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.

Chicago Auto Show 2007

12 February 2007
Categories: Transportation

McCormick Place is a massive complex, so gigantically out of scale with the human element that it looks like a set piece from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Some portion of it is continually under construction, and the long walk from the parking lots to the exhibition halls always involves skirting dusty areas cordoned off with yellow warning tape, and running narrow gauntlets bottlenecked by temporary plywood partition walls.

Once inside—and I highly recommend buying tickets online in advance to avoid another horrific bottleneck—the Chicago Auto Show is a crazy scene of giant corporate logos, flashing lights, and overpowering colours. It’s a blast, and a good entertainment value for $10. (Get there early, or go on a weekday. It gets crowded.)

In general, I don’t care all that much about the concept cars. They are usually complete pipe dreams and will never see production. For that reason, I prefer to focus at the auto show on the vehicles that I might actually have an opportunity to purchase some day.

Jeep had a dramatic-looking obstacle course that its vehicles were crawling around… steep inclines, water crossings, rock fields, and the like. It was eye-catching, and drew a crowd, but at second glance all the Jeeps were driven by trained employees, and the course was tightly controlled with plastic guardrails… which explains why the woman pushing the floor squeegee around at the bottom of the big hill wasn’t fearing for her life. And of course all the obstacles were designed expressly with the limitations of the Jeeps in mind, so there was never any chance of exceeding approach or departure angles, or drawing water, or getting hung up on a high center. All in all, it might as well have been one of those amusement park rides for four-year-olds where all the cars are tethered to a pull chain.

Toyota brought along a custom FJ Cruiser, this one with a cloth rolltop and a shortened cab for a small open bed at the rear, plus some suspension upgrades. FJ Cruiser in Heritage OrangeIt showed off the FJ’s potential for being souped up for off-road activities, but that stubby bed didn’t look useful for much of anything. (At least the shorter cab reduces the size of the C-pillar, which in the factory model is a big fat blind spot in both rear quarters.) About the only interesting part was the nice front-end bull bar with integral winch, and that was an aftermarket package by ARB that can be added to any stock FJ. The custom job was done up in “Heritage Orange” (more on this later), but this is not an available factory colour. Unfortunately, Toyota is otherwise standing pat on its existing paint, and we’re stuck with the same 5 colours as when the FJ was introduced last year. I guess I’ll have to wait at least one more year before they decide to resurrect the classic Rustic Green of my 1978 FJ40, thereby making it imperative that I will buy a new FJ.

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. For this reason it has toned down its two-tone grey plastic trimwork to a much more conservative and traditional level. The interior remains highly utilitarian with a hose-out plastic floor and rear jump seats that hinge to the sides. A new colour, Root Beer Metallic, looks sharp. I’m liking this vehicle more and more.

To be honest, the most interesting exhibit was… the U.S. Army. M2 Bradley They brought an M2 Bradley equipped with the M242 Bushmaster chain gun, and were letting folks crawl around inside. (The ten-year-olds sitting in the rear seats made the thing look spacious.) Some of the armored division soldiers were wearing chrome spurs in tribute to the cavalry, which of course no longer uses horses except for ceremonial parades. That was cool. You could get your name stamped on a dog tag, play on a team for a first-person shooter game (lot of friendly fire going on there), and stand next to a Cobra helicopter flown by their demonstration team. Pretty cool.

Overall, there just wasn’t much new to see this year. The one recurring theme: orange.

Not exactly orange-orange, though. More of a light orange. A hue that Dodge, nearly four decades ago, called “Go Mango.” In lieu of last year’s concept Challenger, which was the usual teaser pipe dream, they brought an original 1970 Challenger R/T convertible with the 440 Six-Pack, one of only 99 ever built, gleaming in Go Mango. It sat on a flatbed, tantalizingly out of reach.

Nissan 350ZThen there was that Toyota FJ custom job. The exact same colour, which they called “Heritage Orange.” Then came the variants, all about the same shade, but many in a metallic version. There was a Hummer H2. A Nissan 350Z. No matter where you turned, another car was cropping up in this light orange colour.

Did all the automakers get together and agree on this one? Or did the paint manufacturer screw up and make too much, causing a surplus of orange paint they’d have to sell on the cheap?

Riding the BART back to SFO

26 January 2007
Categories: Transportation

I like the BART, even if the grungy upholstered seats do creep me out a little. There are several details to aid passengers that show that some good thought was put into it…

  • Computer-generated voices tell not only what kind of train is boarding, but also how long the wait will be until the next several trains arrive.
  • The voice is female for platform 1 (southbound) and male for platform 2 (northbound)—so once you’ve heard one announcement, for every one thereafter you instantly know as the announcement begins whether the info will be pertinent for your direction of travel.
  • Tactile warning strip along the edge of the platform, for the benefit of the visually impaired, changes colour and pattern (parallel bumps rather than diagonal, like the difference between the stars on 48- and 50-star flags) at the places where the doors of the train will be—and some of these have additional washboard strips further in from the edge, but only in the places where a 2-car train, the minimal length, will stop. That way those 4 door locations are always guaranteed to have a door.

Oddly, there are a number of things here that you don’t see on the CTA:

  • Prominent signs for fire extinguishers
  • Posted explanations for how to manually override the doors
  • A station sign showing the location of the emergency third rail cut-off

I’m sure all these things exist on the CTA (well, not sure about the extinguishers, but the door overrides and power cut-offs definitely do), but attention is not called to them—it would only serve as an invitation to tamper with them. Don’t know how many times I’ve seen some jerk pull the (unmarked) red ball to get off just a few seconds sooner than everyone else, or to make up for (nearly) missing their stop. Yet in San Francisco, knowledge of these items is boldly promulgated, and the public is trusted to use that information appropriately. Go figure.

Later, aboard the plane, I got to wondering… Why should the overwing doors not be used in the event of a water landing? And, if the bag dangling from the oxygen mask does not inflate, what’s it there for?

How not to be a lemming

15 August 1999
Categories: Transportation

We’ve all experienced it: we wait a long time for our CTA bus or train to arrive, only to find it filled to capacity. Even more annoying, often they are bunched up, with 2 or 3 busses arriving in quick succession. (This also happens with the trains, but because of the signalling system the followers take a few minutes to arrive so it isn’t as noticeable.) Here’s what’s going on, and what you can do about it.

An unavoidable delay—such as traffic or a wheelchair on the busses, a stuck signal on the trains—can easily make a vehicle late on its run. This increases the number of passengers at each stop, since more people have had a chance to arrive during the delay. More passengers take longer to board, thus delaying the already-late vehicle even more: a downward spiral. Meanwhile, a trailing vehicle, running on time, finds fewer passengers than usual (and often, fewer delays, such as no wheelchair or no stuck track signal, having been dealt with by the leader), and continues to run on time. (CTA regulations prohibit vehicles from running “hot,” or ahead of schedule, so you’ll rarely find one arriving early. Likewise, full vehicles are required to stop at all scheduled stops despite an inability to take on more passengers, as they cannot “go express” without approval from a supervisor or central dispatch.) Ultimately this results in bunching: a very late leader with one (or more) followers close on its heels.

Now, I don’t often ride the bus, but I take the Blue line train every day. On average, according to the official schedule, a train should arrive at my stops (both inbound and outbound) every 8 minutes. Before I jump blindly aboard the first train that arrives, I take into account three criteria: 1) I waited more than 10 minutes; 2) the train is already excessively full; 3) the platform is overly crowded with waiting passengers. (“Excessively full” and “overly crowded” are judgment calls; claustrophobes and bromidrophiles will adjust accordingly.) If any of the three is true, I don’t even bother to approach the train, I stand back and wait for the next one. More often than not (much more often) the next arrival comes in less than 5 minutes—and frequently, even during rush hour, this train will never completely fill. Try it yourself some time. I’m always amazed to watch people cram themselves together like sardines… when if they’d only wait a few extra minutes, they would probably find a train with empty seats and room to dance if they wanted to. Sure, the trip takes a little longer, but what price comfort? Besides, I always bring a book to read, or some other diversion, so I don’t mind the extra wait.

Travel in the transportation hub of the nation—whether by car, bus, train, plane, canoe, whatever!—is an exercise in chaos theory. Bunching is one inevitable result. The trip will almost always take longer than you expect, except on those rare and magical occasions where you find yourself driving on an empty expressway with no logical explanation. Don’t try to get there as quickly as possible. Try to get there in one piece and with a minimum of stress. You’ll thank yourself for it.