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Posts from the Chicago Suburbs Category

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Why a Viral Tweet Blaming Divvy for School Funding Problems Is Misguided

Chicago residents have every right to be angry about the sorry state of the Chicago Public School funding. But don’t scapegoat the Divvy bike-share system, a bargain for local taxpayers that could have a positive effect on our city’s wealth inequality problem.

The above tweet, implying that Divvy is a frivolous project paid for by money that should have been spent on schools, has been retweeted over 1,200 times this month. I understand the sentiment that the city invests too much money on downtown tourist attractions while neglecting the neighborhoods, but bike-share doesn’t belong on this list.

First of all, Divvy is a smart investment for the city. After the system, which launched in 2013, expands this summer, it will include almost 6,000 bikes and 584 docking stations and serve 37 of Chicago’s 50 wards, so it’s evolving into a citywide public transportation network.

The total cost for all of the city’s bike-share infrastructure, plus some of the wages for siting the stations, is $35,838,780, with 80 percent of the bill covered by federal and state transportation grants. (The suburbs of Evanston and Oak Park lined up their own funding for ten and 13 stations, respectively).

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A Divvy station outside Comer High in Grand Crossing. Photo: John Greenfield

$36 million sounds like a lot of money but – like most bike enhancements — it’s a drop in the bucket compared to car infrastructure costs. For example, the current work to expand Chicago’s Jayne Byrne (formerly Circle) Interchange is costing $475 million. That’s more than 13 times the price tag of the city’s entire bike-share network, for a project that many transportation experts say won’t achieve its goal of reducing congestion.

Moreover, the federal and state grants that paid most of the cost of Divvy can only be used for transportation infrastructure. Chicago doesn’t have the option of spending that cash on schools.

OK, you might ask, but how about the 20-percent match the city had to provide – couldn’t that roughly $7.2 million have been spent on the CPS? Yes and no. According to the Chicago Department of Transportation, the local match was largely funded by ward “menu” money (which can also only be used for infrastructure), Divvy’s $12 million sponsorship deal with Blue Cross Blue Shield, and payments from real estate developers who purchased docking stations to go in front of their buildings.

However, it is true that some of the $7.2 million came from Chicago’s tax-increment financing program, which has been widely criticized because it diverts property tax revenue from schools, parks, and other taxing bodies. But if we’re going to have a TIF program at all, spending a few million to fund Divvy stations is in line with the original intent of the program: earmarking tax revenue from a designated district for investments that benefit residents of that district.

As for the expenses associated with running and maintaining the system, CDOT says operations costs are currently being covered by user fees and revenue from the ad panels on the stations.

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App Will Route People, Especially Wheelchair Users, Around Sidewalk Issues

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The lack of a curb cut on the other side of this West Loop alley is a barrier for people who use wheelchairs. Photo: Steve Luker.

Local computer programmer Steve Luker is creating to create a new app to identify and eliminate all the major bumps, cracks, and missing curb ramps on sidewalks, as well as missing sidewalks, in the Chicago area. While these flaws are an annoyance for everyone, they can be significant barriers for people with disabilities. This issue is personal for Luker, who has cerebral palsy and uses an electric wheelchair to get around. He lives in the northwest suburbs and takes transit to various offices around the region, so sidewalk issues make it more difficult for him to access job sites.

Luker says that riding Metra and other local transit is no problem for him, and it’s preferable to asking friends and family to drive him in his van, because it allows him to choose when to go out or come home from an event. Using regular transit is also more flexible than paratransit, which requires booking a ride in advance.

But sidewalk issues sometimes complicate his transit commutes. Luker lives in the northwest suburbs, near a station for Metra’s Union Pacific-Northwest line. His last job was at an office at 8765 W. Higgins Road, a half mile west of the CTA Blue Line’s Cumberland stop. 

He wound up taking a cab to the work site from the Park Ridge stop, a 2.3-mile trip. “The cab fare cost me $25 a day,” he says. “The transit part, 45 miles, was free,” he said.

Taking the UP-NW to the Jefferson Park stop and then transferring to the Blue Line isn’t an option because that has the same route with missing sidewalks, which made it inconvenient and unsafe to get to the office by wheelchair. There’s also no bus service to that address.

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Divvy Releases Odd-Looking New Service Area Map, Announces New Initiatives

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The new Divvy coverage areas are shown in Red. Click to Enlarge.

These are exciting times for Divvy bike-share users as the city begins its second major expansion during the system’s three-year history. At the same time, Divvy is rolling out a bunch of new features and services, which they say will make the network function better than ever.

The expansion will add 85 more stations on the South, Southwest, West, Northwest, and Far North sides of the city, as well as 10 stations in Evanston and 13 in Oak Park. After the installations are completed, the system will include 584 stations and almost 6,000 bikes, maintaining its title as one of the largest in North America in terms of stations and cycles. The new coverage area is spread across 100 square miles, so Divvy will continue to be (as the city is fond of pointing out) the largest system on the continent in terms of service area.

The city released the new coverage area map last week, and a few interesting aspects spring to mind. As with last year’s expansion, the new areas generally get half-mile station spacing, as opposed to the quarter-mile spacing that was implemented downtown, and in dense, affluent North Lakefront neighborhoods, during the original 2013 rollout. The system is more convenient to use in areas with a higher station density, since it’s more likely there will be a station within a short walk of your trip’s origin and destination.

On the other hand, the new expansion helps make the system more equitable because most of the new Chicago neighborhoods served are low-to-moderate-income communities of color. The new communities include Burnside, Chatham, Greater Grand Crossing, Brighton Park, Englewood, East Garfield Park, West Garfield Park and Austin.

The Divvy service area has previously expanded outward from the Loop in a fairly logical manner, with a roughly equal amount of coverage north and south of Madison Street, although the service area didn’t expand nearly as far west. However, the new expansion map is a little odd, with panhandles of service stretching west to Oak Park and north to Evanston.

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This station in Englewood was installed during the 2015 expansion. Photo: John Greenfield

Since the two suburbs were willing to apply for state funding to pay for their stations, as well as chipping in the required 20 percent local match, it makes sense for the Chicago-owned system to expand in their directions. Although the city of Chicago doesn’t have to spend any money for those 23 suburban stations, their presence makes the system more useful for Chicagoans. For example, it will make it easier for West Side residents to access jobs in Oak Park.

But it would be understandable if residents of neighborhoods closer to downtown, but just outside of the panhandles, such as Lawndale, West Humboldt Park, and West Rogers Park, are upset because they got passed over this round in favor of the ‘burbs. The Chicago Department of Transportation would be wise to spread the word that no Chicago funding is being spent on the Oak Park and Evanston Stations.

There’s an odd little node of four new stations being installed on the Northwest Side in the 45th and 39th Wards this round. That’s likely because the local residents and aldermen have been strongly advocating to get stations.

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CTA: We Can’t Reduces Fees That Social Service Providers Pay on Ventra

Ventra press event

A CTA bus doubles as an info display during the 2013 Ventra rollout. The switch to Ventra created problems for social service providers, but the CTA says it’s working on fixing one of them.

The Chicago Transit Authority said that it’s working to address some of the new burdens that the switch to Ventra has created for social service providers, as described in a study from the Chicago Jobs Council, which I reported about on Monday.

The study was based on a survey of 53 organizations that provide transit fare assistance to their clients, who may be job seekers, homeless individuals, or young people. The problems include the 50-cent surcharge on single-ride Ventra tickets, which has resulted in these organizations collectively paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees.

Another issue is the need to mail in forms and checks in order to buy Ventra cards in bulk. The study also found that a majority of the organizations waited a long time to receive their bulk orders, and unpredictable delivery delays forced them to scramble to find alternative ways to buy tickets.

According to the report, in 2013 the CTA told the Chicago Jobs Council that online ordering would be available in 2014. Last February, the CTA estimated online ordering would be available by the end of this year. The CTA said in a statement yesterday “work is already underway with our vendor to make online credit card purchases and delivery tracking available.”

Pauline Sylvain-Lewis of the North Lawndale Employment Network said she tries to plan ahead for the long wait by ordering two months worth of tickets at a time. That can be an issue, she said, because the nonprofit’s cash flow doesn’t allow for spending large sums of money on a monthly basis, and the purchase price can be so large that it requires approval from the board. If a delivery is late, staff members go to train stations and use the organization’s bank cards, or even their own bank cards, to buy tickets.

The CTA said that they weren’t aware of any bulk card orders taking two months two arrive, adding that “99.7% of all bulk orders CTA receives are delivered within 11-14 business days and more than 88% of all bulk orders are delivered within seven to 10 business days – or faster.”

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Study: Ventra Fees Cost Social Service Providers 140,000 Bus Rides Per Year

Ventra Vending Machine Preview Event

A CTA staffer demonstrates how a Ventra machine works. Ventra replaced simpler and cheaper ways for social service organizations to procure transit cards for their clients. Photo: CTA

Ever since the Chicago Transit Authority and Pace switched from magnetic stripe fare cards to the Ventra smart card system in 2013, social service providers across Chicago have been spending more money on paying for their clients’ transit rides, and giving out fewer rides. A new report from the Chicago Jobs Council details the burdens that Ventra fare policies and ticket ordering delays place on social service organization staff members and money dedicated to helping clients. The jobs council works to change laws and policies to increase access to jobs for marginalized workers.

The report says that for the organizations to provide fares to their clients they have to spend more time and money. The money they spend on the new Ventra fee could otherwise be spent on  hundreds of thousands in additional rides for job seekers. It starts with the cost of a new card. Ventra cards cost $5.

While the CTA refunds the $5 as credit for future rides if the account is registered, staff must spend time managing that registration process, and checking often to see how much value each card has left. In addition, it’s possible for clients to run up a negative balance on their card that, to continue using the card, the organization has to pay off.

The report said that the plastic multi-ride cards “do not make sense for programs that serve highly transient populations” because they represent a “financial liability if they are lost or used to accrue a large negative balance.” Ventra also doesn’t offer a way to register or manage many cards. “Overwhelmingly,” the report said, “providers rely on single-use paper tickets to provide transit assistance.”

Anyone can run a negative balance because bus fare readers sometimes let people on even if they have less than $2.00 on their Ventra account. The CTA assumes you’ll eventually put more money on the account to reach a positive balance.

If an organization doesn’t want to wait long for a bulk order, which has to be mailed in, or pay off negative balances, then they’re out there at CTA stations buying single-use tickets for $3.00, and racking up hundreds of dollars in “limited-use media” (disposable) fees, at a cost of 50 cents per ticket. That’s the fee CTA charges to print a one-time use ticket and encourage using the hard plastic Ventra card.

The report surveyed 53 organizations which provide job training, shelter for the homeless, and youth services and found they’re spending $280,000 annually in fees – the equivalent of 140,000 additional bus rides. Read more…

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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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CTA Reports Huge Ridership Gains on Blue Line, Losses on South Side

The most ridership growth on the CTA has been on the Blue Line, in the central business district, and on the north side of Chicago. Map design adapted from an earlier version by Yonah Freemark.

The most ridership growth on the CTA has been on the Blue Line, in the central business district, and on the north side of Chicago. Map design adapted from an earlier version by Yonah Freemark.

New ridership numbers for the Chicago Transit Authority’s ‘L’ stations show some interesting changes over the past 17 years. The increases in ridership at some stations have been obvious, but the decreases at other stations are a little surprising.

Last year the CTA’s ‘L’ had its highest-ever total recorded ridership. From November 1998 to November 2015, the earliest and latest years for which complete weekday ridership data is available on the Regional Transit Authority’s Mapping and Statistics data warehouse, known as RTAMS, ‘L’ ridership increased by 43 percent.

Sixty-eight of the 145 CTA stops saw an increase in ridership between 1998 and 2015, and 12 stations saw a drop in ridership. The latter included five Red and Green Line stations on Chicago’s South Side, including the Red Line’s 95th/Dan Ryan stop; the Blue Line’s Racine station by UIC and Cumberland stop on the Northwest Side; plus suburban Yellow and Purple Line stations in Skokie, Evanston, and Wilmette.

Nearly all downtown stations have gained more than 2,000 riders per day since 1998, which can largely be credited to the recent development boom – only LaSalle/Van Buren lost riders, at seven percent. The Blue Line stations south of Belmont saw similar increases. Most Green Line stations on the Lake Street branch to Oak Park saw increases of more than 200 riders per day.

The 95th/Dan Ryan Red Line station has seen a 14 percent drop in riders since 1998, or about 2,700 fewer people per day. Despite that, it’s still the ninth busiest station in the system. The stop is currently undergoing a $280 million renovation, which will make it easier and quicker to make transfers between the train and the many CTA and Pace bus routes that serve the station. That, and the more pleasant station environment, will likely boost ridership.

The Green and Pink Line’s Morgan station, which opened in 2013 in the burgeoning Fulton Market District, already has nearly as many riders as the nearby Grand/Milwaukee Blue Line stop. That station reopened in 1999 after being closed for many years. It currently ranks 88th out of the 145 stations for ridership, and Morgan ranks 90th.

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RTA: Pace and Metra Operate Efficiently But Collect Little Rider Revenue

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Pace’s large service area and decreased ridership affects its service level financial solvency. Photo: mbernero/Flickr.

The Regional Transportation Authority’s newest report, issued last week, compares the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra, and Pace, to their respective peers around the country. The report found that the CTA is efficient, relative to rapid transit systems in Atlanta, New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington, D.C.

The RTA also compared Metra, using 2014 performance figures, to New Jersey Transit, commuter rail in Philadelphia, commuter rail in Boston, and the Long Island Railroad and Metro North Railroad in greater New York City. RTA spokesperson Susan Massel said they excluded BART in San Francisco because it’s not in the top 10 largest metropolitan areas and “for each mode we chose only 5 peers, so we picked the five that were most comparable.”

Like the CTA’s ‘L’ system, Metra also ran an efficient service compared to its peers. The commuter rail agency ranked first or second in three operating costs metrics. Metra, however, spent a larger portion of its budget on vehicle operations than the average of the five others, and spends slightly less than average on maintenance.

Metra didn’t fare well on having good maintenance. It ranks fifth for having young vehicles in its fleet, and ranked fourth and below average for the average number of miles a vehicle traveled before breaking down. The RTA mentioned that Metra has finished bringing in new cars on the Metra Electric district line and has a plan to purchase new cars – instead of buying rider-friendly trains, they’re locking in an old design another 30 years – for its other lines. The breakdown rate was high in 2014, the report said, because of the polar vortex issues that shut down lines on a couple days in January.

Metra managed to rank worse on service level solvency. They collect far less in ticket revenue per passenger than their peers, suggesting that Metra is undercharging. Since 2014, Metra’s new administration – including a new board, board chair, and CEO – announced that fares would go up in 2015 and that they would raise fares on an annual basis.

Metra also competes with personal vehicles. Driving into downtown Chicago is cheaper than driving into Manhattan because there are no tolls within 20 miles of the Loop, and parking is relatively affordable. Low fares are good for riders, and may be commensurate with transit’s lower mode share here than in the East Coast cities, but they may also signal that growth in demand for transit in the Chicago region is slow or non-existent.

It’s better for riders and for the administration when fares are raised on a slow-but-steady basis, as opposed to significant increases every now and then. This allows Metra to better predict how much revenue it will raise and use that to strategize and plan for the long term, something they haven’t done in a while. This change also gave them the confidence to sell debt, for the first time, to help pay for those new (but old-fashioned) train cars.

Charts from the RTA's report show how Metra compares to five other commuter rail agencies in collecting revenues from riders.

Charts from the RTA’s report show how Metra compares to five other commuter rail agencies in collecting revenues from riders.

The Regional Transportation Authority also reviewed the performance of Pace suburban bus. They also liked at Pace’s vanpool and paratransit for seniors and people with disabilities, but those aren’t discussed here. Pace’s suburban bus operations seemed to largely mirror Metra’s commuter rail performance: they’re successful at keeping operating costs down, but they spend, on average, a larger portion of their budget on vehicle operations than their peers, and a smaller portion on maintenance.

Additionally, Pace’s fleet had a middle-of-the-road average vehicle age and a reasonably good average distance between bus breakdowns, relative to similar services in Orange County, California; Detroit; San Mateo County, California; New Yorks Nassau Inter-County Express; and San Francisco.

Again, like Metra, Pace’s suburban bus operations collects much less in ticket revenue per passenger than its peers. The RTA partly blames the free rides program, saying one in six trips is a free ride.

Comparing ridership, Pace ranks low because it has a larger geographic coverage area, serving the lowest population density area among its five peers. The report said, “lower population densities require Pace to operate approximately twice as much service to achieve similar ridership levels as the top performer” on the two ridership metrics. That’s on top of a 3.1 percent ridership decrease from 2013 to 2014, “following three years of consecutive growth.”

The report doesn’t discuss what kinds of population growth or declines each transit agency’s service area – here and in the peer cities – saw. Nor do they look into the land use changes or policies that affect each region’s potential to, ultimately, grow transit ridership. Other organizations have found that the Chicago region is still developing outside of the built up area, growing at a slower rate, and growing away from existing transit lines, all affecting transit usage and agency efficiencies.

These additions would give the metrics a stronger context, and help us assess whether the policies of the RTA, its three transit agencies, and state funding – or the lack thereof – are successful in growing ridership.

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RTA Report: CTA Runs an Efficient Transit System Compared to Peer Agencies

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The CTA has the youngest rapid transit train fleet in the country. Photo: CTA

This week, rapid transit headaches in Washington, D.C. and the Bay Area highlighted the need for better maintenance of U.S. public transportation infrastructure. However, a new report from Chicagoland’s Regional Transportation Authority suggests that the CTA is in a little better shape than its peers.

On Wednesday, the D.C. Metro system was completely shut down for 24 hours — with only one day’s notice — so that faulty electrical cables could be replaced.

That evening, San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit system experienced major delays. In an unusual move, a BART spokesman used Twitter to candidly discuss the difficulties of maintaining the system without proper investment.

Yesterday the RTA released its 2014 Sub-Regional Regional Peer Review performance report, which compares the CTA, Metra, and Pace, to transit systems in D.C., Atlanta, Philadelphia, Boston, and New York City. The study found that “overall, the Chicago transit agencies performed well in 2014 in comparison to their peers.”

The RTA compared the three local transit agencies to their counterparts in five other cities. The report covers a range of performance measures: ones that affect passenger comfort and trip reliability, as well as the amount of investment in transit each region is making.

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Will CMAP Stop Prioritizing Increasing Road Capacity in Next Regional Plan?

Cumberland at I-90 West HDR

The GO TO 2040 regional plan says we should encourage transit use, but CMAP’s policy would allow road binging projects if they cost a minimum of $100 million, while applying a $250 million threshold on other project types. Photo: David Grant

This is the second post in a two-part series on the upcoming ON TO 2050 regional plan. The first discussed public outreach goals for the new plan, and this one critiques its predecessor, GO TO 2040.

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning has launched the process to create the successor to the regional comprehensive plan, GO TO 2040. The new plan, called ON TO 2050, will illustrate with ideas, strategies, predictions, and research, what the region will be like in 2050, and how communities can get there.

GO TO 2040 is a good plan: it envisions a growing region, with an aim for sustainable, compact development in already developed areas, plus big gains in transit ridership, and bicycling and walking. What it did poorly is connect the dots between those goals and how municipalities, including Chicago, in the seven-county region can achieve them. Here are some of the praiseworthy aspects of GO TO 2040, as well as some of plan’s shortcomings.

“Parking pricing” is a strategy in GO TO 2040 to maximize the use of existing resources and reduce car dependence in a neighborhood. Liz Schuh, a principal policy analyst at CMAP and ON TO 2050 co-manager, said in a phone interview, “There hasn’t been much progress.” That doesn’t mean they haven’t made inroads.

In 2013, CMAP and Metropolitan Planning Council staff thoroughly analyzed the so-called parking crunch in the area administered by the Wicker Park-Bucktown Special Service Area, a business improvement district. They found that there’s plenty of unused, on-street parking, even during busy shopping or nightlife times, if only people were willing to walk an extra block or two to their destinations.

They recommended, among other ideas, testing congestion pricing in the area, with meter prices going up during high-demand periods, and falling during off-peak periods, in an effort to ensure that there’s almost always a space for the person willing to pay for it, which could reducing the amount of driving people do while searching for a spot.

Another area where GO TO 2040 has fallen short is detailing how to reach certain goals, like doubling transit ridership from 2 million daily rides to 4 million daily rides by the year 2040. The plan also recommends increasing the the proportion of residents who can walk to transit from home and work. The plan doesn’t say how the region can achieve these goals within the next couple of decades, beyond recommending that more transit service be provided and that new development should focus on existing developed areas, which would limit suburban sprawl. Sprawl persists.

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