Monday, November 10, 2008

Notes from an (Ex-)UnderGrad: Which Way Out of Here?

posted by Jason Finkes

Or, Exploring Transportation Options in Hyde Park

One of an occasional series at Hyde Park Progress exploring things from an undergraduate (or recently graduated) perspective.

While it now occurred a long time ago (February-March 2008), the controversy over 4 private parking spots being weighed against a key bus stop got me thinking: perhaps we should look over the transportation issue that undergraduates face. The first time I visited the University was also the first time that I knew transportation was going to be an issue.

Having trouble navigating through a narrow pass into the neighborhood that could be defended by 300 Spartans (thanks for vocalizing the frustration with the 57th and Stony "Do Not Enter", Elizabeth), the impossible task of finding parking, the late nights waiting for the 55 at the Garfield Red Line station, the impossible task of finding not only the commercial zones to furnish my dorm room and, later, apartment ... for all these reasons my parents won't visit me anymore. It's mainly because of transportation (and, alas, the choice of ... hotels ).

First, an overview of the options:

1) Walk/Bike
2) Private Car
3) CTA
4) Metra
5) cab
6) I-Go or Zip Car
7) Motorscooter

While walking and biking are the most ideal, we all agree that Hyde Park is lacking in commercial density (where would you bike or walk to?) and warmth in the winter months (you're joking if you think biking downtown during a blustery winter's day is an option) that makes it that viable an option.

Also, let's quickly dissect #2. Ideally, one wouldn't need a car in the city, and realistically speaking, undergrads don't have cars. Parking anywhere - downtown or Hyde Park - is frustratingly unfun or prohibitively expensive (to put it in mildest terms). If anything, the simple fact that undergrads don't have cars is a real problem, and I don't mean a personal one at that.

I'm speaking of the Co-Op. Many Hyde Park residents did exactly what one would expect when the only local option is terrible: vote with your feet.

But because there wasn't a decent alternative within walking distance, it was vote with your wheels, which is fine for everyone who has a car (a bit of a hassle, but we've already determined it was a better option than the Co-Op), but an impossible action for us carless students. One reason the Co-Op was probably able to stay longer than it should was its relative monopoly on non-produce groceries for all the students living in the student ghetto.

Another option then should be CTA. It offers a wide range, it's a bit slow and it is cheap. But you aren't going to be buying perishables or bulky items when you're taking public's just a silly idea. It's also really the only option for late-night sojourns, given its hours of operation and breadth of service.

Metra, CTA's better run cousin, is a faster option that is comparable in cost, but what it makes up for in speed, it lacks in frequency of runs and the (predictably) linear nature of its lines. Granted, weekend passes are probably the best buy out there ($5 for a free pass on Saturday and Sunday).

These can be shored up by Cabs, but even sharing costs, it's an expensive proposition. While of course there will never be a replacement for a wide variety of transportation options servicing the neighborhood (or for commercial development so more amenities are more available), I must say that the two great options I've found - getting far more appealing as gas prices go up and fewer want to own and operate SUVs - are Car Sharing programs and motorscooters.

My own experience with Zip Car was amazing. Blocking out 1 hour of car time cost a surprisingly small amount and my girlfriend and I were able to pick up a used piece of furniture and drop it off at her place with plenty of time to spare. For those in love with hybrids or luxury cars, one might be in luck and even score a Prius (which I've seen around) or a BMW (which one of my friends was lucky enough to borrow along the east-coast recently). At a relatively great and affordable rate, all you have to do now is find a buyer for that SUV you no longer want or need.

For smaller trips, I've fallen in love with my motorscooter. I'd be the first to admit that I'm verging on a full-blown crush on Europe, but damned if they don't have city living down to an art. You could easily fit 6 motor scooters into a parking space for a single car, gas mileage is amazing (around 90 mpg). For small trips to the grocery store, or picking up a few small things that would fit in seat-storage and a backpack, it is ideal during the 9 months of the year that it is not winter.

At only $2,000 purchase price from Craigslist, I honestly doubt that I could have made a better purchase for city living mobility.

The best part of both is the ever present parking issue. Recently, street cleaning occured on 4 consecutive weekdays (with each sign signaling which streets would be cleaned delightfully put up the day *after* I had already moved the car I was babysitting for a friend while she was out of town). Receiving kindly calls from a neighbor or two telling me I was about to get ticketed, I had to hop in still wearing pajamas and frantically search for a parking space, which during the day...Surprise! There are none.

Mind you, this is the middle of the summer, when all of the privileged young folk with mal-informed notions of car ownership in the city have a vehicle to park. More people carless = More parking for people to come into Hyde Park = Outsiders to catalyze economic development? A distinct possibility (if more pipe-dream than anything).

Granted neither car sharing or motorscooters are an option for actually going into the city to do something, which still leaves us with cabs, Metra and CTA (and the necessity of developing Hyde Park). But for anything else, let it be known that there *are* options, and more and more people are taking them. There are quite a few shared cars on campus and more and more frequently, I see motorscooters taking up their tiny amount of curb space.

[Jason Finke's previous posts on HPP: Where Fun Comes to Die; and Hooked on Hookahs]


Jason said...

To clarify a few pieces:

The scooter I purchased is a Yamaha Vino 125cc, and as such able to keep up with traffic on Lake Shore Drive. Much cheaper scooters are available at around $2k *new* if you plan on buying the name brands or even as low as $1k new if you get a 50cc Roketa Maui imported from China (buyer beware).

It's nearing the end of motorscooter season (though I admit with my gear, I'll probably be able to eek out another half month or maybe more), so I wouldn't recommend you go out and buy one now. However, I would recommend you begin research into getting a permit/license/driver's ed and shop around for insurance quotes and scooters.

I also attach a caveat: my scooter gets knocked around quite a bit by people who don't know how to parallel park. I'm lucky when I find my scooter moved without permission instead of nudged to the ground by accident. All told, "nudges" have broken three of my four turn-signal lights and rendered my kickstand inoperable, and quite a few scratches on the paint.

Richard Gill said...

Well, Jason, at least Hyde Park now has a top quality supermarket, not to mention a fine produce store and some other nascent (but still too few) retail amenities.

As for transportation, the campus unfortunately sits between, and not particularly close to, CTA's fast, frequent Red Line and #6 bus route. Metra's trains are a pleasure to ride, but as you say, none to frequent.

I agree that Metra service is thinner than we could use. The days of five-minute train frequency to Hyde Park are gone, and Metra has some policy and budgetary limitations that work to restrict additional service. However, it is not beyond reason to consider privately subsidized supplemental Metra rail service, such as is already done for the CTA's campus bus routes and the #10 museum route. This would entail off-peak service when equipment and crews are available, and the operating cost would be the marginal cost of operating the trains. Capital cost would be zero. Even the marginal cost should be reasonable, because many of Metra's crews receive full wages for working one morning rush-hour trip inbound and one afternoon rush-hour trip outbound. Essentially, they are paid for being off during the day. Such is the effect of rush hour peaking. It's not quite that simple, but you get the idea.

I am not fond of high-capital-cost ideas such as the Gray Line that some people are touting. Why not use what we have more intensively and efficiently?

And for my parting shot.....More development would likely give rise to improved public transportation. But given the (thus far successful) efforts of a few residents to block firm development proposals that would benefit the whole community, I don't see more transit developing for a while. Our 5th Ward Alderman and the U of C are going to have to be smarter and less timid in how they promote development.

Greg said...

I rode a 50cc Motobecane moped during college and loved it. It was fun, 30 mph was plenty of speed for the little town where I went to school, and people liked to comment on it. 100 mpg was great too. I bought it for just $250 in 2000. Only 17 original miles, mint condition.

Now that scooters and mopeds are cool again, the same moped I bought then costs about $850 (and is usually in much worse shape). Still, you can't beat a moped for cheap running. And they're so simple you can usually do most of your own work. And I loved seeing all the scooters and peds on the road this past summer.

The only issues I've encountered in my search to buy another moped or scooter:

1) Many of them are small and light enough that two guys with a truck can drive by, throw it in the back and be gone in about 5 seconds. This issue is alleviated by allowing people to park on the sidewalk and lock the 'ped to bike racks and poles in every part of Illinois EXCEPT silly Chicago (where doing so gets you a ticket). So, how do you avoid getting your cool new wheels ripped off?

2) Winter storage. A moped is small enough to be brought inside an apartment (I did this at school). But what if it's too heavy for that, or if your landlord/condo association forbids it?

3) Insurance. Back when I had Geico and was about to buy a very nice Garelli, they told me they didn't insure anything under 150ccs.

Comments? Discussion?

Elizabeth Fama said...

I'm stumped by the photo of the brick entryway! Is it a metaphor for "No way out?"

jen said...

Please... go with I-Go car sharing service if you can, it's a non-profit and is local. And they have cars all over Hyde Park:

Otherwise, you make a good point -- why is transportation so crappy at one of the nation's best universities??

chicago pop said...

Is it a metaphor for "No way out?"


Jennifer said...

My friend in the frozen wasteland to the north (i.e., Wisconsin and now Minnesota) says a snowmobile suit keeps one very cozy on a moped in winter.

I say that's probably irrelevant, but he wanted to pass it along anyway.

Elizabeth Fama said...

I think you meant to say snowmachine suit.

Otto said...

Well, Jason, at least Hyde Park now has a top quality supermarket

I really thought Eli Wallach turned in a brilliant performance in "Circle of Iron," in this vein.