Sunday, May 25, 2014

Flyover II

I just finished writing an argument against the building of a rail overpass (the Brown Line Flyover) that the CTA plans to build just north of the Belmont rapid transit station that serves the transit agency's Red, Brown and Purple Line trains. 

In a nutshell, I oppose the building of this structure as the cost in terms of federal money, displaced homes and businesses, and the destruction of part of a neighborhood, did not justify the net gain of the project, amounting to only about 30 seconds of commute time on those lines. 

Here is a 2011 article written by Ed Zotti from the Chicago's free weekly, the Reader, that describes a complete overhaul of the Red, Brown and Purple Lines. In a scheme that Zotti and his colleagues exhaustively created, the three lines are reconfigured to more adequately serve the needs of riders on both the north and the south sides of town. 

As a patchwork, temporary fix that the CTA currently proposes, the overpass makes little sense. However when integrated into a visionary plan for the future as it is presented in Zotti's article, it may be something worth considering. 

Buyer beware however, the overhaul comes at a cost measured in the billions, not the millions. 

Money worth spent in my opinion but I may be in the minority on this one.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Brown Line Flyover

After years on the drawing table, the Chicago Transit Authority has recently announced plans to build a new structure on the elevated tracks shared by the Red, Purple and Brown lines at the Clark Junction just north of Belmont Avenue. The structure would be built for north-bound Brown Line trains, elevating them above three sets of active tracks which they currently must switch across in order to continue on their journey culminating at Lawrence and Kimball Avenues in the Albany Park neighborhood on the city's north side.

The CTA puts a price tag of 320 million dollars on the project which if realized, would necessitate the demolition of at least sixteen buildings in the Lakeview neighborhood. That's too much money and sacrifice some critics suggest, to eliminate the average 84 second delay the CTA claims that riders on all three lines experience today. The CTA would no doubt counter that when you multiply those 84 seconds by the combined daily ridership of the three affected lines, (around 400,000), it turns out to be quite a few saved seconds indeed.

A friend of mine who works in the transit industry, but not for the CTA, posted a comment on Facebook stating that a handful of shortsighted people, i.e.:  neighborhood residents, preservationists and other concerned citizens, are standing in the way of a much needed project that will greatly improve the lives of everyone who rides those lines.

"I can authoritatively say..." said my friend, " me, you want this." Calling opponents of the plan the "mental midgets," he claimed that the flyover not only will allow for a 15 to 30 second reduction of commute time (he apparently doesn't buy the CTA estimate, and for the record neither do I), but it will also allow the system to run more trains on those lines, further reducing wait times and delays.

Sounds promising doesn't it?

Well at the risk of sounding like a mental midget, I for one am not so sure. Now I'm far from an expert on the running of a railway, unless you count the number of hours I've spent with model trains. However I am very well versed in delays, especially those on the Red, Purple and Brown Lines, all of which I ride regularly. Please indulge me for a moment to prove my point:

As my morning commute begins at the Howard Street station, the terminus of the Red Line, I have the option of taking either the Red or the Purple Line to work in Chicago's Loop. If the transit gods are with me, which is usually not the case, a Purple Line train arrives at the station just as I get there. That train runs express (so to speak) to Belmont where if I'm lucky, a Red Line train will be waiting. There, if I'm willing to give up my seat, I'll switch over to that train since the trip to the Loop from Belmont is much quicker on the Red Line as it has fewer stops and takes a less circuitous route than the Purple. If my connections are good and there are no delays that day, again the exception not the rule, I can make it to work door to door, in a tad under an hour.

Between the two lines, the average difference in transit time from Howard to Belmont is approximately equal to the amount of time that the Purple Line trains are spaced apart, meaning that theoretically, if I miss a Purple Line train at Howard, the odds should be good that it's no worse than a break-even proposition to wait for the next one, rather than to board a Red Line train already at the station. (Red Line trains are spaced much closer together). Furthermore, a lot of passengers not boarding the Red Line at Howard is a good sign that its been a while since the last Purple Line left the station, and the odds should be good that another one is coming soon. Therefore it stands to reason that waiting for a Purple Line at Howard should be a good bet.

But alas, despite all the thought put into deciding which train to take, choosing between the Red and the Purple Line at Howard is little more than a crap shoot. There have been many times when I've waited twenty to thirty minutes for a Purple Line train with no explanation for the delay, all the while watching countless Red Line trains leave the station. There have been other times when after just missing a Purple Line, I've boarded a Red Line train, only to have it passed by three or four Purple Line trains before Belmont.

My point is this: the most frustrating thing for a commuter is not the amount of time of the commute, but inconsistency. It's nice to know that if you leave home at a given time, you will arrive at your destination in a set amount of time, give or take a minute or two. Delays of course are an inevitable part of commuting, but some of them, like the one at the Clark Junction are predictable and can be calculated into your commute time. Frankly in the ten years I've been riding this route, I can't remember ever being held up at that junction more than one or two minutes at the very most. Quite often like this week, going to and from work, there were no delays at all at the junction.

Since I do consider myself something of an authority on this very particular subject, I can say without reservation that the delay caused by waiting for Brown Line trains crossing over the tracks at the Clark Junction is definitely one of the LEAST significant delays during my commute.

Far more annoying are the unexpected delays when a train of any color line stands between stations anywhere along the line for five, ten, or more minutes. More often than not the operator will explain (if he or she bothers to), that the delay is caused by a backup of trains ahead. Ah you say, but if the new overpass is built, it would eliminate many of those backups. But from my experience, the most serious delays in the morning occur past the junction, when Brown and Purple Line trains all vie for the same right of way. Since southbound Brown Line trains are the only trains going through the junction that are not affected by the crossover, it's difficult to imagine how a backup of those trains could possibly be caused by the crossover.

On the ride home, by far the biggest irritant is trains backing up at Howard Street. Three lines use that station, in addition to the ones mentioned above, the Yellow Line, formerly known as the Skokie Swift, like the Red Line uses Howard as its terminus. Backups at this station, especially during rush hour are the rule, and it is not uncommon to sit on a train from ten to twenty minutes within sight of Howard, waiting for trains ahead to clear the station. As these backups happen on my way home, they are not as critical, but every bit as annoying. It's very difficult to explain how a one minute delay at Belmont could lead to a twenty minute delay five miles north.

Again I'm not an expert on what's causing these delays that seem much worse now than in the past but I have a few suspicions. The most obvious cause I think is wear and tear on the infrastructure. This past winter wreaked havok with the system and frequent delays occurred on a daily basis. That's just the nature of the game and I don't blame the CTA, apparently things were much worse on the Metra, Chicago's commuter railway. However it's hardly a surprise that an elevated structure that is over a century old would show signs of age. Currently, trains that should be capable of speeds of  30 to 40 mph are frequently reduced to a snail's pace because of poor track conditions.

Switches malfunctioning, and not just at the Clark Street junction, are another cause for delays. Back in the day, there were control towers at the major rail junctions manned round the clock by operators who were on hand who could manually operate the switches if the mechanical systems failed. Today the switches are controlled remotely at a central location, a great cost savings at the expense of efficiency in the case of problems. About ten years ago the CTA eliminated more personnel when they went from two person crews, an operator and conductor aboard each train, to one person crews. That meant that minor problems aboard a train which could once be addressed by the conductor while the train was in motion, now have to be dealt with by the operator, obviously stopping the train and with it, every train behind it.

Also, CTA trains now must be wheel chair accessible which is a great thing. Unfortunately with a one person crew, if a passenger in a wheelchair wants to board a train, it is the operator who is usually responsible for fetching and placing a metal ramp between the platform and the train for the passenger's access. Then the operator must return the ramp to its container before proceeding back to the controls. I've seen this highly inefficient process take up to five minutes to complete. Then the entire process is repeated once the passenger needs to get off the train.

The cash-strapped CTA can sometimes be forgiven for these and a whole slew of service related problems as I often think it's a miracle the authority is able to run at all. However with 320 million dollars burning a hole in someone's pocket, I think the agency would be do well by addressing some of these other problems before they tackle building the "Brown Line Flyover" as it has been called.

Given the chance, this is how I would prioritize spending that money:
  • Fix the infrastructure - My question as to why trains have been moving so slowly lately when there is no traffic ahead was answered one day when I stood at the back of a slow moving train and looked at the condition of the tracks we had just rolled over. Instead of two straight lines converging into the distance, the rails resembled the wavy lines of an active oscilloscope readout. One day as our train huffed and puffed at a breakneck five mph, a woman asked her companion: "where do you get on the express train?" "This is the express train" was the answer. It's obvious that trains running at these painful speeds cost commuters far more than one or two minutes per ride.
  • More efficient stops - Obviously, stopping for passengers takes up a lot of time. Along the Red Line between the Loyola and Wilson stops, stations are placed at intervals of three, and sometimes even two blocks apart. Having stations that close together runs contrary to the idea of rapid transit. Of course the proposal to eliminate stops would go over with the public like a lead balloon. So how about this: go back to the old system of alternating stops during rush hour? Long time Chicagoans will recognize the idea of designating lower volume stations as either A or B stops which would be served exclusively by alternating A and B trains. The more used stations would be designated AB stations where all trains would stop. The CTA successfully used this system for years. Metra uses a similar system during rush hour. Fewer stops per train would result in shorter ride times and fewer opportunities for unexpected delays.
  • More efficient make-up time after delays - Today it seems a much less common practice after a delay to space out trains by running the leader train as an express. Using this practice more often would help reduce backups caused by trains bunched together after a delay. It's true that using these efficiency measures would inconvenience some riders, but on the whole, the system would benefit. In both cases, computer algorithms could be put into place that would determine which and how many stops should be skipped by each train to maximize flow while minimizing passenger inconvenience. 
  • Hire more people - I know that not in a million years will we see the return of regular two person crews on L trains but perhaps it would make sense, at least during rush hours to put another crew member aboard each a train to help make things work a little smoother. Re-manning switch stations at the major junctions would speed up the delays caused by inevitable equipment problems. Also, stations today are inadequately staffed. With the CTA's confusing and bug-ridden new Ventra Card payment system, attendants are now spending so much time helping passengers figure out how to pay for their ride (several minutes per passenger in some cases), that they are unavailable to assist with other things, such as assisting handicapped passengers board and alight from trains. Short of that, perhaps a mechanical ramp system could be put into place that people in wheelchairs could easily operate themselves, eliminating one extra job for the already overburdened operators .
  • Replace track on already existing right-of-way - The elevated structure south of Armitage and extending at least to Chicago Avenue, used to support four sets of tracks. Over the years, two of those sets were abandoned and left to decay. Ultimately they were removed. Since the acquisition of property for right-of-way is the most expensive aspect of building new rail projects (including the Brown Line overpass), would it not make sense to restore these tracks on already existing right-of-way to accommodate express trains from Fullerton into the Loop? This would not only free up some of the backups on the Brown and Purple Lines, but it would give at least some passengers the option of saving an extra ten minutes of commute time.
It's not difficult to understand why executives like CTA president Forrest Claypool, and politicians like Mayor Emanuel like projects like the Brown Line Flyover. They can point to these splashy projects as part of their legacy. They can say they created jobs and improved the system, however modestly. On the other hand, it's a little hard to place your legacy and engrave your name upon a new section of track, a train that doesn't make all the stops, or an extra station agent.

As anyone who has read this blog knows, I am a huge advocate of public transit. I believe that all great cities give residents and visitors numerous options of getting from one place to another that don't involve the dangerous, over-priced, over-taxing, over-polluting, personal transportation device known as the automobile. Articles by two local writers whom I admire, Blair Kamin, and Lynn Becker, I believe slightly overstated the issue when they compared the Brown Line Flyover to the massively destructive public works campaigns of Robert Moses in New York City and Richard J. Daley in Chicago. If I could be convinced that this project would significantly improve Chicago's transit system, even at the cost of sacrificing some buildings, I would wholeheartedly support it.

However looking at the matter from a practical, cost/benefit perspective, I have to seriously question whether spending money that could be used far more constructively, displacing homes and businesses, and destroying several buildings, some of them over 100 years old, some of them not even ten years old in a vibrant community, is worth it in order to possibly shave off a few seconds of travel time for commuters.

Remember folks, I'm one of those commuters, not somebody who lives in the affected neighborhood complaining about change. Personally I have everything to gain and nothing to lose if the Brown Line Flyover is built, that is with one exception:

To me the greatest fallacy is the assertion that if the Flyover is built, it would enable the CTA to run more trains over the three lines impacted. From my experience as I previously stated, the system in its current state south of Clark Junction, simply cannot efficiently handle the number of trains it has running at the present time. Unless most of the changes I stated above are enacted, how on earth will it be able to handle more traffic?

The answer is simple, it won't, and I'm afraid that unless plans can be put in place that will make the entire system run more efficiently, the Brown Line Flyover will only create more traffic problems than it will solve. Without those plans in place, in addition to the destruction of part of a neighborhood and the homes and livelihoods of its residents, I can't help but believe that the Brown Line Flyover is a foolish idea.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Imperfect strangers

A woman got on the train this morning and began talking to my seatmate, a friendly young man in his twenties. Their conversation went something like this:

Woman: "Don't you recognize me?"
Man: "You do look familiar."
W: "You know who I am don't you?"
M: "I can't quite place you."
W: "Really?"
M: "It's been a while hasn't it?"
W: "Oh come on!"
M: "Didn't you used to work at Target?"
W: "TARGET?!!!"
M: "You didn't work at Target?"
W: "No dammit, that was the woman who stole my identity."
M: "Excuse me?"
W: "This lady from Mexico, she broke into my home late one night, beat me up so bad I almost died. She took all my ids and I've been trying to get my identity back ever since."
M: "My gosh that's terrible."
W: "That's only the beginning, she broke into other homes and the police came after me. They surrounded me and you know what I did? I held up a bible."
M: "A bible?"
W: "They thought I was going to pull a gun but I pulled a bible on them instead."
M: "Hmmm."
W: "The thing that gets me is that I was born in the USA and they treat me like a criminal and these foreigners get treated like kings. What's your name?"
M: "Adam."
W: "Adam do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?"
M: "um... I don't know."
W: "Well let me tell you about him..."

At that point the conversation became a monologue, mixing religion with tales of persecution.

The young man looked more and more uncomfortable. I pretended to be asleep.

Soon the monologue became a rant that everyone in the car could hear. Then in a sardonic tone, the woman said to the man: "Am I making you feel uncomfortable Adam? That is your name isn't it Adam?"

The man said: "No, that's not my name."

I felt bad for him and wanted to say something to lighten his burden, something like: "Boy you sure found yourself a live one."

But I kept my mouth shut and continued to pretend I was asleep. The young man by this time appeared defeated. He kept eyeing the door and when the train approached his stop, he bolted. For the first time in twenty minutes, the woman didn't say anything.

Then an elderly man took Adam's seat. The lady said to him:

"Has anyone ever told you that you look just like Roger Ebert?"

I didn't wait for his response, my stop was next and I bolted for the door.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Perfect strangers

After the weather report yesterday said "no more rain after 7AM" I felt confident heading off to work without a rain jacket. Besides, I had my umbrella in my backpack, or so I thought. I discovered that mistake after the drizzle turned into a steady rain about half way to my station. By the time I got to Clark Street, it was coming down pretty hard. At that point, a man carrying a good sized umbrella offered to share it with me.

Quite honestly, I feel a little uncomfortable when people offer me help. Being a stubborn sort, I always like to feel that I can take care of things pretty well by myself thank you very much, besides I don't like to see people being inconvenienced on my account. That's rather silly because when you think about it, allowing people to help you when they offer to do so, is also doing them a favor, as their act of kindness gives them a welcome chance to feel good about themselves. Being not a little vain, I also contemplated how silly I would look, getting drenched while walking beside the man with the umbrella, so I obliged and took his offer.

The next task was what to talk about while in the close company of a perfect stranger for the next five minutes. "So, how was your week?" I said. He smiled and said the obligatory: "it was good, how was yours?" I actually was prepared for that question because the night before my son had played the best baseball game of his life, and I just had to tell someone about it. So I did. Turned out, he had a six year old boy of his own and was very interested in learning about our little league program. We had a very pleasant conversation and by the time we got to the station, both of us dripping wet, we had become fast friends. I like to think both of us benefited from the encounter; for me it set a positive tone for what would otherwise have been a stressful day at work. Later that day when a colleague said to me: "I have some bad news for you" I just laughed it off. The news wasn't really that bad but on another day my reaction would have been much different.

In the past few weeks, I've found myself on several occasions engaged in conversation with strangers. There was the time when our train was experiencing several delays, not at all unusual, and my seatmate, a young Asian man, kept making comments to me about the slow ride. Being in the middle of a book, at first I was a little annoyed, but I realized this guy was not going to be ignored. Ultimately, he ended up being much more interesting than the book. He was from Nanjing, China, and perhaps not a little surprised that his American seatmate had not only heard of the place, but also knew about the unspeakable events that took place in that tragic city in the thirties. He told me all about his life in a foreign country, his wife and family back home, and his homesickness. I gave him some tips on off-the-beaten-path Chicago that he might be interested in to help ease his time here before he returned home. We became so involved in our conversation that he almost missed his stop. Then there was the older man with his son and daughter-in-law, all of them in Cubs regalia head to toe, coming from Wrigley Field on the day of that ballpark's 100th anniversary. I knew the game was not over because there was not a W or L flag flying above the scoreboard but could tell from their demeanor that it was not looking good for the home team. Curious about the game I asked the father about the gory details, which led to a fifteen minute conversation where we both exchanged our life stories. In the end it didn't even bother him when I confessed to being a White Sox fan.

Just this past week, sitting behind me were a couple of out-of-towners who kept expressing their concern about missing their station. I turned around and assured them they were headed in the right direction, which again lead to a protracted conversation, this time comparing Chicago with their home town, Houston.

Normally I have so many items on my plate: things to ponder, books to read, my own little life to lead, that my normal reaction is to keep to myself, content that the world will revolve just fine without me jumping in and "fixing" things. That's not to say I don't normally engage in the expected acts of courtesy. The other day as I was content in my seat reading my book, a pregnant woman got on the train and stood next to me. Much as I wanted to sit and read, I dutifully placed the bookmark and shut the book, got up and offered the woman my seat. Much to my surprise, she said: "No thanks I'm fine." "Are you sure?" I replied. She nodded and I sat back down, deprived of being able to perform my good deed for the day. Well at least I thought I'd be able to get back to my book. But then I began to feel a little uncomfortable, not because of the woman, she made her choice and despite her condition appeared to be in extremely good shape. No, it occurred to me that there would be passengers who got on the train later and would have missed my gesture. What would they think when they saw me, a man in reasonably good shape, sitting down while a pregnant woman stood with her distended belly practically in my lap? It didn't help that the gentleman sitting beside me was about 90 years old, what would happen if he got up and offered the lady his seat? What to do? I couldn't offer her my seat again, she'd see right through me. Fortunately the old man did not get up and a man seated behind me later offered the woman his seat and she thankfully declined. My honor at least, if not my self-satisfaction was spared.

I think little unexpected moments, those brief encounters with perfect strangers, do much to enliven one's life. I can't help but think how much I'd be missing if I drove to work. Encounters with people in their cars are entirely different; it's true that on occasion motorists are courteous to others, but the anonymity of being inside a vehicle prevents the gratification that positive face-to-face encounters provide. Of course that anonymity also enables some people to engage in the most egregious forms of behavior committed upon their fellow human beings. No wonder they call it road rage.

Coming home yesterday evening I got off at my stop and on the platform was a half-blind old woman who was shall we say, a little off. She was incoherently asking an old man a question and he ignored her. Then she turned to me. I thought she was asking for money and I politely declined, but it turned out she was asking if I could help her down the stairs, which I gladly did. She then asked me to help her out the door, which I also did. Then she asked me to help her cross the street which would take me in different direction than I was headed. I was going to do that as well but she proceeded ahead of me and almost walked into a moving car. After a long day and in pain because of my ankle which I had twisted earlier, I desperately wanted to get home as quickly as possible, but I remembered the encounter with my new friend earlier that morning. The woman wanted me to take her to a community center where they had a soup kitchen. She said it was just a few steps from there, but those steps got farther and farther away every step I took. She asked me my name and a little about my life and offered me a dollar for my troubles which I declined. I wasn't sure where this journey would end up but we eventually got to the community center. When we got there they told the woman that the soup kitchen was closed but she forced her way in and given her persuasive nature, I have no doubt she convinced them to get her something to eat. She asked me to come in with her but at that point I told her I had to get home to my wife and family. Grateful, she thanked me, then we hugged each other and said goodbye.

At that point I was several blocks off course on my much longed for journey home but a strange thing happened, my sore ankle suddenly felt much better.