram and when I got home I saw that all three people were staring at my camera. At Bellevue in Zurich.

The post for day 1, Friday, when I went to Mount Rigi, hasn’t been written yet. 

Today was a busy day, which is expected when you travel Steven Vance-style: efficiently (meaning you see a lot of stuff without wasting any time), alone, with a very good sense of what you want to do, where they are, and how you’ll get around.

I’m staying at Hotel Bristol, which came up in an Orbitz search as being a decent place less than $100 per night – that’s hard in Zurich, and even harder if you want a place near the Hauptbahnhof (Hbf). I knew that’s where I would be coming and going a few times to get to Lucerne, the mountains, or to buy cheap (relatively) dinner.

This morning, after eating a continental breakfast in the hotel, I walked a couple of blocks from the hotel to the Hbf – I’m measuring blocks in a Chicago-sense. It was about 4-5 minutes to the nearest station entrance to buy the ZurichCard.

Getting the card was a no-brainer because for 24 CHF (Swiss Francs, about $25) you get a 24-hour public transit card and free entry to dozens of museums. It includes the city zone and the adjacent zones, including the airport. I have to leave for the airport tomorrow by 10 AM and I validated the card at 11 AM so I’m covered there.

After checking out and riding the city’s two funiculars and single rack railway, I visited the tram museum and national museum (Landesmuseum). Add to that the dozens of trams and buses I rode to reach the hill transport and two museums.

Consider that the cost of the train to the airport is 6.40 CHF, the tram museum is 12 CHF, and the Landesmuseum charges 10 CHF, I’d say I got more than my money’s worth.

What’s really great about the ZurichCard is that you can purchase it at any of ticket vending machine, including the ones labeled “SBB CFF FFS”* that also sell national railway and supra-regional tickets. You have to remember to validate the card right before your first use, either at a ZVV (Zurich regional public transport union) ticket vending machine.

My first transit trip this morning was on a fantastic double-articulated bus. That means it has three sections with five doors! These buses are only used on routes 31 and 33 in the city center, and they’re electric and silent, running on overhead trolley wire. The bus has the same priority and comfort as a tram, and multiple screens attached to the ceiling showing the next stop and its connections (transfers).

Zurich, Switzerland

The front two sections of a bi-articulated bus. It’s normally not possible to bring a bike on a bus or tram in Europe, except when the bus has been specially outfitted for the bike to be on the inside. Buses in Europe aren’t allowed to have bike racks on the front.

The tram system in the city center is the perfect complement and support for having so little driving here. Some of the streets restrict driving, and other streets have only a single lane in one direction, or just two lanes, one in each direction. Many of the major intersections within a mile of the Hbf surprisingly have no traffic controls.

Trams and buses load and unload passengers very fast because you can board through any door. “Winter mode” is enabled on many of the vehicles to keep passengers already on board more comfortable by opening doors at the stop only upon request (you push a button on the door).

Streetfilms published a video in 2014 discussing how the city administration has capped the number of parking spaces across the city: if a new parking space is built, a parking space has to be removed in the city center.

Driving in the city center is thus primarily for leaving your parking space for elsewhere in the city or region, or the reverse. Trips are extremely convenient by tram or trolley bus.

Motorists are obliged to stop for people who want to cross the road in zebra crossings, and trams which are turning across the lanes. Then, unless a road sign or marking dictates the priority of a lane, the rule “yield to the motorist on your right” reigns.

I never waited more than 7 minutes for a tram (I know because the countdown signs never exceeded 7 minutes for the route I was going to ride) and the average was probably closer to 4 minutes. It seems that a majority of the time trams run in exclusive right of way and traffic signals are set up to prioritize their movement.

Transit signal priority isn’t a given in all cities with trams; in Amsterdam and Budapest it seemed the tram waited just as long for a “green” light as adjacent, same-direction motorists did.

At the tram museum I talked to a staffer there who was pointing out features in a model created by a city task force which was investigating a potential U-bahn (underground) system for Zurich. He said that a couple of years ago the museum hosted an event to talk about whether the city was better off without the system.

The consensus amongst the attendees was that the city was indeed better off without a subway because the trams have a higher frequency than what the subway would have had. Another point made was that the connections between trams are easier and faster than between other modes.

Nevertheless, a few underground stations were built, but they aren’t subways. Two tracks, 21 and 22, carry the two routes of the Sihltal Zürich Uetliberg Bahn (SZU), One goes up the Uetliberg mountain in the city and the other serves the Sihl valley suburbs. There are also three underground tram stations away from the city center on line 7.

Traffic on the local transit was lighter than yesterday. Many riders I saw today were headed to a hill to go sledding. It might also be a coincidence that I rode all three hill-climbing funicular and rack railway lines, as well as the train that goes up “Mount Zurich” (870 meters; its real name is Uetliberg).

The Dolderbahn heads up the hill from Romerhof to the Dolder recreation area. At least half of the passengers today were children going with their parents and friends to sled down a hill there.

The Dolderbahn is a rack (cog) railway that heads up the Adlisberg mountain from Römerhof to the Dolder recreation area. At least half of the passengers today were children going with their parents and friends to sled down a hill there.

The last word on Zurich: It’s very expensive to eat here. I paid 11.50 CHF (about the same in USD) for a “döner box” which is something I paid about $5 in Rotterdam. A döner box is fast food. The cheap beer that went along with it was $5, which I could probably get for less than $2 in Rotterdam.

* “SBB CFF FFS” is a set of three acronyms that when expanded mean “Swiss Federal Railways” in German, French, and Italian, respectively. It’s normally abbreviated to SBB – German is the most commonly spoken language in Switzerland. Each of the acronyms plus dot “ch” has its own website that loads the organization’s website in the respective language.

The U.S. DOT should collaborate with existing “National Transit Maps” makers

The U.S. DOT demonstrated one idea for how a National Transit Map might look and work at a conference in February.

The Washington Post reported this month that the United States Department of Transportation is going to develop a “National Transit Map” because, frankly, one doesn’t exist. The U.S. DOT said such a map could reveal “transit deserts” (the screen capture above shows one example from Salt Lake City, discussed below).

Secretary Anthony Foxx wrote in an open letter to say that the department and the nation’s transit agencies “have yet to recognize the full potential” of a data standard called the General Transit Feed Specification that Google promoted in order to integrate transit routing on its maps. Foxx described two problems that arose out of not using “GTFS”.

  1. Transit vehicles have significantly greater capacity than passenger cars, but are often considered just vehicles because we are unable to show where and when the transit vehicles are scheduled to operate. The realistic treatment of transit for planning, performance measures, and resiliency requires real data on transit system operations.
  2. One of the most important social values of transit is that it makes transportation available to people who do not have access to private automobiles, and provides transportation options for those who do. Yet, we cannot describe this value at a national level and in many regions because we do not have a national map of fixed transit routes.

“The solution is straightforward”, Foxx continued, “[is] a national repository of voluntarily provided, public domain GTFS feed data that is compiled into a common format with data from fixed route systems.”

The letter went on to explain exactly how the DOT would compile the GTFS files, and said the first “collection day” will be March 31, this week. As of this writing, the website to which transit agencies must submit their GTFS files is unavailable.

What Foxx is asking for has already been done to some degree. Two national transit maps and one data warehouse already exist and the DOT should engage those producers, and others who would use the map, to determine the best way to build a useful but inexpensive map and database. Each of the two existing maps and databases was created by volunteers and are already-funded projects so it would make sense to maximize the use of existing projects and data.

“Transitland” is a project to host transit maps and timetables for transit systems around the world. It was created by Mapzen, a company funded by Samsung to build open source mapping and geodata tools. Transitland is also built upon GTFS data from agencies all over the world. Its data APIs and public map can help answer the question: How many transit operators serve Bay Area residents, and what areas does each service?

For the United States, Transitland hosts and queries data from transit agencies in 31 states and the District of Columbia. In Washington, D.C., Transitland is aware of four transit agencies. It’s a great tool in that respect: Not all of the four transit agencies are headquartered in D.C. or primarily serve that city. The app is capable of understanding spatial overlaps between municipal and regional geographies and transit agencies.

Transitland has a “GUI” to show you how much transit data it has around the world.

“Transit Explorer” is an interactive map of all rail transit and bus rapid transit lines in the United States, Mexico, and Canada. Yonah Freemark, author of The Transport Politic, created the map using data culled from OpenStreetMap, the National Transit Atlas Database (administered by the DOT and which shows fixed-guideway transit), and his own research. I wrote the custom JavaScript code for the Leaflet-powered map.

No other agency or project has collected this much data about fixed-guideway transit lines in any of the three countries, since the map includes detailed information about line lengths, ridership, and other characteristics that are not included in GTFS data. Transit Explorer, though, does not include local bus service or service frequencies, which the DOT’s map may if it incorporates the full breadth of GTFS data.

Transit Explorer also goes a step further by providing data about under construction and proposed fixed-guideway transit lines, which is information that is very relevant to understanding future neighborhood accessibility to transit, but which is not available through GTFS sources.

Finally, “GTFS Data Exchange” is a website that has been storing snapshots of GTFS feeds from agencies around the world for almost a decade, or about as long as GTFS has been used in Google Maps. The snapshots allow for service comparisons of a single agency across time. For example, there are over 100 versions of the GTFS data for the Chicago Transit Authority, stretching back to November 2009; new versions are added – by “cta-archiver” – twice a month.

Josh Cohen, writing in Next City, highlighted the significance of Google’s invention of GTFS, saying, “Prior to the adoption of GTFS, creating such a map would’ve been unwieldy and likely produced an out-of-date product by the time it was completed.” The DOT’s own National Transit Atlas Database includes only fixed-guideway (a.k.a. trains) routes, and hasn’t been updated since 2004.

Not all GTFS feeds are created equal, though. Some transit agencies don’t include all of the data, some of which is optional for Google Map’s purpose, that would make the National Transit Map useful for the spatial analysis the DOT intends. Many agencies don’t include the “route shapes”, or the geographic lines between train stations and bus stops. Researchers are able to see where the vehicles stop, but not which streets or routes they take. Foxx’s letter doesn’t acknowledge this. It does, however, mention that transit agencies can use some federal funds to create the GTFS data.

David Levinson, professor at the University of Minnesota, believes the map will bias coverage (geographic reach of transit service) over frequency (how many buses are run each day that someone could ride).

The U.S. DOT’s chief data officer, Dan Morgan, whom I met at Transportation Camp 2015 in Washington, D.C., presented at the FedGIS Conference this year one idea to demonstrate coverage and frequency in Salt Lake City, using the GTFS data from the Utah Transit Authority.

Levinson also tweeted that it will be difficult for a national map to show service because of the struggles individual transit providers have symbolizing their own service patterns.

Foxx’s letter doesn’t describe how planners will be able to download the data in the collection, but whichever app they build or modify will cost money. Before going much further, and before spending any significant funds, Foxx should consult potential users and researchers to avoid duplicating existing projects that may ultimately be superior resources.

Foxx can also take advantage of “18F” a new agency within the General Services Administration to overcome government’s reputation for creating costly and difficult to use apps. The GSA procures all kinds of things the federal government needs, and 18F may be able to help the DOT create the National Transit Map (and database) in a modern, tech and user-friendly way – or write a good RFP for someone else to make it.

Look for the National Transit Map this summer.