Another danger of at-grade RR crossings: bike crashes

One at-grade railroad crossing in Knoxville, Tennessee illustrates the danger such crossings can present to bicyclists:

As many riders know from painful experience, crossing rails embedded in the street is a treacherous undertaking on a bike. There are at least 100,000 at-grade rail crossings in the U.S., not counting city trams and streetcars (which are also notorious for taking down cyclists). But it’s tough to gather data on how many crashes they cause because so few are communicated to the authorities. “The work I looked at, we saw people getting hauled off on ambulances and other things, but very, very few police crash reports,” says Cherry. “There’s a lot of rail infrastructure throughout Tennessee, and I can only imagine how many unreported crashes are occurring statewide or even nationwide.”

That’s part of what motivated Cherry and company to conduct what they call the nation’s first “empirical analysis of rail-grade crossings and single-bicycle crashes.” To them, the problem wasn’t with the cyclists. It was with the roadway design and the fact nobody knows, scientifically speaking, the best way to bike over railroad tracks….

Most experienced riders know the ideal way to do it: As the folks at Bicycling say, cross at a 90-degree angle. That’s the “gold standard” many infrastructure designers strive for. But in cases when the crossing has gaps running in different directions, it might be best to pedal through at 45 degrees. Of course, all this is more complicated when metal tracks are wet, a situation that can turn even a savvy cyclist into a hollering missile directed fast into the pavement…

After pondering a 90-degree crossing that would cost $200,000, partly due to the route being near a river and needing retaining walls, the city and the railroad company settled on a cheaper, roughly 60-degree “jughandle” detour on the side of the street where people were tumbling into traffic. “The total cost was $5,000 for all of that, which is unbelievable, really,” Cherry says. “This has been years in the making, with probably hundreds of crashes there, and it took $5,000 worth of in-house crew time and materials.” (The city later made the path on the other side, located on a greenway, angled to about 60 degrees.)

In addition to bicycles, at-grade crossings are notoriously dangerous for cars and pedestrians. All would do well to pay extra attention when crossing these, even if they are familiar or rarely involve trains. For example, there are several crossings I can think of within a ten mile radius that involve either extra bumpiness, steep approaches, or multiple train lines crossed at once.

While the solution above for bicyclists seems pretty simple, the long-term goal of reducing the number of such crossings is an expensive proposition. It is costly to build bridges and underpasses since in addition to the typical costs of building a bridge or underpass, a solution requires using more land (I recall a proposal to build an overpass in downtown Wheaton that would have obliterated a good portion of the downtown just to provide the necessary ramps) and it can be expensive to construct something while still allowing traffic through (even if roads are closed, trains have a much harder time finding alternative routes).

Getting used to living next to Chicago’s L

WBEZ summarizes how several Chicago residents who live right next to the L tracks have adapted:

Maybe most surprising of all, everyone we spoke to says they’ve adapted to the noise and the shaking the train brings. And there’s a kicker. One expert tells us residents (neighbors to the tracks or not) should expect the CTA train lines to eventually get quieter, as the agency updates to newer train models and lines are revamped with noise mitigation in mind.

I’m not surprised. It is something you notice immediately if you are not used to it but it eventually fades away. I spent 10+ years growing up in a house within 500 feet of a major railroad line. There were 70+ trains, freight and passenger, per day and the noise and vibrations were quite noticeable. Yet, outside of having to turn the TV and radio up or down depending on whether a train was nearby, it just became part of normal life.

Perhaps the more interesting question here is whether these properties have reduced values. If so, and given the ability of many nearby residents to adjust, perhaps these properties are hidden gems?

Changing worker’s commutes from driving to mass transit can be hard

A new study looks at how the World Wildlife Fund successfully pushed workers to switch to mass transit when they moved their offices:

Last fall, the World Wildlife Fund moved its U.K. headquarters from Godalming to Woking. One of the main reasons given for the move was the desire for a more sustainable work environment. To that end, the company encouraged employees to trade their car commute for the train; Woking had much better rail connection anyway, and for six months after the move WWF-UK paid the fare difference for workers whose rail costs rose or who switched from driving…

In a word, the decline in car commuting, and related rise in train use, was remarkable. The share of employees driving to work fell from 55 percent, when the office had been in Godalming, to roughly 23 percent a week after the move to Woking (and 29 percent a month later). The share using the train, meanwhile, did just the reverse: rising from 18.5 percent before to 56 percent after the move. The use of other modes, including cycling, walking, car-share, and bus, remained pretty steady, all under 10 percent…

In simple terms, that finding merely echoes what we all know: old habits die hard. But in terms of encouraging new commute behavior, it’s a critical insight, because it establishes a timeline for intervention. If a commuter mode-shift program isn’t sustained for long enough, there’s a real possibility of relapse, since the old habits tend to linger even after the new one starts to form, and since the new one doesn’t reach the power of the old even after a month…

Some might consider WWF-UK a best-case commute-shift scenario. These are environmentally conscious workers, after all, and the new transit option was much more appealing (the train station at Woking was a 7-minute walk from the office, compared with 25 minutes at Godalming). Then again, driving wasn’t exactly a huge hassle here: the new office sits right on top of a parking lot, and WWF-UK subsidized employee parking for six months after the move.

An interesting question to consider. It sounds like the study primarily puts this in terms of the habits and patterns of the employees but making the switch to mass transit may not be so simple. For example, employees might initially choose where to live based on the mode of their commuting. If the company suddenly moves, that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone can now take the train.

How much does it matter that this relocation primarily took place in a suburban context? It is one thing if a company moved from Westerminister to the City in London proper. Here, the move was more on the periphery of the metropolitan area as Woking is 23 miles out. Certain companies might attract more urban employees, perhaps younger couples or those interested in certain political or social causes, making a move to an area with more mass transit more attractive.

In the end, how much does this one case tell us about larger commuting habits that are hard to break?

OECD report blasts Chicago area transit

A new report from the OECD suggests transit in the Chicago region could improve a lot:

“The current state of transit ridership in Chicago is relatively depressing,” concludes the report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based research agency whose backers include the world’s richest nations, among them the U.S.

The report found a lack of coordination among the four transit agencies and their four separate boards as well as insufficient accountability. Those issues intensify the economic impact of congestion on Chicago, estimated at over $6 billion in 2011 by the Texas Transportation Institute, the report said.

Although the new study largely echoes previous critiques of the area’s transit system and contains no startling findings, it offers a view of Chicago from a global perspective. And in doing so, the report gives an unflattering assessment of a transportation network that Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other leaders have aspired to be world-class…

One of the findings bolsters a recommendation made this year by the Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force: that a single superagency should replace the RTA and oversee the CTA, Metra and Pace.

Could a report from a reputable international organization finally spur organizations and governments in the Chicago area into action? I’m skeptical. I would guess a lot of actors would frown on the idea of a overarching superagency that could override their particular concerns. Imagine Chicago neighborhoods and far-flung suburbs with competing interests both being dissatisfied with the decisions made by a board of bureaucrats.

At the same time, not pushing reforms means the Chicago could be leaving a lot of money and time on the table.

Better to expand Metra service to Oswego and Yorkville or use money to solve problems within the region?

Discussion is growing about expanding Metra commuter rail service to Oswego and Yorkville but where the money will come from is an issue:

Metra board directors on Friday supported increasing a consulting contract by $439,631 for a total of $2.26 million to review the Yorkville option. The funding for the engineering study comes from a federal grant, earmarked in 2003 by former House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Yorkville.

The agency has been considering locating stations in Oswego but Yorkville is being added since it offers an optimal site for a yard to house trains. Montgomery is also in the mix as a new station.

But how to pay for operating the expansion and related construction — since most of the route is outside the six-county region that Metra serves — is an unknown. A sales tax in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties subsidizes part of the costs of running Metra, but it isn’t levied in Kendall County…

Oswego Village Administrator Steve Jones said the Metra station was “extremely important. Up until the housing crash, Oswego and the immediate area was one of the fastest-growing areas in the country. As residents move to the area, they have some expectations for transportation for employment and cultural matters … just being linked to the city.”

Since Oswego and Yorkville have been growing, this makes some sense. Yet, I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to find money, grants and otherwise, to expand train service within the six county region. As currently constituted, Metra service is based on a hub and spokes model where riders have to go into the city before heading back out. Why not find money to develop belt lines where riders can move between job centers, particularly places like Naperville, Schaumburg, and Hoffman Estates as well as O’Hare Airport? Indeed, there are already plans for such a line that involve expanding an existing beltway rail line. Read more here about the STAR Line.

More broadly, this is a question of whether officials should encourage continued expansion of metropolitan areas through the construction of new infrastructure or help deal with the existing issues of metropolitan regions. People may choose to move to places like Oswego or Yorkville but officials don’t necessarily have to find the money to support it.

Mapping Chicago area income inequality by Metra route

Crain’s Chicago Business put together an interactive map that shows income levels by Metra train stop:

The geographic disparity in Chicago’s wealth can be seen by tracking household income in the ZIP codes of Metra train stations. The Union Pacific North and Milwaukee District North lines pass through some of the wealthiest ZIP codes, while the Metra Electric and Rock Island lines go through some of the poorest.

Several quick thoughts:

1. This reflects historic settlement patterns in the Chicago region.

2. I wish there was another set of data layered on top of this: daily ridership from each stop. This way, we could see if income is related to ridership. Could these mass transit lines primarily benefit people from wealthier areas in the Chicago region? In other words, do these commuter lines reinforce income differences? Are these train lines generally a boon for communities compared to Chicago suburbs without commuter train stations?

3. Of course, looking at ZIP codes of the train stations is inexact. Depending on the location of the station, people might drive from other zip codes. What we really need is more exact information from riders themselves: where do they live, what is their income, why do they utilize this particular stop, etc.

4. Also, why use average household incomes rather than median household incomes? Using the average likely increases the variation among train stations but also allows outliers in income to have more influence in the data.

h/t Curbed Chicago

Celebrating “a cathedral for commuters”

Grand Central Terminal is 100 years old and NPR provides part of its story:

Seven is one of the 750,000 people who walk through Grand Central every day. To put it into perspective, that’s more people than the entire population of the state of Alaska — a handy fact you can learn from Daniel Brucker, an enthusiastic New Yorker who’s managed Grand Central Tours for the past 25 years…

Fortunately, the Vanderbilt family, who owned the New York Central Railroad, had the money. And what they built was a 49-acre rail complex with more tracks and platforms than any other in the world. The buildings on Park Avenue, to the north, are built over it. And it’s an almost unfathomably busy place — during the morning rush hour, a Metro-North commuter train arrives every 58 seconds.

“It’s like a cathedral that’s built for the people,” Brucker says. “We’re not going through somebody else’s mansion, through somebody else’s monument. It’s ours. It’s meant for the everyday commuter, and it’s a celebration of it.”…

“It is the largest interior … public space in New York,” Monasterio says. The windows on the east and the west side, those windows used to open, they used to draw air from the east side, through the terminal, over and out the west side.”

Having been there a few times myself, it is a remarkable building. Public spaces that are so crowded, functional, and well-designed are rare.

It would be interesting to hear more about how Grand Central fits into the fabric of New York City. On one hand, it seems like quintessential New York: classical exterior, busy space, busy yet functional. At the same time, it doesn’t exactly fit with Midtown Manhattan and the modern skyline. It is a relic of the past, a building that had to be saved through the first federal conservancy act from the 1960s.

Questions about a study of the top Chicago commuter suburbs

The Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul just released a new study that identifies the “top [20] transit suburbs of metropolitan Chicago.” Here is the top 10, starting with the top one: LaGrange, Wilmette, Arlington Heights, Glenview, Elmhurst, Wheaton, Downers Grove, Naperville, Des Plaines, and Mount Prospect. Here is the criteria used to identify these suburbs:

The DePaul University team considered 45 measurable factors to rank the best transit suburbs based on their:

1. Station buildings and platforms;

2. Station grounds and parking;

3. Walkable downtown amenities adjacent to the station; and

4. Degree of community connectivity to public transportation, as measured by the use of commuter rail services.

A couple of things strike me as interesting:

1. These tend to be wealthier suburbs but not the wealthiest. On one hand, this seems strange as living in a nicer place doesn’t necessarily translate into nicer mass transit facilities (particularly if more people can afford to drive). On the other hand, having a thriving, walkable downtown nearby is probably linked to having the money to make that happen.

2. There are several other important factors that influence which suburbs made the list:

Communities in the northern and northwestern parts of the region tended to outperform those in the southern parts, with much of the differences due to their published Walk Scores. Similarly, communities on the outer periphery of the region tend to have lower scores due to the tendency for the density of development to decline as one moves farther from downtown Chicago. As a result, both Walk Scores and connectivity to transit tended to be lower in far-out suburbs than closer-in ones.

It might be more interesting here to pick out suburbs that buck these trends and have truly put a premium on attractive transportation options. For example, can a suburb 35 miles out of Chicago put together a mass transit facilities that truly draw new residents or does the distance simply matter too much?

3. I’m not sure why they didn’t include “city suburbs.” Here is the explanation from the full report (p.11 of the PDF):

All suburbs with stations on metropolitan Chicago’s commuter-rail system, whether they are located in Illinois or Indiana, are considered for analysis except those classified as city suburbs, such as Evanston, Forest Park, and Oak Park, which have CTA rapid transit service to their downtown districts. Gary, Hammond, and Whiting, Indiana, also are generally considered cities or city suburbs rather than conventional suburbs, because all of these communities have distinct urban qualities. To assure meaningful and fair comparisons, these communities were not included in the study.

Hammond is not a “conventional suburb”? CTA service isn’t a plus over Metra commuter rail service?

4. The included suburbs had to meet three criteria (p.11 of the PDF):

1) commuter-rail service available seven days a week, with at least 14 inbound departures on weekdays, including some express trains;
2) at least 150 people who walk or bike to the train daily; and
3) a Walk Score of at least 65 on a 100-point scale at its primary downtown station (putting it near the middle of the category, described as “somewhat walkable”).

This is fairly strict criteria so not that many Chicago suburbs qualified for the study (p.11 of the PDF):

Twenty-five communities, all on the Metra system, met these three criteria (Figure 2). All were adjacent to downtown districts that support a transit-oriented lifestyle and tend to have a transit culture that many find appealing. Numerous communities, such as Buffalo Grove, Lockport, and Orland Park, were not eligible because they do not currently meet the first criteria, relating to train frequency. Some smaller suburbs, such as Flossmoor, Kenilworth and Glencoe, while heavily oriented toward transit, lack diversified downtown amenities and the services of larger stations, and therefore did not have published Walk Scores above the minimum threshold of 65.

I can imagine what might happen: all suburbs in the top 20 are going to proclaim that they are a top 20 commuter suburb! But it was only out 25…

5. There are some other intriguing methodological bits here. Stations earned points for having coffee available or displaying railroad heritage. Parking lot lighting was measured this way (p.24 of the PDF):

The illumination of the parking lot was evaluated using a standard light meter. Readings were collected during the late-evening hours between June 23 and July 5, 2012 at three locations in the main parking lots:
1) locations directly under light poles (which tend to be the best illuminated parts of the lots);
2) locations midway between the light poles (which tend to be among the most poorly illuminated parts of the lot); and
3) tangential locations, 20 and 25 feet perpendicular to the alignment of light poles and directly adjacent to the poles (in some cases, these areas having lighting provided from lamps on adjacent streets).

At least three readings were collected for category 1 and at least two readings were collected for categories two and three.

There is no widely accepted standard on parking lot lighting that balances aesthetics and security. Research suggests, however, that lighting of 35 or more lumens is preferable, but at a minimum, 10 lumens is necessary for proper pedestrian activity and safety. Scores of parking lot illuminate were based on a relative scale, as noted below. In effect, the scales grades on a “curve”, resulting in a relatively equal distribution of high and low scores for each category. In several instances, Category 3 readings were not possible due to the configuration of the parking lot. In these instances, final scores were determined by averaging the Category 1 and 2 scores.

I don’t see any evidence that commuters themselves were asked about the amenities though there was some direct observation. Why not also get information directly from those who consistently use the facilities?

Overall, I’m not sure how useful this study really is. I can see how it might be utilized by some interested parties including people in real estate and planners but I don’t know that it really captures enough of the full commuting experience available to suburbanites in the Chicago suburbs.

Wheaton to get new downtown overpass – for pedestrians

The City of Wheaton has long looked into the possibility of an overpass in or near the downtown so that traffic could avoid the frequent trains on the Union Pacific (formerly Chicago & Northwestern) tracks. It looks like Wheaton is going to pursue an overpass in the next year, but only for pedestrians:

In 2010, Metra officials had announced plans for the proposed pedestrian overpass, as part of more than $3 million worth of improvements that Metra and the Union Pacific Railroad had drawn up for the Wheaton depot. The work also was to include moving the Wheaton station’s platforms entirely west of West Street.The project had been set to be completed in 2011 but hit a snag, Metra officials said, after complications related to gaining a needed easement from a private landowner on the south side of the tracks. Without that easement, the work could not proceed, said Metra spokesman Michael Gillis…

The pedestrian overpass would be the first of its kind at Wheaton’s Metra station. The College Avenue station, a mile or so east, has a pedestrian tunnel, but Wheaton Metra commuters have no easily available bypass to get from one side of the tracks to the other.

Gillis said the pedestrian overpass would be constructed between 530 and 550 feet west of the West Street rail crossing.

It appears this was first announced in the Metra “On the Bi-Level” newsletter for the UP West line March 2009. I’ll be curious to see how this overpass looks and how it fits in with the surrounding area.

This will be helpful at the downtown commuter train station. However, it doesn’t help with a vehicular traffic and congestion issue in Wheaton: getting over the railroad tracks when going north-south. The bridge on Manchester Road is helpful but it requires going out of the way and it not right along the Gary Avenue/Main Street/Naperville Road corridor.

My take on why such a vehicular overpass has not been built is that it would change the historic downtown too much. Proposals made in the past would have required severely altering the Main Street/Front Street intersection, home to some of downtown Wheaton’s oldest buildings. Better options may have included extending Naperville Road across the tracks but this runs into the Courthouse area, the library, and a residential neighborhood and the Gary Avenue corridor is more residential. In the end, Wheaton may just have to live with trains stopping traffic: those same trains gave the community a reason for existing as Wheaton was initially founded around the then Galena & Chicago Union railroad tracks in the 1850s.

How to keep the seat next to you on the train empty

Chris Wilson examines an argument recently made by a writer about how he is able to keep the seat next to him on the train empty:

In an op-ed in today’s New York Times, Wideman describes how, during his regular commute between New York City and Providence on the Acela, he almost always enjoys a double seat to himself. I call that divine intervention. He chalks it up, after considering and rejecting the alternatives, to being black…

Wideman, a successful writer, describes his observations as a “casual sociological experiment.” But he lacks any controlled variables. Granted, the only direct way I can think of to test his hypothesis would be to adjust his complexion while holding everything else—dress, demeanor, reading material—as constant as possible. The ethics of doing this notwithstanding, the makeup is murderous to your pores.

A couple of thoughts:

1. It would not surprise me at all if race was the important factor in this situation.

2. But this is a nice illustration of how one could go about testing this hypothesis: devise an experiment where the person next to the empty seat alters their appearance/features and then sees how people respond.