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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.

Read more…

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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…

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Active Trans to Oak Park Trustees: Quit Stalling on Madison Road Diet

Madison St. Village Board 11.28.11-jbjm

Rendering of Madison in Oak Park after a “four-to-three conversion” road diet.

Active Transportation Alliance director and Oak Park resident Ron Burke says he’s tired of waiting for the village’s trustees to move forward with making Madison a safer and more economically viable complete street. A plan was proposed nearly three years ago to reduce crashes and make the street more walkable and bikeable with a road diet on the street between Austin and Harlem. A survey at the time found the overwhelming majority of residents support the plan, Burke said.

The suburb has millions of dollars in tax increment financing, as well as a federal grant, that could be used for the project. However, no action has been taken since the plan came out, because the village board has been deliberating on whether to use TIF money for a new school district headquarters, Burke said. Now that decision is largely resolved, Active Trans recently launched a letter writing campaign to let Oak Park leaders know they shouldn’t further delay improvements to Madison, garnering over 200 signatures in a week.

Currently, this stretch of Madison is a wide, four-lane street with a limited number of left turn lanes and too much capacity for the 18,300 cars it carries on average each day. As a result, it’s got one of the highest crash rates in Chicagoland, with about 235 collisions per year. That’s roughly twice the collision rate of Lake Shore Drive, which the Illinois Department of Transportation has said is one of the most crash-prone roads in the state.

The collisions on Madison are mostly car-on-car, but an average of seven pedestrians and cyclists are struck on this stretch per year. Active Trans recently included Madison/Harlem on its list of the 20 most dangerous intersections in the region.  Tragically, 92-year-old Suleyman Cetin was fatally struck while biking across Madison at Scoville last year.

Furthermore, Madison serves as a major barrier to people on foot and bikes, discouraging travel between the north and south sides of Oak Park. The car-centric street layout and high speeds have also contributed to a lackluster retail picture on the street, with a high number of fast food restaurants and empty lots, Burke said.

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South Siders Deserve Pedestrian Gates for Metra Grade Crossings Too

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How many deaths and serious injuries will it take before Metra decides that protecting pedestrians at South Side grade crossings is as important as protecting the motor vehicle occupants sitting next to them?

This week, 11-year old Alex Zepeda lost his leg when he was struck by a Metra train approaching the Blue Island-Vermont station at the Winchester Street crossing, which has automotive gates but lacks gates across the sidewalk. Several of his schoolmates, who were aboard the school bus he was running to, were traumatized by the sight. Alex saw the bus cross the tracks, then dashed under the gates blocking the road. A lower, sidewalk-level gate might have stopped him in time.

In 2012, a young mother was struck and killed by a Rock Island train at 95th Street and Vincennes Avenue, and a woman was fatally struck by a Rock Island train at 95th and Wood streets in 2010, a busy crossing that also lacks pedestrian gates. In fact, there is a collision nearly every week between trains and pedestrians or vehicles in this section of the Metra service area.

The number of grade crossings where pedestrians are at risk on the far South Side is staggering:

  • Metra Electric District, Blue Island branch: 24 grade crossings over 3.5 miles of track, from 121st and Michigan to Blue Island-Vermont station. No pedestrian gates, even at Union Street, where the Major Taylor Trail crosses the line.
  • Rock Island District, Beverly branch: 29 grade crossings over 6 miles of track, from 89th and Aberdeen streets to Blue Island-Vermont station. Of these, only one crossing (at 89th and Aberdeen) has pedestrian gates.
  • Rock Island District, main line: 16 grade crossings over 4.8 miles of track, from 95th Street and Vincennes Avenue to Blue Island-Vermont station. The crossing at 102nd Place lacks sidewalks, so the crossing gates for vehicle traffic double as pedestrian gates. This line carries heavy Metra and freight traffic, including high speed express trains.
  • Total: 69 grade crossings over 14.3 miles of Metra tracks, within the 16 square mile area bounded by 89th and 130th streets, and Michigan and Western avenues — and only one crossing has pedestrian gates.

Many other busy grade crossings across the Metra system have pedestrian gates, notably those at Riverside, Edison Park, Arlington Heights, and Wilmette stations. Sure, these locations have significant pedestrian traffic at rush hour, but that’s also true for 95th-Beverly Hills, Blue Island-Vermont, and other stations within the area discussed above. During the time I’ve lived in Beverly, I’ve witnessed near-misses at 95th every week.

There is no excuse for Metra to fail to protect pedestrians at stations like Blue Island-Vermont, 95th-Beverly Hills, and others that serve hundreds of passengers each weekday. Pedestrian gates are a recommended practice for any crossing with “moderate” pedestrian volumes. Gates don’t even need to be expensive automated designs. Simple swing-arm gates with warning signs (see figure 77) have proven to be an effective deterrent in cities where light rail trains frequently cross city streets.

Installing gates would not eliminate pedestrian crashes, but they would significantly improve the odds that pedestrians would stop and not tempt fate by walking through the grade crossing — particularly for children who might not yet understand that they, too, must stop when the cars do.

Updated December 21 to clarify the alternate gate design.

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Oak Park Getting Children’s Bike Fleet, “Kids on Wheels” Is Expanding

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Kids get ready to ride a skills course at an Oak Park school. Photo: Active Trans

Last weekend, the Illinois Department of Transportation announced that Oak Park will receive a $12,000 federal Safe Routes to School grant to purchase a trailer, bicycles, helmets and supporting materials for its local Kids on Wheels education program. This will likely be the first time SRTS funds have been used for a fleet of training bikes, according to Active Transportation Alliance spokesman Ted Villaire.

The advocacy group created Kids on Wheels last spring, as a mobile program to bring bike-ed to municipalities across the region. “Since Oak Park will be buying their own gear, this will be a nice, natural transition to their program becoming all theirs,” said Active Trans education specialist Jason Jenkins.

The Oak Park grant is part of $5.9 million in new federal awards that IDOT announced for 58 different safe routes initiatives in many Illinois communities. “Students deserve to feel safe while traveling to and from school every day,” Governor Pat Quinn said in a statement. “The Safe Routes to School program will help communities improve public safety to keep students safe, and promote healthy habits like walking and biking to school.” The projects also include infrastructure improvements like sidewalk installation and repair, pedestrian countdown signals, speed feedback signs, pedestrian islands, and police speed enforcement equipment.

In May, Active Trans launched Kids on Wheels (originally Bikes on Wheels) with Oak Park as the pilot community. The advocacy group purchased a 20-foot trailer using using its own money, plus a donation from Oak Park’s Green Line Wheels, a local nonprofit that offers bike rentals and tours. Specialized Bicycles donated 30 single-speed kids’ bikes through a dealer grant via Chicago’s Kozy’s Cyclery.

In that first season, Active Trans staffers took the trailer to seven of Oak Park’s eight elementary schools and taught kids bike safety basics, assisted by teachers, local police officers, and parent volunteers, Jenkins said. The children were taught proper helmet use and how to do an “ABC Quick Check” to make sure their bike’s air pressure, brakes, chain, and quick releases are up to snuff.

The children practiced hand signals, turning, checking for traffic, and braking on a skills course. They also learned how to do a “Power Start,” positioning their pedals at the 2:00 / 8:00 position for maximum go. They even got to compete in a “Snail’s Race,” seeing who could ride the slowest without falling over.

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CMAP Seeks Its Own Dedicated Tax For Transit, Green Infrastructure

CMAP Board meeting

CMAP executive director Randy Blankenhorn says the region needs a new funding source for projects that cross jurisdiction and program boundaries. Photo: CMAP

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning last week floated its own proposal to fix the region’s shortfall in transportation funding. It launched FUND 2040, a campaign calling upon the Illinois legislature to fund sustainable infrastructure through a quarter-cent sales tax across the Chicagoland region. CMAP says this increase would generate $300 million annually, which it would use to advance projects that fulfill the goals of its federally-required plan for the region, GO TO 2040.

GO TO 2040 aims to sustainably accommodate population growth across the seven county region by steering investment to already-developed areas, doubling transit ridership, carrying more people on existing highways with more buses and with managed High Occupancy/Toll lanes, and absorbing more rainfall on sites rather than sending it into the area’s overwhelmed sewers.

FUND 2040 would align capital investments with GO TO 2040, and to give the region greater autonomy in choosing which projects to fund. CMAP would award funds to projects in existing plans, based entirely on performance measures — a marked difference from how the Illinois Department of Transportation spends money on politically favored projects like the budget-busting, ill-conceived Illiana Tollway.

The new fund would also put CMAP on surer financial footing. CMAP, as a federally recognized Metropolitan Planning Organization, is funded through the state’s DOT, and cash-strapped IDOT has delayed reimbursing CMAP’s operations costs on multiple occasions.

CMAP’s executive director Randy Blankenhorn said that, while the Illinois General Assembly has yet to write FUND 2040’s enabling legislation, the bill “would outline specific goals” instead of listing projects, places, or formulas to be funded. The legislation, he said, would outline project selection criteria because “it’s a long-term fund, and needs and funds can change.”

Emphasizing general purposes, instead of individual projects, is how the new fund would complement existing funding schemes’ sharp divisions. Existing “state and federal funds are very specific,” Blankenhorn said. “One will build a multi-use trail, but not flood control.”

In keeping with the broad goals of GO TO 2040, Blankenhorn said that CMAP settled on a sales tax, and specifically not a gas tax, because its projects – transportation, parks, and water infrastructure – benefit everyone, both on and off streets. “We admit the sales tax is not the preferred option for many things,” he said, “but this is a broad-based tax, that all users of all of the infrastructure pay into.”

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