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Posts from the "Chicago" Category

Streetsblog Chicago 49 Comments

Oil-Laden Freight Trains Delaying Amtrak, Commuter Trains Across U.S.

Oil train running on BNSF tracks through Pilsen in Chicago

Tank cars roll through Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood on BNSF tracks.

Oil production is booming across North America, as new technologies make it possible to extract liquid crude oil from sources like the Bakken shale oil field in North Dakota and Montana, or Alberta’s tar sands. The ever-increasing volume of crude oil mined in remote Great Plains locations often finds its way to refineries via ”rolling pipelines” – freight trains that tow a million barrels of oil around the United States every day. Production of Bakken crude has tripled over the past three years, and 79 percent of it is shipped out by rail.

The number of rail cars carrying crude oil across the United States has been steadily increasing.

The number of rail cars carrying crude oil across the United States has been steadily increasing. Data from EIA, AAR, news reports.

The resulting sharp increase in rail traffic doesn’t just threaten communities along the line that are unprepared for their explosive cargo — a threat that the US Department of Transportation recently issued new rules to address. Growing freight volumes are also delaying millions of passengers aboard Amtrak or commuter trains, most of which share tracks with ever more freight trains. Nationwide, the number of delayed Amtrak trains has increased by almost 75 percent. As Tanya Snyder reported yesterday, that results from a court ruling that left Amtrak powerless against freight train interference. Around Chicago, hub of the continent’s railroad network, delays have multiplied on the region’s busiest commuter rail line – a Metra line operated by BNSF, which is also North Dakota’s biggest freight hauler.

The American Association of Railroads reported an 8.5 percent increase year-to-date in the number of American freight trains carrying oil across the country, and a 9.1 percent increase reported from Canadian trains. Since 2011, the number of cars of crude oil shipped nationwide has doubled.

Oil is having a particularly heavy impact on rail operations along certain companies’ lines, and none more so than BNSF. Its transcontinental trunk line spans North Dakota, and its branches serve 21 of North Dakota’s 25 oil-producing counties. As a result, BNSF hauled more than 500,000 barrels of crude oil in 2013, “up from practically none” just four years ago, NPR reported.

The boom has strained what used to be isolated stretches of railroad. Amtrak’s daily Empire Builder train spans the country’s northern tier, from Chicago to Seattle and Portland via North Dakota and Montana, using BNSF’s Great Northern route almost all of the way. “The Builder” now has the dubious double distinction of being both the most popular of Amtrak’s transcontinental routes and its most delayed route nationwide, arriving on time about once a week. Delays have become so routine that Amtrak recently padded its schedule by three hours. BNSF’s quarterly report [PDF] shows growing volumes across all business lines, but notes that increased industrial shipments in the second quarter of 2014 are “primarily due to increased shipments of petroleum products [and] frac sand.”

Derrick James, Amtrak director of government affairs for the Midwest, told Streetsblog that national on-time performance has seen “a dramatic decline,” dropping “from 80 percent in February 2013 to 55 percent through April 2014.” James said that as reliability has dropped, ridership on both long-distance and short-distance lines has also dropped by 4.9 percent.

Amtrak “conductors produce delay reports,” James points out, “and these delay reports pinpoint a dramatic increase in rail traffic — especially trains connected with hydraulic fracturing, sand trains and oil trains.” On the Empire Builder in particular, Amtrak conductors cite “train interference” as the principal cause of delays.

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Streetsblog Chicago 40 Comments

Study: To Keep Bicyclists Outside the Door Zone, You Need a Buffer

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A buffered bike lane does a better job of encouraging bicyclists to ride outside the door zone than a wide bike lane. Photo: John Greenfield

A new study has found that bike lanes with a buffer next to the parking lane are better than conventional bike lanes at encouraging bicyclists to ride outside the door zone.

The study, recently published by the Transportation Research Board, concludes that wider but un-buffered bike lanes aren’t necessarily better than narrower lanes in encouraging bicyclists to ride outside the door zone. If there’s enough space to make a wider bike lane, the authors conclude, that extra space should be used to install a “narrower bicycle lane with a parking-side buffer,” which “provides distinct advantages over a wider bike lane with no buffer.”

Researchers reached their conclusions after observing thousands of cyclists using various bike lane configurations in Chicago and Cambridge, Massachusetts. On one Chicago street, for example, few bicyclists rode outside the door zone when the bike lane had no buffer, then after a two-foot buffer was striped, 40 percent rode outside the door zone.

Bicyclists are more likely to ride outside the door zone in a buffered bike lane than any other bike lane width studied.

Bicyclists are much more likely to ride outside the door zone in a buffered bike lane than in any other bike lane width studied.

That’s because the door zone is four feet wide, and riding in the center of a six-foot-wide bike lane still doesn’t give a cyclist enough clearance.

The on-street tests demonstrated that a six-foot-wide bike lane offers no advantage over one that’s five feet wide, or even four feet wide. Regardless of the width, bicyclists still ride in the center of the lane — within the radius of a typical car door swinging open. Dooring crashes are common in urban areas like Chicago: In 2012, the last year for which data is available, 18 percent of reported bike crashes were doorings.

The researchers were studying different types of bike lanes, and how people use them, in order to refine recommendations in the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ ”Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities.” The guide recommends five-foot-wide bike lanes and says four-foot-wide bike lanes can be used in other situations — but it was based on trial and error, not scientific research.

While protected bike lanes weren’t studied in this research, the authors’ observations show how proximity to moving traffic contributes to doorings. For instance, the study concluded that, “as traffic volume increases, bicyclists move away from vehicles in the travel lane and position themselves closer to parked vehicles or the curb.” Researchers observed the same response as truck traffic increased. This leads bicyclists to ride in the door zone — but with protected lanes, cyclists don’t have to ride next to motor vehicle traffic, and this isn’t a problem.

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Parking Madness Final Four: Chicago vs. Jacksonville

We started with 16 parking craters and now we’re down to the Final Four of Parking Madness.

After two bruising rounds of competition, four hideous parking expanses in Kansas City, Rochester, Chicago, and Jacksonville are still in it to win it. Each one is an ugly and awe-inspiring waste of potential in its own way.

Today’s matchup for a shot at the championship pits Jacksonville against Chicago.

The contender from Florida is a riverfront travesty:

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Jacksonville has been a real force in this tournament, easily knocking off impressive entries from Calgary and Dallas. You can see there are a few very tall buildings in this area, but since it’s been mercilessly carved up by highways, parking has become the land use of choice.

Meanwhile, the Chicago site is a different kind of crater.

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Parking Madness Elite Eight: El Cerrito vs. Chicago

We’re two weeks into our Parking Madness competition, and only a few parking craters are still standing.

Today’s Elite Eight matchup pairs a Bay Area suburb with America’s third largest city: It’s El Cerrito, California vs. Chicago.

First up is El Cerrito, which was singled out for shame by one of our readers because of this crater’s proximity to a BART station providing quick access to San Francisco.

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The submitter pointed out that almost every BART station looks something like this, so in a sense the El Cerrito parking crater is standing in for the failure of an entire region to produce walkable development near transit.

Meanwhile, the Chicago crater suffers from sports venue syndrome:

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Talking Headways Podcast: Knight Rider Rides Again

It was a dark and stormy day in San Francisco and Jeff Wood stayed dry in Woonerf studios, recording the Talking Headways podcast with co-host Tanya Snyder, who was bitter that days after the spring equinox, Washington, DC, was getting hit with another snowstorm.

But more importantly — what does the future hold after a tumultuous news cycle for New York’s Citi Bike? What can Chicago (and, oh, every other American city) do to create more affordable housing in the neighborhoods everyone wants to live in? And is the self-driving car seriously going to become a reality by the end of this decade? And is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Jeff and Tanya take on all that and more. Or really, pretty much just that.

Enjoy our sweet 16th episode of the Talking Headways podcast, subscribe on iTunes, follow the RSS feed, and talk at us in the comments.

50 Comments

It’s ON! Parking Madness 2014 Kicks Off With Chicago vs. Denver

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Are you ready for Parking Madness 2014, our second annual search for parking craters that have obliterated cities? You better be.

Last year, Tulsa took home the Golden Crater. In this year’s tournament, we broadened the field to accept entries from outside the United States. Perhaps not surprisingly, American parking craters still dominated the reader submissions, but one international contestant will be facing off this year: Calgary, Alberta. Canada’s first entrant is up against some truly gruesome competition.

Our first matchup is Chicago vs. Denver. It’s your job to decide which parking crater is the most awful, life-sapping blight on its city.

Here’s the evidence, beginning with Chicago:

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Streetsblog NYC 14 Comments

Bixi Bankruptcy: What Does It Mean for American Bike-Share?

The Montreal-based equipment supplier for several American bike-share systems, including New York’s Citi Bike and Chicago’s Divvy, filed for bankruptcy protection yesterday. It’s unclear exactly how the restructuring or sale of the company known as Bixi will play out, but the bankruptcy filing could accelerate the transition to more robust and reliable hardware and software. It also figures to be a messy process, though the company that operates Citi Bike expressed confidence today that it won’t impede their service.

Photo: Citi Bike

Bixi has always been a strange company. An offshoot of Montreal’s municipal parking contractor, it received significant financial backing from the city of Montreal. Bixi both operates bike-share systems in Canadian cities and runs a subsidiary that supplies bikes, stations, and other equipment to bike-share operators in New York, London, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, DC, and other cities. The subsidiary was supposed to be sold off to disentangle Montreal from Bixi’s business ventures, but according to the Times, two deals fell apart and a sale never happened.

The bankruptcy news is not unexpected. It’s most troubling for Montreal, which is owed several million dollars by Bixi, and for the other Canadian cities where Bixi runs bike-share systems. In New York and the cities where Bixi is a subcontractor, the restructuring or break-up of Bixi could be a blessing in disguise, helping to resolve some longstanding problems with the company’s product.

Until 2012, Bixi’s bike-share equipment ran on a software platform developed by 8D Technologies. That’s what Bixi was using when it bid on and won the NYC bike-share contract with Alta Bike-Share. But after an intellectual property dispute with 8D, Bixi went to a different firm to develop replacement software, and the systems that have launched since the switch — including Citi Bike, Divvy, and Bay-Area Bike-Share — have been plagued by delays, glitches, and inefficiencies. While the software has been updated to some extent, in New York, especially, it’s been a drag on operations and an obstacle to system expansion. Both Citi Bike and Divvy, in Chicago, are withholding payments to Bixi because the software is not up to snuff.

It’s not clear yet whether Bixi’s international operation will be restructured as a financially viable entity, or if it will be broken up. Bixi itself contracted out much of its manufacturing — including the bikes — so in the event that the company gets dissolved, American bike-share operators should be able to find suitable replacement suppliers. One company that’s potentially waiting in the wings is 8D, which has developed equipment including kiosks, docking units, and locking mechanisms to go along with its software.

Shifting from Bixi to different suppliers would be a challenging transition for bike-share operators, but it could appear seamless from the bike-share subscriber’s perspective.

For now, operators supplied by Bixi do not expect the bankruptcy to detract from the customer experience. “We are committed to a thriving and expanded Citi Bike system,” said Dani Simons of NYC Bicycle-Share, the subsidiary of Alta Bike-Share that runs Citi Bike. “We’re still sorting out the details but we don’t expect the news from Montreal to affect our operations in 2014.”

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The U.S. Cities Where Cycling Is Growing the Fastest

Cities where bike commuting is growing fastest. Table: League of American Bicyclists

Cities with the most growth in bike commuting, per the U.S. Census. Table: League of American Bicyclists

This table, showing the top 10 U.S. cities where cycling is growing fastest, comes from a new report from the League of American Bicyclists that analyzes census data. Though the census only tracks bicycle commuting — and thus understates how many people are cycling — the results tell an interesting story about cycling trends.

Notice a mix of rust belt cities and larger, more progressive metros that are doing a lot to improve conditions for cyclists. It should also be noted that cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Baltimore had such small shares of commuters cycling in 1990 that, while percentage increases seem absolutely whopping, actual bike commuting rates are still somewhat modest. (The average bike commuting rate across the United States is 0.6 percent, the League reports.)

But even Portland had only a 1.2 percent bike commute mode share in 1990. It will be interesting to see where these cities are 23 years from now. Imagine if these trends continued.

The Bike League study is loaded with interesting city rankings. Check it out, and you’re almost certain to find your city on one of those lists.

Streetsblog Chicago 87 Comments

Chicago Transit Agencies Vote for a Tollway Even the Road Lobby Hates

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IDOT moving full steam ahead on unneeded road building in Illinois. Photo: straightedge217.

Chicago-area transportation organizations are poised to shoot themselves in the foot and harm the region by allowing the Illinois Department of Transportation Department to squander limited transportation infrastructure funds on the $2.75 billion Illiana Tollway. On Friday the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s transportation committee voted to recommend moving forward with this wasteful, destructive project, which promises to suck jobs from Illinois and send them to Indiana. It would create only 940 new jobs over the next thirty years.

Representatives of Metra and Pace, plus Steve Schlickman of UIC’s Urban Transportation Center (possibly motivated by fear of losing state funding), voted yes on an advisory motion to include the Illiana Tollway in the fiscally constrained projects list for CMAP’s GO TO 2040 regional plan. This would allow the highway project to compete for the same small pots of money that fund the transit agencies’ maintenance and expansion projects, as well as research and planning studies.

Max Muller, the Active Transportation Alliance’s director of government relations, was perplexed by the vote. “It makes as much sense as the Illiana Expressway proposal itself: none,” he said. Mueller added that the CTA and Metra voted against their own interests and “against a regional plan that prioritizes multimodal transportation and investment in existing infrastructure.”

On Friday, Stacy Meyers, policy coordinator for Openlands, a conservation group that is one of three organizations suing IDOT over the tollway, told the committee members that they would be unwise to support the project — echoing analysis of the Illiana by the Metropolitan Planning Council and CMAP’s own staff. “Your top projects will be deferred, underfunded or dropped, even if you have been told otherwise,” she said. “There simply isn’t enough money to do everything. We can barely cover what we have agreed to build.”

Reps from the CTA, the Chicago Department of Transportation, the Regional Transportation Authority, and other organizations abstained from voting, effectively handing over their votes to IDOT. Unsurprisingly, the three IDOT reps on the committee voted in favor of the project. The rep from the Illinois Tollway Authority also also voted yes, but that’s not surprising either since the commission enjoys a very secure funding mechanism and unwavering support from the governor’s office. In the end the CMAP committee voted 10 to seven in favor of the project.

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Commuter Idyll Winner Jake Williams Tells His Dramatic Story of Salvation

Jake’s girlfriend and her co-worker at Sam Schwartz Engineering were so excited that he won Streetsblog’s “Commuter Idyll” challenge that they created this “infographic” of his commutes.

When we saw that Washington’s news-traffic-weather radio station, WTOP, was holding a ”Commuter Idle” contest for the worst commute in the DC area — and rewarding it with $1,000 in gas money — we couldn’t resist. We went looking for the best “Commuter Idyll” — the trips to work that made people happy, got them fresh air, helped them fit exercise into their day, gave them some extra time to sleep or read, and brought them to work more clear-headed and ready to tackle the day. And Streetsblog readers had lots of great stories to share of ditching long car commutes for transit, biking, or walking. We shared some of them yesterday.

Meanwhile, check out the painful stories of soul-sucking commutes of WTOP’s 10 finalists. Some are out of the house by 4:00 a.m., drive 80 miles each way, are stuck in their car for six hours a day. Imagine all the better ways they could use that time and money!

Our “Commuter Idyll” winner — Jake Williams of Chicago — had a hellish commute too. He made big changes to get control over his time, his health, and his happiness. Here’s Jake’s story.

Upon graduating from college at UCLA, I moved back home to Chicago to start my working career as an engineer. I had commuted to internships before, one in Kenosha, WI and one in Melrose Park, IL, so I was already exposed and accustomed to the solo commute by automobile. I was looking for work anywhere in the metro area, and when I was offered a job in Lincolnshire, a suburb of Chicago 26 miles from my apartment, I was not fazed. Little did I know that the next four years would at times literally “drive” me crazy.

The guts of Jake’s old ride. 

The commute affected my whole life and actually made me dread going to and from work. I tried waking up early in the morning, and while it was nice seeing the sunrise, it was not a sustainable schedule. I worked longer hours, and although the morning commute was somewhat more tolerable, the commute home was about as awful. I tried breaking up the afternoon commute by heading straight to the gym and then going home. The result was that I was gone 14 hours a day and exhausted, constantly.

I would become angry and irritable. I needed a “cool-off” period when I got home. I stalked the roads religiously on traffic sites and on the various radio stations, but knowing never changed what was coming. I realized that the commute had completely conquered me when I left work one snowy winter day and got so frustrated with the stagnation on the road that I turned around and went back to work, for hours.

So, when times got rough and I was laid off from work, the strange, overwhelming feeling was of relief. Ironically, I was supposed to be laid off a day earlier, but I had to call off work because my car had broken down. I was disenchanted with my career choice and lifestyle choice, and I realized after a couple of months that I had the power to change all of that. I decided that I had one of many new goals: to walk to work.

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