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“Summer by Rail” Train and Bike Blogger Checks Out Chicago Infrastructure

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“Summer by Rail” blogger Elena Studier on Northerly Island, a rustic park on a peninsula that used to be an air strip. Photo: Mariah Morales

National Association of Railroad Passengers intern Elena Studier is taking a 38-day-trip around the country on Amtrak with her bicycle to document the current state of the U.S. passenger rail system and its connectivity with cycling. It’s a timely journey, since we’re now living in an era when an increasing number of Americans are interested in getting around without having to rely on driving.

Her 10,000-mile trip launched on Sunday in New York City, and Chicago was her first destination – a fitting one, since our city is the railroad hub of the nation. After she arrived here on Monday, staffers from Amtrak and the Active Transportation Alliance gave her a grand tour of the highlights of our local rail, path, and parks networks on two wheels.

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An Amtrak worker hands Studier her bike at Chicago’s Union Station. Photo: Mariah Morales

Studier, a second-year international affairs and geography major at George Washington University in D.C., got the idea for the project, dubbed “Summer by Rail,” while brainstorming ideas for an epic journey using an Amtrak USA Rail Pass. She’s using a 45-day pass, which allows you to take a voyage around the country with up to 18 different segments for $899 ($440.50 for children 2-12). 15- and 30-day passes are also available.

After she started her internship with NARP, which advocates for improving and expanding passenger rail service, she pitched the idea of riding the Amtrak system to highlight how it connects communities and provides access to local transportation networks. The folks at NARP thought it was a great idea, so they agreed to sponsor her travels and worked with Amtrak to coordinate the trip.

Studier will be documenting her adventures on the Summer by Rail blog, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. From Chicago, she’ll be taking the Empire Builder to Seattle, and then heading down the West Coast to Los Angeles, east to New Orleans, and then up the East Coast to D.C., with lots of stops and side trips along the way. For example, on Tuesday she rode Amtrak’s Lincoln Service to Normal, Illinois, to check out the town’s new multi-modal transit center and bikeways.

She brought her Vilano hybrid bike “Stevie” along with her not only to facilitate touring and travel within cities and national parks, but also to showcase how Amtrak and other rail systems have become increasingly bike-friendly in recent years. She’s also helping Amtrak test out roll-on service on lines where cyclists are currently required to box their bikes.

For her trip from NYC on the Lakeshore Limited train, which doesn’t yet have roll-on service, Studier was allowed to bring her cycle to the baggage car, where a worker hung in on a vertical bike rack. It’s the same convenient amenity that Amtrak debuted earlier this month on the Chicago-to-Milwaukee Hiawatha Service and the Chicago-to-Grand Rapids Pere Marquette Service. Amtrak hopes to offer roll-on service for the Lakeshore Limited to the public in late summer or early fall.

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It’s a Lobby-palooza! Join MPC’s 43 Minutes for $43 Billion Infrastructure Push

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MPC says Investing $43 billion over the next years could help get the CTA system, and other Illinois infrastructure, in good working order. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

Are you ready for (almost three-quarters of) an hour of power?

That’s what the Metropolitan Planning Council has planned for Wednesday, May 18, at 11 a.m., when they’ll hold the 43 Minutes for $43 Billion transportation infrastructure lobbying jam session. They’re asking Chicagoland residents to call their legislators and contact leaders in Springfield to ask them to commit to investing $43 billion over the next ten years to fund repairs and improvements to transit, bridges, and roads. They’re also asking citizens to tweet about the fact that we’re sick and tired of the shoddy state of Illinois’ transportation network.

The action is timed to coincide with Infrastructure Week, which Washington, D.C. infrastructure advocates have organized over the last few years, as well as the May 31 adjournment date for the Illinois state legislature. According to MPC executive vice president Peter Skosey, there appears to be plenty of interest on both sides of the aisle for a new transportation funding bill, but the general consensus is that the initiative won’t move forward until the state budget, which has been mired in partisan deadlock, moves forward.

“It’s problematic that we don’t already have a transportation bill,” Skosey said. “In [MPC’s] opinion, it needs to be done immediately, but it also needs to be done adequately.” He noted that if, say, lawmakers agreed to budget $1 billion a year for infrastructure, many Illinoisans would think that’s a big expenditure. “But that wouldn’t be sufficient,” he said. “A billion a year would only make us fall behind farther. It has to be $4.3 billion to get us up to par.”

While MPC hopes a bill can be passed before legislators adjourn at the end of the month, Skosey said there are other windows of opportunity for getting it approved. It could also happen during the November vetoe session (when the governor signs or vetoes legislation the general assembly has passed), or else it could take place during the lame duck session following the November elections, when Illinoisans will vote on every House seat and some Senate seats.

However, it would be much more difficult to pass a bill after May 31 because a two-thirds majority of the assembly would be needed. After January 1, only a simple majority of 51 percent would be required.

At any rate, it makes sense to get the word out to leaders sooner than later that we’re fed up with slow, unreliable train and bus service, potholed roads, and increasingly unsafe bridges. Skosey said MPC came up with the idea for 43 Minutes for $43 Billion as an alternative to organizing a lobbying day in which representatives from the 43 local companies and nonprofits who’ve endorsed the Accelerate Illinois infrastructure funding campaign would have to schlep down to Springfield. “We figured that calls, emails, and social media would be a fast, effective way to send a message,” Skosey said. Here’s how you can get involved.

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Trying Out New Roll-on Bike Service on the Hiawatha Line to Milwaukee

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Maybe “Hoist-on service” would be more accurate, but simply handing your bike to an Amtrak worker is much more convenient than boxing and checking it. Photo: John Greenfield

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This morning as officials cut the ribbon for roll-on bike service on Amtrak’s Hiawatha Service trains, a whole new set of destinations that can easily be accessed without a car opened up for Chicago and Milwaukee residents.

While the Hiawatha line has allowed passengers to check boxed bikes as luggage for years, it’s a relatively expensive and cumbersome affair. There’s a $10 surcharge each way, the boxes are $15 if you purchase them from the railway, and then you have to dissemble your bike and box it up on each leg of the trip.

Now passengers can pay a mere $5 surcharge each way and simply roll their bikes up to the baggage car, where a staffer will hang it on a vertical bike rack. The one-way adult fare for the Hiawatha Service is $25, with discounts available for ten-ride tickets and monthly passes.

Reservations are required for the roll-on service. To reserve a space for your bike, select “add bike” when booking your trip online, on the phone at 800-USA-RAIL, or when using the ticket counters or the Quik-Trak SM kiosks at both stations. Only standard-size bikes are permitted.

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Bikes in the baggage car — some were more festive than others. Photo: John Greenfield

Yesterday I rode Metra to Kenosha, Wisconsin, with my bicycle (one-way weekday fare from the Ravenswood stop was $9) and then pedaled some 40 miles to Milwaukee for the ribbon-cutting ceremony, which was attended by a dozen or two local bike advocates.

“We have worked with [the Wisconsin Department of Transportation] by thinking ‘out of the box’ and mounting 15 bike racks in the [baggage car] on each of the Hiawatha trains,” said Jim Brzezinski, Amtrak’s senior regional director for state corridors. “This will make bringing your bike along on these trips more welcoming and get you on your wheels and pedaling away immediately after arrival.”

“No assembly required, starting now for bicyclists,” said John Alley, WisDOT’s transit, local roads, railroads & harbors manager. “This saves our bicycling passengers money and makes their everyday journeys or vacation trips to explore Milwaukee and Chicago so much easier.”

When the folks with bikes approached the baggage car, Amtrak employees cheerfully hauled their cycles onboard. I was asked to remove my panniers beforehand.

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Amtrak’s Hiawatha Line to Milwaukee Is Launching Roll-On Bike Service

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Biking into Milwaukee on the scenic Oak Leaf Trail is fun, but it will be great to have the option of easily taking a bike on Amtrak. Photo: John Greenfield

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It just keeps getting easier to combine bike and train trips in Chicago. Last month, after years of lobbying by advocates (including Streetsblog’s Steven Vance) the South Shore Line, which runs between Chicago and South Bend, Indiana, finally launched a bikes-on-board pilot.

Now Amtrak, which already allows unboxed bikes on all routes within Illinois (reservations required, $10 surcharge), is introducing roll-on service on its Hiawatha Servicee between Chicago and Milwaukee with a mere $5 charge. The service starts this Wednesday.

The Hiawatha Service is the busiest Amtrak corridor in the Midwest, with about 800,000 passengers in 2015. It offers seven round-trips a day Monday through Saturday, with six on Sundays. This relatively frequent service is partly funded by the Wisconsin and Illinois departments of transportation.

The news is a welcome surprise, and the resolution of a longtime pet peeve of mine. Boxing a bike for the short Amtrak trip to Cream City has always seemed like an unnecessary hassle. Not only did you have to drag a bike box to Union Station or purchase one at from the ticket agent, you had to take an elevator to the basement, dissemble your bike, box it, and check it as baggage, reversing the steps in Milwaukee.

I’m reminded of a particularly aggravating bike-and-transit experience I had after I pedaled across the Cheddar Curtain with New Belgium Brewing Company staffers after they staged the Tour de Fat in Chicago’s Palmer Square. After we caught a show at Milwaukee’s Summerfest, it was too late for me to catch the Hiawatha back to Chicago, so I tried to buy a bike box from an Amtrak agent in order to take a midnight Megabus run. He refused to sell me a box to use for a competing transit service.

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Indiana Will Fund Rewriting Faulty Illiana Environmental Impact Statement

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The Illiana’s high tolls would have driven motorists to use other routes instead. Photo: Tim Messer

The Illiana Tollway, a proposed highway boondoggle that would run through land south of the Chicago metro area, is the project that just won’t die. The tollway would be a joint project of the Illinois and Indiana transportation departments and cost Illinois taxpayers a minimum of $500 million. That’s $500 million that might otherwise be spent on necessary and financially viable projects like rebuilding the North Red Line, constructing the Ashland bus rapid transit route, and building Pace’s transitways.

Greg Hinz recently eported in Crain’s that it appears the two states have reached an agreement that Indiana will spend money to rewrite the project’s Environmental Impact Statement, which a federal judge ruled invalid last June. This federally-required document was supposed to explain why the tollway is needed, and how all impacts – to people and their property, flora and fauna – would be mitigated. Since the Illinois still hasn’t passed a state budget, it’s unable to pay for updating the EIS. We don’t know how much Indiana would spend on this.

Last year, the Environmental Law & Policy Center represented Openlands and the Midewin Heritage Association in a lawsuit against the Illiana and won by pointing out that the original EIS used circular logic. The document argued the tollway was needed in order to provide transportation access new residential and industrial development. However, its projections were based on the assumption that the tollway would be built, and would therefore induce new development in an area of farmland and nature preserves.

There are many reasons why building the Illiana would be a bad idea. For starters, most American roads don’t even pay for their own maintenance, let alone construction. Illinois’ transportation infrastructure network already has a $43 billion maintenance backlog.

Additionally, construction of the tollway would be funded through an extremely dubious public-private partnership scheme, requiring the state to compensate the concessionaire if the highway doesn’t generate a certain amount of profits. Since the plan calls for high tolls, many motorists were predicted to use alternative routes, so the Illiana would see relatively little traffic and not be a money-maker, leaving taxpayers on the hook for the revenue shortfall.

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What Could Chicagoans Learn About Rail Transportation From a Trip to Japan?

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A Streetcar in Hiroshima. Photo: Rick Harnish

The Midwest High Speed Rail Association is hosting a train-focused tour of Japan that should offer Chicago residents a fascinating window on what’s like to live with truly world-class transit and railroad service. The trip, which takes place between September 27 and October 9, is an opportunity to check out how fast, frequent, and dependable trains help create vibrant communities.

MHSRA president Rick Harnish has previously led rail-focused tours of Spain, France, Germany and China. Highlights of the Japan trip will include riding the Shinkansen bullet train between Tokyo and Osaka – the world’s first and busiest high-speed line. Participants will tour a maintenance facility for JR Central, which runs the line.

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The Nagoya Railway Museum. Photo: Rick Harnish

They’ll also check out a Nippon Sharyo railcar factory – In 2012 the company opened a branch in Roselle, Illinois, to fulfill a contract for 160 “Highliner” railcars for Metra Electric Line service, plus orders for other American rail lines. The group will travel to a number of other Japanese cities by rail, including Kyoto, Hakodate, Nagoya, and Hiroshima, visiting various rail museums and cultural attractions and, of course, riding the local Metro systems.

Through out the trip, there will be opportunities for rail experts and enthusiasts to discuss what they’re seeing and relate them to potential American high-speed rail systems, such as proposed lines from Chicago to St. Louis and Detroit. “Every time I have ridden high-speed trains in other cities, I’ve gone, ‘Oh, I get it,’” Harnish says. “So we’re trying to get more people to see these things up close and see how they can work.”

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CNT’s “AllTransit” Tool Can Help Legislators Understand Transit Needs

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Metra stops only a few times each day at the Kedzie station in East Garfield Park (near Inspiration Kitchens), but AllTransit considers transit frequency when calculating a place’s transit quality. Photo: Jonathan Lee

A new tool shows just how much advantage residents in some Illinois cities might have over others accessing jobs with low-cost transit, and just how much difference state legislators could make if they chose to fund more transit. AllTransit, an analysis tool from the Center for Neighborhood Technology and TransitCenter (a Streetsblog Chicago funder), shows information about access to transit that residents and job seekers have in any part of the United States, using data about transit service, demographic information, and job locations.

CNT project manager Linda Young told me those Springfield legislators can use the tool to understand the quality of transit their constituents have access to. They can also compare their districts to those of their fellow elected officials. For example, Illinois state representative Mike Quigley would see that AllTransit gives his 5th district the highest score in Illinois, and, unexpectedly, the 22nd district, covering East St. Louis, Illinois, and parts south, represented by Mike Bost, is second. The 9th district covering northern Chicago, Evanston, and parts of northwest Cook County, and represented by Jan Schakowsky, comes in third.

While aldermen may also find it useful to see the plethora or lack of transit options their constituents have, the info isn’t broken down by Chicago wards. However, it is possible to search by ZIP code.

Young added that elected officials might also be interested to see how many jobs people who live in designated affordable housing can they get to within 30 minutes. “We see more and more that people are wanting to live in areas where there’s mixed uses and transit access,” she said.

Business owners can also benefit from AllTransit info since it can them how many people can access their business within a certain amount of time. If you look at the Inspiration Kitchens restaurant in East Garfield Park at 3504 West Lake, AllTransit reports that there are 438,632 “customer households” within a 30-minute transit commute.

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MPC: Vehicle Miles Traveled Tax Makes Sense, Won’t Happen for a While

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Cullerton: This guy is partly to blame for falling gas tax revenue. Photo: Frank Hebbert

Earlier this month the Metropolitan Planning Council released a report that found Illinois needs to raise $43 billion in revenue over the next decade to get our roads, bridges, and transit lines in a state of good repair. They called for raising the state gas tax, which has stayed flat at 19 cents since 1991, as well as raising vehicle registration fees. That idea got a mixed reception from state politicians, some of whom viewed a gas tax hike as political Kryptonite.

Interestingly, Senate President John Cullerton came out with his own infrastructure funding plan this week. He proposed implementing a vehicle miles traveled tax as a way to deal with falling gas tax revenue due to the growing popularity of more fuel-efficient hybrid and electric cars. Cullerton noted that even so-called “green” cars inflict wear-and-tear on Illinois roads, so It’s necessary to develop a more effective way to tax them.

“If all the cars were electric, there would be no money for the roads,” Cullerton told the Daily Herald. “The Prius owners are the reason we need the bill,” he said.

There are a several ways the VMT tax could potentially be collected, ranging laughably simple to high-tech. The first would be have drivers simply agree to pay the 1.5-cent per year based on the assumption that they’ll drive $30,000 miles a year, for an annual total of $450. Of course, that would be a great deal for Illinoisans who drive much more than that each year, and a terrible for those who drive much less.

A second option would be to have citizens self-report their mileage on a paper form. What could go wrong?

A third alternative would be an electronic device that would hook up to your vehicle’s odometer to provide an accurate count of how many miles you drive. However it might not know when you’ve left the state or are driving on a private road and therefore arguably shouldn’t be taxed by the state for those miles.

The most high-tech solution would be a GPS-powered gadget that can accurately keep track of exactly how many miles, on what roads, you’ve driven. Of course, there’d be privacy issues. What guaranteed would there be that a technician wouldn’t blackmail you after they observed you driving to a hideaway with your secret paramour? But that’s merely a hypothetical at this point.

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Could Woman-Only ‘L’ Cars Prevent Sexual Harassment on the CTA?

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A women-only railcar in Tokyo. Photo: Wikipedia

[The Chicago Reader recently launched a new weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. This partnership allows Streetsblog to extend the reach of our livable streets advocacy. We syndicate a portion of the column on the day it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print. The paper hits the streets on Thursdays.]

Last month in the wake of hundreds of reported sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, a German commuter train line announced it would offer railcars reserved for women and children. Crowded transit systems in Japan, Indonesia, India, Egypt, Mexico, and Brazil already feature women-only rail cars in order to prevent harassment and assaults.

In response to that news, last week NPR commentator Rhitu Chatterjee wrote glowingly of the ladies’ cars in her hometown of Delhi.

“It would be wonderful if men learned to accept women’s presence in public spaces without feeling the need to harass them,” Chatterjee wrote. “But until they do, the women’s car is one good way for us to assert our right to public spaces.”

Her op-ed got me thinking about whether female-only cars might be a strategy to combat sexual intimidation and violence on the CTA.

In 2015 there were eight reported sexual assaults on the CTA—a category that includes everything from groping to rape—according to spokesman Jeff Tolman. He characterized that as “extremely few instances,” considering that 516 million rides were taken last year.

While lesser offenses often aren’t reported to the CTA or police, stories female friends and colleagues shared with me by for this article suggest that inappropriate behavior is all too common on the system.

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South Shore Line Launches Long-Awaited Bikes-on-Board Pilot Program

Seats are removed to accommodate bike racks to hold bikes during the trip.

Seats were removed to accommodate bike racks to hold bikes during the trip. Photo: Eric Rogers

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The South Shore Line, a commuter train service between Chicago and northern Indiana, started its weekend-only bikes-on-train pilot last Saturday. Alex Elich, a reporter with the WSBT radio station, demonstrated how to use the racks that hold the bike steady on the train.

The Northern Indiana Commuter Transit District, the agency that runs the South Shore, dragged its feet for years about allowing bikes on their trains. After coming under fire as the only commuter train line the United States that didn’t allow non-folding bikes on board, last August the NICTD board approved the project to test bike racks in some trains.

Permitting bikes on South Shore trains allows Chicagoland residents to ride the train with their bikes to enjoy the recreational resources of northern Indiana, such as the Indiana Dunes and numerous off-street trails. It’s also great for Hoosiers who want to bring a bike into Chicago to explore the city.

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A yellow sign indicates which train car holds bikes. Photo: Eric Rogers

During the pilot, South Shore riders can only bring their bikes on weekends, and only on a limited number of runs per day. This is in contrast to Metra, which accommodates bikes on most weekday and all weekend runs.

And Metra currently allows bikes during high-ridership events, with the caveat that if trains get crowded conductors may not allow bikes on board. The South Shore bikes-on-board brochure warns that cycles will not be permitted during Blues Festival, Taste of Chicago, Lollapalooza, and the Air & Water Show.

On the other hand, while most wheelchair-accessible Metra cars can officially accommodate only five bikes (although it’s easy to fit a few more onboard without objections from the conductors), each South Shore bike car has room for about two dozen bicycles.

Streetsblog Chicago reader Eric Rogers and his friends were some of the first cyclists to try out the new South Shore bike service last Saturday. They pedaled to the 18th Street Brewery in Hammond, Indiana, and then caught the train back to Chicago.

“Boarding was easy and the conductor was friendly,” Rogers reported. However, since not every train run has a bike car, the group was forced to catch a train home earlier than they would have liked.

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