Teaching kids about Chicago’s Deep Tunnel project

Kids should know about one of the largest civil engineering projects in the world: the Deep Tunnel project in and around Chicago.

DeepTunnelNotebaertNatureMuseum

This is from the Riverworks exhibit at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago. While some of the pieces of the exhibit failed to work the day we visited, I think I could see the purpose of the The Deep Tunnel exhibit: the floodwaters would be diverted away from the city.

The concept may appear simple and explainable to kids but the execution in real life is not. The exhibit suggests the flooding the past is now alleviated by Deep Tunnel. Yet, the problems are likely to go on in a region that continues to expand and change. Remediating water and flooding issues is a very difficult task compared to altering development at the beginning.

It is interesting to think how else this engineering feat could be presented to children. I could imagine a scaled model that kids could walk through to help give them a sense of the size of the sewers needed as well as the size of some of the water reservoirs. Deep Tunnel is not intended for minor amounts of water; this is supposed to help protect millions of people on a fairly regular basis. Communicating the sheer size could fascinate kids. Or, perhaps some sort of computer game where kids play the role of an engineer or expert as they make choices about where to divert water. Come to think of it, where is this version of Simcity or Roller Coaster Tycoon – “Infrastructure Builder” or “Sewer Wars” or something catchier.

Photo reminders that railroads ran into the heart of Chicago into the mid-1900s

Chicago’s Loop today is associated with gleaming skyscrapers and the finance and banking industries. Here are some great photos that provide a reminder that Chicago’s rise and wealth depended on railroads that ran right to the center of the city: the south bank of the Chicago River as well at the lakefront (which is now Grant Park).

Historically, railroads helped make Chicago what it is. As detailed in Nature’s Metropolis, Chicago became the center for gathering commodities and goods from the fertile Midwest (corn, cattle, etc.) as well as distributing other goods back to the growing Midwest. This thriving trade helped prompt other businesses and industries to form, such as the development of commodity futures.

These railroads still matter tremendously in the Chicago region, even if they are less visible. There are still railyards in Chicago (such as near Midway Airport), just outside the city (such as near O’Hare Airport), and other ones a long ways away (such as the intermodal facilities in Joliet or New Rochelle which facilitate transferring materials between trains and trucks). The trains may block traffic but they help ensure Chicago remains a transportation center.

In praise of What Do People Do All Day? by Richard Scarry

I raised the question yesterday regarding why children’s books often address infrastructure and construction but older kids receive little instruction in this. Today, I highlight one children’s book I enjoyed as a kid and enjoy now having kids: Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day?

From my point of view, the book performs multiple important tasks:

  1. Shows a range of jobs and how they intersect. A community needs farmers, plumbers, train operators, people running paper mills, and so on in addition to the typical tales of police, firefighters, and medical personnel.
  2. Shows all sorts of infrastructure including the production of electricity and water as well as building roads, using fire to put out fires, and how to build a house.
  3. Introduces economic principles. For example, the first story traces the path of money as producers sell goods to retailers and then how those producers might use the money they received.
  4. The book has a good balance of instruction and whimsy. There is much for kids to learn here as well as wacky situations such as Huckle ending up in the cockpit for landing an airplane and the various adventures of Lowly Worm.
  5. Children prominently feature in the stories, even if they are not the main characters, which helps give them a sense of contributing to the work going on around them.

Admittedly, the book has its quirks. The architecture is unusual – I usually think it matches French Canadian architecture (and I have little exposure to this outside of a few trips to Montreal). The characters can conform to stereotype. I’m thinking of Mommy Cat who receives a new dress because she works so hard at home. Some of the characters are simply strange – what does Wild Bill Hiccup do outside of serving as town eccentric? There must be some important community roles that are left out – no mention of religious groups? Leisure activities? Garbage collection? Truck drivers?

Yet, the informative stories, depictions of community life, and recurring characters mean that I keep enjoying this book.

Why do children’s books spend so much time on infrastructure and construction yet there is little formal instruction on these topics later?

Yesterday, I walked to the nearest bank and watched some construction going on. The work appeared to involve digging underneath the side of a street, possibly to deal with a pipe or some kind of wire. I was struck that while many neighbors or drivers would find such a sight a nuisance, many kids would be fascinated.

Plenty of books for children involve infrastructure and construction. These books discuss vehicles, what is underground, and how items get from one place to another. The emphasis on big machines doing physical work and the mobility of it all seems attractive to kids. (I would guess much of this attraction is due to socialization.) But, if I think back to my schooling, we spend little time analyzing and discussing these basic systems that are essential to all of our lives: electricity and electrical lines, plumbing and sewers, Internet cables, roads and highways, pipelines, gas lines, railroads, trucking, waterways, airplanes and airports, and other crucial pieces of infrastructure. Why?

In many ways, it would not be hard to incorporate these topics into multiple subjects. The first example that came to mind would be a unit about railroads. These are essential for moving goods long distances. Various subjects could tackle aspects of the railroad. Plenty of history and geography to note. The natural sciences could discuss steam engines, coal, diesel engines, and how such heavy objects move. The humanities have a wealth of stories, poems, songs, and other works that involve railroads. Math could involve analyzing timetables or schedules. Language arts could involve writing promotional materials for railroads or describing particular historical events involving trains.

Without more formal instruction on infrastructure, American adults may not (1) think often about how we all need to contribute to maintaining and building infrastructure and (2) have a good understanding of how it all works (not just the infrastructure itself but also related industries and aspects of social life). In other words, a lack of attention paid to infrastructure in school and learning may just contribute to a public that does not want to address the infrastructure issues facing the nation today.

Argument: mass transit service comes before demand

A history of the decline of mass transit in the United States concludes with this claim: there must be transit service in order to generate demand.

The story of American transit didn’t have to turn out this way. Look again at Toronto. It’s much like American cities, with sprawling suburbs and a newer postwar subway system. But instead of relying on park-and-ride, Toronto chose to also provide frequent bus service to all of its new suburbs. (It also is nearly alone in North America in maintaining a well-used legacy streetcar network.) Even Toronto’s suburbanites are heavy transit users, thanks to the good service they enjoy.

Likewise, in Europe, even as urban areas expanded dramatically with the construction of suburbs and new towns, planners designed these communities in ways that made transit use still feasible, building many of them around train stations. When cities like Paris, London, and Berlin eliminated their streetcar networks, they replaced them with comparable bus service.

Service drives demand. When riders started to switch to the car in the early postwar years, American transit systems almost universally cut service to restore their financial viability. But this drove more people away, producing a vicious cycle until just about everybody who could drive, drove. In the fastest-growing areas, little or no transit was provided at all, because it was deemed to be not economically viable. Therefore, new suburbs had to be entirely auto-oriented. As poverty suburbanizes, and as more jobs are located in suburban areas, the inaccessibility of transit on a regional scale is becoming a crisis.

The only way to reverse the vicious cycle in the U.S. is by providing better service up front. The riders might not come on day one, but numerous examples, from cities like Phoenix and Seattle, have shown that better service will attract more riders. This can, in turn, produce a virtuous cycle where more riders justify further improved service—as well as providing a stronger political base of support.

I wonder how much infrastructure – largely paid for by taxpayers and serving the public – differs from other kinds of innovation. Sometimes, new products meet a clear demand. At other times, a new product generates new demand that people did not even know existed.

Furthermore, let’s say for the sake of argument that this claim is true: building more mass transit lines and options would eventually increase demand. Municipalities and governments would still be left with a tricky issue: is there enough will or enough resources to pay what can be massive costs up front with a promised payoff in the future? Long-term thinking is not necessary something Americans have done well in recent decades. (And this does not even include the possibility that the big investment might not pay off.)

Finally, another way to approach this is to start with smaller-scale projects, show people that they work, and then build up to a larger structure. In many American communities, this would mean starting with bus service since plenty of roads already exist. But, many Americans do not like buses. They may be more likely to take trains but these require a lot more work and money.

Shipping via truck and railroad in a strong economy

If the economy is going well, the trucking and railroad industries have plenty of work to do:

The dynamics in the transportation sector are “clearly signaling that the US economy, at least for now, is ignoring all of the angst coming out of Washington D.C. about the trade wars,” the report by Cass said.

The Cass Shipments Index does not include shipments of bulk commodities, such as grains or chemicals. But shipments of commodities were strong too, according to the Association of American Railroads. Excluding the carload category of coal, which is facing a structural decline in the US, carloads rose by 6.7% year-over-year, including grain, up 14.7%; petroleum & petroleum products, up 27%; and chemicals, up 4.6%. Of the 20 commodity carload categories, only five showed declines, including nonmetallic minerals, metallic ores, and the biggie, coal.

And intermodal traffic – shipments of containers and trailers via a combination of rail and truck – surged 6.9% in July compared to July last year, the AAR reported.

At the least, this is just a reminder of how goods make their way to stores and eventually buyer’s residences. Those trucks and trains may be a nuisance when you want to get where you want to go but this is how it works in our society.

A few other thoughts:

  1. It is hard to imagine drones could make up for all or even many of the goods shipped by trucks and trains. Or, imagine drones like swarms of locusts.
  2. The shipping industry is another one highly affected by economic swings. Like the construction and housing industries, when times are good, there is a lot of need for goods to be moved around. When a recession hits, all that equipment and all those employees are not needed.
  3. Of course, there is an international component to all of this where goods have to enter or leave countries. That all happens on a consistent even with all the rhetoric regarding trade wars and trade agreements. I remember going past some of the shipping yards in Hong Kong and being amazed at the size of the facilities: cargo containers in huge piles for as far as one could see.

CREATE plan slowly moves to address Chicago area railroad congestion

An expensive and sizable project aims to solve the train congestion in the Chicago region:

CREATE takes an incremental approach to fixing rail gridlock in the suburbs and Chicago, the nation’s busiest rail hub.

One overpass here, two extra tracks there, and eventually freight trains will be chugging along instead of noisily idling in your neighborhood while emitting diesel fumes.

The downside is the cost — a staggering $4.4 billion to fix the region’s outdated rail infrastructure.

Despite funding challenges, 29 out of 70 CREATE projects in the region have been completed with $1 billion spent, Association of American Railroads Chief Engineer for CREATE William Thompson explained during a recent tour…

The Chicago region handles a whopping 25 percent of freight traffic in the U.S. That means almost 500 freight trains and 760 Metra and Amtrak trains pass through the region daily. Completing the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program that builds bridges and new track will mean the metro area can host 50,000 more freight trains a year by 2051.

The Chicago area is a critical railroad hub for the entire nation. Yet, given the amount of development in the region, making significant changes is difficult. For example, construction at O’Hare Airport is held up by a dispute over railroad land adjacent to the busy facility. Or, suburban residents and communities do not like it when freight traffic is increased near them even if benefits the region as a whole. Or, getting rid of the many at-grade crossings is a slow process. This is another good illustration of how foresight – addressing these issues decades ago as the region was growing at a face pace – could have cut off numerous later issues.

Also, I am intrigued by the last line from the article quoted above. I assume most of the region’s residents would assume that the amount of time and money poured into this project would eventually mean that they would encounter fewer trains. And this might be the case if more bridges, underpasses, and routes around the outskirts of the region limit the vehicular contact with trains. Yet, increasing the number of freight trains by 50,000 means more noise and possibly more traffic issues at the points in the transportation grid where trains and vehicles still come in contact. Would the majority of residents want 50,000 new trains? I would guess no even if it is essential to their day-to-day lives (delivering goods and food, etc.).