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How I moved across the country with Amtrak

August 20, 2014 at 5:13 pm

The drive from Chicago to Vancouver, BC is 2,190 miles (3,524 km) through six states of plains and mountains. It took me about 40 hours to complete the drive in a rented SUV packed full of personal belongings. I knew everything wouldn’t fit in the car, though, so I had to search for another way to move everything. Having just left behind a steady income, the costlier options like renting a U-Haul (approximately $1,800) or using a PODS service (over $2,500) were out of the question. This is where Amtrak Express Shipping came in handy.

It turns out Amtrak can ship a lot of your stuff (500 or 250 pounds per shipment, depending on the origin/destination stations) for very little money. The initial 100 pounds is just over $60, and then each subsequent pound is around $0.57. Most of the boxes I obtained from a friend were able to fit my books, clothing (in vacuum bags), and non-fragile kitchen items within the weight limit (50 pounds per box) and size limit (3 feet square).

There are several restrictions on what can be shipped. No electronics, fragile items, furniture, and so on – it’s basically just for books, clothes, office supplies, and the like. For some of us, though, that can be the bulk of the items we end up having to move. Other items like furniture and electronics can be moved another way, or sold and re-purchased (personally, my new apartment is furnished, and I moved some electronics in the car).

You can also ship bicycles via Amtrak. I’ve never taken my bike on Amtrak before because the route I used – Hiawatha between Milwaukee and Chicago – did not allow roll-on bike service. From what I understand the process for shipping the bike is similar to how passengers have to box up their bikes: Buy a bike box ($15), take off the pedals and remove the handlebar (and any accessories that won’t fit, like a basket), and roll the bike into the box for shipment. If this is what passengers on most Amtrak routes must do to take their bikes with them, I will never do this again; it is a complete pain. Finally, shipping bikes is expensive; each bike was considered 100 lbs and treated as its own shipment, so always cost a little over $50.

The experience of bringing the items to Amtrak for shipment is a bit like using a US postal office. It’s slow, everything seems to be written on paper and never entered in a computer, and you leave feeling a little disoriented. I used Chicago’s Union Station, where I had to drive down to the station’s basement (from Clinton St) and place my boxes on a pallet. Amtrak individually weighs each package, and if it’s over 50 lbs, they will not take it. I had three boxes that were over 50 lbs and so I had to take them back, which I was not expecting. In the future, I would weigh the boxes at home before I go.

After about an hour I had paid for all 450 lbs of my belongings – except three boxes – destined for Bellingham, Washington (the closest Amtrak station to Vancouver). I had to make an emergency run down the next day after splitting up the remaining three boxes.

Driving through Montana.

While I was in Montana just three days later, I received a call from Amtrak in Bellingham that my shipment had arrived and was ready to be picked up. I had to pick up the boxes within 48 hours or each box would be subject to a $4 fee per day.

There was one problem when I arrived in Bellingham, though – only one of my shipments (with the bicycles) had made it to Bellingham. The other boxes were sitting in Seattle. The staff at Bellingham station told me that they were an Amtrak Express Shipping Lite station, and could only handle shipments up to 250 lbs due to the size of the station. All of my other boxes were sitting hours away in Seattle, and I had rented a Zipvan for the day in Vancouver to get the boxes. I couldn’t drive all the way down to Seattle (due to Zipvan’s distance restrictions), and Bellingham couldn’t store them.

The staff at Chicago never informed me that they could only ship 250 lbs to Bellingham, while shipments up to 500 lbs would have to be picked up in Seattle. I never received a call from Amtrak in Seattle, either, to let me know that the boxes weren’t going to continue to Bellingham. I ended up renting another van for another day and had to pick up the remaining boxes in Bellingham as the train arrived around 9:40 PM last night (it was supposed to arrive at 9 PM).

Picking up the boxes at the station.

Amtrak waived the fees for holding the boxes in Seattle, but I still had to pay for another van to get down to Bellingham a second time to get the rest of the boxes, and had to be at the station exactly when the train arrived so I could take the boxes directly from the cargo car and put them in my van. If I wasn’t there, I was told Canadian border police would “destroy” the boxes when they got to Vancouver. (Another note: make sure the boxes are labeled with your name, address, and phone, because they are not separated from other cargo).

All told, the experience was fairly easy and all of my items arrived damage-free (I still wrapped books in plastic bags just in case), and I saved a lot of money given the amount of items I shipped (about 20 boxes and 2 bikes in total) and the total distance they traveled. Despite the issues with the weight and station pairs (of which I’m now aware to ask about), I would use Amtrak Express Shipping again to move my clothes and books on a long-distance move.

Vancouver: First Impressions

August 9, 2014 at 11:26 pm

Last weekend I moved to Vancouver, Canada to start a masters program in the fall at UBC. Everything leading up to the move is the reason I’ve been on a bit of a blogging hiatus, but now that things are settling down and I’m in a new city, I’ll certainly have plenty of material coming up.

You can't beat a view of the city set in front of the mountains.

You can’t beat a view of the city set in front of the mountains.

I visited Vancouver last October when I was applying to schools, and I had a pretty good impression of the city. As with most visits, though, I didn’t get to see all of the city, especially the neighborhood I now live in, Marpole. It’s a bit far from the “action,” so to speak, of downtown and its nearby neighborhoods. But the place I found was furnished, close to express buses, and fairly walkable.

I say fairly walkable because I’ve noticed some oddities in Vancouver’s walking infrastructure that make me question the validity of the city’s title of Most Walkable city in Canada, specifically that there are places where sidewalks are entirely missing.

Missing sidewalks.

It even happens that some blocks are missing sidewalks on both sides. Walkability scores usually take into account the number and array of services within a short walk of a certain address, and not always the quality of infrastructure (width of sidewalks, for example), the visual beauty of a walk (which is subjective), the amount of traffic noise nearby, and so on.

Fortunately, the missing sidewalks problem is identified in the neighborhood’s community plan and are specifically outlined in the community profile from 2013.

From page 54 of the Marpole Community Profile, City of Vancouver.

From page 54 of the Marpole Community Profile, City of Vancouver.

It still completely took me by surprise that there are residential streets without any sidewalks. Previously in Chicago, the only time I had ever encountered missing sidewalks was on Damen Ave near a cemetery and an industrial park.

I was not pleased to make a three-cross detour to cross Oak St, either.

Fortunately, the bicycling picture is a little better. I only received my bike from Amtrak a few days ago, so I haven’t had the chance to really explore the city by bike, but so far it has expanded how far I can get without having to pay for a bus. Downtown is only about 40-45 minutes away, as well as the UBC campus. One thing I have noticed so far is that the bike network in the city is mainly on residential streets, a stark contrast from Chicago where bike routes take you on some of the busiest streets.

Some of the streets with bike lanes are on arterials, but most appear to be on calmer residential streets. Image: City of Vancouver bike map.

Some of the streets with bike lanes are on arterials, but most appear to be on calmer residential streets. Image: City of Vancouver bike map.

In Chicago, the city painted bike lanes on the busiest streets that took you through many neighborhoods. In Vancouver, the scene is a bit different: there don’t seem to be a ton of painted bike lanes, but instead a well-signed network of streets that are traffic-calmed with roundabouts, curb extensions, and sinusoidal speed humps, which are much easier to ride over than the more jarring speed humps featured on the streets of Chicago. To cross busier streets, there are buttons that stop cross traffic.

I initially grumbled at the thought of more buttons to push to “ask” to cross a busy street, but realized that I’d remembered seeing the same device in the Netherlands and that it really isn’t that terrible. Plus, the wait is rarely long.

To help people on bikes proceed on the marked bike routes, there seems to be ample infrastructure.

Another nice feature of the bikeways is that they discourage thru traffic, which should go on the busier arterial streets, by implementing traffic diverters. Previously I’ve maintained that these should be an important feature of residential neighborhoods in cities like Chicago, where a more thorough, safer bike network could be built simply by directing car traffic to busier arterial streets. After seeing a few examples in Vancouver, I do believe that one way of building a better bike network is by redirecting most traffic and calming the remaining local traffic. It doesn’t create a network I might feel safe letting my hypothetical children use alone, but it works until momentum builds for something more robust.

Roundabouts as traffic calming help slow down car traffic on Ontario St.

There are of course the protected bike lanes closer to downtown (and some outside the downtown area, too) and the Seawall, which I covered on my last visit.

This traffic-calmed street requires drivers to slow down and pay close attention while providing ample room for bicycles.

One more thing to note: British Columbia has a mandatory helmet law, which appears to be relatively ignored in my neighborhood. It’s only been a week, but most of the people I’ve seen wearing helmets are clad in lycra and riding expensive bikes. About half of everyone else around is sans-casque.

Another aspect of note when comparing cities is the driving culture, or how drivers drive. Frankly, Vancouver drivers are scary. I’ve already seen several red-light running incidents where the driver went through after the signal was red for two or three seconds. Many times drivers turning at an intersection will try to drive out and in front of people crossing so as to avoid a wait, perhaps due to the lack of leading pedestrian signals in my neighborhood. And some people seem to drive way too fast. Frankly, I’d be surprised if I don’t get hit at some point in the next few years.

I used to think Chicago’s major streets were too wide until I saw some of Vancouver’s. It will take some getting used to, but it seems that a trade-off of having a city with no freeways is that the streets composing the Major Road Network are designed to carry a lot of traffic quickly and on to bridges to other cities. Many of these are unfortunately near where I live, so I imagine the majority of Vancouverites don’t encounter how loud they sound and dangerous they feel. However, the interior residential streets are quieter as a result and make for a more pleasant walk – except that one thing I love about walking in neighborhoods is passing local businesses, which happen to be concentrated near these major roads.


Agrandir le plan

Finally, there is the public transportation system. Vancouver is mainly a bus city, and while there are three rail lines, two of them principally serve the inland suburbs. It will take some more riding around on transport to really get a feel for the system, but my first impression is fast. I took the SkyTrain a few times and the wait for a train was never longer than 3 minutes on a weekday. The train also never stopped between stations; although I’m sure it does happen, it’s a welcome change from the stop-and-go “waiting for signal clearance” of the CTA.

Another nice aspect is that the city and developers really appear to take TOD (transit-oriented development) to heart – the first time I got off the Marine Drive Canada Line station, I noticed a large tower going up which will house condos, a movie theatre, grocery store, and other retail right outside the station. Other developments such as malls are similarly situated adjacent to rail stations.

One rendering of Marine Gateway, a complex to be built directly adjacent to the Canada Line. Image: Marine Gateway/PCI.

Adjusting to a new city is fun and simultaneously difficult, and there are so many things to experience and learn about. I’m particularly interested in the history and planning in Vancouver since it seems to be quite different from the Midwestern mindset and planning I’m accustomed to. I look forward to writing about all of the new things I find.

Photoset: Chicago’s Broadway protected bike lanes are in

June 13, 2014 at 6:34 pm

I’m not sure if they’re done yet, but the Broadway road diet project in Uptown is installed.

The project narrows Broadway from 4 lanes to 2 from Foster to Montrose, and includes a protected bike lane on two blocks from Montrose to Wilson, and buffered bike lanes the rest of the way.

It actually took me a minute to notice that the lanes were there; as I headed west on Montrose from the lake, I looked to see if they were in but didn’t see anything. Looking a little further, I noticed they were in – but the actual protection doesn’t start for nearly half a block! Riding along that stretch (until the protected lane begins) still feels just as stressful as before.

Just north of Sunnyside, the large area allows bikes and buses to “mix” before the protected bike lane begins again.

Right now, it’s… okay. There is a lot of room at the curb cuts so drivers can (theoretically) see if it’s safe to turn into traffic without having to block the bike lane, but in practice I’m not sure if that will work.

Naturally, a cable truck was parked in the bike lane portion.

Like all bike lanes in Chicago, the bike infrastructure basically disappears at intersections, and there is no basic green paint (there wasn’t enough money for more than just paint).

There are no plastic posts anywhere (those could be coming), so we rely on paint to keep drivers away. If there were more funds available (and there are, somewhere), the striped areas could have been bioswales with trees or other traffic-calming, protective infrastructure.

I really wish Chicago would start to put planters in. If nothing else, it would provide a little shade and some more permanent-feeling infrastructure (that can still be moved).

My rating as of today?

3of5-01
I haven’t rated any other bike lanes, but a “three out of five” is how I feel. I’m comfortable using it, but I don’t think it’s quite enough for everyone. Getting protected bike lanes further out in neighborhoods (well, in the N 4000′s) is a good start though.

 

Guest Post: Do the CTA and Divvy exist in ‘virtual silos’?

June 8, 2014 at 8:36 am

This guest post comes by way of Samuel Baron, a Master of Urban Studies student at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. His iterests include transportation, land use, urban design and technology. Twitter @samuelfbaron.

As I’ve expressed before, Chicago’s transportation systems live in relative isolation from each other – mainly our two rail systems, Metra and CTA, which do not yet usefully coordinate fares or ticketing systems for the benefit of riders. Samuel writes that Divvy, Chicagos “newest transportation system,” should be better integrated with our other public transport systems. Certainly this is an intended purpose of bike share – usage patterns in cities like New York have revealed that many people take the bicycles from train stations to go to employment centers, but the relationship could be more obvious. Realistically, this could be possible by integrating Ventra with Divvy (whose docks have card readers), by integrating the fares (think of a 25-cent Divvy transfer), and other ideas that bring Divvy away from being just a bike to being a well-integrated link in our transportation infrastructure.

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Image: Samuel Barton.

The photo above was taken at Franklin Street and Chicago Avenue on a recent visit to the Windy City. Being from a city that lacks a bikeshare system, I couldn’t help but feel admiration and envy for the shiny, bright blue infrastructure nestled alongside the city’s famous L train.

It is no act of serendipity that the Divvy bikeshare station pictured above is located adjacent to a Brown and Purple line station. The Chicago Department of Transportation was attentive in its placements, locating stations in neighborhoods with higher density and transit accessibility. This is no surprise considering bikeshare is touted as playing a role in the ‘last mile of commuting’, feeding directly into the entire Chicago Transit Authority network.

Yet, despite this strategic positioning, Chicago’s mobility investments are not being optimized to their full potential. While traversing the city, I became painfully aware that CTA and Divvy exist in virtual silos. At the moment, it isn’t possible to plan a mixed­mode trip itinerary comprised of both CTA and Divvy services. To plan this multimodal trip, one must route the trip manually, switching back and forth between various mobile applications.

Screen grabs from the two apps I used for navigating Chicago, the CTA Tracker and Chicago Bike Guide.

Screen grabs from the two apps I used for navigating Chicago, the CTA Tracker and Chicago Bike Guide.

This digital redundancy undermines the utility offered by real­time transit data and digital trip planning. In design­speak, this is poor user experience. [Ed. Note: There is a new mobile app, RideScout, available that combines public transport directions with Divvy as well as several other transport modes. RideScout was just released for Chicago. The great Chicago Bike Guide app, pictured to the right, probably shows public transportation stations for wayfinding – bikes can be brought on trains.]

To demonstrate the extent of the digital CTA­-Divvy split, a simple Google query using search terms ‘CTA and Divvy trip planner” produces nothing relevant. Moreover, Divvy advertises itself as “Chicago’s Newest Transit System” conjuring up the notion that CTA and Divvy are not part of the same network. In reality, bikeshare and public transit are complementary modes that work together to provide a viable alternative to driving. CDOT acknowledges this explicitly when it recommends commuters ‘take Divvy from the train to cover that last mile’.

Grabbing a Divvy bike from Wicker Park’s Damen Stop after riding the Blue Line.

Grabbing a Divvy bike from Wicker Park’s Damen Stop after riding the Blue Line.

The digital divide between CTA and Divvy is rather tragic, considering the pricey transit infrastructure has been built. As Chicago grapples with the weight of funding shortfalls and its transportation future, a logical step forward is to leverage and optimize these existing investments.

By not connecting the CTA and Divvy network together digitally, the Windy City is failing to capitalize on a monumental opportunity to reconceive how Chicagoans move. Part of the challenge of reducing auto­dependence and reducing emissions is contending with the flexibility that the automobile offers. With the right technology, mixed­mode commuting can replicate the flexibility of the automobile and offer a seamless door­to­door journey.

CTA and Divvy both use real­time data in their respective networks. Aggregating this data into a single interface could alter the way commuters plan multimodal trips. In this mixed­mode utopia, commuters will have the ability to plan a trip using both CTA trains/buses and Divvy bikes. The benefits of real time information will permit users to know exactly how many Divvy bikes are at a given station while simultaneously knowing when their bus or train will arrive. Moreover, other variables can be assigned, providing users with greater choice in their journey options like cycling route safety, expediency, bus/train preference, etc. Bridging the digital gap between CTA and Divvy will improve accessibility and make mixed­-mode commuting a more reliable and practical option.

Achieving this mixed­-mode utopia will require the aggregation of CTA and Divvy’s data. Commuters certainly do take Divvy to­ and ­from the train, so their trip planning tools should reflect how commuters actually utilize these modes. The fact that their data exists in silos is myopic and amounts to an inefficient use of public resources. By aggregating their data, the Windy City can optimize service and also leverage these capital investments.

For the sake of cost effectiveness, establishing a multimodal planning tool will require engaging with the developer community. Chicago’s experience with the RTA trip planner, Go Roo, underscores the high costs of the top down approach to innovation. Go Roo cost nearly $1 million to develop (Go Roo does not include Divvy in its services and does not have a mobile app).
 Many advances in urban mobility have come about as a result of private developer innovation. Chicago’s situation is by no means unique in this regard and CDOT should encourage innovation from the private sector.

These considerations are very important considering Chicago’s transportation future and the enormous resources necessary to keep the metropolitan region’s 9 million people moving in the 21st century. Mayor Emanuel’s promise to roll out twenty miles of new bike lanes this spring and summer and the expansion of Divvy’s stations from 300 to 475, suggest that the city’s executive support alternatives to driving. The long term impact of this mixed­-mode approach could alter Chicago’s transportation landscape since multimodalism is being touted as one solution to the problem of future urban mobility and minimizing carbon impact.

I hope that an outsider’s perspective can contribute to the discourse on how to best leverage Chicago’s transit infrastructure. Branching the divide between CTA and Divvy is one possible solution that will provide Chicagoans with the right tools needed to better utilize public transportation systems.

Lack of transportation options causing “Brain Drain” in Wisconsin, losing young people

May 21, 2014 at 12:54 pm

A report released today from the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WISPIRG) suggests that Wisconsin is facing a “brain drain” due to its lack of non-driving transportation options.

Begrudgingly, I’ll admit I’m a part of the “Millennial” group the report focuses on, but I dislike the term “Millennial” (blame my parent’s generation for writing too many recent disparaging articles about us), so let’s just say “young people” from now on.

The report echoes other articles’ assertions about young people’s driving habits – they’re lower than their parents. We just don’t seem to care about getting a driver’s license, owning a car, and so on. I have some personal, anecdotal reasons why I do not own a car: I grew up being driven around low-density exurbia. I have loved cities since the first time I visited Chicago. Chicago is a city that, in many neighborhoods, is easy to get around without a car. Also, I have a little student loan debt, and would also rather focus my extra cash on future things like retirement savings. My reasons aren’t “I use social media so I don’t need to drive to see my friends,” like many articles presume.

I got my undergraduate degree in Milwaukee and lived in its East Side neighborhood, close to the lake, my university, bars, restaurants, and grocery stores. It’s also pretty well-served by transit. I didn’t need a car – walking to school (where I also worked) took 20 minutes, and a bus trip to the Trader Joe’s took 30 minutes. Once a week with one or two bags of groceries was enough.

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My old house, walk score: 83.

I recall professors in my urban planning courses urging students to stay in Milwaukee and contribute to its future after we graduated. Without a young workforce coming in, it would be hard for the region to remain competitive. The reality, though, is that Milwaukee just isn’t as desirable to young people as its peer cities. Many aspects of the city do make it desirable – a great lakefront, good museums, good food and bars, and so on… except transport options.

I knew I wanted to live in Chicago after I graduated, so I never really considered staying in Milwaukee. Had I not made up my mind, though, I know I wouldn’t have heavily considered Milwaukee. That’s the focus on this report, and Wisconsin’s “brain drain.” 60% of young people surveyed said they’d be more likely to stay in Wisconsin after graduating if they could live somewhere that didn’t require driving. 47% said living somewhere with car-free transportation options was “very important.” Only 14% said it wasn’t important at all.

Nearly half of the respondents said they already drove to school, and ninety percent of them plan to own (or continue owning) a car after graduating. Wisconsinites acknowledge that car-free living is really only possible if you’re lucky enough to live in a neighborhood as dense and walkable as, say, the East Side (where I lived).

Milwaukee’s population is about 600,000 strong, putting it around same size of cities like Denver, Minneapolis/St Paul (combined), Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, BC. The difference, however, is that these cities have better transit or bike infrastructure than Milwaukee, and they’re certainly not as divided as Milwaukee – politically, racially, or on an income basis.

Wisconsinites are also driving less than before, just like the US population as a whole. Transit ridership hit an all-time high in 2013 and has been rising for 12 years. It’s not surprising that Madison is also a very bikeable city, and 4.7% of workers commute by bicycle.

I’ve written before that Wisconsin’s transportation budget is completely out of touch with the realities of this century. Multibillion dollar highway interchanges come before expansion of high-speed rail service and new commuter rail service. It would have cost the state $8 million per year to run the high-speed rail service, which would have run from Chicago to Milwaukee (as Amtrak’s Hiawatha does now) and on to Madison (where no train service exists), with capital costs paid for by the federal government. The KRM (Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee) commuter rail would have run from the Kenosha Metra station north through several lakefront suburbs to downtown Milwaukee, giving commuters a new way to get to work downtown or along any of those suburbs. Instead, the nearest north-south freeway – Interstate 94 – is being widened at a cost of $1.9 billion. The cost of the new commuter rail service, which may have relieved so much traffic that the freeway widening became unnecessary, was $284 million. Both rail projects were canceled by governor Scott Walker.

Wisconsin was going to receive brand new, Milwaukee-made Talgo trains until the governor canceled the contract and refused to pay for the trains, exemplifying the state’s attitude toward non-car travel. Image: Mass Transit.

Wisconsin would rather spend that money on double-decking freeways before even thinking about building a parallel commuter rail line. I believe the opposition to running rail from Milwaukee to the suburbs is to keep “those people” away. Milwaukee’s metro area isn’t the country’s most racially segregated by accident, after all.

In the end, WISPIRG’s report calls on Wisconsin to scale back on unnecessary highway expansion projects and increase funding for “alternative” modes of transportation. In order to entice young people to stay and contribute to the state’s future, Wisconsin needs to become more attractive to the future’s realities that are being revealed today.

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