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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Test Drive: Lime's electric scooters are fun and easy, but are they practical for Chicago commutes?

Posted By on 07.31.18 at 06:00 AM

Lime's electric scooters are being tested in Chicago. Are they here to stay? - LIME
  • Lime
  • Lime's electric scooters are being tested in Chicago. Are they here to stay?

Will Chicagoans all ditch their bikes, cars, and public transportation to zip around everywhere on lime-green electric scooters over the next few years?

It's doubtful, but the contraption is an amusing if mildly frightening way to traverse the city in short bursts. I felt like a kid for a day—and a minor celebrity—after a couple of impromptu test drives (scoots?) of the two-wheeled, long-handled devices over the weekend. The California-based company Lime parked a few dozen of its GPS-enabled Lime-S's near the Fiesta Del Sol festival in Pilsen as part of a public demo. There were four of them in a neat row right outside my apartment building, and I couldn't resist trying them out.

It certainly wasn't difficult to get started: I downloaded the Lime-S app and got authorized through Facebook and Apple Pay in less than two minutes. The app borrows your phone's camera to scan the bike's QR code to activate it. When you see the electronic display turn on, then you just hop on. I found the process considerably easier and faster than getting a new Ventra or Divvy pass.

Costwise, Lime-S falls somewhere between the CTA and ride sharing through Lyft or Uber. At $1, it's cheap to start the thing up, but the additional 15 cents per minute can add up quickly if you're not careful. My 3.4-mile round-trip from Pilsen to Chinatown took 28 minutes and cost $5.20 (though I got a $1 off from a promotion); my later five-mile trek from Fiesta Del Sol to Wicker Park Fest took 35 minutes and cost $8.25.
My Lime-S route from Fiesta Del Sol in Pilsen to Wicker Park Fest. The ride cost $8.25 for almost five miles. - RYAN SMITH
  • Ryan Smith
  • My Lime-S route from Fiesta Del Sol in Pilsen to Wicker Park Fest. The ride cost $8.25 for almost five miles.
One of the first decisions I had to make: Where's the most appropriate place to actually ride the thing? The street felt like a weird place for a compact scooter that resembles an adult version of a child's toy, but so did the sidewalk, where I could have really annoyed (or even knocked into) pedestrians. I settled on staying within marked bike lanes, but even that felt awkward—like I was invading someone else's turf—so I tried to travel quiet residential streets instead.

The novelty factor of seeing someone on an electric scooter is ultrahigh right now, which is why I kept getting distracted by pedestrians and car passengers bombarding me with questions while I was riding: Where did I get the Lime, how they could get one, how much it cost. Some just wanted me to know how fun it looked. "Damn, dude, you look like you're from the future," one guy yelled at me as I passed by his Saturday-afternoon barbecue.
The moment-to-moment experience of actually riding a Lime is thrilling—maybe too much so. You barely have to move your body: one flick of the thumb on your right hand on the throttle zooms the scooter along with ease, and your left hand squeezes a brake to slow it down. I got an adrenaline rush early on, especially after I cranked the accelerator to the max while crossing the 18th Street Bridge over the Chicago River.

I managed to break 21 miles per hour, and at that speed I felt like I was on a theme-park ride or a grounded version of Marty McFly's hoverboard from Back to the Future 2. It was fun, sure; it was also wildly unsafe. Going the maximum speed on a Lime could be OK on a flat track with a smooth surface, but not on our postapocalyptic Chicago roads riddled with sharp cracks, cavernous potholes, and loose rocks and litter.

On a thin, lightweight scooter, you're much more exposed than on a bicycle, and more balance is needed to stay upright—I found it nearly impossible to ride it with one hand. (Then again, this was my first time on a scooter in two decades; maybe I'm just out of practice.) Through trial and error, I discovered that somewhere between ten and 12 miles per hour is a reasonable cruising speed, but even then I once accidentally hit the edge of a pit in the pavement near May and 21st Street and thought I might fall off.

Lime demoed some of its e-scooters in Pilsen near Fiesta Del Sol over the weekend. - RYAN SMITH
  • Ryan Smith
  • Lime demoed some of its e-scooters in Pilsen near Fiesta Del Sol over the weekend.
One problem I ran into was with the battery indicator on the scooter's display. On my second ride, the device couldn't make up its mind—it kept intermittently flashing between one and two bars to indicate the amount of battery left. I received a notification on my phone telling me I needed to park soon before my scooter went dead, but I ended up squeezing two more miles out of it.

My favorite part of the e-scooter is that it's dockless—the same aspect that makes it so controversial in other cities because of all the scooters that wind up cluttering the sidewalks. After making it to Wicker Park Fest, I was able to abandon my ride on the sidewalk ten yards away from the festival's entrance. If the city of Chicago mandates that Lime outfit the scooters with "lock-to" mechanisms of the sort required for its dockless bikes, the scooters will be a much less attractive option.

As it is, once the thrill wore off, I'm not sure how much I'd actually use e-scooters if they were fully adopted in Chicago. Transportation experts say scooters make the most sense in cities for areas that are too far to walk to and too small for public transportation to access. But for me, that puts them in the same category as iPads, a tweener form of technology that feels unnecessary if you've got an iPhone and a laptop. For short trips I can walk or take a Divvy (and get some exercise in the process), and for longer trips, Limes feel impractical and overpriced, especially when you can take a car-share service for nearly the same price.
A first-person view of riding a Lime-S. - RYAN SMITH
  • Ryan Smith
  • A first-person view of riding a Lime-S.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Street honoring fascist Balbo to remain after aldermen cave

Posted By on 06.26.18 at 09:14 PM

Italo Balbo visited Chicago in 1933. - SUN-TIMES FILE PHOTO
  • Sun-Times file photo
  • Italo Balbo visited Chicago in 1933.

Last August, in the wake of the racist violence in Charlottesville, downtown aldermen Sophia King (Second) and Brendan Reilly (42nd) called for renaming Balbo Drive. The street honors Italo Balbo, a leader of the Blackshirts, the paramilitary wing of Italy's National Fascist Party, who later became Mussolini's air commander and governor of colonized Libya. The aldermen blasted Balbo as a brutal racist.

"We have inherited a legacy that honors and memorializes an individual who embraced white supremacy and who was part of the fascist onslaught which sought to take over the world," said Alderman King in a statement at the time. "Balbo is a symbol of racial and ethnic supremacy, and in this day and age we need positive symbols. It's high time we removed these symbols of oppression and anti-democracy from our city."

Last month King and Reilly introduced an ordinance that would have renamed the drive after Ida B. Wells, a former slave, journalist, anti-lynching activist, and woman's suffrage advocate.

But apparently the aldermen no longer feel that honoring a fascist is a problem. In the face of continuing opposition from local Balbo fans, the politicians have abandoned their efforts to rename the street that honors him, according to a report in the Sun-Times. The aldermen are instead now pushing for Congress Drive to be named after Wells. The full City Council is expected to approve the new proposal at Wednesday's meeting, the paper reported.

King and Reilly's offices didn't immediately respond to my interview requests this afternoon, but King told the Sun-Times that a major concern was the expense and hassle posed to business owners and residents who would have to change their addresses. However, there appear to be only three properties on Balbo whose addresses would have been affected by the name: DePaul's Merle Reskin Theatre at 64-66 E. Balbo, the university’s new 30 East upscale student apartments, and the Carter House Apartments at 1 E. Balbo, the building that houses the South Loop Club. Reilly previously said DePaul was in favor of the Balbo name change.

  • Sun-Times file photo
  • Ida B. Wells

I suspect the real reason King and Reilly gave up on removing the tribute to the fascist was stiff opposition to the plan from a vocal minority of Balbo fans led by Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans president emeritus Dominic DiFrisco. The street was named in Balbo's honor shortly after he led a squadron of seaplanes to Chicago's 1933 Century of Progress World's Fair, since many local Italian-Americans viewed him as a hero at the time. Recently Balbo boosters like DiFrisco have noted that the aviator opposed Mussolini's anti-Semitic laws and alliance with Hitler.

DiFrisco told me Tuesday that the aldermen's decision is a huge win for the city. "Ida B. Wells is getting her long-overdue recognition, and we are retaining a cherished part of Italian-American culture," he said.

But does a Blackshirt leader who organized the killings of unarmed civilians in the 1920s, paving the way for Mussolini's rise to power, deserve to be honored with a street name? "The founding fathers of the United States killed innocent people too," DiFrisco replied. "Atrocities are committed in all wars. . . . I'm sure people will continue to attack Balbo's legacy in Chicago, and we will continue to defend it."

Edward Muir, a professor of Italian history at Northwestern University, is one of those people—he said it's "a grave shame" that Balbo's street name will remain and labeled DiFrisco "a typical fascist apologist."

"Balbo was a fascist thug and a mass murderer as governor of Libya," Muir added. "We have a street named after him because he came here in 1933 as part of the fascist propaganda effort." The professor argued that Balbo was complicit in ethnic-cleansing efforts in North Africa, including concentration camps established for Berber rebels where thousands of people starved to death.

Erku Yimer, the former director of the Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago and a scholar of Ethiopian history, agreed that it's disgraceful that Chicago continues to honor Balbo. "He organized the march to Rome that put Mussolini in power—even in Italy people have completely renounced him," he noted. As such, he argues, Balbo was indirectly responsible for the genocidal tactics that the fascists employed during their invasion of Ethiopia, including the use of carpet-bombing and poison gas against civilians. The latter temporarily blinded Yimer's father, who fought against the Italians in the Ethiopian peasant army.

"Whenever I drive on Lake Shore Drive and see the signs for Balbo Drive, I think of the Ethiopians who were persecuted by the fascists," Yimer said. "Absolutely the name should be changed."

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Monday, June 25, 2018

Electric scooters could be next to clog Chicago’s sidewalks and bike lanes

Posted By on 06.25.18 at 06:00 AM

Bird electric scooters in Washington, D.C. - JOE FLOOD VIA TWITTER
  • Joe Flood via Twitter
  • Bird electric scooters in Washington, D.C.

Last week's Reader bike issue was (mostly) all about the joys of Chicago cycling, but there's another two-wheeled transportation mode on the horizon that could potentially present a nuisance for cyclists and a hazard for pedestrians. E-mails I recently acquired from the Chicago Department of Transportation via a Freedom of Information Act request show that city officials and transportation advocates are wary of the potential negative effects that dockless electric scooter sharing could have on bikeways and sidewalks.

Dockless scooter technology is the latest craze in the burgeoning shared-mobility industry, which also includes the dockless bike-share cycles that were rolled out on Chicago's far south side in May as part of a nine-month pilot. As is the case with dockless bike share, scooter customers use a smartphone app to locate and check out the vehicles. The battery-powered devices offer a fun, zippy, sweat-free way to get around that's ideal for traveling between transit stations and destinations, and proponents say they can be part of the solution for reducing traffic jams and pollution in cities. Bird, a billion-dollar start-up that's the current industry front-runner, charges $1 to check out a vehicle plus 15 cents a mile. The tech has already taken off in peer cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.

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Monday, June 18, 2018

Another whopper from Rahm: express service to O'Hare that won’t cost the public

Posted By on 06.18.18 at 06:00 AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel listens to Tesla CEO and Boring Company founder Elon Musk at a press conference last week. - AP
  • AP
  • Mayor Rahm Emanuel listens to Tesla CEO and Boring Company founder Elon Musk at a press conference last week.

Upon reflection, I think the most impressive thing about last week's dog-and-pony unveiling of the O'Hare-to-Loop express service is that Mayor Rahm and Elon Musk got through their press conference with straight faces.

Especially the part where Rahm said they could build miles and miles of tunnels between O'Hare and the Loop without any public money. Or as the mayor put it in his press release:

"Mayor Rahm Emanuel today announced selection of The Boring Company to build and operate an express service to O’Hare International Airport. The company plans to transport passengers between O’Hare and Block 37 in the Loop in approximately 12 minutes each way by utilizing electric vehicles that run through new twin underground tunnels. The project will be funded entirely by the company with no taxpayer subsidy."
Wow! As lies go that's a whopper.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Singer welcomed by America's Got Talent—but not the CTA

Posted By on 06.12.18 at 06:00 AM

Andrew Johnston
  • Andrew Johnston

Nearly every day, performers fill the Red Line's station at Lake with smooth electric guitar riffs, or soulful a cappella, or improvised raps, or—as was the case on the afternoon of May 15—a voice nearly identical to Sam Smith's.

Andrew Johnston, 26, who is being featured on this season of America's Got Talent, was halfway through a song when a CTA employee who works the kiosk on the mezzanine approached him to say he needed to turn off his portable speaker and leave. "She started telling me to shut off. She said, 'You can't perform down here,'" he recalls. "I said, 'No, that's not correct.'"

This wasn't Johnston's first encounter with this particular employee, who has called police on him multiple times.

As I was waiting for a train that day, I observed what happened as the police arrived.

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Thursday, April 19, 2018

Is Illinois ready for a potential influx of stoned drivers?

Posted By on 04.19.18 at 06:00 AM

  • YouTube

If recreational marijuana finally becomes legal in Illinois, driving to a cannabis dispensary will be as commonplace as swinging by the liquor store. But are Illinois police officers ready to keep the streets safe from a potential influx of stoned drivers? And can police even tell when a driver is stoned?

Since Colorado began its legalization process in 2012, the number of drivers who tested positive for marijuana involved in fatal accidents has risen dramatically, the Denver Post reported.

Unlike alcohol, there is no definitive test like a Breathalyzer that can indicate whether someone is driving under the influence of marijuana or other drugs. In place of a such a test, the state has started training cops in a monthlong program called the International Drug Evaluation and Classification Program. About 50 Illinois officers a year have become certified “drug recognition experts,” better known as “DRE officers,” according to Thomas Turek, the DRE Illinois State Coordinator for the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

DRE officers not only determine drug impairment, but attempt to classify the type of drug the person took into one of seven categories using a 12-step evaluation. Although drugs affect users differently, DRE officers are supposed to be able to identify someone under the influence of pot or other substances by taking a pulse and examining eye movements, among other tests.

The screening process can also include a toxicology exam involving a blood or urine test. A urine test is problematic, because the screening doesn’t return definitive results saying whether the person tested was under the influence of a specific drug at the time the test was taken, experts said.

Dr. Henry Swoboda, medical toxicology specialist at Rush University Medical Center - YOUTUBE
  • YouTube
  • Dr. Henry Swoboda, medical toxicology specialist at Rush University Medical Center

“A urine drug screening won’t tell you about what’s in front of you, it’ll tell you metabolite [levels],” says Dr. Henry Swoboda, a medical toxicology specialist at Rush University Medical Center.

Metabolites are not the actual drug. They’re produced after substances are processed through the body and turned into urine. Testing positive for marijuana metabolites, for example, does not prove someone was impaired while he or she was behind the wheel. In fact, according to Swoboda, a driver could have smoked weed days before the test was taken and might not have been impaired while driving—but still test positive for the drug.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The CTA is crowded and slow. The Reader can fix it!

Posted By on 02.21.18 at 10:31 AM

This could all be better! - KEVIN TANAKA
  • Kevin Tanaka
  • This could all be better!

The Reader's archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we'll dig through and bring up some finds.

Today marks a quarter-century of color-coded el lines. Yes, back in the day, you didn't ride the blue or brown line. You rode the Douglas or the Congress or the Ravenswood, and if you wanted to get from the far south side to Evanston, you had to take the Dan Ryan and then transfer to the Howard at Lake Street.

Moral of the story (sort of): the el is annoying, but it used to be even worse.

However, that's still not good enough. In 2011, Ed Zotti, in consultation with Cecil Adams, the resident genius over at the Straight Dope, created his own comprehensive plan to revise the CTA train system.

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Friday, September 15, 2017

Tomorrow night Sub Chroma takes over Hubbard’s Cave

Posted By on 09.15.17 at 11:19 AM

The viaduct (left) transformed (right) - COURTESY CANVAS
  • courtesy Canvas
  • The viaduct (left) transformed (right)

Driving through Hubbard's Cave is one of the greatest cheap thrills in Chicago. Really, it's just a very long highway underpass, but the "cave" in its name gives it a special tinge of excitement. As do the white tiles on the walls, which are not really cavelike at all.

What many people don't know is that Hubbard's Cave is actually three levels. On the bottom is the highway underpass; on top is a railroad; and in between is a viaduct that has mostly been ignored. But a couple of months ago, producers at Canvas Chicago and Pullman Porter Group, two community arts organizations, looked into the viaduct and thought it would make a really great art-performance space, a pop-up version of Canvas's annual Sub Chroma event.

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Halle Berry thriller Kidnap is the stuff of (bad) dreams

Posted By on 08.10.17 at 10:47 AM

Halle Berry in Kidnap
  • Halle Berry in Kidnap

In one recurring dream I've had since childhood, I'm riding a bicycle and suddenly find myself going downhill. I pick up speed, then discover that the brakes on the bike aren't working. The road becomes slick, and obstacles start appearing from every direction. If I stop, I know I'll crash or fall off the bike. I have no choice but to keep moving, lest something very bad will happen to me. I always wake up just before I hit something.

The Halle Berry thriller Kidnap, which opened last Friday, does a good job at approximating the anxiety I feel during this dream. It's a pared-down film, and the lack of adornment adds to the overall dreamlike quality. Like a hot rod stripped of parts to increase its speed, Kidnap lacks virtually any dramatic qualities that aren't required to keep the suspense going. The movie contains little characterization, exposition, or dramatic variation.

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Friday, April 14, 2017

Before David Dao got dragged off of United there were the Kluczynskis

Posted By on 04.14.17 at 01:11 PM

Onetime Illinois supreme court justice Thomas E. Kluczynski and his wife, Melanie, sued Delta Airlines in 1976 after they were bumped from a flight. - SUN-TIMES ARCHIVE
  • Sun-Times Archive
  • Onetime Illinois supreme court justice Thomas E. Kluczynski and his wife, Melanie, sued Delta Airlines in 1976 after they were bumped from a flight.

As soon as I saw the video of city aviation police dragging David Dao from a United Airlines plane, I said, "It's a damn shame Dao can't get Philip Corboy to file his lawsuit."

Oh, I figured there'd be a lawsuit—my guess is everybody had the same hunch.

And there would be no one better suited to bring that case before a Chicago jury than Corboy, one of the city's great personal injury lawyers. But Corboy died in 2012.

Curiously, Corboy once mounted a case with remarkable parallels to Doa's.

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