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South Shore Line: We Want to Accommodate Bikes But Don’t Know How Yet

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The Chicago Perimeter Ride passes under a South Shore Line train. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

As I discussed yesterday, the agency that runs the South Shore Line commuter rail service, between Chicago and South Bend, is considering piloting a bikes-on-trains program, but not for six long years. The Northern Illinois Commuter Transportation District’s ridiculous feet-dragging on the issue prompted the Active Transportation Alliance to sarcastically bestow them a Broken Spoke Award as “the least bike-friendly commuter rail service in the nation.”

Even though the South Shore is the only commuter line in the country that doesn’t accommodate cyclists, NICTD recognizes the importance of bicycle access, according to marketing and outreach director John Parsons. “There are a lot of great places to get on a bike around here,” he said, adding that the agency knows that it can be challenging to access destinations from its train stations on foot.

Parsons acknowledged that there has been an outpouring of support for a bikes-on-trains program from people who took a NICTD survey and signed online petitions. “We know the demand is there, so we want to do it right,” he said. NICTD doesn’t think it can successfully accommodate bikes until it gets new rail cars, which wouldn’t happen for several years. “Without additional capacity, we would have to remove seats from cars.”

The South Shore isn’t currently planning to buy new cars, but they’re exploring options, Parsons said. Most of the agency’s capital budget is earmarked for installing Positive Train Control, a federally mandated safety system that automatically brakes trains when operators drive too fast for conditions or lose control.

Read more…

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The South Shore Line Expects You to Wait Six Years for Bike Access

When NICTD policies don't make sense

This man hoped he would be allowed on the South Shore if he took the wheels off his bike. Photo: Strannik45.

Update: NICTD responded to our request for comment after publication and we will post a follow up story on Tuesday. 

Eager to bring your bike on a South Shore Line train to visit Notre Dame University, commute from Northwest Indiana to Chicago, or take a spin around the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore? You may well be able to do that – some time in 2021.

At a recent board meeting of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, the agency that runs the rail line between Chicago and South Bend, consultants recommended that the transit agency wait six years to pilot a bikes-on-board program. We’re not even talking about full implementation here, but merely testing out the program on a limited basis.

In contrast, Metra’s Bikes on Trains program has been around for over a decade. Granted, it took some strong-arming from then-lieutenant governor Pat Quinn to force Metra to agree to the policy change. NICTD has been studying the issue since 2013, around the time I launched a petition for bike access on the South Shore, which 731 people signed.

The recommendation to delay the Indiana line’s bikes-on-trains pilot was made by staff from Quandel Consultants, a construction and engineering consulting firm, and LTK Engineering Services and The McCormick Group. Part of the reasoning behind that advice was that the South Shore could get new train cars by then, according to the Active Transportation Alliance’s south suburban outreach manager Leslie Phemister, who attended the board meeting. When new cars would be in service, NICTD can begin piloting the bike program by removing half of the seats in an older car to make room for bikes. However, NICTD doesn’t know if or when they may obtain new – or used – train cars.

Dedicating half the space in a rail car for bikes is a great idea. However, the plan for the pilot only calls for attaching this car to two trains per day: one morning run to Chicago and one evening train to Indiana, according to Phemister. If you miss that train, you won’t be able to get home with your bike.

Phemister added that the length of the delay is absurd. “I think a [six-year] wait is a little bit of a long time,” she said. In response to NICTD’s foot dragging on the issue, as well as their resistance to a proposed at-grade crossing of South Shore tracks for an extension of the Burnham Greenway, Active Trans recently crowned them “The least bike-friendly commuter rail service in the nation.” The advocacy group sarcastically presented the group with its “Broken Spoke Award,” noting that the South Shore is the only commuter line in the nation that doesn’t accept bikes.

Active Trans wants NICTD to come up with another solution for accommodating cyclists in the near future, Phemister said. This strategy should also be implemeted on off-peak trains, in addition to the rush-hour bike car.

Read more…

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Getting Closer to the End: Judge Nullifies Federal Approval of Illiana Tollway

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One of the key phrases from Judge Alonso’s ruling.

It’s looking like the nightmarish vision of a totally unnecessary, 47-mile highway cutting through prime Illinois farmland is not going to become a reality. A federal judge ruled yesterday that the Illinois Department of Transportation failed to provide a proper Environmental Impact Statement for the Illiana Tollway.

U.S. District Court Judge Jorge Alonso wrote that the final EIS the state submitted was “arbitrary and capricious.” He also noted that the Federal Highway Administration shouldn’t have approved the EIS because the tollway’s purpose and need statement was based on “market-driven forecasts developed by [IDOT] consultants,” rather than sound policy.

The lawsuit was filed by the Environmental Law & Policy Center, representing Openlands, the Sierra Club, and the Midewin Heritage Association. They argued that the state used circular logic to justify the Illiana: IDOT’s projections for population growth in the project area were based on the the assumption that the highway would be built. “This [ruling] is an opportunity for the Illiana saga to be brought [to] an end once and for all,” said ELPC’s executive director Howard Learner.

Alonso’s decision is the latest stake in the heart of the Illiana, a terrible idea that was promoted heavily by former governor Pat Quinn and state representatives from the south suburbs. Two weeks ago, current governor Bruce Rauner ordered IDOT to suspend all existing contracts and procurements for the tollway, stating in a news release that “the project costs exceed currently available resources.” He also told IDOT to remove the Illiana from its current multi-year transportation plan.

The ruling [PDF] also noted that IDOT and its consultants met with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and the Northwestern Illinois Regional Planning Commission to discuss population and employment forecasts for the Illiana corridor, but chose not to use those projections. That’s because CMAP’s forecasts were “based on ‘aggressive assumptions regarding infill, redevelopment & densification'” and not how people would be drawn to new subdivisions made accessible by a massive highway.

CMAP and NIRPC objected to IDOT’s market-driven projections because their respective regional plans recommend that new development should be concentrated in the existing metropolitan area, rather than replacing farmland with sprawl. In essence, the state said that growth should be geographically unconstrained and the MPOs said growth should be focused and sustainable. Read more…

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Rauner Takes a Second, Hopefully Final, Step to Kill the Illiana

MPC 2014 Annual Luncheon

Governor Rauner and IDOT have removed the Illiana from the state’s current infrastructure plan. Photo: MPC

Yesterday, Governor Bruce Rauner drove a second stake into the heart of the Illiana Tollway, a sprawl-inducing highway proposed for rural Illinois and Indiana, just south of metropolitan Chicago. Rauner’s office issued a press release slamming a new state budget passed by Democratic leaders as fiscally irresponsible. In response to the budget, the Republican governor announced he will cut many state programs, including the Illiana. The release states:

In light of the state’s current fiscal crisis and a lack of sufficient capital resources, the Illiana Expressway will not move forward at this time. As a result, the Illinois Department of Transportation will remove the project from its current multi-year plan. It is the determination of IDOT that the project costs exceed currently available resources. The Department will begin the process of suspending all existing project contracts and procurements.

The Chicago Tribune wrote that the cuts are Rauner’s strategy to force House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton to renegotiate the budget. However, it’s unlikely that the governor’s plan to stop the Illiana will be an effective bargaining chip.

The Illiana was spearheaded by former governor Pat Quinn, who was fighting for his political life at the time. Desperate to win votes, he was so focused on building the highway that he was willing to gamble more than $500 million in future taxpayer dollars on the boondoggle.

Most of the other politicians who pushed hard for the tollway were legislators whose districts it would have run through, as well as South Side representatives who hoped the project would create jobs for their constituents. Many other politicians understood that the road would siphon industry and residents from the rest of the region, and the resulting sprawl would be a drag on the local economy.

Rauner drove the first stake into the Illiana in January, when he froze non-essential highway spending. While no infrastructure project can ever truly die, with this recent move, the governor has taken the tollway off IDOT’s current to-do list. However, the tollway currently remains on a list of potential transportation projects maintained by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the region’s metropolitan planning organization.

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Don’t Deride the Delay: More Ventra App Testing Will Ensure Better Quality

CUTGroup #11: Expunge.io (Fenger)

The CTA is involving CUTGroup, an organization for testing civic apps in Chicago. Here, Fenger high school students test an app called Expunge.io that advises people on how to expunge juvenile records. Photo: Dan X. O’Neil

Earlier this month, the CTA, Metra, and Pace announced that they are delaying the launch of the Ventra mobile app from this spring until this fall, and that an independent civic app testing group will help vet it. Contrary to what Chicago Tribune transportation writer Jon Hilkevitch wrote, that’s not a sign that there are “undisclosed issues” with the technology. Rather, it shows that the transit agencies are being careful to thoroughly test the app before releasing it to the public. Given the rocky launch of the Ventra card two years ago, that’s a wise strategy.

The Ventra app, which I favorably reviewed in April, will let Metra riders skip lines at ticket counters and vending machines by paying their fares on trains, without being penalized by onboard surcharges. It will also allow Metra, CTA, and Pace customers to quickly recharge their Ventra account balances before boarding trains and buses.

The agencies’ news release stated that they will collaborate on testing the app with Smart Chicago Collaborative, a nonprofit that works to bridge the digital divide. The organization’s Civic User Testing Group will engage citizens in a formal process where they will test the app with their personal Ventra accounts.

Hilkevitch wrote a short piece in response to the news, in which he jumped to conclusions about the reason for the delay. The article quotes CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase as saying, “The user experience, we don’t think, is there yet.” Hilkevitch assumed this meant the transit agencies are partnering with the CUTGroup because they need to “iron out undisclosed issues” with the app.

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Automated Bike Rental is Coming to the Forest Preserves This Summer

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Bike and Roll will use equipment by the French company Smoove.

The Forest Preserves of Cook County recently announced that they will be offering bike rental at six locations this summer. The forest preserve district’s board approved a contract with Bike and Roll, Chicago’s largest bike rental company, which will be setting up automated rental stations, plus a staffed facility at the Dan Ryan woods. “We’re really excited to have another way to encourage people to visit the forest preserves and engage in physical activity when they get there,” said district spokeswoman Lambrini Lukeidis.

Next month, Bike and Roll (a Streetsblog Chicago sponsor) will open the Dan Ryan Woods concession, which will provide access to the Major Taylor Trail. Later this summer they will install bike-share-style docking stations at Tower Road, Blue Star Memorial, Bunker Hill, Caldwell Woods, and the Chicago Botanic Garden.

The manned facility will offer various types of bikes and quadcycles, as well as baby seats, child trailers, and trail-a-bike attachments. For the automated stations, Bike and Roll will be using cycles and docks supplied by the French company Smoove. Each station will hold up to ten bikes, which can be rented via credit, debit, and prepaid cards, with rates beginning at $7 per hour or $28 per day. Customers can check bike availability online from mobile devices. Unlike bike-share vehicles, the forest preserve cycles must be returned to the original rental location.

“It’s a natural fit for the forest preserves to offer bike rental, because we have 300 miles of trails throughout the county,” Lukeidis. “People who know our trail system are really avid users, but a lot of people haven’t experienced them yet.” She added that the rental stations will make it easier for county residents to try cycling in the preserves if they don’t own a bike, live too far away to ride there, and/or don’t have the ability to transport their bike with a car.

Of course, CTA, Pace, and Metra accept bicycles, so that’s another option for accessing the forest preserve trails without driving. And Cook County municipalities should be developing safe, family-friendly bikeways that allow residents to pedal comfortably from their homes to their local nature area. However, the opportunity to rent a bike at a forest preserve and ride on car-free trails could serve as a gateway to cycling for many people who don’t currently ride at all. That could help build support for creating low-stress, on-street bike routes as well.

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Rauner’s IDOT Listening Tour Only Includes a Sprinkling of Cook County Stops

Bruce Rauner at the MPC 2014 annual luncheton

Rauner at a Metropolitan Planning Council event last year. Photo: MPC

Cook County represents 41 percent of Illinois’ population yet only three of the 30 scheduled stops on the Illinois Department of Transportation’s upcoming listening tour regarding Governor Rauner’s proposed state budget will take place in the county: two in suburban Cook County and a single meeting in Chicago.

Rauner has proposed a budget that slashes funding for transit service across the state, which would impact everything from the CTA ‘L’ and Pace suburban buses to the transit systems of downstate cities. Meanwhile, the Republican governor wants to actually increase spending to build new roads.

The proposed fiscal year 2016 budget has reduced operating assistance for the Regional Transportation Authority and its three operators – the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra, and Pace – by $100 million, and funding for downstate transit providers by $93 million. The Midwest High Speed Rail Association has calculated that the $100 million that would be cut from the RTA is equivalent to the total operations costs for the Orange, Brown, and Red Lines.

IDOT spokesperson Guy Tridgell said the department is working on scheduling an additional Chicago stop. That’s good because the only meeting scheduled in the city is part of a Metropolitan Planning Council Infrastructure Week event, which has a $75 admission charge. “These aren’t intended to be formal public hearings, but rather sessions that allow us to participate in variety of venues throughout Illinois to discuss infrastructure challenges our state faces,” Tridgell said.

Active Transportation Alliance director Ron Burke said the priority isn’t expanding the low number of Cook County sessions. “There are many ways in which IDOT and the state have historically short-changed metro Chicago, but let’s not read too much into how IDOT distributes their listening tour.”

Burke added that the region needs IDOT and the governor to do more, not less, to meet the Chicago region’s transportation needs.” His list of essentials includes:

  • A capital bill for transportation funding with a large share for transit
  • IDOT truly embracing the state’s complete streets law with policies that support walking and biking
  • Safety overhauls for the state arterial roads where a large percentage of Chicagoland traffic injuries and fatalities take place
  • Multi-modal transportation solutions for projects like the redesigns of North Lake Shore Drive and I-290

For those who cannot attend one of the 30 listening events, IDOT is accepting public input via a short online survey.

Meetings

May 13, 8 a.m. at an Infrastructure Week event ($75)
Union League Club of Chicago
65 W. Jackson Blvd.

May 13, 11 a.m. hosted by the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce
TBA

May 13, 2 p.m. at the Chicago Urban League
4510 S. Michigan Ave., 1st floor conference room

Updated April 29 to include details of the newly and already scheduled Chicago meetings.

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CDOT’s Sean Wiedel Provides an Update on Divvy Installation, Equity Efforts

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Divvy docking station parts are loaded onto flatbed trucks to prepare for installation. Photo: Divvy

“With all the challenges we’ve had with the equipment supplier, it’s gratifying to finally see the new Divvy stations on the ground,” said Chicago Department of Transportation assistant commissioner Sean Wiedel regarding the city’s current bike-share expansion. “People are obviously clamoring for Divvy, so it’s exciting to be able to meet that demand.”

CDOT began installing new docking stations last week in Bronzeville and Hyde Park. They’re planning on expanding the system from its 2013 rollout of 300 docking stations and 3,000 bikes to 476 stations and 4,760 bikes by early June, in time for the annual Bike to Work Rally. The service area will nearly double, from 44.1 square miles, or 19 percent of the city’s geographic area, to 86.7 square miles, or 40 percent.

As Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been quick to point out, this means Chicago will have more stations and a larger service area than any other North American city, although New York and Montreal will still have far more bikes. The number of Chicago wards served will grow from 13 to 33 out of 50. The portion of the population that lives in bike-share coverage areas will expand from about 33 percent to 56 percent, so most Chicagoans will live close to a station.

Crews are currently installing five-to-ten stations a day and working six days a week, Wiedel said. About 60 stations have been installed so far. Almost all South Side installations should be complete today, and then work will begin on the West Side, and finally the North Side. Downtown installations are being done on weekends.

The system was supposed to expand last year. However, the January 2014 bankruptcy of the equipment supplier, Montreal-based Public Bike Share System Company, put a wrench in that plan. PBSC has new ownership now, and Wiedel says the expansion is going much smoother than the original roll-out. “The previous round was stressful due to supply chain issues, but this time the process has been low-key. All equipment has arrived on time.” PBSC will also provide upgrade software for Divvy within the next six-to-twelve months, Wiedel said.

He added that the October 2014 sale of the former Divvy concessionaire, Portland-based Alta Bicycle Share, to NYC-based Motivate, also greased the wheels. “There has been much more corporate support for the Divvy employees like [general manager] Elliot Greenberger and [operations manager] Jon Mayer.”

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Three Transit Campaigns: Do They Compete or Complement Each Other?

CTA: Let's not take our resources for granted

An RTA funding campaign poster from 2005 on the CTA echoes a similar message about raising funds for transit. Campaigns now are more focused on transit as a necessary component to population and economy growth. Photo: Salim Virji

As the Chicago region grows in population, we’re going to need to provide efficient and affordable transportation options in order to compete in the global economy, and that’s going to require more and better transit. People who live near transit pay less in transportation costs as a portion of their household income, and have better access to jobs, compared to those who don’t. GO TO 2040, the region’s comprehensive plan, calls for doubling 2010 transit ridership levels by the year 2040 as a means to support population growth and reduce carbon emissions.

Chicagoland has a large network of CTA and Metra rail transit routes, but the network’s mileage and ridership are lower than they were in the 1950s, even though the regional population has grown.  Compared to other metropolitan regions we spend less per person on transit service and our population is growing slower. Two years ago, a Center for Neighborhood Technology study found that more housing is being built far from train stations than near them, and that still appears to be the case today.

The CTA increased train service three years ago, but to fund this, the agency cut bus service dramatically. Metra added a significant amount of service in 2006 by launching new lines and extending existing ones, but there has been no increase in service since then. Pace, the suburban bus network, is the only local transit agency in Chicagoland that’s currently adding service. Their first Pulse express bus route will run along on Milwaukee Avenue from Chicago’s Jefferson Park neighborhood to the Golf Mill shopping center in Niles.

While most people agree that the region needs expanded transit service and better-maintained transit infrastructure, and that we need more funding in order to accomplish that, there isn’t consensus on how to raise that money. In the last year or so, local nonprofits have launched three different transit-funding initiatives.

One year ago, the Active Transportation Alliance and CNT kicked off the Transit Future campaign, with a focus on extending CTA train lines by raising funds at the Cook County level. Transit Future is largely inspired by Los Angeles’ Measure R campaign, in which L.A. County voters approved a sales tax. The new revenue is used to provide local matches for federal grants that bankroll transit projects.

The Chicagoland Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s FUND 2040 initiative proposes a small sales tax increase to pay for regional transit infrastructure projects: addressing the backlog of deferred maintenance and building new lines and stations. Priority would go to projects that meet multiple goals in the GO TO 2040 plan.

The Metropolitan Planning Council’s Accelerate Illinois campaign also calls for fixing our crumbling transportation infrastructure, but it’s a statewide initiative, and it also calls for better maintenance of roads. The campaign, which is endorsed by a diverse coalition of road builders, contractors, the three transit agencies, railroads and various businesses and nonprofits, doesn’t identify a particular funding mechanism. Read more…

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Buy Metra Tickets and Reload a Ventra Account With Upcoming App

Ventra app

The upcoming Ventra app will work on both Android and iPhones, and will offer, for the first time since at least 1996, the opportunity to buy Metra tickets on board without a surcharge.

Imagine this scenario: You’re running late to catch Metra’s UP-North Line to Rogers Park and, because the trains run so infrequently, you really need to make this run. You don’t have a 10-ride ticket in your wallet, the line for a ticket agent is too long, there are no vending machines at Ogilvie Transportation Center, and the conductors will charge you a $3 surcharge (soon to be $5) if you buy a ticket from them.

Riders with an iPhone or Android smartphone will no longer experience that stressful situation after Metra, the Chicago Transit Authority, and Pace co-launch the Ventra app this year. For the first time in the last 20 years (at least) riders will be able to pay for their trip on board with a credit card as well as without a surcharge. Being able to buy Metra tickets electronically on the train is a significant new convenience for daily and casual riders that makes up for the limited and slow options off the train.

Last week, representatives from Metra and the CTA demonstrated core features of the app, which is still in development. In light of the Ventra card’s extremely glitchy launch, I hesitate to say it, but my impression was that the new app worked quite well. During the demonstration, Tony Coppoletta, the CTA’s external electronic communications manager and who is involved in the app’s development, noted that “the plumbing is all there, and we’re putting on finishing touches”. The app works but there are still bugs to squash.

All three agencies understand that a successful app debut is important because of the botched Ventra launch two years ago. They’re using an app developer, GlobeSherpa, that has created successful ticketing systems for other transit agencies, and they’re taking testing seriously. So far, over 1,000 people have applied to test the app before the it goes public, and CTA spokesperson Catherine Hosinski said they’ve started “reviewing the responses to make our initial selection.”

The Ventra app has an array of features that can be used with and without creating an account, and certain functions even work without a cellular or wifi connection. For riders who log in to their Ventra account through the app, they’ll be able to access their account balance, buy CTA and Metra passes, load value from a bank card, turn autoload on and off, and buy and use Metra tickets and passes. Additionally, the Ventra app provides travel info from the CTA and Pace bus trackers, and CTA and Metra train trackers.

Essentially, Coppoletta said, “This puts a Ventra vending machine in your pocket.” Even when riders are not signed into a Ventra account, they’ll be able look up travel info and check an unregistered Ventra card’s balance. They’ll also be able to buy and use Metra tickets and passes by typing in a credit or debit card number. However these tickets purchased via an unregistered account won’t be replaceable if the phone is lost or stolen. The system should work well for visitors want to purchase a Metra ticket with a credit card, but don’t own a Ventra card. Read more…