The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Late afternoon reading

Meetings and testing all day have put these on my list for reading tomorrow:

And with that, it's the weekend.

Boring Company will bore Chicago

Elon Musk's Boring Co. has gotten approval to start work on a high-speed underground connection between O'Hare and downtown Chicago:

The promised project: A closed-loop pair of tunnels from Block 37 in the central Loop to the airport that would whisk passengers to their flights in 12 minutes, using autonomous pod-like vehicles, or electric skates, that would depart as frequently as every 30 seconds and carry up to 16 passengers and their luggage.

If all goes as it should, [Deputy Mayor Robert] Rivkin said, construction work could begin next year with actual service in operation around 2022.

The Chicago project generally would use already existing "electric skate" technology, though it would link them together in a form and length that is unique to this country. The direct connection via a dedicated tunnel would allow those vehicles to accelerate to over 100 miles per hour, according to the city and Boring, slashing the time on the 27 km O'Hare run. And the project would-use the long mothballed CTA "superstation" under Block 37 as a terminal, with the end point located near the CTA's Blue Line terminus close to O'Hare terminals but outside of the airport's security perimeter.

I really, really hope the project succeeds. It will be nice to get from O'Hare to downtown that quickly, though I doubt the $25 fare will last long. For comparison to other under-20-minute express trains, the Heathrow Express costs $29 while the Schiphol Fyra (to Amsterdam) only costs $6.25. If you want to take an hour, the El costs $5 and the Tube $4.10 (off-peak).

Illinois' population decline isn't actually a problem

Tim Jones, writing in Crain's for the Better Government Association, says the experiences of Minnesota and Kansas put the lie to claims that people are leaving Illinois because of taxes:

The scapegoat nominees include not just high taxes but House Speaker Michael Madigan, Gov. Bruce Rauner, government regulations, financial chaos and uncertainty from a two-year budget stalemate, not to mention old standbys greed and corruption.

That's where Minnesota looms as a spoiler of the tax-cutting political narrative embraced by many Midwestern states. Minnesota is a high-tax state, rated the sixth-highest in the nation in state and local individual income tax collections per capita and eighth in the combined state and local tax burden, according to the most recent rankings of the Washington-based Tax Foundation.

Minnesota has a graduated income tax, with rates ranging from 5.35 percent for those of modest incomes to 9.85 percent for individuals with annual incomes above $156,000.

The Tax Foundation ranked Minnesota's overall business tax climate among the nation's worst. Even so, the state was among Midwestern leaders in population growth, with a 5.1 percent gain since 2010 and a 13.3 percent jump since 2000. The state also has the highest median household income and the lowest poverty rate.

Focusing on taxation produces a distorted picture, said Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota.

“Clearly in Minnesota there are other things going on. Taxes are one component but also jobs, wages, quality of life, the education system,” Jacobs said.

The flip side of the taxation narrative, put into action by Kansas six years ago, is that cutting taxes will give a jolt to economic development and drive population growth. But it did neither, and Republicans who control the legislature had to backtrack on the tax cuts last year when revenue loss became untenable.

See, taxes pay for things that people want and need, like transport, schools, and police. Cutting taxes, as Kansas demonstrated, means you can't pay for those things anymore. Then people don't want to live there. QED. I'm not wild about higher taxes in general, but I understand we all need to pay them to get better living conditions. I hope that J.B. Pritzker makes that point as he runs for governor this fall.

A light story

Chicago Public Media's Curious City blog examined the city's plan to replace 270,000 sodium vapor streetlights with LEDs in the next three years:

[C]ity officials are undertaking an ambitious four-year plan to use LEDs for about 80 percent of the city’s streetlights. They hope this plan will save the cash-strapped city $100 million over a decade and improve public safety. This summer, the city will charge forward with the next phase of the plan, which will ultimately replace 270,000 lights around the city by 2021.

But critics say this isn’t a bright idea — or maybe too bright of an idea? — and they point to a growing body of science showing links between some LED lights and health and environmental problems.

Here’s a rundown of those concerns, what experts say, and how the city responded.

1. Light pollution: Will I be able to see the stars in the sky?

What’s going on? Chicago has long been one of the most light polluted cities in the world, hampering citizens’ ability to see stars, according to some scientists. Over the past year, the city has been installing a type of LED light that it says will reduce overall light pollution. Those lights clock in at 3,000 Kelvin, which is the unit used to measure light temperature with higher numbers having more blue light. But critics say those lights give off too much blue light, which can worsen light pollution, and they want the city to use LED lights that are lowered to 2,200 Kelvin with a much more orange hue.

What do the experts say? Professor Martin Aube, a Canadian physicist and light pollution researcher, says the LED lights the city is installing now could actually slightly reduce light pollution compared to the older, non-LED lights they’re replacing. But he says using 2,200-Kelvin LED lights would reduce Chicago’s light pollution by “at least 50 percent” of current levels.

Also interesting is who asked the question and how far he got on his own.

Chicago coyotes: how are they thriving?

Darryl Fears, writing for the Washington Post today, highlights a new study that explains why coyotes have adapted so well to human environments:

As mountain lions and wolf packs disappeared from the landscape, coyotes took advantage, starting a wide expansion eastward at the turn of the last century into deforested land that continues today.

For reasons biologists do not quite understand, coyotes prefer open land over forest. It could be that bigger predators that kill them over territory and competition for food could better sneak up on them in forests, [Roland Kays, a research associate professor at North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences] theorized. But now, cameras have caught coyotes in forests where the apex predators have largely been removed, opening the prospect that coyotes could continue to move into territories where they have never been, such as into South America.

Unlike mountain lions, wolves and bears that were hunted to near-extinction in state-sponsored predator-control programs, coyotes do not give in easily, Kays said. “Coyotes are the ultimate American survivor. They have endured persecution all over the place. They are sneaky enough. They eat whatever they can find — insects, smaller mammals, garbage,” he said.

I've reported on coyotes before, in part because I'm happy they've found a home in Chicago. I've even seen them on my street, no more than 50 meters away from me.

The Cook County Forest Preserve District has some FAQs on coyotes, including what to do if one takes an interest in you.

Japanese train station psychology

CityLab's Allan Richarz reports on the techniques Japan uses to get 13 billion passengers through its rail system each year:

Ridership of that volume requires a deft blend of engineering, planning, and psychology. Beneath the bustle, unobtrusive features are designed to unconsciously manipulate passenger behavior, via light, sound, and other means. Japan’s boundless creativity in this realm reflects the deep consideration given to public transportation in the country.

Standing at either end of a platform in Tokyo’s labyrinthine Shinjuku Station, one might detect a small square LED panel emitting a pleasant, deep-blue glow. Nestled among vending machines and safety posters, the panel might be dismissed as a bug zapper. But these simple blue panels are designed to save lives.

Operating on the theory that exposure to blue light has a calming effect on one’s mood, rail stations in Japan began installing these LED panels as a suicide-prevention measure in 2009. They are strategically located at the ends of each platform—typically the most-isolated and least-trafficked area, and accordingly, the point from which most platform jumps occur. Some stations, such as Shin-Koiwa Station in Tokyo, bolster their LED regime with colored roof panels, allowing blue-tinted sunlight to filter down on to platforms.

It is an approach that has proven to be surprisingly effective. According to a study by researchers at the University of Tokyo published in the Journal of Affective Disorders in 2013, data analyzed over a 10-year period shows an 84 percent decline in the number of suicide attempts at stations where blue lights are installed. A subsequent study revealed no corresponding increase in suicide attempts at neighboring stations lacking such lights.

Japan also uses short ditties to let you know your train is leaving (cf. the horrible klaxon they use at O'Hare's Blue Line stop), point-and-call safety checks, and 17 Hz infrasound at busy platforms to shoo away teenagers.

So why haven't we adopted these things here? Maybe if half of Americans commuted by train instead of by car, things might improve. Notably, the UK and other European rail-friendly countries have adopted some of these techniques.

Thanks for playing

Richard Florida demonstrates how Amazon's HQ2 competition was rigged:

A detailed analysis undertaken by Patrick Adler, my colleague at the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute, and Adam Singer, a graduate student at the university’s Rotman and Munk schools, took a look at how all 238 HQ2 applicant cities and the 20 finalists lined up on Amazon’s RFP criteria. While it can be difficult to measure whether a given city adheres to each criterion, their analysis shows that many of the finalist cities do not even fit the most obvious ones. What’s more, several of the rejected cities seem to fit Amazon’s criteria for its HQ2 city better than some of the finalists.  

[I]t’s worth asking why these 20 cities were selected as finalists, even if others would appear to be better candidates according to Amazon’s own criteria. Our analysis suggests the finalists may have other things in common that are not listed on the company’s RFP.

For one, the finalists are more likely to be farther away from the company’s original home base in physical distance, reflecting the predominance of East Coast cities on the list. Last year, an Amazon executive was quoted as saying that Amazon would like to build HQ2 outside of the Pacific Northwest, to attract a more diverse set of employees.

Finalist cities are also likely to have a larger share of tech workers. And they are more likely to have non-stop flights to the company’s current home base in Seattle.

But one factor is even more interesting. Our analysis found that shortlisted cities had more U.S. senators with considerable seniority.

At the end of the day, none of this should surprise us. Like all corporate site selection, the HQ2 process is a rigged game, where the company knows the answer in advance and sets up a fictitious competition to wrest maximum incentives.

Besides the political advantages, there are many signs that Amazon’s HQ2 is heading to the greater Washington, D.C. region—the fact that its CEO has a multi-million dollar mansion there (currently undergoing a $12 million renovation, with large public rooms for social events) and already owns the Washington Post; the fact that three area jurisdictions made the shortlist; and the fact that the person running Amazon’s search previously ran an economic development agency in the region. Perhaps four other metros on the list are serious contenders—New York, Boston, Chicago, and Toronto—with Philadelphia, Denver, Atlanta, and Dallas having an outside chance.

Chicago, however, will be less likely to play the race-to-the-bottom game.

Looking forward to Arsenal v Lincoln Yards

Chicago Cubs owner Tom Ricketts has announced a joint venture with Sterling Bay, the developer building on the former Finkl Steel site in Lincoln Park (mentioned here last week), to bring professional soccer back to Chicago:

Sterling Bay will develop and own the stadium, and will keep an ownership stake in the USL franchise it bought last year. Ricketts will be the team’s majority owner.

The Tribune in October reported that Sterling Bay was proposing a stadium on the site, as part of its effort to bring Amazon or another large corporation to the mixed-use development as an office tenant.

Chicago’s USL team is expected to begin playing in 2021.

The stadium and training facility will be available to youth and professional athletes, and also will have community and cultural events, according to the news release.

The stadium is planned along the west side of the river.

I'm looking forward to the Lincoln Yards development. The Finkl Steel plant, though an economic powerhouse for decades in Chicago, was also a huge, ugly, and polluting bunion at the foot of the Lincoln Park community area. Like other former industrial areas near to downtown (including, or perhaps especially, the New East Side), almost any mixed-use commercial/residential development is preferable at this stage of Chicago's life.

Also, I think an English Premier League vs. Chicago football match would be loads of fun.

New deal to extend 606 Trail

Sterling Bay, the company developing the Finkl site in Lincoln Park, has reached a deal with the Chicago Terminal Railroad to extend the 606 Trail across the Chicago River:

Sterling Bay, which plans a big development on the former Finkl steel plant site and neighboring parcels, has resolved its dispute with a rail company that owns train tracks that run across riverside land and on to Goose Island.

The rail company, Chicago-based Iowa Pacific Holdings, infuriated Sterling Bay and Goose Island landlords last fall when it rolled a couple dozen empty tanker cars across the Finkl property and onto Goose Island and left them there.

In October, Sterling Bay asked a federal agency to force Iowa Pacific to give up the tracks, arguing that they would derail development in the area. Other landlords complained that Iowa Pacific stored the cars on Goose Island merely to shake them down for money to remove the cars.

But the fight didn't last long: In January, an Iowa Pacific unit, the Chicago Terminal Railroad, gave up, agreeing not to oppose Sterling Bay's application with the federal Surface Transportation Board to force the rail company to abandon the tracks, according to a recent decision by the board.

The proposed extension to the trail would also include moving and modernizing the Metra station at Clybourn Junction.

Three on climate change

Earlier this week, the Post reported on data that one of the scariest predictions of anthropogenic climate change theory seems to be coming true:

The new research, based on ocean measurements off the coast of East Antarctica, shows that melting Antarctic glaciers are indeed freshening the ocean around them. And this, in turn, is blocking a process in which cold and salty ocean water sinks below the sea surface in winter, forming “the densest water on the Earth,” in the words of study lead author Alessandro Silvano, a researcher with the University of Tasmania in Hobart.

In other words, the melting of Antarctica’s glaciers appears to be triggering a “feedback” loop in which that melting, through its effect on the oceans, triggers still more melting. The melting water stratifies the ocean column, with cold fresh water trapped at the surface and warmer water sitting below. Then, the lower layer melts glaciers and creates still more melt water — not to mention rising seas as glaciers lose mass.

"The idea is that this mechanism of rapid melting and warming of the ocean triggered sea level rise at other times, like the last glacial maximum, when we know rapid sea level rise was five meters per century,” Silvano said. “And we think this mechanism was the cause of rapid sea-level rise.”

Meanwhile, Chicago magazine speculates about what these changes will mean to our city in the next half-century:

Can Chicago really become a better, maybe even a far better, place while much of the world suffers the intensifying storms and droughts resulting from climate change? A growing consensus suggests the answer may be a cautious yes. For one, there’s Amir Jina, an economist at the University of Chicago who studies how global warming affects regional economies. In the simulations he ran, as temperatures rise, rainfall intensifies, and seas surge, Chicago fares better than many big U.S. cities because of its relative insulation from the worst ravages of heat, hurricanes, and loss of agriculture.

Indeed, the Great Lakes could be considered our greatest insurance against climate change. They contain 95 percent of North America’s supply of freshwater—and are protected by the Great Lakes Water Compact, which prohibits cities and towns outside the Great Lakes basin from tapping them. While aquifers elsewhere run dry, Chicago should stay flush for hundreds of years to come.

“We’re going to be like the Saudi Arabia of freshwater,” says David Archer, a professor of geophysical science at the University of Chicago. “This is one of the best places in the world to live out global warming.”

There’s just one problem: Water, which should be our salvation, could also do us in.

The first drops of the impending deluge have already fallen. Every one-degree rise in temperature increases the atmosphere’s capacity to hold water vapor by almost 4 percent. As a result, rain and snow come down with more force. Historically, there’s been a 4 percent chance of a storm occurring in any given year in Chicago that drops 5.88 inches of rain in 48 hours—a so-called 25-year storm. In the last decade alone, we have had one 25-year storm, plus a 50-year storm and, in 2011, a 100-year storm. In the best-case scenario, where carbon emissions stay relatively under control, we’re looking at a 25 percent increase in the number of days with extreme rainfall by the end of the century. The worst-case scenario sees a surge of 60 percent. Precipitation overall may increase by as much as 30 percent.

And in today's Times, Justin Gillis and Hal Harvey argue that cars are ruining our cities as well as our climate:

[T]he truth is that people who drive into a crowded city are imposing costs on others. They include not just reduced mobility for everyone and degraded public space, but serious health costs. Asthma attacks are set off by the tiny, invisible soot particles that cars emit. Recent research shows that a congestion charge in Stockholm reduced pollution and sharply cut asthma attacks in children.

The bottom line is that the decision to turn our public streets so completely over to the automobile, as sensible as it might have seemed decades ago, nearly wrecked the quality of life in our cities.

We are revealing no big secrets here. Urban planners have known all these things for decades. They have known that removing lanes to add bike paths and widen sidewalks can calm traffic, make a neighborhood more congenial — and, by the way, increase sales at businesses along that more pleasant street. They have known that imposing tolls with variable pricing can result in highway lanes that are rarely jammed.

We're adapting, slowly, to climate change. Over my lifetime I've seen the air in Chicago and L.A. get so much cleaner I can scarcely remember how bad it was growing up. (Old photos help.) But we're in for some pretty big changes in the next few years. I think Chicago will ultimately do just fine, except for being part of the world that has to adapt more dramatically than any time in the last few thousand years.