Archive for the ‘Transportation’ category

Chicago Auto Show 2011

17 February 2011
Categories: Transportation

The last time I wrote about the Chicago Auto Show was… 2007. Wow. It’s been four years, and so very little has changed.

Sure, the handful of concept cars is different. And at least a couple of concepts of the past few years—the retro-look Chevy Camaro and Dodge Challenger—have made it into production. Nevertheless, what little change has occurred is not entirely for the better.

Back in 2007 I wrote, “Honda has figured out that its Element, now in its fifth model year, is more popular among the thirty- and forty-something age groups, rather than the hip-hop and surf kids it was originally targeting.” This was wishful thinking. Honda never knew what a gem they had in this vehicle—spacious, economical, fun to drive, versatile, and a great value. They insisted on marketing it to a demographic that couldn’t care less about practical transport; and meanwhile the people that would have appreciated the Element’s strengths—middle-class folks with families and a solid need for a dependable, do-everything daily driver—had no idea it was a viable option. Sure, the “Car Talk” guys have touted it week after week for years. But Honda did not.

And so, the 2011 model year will be the last one for the Element, and the lone example of the vehicle that Honda brought to the show was stashed in the corner, behind a giant display wall, treated like some unwanted stepchild. It was getting some attention, though—from current Element owners, commiserating about its demise. One guy said he owned two. His friend grinned and said he owned three Elements. Both were forty-somethings with families. They love their Elements, and spoke of them with the devotion of someone who would buy only Honda Elements for the rest of their lives. If only they could.

Airstream got smart, after last year’s crowded traffic jams, and now has gated access to its area. A lovely spokesmodel stands smiling at the Tensabarrier and allows only four groups in at a time to view the four products on display: a pair of classic polished-aluminum trailers and two well-appointed Class B conversions. The elbow room makes touring the Airstreams so much more comfortable, and really fueled our desire to hit the road someday and see America through the windows of a small RV.

Kia was very smart too. Downstairs, near the ticket sales kiosks and outside the show proper, they had a booth set up with a pile of high-quality cloth tote bags. It’s nice to have a tote bag at the show, to carry all the brochures and stuff, and it’s extra nice if it’s a bag you might wind up wanting to use later too. But to get a bag (and a baseball cap), they want you to take a five-minute test drive of the Kia Optima sedan.

No problem, I said, and we hopped aboard. It’s really a terrific car. Comfort, ergonomics, legroom, fit-and-finish, it’s all top-rate, especially for the price. The turbocharged four-cylinder engine gave it a nice kick in the pants as we cruised down Martin Luther King Drive. Sedans don’t fit our lifestyle, so it’s unlikely I’ll ever buy one, but next time I’m renting a car if I see a Kia Optima on the lot, I won’t hesitate to nab it.

Fiat stopped teasing us this year—after last year, when their only 500 model sat safely out of reach on a turntable—and brought a whole passel of the little coupés to sit in. Including a black one with bright blue racing stripes and a snowboard rack on its tail. These little babies are sporty and adorable; I’d want one if I weren’t so worried about getting flattened by an SUV. Alas, Fiat left the 500 Abarth model, with its mad 170-horse powerplant, back in Italia.

Toyota continues to struggle with the aftermath of recalls and bad press, spending their effort this year with a lot of handwaving about “what’s the plural of Prius?” Meanwhile, their FJ Cruiser is unchanged and remains two-thirds of a decent vehicle, looking classic from the front and fine in its chassis, but with its rear such an ignored design afterthought that any rearward view is all but impossible. The old, real FJ Land Cruisers were like terraria with all their glass; driving one of these is like sitting at the mouth of a cave.

Overall, one thing kept jumping out at me as I sat in numerous vehicles built by umpteen different manufacturers: the latest must-have, the portable music player connection, is not yet ready for prime time.

Amenities like this tend to go through phases: Phase One runs from prototype through early adoption, to the point where nearly every model has an example; Phase Two begins as real-world use and experience provide feedback that enables designers to redesign, upgrade, and improve the original.

Cup holders are a good example. For instance, our trusty ’97 Toyota came out toward the end of cup holder Phase One; it has exactly one cup holder, sized to fit a standard 12-ounce pop can. Passengers (or the driver, if he’s nice) must do without. An oversized cup won’t fit. This cup holder is, to be honest, laughably inconvenient much of the time; in praxis, we tend to wedge our drink containers between the parking brake handle and the sides of our seats.

Nowadays, every car has multiple cup holders—often more than the passenger capacity of the vehicle. (That makes a good punchline, but really, if everybody aboard has a bottle of water and a cup of coffee, you’ll want to have twice as many cup holders as seats.) Some are retractable; most are versatile in the size cup they’ll hold. That Kia Optima I drove—like many others—even has cup holders in its doors, along with a little graphic telling you to use capped bottles and not open cups in those holders, so they won’t spill when the door is used. The cup holder has come of age.

Not so the portable music player connection, which presently is stuck in the midst of its Phase One. Most cars now have an AUX jack; many include a USB port too. In recognition of modern use of cell phones, GPS receivers, iPods, etc., all at the same time, lots of dashboards have multiple 12-volt outlets (once upon a time, and occasionally still, used for cigarette lighters). This is rapidly becoming the norm.

However merely providing this connection is not enough—placement is important too. Most dashboards put the AUX jack on the face of the CD/radio unit; that’s fine for the assembly line’s convenience (aside from a different audio unit, nothing has changed and no extra wiring is needed), but where then do we put the music player? Most lacked a tray for it. Meanwhile, the power outlet is somewhere else entirely.

One manufacturer included an open slot for a player, presumably big enough for an iPod (though it looked tight for an iPhone wearing a protective cover) but left the device out in plain sight—and one thing we know from living in a city is that thieves won’t hesitate to break a window if they spot anything inside the vehicle with even the slightest value. Another manufacturer put the audio jacks inside a center armrest console, good for security and storage; but left the power outlet outside, so that a power cord will prevent the console lid from closing.

The upshot of all this is that today’s cars, with few exceptions, come with the unspoken expectation that we’ll accept a dashboard that looks like a spaghetti farm, with cables strung every which way, while our expensive personal music devices and other gadgets toss about at random with every start, stop, and turn. And that we’ll pack all that mess up every time we park the car.

Earlier, I mentioned the Honda Element. On the passenger side of its dash, in a flat, lipped tray above the glove compartment, is a 12-volt outlet and an AUX jack. It’s exposed to view, making it still a Phase One design, and yet—my music player stays put, and all its cables can be neatly tucked away. And that was in the 2009 model.

By the way, if you’re going to the Chicago Auto Show, I definitely recommend going on a weekday. The weekend crowds are completely insane.

CTA does something right. Very, very right.

12 January 2011
Categories: Chicago, Transportation

I have complained a lot about the Chicago Transit Authority in the past. Mainly my complaints have not been with CTA service itself—because the service, while less than exemplary, has been consistently mediocre, and therefore predictable and usable. My complaints have been about CTA’s public image: in particular, its continual threats about service cuts and how they create a self-fulfilling death spiral. These actions only serve to feed the frustration and anger of Chicago riders, and cannot possibly do the agency any good.

CTA Train Tracker mobile beta. Image ©2011 Chicago Transit Authority.But now CTA has come out with what might prove to be its greatest public-image boon in decades: Train Tracker, a website that tells riders exactly how long they’ll need to wait until their next train arrives. It’s still in beta, meaning that bugs are still lurking and a full feature set is yet to be deployed. But even in my first few uses of the site, it’s clear they have a winner here.

A lot of thought went into the site. The interface is pure and simple: pick a train line, then pick a stop on that line. The estimator then displays all the trains arriving at that stop, in all directions, within the next 15 minutes or so. The list auto-updates once a minute. Only a tiny selection of display options are available—sorting by route, time to arrival, or platform side; and number of results to show—but the CTA has pledged more features to come out as the beta testing progresses.

However, it’s the layout of the site that really gets me going. It all feels so immediately familiar, because it closely adheres to CTA’s current graphic design standards for the system as a whole. Station names are displayed in white Helvetica on a dark grey background. All the colors of the train lines are spot-on likenesses of their printed versions, not just web-standard blue, green, orange, etc. The O’Hare and Midway terminus names include the little airport graphic. I especially like the little detail of how the “Back” and “Next” buttons include an arrow-in-circle image that matches the directional signs in the stations.

CTA Train Tracker mobile betaThe mobile version of the site is a clean, stripped-down version of the same, and fits nicely onto a first-generation iPhone screen. It’s so neatly arranged, in fact, that I doubt an actual iPhone app could improve on its appearance. It’s quick to load, and doesn’t bother with any fancy interface tweaks that would complicate the layout.

I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the data as yet, not having tested it thoroughly. I will, of course. But I think it suffices that the site tells me that my train is coming soon even though I can’t see it yet, and if it arrives in, say, 6 minutes instead of the estimated 4, that’s still close enough for my needs—and far better than knowing nothing. Plus, the tracker enables me to see if the train has a follower which, as I’ve said before, is the train I almost always prefer to take instead.

Of course, now that they’ve ironed out most of the kinks in the estimator system, CTA needs to start displaying these same data on the LED signboards they mounted in many stations years ago and which have shown little more than warnings to “watch out for unattended packages” ever since. All riders, not just those with web-enabled cell phones, deserve to have this information. But for those of us living in the 21st Century, this will do just fine.

Kudos to the CTA developers who put together this excellent site. CTA riders have been waiting a long time for this, and I have been among those to complain about its seemingly never-ending development. Train Tracker is, I am pleasantly chagrined to say, well worth the wait.

The slow-moving “profound revelation”

30 April 2010

The ironic term “profound revelation” is borrowed from a Woodstock-era drug-humour book called A Child’s Garden of Grass, but its use here is not meant as any kind of drug reference. Rather, it applies well to a certain progression of thought: when, in the midst of research, one discovers or figures out a particularly interesting fact, and thinks “holy cow! look what I found!”—and then, upon further research, realises that just about anybody with marginally closer proximity to the subject matter would look upon this so-called discovery and say, “well, duh.”

One of the most fascinating (to me) items in the history of East Lansing, Michigan, is that it not only had a streetcar line that served the Agricultural College from Lansing, but that the line was later upgraded to an interurban service that reached all the way to Owosso. Growing up riding CATA buses, I had no idea that this other form of public transportation had existed, some fifty-plus years earlier. That is until, as a teenager in the mid-’80s, I saw the tracks myself—hidden beneath the pavement of M.A.C. Avenue, briefly exposed during a repaving project.

Befuddled by this inexplicable, long-buried infrastructure, and as yet unaware of the streetcar, I promptly forgot about it. But several years later, as I started my research on city history, I came upon Chace Newman’s 1915 map of the city and immediately noted the railroad tracks running past the college grounds and straight up M.A.C. Avenue. I put two and two together and realised what those rusty rails had been.

I wanted to know more, but at the time my resources were more limited. J.D. Towar informs us that the interurban reached Owosso and was popular for excursions to Pine Lake, which we now call Lake Lansing. Newman’s map only extends to the 1915 city limits, and even then the subdivision of Avon Dale—not yet incorporated into the city—is obscured by the map legend. The interurban line ran along the south side of Burcham Drive, but cannot be seen on the map as it reaches Hagadorn Road.

So I left it at that. The vague “headed out past Pine Lake to Owosso” would have to suffice.

Late last year, I noticed an interesting marking on the OpenStreetMap wiki atlas: a dotted line denoted “Interurban Pathway.” “Holy cow!” I exclaimed, or words to that effect. “That must be the old interurban right-of-way!” As that map shows, the railway continued straight along Burcham Drive, past Park Lake Road, and went on without bend at least as far as Okemos Road. With new-found excitement, I started to track down further information on the line, slowly piecing together its route through old maps and vague references in newspapers and history books. As recently as two days ago I sent an e-mail to someone at the city, ingenuously asking, “I think maybe that thing, near your thing, might possibly be part of an old interurban right-of-way… do you know anything about this?”

Little did I realise that this obscure (to me) “Interurban Pathway” on OpenStreetMap was in fact a rails-to-trails project of Meridian Charter Township, and was paved with a twelve-foot-wide strip of asphalt in 2007.

Well, duh. Maybe if I still lived near East Lansing I’d have half a clue these things were happening. Turns out, this summer the township and the county road commission will extend the pathway along the interurban right-of-way by another mile or so, out to Marsh Road. I wonder if they’ll find any remnants of the old railbed.

A train crashes, and then so does the press

5 December 2007
Categories: Rants, Transportation

On Friday morning, 30 November 2007, Amtrak’s Pere Marquette arriving at Chicago from Grand Rapids crashed while passing through Norfolk Southern’s 47th Street freight yard on the south side of town. Preliminary reports suggest that the engineer was speeding in a reduced-speed block and was unable to stop in time when the tail end of an double-stack wellcar train appeared in his path.

This story has so many aspects I want to address, it’s hard to know where to begin.

I’m sure heads will roll for this incident. Probably the engineer, who had only three months of certification. Possibly even some of the other people in the locomotive cab, if they provided distraction or are found to have sat idly by without commenting on the excessive speed of the train.

Yet I think it illustrates more the trouble today with the American passenger rail system. There are dozens of different signal aspects an engineer has to learn, many of them completely different from one railroad to another. The Federal Railroad Administration should have long ago mandated a nationwide unified signaling system—and allocated some federal funds to put it into effect. Meanwhile, our passenger trains are sharing the rails with freight trains. Traffic conflicts will easily delay a passenger train, while the wear and tear of heavy freight trains makes it impossible to run passenger trains at a decent speed along those same tracks.

We should have had a high-speed passenger rail system in this country long ago, and not just the half-assed experiment of the Acela trains on the east coast. I could go on and on about everything that is wrong with the American rail system, but I would rather go into the other thing that bugs me about this story: the bad press coverage.

I wish I could find the article I read a couple of weeks ago, I think in the Chicago Reader, about reporters parroting the version of the story told by officials in press conferences, never bothering to think for themselves or take the time to make a few phone calls and ask a few questions and determine whether maybe, just maybe, the officials are telling the story in a way that puts themselves in the best possible light.

For one thing, many sources reported that there were five people in the locomotive cab at the time of the crash, including a fresh relief crew that had just come on board at Hammond, Indiana. If so, the press failed to mention, this apparently would have been a violation of FRA rules. However, railfans on the Yahoo IlliniRail discussion group noted, among plenty of other complaints about poor press coverage, that there were only three in the cab (a rail foreman, the engineer, and a student engineer) and the relief crew was seated elsewhere in the train.

More significant to me, the local papers were told by the NTSB about a police security camera at the yard that had recorded the crash, but said that the video had not been released to the press. As late as Monday their online sites were echoing this official line, but by mid-afternoon there was breaking news: the video had been posted on the Internet. This was suddenly the hottest topic for the evening news, and every local TV station (and now, both the Sun-Times and Tribune web sites) carried clips of the wreck.

Even today, the latest article on the Tribune web site (dated December 4, by transportation reporter Jon Hilkevitch) says, “A Chicago police surveillance video of the crash… made its way onto the Internet on Monday.”

I found the video online, by going to YouTube and typing “Amtrak crash.” Guess what, folks—according to the posting itself, the video was posted on December 1st! Saturday! A day after the crash itself!

“Sorry,” the news outlets must be saying to us. “Weekend. Sleeping.”

One thing no one has yet seen fit to mention is that the time stamp on the video, assuming it’s accurate, shows the crash happened at 11:25 AM CT. According to Amtrak’s schedule, the Pere Marquette was due at Chicago Union Station at 10:30—so the train was running more than an hour late. (Yes, the numbers show only 55 minutes, but 47th Street is nearly six miles south of CUS. With the intervening yards and slow zones, there’s no way a train could get there in five minutes.) By the way, the Pere Marquette is a less than four hour trip. By my accounting that means the route took more than 25% longer than it was supposed to.

I’m hoping this will be addressed by the NTSB’s investigation; after all, their vice chairman was quoted as saying, “We will be looking at what the engineer was doing and what he was thinking and … [we’ll] try to get an idea of his mental state at the time he went through the signal.”

Maybe the engineer was thinking, “Last run of the week, time to go home, but I’m late late late… gotta go, gotta go.”

Still, why anyone would cruise into that “box canyon” of moving freight cars, with sight distance severely reduced by the walls of steel on either side, at forty miles per hour, is beyond me. Let the heads roll.

But don’t expect to hear the whole story in the news.

CTA’s doom and gloom

12 September 2007

The Chicago Transit Authority is up to its old tricks, and on Sunday it will cancel umpteen bus routes if it doesn’t receive the state funding it wants. The death spiral continues, and this latest development is a serious nose-dive. But some of the CTA’s rhetoric begs closer scrutiny…

Percentage of operating budget
that comes from public sources
Chicago 48
Philadelphia 61
Boston 66
Atlanta 68
San Francisco 73
Los Angeles 74
Source: CTA 2006 Budget, 2005 National Transit Database

This chart now appears in every train car and bus on the system, along with a plea to “please write your representative.” But note the fine print on that chart. The numbers for the CTA were taken from the 2006 budget, while all the other entries are from the respective cities’ 2005 budgets. The actual value for the CTA in 2005 is more like 59 percent. Still at the low end, but no longer dramatically so.

Meanwhile, as an example of how the other numbers might be fudged, the value for San Francisco is overstated—it’s actually the figure for the MUNI alone, and does not include the BART, which is significantly lower. The MUNI gets a lot of local funding (though still not nearly as much as the CTA does in municipal funds) in part because of the cable car system, which is hugely expensive relative to the passenger miles travelled and which is an intentional loss leader due to its tourism value. Anyway, the CTA alone spends more money in a year than do the MUNI and BART combined.

It would be more accurate to compare the CTA to a similar system in terms of the population in the service area, and Philadelphia’s SEPTA comes close (3.3 million potential passengers, versus 3.7 million for CTA). In this situation, CTA comes out looking not so bad—the operating cost per service area capita is almost identical—while the operating cost per passenger mile is better: 53 cents per mile for CTA, 61 cents per mile for SEPTA.

Yet this omits one major factor: deferred maintenance. None of the many figures in the National Transit Database report mention how much was spent on maintaining the system, nor compare that against the total capital value of the system itself. And if this report from the NTSB is any indication, upkeep—and management of same—has been sorely lacking for a very long time. Not spending money to fix a system that is rapidly declining into decrepitude is a fine way to keep operating costs down, at least in the short term.

After all, deferring maintenance on the rusted-out rail clips and plates in the Blue Line subway was essentially cost-free—until a derailment in July 2006 caused over a million dollars in equipment, track, and signal damage.

(Follow-up for May 2008… The derailment continues to escalate costs: the first of more than 100 resulting lawsuits has been settled out of court, to the tune of $1.25 million.)