Chicago fourday

Wicker Park and Union Station

Assorted pictures from around Wicker Park, one of the more interesting and less CHAD and TRIXIE neighborhoods in Chicago.  I do miss going to Reckless Records.  On the other end is Chicago Union Station, with a woefully underused Great Hall.  If the design had been reversed it would have made a lot more sense.  People could wait in a nice room instead of the cramped concourse.

CTA South Side

CTA South Side thoughts

Chicago Redeye: South Side Proposals

The CTA’s recent announcement of various proposals for enhancing service along the South Lakefront Corridor is frustrating to say the least. Some of the proposals involve restoring service that was cut at various points in the past, like Green Line service beyond East 63rd/Cottage Grove and express bus service on King Drive. The King Drive proposal is notorious because it paints the agency as having bipolar tendencies that would go a long way toward alienating passengers. Riders will not take kindly to services disappearing and reappearing every few years. Unfortunately, the CTA is under the mistaken impression that they are the stars of another live-action adaptation of Brigadoon and they’re apparently okay with that.

Enhanced Bus Service: The CTA has proposed a new crosstown bus route on 83rd Street, in between existing bus routes on 79th Street and 87th Street. At first glance this appears to be a reasonable move considering the two aforementioned routes were ranked 15th and 1st for weekday traffic between 2001-2010 according to my research (this consisted of looking at bus routes that have run consistently and year-round since 2001). 79th Street has almost 33,000 weekday riders while 87th Street has almost 17,000; the question is how much additional demand is there to justify a bus route on 83rd Street. If the issue is one of insufficient capacity then additional buses could be added to 79th Street, but this would admittedly be difficult considering the frequency at which the CTA is currently running buses. Presently westbound buses can have head ways as short as three minutes, and additional buses would have to compete with automobile traffic. Despite these challenges, it would be wiser to improve service on existing corridors than pursuing the creation of new ones. A new bus route on a street with only two traffic lanes means that the buses act as pacing cars for the road; unless cars can get around buses while they are stopped for passengers the speed of all vehicles will be dictated by the need of the bus to travel slow enough to collect passengers. On an east-west street with 16 intersections per mile this speed can be as low as 5 miles per hour which is incredible inefficient from an energy perspective.

79th Street could be improved through the simple act of banning street parking, at least during rush hour so that buses could have unfettered access to the curb. Another solution could be the conversion of 79th Street into a bus rapid transit corridor. All stops could be built as curb extensions so buses would not have to pull over to pick up passengers; private vehicles would be banned during rush hour so buses could have exclusive use of the road. Delivery trucks and vehicles requiring curbside parking could still be allowed. however. There are many more possible implementations, but the primary goal would be to keep 79th Street sufficiently served by transit and eliminate the need for an additional crosstown bus route.

The proposal to restore express bus service on King Drive is quite irritating since all the express bus routes were eliminated during the last service reduction, the justification being that the CTA would save money. Route 3-King Drive was the 6th busiest bus route in terms of average weekday ridership over one month and 7th busiest in terms of total monthly usage according to my analysis. The X3 express route on the other hand only peaked at approximately 3,408 average weekday riders over one month (AWRM) between 2005 and 2009. Express service on King Drive was never popular to begin with, it’s maximum AWRM being only 13% of Route 3-King Drive’s (3,400 versus over 25,470) between 2005 and 2009. The desire to reinstate express service in this corridor is another example of the CTA’s skewed priorities.

Restoring express bus service to Western Avenue would make a lot more sense; average weekday riders over one month (AWRM) peaked at 17,328 on the express route while it was in operation compared to the regular route’s AWRM maximum of 27,456 for the same period. The express route’s maximum AWRM was over 63% of the regular route’s maximum AWRM which makes the decision to eliminate express service on Western Avenue quite hard to comprehend.

Rapid Transit: The CTA is proposing to extend the Green Line East 63rd/Cottage Grove Branch to Dorchester Avenue, which signals another U-turn by the transit agency. This portion of the Green Line was demolished during the renovation between 1994-1996 [1] due to community concerns about blight. The kicker is that the decision to abandon this portion of the line meant that the CTA was forced to forfeit federal funds. Now that they want to restore this portion its a safe bet that the USDOT will not be enthusiastic about federal funding for it. They did provide $384 million for the Cermak Branch of the Blue Line (now the Pink Line) but I maintain that that was done more for political reasons than operational necessity. Jackson Park is a major civic space on the South Side, and its presence is certainly justification for L service. It is quite confusing to hear people cite blight as a reason for demolishing a transit line, as a thorough renovation could have reversed that blight. Just because something is old doesn’t mean you tear it down; if people had followed that philosophy the CTA L would be a puny reminder of better days.

The overall issue is one of necessity: does Woodlawn have enough demand to justify reinstating Green Line service. An elevated transit line would be a large infrastructure improvement that could be replaced with enhanced bus service. Some have posited [2] that the opening of the Dan Ryan Line reduced the utility of the Jackson Park branch, leading to its demolition. This does bring up an important issue: the competition between the Green Line South Side Elevated and the Red Line Dan Ryan Branch. The main advantage that the Dan Ryan Branch has is its reach farther south compared to the Green Line, which means more riders. Having two lines competing for the same passengers is counterproductive; any bus going east stops at the Red Line first which undoubtably siphons off a lot of potential Green Line riders. The Green Line also competes against the South Lakeshore express buses that serve Hyde Park and other neighborhoods. The Metra Electric also serves the lakefront, and does a better job since it runs within a few blocks of the lake making it a lot more convenient; people taking the lakefront buses or Metra Electric do not have to transfer to another route to reach their lakefront destinations in Hyde Park, Woodlawn, or South Shore.

South Shore Trains

South Shore Trains

Bus Rapid Transit: The CTA is proposing a Bus Rapid Transit Corridor on Cottage Grove Avenue as well as 79th Street and Garfield Boulevard. Cottage Grove Avenue is well suited for bus rapid transit due to its generous width of four traffic lanes plus street parking. Unfortunately the analysis of X3-King Drive ridership seems to indicate that there is a lack of interest in express bus service in this corridor. Part of the problem is the presence of lakeshore express buses running from Hyde Park to the Loop. If one is heading all the way downtown from Kenwood, Woodlawn, Hyde Park, or South Shore the lakeshore express buses are a far more logical method of travel since they run express for 47th Street all the way to Roosevelt. Cottage Grove Avenue was served by the X4 Express bus in the past, and its ridership situation strongly mirrored the King Drive buses. The average monthly ridership over one month (AMRM) was about 2,892 from 2007 to the end of service in 2010 while the ridership on the regular 4-Cottage Grove bus was 22,162 over the same period which corresponds almost perfectly to King Drive when it had two buses: express AMRM was 13% of the regular route’s. If the CTA is insistent on bus rapid transit in this corridor, it would be wise to combine the King Drive and Cottage Grove BRT proposals. One possible way of doing this would be to implement a scheme similar to the Michigan Avenue-Indiana scheme where one road handles northbound and the other southbound. The Southbound BRT could run on King Drive and the Northbound BRT could run on Cottage Grove. This would reduce the impact of buses on traffic since only one lane would be used on each road instead of two. The CTA would be wise to explore similar implementations in other heavily used corridors since many Chicago thoroughfares are somewhat narrow (Ashland, Halsted and Broadway come to mind).

Another CTA proposal involves installation of equipment to give the 79th Street bus priority at traffic signals. This is very similar to my aforementioned proposal for BRT on this street. One difficulty that faces Chicago when it comes to implementing an idea like signal pre-emption is the technological lag in many areas. Numerous Chicago traffic signals still use electro-mechanical timers instead of solid state computers with road sensors. Upgrading the traffic signal technology on the major road corridors would be a positive but expensive step; a much cheaper way to speed up buses would be to relocate all bus stops to the side of the intersection past the signal so that buses do not get stuck at signals while discharging passengers. Another step would be to eliminate the acceptance of cash on buses and use farecards exclusively. Farecard machines would be installed at major points of commerce along 79th Street to facilitate this.

Integrating Metra:

Electric Tracks

Another plan involves running Metra trains more frequently in the lakefront Electric corridor and building a new station at 35th Street. There are multiple problems with the viability of such a proposal, mainly the fact that there are already better options for transporting people along the lakefront. The south lakefront express buses make very good time, with speeds approaching 30 miles per hour which rivals the Metra Electric. More importantly, Metra is very labor intensive since trains require an engineer and at least one conductor to collect fares from passengers.

Transforming Metra into a rapid transportation system from a commuter rail system would require a dramatic change in operations. One problem with implementing frequent service (10 to 15 minutes between trains) is the amount of rolling stock that would be required. The specific number of cars would depend on the current passenger demand pattern throughout the day. It could be possible to provide more frequent service with the current fleet by running shorter trains; shorter trains would allow more runs per hour but run the risk of stranding people on the platform for long periods of time due to crowding. There is another problem with shorter trains: longer trains would either have to be assembled when they are needed or kept in a ready state. Permanently assigning some trains to low frequency duty would reduce the number of short trains available for rush hour. This type of situation would be preferred by yard operators since it would cut down on the amount of coupling and switching that has to be done and keep more trains in revenue service.

It would probably be better to simply detach the Metra Electric corridor from the body of Metra and have the CTA assume responsibility for operations. Metra simply doesn’t have the experience of providing service at such high frequency. Implementing a fare card and turnstile system would be very difficult since Metra platforms aren’t really set up for it; a lot of the head houses are quite cramped and would only allow a few turnstiles. Turnstiles did exist in the Metra Electric corridor in the past, but the functioned more as access barriers rather than fare collection devices (tickets were still checked on the train). The CTA would also have to bring back conductors whom they eliminated when switching to one person train operation.

Whatever decisions the CTA makes regarding south lakefront transit, it needs to make sure it doesn’t reverse course after a year and undergo costly dismantling of its latest blunder.

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…

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”