Two dead suburban transportation projects: the Metra STAR Line and the Prairie Parkway

A large metropolitan area of over 9 million residents could benefit from more transportation options for residents and visitors. Here are quick summaries about two projects that never got off the ground:

The STAR Line

The suburb-to-suburb STAR Line rail system was intended to loop from O’Hare to Hoffman Estates to Joliet along tracks formerly owned by the EJ & E railroad, providing an alternative to the suburb-to-city commuter lines.

But Canadian National Railroad bought the EJ & E in 2008 and moved freight traffic onto those tracks, effectively putting the STAR Line on ice. In 2011 Schaumburg pulled the plug on a special taxing district meant to spur development around the convention center, which had been envisioned as a STAR Line hub.

Prairie Parkway

The Prairie Parkway would have circled Chicago’s outer suburbs, linking I-88 near Elburn to I-80 near Minooka. The Illinois Department of Transportation began studies in 2003, and in 2005 President George W. Bush came to Montgomery to sign a highway funding bill and call the Prairie Parkway “crucial for economic progress for Kane and Kendall counties.”

Opponents organized and sued. The highway’s patron, former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Plano, was accused of profiting from land buys near the proposed highway. And in 2012, the Federal Highway Administration rescinded its approval of the right of way. It was only in March that IDOT canceled the corridor.

I have always thought the STAR Line was a clever idea in multiple ways:

  1. It would provide needed railroad links throughout the region so that not all riders have to go into Chicago before making transfers. The spoke model in the Chicago region is good for getting to downtown but the biggest number of trips these days are suburb to suburb.
  2. It made use of existing tracks. Although they likely needed more capacity to run regular passenger service and new tracks would be needed along I-90, some of the infrastructure was already there. This is not something to look past in an era when acquiring land can be expensive and time-consuming.
  3. It had the potential to spur transit-oriented suburban development in a number of communities. This is a hot topic in many suburban downtowns and it could have opened up new commuting, residential, and business opportunities.

Yet, the plan was scuttled by several factors:

  1. A lack of money. This project has been around since the 1990s but it was unclear who would fund it.
  2. Control of the EJ&E tracks.
  3. Likely concerns from neighbors to these tracks. When CN purchased these tracks and added freight trains, multiple communities pushed back.

The Prairie Parkway may have not offered as much opportunity to remove cars from roads but could have spurred development on some of the edges of the Chicago region and offered a shorter drive time in these areas. Building belt-line highways like this require some foresight: if they are constructed after too much development has occurred, they can be much more expensive to build. Also, neighbors can object to the plans, such as with the Illiana Expressway which also has not gotten off the ground.

Adding more context to Americans spending 7% of income on gas

AAA reports on how much Americans spend on gasoline:

Analysts say Americans are now spending 7% of their income on gas, a statistic that is up 1.5% from last year.

If you make $45,000 per year, you’re shelling out over $3,000 just to put gas in your vehicle.

The 7% figure may be interesting in itself but this is a statistic that begs for more background information. Is 7% a lot or a little? Should people be alarmed?

The story already includes two pieces of context:

  1. This is an increase from last year. Generally, people do not want to be paying significantly higher prices year after year. While 1.5% is a low number, drivers would probably not want this number to keep going up.
  2. A slightly lower than average income person or family – the median household income is a bit higher than this – spends over $3,000 on gas. People could read this figure and then think where else that $3,000 could be used.

But, there is more information that could be useful here.

  1. Historically, how much do Americans spend on gasoline? The article includes a one-year trend but how does this look over decades? Are gas prices going up the same way medical costs are going up?
  2. How does this 7% compare to other essential categories of spending such as food (and the groceries vs. eating out breakdown could be interesting) or housing?
  3. What are the total costs of car ownership? Gasoline adds up but vehicle owners also have to factor in maintenance and insurance.
  4. These are average figures for gasoline consumption: how much different will gas costs be for SUV and truck owners (and these are driving the car market) versus small car owners?
  5. How does this compare to gasoline costs in other countries? The rise to 7% may seem like a lot but gasoline costs more in some other industrialized countries and people in other countries drive less than Americans.

While this may be too much to ask for a short news story, gas costs, as well as most other social and economic statistics, are complicated. The numbers do not necessarily interpret themselves. Something going up or down or staying the same is as meaningful as its context and what we make of it.

Jane Jacobs, self-driving cars, and smartphone walking lanes

Fining distracted pedestrians who are paying attention to their smartphones is one option for communities. Here is another: a Chinese shopping center in Xi’an has a clearly marked lane for smartphone-using walkers.

Colorfully painted paths outside the Bairui Plaza shopping mall have been designated for walkers who cannot be bothered to look up from their devices…

Instead, messages painted along the lane cajole walkers to look up and pay attention.

“Please don’t look down for the rest of your life,” one message reads. “Path for the special use of the heads-down tribe,” another says…

Xi’an is not the first city to experiment with special areas for mobile phone use. In 2014, a street in the southwestern city of Chongqing was divided into two sections. On one side, phone use was prohibited, and on the other walkers were allowed to use their phones “at your own risk.”

The German city of Augsburg in 2016 embedded traffic lights on the surface of the street to prevent texting pedestrians from walking into traffic.

This will be a difficult issue to tackle for many communities. Here are two more additional ideas that may (or may not) help address these concerns:

  1. In reading multiple stories about distracted pedestrians on sidewalks, I am reminded of Jane Jacobs’ thoughts on lively sidewalk life. She argued that a lively street scene full of mixed uses will promote a thriving social scene. Could it be that sidewalks need to be more lively to keep the attention of pedestrians? If someone is walking down a bland block or through a shopping mall that does not really look any different than other shopping malls, it can be easier to pull out a smartphone. Of course, users might be so familiar with the walking area or their thoughts are elsewhere such that no level of liveliness would keep them from their smartphone.
  2. Perhaps some of the technology already being rolled out in cars and destined for significant use in driverless cars that helps cars sense other objects and respond accordingly could be implemented in cell phones. Imagine using your smartphone while walking and all of the sudden a radar screen pops up that indicates you are about to run into something. Or, perhaps it could have lights on different edges that could provide indications that objects are on that side. This is where Google Glass could be very useful: a display of nearby objects could always be within a user’s vision. Maybe technology will soon advance to a point where we have “bubbles” around us displaying information and nearby pedestrians or other objects could trigger some sort of alarm.

Separate walking lanes as well as punishments may not be enough. Given our reliance on technology to solve problems, I would not be surprised if new technology ends up as a substantial part of the solution proposed for problems posed by earlier technology. At the same time, this may be less about technology and more about the changing nature of public life.

We bought a Toyota Echo for $6,600 in December 2006; sold it for $1,500 eleven and a half years later

Our family recently bid adieu to our 2000 Toyota Echo with its manual locks, manual windows, cassette deck plus CD player, and over 163,000 miles.

ToyotaEchoMay18.jpg

Despite its features that were outdated even when we bought it, it served us well:

-No major repair issues.

-30+ MPG. Not quite the Geo Prizm or small Honda Civics but good for commuting.

-Obtaining decent all-season tires provided much better traction in winter and handling.

-Decent size inside, particularly for headroom.

-Low insurance costs plus some resale value twelve years later.

There are not too many of these early Echoes left; this probably has less to do with their reliability and more to do with their limited sales in the first place.

Fighting smog not by reducing driving but by insisting on more efficient cars

Smog and air pollution due to vehicles is a familiar sight in many large cities. Yet, Crabgrass Crucible suggests the fight against smog in Los Angeles did not target driving itself but rather automakers:

The ban on fuel oil easily found favor among antismog activists. After all, like the steps with which smog control had begun, it mostly targeted the basin’s industrial zones. Harder to swallow in Los Angeles’s “citizen consumer” politics of this era, even for antismog activists, were solutions that might curtail the mobility associated with cars. Consonant with national trends noted by automobile historian Thomas McCarthy, there was a widespread reluctance to question orthodoxies of road building and suburban development. Even the “militant” activists at the 1954 Pasadena Assembly only went so far as a call to “electrify busses.” By the 1960s, as motor vehicles were estimated to cause nearly 55 percent of smog, there were suggestions for the development of an electric car. Yet Los Angeles smog battlers of all stripes raised surprisingly few questions about freeway building. For many years, Haagen-Smit himself argued that because fast and steady-running traffic burned gasoline more efficiently, freeways were smog remedies. So powerful and prevalent were the presumed rights of Angelenos to drive anywhere, to be propelled, lit, heated, and otherwise convenienced by fossil fuels, that public mass transit or other alternatives hardly seemed worth mentioning.

Once pollution controllers turned their sights to cars, they aimed not so much at Los Angeles roads or driving habits or developers as at the distant plants where automobiles were made. Probing back up the chain of production for smog’s roots, local regulators and politicians established a new way of acting on behalf of citizen consumers. Rather than pitting the residential suburbs of the basin against their industrial counterparts, in an inspired switch, they opened season on a far-flung industrial foe: the “motor city” of Detroit. The APCD’s confrontations with Detroit car makers had begun during the Larson era, but quietly, through exchanges of letters and visits that went little publicized. In 1958, after the nation’s chief auto makers had repeatedly shrugged off Angeleno officials’ insistence on cleaner-burning engines, the Los Angeles City Council went public with its frustration. It threw down the gauntlet: within three years, all automobiles sold within the city limits had to meet tough smog-reducing exhaust standards. Because its deadline had passed, a 1960 burst of antismog activism converged on Sacramento to push through the California Motor Vehicle Control Act. The battle was hard-fought and intense, but the state of California thereby wound up setting pollution-fighting terms for its vast car market. (232-233)

This helps put us where we are today: when the Trump administration signals interest in eliminating national MPG standards for automakers, California leads the way in fighting back.

Ultimately, this is an interesting accommodation in the environmentalist movement. Cars are significant generators of air pollution. Additionally, cars do not just produce air pollution; they require an entire infrastructure that uses a lot of resources in its own right (building and maintaining roads, trucking, using more land for development). Yet, this passage suggests that because cars and the lifestyle that goes with them are so sacred, particularly in a region heavily dependent on mobility by individual cars, the best solution is to look for a car that pollutes less. This leaves many communities and regions in the United States waiting for a more efficient car rather than expending energy and resources toward reducing car use overall. And the problem may just keep going if self-driving cars actually lengthen commutes.

More Prii at which location: Whole Foods on a weekend or an arboretum on Earth Day weekend?

A recent experience at the Morton Arboretum led me to this question regarding where I was more likely to see Toyota Prii:

-The parking lot for Whole Foods on a weekend

-At the arboretum on Earth Day weekend

Since certain lifestyle and consumption choices are tied to other lifestyle patterns (for example: TV shows), connecting Prius owners to these two places may not be that surprising. One study had this to say about small car owners:

Small Car: Prius, Honda Civic, Smart Car
According to a study by researchers at UC Davis, “What type of vehicle do people drive?
The role of attitude and lifestyle in influencing vehicle type choice,” small car drivers are more pro-environmental and prefer higher density neighborhoods than drivers of others types of cars. This isn’t surprising; if you live in a big city, it’s simply easier to park with a small car and if you’re concerned about the environment, you’ll want something that’s more fuel-efficient. Small car drivers, unlike other categories of drivers, don’t necessarily see their cars as a ticket to freedom. They aren’t workaholics or status seekers who try to display wealth. They want to lessen their impact on the earth and have a reliable car—and find a parking spot.

When considering the number of Prii at the arboretum, there were also a large number of vans and SUVs, vehicles less friendly toward the environment. Can a driver claim to be an environmentalist while also driving a large vehicle? Is a Prius a special badge of honor?

True for Chicago and elsewhere: “cities don’t just crop up in random places”

At Instapundit, Gail Heriot explains how Chicago came to be:

FATHER JACQUES MARQUETTE AND LOUIS JOLLIET: On this day in 1673, a 35-year-old Jesuit priest and a 27-year-old fur trader began their exploration of Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River, leaving from St. Ignace at the north end of Lake Michigan. From there, they went up the Fox River and then overland (carrying their canoes) to the Wisconsin River, which took them to the Mississippi River. Out of fear of running into the Spanish, they turned back at the Arkansas River. By then, they had confirmed that the Mississippi does indeed run to the Gulf of Mexico.

The route back was different. And this becomes important to the history of the country and especially of the City of Chicago: Friendly Native Americans told them that if they go up the Illinois River and the Des Plaines, rather than the Wisconsin, it would make the trip easier. That’s because the portage distance from the Mississippi watershed and the Great Lakes watershed was shortest there. The Chicago River, which dumped into Lake Michigan was only a short distance away.

If you’ve ever wondered why Chicago grew into a major city so quickly, this is why: Location, location, location.  In the modern world it’s easy to miss how much topographical issues like that mattered (and in different ways continue to matter).  But cities don’t just crop up in random places.

The locations of major population centers may seem fairly obvious now: a large population has been there for a long time and the city by its own large inertia continues to draw more people. This may be particularly true for cities outside of North America where there may be centuries or millennia of accumulated settlement.

Yet, looking at the founding of major cities in the United States often shows that there are located at places that provided major transportation advantages for people of that time. Even though this might be less obvious now since we do not think much about sea travel and shipping, a number of major coastal cities have protected ports. Inland, many cities are located on key bodies of water, primarily rivers. Even more recently, communities developed around railroad junctions and highway intersections where a lot of traffic converged.
Perhaps in a “perfect world,” major cities would be spread out at fairly even intervals. But, development does not typically work this way: it often follows earlier transportation links or patterns of development.