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Chicago Commute Map updated with 2013 Census data

December 15, 2014 at 7:20 pm

The How Chicago Commutes map I created earlier this year has been updated with 2013 American Community Survey 5-year estimate data from the US Census.

I merely updated the information instead of creating links to compare the 2013 data with the 2012 data (from the original map). The information box that appears upon hovering over/clicking on a tract does not change to reflect the year selected, and only displays the 2013 data. Once I figure out a fix for this it will be easier to incorporate multiple years. Regardless, the data did not change much, and much of the ACS data has such a high margin of error that year over year changes may not be useful unless they are dramatic (i.e., at least a 10% change).

There are no big surprises with the new data; much is the same. People living at the edges of the city drive to work more often than people who live in denser neighbourhoods near transit, people who live downtown are more likely to walk to work, and so on. The bicycle commuting numbers are harder to interpret (the margins of error are also larger). Also note that the ACS only takes into account the longest commute mode: if a commute is multi-modal, e.g. you bike 5 minutes to a train you take for 30 minutes, only your train ride is counted.

And of course, there are still a lot of households (entire family units) that do not own a car, and whose transportation needs be taken into account by planners:

Capture d’écran 2014-12-15 à 17.16


(So you can stop building 500-space parking garages for north side housing developments, for example).

Due to some bugs with TileMill, which is used to stylize the census tracts, I had to explicitly state each number to format. It took a while, but the upside was the chance to see this progression:

Capture d’écran 2014-12-15 à 15.31.43Capture d’écran 2014-12-15 à 15.32.28 Capture d’écran 2014-12-15 à 15.32.50


This shows the progression of tracts where more than 50%, 70%, then 80% of workers are driving alone to work. I like how closely it matches other maps of Chicago, like this one from Daniel Kay Hertz that shows where it’s illegal to build anything other than single-family homes (thanks, zoning):

Map: Daniel Kay Hertz.

When you have lower density (i.e. single family homes) and less transit accessibility, people are probably going to drive to work more. Older, pre-war (i.e. pre-car) neighbourhoods have more transit commuters. But that could be just one of a few possible relationships, like: do the people living in lower density areas, which are closer to the city’s edge, work outside the city and not in the centre, which is more transit accessible? Are these people living somewhat close to transit but find the walk across a freeway bridge to access it unpleasant (think of the blue line)? There are a lot of assumptions that can be made by comparing data like this.

Have fun taking a look at the updated map!

The engineering firm behind North Lake Shore Drive reconstruction

December 10, 2014 at 2:30 pm

I’m writing a case study on the North Lake Shore Drive Reconstruction project for an assignment. When digging through the project’s Stakeholder Involvement Plan, I found a little-publicized piece of information: the engineering firm behind the project.

Few media articles about the project – and there were a lot of articles when it was announced – made mention of the firm. IDOT has not really publicized it. The only mention I found was in a slideshow about the first meeting in the Sun-Times:

Ignore the clickbait headline.

Ignore the clickbait headline.

I’m not too familiar with what sort of relationship Civiltech Engineering has with IDOT throughout this project. But a quick overview of Civiltech’s projects reveal their expertise: Roads.

Capture d’écran 2014-12-10 à 11.52.08

Civiltech also engineered the LaSalle Drive Reconfiguration, an out-of-human-scale, suburban-style roadway leading to Lake Shore Drive from Clark St in Lincoln Park:

LaSalle Drive heading west through Lincoln Park. Image: Google.

LaSalle Drive heading west through Lincoln Park. Image: Google.

There are a few non-roadway projects in Civiltech’s portfolio, such as a playground and the Des Plaines River trail improvement, but it’s still mostly roads. Perhaps this is symptomatic of our society’s over-investment in roadways (i.e., of course their portfolio is mostly roads, that’s where we put all of our money).

What I worry about is Civiltech’s ability to balance the public’s Top 20 Ideas to Redefine the Drive, which are:

  1. Separate bike/pedestrian users on Lakefront Trail (263 Comments)
  2. Improve Transit Service (185)
  1. Improve east-west pedestrian/bike connections and facilities (134)
  2. Grade separate Lakefront Trail at junctions and pedestrian tunnels (104)
  3. Add trees and natural landscaping areas (101)
  4. Add green space east of NLSD (Grand to LaSalle) (81)
  5. Separate Inner and Outer Drives (64)
  6. Add green space between Inner and Outer Drives (61)
  7. Realign the Oak Street curve (61)
  8. Reduce/enforce speed limit on NLSD (56)
  9. Expand lake fill to improve shoreline flood protection (55)
  10. Relocate and/or expand Oak Street Beach (51)
  11. Add more pedestrian/bicycle access points to the lakefront (53)
  12. Improve signage and wayfinding including path mile markers (44)
  13. Reconfigure NLSD (41) [by tunneling it, or restoring it to a boulevard]
  14. Add a west side bicycle highway (33)
  15. Expand park space at Oak Street & Michigan Avenue (32)
  16. Improve storm water management/add bio-swales (31)
  17. Construct a Chicago Avenue junction (30)
  18. Narrow the Inner Drive (22)

In other words, the top things on people’s minds are improving safety and “level of service” for people walking, biking, and taking transit, improving parkland, reducing the speed limit, or narrowing some roadways.

There is very little recorded input for expanding the roadway, improving the roadway’s level of service, and other things that roadway engineers and IDOT uniquely specialize in.

From the beginning, pro-active transport groups in the city have been pushing hard to ensure this doesn’t become another standard-issue IDOT project, where the public input process is a farce: decisions are made, announced, and carried out without regard for the public. Small victories have been won: the Purpose and Need Statement, the driving document behind all future planning interventions for the project, was originally pages of engineering jargon dealing almost exclusively with automobile movement, with a few paragraphs regarding the experience of the 70,000 bus passengers or tens of thousands of trail users. The professional training and focus of the people writing it was evident. After pressure, it was revised to prioritize non-motorized travel and safety and included numerous other revisions that balanced the document.

I’m not sure if this is symbolic of change at IDOT (I doubt it). I have issue with IDOT overseeing the project in the first place, as this is a roadway which is contained entirely within a large, incorporated city, affects the hundreds of thousands living in its adjacent neighbourhoods, and would be perfectly managed by CDOT, which is more responsible to the city administration and (ostensibly) the public. It is not a roadway that travels across jurisdictions or affects the state. In an ideal world, IDOT’s jurisdiction over Lake Shore Drive would have ended before this project began.

Regardless of the ideal, it’s important to keep in mind that IDOT should not be trusted to take into account the public’s input, especially given their own history and the past experience of the engineering firm they selected. I wonder why the firm was not chosen in a more transparent way after the public’s input was thoroughly solicited, given that no engineering plans really needed to be done to gather input on what Lake Shore Drive’s problems are. Ideally, the firm would have been selected based on a firm’s proven ability to balance the needs of people on foot, bike, or transit first – since those are the recorded public’s priorities.

Keep in mind who is helping run the show behind the curtain while the planning process continues. It would severely disappointing to see the public’s input ignored – Chicago deserves a lakefront planned for and by its residents, not engineers.

What is transit data (and a bus ride) worth?

October 28, 2014 at 10:15 pm

TransLink, the regional transportation agency in metro Vancouver, BC, is preparing to roll out its Compass Card program, which is intended to replace a variety of fare payment methods on the region’s trains and buses.

Much like other cities which use fare payment technology by Cubic Transportation Systems, the launch has been beset with difficulties, forcing delay upon delay in the $194 million program. Chicago readers will be familiar with every possible complaint in the Ventra program, which is operated by the same company. My own experience with Ventra was fairly positive, but I encountered many times when the card would not scan, took too long to process (leading to delays), or over-charged for a trip. There are also other complaints: the $5 card fee makes it more difficult for social service organizations to assist low-income residents, the $0.75 fare increase for a single ride ticket, and so on.

Compass card readers have been added to all doors on buses.

Compass card readers have been added to all doors on buses.

Compass promised to be even more difficult, requiring users to tap their card when getting on and off of a transit vehicle. This is not as cumbersome when travelling via rail, which tends to cover longer distances, but it is definitely problematic on buses, where egress is sort of like stepping off the vehicle and the station at the same time. There are no turnstiles to pass through or agents to help with any issues with the card. But TransLink would require tapping-off because some of Vancouver’s buses run across fare zone boundaries.

Vancouver regional zone map. Source: TransLink.

I can think of a handful of buses that pass through more than one fare zone, but I personally don’t find it fair that TransLink requires passengers to pay for multiple zones on bus trips. Another city that uses a vast and complex zone-based fare system, London, charges a flat £1.45 for all bus journeys regardless of length or the number of zones traversed. Not only does this eliminate requiring passengers to tap-out, but it is also more fair considering that journeys by bus are, in my Vancouver experience, more prone to getting stuck in traffic and much slower than rail travel.

Gordon Price wrote in August that TransLink should rethink requiring bus passengers to tap-out because it would need to become a habit over time; people would forget to tap-out and be charged a three-zone fare ($5.50) even if they travelled only one ($2.75) or two zones ($4.00) (I’m not sure if the software is sophisticated enough to know, for example, that a passenger on the 99, a bus that travels exclusively in zone 1, could not possibly have passengers travelling between two zones, and therefore only ever charge a one-zone fare even if a passenger forgot to tap-off).

The 99 B-Line between Commercial/Broadway and UBC is the busiest bus route in Canada or the U.S., and permits passengers to get on at all doors to speed boarding. Image via Metro File/Jennifer Gauthier.

If Cubic’s customer service in Canada is anything like the customer service I’ve dealt with in Chicago, this would lead to intense backlash and public criticism, especially when the transit-riding public already complains profusely about rare 10-15 minute train delays. In many North American cities, such delays are called “the morning.”

Tonight, the Vancouver Sun reports that TransLink will likely get rid of the tap-out component for bus riders. The process of tapping the card to pay a fare takes a lot longer than anticipated, leading to delays and frustration among riders. It may also require TransLink to create a single fare for all bus rides, retaining the multi-zone fares for train trips only.

While the customer service aspect of potentially overcharging tens of thousands of passengers and undermining the public’s trust in a transit agency is unquestionably important, I am more interested in why: A) the provincial government believes fare evasion, estimated at $5-7 million per year, is worth the $12 million TransLink will now pay Cubic yearly to operate the system, and B) TransLink believes the rich journey data that can be gathered from requiring tap-on/off is worth the added expense – in dollars and in passenger happiness.

Fare gates at SkyTrain stations have been installed, but remain perpetually open for the time being. Image via CityHallWatch.

I love data analysis and while I’m guessing the sort of detailed journey data TransLink could collect would not be public, it could still use the data to make better-informed decisions in planning transportation services. But there are already other ways of obtaining more estimated data on the number of boardings, the actual length of a bus journey, whether the bus was too full to pick up passengers, and so on that enable TransLink to make decisions without inconveniencing passengers. After all, several other cities around the world provide decent public transportation service without this sort of finely-detailed information, and Vancouver is no exception. While there are certainly public transportation issues to be worked out across the region, I’m not sure if the data from Compass would be very helpful (although I’d love to be educated on what sort of data would be the most helpful).

Regardless of whether or not TransLink ditches the tap-off requirement for buses, I still believe the Compass card system will be better than what exists today: non-reusable single-ride tickets that must be purchased in books of ten in stores, monthly passes that must also be purchased in stores, U-Pass tickets that must be exchanged monthly, and so on. One card to replace monthly passes, and introducing stored value, is a lot easier in the long run even if the change period is rough (just ask a Chicagoan). However, to avoid complicating what has otherwise proven to be an easy way to pay fares, TransLink should ditch the tap-off requirement and move to a one-price fare for bus journeys.

My spectre still gets rid of beg buttons in Chicago

October 23, 2014 at 4:05 pm

I may no longer live in Chicago, but I can still try to get rid of some of its antiquated and pointless push-to-cross buttons (or “beg buttons”). Last fall I noticed a busy pedestrian crossing in my old neighborhood required people crossing to push the button to cross Ashland on Leland – even though a green light for car traffic moving in the same direction ran on a set timer. The only purpose the button served was to activate the pedestrian walk signal and countdown timer. Before, people would cross anyway without the signal or timer, potentially dangerous as the crossing is 65′ (20m) wide across four lanes. After a few months of having CDOT look into it, Alderman Pawar’s (47) office notified me that the signal would always illuminate without having to press the button.

Ashland Ave and Leland Ave. View Larger Map

This past spring I noticed another pedestrian crossing at the busier Montrose/Wolcott intersection in Pawar’s ward also had a beg button. Similar to the earlier case, the entire intersection was on a timer with a pavement sensor on Wolcott (one-way, south) and push-to-walk buttons for people crossing Montrose on Wolcott.

Montrose Ave at Wolcott. View Larger Map

The intersection is one block from the busy Montrose Brown line station, a bus route, and several businesses. It is also on a designated Pedestrian Street (P-street), which is “intended to promote transit, economic vitality and pedestrian safety and comfort.” On promoting and ensuring safety and comfort, beg buttons fail.

Happily, I received an email today from Pawar’s office letting me know that CDOT will change the signal so that the button will no longer need to be pressed to get the signal to cross Montrose. Alderman Pawar has been a fairly reliable alderman when it comes to active transportation issues, making many streets better for people walking, biking, and riding transit, and I’m glad to see that his office respects this down to some of the most minute details (such as my vendetta against beg buttons).

This is only the second instance of an outdated beg button I bothered to pursue, but I’m sure there are many more throughout the city. If there’s enough interest and enough people find them an annoyance, it might be a good idea to go out for a walk and jot down where other such buttons exist so a full list can be submitted to aldermen and they can be investigated together, instead of in an ad-hoc fashion (which takes months).

Protected bike lane on Commercial Drive would improve Vancouver’s bike network

September 19, 2014 at 4:29 pm

Vancouver has a pretty impressive bike network, by North American standards. As I rode around the downtown/False Creek areas yesterday I remarked on the (previously-noted) protected bike lanes downtown. They are some of the widest lanes I’ve seen in North America and take up a third (or more?) of the street width.

It’s a bit of anomaly, but even the short protected lane leading from Kent Ave in Marpole up Cambie St to the Marine Drive Canada Line station is wide.

That said, Vancouver’s “AAA” bike network (“All Ages and Abilities”) is limited to the downtown and the Seaside greenway leading to Spanish Banks along English Bay. AAA bike infrastructure is not all in the form of barrier-separated lanes, but may also be on traffic-calmed streets, and is thoroughly connected – there are few broken links.

There is plenty of room for improvement and expansion to other neighbourhoods. Currently, most of Vancouver’s bike network relies on “Local Street Bikeways,” traffic-calmed streets that are well-signed and discourage thru traffic through the use of traffic diverters. However, they still have car traffic and are therefore not AAA.

45th St Local Street Bikeway.

45th St Local Street Bikeway – nothing spectacular, except traffic-calmed and well-signed.

How I feel about Local Street Bikeways is a subject for an entire post, or perhaps even further study. In a nutshell, they provide safety and refuge from pollution, but by pushing the pedal-powered to side streets, out of sight and mind to many, and away from neighbourhood attractions, businesses, and events. The trade-offs still bother me; on one hand, being away from pollution and noise is nice. On the other hand, the great part of riding a bike is discovering new places – you’re going slower but still able to cover long distances, it’s easier to stop if you see an event to check out or a store to patronize, etc. Mostly, we’re human, and we like watching other humans and being seen by them, too. By excluding bikes from most commercial streets throughout Vancouver, we’re at a bit of a disadvantage.

So I was quite happy to see this tweet this morning:

Commercial Drive is a neighbourhood in East Vancouver; it is bordered on all sides by Local Street Bikeways but none of them pass through the quirky principal street. There is plenty of bike parking and quite a few bicyclists out on street regardless of the lack of bike infrastructure. Chicago readers would find the area similar to Andersonville.

Commercial Drive (near the centre of the map) is surrounded by local street bikeways.

Commercial Drive (near the centre of the map) is surrounded by local street bikeways.

Streets for Everyone proposes a “complete street” down the Drive, complete with protected bike lanes and Dutch-style intersections that make it easier to turn, as well as additions such as covered bike parking and more outdoor seating.

Busy sidewalks are a sign of a healthy, walkable community, but there is always room for improvement. Image: Streets for Everyone.

The renderings (not perfectly to scale) show what could be done with the street:

One issue I foresee is right turns. In the above rendering, cars’ right turns would either have to be banned or subjected to their own signal cycle – which is difficult, because there is only one thru lane for car traffic.

With AAA upgrades to Grandview Highway, Great Northern Way, and Ontario St, the bike lanes could also link to False Creek, downtown, and Gastown, filling in a gap in the bicycle network.

The existing AAA network (yellow highlight) could be expanded (red outline) to Commercial Drive (solid red).

The existing AAA network (yellow highlight) could be expanded (red outline) to Commercial Drive (solid red).

It would be nice to see the proposal realized. It would expand bicycle options into East Vancouver, make it easier for people on foot and bike to frequent Commercial Drive businesses while retaining access for transit and driving, and put Vancouver closer to its transportation and “greenest city” goals. Equally important, it would also increase the visibility of people on bicycles and allow them to experience the neighbourhood just as everyone else is.


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