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.

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.

An Ambitious Plan for Regional Rail in Downtown Chicago

So I was going to save this post for later as part of a series on Chicago transit (good stuff coming!), but I set off an enthusiastic discussion on Twitter this afternoon about the concept of using a little tunneling to through-route regional rail and high-speed trains through downtown Chicago:

Click on the tweet or my feed to read the whole discussion. Since this seems to be what we Jews call in Aramaic inyana d’yoma, the matter of the day, I figured I’d do a brief bit now; maybe I’ll come back to it in more depth later.

Several urbanist/transit writers, most prominently Stephen J. Smith (now at NextCity) and Alon Levy, have been beating the drum about the massive potential of using what are currently regarded as “commuter” rail lines through city centers, effectively turning them into all-day-usable, frequent “regional rail” systems. Most of these analyses that I’ve seen have focused on East Coast cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. The concept, though, has also taken root in Chicago; the Gold Line proposal has long made a compelling case for rapid-transitizing the Metra Electric District (no seriously, this is a no-brainer), and the Midwest High Speed Rail Association’s ambitious CrossRail Chicago plan combines infrastructure preparations for true HSR with through-routing of commuter trains.

CrossRail Chicago is, to me, the single most ambitious and potentially transformative transit project Chicago has seen in a long time (short of the full Transit Future slate being built, of course). But why, I ask, stop there? The CrossRail plan still relies on renovating a couple of relatively low-capacity, vulnerable pieces of infrastructure: the two-track, sharply-curved, St. Charles Air Line, and the currently mostly-unused run-through tracks at Chicago Union Station. Trains would have to make several sharp turns to transition between legacy rights-of-way that weren’t intended to work together, meaning that they’d have to travel through downtown pretty slowly–something that might impact HSR trains severely (Today, Amtrak trains coming into CUS from the Air Line back into the station–I once sat on the connection on a late-running City of New Orleans for a full hour while the Metra rush-hour trains made their exit. To be fair, that connection would be upgraded under the CrossRail plan). But the CrossRail plan would only transform two of Metra’s numerous commuter rail lines into regional rail-type operations, and there’s only so much that can be done when through-running relies on two low-speed run-through tracks. Can we aim for something more ambitious?

The stereotype of Chicago’s commuter rail system is that it predominantly shares its tracks with heavy freight traffic. That’s certainly true of a couple of the busiest lines–UP-W and BNSF–but several Metra lines actually see little or no freight traffic. (For those not familiar with the Chicago rail network, CMAP’s map of freight trains per day on various lines is an invaluable resource.) Metra Electric trains share a ROW but not tracks with freights; meanwhile, freight is for all intents and purposes nonexistent on the UP-N and UP-NW corridors, nearly so on the Rock Island District, and at manageable levels on the Milwaukee District lines and the SouthWest Service corridor. That’s a lot of potential for rapid-transitization, probably more than the CrossRail proposal can handle. So how might we handle a full rapid transitization of the Chicago commuter rail network?

Here’s one idea:

What you’re looking at is a system of tunnels connecting the Metra Electric District, Rock Island District, and all of the North Side lines (UP-W, NW, and N, MD-W and N, NCS), with the focal point being an underground superstation under the CTA hub along Lake Street between Clark and Wells. Tunnels would curve north and west from the existing Millennium Station to run under Lake Street, passing under the existing CTA subways to a deep-level station, and reconnecting to the rail system west of the Chicago River. Meanwhile, a second set of tunnels would bypass LaSalle Street Station (or stop at new underground platforms underneath it), and run under LaSalle Street until joining the east-west tunnel under Lake.

Aside from enabling high-speed through-running through the Loop, this system would mollify what has always been one of the biggest complaints about Chicago’s commuter and intercity rail stations: that they don’t connect well with the city’s transit system. A superstation running several blocks under Lake Street could connect regional and intercity trains alike, including HSR, with ALL of the L lines that run through the Loop (I couldn’t get the transit layer to display in the new Google Maps editor, but they’re all right there). And it would bring commuters into the heart of downtown, closer to the densifying (and already very dense) River North area.

Such a project would, of course, be massively expensive (not my area of expertise–Alon, if you’re reading this, want to leave some estimates in the comments?), but I’d argue it’s a much better solution for future true HSR than using the geometrically-restricted and somewhat remote Union Station. Bringing through-routed riders into Clark and Lake is also far preferable to dumping them at Union Station. It’s probably in the realm of fantasy. But sometimes it’s fun to dream.


  • The connection between the LaSalle tunnel and the Lake tunnel is awkward, and I’m not sure where the LaSalle platforms would go. But that’s probably deal-withable.
  • I’ve tried to note what I think would be realistic portal areas for these tunnels. Arguably, you could get some of them closer and save some money by taking a few buildings, but the further the portals are from the deep-level station, the less steep the grades down will be, which helps speed.
  • Dennis Griffith suggested re-using one of Chicago’s under-appreciated lower level streets to bring trains to River North. That’s an intriguing idea, but I’m not sure how feasible it is (trains would have to cross other lower-level streets at grade, for one thing), and I’m not sure where trains would go on the other end.

Looking West, not East–Analysis of Chicago’s Transit Future

On Thursday, a coalition of Chicago nonprofits, advocacy groups, politicians, and corporate leaders unveiled the Transit Future campaign, dedicated to bringing improvements to Chicago’s public transit system through dedicated revenue streams. On Friday, I offered my thoughts on some of the specific lines proposed; today, I want to take a step back and look at the political processes that might lead to some of this actually getting done.

The primary reaction to the revealed map of proposed improvements on Chicago planning Twitter and in the comments on Streetsblog Chicago’s article about the campaign was surprise, ranging to shock, at the extent to which the ideas presented consisted of extensions of the L into relatively sprawly suburban areas, such as Schaumburg and Oak Brook. Personally, I’m skeptical of the utility and fiscal efficiency of these extensions, but I do think there is a method to the madness in some ways, and that it actually says a lot about the political strategy being implemented with the purpose of getting these projects done.

Traditionally, Chicago’s transit system has (and for good reason) been most closely compared with those of the older, core cities of the East Coast. The Transit Future campaign, though, is looking west. The presence of former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at the press conference, and the prominent mentions of Los Angeles’ Measure R sales tax campaign, which Villaraigosa helped shepherd through as mayor, make it clear that the leadership of Transit Future intend to copy not from the playbook of New York’s MTA (as the governor’s commission on Chicago transit had proposed), but from that of Los Angeles, acting at the county level. A brief recap: Measure R was a half-cent sales tax increase on Los Angeles county residents approved by referendum (which, in California, requires a 2/3 majority) on the November 2008 ballot. At the time of passage, it was expected to raise up to $40 billion for transit projects. Since then, LACMTA has expanded its transit system with alacrity, with a combination of Measure R and some federal funding.

So how, exactly, did a massive spending increase on public transit pass with a 2/3 majority in famously car-mad Los Angeles? One possibility is that Angelenos had simply tired of sitting in traffic all day and wanted options for getting around. More importantly, though, I think, is the careful coalition-building that the supporters of Measure R conducted. The Measure R coalition included politicians from several different constituencies, labor groups, business groups, and environmental groups–the same mix apparent on Transit Future’s “supporters” page. For better or for worse, determinations of where Measure R-supported lines would go weren’t determined by technical measures alone; the benefits were spread around to ensure political support, even from semi-suburban constituencies who might not be expected to vote for transit funding. It’s worth noting that, even though an LA County follow-up measure known as Measure J failed very narrowly in November 2012 because of a drop in support from suburban voters, a majority (though not enough to pass a 2/3 vote) supported transit improvements in almost every suburban area. Is every line built with Measure R funds going to show maximal return on investment? Probably not. Is the system going to get built, when it would not have without massive county-wide support? Yes.

Chicago’s task is, in many ways, easier than LA’s was. First of all, for better or for worse, Cook County’s Board of Commissioners can approve a tax hike without a referendum, needing, as far as I can tell, only a simple majority of Commissioners. The Transit Future plan appears to already have the signature of 9 of the 17 commissioners, and the presence of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and Board President Toni Preckwinkle at the press conference means they are at least willing to consider lending their considerable clout to the project. Ultimately, though, the ability of the Commissioners, especially those from suburban areas, to continue supporting the Transit Future plan will rely upon their ability to present the plan to their constituents and point to specific benefits which those constituents will be receiving. That means spreading the love around.

And that, ultimately, is I think one of the major factors underlying the structure of the Transit Future plan. Everyone wins a little. The white, liberal North Side gets a rebuilt Red/Purple Line. The poor, African-American South Side gets better service along the Metra Electric District (the “South Lakeshore Line“), and a way to get to Midway Airport and the industrial corridor with its few remaining jobs along Cicero Avenue (the “Lime Line,” or Mid-City Transitway). Commuters in the western suburbs, who confront horrible traffic on any given day, get a new commuting option with the Blue Line extension to Oak Brook (which is, oddly, in DuPage county–I don’t know how that would work). The northwest suburbs would also get a new commuting option, with the Blue Line extension from O’Hare to Schaumburg fitting in nicely in the geographic gap between Metra Milwaukee District West and UP-NW line service. The denser first-tier northern and southern suburbs would get extensive Arterial Rapid Transit (think express buses, with many of the amenities of full-blown Bus Rapid Transit, but without dedicated lanes) networks. The business community gets improved access to both airports, including a direct link between them (though I think that’s the single least likely project to get built). There’s a little something for everyone.

Is every one of these projects going to be a success on a dollars-for-riders basis? Probably not. But some of them will be, and we won’t get those projects without countywide political support, and we won’t get countywide political support without a few projects that satisfy the the parochial needs (ok, probably wants) of certain constituencies. Given the timing of then announcement–in an election year–and the fact that 9 out of 17 county commissioners have already signed on, there seems to be a decent amount of confidence in the plan’s ability to go forward. Ultimately, this is Chicago. Chicago has the benefit and curse of having a tradition of strongly centralized, almost authoritarian political maneuvering. And though that tradition has certainly been weakened in recent years, if Rahm and Toni want Transit Future to get done, it probably will.

Initial Thoughts on Chicago’s Transit Future

Following a depressing winter for system reliability  that itself followed the disastrous rollout of the new Ventra fare system, recent weeks have been exciting for transit advocates in Chicago. The governor’s task force released a report on Monday detailing the (numerous) ethical and infrastructure flaws undermining Chicagoland’s transit system, generating (to judge by my Twitter feed) some cautious hope from advocates that change might be possible, if not likely. Yesterday a coalition of elected officials, advocacy and community groups, corporations, and labor organizations calling itself Transit Future held an initial press conference, detailing what might be possible for the region’s transit system should it become possible to build up the political will to bring Chicago’s transit funding up to snuff with a dedicated revenue stream. Deserving prominent credit among the sponsoring organization is my former employer the Center for Neighborhood Technology, which has been advocating for a dedicate revenue stream for transit for years. The presence at the press conference of prominent local politicians like Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle gives the initiative a definite hint of momentum within Chicagoland’s famously fractious political system. Who knows if anything will come from the initiative; the proposal, though apparently lacking details beyond a $20 billion cost at this point, is modeled on Los Angeles’ Measure R, which brought that city a dedicated revenue stream for its ongoing massive transit expansion (former LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who shepherded through Measure R, was at the Transit Future press conference today). It would bring Cook County a small (Measure R was a ½ cent) sales tax increase to pay for transit improvements, and require the approval of the Cook County Board. The political future may be uncertain (maybe that’s a future post), but the transit-project proposals are exciting, and I’ll offer quick hits on each of them here. You can see maps and graphics about each line at the website; they’re presented in a not-very-copyable format.

South Lakefront Service

What Transit Future is calling the South Lakefront Service is a continuation of the long-advocated-for Gray Line/Gold Line proposal. This would essentially convert excess capacity on Metra’s lakefront Metra Electric District line and South Shore branch to rapid-transit service, using standard railcars rather than L equipment and running on existing tracks. This conversion is, as many many people have noted, a no-brainer that should have been done long ago. The Electric District is the only Metra line with high-level platforms, which can accommodate fast loading and unloading and high passenger volumes (and the South Shore branch’s have even been renovated recently!) Faregates would be installed and trains would run every ten minutes or so–rapid transit, rather than commuter rail, frequencies. Cost estimates I’ve seen place the cost of conversion under $300 million, though that doesn’t seem to account for new rolling stock, which would seem desirable; neither Metra’s on-their-way-out Highliners nor the new gallery cars (for some reason, modeled on the awful car design of Metra’s diesel lines) are particularly appropriate for rapid-transit style service.

That being said, if we’re shooting for the moon and dedicated transit funding, I’d like to see the proposals for the Metra Electric become more ambitious. Metra Electric is a unique asset; it’s got plenty of excess capacity, is already electrified, and boasts between 2 and 4 tracks fully separated from competing freight traffic (a rarity in the Chicago area). Let’s aim for something closer to the Midwest High-Speed Rail Association’s CrossRail Chicago proposal, which would link the Electric District to O’Hare via the St. Charles Air Line, Union Station’s run-through tracks, and the tracks that host the Metra Milwaukee District West and North Central Service trains (owned by Metra, Canadian Pacific, and Canadian National). The weakness of that proposal was that it was very focused on business- and professional- class travelers; by combining it with revamped South Shore service, we could both provide a very fast crosstown connection (and end a transit desert, which the part of the Northwest Side through which the MDW tracks run currently is) and connect underprivileged communities to new opportunities.

In addition, both the Gold Line proposal and Transit Future’s South Lakeshore Service envision enhanced service only on the South Shore branch of the Electric District. I see no reason enhanced service couldn’t run down the main line as well as far as Kensington, and possibly down the Blue Island branch (which would need to be double-tracked) as well. Bringing that service in would, at least in the interim, relieve some of the need for the proposed (see below) Red Line extension into Roseland, at much lower cost.

The Lime Line

The Lime Line (ok, first things first: we need a new color. “Lime Line” is an awful name–it sounds like a train that wants lots of attention) would run down a largely abandoned or underutilized freight rail corridor on Chicago’s West Side parallel to Cicero Avenue from Montrose to just below Midway Airport. There it would turn east, also within existing freight rights-of-way, and run east and a little south across the South Side to meet the Red Line at 87th. This is a revival of the old Mid-City Transitway concept; the right-of-way it would occupy has been fought over between freight and passenger interests over the years, with some proposals having been put forward to convert it to an all-truck toll road, since many of the city’s remaining manufacturing firms are located in the stretch along Cicero, particularly north of the river. The presence of those same firms means that this is likely the single most important line in the entire plan from an equity perspective. If there’s one thing that’s true of Chicago transit, it’s that the existing system serves Loop-bound commuters, who are predominantly white-collar, decently well, while the dispersion of the few remaining manufacturing and other blue collar jobs has made it very hard for most lower-income people to rely on transit. Less importantly, building this line as an L line would also enable a one-seat ride between the airports. This is as much of a no-brainer as the South Lakeshore Service, though it would be significantly more expensive. My only thought would be to extend the eastern end of the line from 87th to 95th and then run it east to meet the South Shore branch at its 93rd Street terminus. Various proposals have been put forward to extend the northern end of this line into Skokie along the old C&NW right-of-way, but that would likely be very expensive for relatively little ridership, and NIMBYs would probably fight it tooth-and-nail (there are actually two very nice houses built squat on the right-of-way at Bryn Mawr, and some of the rest is a trail), so the extension hardly seems worth it.

 Ashland BRT

Anyone who follows the news in Chicago has heard lots about this project, so I won’t offer my thoughts at much length. Just get it built.  1) In terms of full corridors, I’d rather see BRT on Western than Ashland, but for an initial “prove-it” segment, the one selected for a trial on Ashland makes the most sense of any on either street. 2) Ending the BRT at Irving Park is dumb. The commercial district along Clark north of there needs better transit access desperately, and the sloooowww 22 bus isn’t cutting it. Ashland and Clark have four travel lanes all the way to Devon; run the BRT all the way to the old trolley turnaround at Clark and Devon (currently used by the 136).

Red Line Extension

As I said above, I think some of the goals of this project could be, in the short term at least, met by improvements to Metra Electric District service and by the introduction of Southeast Service (see below). Having both would be great for the neighborhood, though, especially for intra-South Side travel (MED would be much faster for travel to the Loop). The cost estimates I’ve seen seem high, but it’s probably a good project.

Brown Line Extension

This would continue the Brown Line from its current terminus at Kimball as a subway under Lawrence Avenue until it met the Blue Line, where trains would continue out to O’Hare. It’s the first project on this list that would require extensive underground work, which would make it expensive, though tunnelling shouldn’t be too complicated. I’m a little biased on this one, as it would make my parents’ life a lot easier, giving them a two-seat ride (one local bus and then the L) to O’Hare from their home in West Rogers Park. It’s probably a worthy project, but I don’t think it’s a high priority. I also worry about capacity issues on the Brown Line, which is already crush-packed at rush hour, and, as I understand it, can’t run any more trains because of capacity issues in the Loop. Adding riders from west of Kimball would almost certainly exacerbate that problem. Perhaps some Brown Line trains would run through the State Street subway, as has been proposed?

Red Line Modernization

The CTA seems to have done a bang-up job with the rebuild of the Dan Ryan section of the Red Line, bringing it in on-time and on-budget. As far as I am concerned, the challenge on the North Side is much larger. Higher ridership and the lack of a parallel transit option like the Green Line (as well as, let’s be honest, the unwillingness of rich North Siders to tolerate long-term closure) make the possibility of doing something similar on the Howard end remote. But the infrastructure is old and in need of updating. One would hope that any rebuild would include closing some of the stations that are too close together–Jarvis is hardly a train-length from Howard, and Argyle/Lawrence/Wilson are only two blocks apart–as well as a flyover at Clark Junction. Smoothing out the slow curve above North and Halsted on the Brown Line wouldn’t be bad either. Contrary to some, I don’t think any radical changes are really necessary on the North Side L, but modernization could bring massive benefits in terms of reliability and capacity. Being one of the first projects to receive Federal Core Capacity grants makes this a project quite likely to happen.

Blue Line Modernization–Forest Park

Pretty straightforward. I don’t have much to say.

Orange Line Extension to Ford City

Not very interesting. Been in the planning for years. Do it.

Southeast Service

This line would bring commuter rail service to Union Pacific’s ex-Chicago & Eastern Illinois mainline through the south suburbs. In general, I think Chicago’s commuter rail has gone far enough and more money shouldn’t be spent on outbound extensions. The south suburbs through which the line would run, though, are generally very poor and heavily African-American. That simultaneously makes me more open to the utility of the Southeast Service and less sure of its success; how many of the people in Dolton or Harvey or Chicago Heights are commuting to jobs in the Loop? Presumably some are, but the proportion is also presumably much lower than in the more white-collar suburbs that are Metra’s typical hosts. The C&EI line is also a very busy freight corridor, leading me to think that reliability for these trains would be relatively low. The corridor does run through Roseland and other underserved far South Side neighborhoods, though, so if it runs frequently enough it could be a success.

South Suburban ART Network

Not much detail available, so I don’t have a ton to say. Better transit is badly needed in a part of the region that is both relatively poor and heavily car-dependent. An ART network could be truly transformative. I think 95th Street deserves full-scale BRT from the South Shore branch terminus to Oak Lawn.

Airport Connector Express

The first project I don’t like. The idea seems to be to build rail transit of some sort–I assume an L, though it could be European-style regional rail–to connect the two airports, mainly utilizing the Indiana Harbor Belt tracks parallel to Mannheim Road. Firstly, the IHB corridor is possibly THE busiest freight corridor in Chicagoland–the freight railroads aren’t giving up any of the ROW. That means the line would have to be elevated along the IHB tracks, making it very expensive. Secondly, the Lime Line/Mid-City Transitway would presumably already be providing a one-seat  (or at worst, two-seat with an easy transfer) ride between the two airports. I think that long-term the IHB corridor could be a very well-utilized regional rail line, running all the way from Des Plaines to Blue Island or potentially even Gary; but that’s going to require years of negotiations with the freight railroads and probably some re-routing of the traffic that uses that corridor. An express connecting the airports? Expensive as all get-out, and hardly necessary.

Blue Line Extension, Forest Park to Oak Brook

Yeah, okay, the ROW exists, it’s been studied. Would suburbanites actually use it? Multiple Metra options exist not far away, and I can’t imagine off-peak demand would rate extension of an L line. NIMBY opposition would probably be fierce, especially along the former Chicago Great Western ROW, which is where the greatest potential for walkability exists…because the ROW runs really close to residential areas. The tagline for the project on the Transit Future website is “Creates a fast commute to one of our region’s top job centers,” so I guess the thinking is focused on the reverse commute to the Oak Brook corporate center,, which is actually quite progressive (and Chicago has a very strong reverse commute). I kind of get that logic, but let’s extend to Mannheim in Bellwood first and see what happens.

West Suburban ART Network

I doubt this network would be as successful as its southern cousin. Not only are the western suburbs wealthier and less transit-dependent, but they’re also less dense (with the exception with the first ring immediately west of the city). Also, the traffic is absolutely horrible, so not having dedicated lanes could be a death blow. Especially until the IHB ring regional rail line gets built, Mannheim Road should probably have full-scale BRT with dedicated lanes and all; the development along it is dense enough to support it and there is potential to connect with several L and Metra lines.

Blue Line Schaumburg Extension

This one I don’t really get. Would suburbanites really ride the slow (yes, even after reconstruction it will be) Blue Line all the way into downtown every day? I’d think it would make much more sense to drive to the nearest Metra station. I guess the reverse-commute potential is quite high here as well, but I don’t know if it will be high enough to support this long an extension. Also, running trains from Schaumburg all the way into the Loop would likely require express trains, and the Blue Line is two tracks without room for expansion, so how would that be handled?

Purple Line Rebuild

Yes, it needs it. No, it’s not really an express as it stands. I don’t think closing a couple of stations in Evanston (as has been discussed) will make much of a difference. I miss the North Shore Line, and it closed when my parents were two years old. Maybe we should repaint the Purple Line rolling stock in the Electroliner paint scheme.

Yellow Line Extension

This is a no-brainer. It’s short, the ROW exists, and the demand exists. I’d imagine there are times of day when the ridership on the 97 bus exceeds that of the Yellow Line, since instead of ending in a parking lot (ok, it’s got a nice Starbucks too), it actually goes to Old Orchard, which is a major job center (as well as home to the district court, which is a major destination it is own right). There will likely be NIMBY opposition, but I’m not very sympathetic; there were freight trains on that ROW less than fifteen years ago.

North Suburban ART Network

The first- and second- ring northern suburbs (Evanston, Skokie, Lincolnwood, Niles, Morton Grove, Des Plaines) are actually pretty dense and have a decent mix of incomes, with the potential for reasonably high transit usage. Better bus service along corridors like Touhy, Dempster, and Milwaukee (ok, mainly those three) could be very successful. As with the other ART networks, specific features will be key; queu jumps at lights especially could make a big difference.

Analysis and What Else I’d Like to See

Just kidding. That’s another post. UPDATE: New post on the political strategy behind Transit Future here.


UPDATES: Added various hyperlinks, especially in section headers. Thanks to J. P. Velez in the comments.