95th and Vincennes

The at-grade crossing

<<Woman Struck by Metra Train on South Side: Tribune>>

<<Woman Struck by Metra Train on South Side: NBC>>

Another fatality involving Metra and a pedestrian occurred on the South Side of Chicago, and one of the possible factors was distracted walking.  A recent article in the Injury Prevention journal [1] found 116 fatalities involving car versus pedestrian or train versus pedestrian between 2004-2011 where headphones played some role.  The study’s authors acknowledge some weaknesses in their methodology, such as “It’s also not clear whether headphones directly caused pedestrians’ injuries, or whether driver fault, alcohol, mental illness or suicidal intent could have contributed to the crashes”.  However, given the current federal government’s push to promote high speed rail and other improvements, enhanced incident tracking and record keeping geared towards injury and deaths involving trains should be undertaken.  A detailed database would be necessary when prioritizing safety improvements along planned improvement corridors.

The crossing at 95th and Vincennes as shown above lacks pedestrian gates that are featured at some level crossings.  While such gates are by no means intended to prevent people from crossing the tracks (it is quite easy to duck underneath them) they do serve to enhance the perception of the crossing as a dangerous area.  Another benefit is preventing people who might be distracted from crossing the tracks even when bells and lights are sounding.  Noise-canceling and sound isolating headphones can be quite effective at rendering people unaware of their surroundings; bumping into a gate can snap people back into reality.  A pedestrian crossing gate could possibly have prevented this tragedy and many others from occurring.  The aforementioned enhanced surveillance of level crossing incidents is needed in order to identify crossings that seem to be prone to incidents of pedestrian risk, intentional or not.

A crossing gate for pedestrians does block someone’s path, but it is still a somewhat passive measure in that people can easily circumvent it by simply walking around it (like cars often do at simple two-gate crossings where the gates only block the approaching lane on either side).  A person routinely walking around such lowered gates as part of their commute could have the instinct to avoid them ingrained in their consciousness.  This behavior in the presence of a pedestrian crossing gate could be circumvented by installing various measures intended to keep people on the sidewalks or paths.  One simple method could involve thick bushes lining the approaches, keeping people from going off the sidewalk.  The gate could be surrounded as well so that circumventing it would require some degree of hassle.  A more direct approach could involve L shaped fences on either side of the sidewalk, one of which could connect to fencing along the railroad right of way.  This would actively prevent pedestrians from getting around the crossing gate.

All of the above measures are no substitute for common sense, but with the proliferation of smart phones and electronic music players instances of distracted walking are surely going to increase.

Placing tracks below-grade to eliminate the threat to pedestrians and vehicles has been done before, Winnetka being a notable example in the Chicago area [2].  In a 25 year period before 1937 there had been 29 fatalities which comes out to an average of slightly over 1 per year.  An unfortunate number, yes, but not necessarily a crisis.  The decision to place the railroad tracks below grade in Winnetka likely had a lot to do with community image and aesthetics—not just pedestrian safety—considering the socioeconomic profile of this particular community.  Concerns about future pedestrian fatalities were not entirely without merit however; today the historic commercial core of the village is bisected by the train tracks.  In Chicago much of the trackage on the North Side of the city is elevated; the South Side on the other hand is a mixed bag.  The crossing at 95th and Vincennes is the first grade crossing heading south on the Rock Island District main line; the entire line north of here is elevated.  The entire length of the Metra Electric main line is elevated while its stub branches are at grade.  In terms of pedestrian and vehicle safety Chicago is in pretty good shape compared to many suburbs where the train runs almost entirely at grade, which makes yesterday’s incident particularly notable.  There are only about twelve or so grade crossings on the Rock Island District Main Line, which is only served by rush hour trains.  This is a somewhat manageable number if safety improvements as described previously were to be enacted.

The fact that the Rock Island District main line is only served during rush hour, with most trains routed via the Suburban line to the west, provides some background into people’s behavior near the main line crossings.  Only seven trains [3] pass through the crossing at 95th and Vincennes before noon, which means that pedestrians and vehicles here wouldn’t be as attuned to the operation of the train as residents to the west.  It’s a matter of conditioning; the more trains that pass through a community, the more conscious people would be of their presence and the necessary safety measures at grade crossings.  In simpler terms: people that cross lightly used lines probably won’t think about them as much.  Crossings like 95th and Vincennes should probably have more safety measures for precisely this reason.

Shuttered Station, from Google Earth

Downsizing the Police

From the Chicago Tribune:

<<For Rent: Mothballed Station>>

Some Craigslist pranksters decided to make a small joke regarding the recent decision by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to close two detective bureaus on the West Side.  This decision is a little puzzling since it is touted as a cost-saving measure.  Labor expenses make up a large portion of many organizations, both public and private; the CTA’s struggles to rein in labor costs accounting for 70% of its expenditures [1].  The article points out that some 300 detectives will be transferred to other buildings; there will be no force reductions, only changes in assignments.  The savings will be paltry, in the range of $10-$20 million compared to a budget gap of over $600 million.

The overall problem with this approach is that it is moving the police department in the wrong direction.  The fact that the city is strapped for cash is undeniable, but this knee-jerk reaction for short term gain by closing stations ignores the long-term issue of crime suppressing economic growth in the city.  Persistent crime in many neighborhoods is a big obstacle when it comes to attracting new businesses.  Not only are there direct costs in terms of lost revenue due to theft and property damage, but there are also indirect costs represented by the depopulation of neighborhoods and loss of customers; Chicago lost 200,000 in the last decade, many of whom were minorities [2].  While there are many legitimate arguments for “activities besides force” like community outreach programs and gang alternatives for youth, a proven method as exemplified by the New York Police Department (NYPD) is to add more cops; not just more cops on the street like Chicago is proposing will happen with district closings, but more cops PERIOD.

Chicago’s robbery rate is twice that of New York just a few years ago.  The homicide rate is also higher by at least 100%, as is the aggravated assault rate.  Allocating more police to beat patrol is a step towards suppressing these types of crimes by reducing response time (police being able to respond quickly isn’t going to have as much impact on crimes like motor vehicle theft where the actual crime will have likely occurred some time before its reported) but the problem is how these cops are going to go about their beats.  Chicago’s much lower population density, over 50% lower than New York City’s, makes patrolling on foot difficult.  The ratio of civilians to police is comparable between the two cities, but Chicago’s population is spread out a lot more; the average population of one square mile in New York City would occupy over two square miles in Chicago.  Deploying police on foot would mean that they would be spread out just as much; on average, New York has 110 cops per square mile while Chicago only has 55.  Chicago is therefore more dependent on cruisers to deploy the police, which creates a lot of problems in that patrolling a large areas means always being on the move.  Police moving at 30 miles per hour or more can easily miss things that police walking at four miles per hour and able to hear the surroundings would not.

Closing police stations is the wrong move by the CPD.  If the goal is to get more police on the street, then they should be on the actual streets patrolling known trouble spots and interacting more with the population, which is difficult for vehicle-bound cops to accomplish.  Since all police must be based out of a building, deploying more police to pedestrian beats would require MORE police stations, not less; this is something I mentioned in my previous post “City of Cruisers“.  Police could be deployed from the existing police stations by vehicle and then begin their beats, but this would still mean a lot of vehicles on the street which means high fuel expenditures.  Allowing police to conduct their normal duties without vehicles would save the department a lot of money; vehicles would still be needed for transporting persons under arrest to the nearest lockup, however.

The CPD proposes to reduce the number of district stations to 22, which means that the average area per station in the city will rise from 9 miles to over 10 miles.  A better alternative would be to relocate police stations to allow for more effective deployment.  New police station construction would also stimulate the local economy by creating jobs.

Howard Station Evanston

Musing on the musings on the El

A nice little collection of comments concerning the state of the CTA featured in the Chciago Redeye has this author eager for some comments of his own.  The “improvements” that the CTA has undertaken in the last decade—Brown Line Capacity Expansion, procurement of new rail cars, etc—do not seem to have gone over well with some people.  They haven’t really gone over well with me either.

“No crown for Brown” is one rider’s take on the new Brown Line.  Apparently the promise of increased capacity has turned out to be rather hollow, with off-peak train frequency insufficient to meet demand.  

This comment brings attention to the concept of “tempting fate” that the non-Genry Savvy CTA planners failed to recognize, thus sending them into a potential death spiral.  The Brown Line Capacity Expansion Project increased the platform lengths at all Brown Line stations to accommodate 8 car trains, along with making all stations ADA-Compliant.  Unfortunately, the CTA has slashed “L” service since that project was completed.  The result: trains running less frequently resulting in crowding that the project was supposed to alleviate.  Such conditions will only amplify the existing disdain towards the CTA demonstrated by many riders.  Decreasing ridership would likely reduce crowding on trains, but also cause revenue to decrease leading to further service reductions and fare increases, CAUSING EVEN MORE RIDERS to abandon the system.  

The Douglas Branch rehab is yet another project that was a questionable endeavor.  In a Hail Mary attempt to retain riders the CTA decided to spend $482.6 million in order to restore a portion of the CTA carrying less than 10,000 passengers per day.  That’s right: the CTA spent nearly $50,000 per passenger in order to keep said passengers riding the “L”.  Considering that the Dan Ryan Branch had an average weekday station usage of 50,000 based on data from 2002-2010 renovating the track on that line would have been a wiser move.  The so called “Dan Ryan Rehabilitation Project”that ran in the middle of the decade was questionable at best.  Stations were rehabbed and new interlockings were built to improve operations, but work on the track itself was apparently minimal since there are now slow zones [2] covering almost 30% of that division.  Trains are forced to run express to make up for lost time with alarming frequency; I have had the pleasure of riding several of these trains, which can be nice if you are in a rush and are heading all the way downtown.  The CTA’s decision to spend almost half a billion dollars rehabbing a barely used line, to the detriment of the busiest line in the system, stinks to high heaven of political pandering and vote buying.  Politicians in the neighborhoods served by the Red Line would be perfectly justified in crying foul at a blatant attempt to influence Pink Line voters.  A complete Dan Ryan renovation would have been comparatively easy compared to the Douglas Branch since the line runs at-grade in the middle of the highway for pretty much its entire length; no expensive steel structure to replace for one.  Existing bus routes like the 24 and 29 could have easily accommodated the overnight ridership, allowing the entire branch to be shut down for construction in both directions.

“Aisle face-off”: the decision to switch to aisle facing seats has this author thinking of John Woo movie puns.  The decision to switch to longitudinal seats used by subways in Asia and New York is another miscalculation by the CTA.  Just like the Brown Line Capacity Expansion Project and the Douglas Branch Rehabilitation, the personnel in charge of capital projects tempted fate and got their asses handed to them by resentful riders.  Passengers have been complaining for months about how the new cars are not right for Chicago.  Complaints range from unwanted views of behinds to fears of impromptu beds for the homeless during the night.  

The wider aisles that are supposed to make it easier to move around the crowded cars seem unnecessary given the CTA’s inadvertent attempts to drive away their riders.  The fact that trains are slowing down all across the system, especially on the Dan Ryan Branch, means that riders are going to spending a lot more time on the trains.  Unfortunately the new 5000-series cars no longer have seat back grab bars within easy reach [3]; these have been replaced by an orgy of vertical bars [4] and suspended straps that do not seem to work for many riders who have to hold onto them for long periods.  The CTA has made it easier to stand when people would rather be sitting thanks to their lengthened commutes.  

No discussion of the new cars would be complete without mentioning the lost opportunities when it comes to technology.  The CTA has endeavored to do the opposite of New York in almost every aspect outside of longitudinal seating.  Forget three doors per side—the 5000 series still has two doors per side in the same old vestibule arrangement.  The New York R142s use a far subtler approach [5that allows for more space in this area.  Opening up an aisle by several inches may not seem like it would make a difference movement-wise, but simulations after several airliner disasters have shown that it can, especially when it comes to emergency evacuation.  The early 737 had a bulkhead opening only 22.5 inches wide that led to a bottleneck during an evacuation of a plane in England back in 1985 [6].  Increasing the width to 30 inches had dramatic results during tests.  The traditional 2×2 seats at one end of the new 5000 series cars negate the advantages of a wider aisle, creating a bottleneck near one vestibule and potentially threatening passengers lives in the event of an evacuation.  The CTA should have gone with an all-or-nothing seating arrangement instead of trying to cling onto 2×2 seating while introducing aisle seats.  

The hybrid seat layout of the new rail cars is another example of the CTA’s insistence of trying to please all of its passengers.  The Douglas Branch Rehabilitation was a blatant example of a local earmark designed to benefit a small percentage of CTA riders at tremendous cost.  There are stations like Kostner on the Pink Line that serve less than 500 riders per day; in addition to low ridership, Kostner appears to be an armed robbery magnet.  Closing such stations would not only reduce labor costs but potentially keep passengers safer by discharging them at busier stations.  The CTA has closed dozens of stations in its history; the Douglas Branch Rehabilitation now represents a missed opportunity to eliminate redundant stations.

“Blue Line blues”: the CTA’s desire to be avoid being portrayed as insensitive is exemplified by the fare policies being enforced at terminals.  I once rode the Blue Line at 4 AM and the few riders onboard were homeless sleeping.  I’m reasonably confident that the remarks of one CTA rider in the aforementioned Redeye article are 100% true: people will ride the CTA back and forth all night.  Homeless using the CTA “L” as a shelter degrades the cleanliness of the system, alienating customers during the day.  The chronic funding woes have undoubtably affected the CTA’s ability to clean their trains and stations which doesn’t bode well for the passenger experience, especially with the new aisle seats allowing for easier sleeping coming into service in the next few years.  Apparently the CTA has decided that their desire to cater to everybody extends to people who don’t even pay for most of their rides, and now they have unwittingly played into those people’s hands by designing cars that will make it easier to convert trains in roving shelters.  

Eventually the CTA will have to pick and choose.  Do they want to continue to keep services like the Pink and Green Line in operation, or do they want to consolidate and try to maintain or even improve service on their busier lines?  Do they want to cater to deadbeats or do they care about their paying customers?  

There is talk of extending the Red Line farther south to 130th St, which is somewhat justified considering that the Red Line is the busiest line and 95th is definitely crowded.  However, considering the problems that the Dan Ryan Branch faces today, the wisdom of this move is questionable.  Proponents point out that the new extension would connect to the South Shore interurban and Metra Electric, which begs the question: Why ride the slow Dan Ryan Branch which will only get slower without major rehabilitation when you could ride the Metra Electric which is arguably faster and more comfortable?  But that’s a discussion for another day…

New Chicago Police Cruiser

Chicago: City of Cruisers

This announcement from City Hall in Chicago concerning the police department has this blogger thinking:

500 new police interceptors ordered in Chicago

While this order will provide a welcome boost to the local economy, it also highlights the fact that the Chicago police are a primarily vehicle-borne force.  In an era of rising gas prices this has undoubtably made law enforcement more expensive in such a vast city like Chicago.

One problem with a police force that uses vehicles extensively compared to more visible methods like foot patrols is the psychological mindset that develops.  This article about operations in Afghanistan (1) makes a note of the effect of introducing more heavily armored vehicles to troops: it makes them safer but distances them from the population they are supposed to develop a rapport with and protect.  There are certainly parallels to the use of vehicles in police work.  Police can cover more ground in a car during a patrol compared to walking a beat but they distance themselves psychologically from the populace.  Police in a cruiser cannot make their rounds in the neighborhood and check-in with major business owners or community leaders as easily as they could if they were on foot; frequent stops and slow travel is inefficient for a motor vehicle, and excessive idling is wasteful.

Traveling by cruiser also makes it harder to spot trouble developing unless it is overt.  On major roads the police have to travel at the speed of regular traffic which can make them overlook a crime in progress simply because they were looking in the wrong direction (i.e. the right direction for driving which is straight ahead).

The psychological distance is created by the image of police that results from heavy vehicle use: police cars instead of actual officers.  Police officers spending a great deal of time in cruisers aren’t exposed to the dramatic temperature changes in the Chicago climate, where the temperature varies by as much as 100 degrees in the span of six months.  This could create resentment between citizens and the police, especially those who take public transportation and have to wait for buses.  Police officers who walk the beat during the winter or summer would have a little bit more to work off of when trying to communicate with people.

A simple solution could involve the creation of smaller police stations surrounding the central district stations so more officers could be deployed on beat patrols instead of cruiser routes.  This would require more infrastructure but there are plenty of vacant properties on the South and West sides that could host community police stations.

More ideas to come…

Buses on North Michigan Avenue

Michigan Avenue north of the Chicago River is famous for its traffic jams, with buses competing for road space along with private cars and taxis.  Given how closely packed vehicles can be at times, it’s inevitable that a crash could occur faster than anyone could respond to even when fully alert.  The hazard of this stretch of road was demonstrated quite well in this latest incident:

3 hospitalized after cabs crash

This stretch of roadway, which serves some of the largest hotels and shopping centers in the city, hosts twelve bus.  The number of full-time routes is five between Ontario and Chicago, dropping to four north of Chicago.  This is still a significant number of bus routes on one street, justified by the shear demand (I’ve often ridden a 147 that filled up completely before entering Lake Shore Drive).

The problem with so many bus routes is that it creates a lot of demand for the right hand lane (in order to pick up passengers).  The problem is that the taxi cabs need to use the right hand lane as well to pick up passengers.  This can create a lot of lane switching from the left lane to the right lane which provides ample opportunity for collisions.

One simple solution would be to prohibit private cars from using Michigan Avenue north of Ohio.  Cars could be directed to use Ohio to reach Lake Shore Drive via Columbus and Grand.  For those starting their trips from the Loop it would be a simple matter of directing them to go east on Jackson, Monroe, and Balbo.  This would complicate trips for many travelers but it would be the most effective method of utilizing limited capacity: reducing the number of vehicles.  There is still some flexibility and opportunity in the downtown lakefront area for modifying streets.  Michigan Avenue has no such flexibility; expanding the capacity would either require demolishing the median which has some cityscape value, or destroying sidewalks.

A second solution would be to designate the right hand lanes of Michigan Avenue for buses and taxis exclusively.  This could be combined with using articulated buses to increase the capacity of the routes without adding more vehicles.

Another problem with so many routes on the same street is that there is a bus on almost every block stopping to pick up and discharge passengers.  This essentially brings 33% of Michigan Avenue’s capacity to a dead stop.  Converting North Michigan Avenue to free area would dramatically reduce boarding times; any lost revenue could be made up elsewhere.

Boarding times could also be reduced by installing a system similar to Curitiba where passengers pay to enter the bus shelter and then board the bus through platforms.  The wider sidewalks on North Michigan Avenue could allow for such a system.

The overall problem with North Michigan Avenue is that there are simply too many vehicles.  New residential developments and economic growth will only make this situation worse.

Lake Shore Drive in winter

Racing to the rescue

Curious accident involving a Chicago Police vehicle:

SUV hits police cruiser

A report of an “assault in progress and a person on the tracks at the Fullerton Red Line stop” apparently required a police SUV to race from River North all the way to Lincoln Park.  All possible routes between these two locations involve at least two miles of driving.  This author would be very interested to hear the rationale for requiring officers to race across the city in order to respond to crime at one of the busiest stations in the CTA.  Averaging out daily ridership between 2002 and 2010, the Fullerton CTA stop was the fifth busiest in the system.  Surely a strong police presence in the vicinity of Fullerton and Belmont on the Red Line is justified, yet officers responding to a disturbance at Fullerton had to come from River North.

There are possible explanations for this.  One is the responding officers called for backup and said backup had to come from River North due to officers nearby being engaged in other duties.  Another is that perhaps the officer being summoned had special training that would be useful.  The article in question does not say why the officer had to travel so far.  This is just another example of the nonsensical approach to police deployment practiced by the CPD.  Some might recall the officer who was killed when his cruiser skidded off Lake Shore Drive while responding to a burglary at a cell phone store in the 3100 block of North Clark:

An officer or two stationed at Belmont for the upcoming rush hour could have literally drove a few blocks around the corner and responded to this burglary.  Instead an officer had to be summoned from over a mile and a half away to respond to a property crime and was killed.  Even the Town Hall District police station was closer to the scene of the crime.

This author looks forward to the Chicago Police setting a new record for distance traveled during a crime response at a transit station:

“This just in.  Chicago Police cruiser struck at Lake Shore Drive and 31st Street while responding to assault at Union Station, Chicago’s main commuter and long distance rail hub”