The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

A wish list

I'll elaborate on this later, but I just want to list a couple of things I desperately want for my country and city during my lifetime. For comparison, I'm also listing when other places in the world got them first. For context, I expect (hope?) to live another 50 years or so.

Universal health care, whether through extending Medicare to all residents or through some other mechanism. The UK got it in 1948, Canada in 1984, and Germany in 1883. We're the only holdout in the OECD, and it benefits no one except the owners and shareholders of private insurance companies to continue our broken system.

Universal child care, which would enable single parents to work without going broke on daycare. Much of Continental Europe makes this a no-brainer, with free day care for little kids and extended school hours for older ones. In a report covering 41 rich countries, UNICEF puts Luxembourg first, Germany 5th, Canada 22nd...and the US 40th. Only Slovakia treats its kids worse. (The UK is 35th, which is sad.)

Term limits on appellate judges, including an 18-year term for the Supreme Court and a 13-year term for the Circuit Courts. The UK and Canada require judges to retire at 75; Japan at 70; and Mexico after 15 years. Every US State (except Rhode Island) has some limitation on its supreme court, whether through mandatory retirement, term limits, or elections. This doesn't require anything more than an act of Congress, as former Justices and Appellate Judges would still continue to serve in other Federal courts "during good Behaviour." I would also like to see a Governor-appointed, single-term Illinois supreme court.

A functioning opposition party, both at the Federal level (either through the Republicans coming to their senses or a serious third party replacing them in opposition or governance), and here in Illinois. As much as I like the current Democratic trifecta in my state, I don't think single-party governance is healthy, as it tends to become single-party rule, followed shortly by something worse. All of our peer nations (except possibly the Republic of Korea) have had two or more functioning parties since the end of World War II. Only 11 US states currently have divided governments, and in 4 of the 6 most populous (California, New York, Texas, and Illinois), the party out of power has almost no power at all and no hope of getting elected this decade. Illinois farmers need an effective voice in the General Assembly; right now, they have the modern GOP.

A larger House of Representatives. We last expanded our lower house in 1913, when the US population was less than 1/3 what it is today. As of 2020, each congressional district has an average population of 762,000, with Delaware having its entire population of nearly 1 million represented by one person. The average Canadian riding has 108,000, the average UK constituency is between 56,000 (Wales) and 72,000 (England), and the Bundestag elects 598 members on a proportional basis by party and Land population. One plan I like would take the largest state that currently has 1 representative (Delaware), give it and the three smaller states 2, then use that as the size of the other districts. At roughly 500,000 per district, we'd have around 650 representatives, giving us a House the size of the UK House of Commons.

End Gerrymandering. Require that all electoral districts for any office have compact, contiguous outlines drawn by non-partisan commissions at each level of government. I would also allow multi-representative districts chosen by proportional vote (for example, a 2-person district where the first and second vote-getters win). Canada passed legislation making malapportionment much harder in the 1990s, as did the UK in 2015, while Germany has proportional representation which nearly (but not totally) obviates it. This has to be done nationally, because as the Democratic legislatures in California and Illinois would like to remind the Republican legislatures in Texas and Florida, we'll put down our guns when you put down yours.

Realistic gun regulation, including mandatory licensure and registration, limits and painful taxes on ammunition purchases, and allowing local jurisdictions to set their own regulations—up or down, for the sake of rural residents—on who can own what kinds of firearms. The UK and Australia famously enacted tough laws after mass shootings in 1996; Canada in 1977; Germany in 1973. I should also point out that Switzerland—where every adult male must own a gun—has more liberal gun laws than the US in some ways, but still restricted entire classes of weapons in 2019, and has severe penalties for misusing them.

De-militarize local police forces. There's a reason George Washington feared a standing army, and why many Americans fear they live with one today. Everyone who cares about police policy should read Radley Balko's The Rise of the Warrior Cop. All of our peer nations have strict rules against police agencies using military weapons and tactics, and most UK cops still walk around unarmed and unmolested to this day. I've used Germany as a Continental example for many of these points, so let me just say that Germany has a great deal of experience with heavily-armed local paramilitary forces, and they don't ever want to see them again. Why are we building them here? We frogs need to hop out of the pot—and soon.

Fully-electric commuter rail in Chicago. London skipped from coal to electric in the 1950s, and Munich in the 1920s. Toronto, sadly, still uses diesel trains, but they're fixing that. Sure, this would cost about $5 billion, but it would bring more than that in benefits to the whole Chicago area. For example, a side-effect of London electrifying was to drastically increase the value of workingmen's houses along rights-of-way (seriously, £1.2 m for a tiny house!), as they're awfully convenient to Central London without getting flaming cinders dropped on them anymore.

High-speed rail between most US cities less than 500 km apart, like Chicago-Detroit, San Francisco-L.A.-San Diego, and Dallas-Houston-San Antonio. (Not to mention, real high-speed rail throughout the Northeast Corridor, none of this anemic 110 km/h crap.) Most of Europe has had true HSR since the 1990s, starting with the French TGV in the 1980s. The London-Paris Eurostar came in 1994, moving people between the two cities in just over two hours—quicker than you can get from central London to your airplane seat at Heathrow. It's criminal that it takes 4½ hours to travel the 450 km between Chicago and Detroit, while you can get from Paris to Lyon (also about 450 km) in just over 2. And if they can spend £25 billion (in 2023 pounds) to build a 50-kilometer tunnel under the English Channel, we can spend half that to build a 20-kilometer tunnel under Long Island Sound, FFS.

This list isn't exhaustive, by any means. I believe the US has the resources to accomplish all of them in the next 10 years, let alone the next 50. We just lack the political will, especially in the modern Republican Party, which lacks the understanding that American greatness has always depended on collective effort.

The United States is no longer the greatest country in the world...but it could be again.

The frustration of US infrastructure spending

Every time I travel to a country that competes seriously with the US, I come back feeling frustrated and angry that we consistently lose. In every measure except our military, on a per-capita basis we keep sliding down the league tables. We have more people in prison, more people in poverty, worse health-care outcomes, more health-care spending, more regressive taxation, worse environmental regulation, and more crime (and more gun crime) than most our peers.

We also have horrible infrastructure. For a book-length list of reasons, we've spent the last century building out a car-dependent environment that contributes to all of the problems I listed above. (Oh, right: we have by far more road deaths than any of our peers, a direct result of our built environment and car fetishization.)

City Nerd really drives home (ah, ha ha) how our infrastructure priorities continue to degrade our economic power by making travel unnecessarily difficult. In today's video, Ray Delahanty explains why Spain (GDP: $1.5 T, rank 15) has half-hourly trains to whisk people from Madrid to Valencia (359 km) in under 2 hours, while the United States (GDP: $26.9 T, rank 1) can't get people from New York to Boston (362 km) in under 3½—and for 4x the rail fare:

Some things Delahanty doesn't mention: First, we've built so many roads that we can't even maintain all of them, even with a $1 trn infrastructure bill that struggled to get through Congress. Second, even if we wanted to upgrade our rail network (for example, to electrify anything outside the Northeast Corridor), governments or transit districts will have to buy existing rights of way or the land to create new ones, because private companies own almost all of the railways in the US. (Notably, of the three heavy-rail lines in Chicago with public ownership—the Rock Island district, the Metra Electric, and the South Shore Line—two are already electric and there are plans to electrify the third.)

Look, I'm not a socialist; I believe in private property. But as I've said often, governments can do things private interests can't or won't. We put 14 people on the Moon and we won World War II. We could, if we collectively wanted, get the US out of the 20th Century on so many issues. Transit infrastructure would be a good place to start. The more I travel and see how our European peers do things, the more I wonder if I'll ever see my own country get back on par with them.

What a great car

I filled up my car this afternoon, which doesn't sound like anything special until you see the numbers:

  • Last filled up: August 21st, 292 days ago
  • Total distance: 3,115.6 km
  • Total fuel used: 32.8 L
  • Fuel efficiency: 1.1 L/100 km
  • Operating cost per kilometer: 5.9c

Good going, car. You're getting the extra-tasty electricity tonight!

The Elizabeth Line, a year on

The billion-pound London rail project called "Crossrail" when it began opened a year ago as the Elizabeth Line. I rode it for the first time to West Ealing last Sunday, and thought it absolutely the slickest, cleanest train in the UK. (I'll ride it again tomorrow thanks to industrial action and construction on the Piccadilly Line.)

British Airways pilot Mark Vanhoenacker takes it every time he comes home from a trip, and loves how it connects the city in all new ways:

Running from Reading and Heathrow Airport in the west to Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the east, the Elizabeth line brings an additional 1.5 million people within 45 minutes of the capital’s busiest districts; eases congestion on older lines; and makes London more accessible to all, as wheelchair users can reach its platforms from street level. As a pilot who commutes to Heathrow — I fly the Boeing 787 for British Airways — I’m often among its 600,000 weekday riders. The line, which runs alongside the Heathrow Express, offers another comfortable way to get to work.

[T]he line empowers travelers to leave behind the familiarities of Zone 1 — the often tourist-clogged core of the city’s transport network — and embark on fast, inexpensive journeys to fascinating outer-London destinations.

On the line’s northeastern branch lies the market town of Romford. Start at the Havering Museum, whose exhibits include a model of the long-gone Havering Palace, where Queen Elizabeth I occasionally stayed. You’ll also learn about Romford’s link to William Kempe, an actor in several of Shakespeare’s original productions, who morris danced around 100 miles from London to Norwich in 1600, and about the weights and measures that once set standards in Romford’s market.

It’s fitting, then, that the first station beyond [the eastern Thames] tunnels is Woolwich, where armaments were manufactured for around three centuries, including by one Henry Shrapnel. Woolwich was also renowned for music — its Royal Artillery Band, Britain’s first formal military band, was organized in 1762 — and for football: Arsenal, based today in Islington and still nicknamed “the Gunners,” was founded here in 1886 as a team for armaments workers.

Between my arrival this afternoon and my departure tomorrow afternoon I'll be in the UK only 23 hours, many of them in my hotel room asleep, so I won't have time to explore the places Vanhoenacker describes. But I have a hunch I'll return to the London before too long.

Tories strike again

Thanks in part to Conservative Party mismanagement of the UK transport sector for the last 13 years, things have gotten a bit fraught in the Old Country. And now, I get to spend a bit of extra time getting from Gatwick to my hotel on Saturday:

The Gatwick Express takes about 30 minutes from the airport to London Victoria Station. There is no other train option.

Instead, it looks like I can take a cab straight to my hotel for about £90, or a bus to bloody Heathrow and the Elizabeth Line for about £25. The former will take about an hour. The latter about 2 1/2.

So, I'm on vacation. No expense account. No schedule. Should I spend the extra $55? Sigh. 

Meanwhile, in other news...

If you haven't got plans tonight, or you do but you're free Sunday afternoon, come to our Spring Concert:

You can read these during the intermission:

Speaking of huge animals, two amateur botanists kayaking on the Chicago River near Division encountered the biggest snapping turtle I've ever seen. Chicagoans have named the specimen Chonk, short for Chonkosaurus. I have to wonder what Chonk has been eating...

Reading while the CI build churns

I'm chasing down a bug that caused what we in the biz call "unexpected results" and the end-users call "wrong." I've fixed it in both our API and our UI, but in order to test it, I need the API built in our dev/test environment. That takes about 18 minutes. Plenty of time to read all of this:

Finally, the Times explains how last year's 257 traffic fatalities in New York City undermine the claims that "Vision Zero" is working. But Strong Towns already told you that.

OK, build succeeded, fix is now in Dev/Test...on with the show!

Too much to read

A plethora:

  • Google has updated its satellite photos of Mariupol, clearly showing the destruction from Russia's invasion and subsequent siege.
  • Senators Angus King (I-ME) and Lisa Murkowsky (R-AK) have introduced legislation to force the Supreme Court—read: Justices Thomas (R$) and Gorsuch (R)—to adopt a binding code of ethics. Presumably a Democratic bill that would actually let Congress set the Court's ethical standards will come soon.
  • On Monday, the city will cut down a bur oak they estimate has lived over 250 years.
  • The US Army will rename a Virginia fort after Lt. Gen. Arthur Gregg and Lt. Col. Charity Adams, replacing the name of a disgraced traitor named Robert E. Lee.
  • Carolyn Bryant Donham, whose false accusation that teenager Emmett Till whistled at her resulted in her fellow racists lynching the boy, died on Tuesday at 88.
  • Emma Durand-Wood discovers what many of us already knew: having a fitness tracker, and getting your steps in, makes you very aware of walkable environments.
  • Nicholas Dagen Bloom's new book explains why public transit in the US has done poorly for the last 75 years (hint: racism).
  • Max Holleran suggests a way to make US cities cleaner (and encourage more public transit use): make parking impossible.
  • Bruce Schneier suggests a publicly-funded AI could help save democracy—or at least offset the likely harms from only having privately-owned AIs.
  • Three Colorado teens face murder charges after an evening of throwing rocks from an overpass killed a 20-year-old driver.
  • In a less destructive prank gone wrong, seniors at Northridge Prep, a Catholic high school in north suburban Niles, accidentally let a steer loose in the village this morning.

Finally, as we approach the 50th anniversary of Gary Gygax creating Dungeons & Dragons, Christopher Borrelli suggests putting a statue of him up in downtown Lake Geneva. I concur. Or, since he spent the first seven years of his life just a few blocks away from where I'm sitting right now (on Kenmore near Wrigley Field), why not put one there, too? (One of my favorite memories from childhood is playing 5 minutes of AD&D with Gygax as DM.)

Still waiting for tiles? Really?

I got an update today from Metra about the Ravenswood Union Pacific North station, after sending an inquiry last week. Before I get to that, let's take a look at photographic evidence that we've had to use the "temporary" platform north of Lawrence Avenue for just under 12 years now:

That's the Google Street View from July 2011 showing that Metra has already closed the 1950s-era inbound platform (on the left) and opened the "temporary" platform (on the right).

I took these two photos a week ago, but I could have taken them last September with only one minor change (the new "temporary" fence by the entrance to the new platform):

OK, so now that we've established that (a) we haven't had even a semi-permanent inbound platform since the middle of President Obama's first term, and (b) neither Metra nor the UPRR has done any noticeable work on the new new-but-unfinished platform since I last posted news seven months ago, here is what a Metra spokesperson told me this afternoon:

Per our station project Construction Team, a late July 2023 completion is anticipated. There are a few items remaining that need to be addressed to complete the project.

  1. Structural tiles, which the manufacturer has delayed delivery of. Our Team has 3 other options to address this issue that they are looking into and are actively progressing a tile alternative.
  2. The waterproofing along the edge of the platform and the bridge abutment (Lawrence & Leland) that requires the removal of track and ballast by Union Pacific Railroad will be scheduled by UP forces. Ballast work could not be performed during winter months when ground is frozen.
  3. Guardrail fencing change work at Leland Bridge is proceeding through redesign to accommodate a conduit system. Contractor estimates work end of May/early June.
  4. A solution to the hairline cracks in the platform surface has been determined. A coating to address this issue cannot be applied until weather conditions permit.
  5. Additional CDOT crossing work required along with the asphalt overlay patching in the street cannot occur until the asphalt plants reopen next month.

With a project of this magnitude that entailed the replacement of 22 bridges on the UPN Line, as well as a complete station project, its impact on the community was/is unavoidable and cannot be understated. Metra is making every attempt possible to improve the dates on the remaining items and complete the work, as soon as possible.

I knew about #3, and previously reported about #1. The rest just frustrates me to no end.

The UPRR and Metra should have completed this project in 2018. I will remind everyone that four years of the delay happened because former Illinois governor Bruce Rauner (R) cut funding to everything based solely on his extreme anti-government ideology. (Makes you wonder why he wanted to govern, right?) And once again, I will remind everyone that if I had the power, I would sentence the former governor to stand on the platform for two hours a day, every day, for a duration equal to the entire delay to the project that he caused. Even that sentence seems lenient.

I hope that my contact at Metra has accurate information, because I'm really tired of standing in the rain just 20 meters from what appears to be a perfectly serviceable but inaccessible shelter.

Time for a transit tech update?

WBEZ reporter Michael Gerstein went out to the IKEA in Schaumburg, Ill., to test our transit system and its navigation apps. It went fine, but Gerstein had an unusual experience:

Major construction projects have snarled the Kennedy Expressway and the Blue Line’s weekend service, so my editor sent me on a 29-mile odyssey to Schaumburg. The idea was to test how Chicago’s regional transit agencies (CTA, PACE, Metra) work with each other and how many apps, trackers and planning devices I’d need to use to get there.

We were trying to see firsthand how accurate the region’s tracking technology is and why apps often promise buses and trains that don’t show up when they’re supposed to. All this comes at a time when public officials are encouraging more drivers to take public transit to and from downtown.

My two-hour sojourn to IKEA was unremarkable and pretty much on time (barring some initial inaccurate estimates from every app I tried except the city’s Ventra app). Still, other riders have experienced inaccuracies with trackers, and it’s hard to get to the bottom of why. In a recent WBEZ survey of nearly 2,000 CTA riders, about 9 in 10 survey takers said they’d experienced a delay taking a bus or train in the past 30 days.

Chicago, which used to be a leader in transit technology, now has some catching up to do with the broader tech world. “Our train and bus tracker were among the first tools of its time among any U.S. transit agency,” Brian Steele, CTA’s chief spokesman, said in an interview. But predictive algorithms have evolved, Steele acknowledged, and Chicago needs an upgrade that would give it the ability to automatically update the position of a bus that goes off a route or a train that falls behind.

Real-time information is only available after a train or bus leaves the terminal – and only if that bus or train is on its scheduled route, Steele said.

I also learned that I really don’t like being in IKEA. Some people prefer navigating a maze-like furniture store where you can’t find anything, that’s about 5 degrees too warm, and where every aisle and bathroom stall is packed.

I do like living 400 meters from the Metra station that takes me to downtown Chicago in 14 minutes, though. From dropping Cassie at doggy day care to sitting at my desk, my commute usually takes about 30-35 minutes. I would not take any job that had me drive out to the suburbs again, unless they paid me for travel time.