Category: Urban Rail

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.

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.

How to extract highways and subway lines from OpenStreetMap as a shapefile

It’s possible to use Overpass Turbo to extract any object from the OpenStreetMap “planet” and convert it from a GeoJSON or KML file to a shapefile for manipulation and analysis in GIS.

Say you want the subway lines for Mexico City, and you can’t find a GTFS file that you could convert to shapefile, and you can’t find the right files on Sistema de Transporte Colectivo’s website (I didn’t look for it).

Here’s how to extract the subway lines that are shown in OpenStreetMap and save them as a GIS shapefile.

This is my second tutorial to describe using Overpass Turbo. The first extracted places of worship in Cook County. I’ve also used Overpass Turbo to extract a map of campgrounds

Extract free and open source data from OpenStreetMap

  1. Open the Overpass Turbo website and, on the map, search for the city from which you want to extract data. (The Overpass query will be generated in such a way that it’ll only search for data in the current map view.)
  2. Click the “Wizard” button in the top toolbar. (Alternatively you can copy the code below and paste it into the text area on the website and click the “Run” button.)
  3. In the Wizard dialog box, type in “railway=subway” in order to find metro, subway, or rapid transit lines. (If you want to download interstate highways, or what they call motorways in the UK, use “highway=motorway“.) Then click the “build and run query” button.
  4. In a few seconds you’ll see lines and dots (representing the metro or subway stations) on the map, and a new query in the text area. Notice that the query has looked for three kinds of objects: node (points/stations), way (the subway tracks), relation (the subway routes).
  5. If you don’t want a particular kind of object, then delete its line from the query and click the “Run” button. (You probably don’t want relation if you’re just needing GIS data for mapping purposes, and because routes are not always well-defined by OpenStreetMap contributors.)
  6. Download the data by clicking the “Export” button. Choose from one of the first three options (GeoJSON, GPX, KML). If you’re going to use a desktop GIS software, or place this data in a web map (like Leaflet), then choose GeoJSON. Now, depending on what browser you’re using, a couple things could happen after you click on GeoJSON. If you’re using Chrome then clicking it will download a file. If you’re using Safari then clicking it will open a new tab and put the GeoJSON text in there. Copy and paste this text into TextEdit and save the file as “mexico_city_subway.geojson”.
Overpass Turbo screenshot 1 of 2

Screenshot 1: After searching for the city for which you want to extract data (Mexico City in this case), click the “Wizard” button and type “railway=subway” and click run.

Overpass Turbo screenshot 2

Screenshot 2: After building and running the query from the Wizard you’ll see subway lines and stations.

Overpass Turbo screenshot 3

Screenshot 3: Click the Export button and click GeoJSON. In Chrome, a file will download. In Safari, a new tab with the GeoJSON text will open (copy and paste this into TextEdit and save it as “mexico_city_subway.geojson”).

Convert the free and open source data into a shapefile

  1. After you’ve downloaded (via Chrome) or re-saved (Safari) a GeoJSON file of subway data from OpenStreetMap, open QGIS, the free and open source GIS desktop application for Linux, Windows, and Mac.
  2. In QGIS, add the GeoJSON file to the table of contents by either dragging the file in from the Finder (Mac) or Explorer (Windows), or by clicking File>Open and browsing and selecting the file.
  3. Convert it to GeoJSON by right-clicking on the layer in the table of contents and clicking “Save As…”
  4. In the “Save As…” dialog box choose “ESRI Shapefile” from the dropdown menu. Then click “Browse” to find a place to save this file, check “Add saved file to map”, and click the “OK” button.
  5. A new layer will appear in your table of contents. In the map this new layer will be layered directly above your GeoJSON data.
Overpass Turbo screenshot 4

Screenshot 4: The GeoJSON file exported from Overpass Turbo has now been loaded into the QGIS table of contents.

Overpass Turbo screenshot 5

Screenshot 5: In QGIS, right-click the layer, select “Save As…” and set the dialog box to have these settings before clicking OK.

Query for finding subways in your current Overpass Turbo map view

This has been generated by the overpass-turbo wizard.
The original search was:
// gather results
// query part for: “railway=subway”
/*relation is for "routes", which are not always
well-defined, so I would ignore it*/
// print results
out body;
out skel qt;