On The Occasion of the Cubs Winning the World Series

Warning: not the usual content of this blog incoming. 

It’s 12:32 PM on the day the Cubs won the World Series, and it still doesn’t feel real. I literally just pinched myself to make sure I’m awake, and not just because of sleep deprivation.

I’ve been sobbing on and off since the game ended last night, which, I have to say, is I think something G—who has been a wonderfully supportive partner this season and has proven even more adept than I am at Cubs fan neurosis—has trouble understanding. Why does this shit matter so much, to me and many others?

Baseball is about a lot of things. It’s about capitalism. It’s about competition. Often (too often) it’s about masculinity. There’s definitely an opiate-of-the-masses effect in the long run. But in the meantime, baseball (and other sports) is about people. It’s about parents, siblings, children—the kinds of relationships Wright Thompson captures in this amazingly tearjerking ESPN piece.

Baseball’s been a key to my relationship with my dad and my brother—the Warren Park Little League star and current University of Chicago pitcher—but it’s also been one of the primary things connecting me to a broader community of fans.

My family moved to Chicago in August of 2003. I was a shy, quiet 15-year-old petrified to be starting high school with a bunch (ok, only 20-25, but for a former homeschooler it seemed like a lot!) of kids I didn’t know while adapting to a new city, synagogue community and the like. I was a baseball fan but didn’t have a hugely strong allegiance to one team, having mainly rooted for the Mike Piazza-era Mets while living in New Haven. I needed something to anchor a sense of place and to help me connect to Chicago and the people there.

And the 2003 Cubs delivered in the Cubsiest way possible. That wasn’t a great team; it had real talent and real weaknesses, and it somehow wouldn’t have felt right at all for the Cubs to deliver in my first year as a fan. Which, of course, they didn’t. But to this day I feel like that 2003 team—as much as it, and the following year’s squad, disappointed—cemented my ability to grow as a fan and indeed as a person. I learned to enjoy the deep, earnest voice of Pat Hughes on the radio, and even to embrace the unbridled enthusiasm and semi-coherence (at best) of Ron Santo.

I had the benefit of a wonderful high school crew (hope to see many of y’all at—I believe—my first ever Thanksgiving in Chicago!) who were patient with my quirks and helped me come out of my shell more than a little bit. And connection over baseball (and other sports to a lesser extent) was a big part of that. I think, just maybe, being a baseball fan normalized my usually geeky persona a little? Yes, fandom was depressing sometimes—but in another, deeper, way, it was liberating.

There have been ups and downs and some truly dreadful teams in the meantime, but I think I’ve lived through—in my 13 years of fandom—on the average the most successful era in Cubs history. Which is saying something. Playoffs in 2003, 2007, 2008, 2015, and 2016, with a World Series championship in the last year? Yes please! There have been losses—Santo in 2010, Ernie Banks before last season—but in recent years, especially since the hiring of Theo Epstein and crew, those losses have seemingly simply added to a grim determination to end the Curse once and for all. There was a sense it was coming, it was inevitable, it was just a matter of time. That sense only accelerated this season. And so it was.

Perhaps for that reason, perhaps because living in Upstate New York has put me at geographic remove from the chaos and angst of most of Cubs fandom, this postseason has felt somewhat surreal. I’ve listened to—only watched on TV once—every game except for the one that fell on the evening of Kol Nidre. I’ve obsessively texted, chatted, and email with family and friends. But, in the emotional, communal, indeed spiritual sense, I don’t think the championship (I just pinched myself again) is going to really hit until my plane touches down at Midway Airport on Thanksgiving afternoon. Even though Midway’s on the South Side, there will be banners. There will be lots of people in Cubs gear. There will be flags with Ws and flags with cubbie bears and flags with two blue stripes and four red stars on a white background. There will be Chicago. Not my only home—but it will feel like home.

Writing is the best way I have to process events. Often, it’s good for rationally thinking through what’s going on in the world. I hope I’ve done a pretty good job explaining myself here, but I’m not sure G is going to be convinced. And maybe there’s no such thing as a rational explanation. No rational reason I feel the need to prioritize going to Wrigley and laying my head against the bricks and looking up at that sign across the street on Sheffield that says EAMUS CATULI! and now reads for the first time ever (yes, it’s not that old) AC 00/00/00.

Because there is most certainly a spiritual element to all of this, especially for the Cubs and their fans. Even in my generally cynical, academically-minded traditional egalitarian Jewish world, there’s been an unusual amount of desire to believe—perhaps both in the Cubs and in something bigger. How else to account for this?

or this?

Or Jonah Keri, one of the leading baseball writers in the world, placing the chaos of last night’s Game 7 into the framework of the Dayenu. Or the fact that a friend who I don’t know to be much of a baseball fan texted me a recording of Psalm 118—“This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be happy in it”—before 7 AM this morning?

Baseball—or maybe, just the Cubs and their peculiar tradition of lovable loserdom—helps us fit the pieces together. For me, that has meant growing as a person and trying to embrace a certain faith that yes, one day, the Cubs will go all the way. Maybe all of that will vanish; I personally think this team is only starting on the path toward being a total juggernaut for many years. But whatever happens now, I owe a great debt of gratitude to my Cubs fandom–and to those who have kept me company and encourage me along that path–for helping me out over a key period in my life. And if some of that debt can’t be quantified or rationally understood, well, that’s OK too. Because after 108 years THE CUBS ARE ONCE AGAIN WORLD CHAMPIONS.

Pic credit: my dad

Productivity and Route Structure in a Chicago Neighborhood

WBEZ’s terrific Curious City series is out with a piece  and accompanying visualization about cost recovery  on the CTA bus system. CTA’s buses are a hot topic (so to speak) in the transit/urbanist online community; Daniel Hertz has covered the system’s woes extensively, and Yonah Freemark lent his voice to the Curious City piece. Though perhaps less than sexy, the question of how to build a better bus system for Chicago is an important one. Despite ridership declines and a trend of convergence, CTA buses still carry an overall majority of CTA ridership, and they provide crucial transit coverage to huge swaths of the city that lack rapid transit service.

For the graphic accompanying the story, Curious City pulled out CTA’s five “most productive” and five “least productive” (by average number of riders on an individual bus in an hour, with the ideal ranging from 35 to 55 riders) routes and mapped them. Much to my surprise (really), two of the top five most productive routes are the lines I consider my “home routes” in Chicago, the 155 Devon and the 49B North Western.

devon and western

Devon and Western–epicenter of bus productivity in Chicago?

I spent my high school years living two blocks (well, three, but one of them is really short) from the corner of Devon and Western, where the 49B and 155 meet. West Rogers Park (alternatively, West Ridge) is one of Chicago’s well-kept secrets, a wonderfully diverse (economically and ethnically), reasonably walkable and dense, green, and mostly quiet neighborhood. Though the density and vibrancy of the South Asian community along Devon fades into pretty boring single-family blocks the further north and west one progresses, Devon itself, especially the section between Western and California, is a riot of color, smell, and taste the likes of which almost sound cliched. (I’m going to stop before I get more homesick, I promise) All that being said, one of the reasons the area isn’t better known is what it lacks–namely, direct access to a rapid transit line.

Thus, while the neighborhood itself is moderately transit-supportive (much more so along Devon than along Western, which here as in most of its 24-mile existence is a wide asphalt auto sewer with terrible land use), the 49B and 155 play a role that wouldn’t seem to lend itself exceptionally well to high productivity, collecting riders and shuttling them to the L. The 155 drops riders off at Loyola and Morse on the Red Line, and the 49B connects to the Brown Line at its Western stop. Both loop on the opposite end on the very edge of the city, the 155 at Devon and Kedzie–it’s actually a very short route, geographically–and the 49B at Western and Birchwood (half a block short of an easy transfer to several lines running on Howard…but more on that later). Lacking significant anchors on the outer end, both lines are relatively sparsely used for the first section of their route–seemingly not a recipe for “productive” status.

That being said, I can attest from personal experience that both lines do get very crowded at times. The 155 in particular can be a very uncomfortable experience, to the point where I regularly receive texts from my father complaining about it when he winds up on the Red Line rather than the Brown Line on his way home. Neither runs especially frequently by major city standards, with both running usually around every 8-12 minutes during the day and 15-20 minutes at night. Ridership is moderate by Chicago standards, with the 49B fluctuating between 5,000 and 6,000 daily riders since 2001 (as far back as CTA data goes), and the 155 more consistently around 7,000. Still, that’s enough ridership to consistently fill–or overfill–the buses on at least the half of the routes closer to their L transfers. And while I joked about it in the caption above, the corner of Devon and Western is the key point for ridership demand on both routes.

49b southbound boardings

Southbound boardings on the 49B by stop, October 2012 (from CTA open data)

The 49B, in particular, experiences a huge ridership spike at Devon; the stop pulls in three times as many riders as the second most popular stop, the Birchwood terminus. Ridership on the 155 is more spread out, though reliable data isn’t available–Devon was under construction and closed to buses between Western and Ridge when the 2012 CTA counts happened, as a result of which a huge chunk of the route is missing–so I won’t present a chart here. Still, Devon/Western is a key stop; in my experience it’s typically the single largest on/off point, and on rush hour eastbound trips the buses typically run standing room only from Devon or a couple of stops east of there.

So: despite the unbalanced route structure, we have a pair of routes running through a somewhat transit-deprived neighborhood that pair moderately high demand with relatively limited frequency. Additionally, both routes use standard 40-foot buses almost exclusively, although the 155 would clearly benefit from having articulateds on rush-hour runs. That combination leads to extremely high productivity results–an indication of the imperfection of the metric, since a simple increase in frequency would presumably result in a sharp decrease in “productivity.” Productivity, remember, is to some extent just a nicer word for “crowding.”

But let’s look beyond a simple increase in frequency–clearly, there is significant demand for transit in the West Rogers Park area, both expressed and latent. How can CTA build on the perhaps unlikely success of these routes and strengthen West Rogers Park’s connection to the transit system while maintaining a highly productive route structure?

The CTA system in the greater West Rogers Park area

The CTA system in the greater West Rogers Park area

It’s worth noting that the gap in ridership between the two routes, which is generally in the vicinity of 1,000-2,000 riders per day, is almost certainly attributable to the differences in land use along their respective arterials. Compare Devon, here looking west at Rockwell:

to Western, here looking south midblock between Rosemont and Granville, just a block and a half south of Devon:

Encouraging dense, transit-oriented development along the Western car sewer is a no-brainer, particularly north of Peterson, where both sides of the street are lined with dead and dying (literally) car-related businesses–dealerships, body shops, etc. Unfortunately, what new development has occurred has often been very much suburban-style:

In the shorter term, though, there are ways to make the existing bus network function better. The returning X49 Western Express (well, for peak hours) should be extended at least to Devon, if not all the way to Howard; its current terminal at Western and Berwyn is nowhere of significance, and an extension would turn numerous trips that are currently three-seat rides into much more tolerable two-seat rides. Even just at peak, an X49 stop at Devon would take significant pressure off the crowded 49B.

The 49B itself would benefit from a stronger anchor on the northern end. And there are useful things to do with it! Currently trips from Western to downtown Evanston, a significant employment and cultural draw, are three-seaters, requiring a transfer to an east-west bus on Howard, then to the Purple Line or an Evanston bus at Howard terminal. Turning the 49b right on Howard and running to Howard Terminal might provide unnecessary extra capacity on that particular stretch of Howard, but would provide a one-transfer ride to Evanston. Alternatively, continuing the route north to downtown Evanston–the route taken by its much less frequent (doesn’t run on Sundays!) counterpart on California, the 93, would make that a one-seat ride and provide regular service to a relatively dense part of southern Evanston that currently has only infrequent “circulator” service. I suspect that whatever losses in efficiency were to happen because of these extensions would be easily made up or even exceeded by increased, better balanced ridership.

Taking advantage of the demand for transit on Devon and taking pressure off the 155 is, if anything, even easier. There are two long North Side local routes, the 36 Broadway and 151 Sheridan, that use Devon for part of the 155 route, between Sheridan and Clark. Both, however, loop at Clark and Devon for reasons that, as best I can tell, are simply historical; that loop was long ago the location of the Chicago Surface Lines’ enormous Devon Carbarn, and it made sense to loop the routes outside where the equipment was maintained. The carbarn, however, has been gone since 1957, and the area west of it has become much denser as South Asian immigrants moved in. Neither route is especially frequent, but if looped at Kedzie–just two miles west–instead of Clark, their combined 6 or 7 extra trips per hour could significantly reduce crowding on the 155 and strengthen Devon’s character as a transit-oriented arterial. Both the 151 and 36 are long, slow routes–both run to the Loop, though not every 151 makes the whole trip–so while Devon can be painfully congested, neither should feel the pain too much. Neither offers as direct a transfer to the Red Line as does the 155, but both encounter it multiple times along their routes, and the 36 runs just a block away from the L from Devon to Wilson, offering numerous opportunities for a relatively east transfer.

In some ways, West Rogers Park is an ordinary Chicago neighborhood. What has become clear in this analysis, however, is that it–like so many Chicago neighborhoods–has excellent fundamentals for transit, and a very strong basis to build on. When thinking about transit in Chicago, the public eye focuses largely on the L, but this is an excellent example of a bus-reliant transit-oriented area. Unfortunately, it seems that some of the public mentality of L prioritization has taken hold in the CTA planning process as well, with the area’s routes largely reduced to glorified–but productive!–shuttles to the nearest L stops.  But here’s the thing: taking the area’s transit from “OK” to “excellent” may not need the kind of glorious capital investment an L or rapid transit extension at all (though, assuming some TOD, BRT on Western would be great). Re-thinking the local buses within a framework of making them useful as more than shuttles, a few strategic extensions and route modifications, and incremental improvements that prioritize buses within the traffic flow could provide high impact for little investment. It’s clear that the fundamentals are there. Let’s build.


Note 1: Notice haven’t talked about Metra at all here. Metra’s UP-North line runs on the Rogers Park-West Rogers Park boundary, with a “Rogers Park” station at Lunt; there used to be a stop at Kenmore, just south of Devon. The line really should be turned into a rapid transit operation, and should that happen, a stop at Devon is essential.

Note 2: One of the other top 5 most productive routes is the 54 Cicero, which gives me some hope that the proposed Lime Line could be successful.



How Reborn Chicago Express Buses Could Point the Way Forward

The big news in the transit world recently has been the long-planned, quickly-executed rollout of Houston’s revised bus network, planned along frequent grid principles. Meanwhile in Chicago, the big transit news of the day is that CTA’s mourned X9 and X49 Ashland and Western express buses, victims of 2010 budget cuts, will make a limited return, operating during rush hours. Like they used to, the express buses will stop only at arterials and rail transfers–roughly every half-mile, instead of Chicago’s standard 1/8th mile spacing. However, this old dog comes back with a new trick: a rollout of transit signal priority, or TSP, along the Ashland and Western corridors that will benefit both the local and express buses.

The news about the return of the X buses has, naturally, brought on a lot of hand-wringing about the fate of the more ambitious Ashland BRT project, which would have been probably the nation’s best BRT corridor if implemented as originally designed. Mayor Rahm Emanuel told the Sun-Times that Ashland BRT is “way in the future,” and that the city’s priority is to “First and foremost, get the BRT on Washington and Madison built and open, and make these investments here (in the Ashland and Western express buses) regardless, because we need to do this to be more effective with 50,000 people every weekday relying on these two routes.”

To which I say: sure! Houston’s bus revamp is getting a lot of attention because it reorients the system around a gridded network of frequent bus services designed on utilitarian principles, with the purpose of serving as many riders and trips as possible at the expense of some geographic coverage (and because basically everybody loves Jarrett Walker, one of the chief designers). Chicago, on the other hand, already has arguably the best damn bus grid in the country. The regularity of Chicago’s street grid makes the layout of its bus system a no-brainer.

1938 Chicago streetcar map; the bus system still largely resembles this network.

1938 Chicago streetcar map; the bus system still largely resembles this network. Source

At the same time, though, Chicago’s bus have been suffering in recent years, with ridership on a distinct downturn despite growing rail ridership. As Daniel Hertz writes in the piece linked to immediately above, the downturns in bus ridership seem to correlate with service cuts such as the elimination of the X routes, which have been ongoing for quite a while now. Daniel writes that ” To be competitive, buses need to run frequently and reliably, and make decent time along their routes. They are absolutely capable of doing that, given relatively modest investments in operations funds, technology, and space. But we’re not making nearly enough of those investments.” And he’s right. It’s the improvements around the edge–not necessarily the sexy projects like Ashland BRT, though that would be huge too–that are missing right now.

And that’s why I’m somewhat hopeful about the reintroduction of the X routes on Ashland and Western. The initial rollout is obviously insufficient; rush hour-only service seems unlikely to be very popular (both routes have significant ridership throughout the day). There’s also the challenge of avoiding the problem that the old X routes fell into, namely that the wait for the less-frequent express buses tended to eliminate the time savings from actually riding them. The temptation to run a few token rush-hour expresses will be great, since employing drivers on a peaky schedule is expensive.

But. But! As Streetsblog Chicago reports,  “TSP should be implemented by spring 2016 on Ashland from Cermak Road to 95th Street by spring 2016, on Western from Howard Street to 79th Street by the end of the year, and on Ashland from Cermak to Irving Park Road by the end of 2017.” This is enormous, in large part because it benefits not only the express but also the local riders–30,000 or more per day on both corridors. It’s not the first crack at TSP on these corridors–a study undertaken on Western just as the X routes were being eliminated showed mixed results–but if fully carried out it could represent a major improvement in the life of all bus riders in the Ashland and Western corridors.

The 2010 TSP study also implied that queue jumps could be just as effective at many intersections as TSP. As I’ve written here before, I think that while dedicated lanes for buses would be great on major arterials, Chicago’s congestion isn’t necessarily of the type that requires them on all routes. On Western in particular, much of the bus delay is of the “hurry up and wait” variety, with buses making good time (especially if they don’t have to stop) for a 1/2 mile or more at a time but then getting caught up in huge jams and having to wait several light cycles to get through a busy arterial intersection. TSP will help with that situation, but only to some extent; the real solution is dedicated lanes of some sort. At most points, a block or two worth of repurposed parking spots on the approach side of the intersection will probably suffice.

Of course, I’d prefer to see the Ashland BRT project happen, followed by a citywide rollout along the lines of MPC’s plans.

MPC's map of a potential Chicago BRT network

MPC’s map of a potential Chicago BRT network

But let’s not forget that the Ashland BRT, as currently conceived, was basically a five-mile demonstration project (and a good one! For me, it makes the most sense of any segment in the city for such a demonstration). But Ashland is also highly politicized, and has (today like other days) taken a lot of attention away from the crying needs of the city’s other bus routes. I’d love to have both. But for now, let’s see where the X route restorations go. Let’s make sure the buses run frequently enough to make them a real time saver for riders. Let’s keep pushing for all-day service. Let’s make sure the TSP doesn’t get watered down to favor drivers, and fight for short segments of dedicated lanes around congested major intersections. Let’s implement off-board fare payment and all-door boarding on express buses and the Loop Link BRT.

In other words, let’s dream about full-featured BRT, and fight for it, but let’s also fight to make the everyday realities of Chicago bus riders better. The X route restorations, and especially the infrastructure improvements they come with, start that process, but they’ll need help from planners and advocates. Getting rush-hour express buses may feel like a comedown compared to true BRT, but it doesn’t have to feel that way. We know the problem. We know the solutions. Let’s go to work on plans both short and long term.

If We Can’t Kill The O’Hare Airport Connector, Can We At Least Make It Useful?

Chicago’s business community has been screaming for a fast transit link to O’Hare airport for decades, and it seems that it’s the idea that just won’t die. Chicago Tribune transportation writer Jon Hilkevitch reports that recently re-elected Mayor Rahm Emanuel is seeking to revive the airport link yet again:

Emanuel has made repeated statements recently that Chicago should try again to launch a nonstop express passenger rail service between downtown and O’Hare, patterned after the premium express trains that for years have been operating between airports and city centers in Europe and Asia, including London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Paris and Copenhagen, Denmark.

To his credit, Hilkevitch seems skeptical of the proposal, reporting that there are no financing measures in place that could support such a service, and that the mayor’s staff wish he would talk it up a little less. Hilkevitch’s skepticism of this project’s feasibility is perhaps mirrored by the standard–and quite well argued–urbanist line that airport transit is overrated. Stephen Smith–certainly no bleeding-heart class warrior–perhaps put it best, in a New York City context:

Globetrotting elites might salivate over the possibility of stepping off of an airplane and into a train that will take them directly to a starchitect-designed Penn Station in midtown, but if the next mayor wants to make a meaningful difference in the lives of ordinary New Yorkers, he should listen to the outer-borough residents who make up the majority of New Yorkers. Not landlords, business travelers and architecture critics in Manhattan and brownstone Brooklyn.

The proposition of a new airport connector is, if anything, somewhat more absurd in Chicago. Chicago already boasts one of North America’s premier rail-airport connections, with the Blue Line running directly into a terminal at O’Hare (sometimes a little too far) and the Orange Line terminating at Midway (though a decent, somewhat inconvenient walk from the terminal).  Sure, riding the Blue Line from the Loop to O’Hare is kind of slow, but riders are already seeing results from CTA’s nearly half-billion-dollar rehab project, and it’s generally faster than the amazingly clogged Kennedy Expressway regardless of time of day.

So no, Chicago doesn’t need a new airport connector so much as the city’s business elites are seeking to hijack the planning process and spend the city’s limited infrastructure resources on a luxury item for themselves (seriously, just check out the prices for comparable airport connectors listed in the Hilkevitch piece). But at least someone powerful is vocally advocating for new transit in Chicago. Is there a way to harness the energies of the business elite and yoke them to a plan that could benefit the city more broadly?

One plan that seems to be emerging along those lines is the CrossRail Chicago proposal pushed by the Midwest High-Speed Rail Association. At first glance, the CrossRail Chicago marketing plan appears cringeworthy in the same elite-focused way as other O’Hare express proposals, selling the project as bringing “New, electrified express trains linking O’Hare to the Loop, McCormick Place and the University of Chicago.” Can you imagine a more business class set of destinations in Chicago? Underneath the elite-focused language, though, there’s an element of significant promise to the CrossRail plan that deserves some attention from business elites and transit advocates alike.

The key element of the CrossRail plan is the idea of using existing run-through platforms at Chicago Union Station to connect the Metra Electric District, the highest-quality passenger corridor in the area, to other lines on the North Side, with an emphasis on a northwestern connection to O’Hare. (graphics from the PDF flyer)

crossrail chicago downtown

With this–relatively uncomplicated, although somewhat capacity-constrained–core connection made, the rest of the regional network, which would serve both local and intercity services, could be built out in phases as money becomes available.

crossrail chicago phases

The first phase would be the downtown connector and electrification of the Milwaukee District-West and North Central Service (Canadian Pacific and Canadian National) tracks out to O’Hare. The entire distance would use existing right-of-way that primarily serves passenger trains, but sees significant freight traffic as well in some segments. I argued in my post on turning Metra into regional rail that the O’Hare connector would not be my first choice for a North Side connection to the Metra Electric District, but it does serve a significant need, and cost was a significant factor in my argument. In fact, the MD-W line serves one of the largest areas of Chicago currently completely unserved by high-quality fixed-guideway transit (apologies for the poor drawing).

Red outline is transit-less area, black line roughly traces the CrossRail path to O'Hare.

Red outline is transit-less area, black line roughly (variations may be blamed on my crappy trackpad and broken mouse) traces the CrossRail path to O’Hare.

Because of how industry, much of which has now moved out, historically clustered around the railroad tracks, there are plenty of opportunities for much-needed TOD projects along the MD-W path from the Loop to O’Hare. The adjacent neighborhoods aren’t among Chicago’s densest, but they’re diverse and still reasonably walkable and dense.

Would the CrossRail proposal, and the O’Hare connection it offers, be my first choice for Chicago’s next major transit expansion? No, probably not.  But it does offer significant new mobility potential for a large swath of the city, while potentially giving the business community the upgraded O’Hare connection they’ve always wanted. A CrossRail Chicago-like plan, assuming that it came with local as well as express service, could very well be a benefit to the larger population of Chicago in a way that other airport connectors have struggled to be. It would introduce the concept of regional rail upgrades to the extensive commuter network to the Chicago area, and indeed, has the potential to be the most promising regional rail project in the US, bettered in North America by Toronto’s efforts to turn Metrolinx into a Regional Express Rail. And it could do that while harnessing the energies of the business community, turning their self-centered desire to throw money around into something mutually and widely beneficial. And engaging the business community could–could–in turn bring support for a more extensive transit campaign, a strategy that the Transit Future campaign is clearly relying upon.

But that’s a lot of ifs. It’s a lot of conditions to be met. And it’s a lot of uncertainty. There would seem to be a way forward that could both satisfy the globally connected dreams of Chicago’s business elite and provide public benefit, but it is a path fraught with potential disagreement, waste, and acrimony. I would, tentatively, support an O’Hare connector project that followed these lines, and perhaps even name it one of the city’s top transit priorities. Chicago would do well to remember the experience of Philadelphia, which spent 25 years building perhaps the nation’s most advanced piece of regional rail infrastructure with significant backing from the business community, including (of course) an airport connector. In the meantime, the (much more heavily used) rest of the system fell to pieces, and the Center City Commuter Tunnel has never been used to its full, transformational potential.  A CrossRail-based O’Hare Connector might provide mobility to a large swath of Chicago that needs it. It might provide the vehicle by which the Metra Electric District finally becomes the rapid transit system it is destined to be. But if that’s going to happen, it’s going to take sustained work, cooperation, backbone, political savvy, and not a small dose of luck.

Notes on Long Transit and Diagonal Streets

Between school, Passover, and life, I’ve been extremely short on time and (especially) focus to write recently (though I did do a Twitter series about Amtrak reform, Storified here), but I do want to get something up.

Jake Blumgart has a post in the Philly Voice about SEPTA’s fabled Route 23,  the former-trolley-now-bus that connects tony Chestnut Hill in the city’s Northwest with Center City and South Philadelphia. Route 23 has been acclaimed as the world’s longest trolley route, a claim I’m skeptical of, if only because Chicago’s Route 49 (Western Ave.) has run up to 20 miles at times. It’s also a flashpoint of the bus-trolley wars, with some romantics consistently calling for the return of the trolleys that were taken off the route in 1992 (much of the rail infrastructure remains in place). The problem is that, as Blumgart notes in his piece, “When trolleys rumbled along the 23, an end-to-end ride took more than three hours; the bus takes about half of that time.” (I believe that number is somewhat exaggerated–Blumgart got it from long-time riders of the route–but there’s little doubt that the trolleys were indeed slower than buses that can pull into and out of traffic)

Route 23 intrigues me because it combines two particular challenges of urban transportation planning: super-long mixed-traffic transit routes and diagonal streets that cut across the city grid.

Route 23 map from SEPTA's schedule packet--so long it needed to be split into two images!

Route 23 map from SEPTA’s schedule packet–so long it needed to be split into two images!

As you can see from the map, Route 23 runs largely in a two-way pairing on 11th and 12th Streets from its terminus in South Philadelphia through Center City, then switches onto the diagonal Germantown Avenue, running northwest to the tony Chestnut Hill neighborhood. The route is also very long for a local bus, almost 14 miles. As a result of the length and Philly’s notoriously narrow and congested streets, Route 23’s on-time performance in 2012 was only 64%, fairly atrocious by transit standards. As a result, SEPTA is considering splitting the historic route in two, with one branch running from Center City to Chestnut Hill and the other from Center City south. Since–as Blumgart documents–virtually no riders use the whole route, there seems to be little opposition to this change.

And that leads me to thinking about the viability of super-long local bus routes in other places. I used to commute on the Chicago Transit Authority’s #49 bus, the core service on Chicago’s uber-long (24ish miles) Western Avenue. Where Route 23 is scheduled to cover its 13.8 miles in about 1:15, for an average speed of roughly 11 mph, CTA’s 49 is even slower, scheduled to cover its 15.7 or so miles in 1:30, for an average speed just under 10.5 mph. Aside: this means that the CTA 49–which has, in the past, extended past its current terminal at Berwyn all the way to the Evanston Line, about 3 more miles–is both longer and slower than the much-maligned Route 23. Unsurprisingly, the 49 is a massively unreliable route, with bunching common. Since the cancellation of the former X49 limited a few years ago, it is the only transit option in the corridor, and one of the most popular routes in the city, carrying even more people than the 23.

The problem with the 49 is that, unlike the 23, there is no especially convenient place to split the route in the middle. I’m sure relatively few people ride the route from end to end, but there’s no point where the entire bus empties out and exits, as happens to the 23 in Center City. Additionally, I will personally testify that having more splits in the route would be a massive pain in the ass, since having to transfer from the 49A and 49B extensions to the core route in order to continue a linear journey is already a major problem. The 49’s reliability problems can’t be dealt with by cutting the route in half, so what options are left for the CTA and other operators faced with similar long-route challenges? (that’s a genuine question!)

The other thing that’s intriguing about Route 23, of course, is that its northern half runs along Germantown Avenue, a diagonal street that once connected that neighborhood to the Philly waterfront. Though Philly’s grid isn’t as regular as, say, Chicago’s, Germantown Ave. still stands out as an oddity on its generally northwest-southeast path.

Germantown Ave. highlighted, from Google Maps

Germantown Ave. highlighted, from Google Maps

Germantown Ave.’s odd alignment–and its Phillyish narrowness–makes it a challenge for fast, efficient transit–but an opportunity for other things, as James Kennedy of Transport Providence, a Philly native, pointed out:

This is a question that intrigues me, since Chicago’s notorious diagonal streets have proven to be a major challenge for traffic of all types in that city. Of course, Chicago’s diagonals are more regular, such that they often cross two other arterials in a nightmarish six-way intersection. Witness Lincoln, Damen, and Irving Park:

Or Lincoln, Ashland, and Belmont:

Among other terribleness, the new Google Maps is temperamental about embedding, so you get a JPEG for this one.

Among other terribleness, the new Google Maps is temperamental about embedding, so you get a JPEG for this one.

These intersections are horrible for pedestrians, create massive traffic jams, and just generally suck. And there’s not too much the city can do about them. The problems at the intersection of Damen, Fullerton, and Elston are so bad that the city is spending millions to realign the intersection, but low-value industrial land isn’t usually available to do that.

Chicago DOT's graphic explanation of the Damen-Elston-Fullerton realignment.

Chicago DOT’s graphic explanation of the Damen-Elston-Fullerton realignment.

Perhaps the boldest initiative Chicago has ever undertaken to tame one of its diagonals was the 1978 pedestrianization of a short stretch of Lincoln Avenue (no, not all of the horrible intersections involve Lincoln, but it does have many of them) southwest of the intersection with Lawrence and Western, creating the Lincoln Square (mostly) pedestrian mall, the core of one of the city’s hottest real estate markets:

western lawrence

Perhaps the Lincoln Square mall has been buoyed (and to tell the truth, it hasn’t exactly been a smashing success) by being next to the busy Western Brown Line station. But it might also represent the potential of a new approach to those problematic diagonal streets. The luxury of a grid is that it often works best without diagonal streets cutting through it at angles that are either random (Germantown) or too regular (most of Chicago’s diagonals). Surely, the idea of making these streets into a transit, bike, and pedestrian mall is radical. But it may be a really good idea.

Envisioning an Ambitious Future Metra

Chicago’s antiquated commuter rail system has been in the news a lot lately, from its long-running patronage scandal that included the suicide (by one of his own trains) of one CEO and the resignation of another under political pressure to a rough performance during one of the worst winters in memory. Now, though, Metra is attempting to turn a corner, with a process underway for creating the agency’s first strategic plan, and long-overdue fare hikes planned to pay for a new capital plan.

Metra is certainly attempting to shore up its public image. But the strategic planning process that is underway is sadly lacking in ambition and vision. As Daniel Kay Hertz writes in NextCity,

Service innovations like increased frequency don’t yet appear anywhere in the strategic plan, and a Metra spokesperson confirmed that the agency has no plans to move in that direction. In August, Streetsblog Chicago reported that one board member flatly rejected that kind of service expansion, claiming that running a single extra train during rush hour would cost over $30 million. (Aikins, however, reports that GO Transit spent just $7.7 annually to adopt half-hourly frequencies on its two biggest lines.)

And Metra is, famously, paralyzed in its ability to act on any ambitious projects because of a governance structure that incentivizes suburb-on-city warfare:

There are also structural barriers: Metra doesn’t own all of its tracks, and some carry freight trains that would interfere with frequent service. But even on the lines it does own — including South Chicago — Metra’s governance structure makes regional, big-picture planning difficult. Unlike GO Transit, which is run by the province of Ontario, a controlling share of Metra’s board is appointed by suburban officials, who have historically shown more interest in competing with the city for dollars than collaborating on a regional transit strategy.

Paralyzed Metra may be. But it’s all the more sad, because the Chicago area actually has a rich set of assets that could make setting up the nation’s premier regional rail system a relative snap, certainly easier in degree of engineering difficulty than equivalent situations in Boston or New York.

In short, advocates of turning “commuter” rail systems into “regional” rail argue for turning infrastructure currently used mainly for peak-hour commuting into rapid transit, with more-frequent service across a greater span of time. Imagine trains coming on your local Metra line every 10-15 minutes throughout the day. Chicago has long been recognized as having unequalled assets for such an approach; although many of Metra’s lines do, as Daniel pointed out, share tracks with long, slow freight trains, there are several that do not; the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s map of freight trains per day in the city area is a very useful asset for envisioning this.

The line currently known as the Metra Electric District has attracted the most attention in terms of rapid transitization, and for good reason. The passenger tracks are fully separate from freight tracks; there are at least four tracks for passenger trains all the way out to 111th Street; the line is already fully equipped with high-level platforms, a necessity for getting people on and off the train quickly; and within the city of Chicago MED runs through poor, mainly African-American neighborhoods with poor transit access.

Seriously, you're running THIS as commuter rail? Image via Steve Vance and Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Metra_Electric_District#mediaviewer/File:Metra_Electric_(15449778660).jpg

Seriously, you’re running THIS as commuter rail? Image via Steve Vance and Wikimedia Commons

Plans for turning the MED (usually the mainline as far as 67th and then the South Chicago branch) into a rapid-transit operation have come from various sources, including the amateur, the governmental, the academic, and the advocacy world. Most recently, a rapid-transitized MED has been incorporated into Transit Future and into the Midwest High Speed Rail Association’s plan for a CrossRail Chicago. The latter plan brings in the element of using the St. Charles Air Line and a new bridge to connect the MED to Chicago Union Station. From there, trains would use renovated platforms on CUS’ two run-through tracks and proceed over newly-electrified tracks currently serving Milwaukee District-West and North Central Service trains to a connection with the O’Hare Airport People Mover.

Image via The Transport Politic

Image via The Transport Politic

These proposals are a useful starting point for envisioning the future of Metra, the last one in particular. Though excessively focused on the needs of white-collar Chicago (promotional literature touts it linking “O’Hare to the Loop, McCormick Place and the University of Chicago”), the CrossRail Chicago proposal shows a kind of vision—moving large numbers of people across a very large city, rather than forcing them to transfer or otherwise navigate the congestion of the Loop—that a full-scale Regional Rail system would need. Though the benefits of through-running trains through downtown Chicago itself may not be great, it is operationally easier than using the numerous dead-end terminals that currently plague Chicago, and does open many potential crosstown commutes.  And though I’d rather see a tunnel under the Loop to connect MED to the rest of the system in the long run, using the SCAL and CUS run-through tracks is significantly more realistic in the short term.

That being said, I’m not convinced that the CrossRail proposal is the best place to start. It would involve electrifying some tracks that are shared with freight trains; the MD-W right-of-way varies between 3 and 4 tracks wide, and reconstructing the line for electrification, fully separating freight and passenger traffic, and installing high-level platforms, while doable, would be fairly expensive. There are two other North Side Metra lines that are entirely or nearly entirely freight-free, UP-N and UP-NW; why not start with them?

CMAP Freights Per Day Map

CMAP Freights Per Day Map–North Side

The UP-N line carries zero freights per day south of Lake Bluff and runs through dense North Side neighborhoods desperate for more transit service, making it initially an attractive candidate for the first wave of rapid transitization. There are however, a few challenges. While the UP-N ROW has room for three tracks as far as Evanston, one of the three trackways is currently unused and built over by stations in several locations (including the brand-new Ravenswood station), making restoration of the third track somewhat challenging and pricy. Adding in rapid-transit locals with frequent stops would tax the capacity of the existing two tracks at rush hour. In addition, there is currently no direct track connection between the CUS run-through tracks and the UP lines, which terminate at the ex-Chicago & Northwestern Ogilvie Transportation Center. This isn’t as big a challenge as might be imagined, as there’s really only one building standing in the

Sorry, Cassidy Tire.

Sorry, Cassidy Tire.

way of linking the CUS approach to the tracks that once led to the C&NW Navy Pier Branch, which could be (with some work) re-purposed to carry trains up to the UP lines. Altogether, there are enough challenges with the UP-N line that it’s not the lowest-hanging fruit for North Side regional rail.

That title, in my opinion, falls to its sister operation, the UP-NW line. It checks off all the boxes. Zero freight traffic? Check. More than two tracks? There are three or more, meaning one could be reserved for peak-hour diesel expresses. Currently runs through an area in need of rapid transit? Once it leaves the path of the Blue Line at Jefferson Park, certainly. Transit-supportive land use? The neighborhoods and towns along UP-NW aren’t as dense as most of the North Side closer to the lake, but they were originally railroad suburbs, and retain a decent degree of walkability. There’s even an opportunity for supporting local bus service, with Northwest Highway running parallel to the tracks. I would argue that UP-NW is the natural Phase 1 North Side partner for a regional rail system incorporating MED and CUS run-through tracks.

There are, in fact, two options for connecting CUS to UP-NW; one is a direct connection via the aforementioned demolition of the Cassidy Tire building; the other involves sending trains first west and then north on tracks used by Milwaukee District-North trains to Mayfair (adjacent to Montrose Blue Line station) where they’re rejoin the UP tracks. I favor the second approach for two reasons: 1) with the provision of several infill stations, it holds the promise of bringing rapid transit service to an area of the city currently without it, whereas UP-NW runs mostly parallel to the Blue Line and 2) it would begin the infrastructure work for a Phase 2 buildout of the O’Hare branch. There are challenges; the line is only double-tracked in parts, and it does host occasional freight, so clearances for infill stations might be an issue. But I think these are much more manageable than the challenges on other lines.

Time for some maps? I think so. Here’s my proposal in Google Maps.  Toggle through the three layers (button at upper left) to see what I’m proposing for phases 1 and 2; I’ve also included an expanded version of the Mid-City Transitway concept, a more elaborate project that I think would be crucial to any future re-orientation of the Chicago transit system away from its Loop-Centrism, but which I’m not discussing here.

In summary:

Phase 1

  • Institution of rapid-transit style service on Metra Electric at least as far as 111th Street.
  • Blue Island and South Chicago branches to be run as shuttles, with South Chicago probably having direct service to Randolph Street at peak hours.
  • MED-CUS connection via St. Charles Air Line and a new bridge over the Chicago River, including a new infill station in the South Loop, possibly with L connections (this is the most expensive part of the whole project).
  • New Northwest Rapid Transit Line, including electrification and high-level platforms via MD-N tracks to Mayfair and UP-NW to Des Plaines or beyond (Arlington Heights is a possible terminus).
  • Service pattern would be through trains from Des Plaines to 111th Street. Expresses from suburbs would continue to downtown stub-end terminals.

Here’s what Chicago’s rapid-transit system could look like after Phase 1 (I’m bringing back the old Chicago tradition of west-facing transit maps!). Click on this and the following images to embiggen:

Phase 1_Final

Phase 2

  • Reconstruction of UP-N with three tracks and high-level platforms as far as Evanston; demolition of Cassidy Tire building to provide direct access to CUS.
  • Reconstruction of MD-W  and NCS tracks, including isolation of passenger service from freight as far as Franklin Park, electrification, and high-level platforms.
  • Service patterns could take any number of forms, with three northern and three southern termini.

Here’s what the system could look like after Phase 2:

Phase 2_Final

And with the Mid-City Transitway (which, if it is ever built, will probably be an L line) providing a belt line:

With mid-city

At this point, with three lines feeding in from the north, and a large amount of traffic from the south, the poor two run-through tracks at CUS would probably be verging on a capacity breakdown, so this seems like a logical place to stop. How much would this plan transform Chicago? Well, it could provide easier commutes for thousands on North Siders to the South Loop, Hyde Park, and the like; and it would likely make service jobs on the North Side more accessible to disadvantaged South Side communities. It would also mean expensive L expansions like the Red Line extension to Roseland aren’t necessary; indeed, I think it’s likely that both initial phases could be completed within the anticipated budget of the Red Line extension. That being said, dollar-for-dollar Chicago’s best transit investments probably lie in improving bus service, whether that’s re-prioritizing local buses or a transformative bus rapid transit system.

A rapid-transit conversion of these lines, though, is low-hanging fruit; it’s cheap, easy, and could be very quick. The essential problems, as always, are political. Metra’s skewed, paralyzed governance structure would need to be convinced to go along with a project that primarily benefits city-based riders. Transit unions would need to accept one-person operation of trains on the new service for it to be affordable–a common practice in Europe, but one an insurmountable barrier in the US thus far. In many ways, though, I think that building political momentum for this kind of a system could be easier than improving Chicago’s buses; it’s a cost-effective fix that doesn’t involve taking road space away from drivers or investing in (much) fancy, expensive new infrastructure. Let’s get Metra moving.

A Few Notes

  1. Other than the SCAL-CUS connection, the most expensive part of this plan would likely be buying rolling stock. Metra’s new MED gallery cars, identical in most respects to the ones in operation on the diesel lines, have only one set of central doors–not ideal for rapid-transit operations.
  2. The “other” low-hanging fruit on the Metra system for rapid-transitization is the Rock Island district; I think it’s a lower priority because it runs parallel to the Red and Green Lines for much of its length. It’s possible future target for this kind of conversion, though.

Bus Bunching, Political Choices, and the Allocation of Road Space

Though I don’t live in Chicago anymore, I still prize WBEZ’s Curious City, a series of in-depth research segments on questions submitted by listeners about Chicago and what goes on it. Generally, they do a pretty good job for non-specialists. That’s why it was particularly disappointing to read the segment from last week about bus bunching that essentially treated bunching phenomenon as inevitable, and somehow completely failed to consider the possibility of dedicating lanes to transit!

What was really disappointing about the Curious City piece is that everyone interviewed–from bus riders to academics to CTA drivers and officials–seemed to take the the fatalistic attitude that bus bunching is completely inevitable and very little can be done to prevent it. And in the current, auto-centric paradigm, that may very well be true. But it ignores the fundamental truth that, as with many elements of our transportation system, Chicago’s operation of a transit system prone to bus bunching is fundamentally a political choice. There is, in fact, one policy lever that can help the CTA (and other agencies) avoid bus bunching, but it is politically unpalatable to most actors, especially the city’s auto-oriented elite: dedicating lanes to public transit. And I have to say, unlikely as it is that the populace of Chicago will suddenly have a massive change of heart and decide that it’s worth dedicating lanes to transit across much of the city, it was irresponsible of Curious City not to even include the possibility of dedicated lanes in their report on bus bunching. True, no dedicated right-of-way can truly eliminate bunching, but buses having a clear path removes most of the obstacles that can lead to bad spacing.

The heart of the matter is that the choice not to give transit dedicated lanes isn’t inevitable, and isn’t an obvious choice when one considers the allocation of street space from anything other than what urbanists like to call the “windshield perspective.” Matt Yglesias articulated the way American cities divide street space for a non-specialist audience on Slate a couple of years ago, labeling it a “systematic over-allocation of public space in urban areas to cars.” His explanation is worth quoting at length:

A majority of the space on the public thoroughfare is set aside for the use of cars. And even though particular interventions—a bike lane here, a storage rack there—are certainly debated, nobody even begins to address this issue from a standpoint of first principles. Why would a city like Washington (or New York), most of whose residents don’t commute to work in a car on a daily basis, want to allocate its space in that manner?

It’s not impossible to come up with an answer. Perhaps the view is that automobile driving is associated with positive social externalities such that at the margin we want to encourage people to drive more and walk less. Or perhaps the view is that the goal of urban policy is not to maximize the welfare of city dwellers but instead to maximize the wealth of downtown landowners by facilitating suburbanites’ commutes. But there’s no explicit articulation of this view.

Though an overall majority of Chicagoans drive to work, there’s a strong transit-riding minority, and there are many neighborhoods where most commuters use transit. The choice to dedicate road space across the city nearly 100% to automobiles (the J14 has a few stretches of dedicated lanes on Jeffery Boulevard, and bus lanes should make their modern debut in the Loop sometime in the next year, with Ashland hopefully following at some point) is just that–a political and economic choice. As Yglesias says, the choice to advantage drivers (who tend to be wealthier and more politically vocal) as a class over transit riders is not explicitly articulated, and perhaps not always consciously made; but it is a policy choice that Chicagoans have made, and it is therefore (potentially) reversible. Remember, transit is far, far more efficient at using road space than cars:

Street Space For 60 People: Car, Bus, Bicycle

Is a network of bus-only lanes (whether it goes by the appellation “Bus Rapid Transit” or not) feasible in Chicago? Certainly, in the right corridors giving street space to buses can mean better flow of people, even if cars end up moving more slowly, and reallocation of street space is way more cost-effective than, say, subways. Chicago might be a challenging case, however. Chicago’s arterial roads are actually fairly narrow, at four to six lanes (including parking), meaning that dedicating lanes to transit for long stretches means either removal of all parking or taking away half of the lanes available to drivers–something that I might not be opposed to, but that might mean taking more road space than existing transit services can justify.

But there are places where dedicating more road space to transit is feasible and arguably the only moral choice. Take North Lake Shore Drive. With plans for the future of that roadway currently being made, its eight lanes carry 161,000 cars and 69,000 bus riders on the various express routes that use it every weekday. That means just about 30% of travelers on the Drive (or a little lower if we adjust for some cars carrying more than one person) ride transit. Surely the new Drive could spare one lane in each direction (25% of road space) to accommodate these users?

When the issue of bus bunching came up a couple of years ago Shaun Jacobsen wrote a useful post on the issue from a Chicago perspective. He suggests that while dedicated lanes may not be feasible across the network, there are particular choke points that delay buses where they might work. As a former rider of the 49 Western, I know I could suggest a few intersections where banning parking in the side lanes for a block or two on each side and allowing buses to “jump the queue” with signal prioritization would help reliability along the whole line: Lawrence, Irving Park, Armitage/Milwaukee, etc. I’m sure every Chicago bus rider has several such suggestions.

My point is: when someone who has taken the auto-centric world we live in for granted says something like “traffic IS unavoidable” (as was literally said in the Curious City piece), we should know better. 56% of all Chicago transit rides (in 2013) take place on buses. It’s time for Chicagoans and other citizens of American cities to get over our attitude that we can never do anything that might mildly inconvenience drivers and remember that there are things we can do to improve the lot of the city’s bus service. Chicago’s plans for Bus Rapid Transit in the Loop and on Ashland are a start towards a goal of fair reallocation of finite available street space, but it’s the unsexy tweaks around the edges that will really juice the city’s transit network. It’s time to realize the choices we’ve made and continue to make, and to make better ones.