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Friday, April 12

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A friend's suggestion and a recent trip to Washington, D.C., with their fast, clean, and efficient subway system prompted me to start thinking about Chicago's rapid transit, that wonderful and fascinating system that serves us so well or so wretchedly depending on where you live, where you're going, and whether you're nocturnal.

Because I'm a moderately nerdly, rapid transit has always been a special interest of mine; in fact, one of the reasons I started keeping a weblog was because of the news coming out about the supposed "Gold Line" or "Circle Line" the CTA had proposed; because I'm a masochist, I wrote my senior thesis about the history of the CTA's tortorously slow municipalization process.

It was during that research that I discovered that part of the reason for the city's redundant rail transit (e.g., all lines go back to downtown) was that each line was owned, for a period anyway, by a different holding company -- and nobody wanted a rail line that didn't run through downtown. That's why the West and Southwest Sides are so terribly served: back when they were practically or literally suburbs, it didn't make sense to connect them to each other in any way.

Too many Chicagoans live in vast stretches of underserved territory with no efficient rail travel, or they have to make a redundant trip into downtown in order to get to any other part of the city. It is a remarkable waste of time and therefore productivity to force residents of, say, McKinley Park to have to go all the way downtown to get to Canaryville; or for people who live in Logan Square to have to go downtown to get to Wrigleyville. This is a legacy of the era of privately-owned, franchised rail travel, and the city has always yearned for some resolution that wouldn't displace scores of thousands of residents or deface the cityscape.

To that end, the CTA has proposed a "Gold Line," or "Circle Line" train. (I prefer the latter name because it's an oxymoron.) Anyway, the Circle Line train would be a vague arc, connecting the North/Clybourn Red Line stop to the North/Elston Metra station, to the Division Blue Line stop, to the Ashland/Lake combined Metra and Green Line station; the train would then use the now-defunct Paulina Connector, formerly used to re-route trains, to travel down Paulina (1700 West) to the Medical Center stop on the Forest Park branch of the Blue Line, and then down to the 18th Street Blue Line stop on the 54/Cermak Branch; the station there would also be expanded to enjoin the Ashland stop on the Metra line.

Going further south, the train would have a stop at Blue Island near 21st Street. It would continue on to meet up with the Orange Line train at Ashland/Archer, and then use existing lines to link up with the Red Line at Wentworth/Chinatown, and then back up through the Loop, along the Red Line tracks back to North/Clybourn.

Whew. Pretty awesome, huh!?

The Circle Line is a magnificent idea and one that will finally drag Chicago into the modern rapid transit age. Having trainlines that service basically only the Central Business District is ridiculous and it seriously retards the economic security and viability of outlying neighborhoods. It also encourages the micro-provincial, neighborhood mentality many Chicagoans have. Don't get me wrong, I have as much neighborhood loyalty as the next guy, but it doesn't serve us well. It is a huge hassle to get to huge tracts of the city from many other parts of the city, and as a result, Chicagoans are often closed off from each other. I think we can all cogently agree that that's poopy.

Integrating the Metra lines into Chicago's larger rapid transit system is long overdue. The Metra lines are a great resource but are used primarly by suburbanites commuting to work. Currently, the only train line seriously used for intra-city transit is the South Shore Electric (a great train ride, by the way). The Regional Transit Authority (RTA) has already taken baby steps towards integrating fare-payment between the CTA and Metra trains; with the completion of the Circle Line, an RTA Card will surely be part of the bargain, and Chicagoans can finally move fluidly between all the different rail systems.

This is a great first step, but there is definitely more that can be done. Allow me to indulge my abnormal fascination for a moment:

1) Extended Service: It may require shutting down certain stations to make the trains move faster and therefore cut down on maintenance, operating, and payroll costs, but the 54/Cermak train should be 24/7 like the rest of the Blue Line; the Green Line train should also operate close to 24/7, especially as the population of the Warehouse District grows and the density of the neighborhoods west of the United Center (properly, East Garfield Park) increases. Folks in South Austin and K-Town have gone too long with wretched service. The Brown Line also needs to operate 24/7, and the Orange Line should extend its service by a few hours.

2) Integrated Express Buses: Our bus service in Chicago is pretty good, except for the irregularity of the schedules. That every major street has an East/West or North/South bus is a good way to do it. People travelling eight or nine blocks in one direction will always hop on buses for short rides. Buses are great because they're more accurate than trains -- they're bad because they're dirty, slow and add considerably to traffic congestion, and they're most convenient for unidirectional jaunts. The solution? One way to do it would be to have bus depots located in under-serviced areas and have them run express to the nearest train station. For example, somebody in North Austin or Belmont/Cragin could walk the four or five or so blocks to the nearest depot and catch an express bus to the Green or Blue Line; or somebody in Marquette Park or Wrightwood could catch an express bus to the Orange Line.

3) Increase Transfer Times: Due to probable budgetary constraints, this could only happen after CTA train service had been vastly expanded and improved, thus increasing ridership. Eventually, however, transfer times should be doubled from two hours to four; as it is, a ride from Rogers Park to downtown during rush hours can take nearly 40 minutes. If you factor in walking time to get to your destination and back to the train, that renders the transfer time practically moot. And charging $4 for a two-way trip is unfair and burdens lower-income residents unfairly. The CTA is not a taxing body, so they rely on bond issues and their fare revenue to cover operating expenses. The CTA should also consider eliminating the return-trip charge entirely and charge a lower, flat fare for each ride (for example, $.95 or $1 for each trip on the train, with a transfer applicable only to buses).

4) Zoned Taxi Service: This is a pipe dream, but I'm going to get more unrealistic in a minute, so bear with me. Taxis fall under the auspices of the DoT, which partially regulates fares. We would do better to do away with fare meters altogether and split the city up into zones, and have a flat fare for inter-zone travel. Let's say the city is split into 20 zones; intra-zone travel is a flat rate (say $5), but travel outside of a zone charges by border crossed: going through three zones, for example, would be the flat rate plus $1.50 per border. These are arbitrary figures, but many European cities and a few American cities use this system, and it makes taxis much more egalitarian, standardized, and integrated into the transit system. Cab companies and drivers can still turn a neat profit, and drivers will be glad at least to have informed customers with a concrete idea of what their cab will cost going into it.

5) The "P" Train: If you'd come in my house last year, you would've seen dozens of CTA maps with black marker all over them. This was because I was obsessed with the idea of a West Side Super Train to bring relief to the sorely under-serviced West, Northwest and Southwest Sides. (Here is a map of the CTA, so you can follow along.) The idea was to have the train run down Pulaski, from the Skokie Swift (where it would technically be Crawford, but whatever), take a gentle six-block variation to the end of the Brown Line, then connect back to the Blue Line along the Pulaski corridor at Irving Park; then down to the Green Line, through both branches of the Blue Line, and then through to the Orange Line, and then down to the Ashburn Estates neighborhood on the Southwest Side.

This wouldn't solve the problem of the enormous West Englewood neighborhood's lack of service, but it would bring a line very close to them. Undoubtedly, commerce would spring around these train stations, and somebody in Jefferson Park could get to Midway without making the tortorous trip all the way downtown and then back out; similarly, somebody in Chicago Lawn could make it to O'Hare much quicker. Sure, they could take buses -- but they idea here is rapid transit. It would also open up commerce options outside of the Central Business District area, and de-centralize shopping and retail outlets from the city's center and possibly bring economic renewal to areas of the West and Southwest Side.

Would it have to be a subway? A subway that long would cost into the billions of dollars, not to mention displacing tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people. And an elevated line would require some tricky routing. I know. But let a guy dream.

Chicago is a world-class city, to be sure, but as long as we accept that as a truth, we have to accept that our rapid transit is in a woeful state; it is downtown-or-die, and that critically damages the ability of Chicagoans to see their whole city, move freely through it, and it keeps certain areas seriously sequestered and in some cases economically inviable. There is a delicious soul food diner called Ann's on Chicago between Central and Austin Avenues -- but right now, I would have to take two trains and two buses, totalling nearly two hours if you figure an average waiting time of 10 minutes, to get there -- not to mention walking time to and from the train and bus stops.

It is a pity that any Chicagoan should have to spend four hours getting what may be the best peach cobbler in the city.

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winterfresh / August 25, 2004 8:30 AM

Like most cities in other countries, transportation is vital. Chicago, a city full of the finest europeans along with converted urban rednecks, will milk this vision if it becomes a reality. I currently live in Columbus Ohio, which sucks. There's no trains, hardly a bus system, and a street structure that curves and dead-ends everywhere. Why is this relative. Well you see what can happen when you don't adjust with growth. Example, when a person grows things tear and shift. Without mending it with new applications to grow with the body, like new cloths and shoes, and material items to make the person look normal then you got a freak. Columbus is a freak of nature. They want to be big city, no, sorry. They don't even have freaking sidewalks.

MC High Life / August 25, 2004 8:54 AM

Ramsin -

Are you familiar with the Mid-City Transityway proposal? It is fairly similar to your "P" line idea. The line would start at the Montrose station on the O'Hare branch of the Blue Line and travel south along the right-of-way of the Union Pacific Belt Railway (about a quarter mile east of Cicero). It would cross the Green Line, both branches of the Blue Line and link up with the Orange Line at Midway. From there it would jog over to around 75th and head east towards the Dan Ryan, turn SE near Halsted and finally meet up with the Red Line at the 87th station. Much of the line would travel along existing r-o-w but the project would still probably cost in excess of $1 billion. The line wouldn't tie into the Brown and Yellow lines as it is currently envisioned but those connections make a lot of sense.

The CTA is also seriously looking at extending the Yellow to Old Orchard Mall, extending the Orange to Ford City Mall (the Orange was originally designed to go there) and extending the Red Line to 115th.

barrett / August 25, 2004 9:07 AM

I agree with most of what you've said, but the zoned cab idea stinks. In DC, where cabs use the zone system, cabbies either take routes that nip the corner of a zone to up the fare, or if they want to save the passenger money, take routes that make no sense from the "draw a straight line between these two points" perspective.

That clogs up routes that a time-and-distance based Chicago cabbies would just avoid. That shortens the trip, making better sense for the passenger who pays less, and for the cabbie who gets his cab back and can get the first mile bonus on another passenger that much faster.

Mike / August 25, 2004 9:07 AM

I live near Armitage and Humboldt, kind of the Logan Sq./Humboldt Park border. While there's sketchy bus service, usually better during the morning commute, the closest train stop is either Logan Square or Damen on the blue line. Both are over a mile away.
For neighborhoods like these, I don't want to say that it's a completely lost cause, but trains aren't coming anywhere near here.
The West and Northwest already have the proper transportation set in place: buses. The only thing that needs to stop is the waiting for 45 minutes and then four buses in a row stopping all at once.

miss ellen / August 25, 2004 9:31 AM

the armitage bus will connect right to the western/milwaukee blue line stop. i'd say that stop is much closer than damen on the blue line. but, that bus only runs to 8 pm.

living in logan square now, i've been using buses more than ever. while i still rides the rails for work everyday, now the diversey bus comes & picks up/drops off right at the logan blue line --- great for going over to lakeview & eliminating the dreaded downtown transfer.

great read, ramsin. i'm also a transit girl at heart! what do you think of the proposed superstation in the loop? IMO yet another case of serving the downtown, and screwing everyone else. although, i wouldn't complain if/when i had an express route out to the airports....

foopy / August 25, 2004 9:39 AM

Ramsin, thanks for writing that article, I liked it.

It seems to me like the CTA is trying to do a lot of the things you've written about--I think I read about the Circle Line two years ago, and I assumed the idea was scrapped until I read your article; it seems like such an obviously good idea that I can only imagine such a thing would be limited by budgetary constraints. The same goes for most of the ideas you suggested, I think. Do you know if the CTA is very strapped for cash, or what else is stopping them from moving ahead on these things?

It also seems like there's a lot of inefficiency in the CTA's bureaucracy. I remember reading that back in the 1980's or early 90's, the Green Line was supposed to be extended eastwards across 63rd street (it currently ends at 63rd and Cottage Grove), and stations were actually built, but at the last minute the community rebelled because they didn't want an El line covering the street. So essentially, the CTA built some infrastructure and immediately tore it down, wasting millions of dollars. Perhaps there should be an easier way for the public to participate in the development of the CTA, so that such protests happen when construction is being planned and not when it is halfway done.

I imagine if a bigger deal were made of the CTA's planned projects, especially in the areas they would service, then the public would be quicker to offer their support, which could allow the CTA to better gauge whether their plans would generate revenue or not. Perhaps the CTA could hire people to just talk to people in the area, get questionnaire out, and so forth? I'd be happy to fill out a CTA questionnaire, but I've never seen any.

As for the express buses to train stops, I think the CTA has tried doing this in Hyde Park--about a year ago they established the X55 ("55 express"), which runs on 55th like the 55, only it stops at a minimum number of stops so as to deliver people to the Red, Green, and Orange line stops quickly.

winterfresh - That's funny, I'm from Columbus too and I find Columbus' transportation a lot less stressful than Chicago's--granted, part of that is because Columbus is a smaller city and has much less traffic. But although Columbus is much harder to navigate for the newcomer because it's not laid out in a nice grid like Chicago, at least it does have an outer belt and a number of other high-speed car-based ways of getting around the city without having to go through downtown. Whenever I have to drive anywhere in Chicago, unless it's in the local area, I feel like I have to prepare myself for a traffic jam, even if it's 2 AM on a sunday.

That said, cars are pretty much like shoes in Columbus, so all other forms of transportation are downplayed or even seen as deviant--my mom was once taking a stroll and a police car stopped her and asked if her car had broken down. The public transportation does suck, but then again, it's not terribly necessary for anyone who owns a car--whereas public transportation in Chicago is highly desirable for almost everyone because driving conditions are horrible.

Danny Howard / August 25, 2004 9:41 AM

Amen Amen Amen Amen !!!!

Though, after a few years in the San Francisco Bay Area, even today's CTA is something of a shining model of coherent utility, by American standards.

I thought the CTA was looking at the far west side line for a few years now. Part of the 2020 regional plan? That would make a great "next project" after the circle line is completed. If they can pull off the express trains from the airports to the Monroe "super transfer station" that would also be really need, I think, most especially for the tourism and convention industry.


Craig / August 25, 2004 9:48 AM

Great read Ramsin, I too love dreaming about what the CTA *could* be. I went to a CTA-sponsored West Side Corridor workshop last week (read more here) and I learned how the CTA works-- SLOWLY. It takes 10 years to add a rail station, and they're thinking *30* years for the "circle line"... and that's assuming that they balance their budget out and are able to get funding! Chicago's need for rapid transit upgrades is becoming more and more crucial as we enter a time of explosive urban growth. Rapid tranist works best in areas with high density, and cars just wont cut it in high density-- if we want to keep our position as a world-class city, the CTA *must* start cennecting the lines and improving transit!

Mike / August 25, 2004 1:47 PM

Miss Ellen- I've tried the Arm. to Western stop route a few times and it always seems like that bus never runs very often in the morning, and like you said, there is no night service. It does seem like it should be faster though, doesn't it?

miss ellen / August 25, 2004 1:56 PM

agreed, mike! when i lived at armitage / california, i was close enough to walk to the train.

with so much building happenning at armitage / kedzie & further west, it seems time to get that bus running more & longer.

dce / August 25, 2004 4:30 PM

I'm all for the Circle line - wasn't there talk of calling it the "super loop" - but it's not really feasible. At least not in the short term. Look at how long it took for Millennium park to get sorted out? By the time a rail project of this magnitude is up and running, people will be using Star Trek style transporters and you and I will be long dead.

I exaggerate, but not by too much.

The solution, though not quite as glamorous, is to improve bus service and provide customer notification of wait times. This is so eminently doable, it makes me want to throttle "Honest" Frank Kruesi.

Busses already use a GPS system to announce stops. Imagine expanding that technology just a teeny bit, such that signs at bus stops display expected arrival times. The same system could be programmed to tell drivers how long to wait at a given stop (30 seconds here, and extra 5 seconds there) so as to avoid the dreaded "three bus pileup".

Same goes for the scrolling signs at train stations. They're there to provide useful information, not to remind us - incessantly - not to smoke on CTA platforms.

If we make existing transport more usable, the prospect of taking the Foster bus to the Jefferson Park Blue Line in an effort to get to O'Hare wouldn't be nearly as daunting and unpleasant as it is now.

Paul / August 25, 2004 5:33 PM

Dave, I like your idea of making the bus stop signs interactive but let's be honest here: how many would be vandalized in short order? I'm sure the cost would also be written off as "too high."

The Circle Line is, in my opinion, 100% necessary. But if it makes any of you feel any better, other cities are slow to move on this stuff too. Denver's expanded light rail system won't be up and running until late 2006, and if voters approve a line going out to the airport, it won't be until 2011 at the earliest. (Can you imagine no trains to an airport?)

How about a positive suburban RTA experience? I had to rent a car one day and return it in Elmhurst. It took me just two buses to get to my destination in Berwyn, and the whole trip took about 40 minutes. I still wish I could have taken a train for sure, and the lack of north-south trains in the suburbs is quite ridiculous, but maybe the buses should get short-term attention.

anne / August 25, 2004 5:42 PM

"(Can you imagine no trains to an airport?)"
Hey Paul, I can, it's called LaGuardia.

Denver's got the plan, and I hope they put it into action. They've won several awards for their new and improved transit systems and plans for the future. I hope Chicago will wake up and take notice.

jennifer / August 26, 2004 9:37 AM

I'll never understand why people would do the downtown el transfer instead of just taking a bus. friends of mine to this all the time: take the blue line downtown to transfer to the red line, and when i suggest just taking the chicago ave. bus to the chicago ave. red line stop, you'd think that i suggested killing kittens. makes no sense to me.

Steve / August 26, 2004 10:30 AM

Jennifer -- I hear you about the crosstown buses. The one I usually hear about is people taking the Red Line downtown to catch the Blue Line to O'Hare. Say wha?

Okay, so if you're like me, do you have troubles fathoming why any public venture -- even something like the Circle or Gray Line -- should take more than a decade to happen, from planning to completion?

Man, I was so inspired after recently reading Devil in the White City, and now I have to simmer down and accept that even though our construction capabilities are way better than anything Burnham coulda dreamed of, we're never going to be able to do anything cool in a timely manner again....

miss ellen / August 26, 2004 10:53 AM

Jennifer --- Agreed. I've also been scoffed at from friends when I mention taking a bus to/fro el lines. Huh? While buses do tend to raise the rage level a bit more during rush hour, on off-peak hours, they're usually very reliable and cut out so much time wasted doing the transfer tango.

And, hello, avoiding the Washington Red/Blue Line transfer tunnel: priceless!

vit / August 26, 2004 11:57 AM

i'm with everyone on the bus discussion. I always grab the Chicago bus to get to the red-line. However, you have to know your busses, Chicago is reasonable, but the Division street buss is a joke, and the Damen bus comes about once a decade.

brian / August 26, 2004 3:33 PM

Everyone has millions of suggestions for transit, but the fact is that there's no money. The CTA is already facing possible service cuts b/c they don't have the necessary funding for FY05.

I could respond to all of the things you've said, but I do have one question: Did great neighborhoods spring up around the Lake Street El after it was done? Or even the Orange Line? I don't think so.

Believe me, I'm one of the biggest transit advocates there is. But no one is going to pay for pie in the sky proposals.

Steve / August 26, 2004 3:58 PM

Brian, thanks for slapping us with a bit of reality. But still, questions remain....

How could CTA pay for expansions? Well, for one thing they could start getting some more funding from government bodies, especially the city. I don't know the current numbers, but five years ago I glommed onto a very compelling fact: while NYC pours $900 million per year into the MTA, Chicago was capped at $3 million into the CTA.

So, more money from the city, for starters. Reasonable service cuts -- where a train may currently run every 10 minutes, what if it was reduced to every 12? Bond issues. Benefit concerts and bake sales. Federal outlays -- man, imagine if cities received even half of what the fed has given to the airlines in recent years....

Brian / August 26, 2004 11:27 PM


I agree with Steve. Currently, the CTA is not a taxing body, and that is part of the problem; they should be granted limited taxing powers, that would be indexed to some other figure (say, a quarter of a percent of the mean current residential or business property tax re-assessment; so if the mean increase in value is 15%, a quarter of one percent of that 15% increase goes directly to the CTA; that's just an arbitrary scenario--but it would be rational since an increase in property value usually indicates an increase in settling, and therefore a theoretical larger customer base for the CTA).

At one time, commercial districts DID spring up around the Lake Street el--up until the 1960s, the West Side riots, and dramatic slashes in service, these were very bustling commercial areas. And areas around the Orange Line, like McKinley Park and Gage Park, not to mention parts of Bridgeport, did see moderate improvements. Imagine if service was expanded.

Also, certain types of bond issues in both the CTA and a more integrated RTA could infuse the system with lots of money. There are myriad fund-raising capabilities, and if we can spend half a billion dollars to build a park, we can find the financing for the most ambitious public transport overhaul of the last twenty five years.

Ramsin / August 26, 2004 11:28 PM

Ramsin said that, not Brian. Sorry.

Paul / August 27, 2004 10:13 AM

Steve: ...Benefit concerts...

Clearly any benefit concert for the CTA would have to feature Train as a headliner.

Sorry. Sorry.

Steve / August 27, 2004 11:00 AM

Other bands that could perform at our CTA benefit concerts include the O'Jays, Royal Crescent Mob, Replacements, The Who, Chicago, Soul Asylum, The Smiths, Wire Train....

vit / August 27, 2004 2:33 PM

Chicago wouldn't peform because if I remember correctly their orginal name was Chicago Transit Authority and the CTA made them change it.

Mike / August 27, 2004 4:36 PM

Ringo Star could be the MC, dressed like his charecter from Shining Time Station.

Steve / August 27, 2004 4:40 PM

Good call, Mike. Vit hit it on the head why Chicago should be there. As for the other acts I suggested, only the reason for The Smiths to appear might be at all hard to figure....

amyc / August 28, 2004 10:16 AM

Because you wish Morrissey would get hit by a train?

pat / August 31, 2004 12:42 PM

I've always pondered the brown line being extended to the Montrose or Jeff Park Blue line stops. That would make for nice cross-mojonation of lines. I think it's only like 2-3 miles away at that; I imagine the biggest complications would be to set right-of way, and how build around the Kennedy.


About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon covers and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at .

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