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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Saturday, July 20

Gapers Block

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Anytime there is anything, people gotta nerd it up. Why is that? What is with CTA "enthusiasts"? The CTA, I'm pretty sure, is the city's rapid transit system; not a role playing game or a designer software and electronics firm. Forged by the acquisition of a number of private companies that operated elevated trains and private "motorcoaches" after years of popular agitation for "municipalization," the CTA's rough birth came about when the grade-level trains (trolleys) were finally valued and purchased, at the point when bond speculators realized they couldn't get anything out of their private transit company bonds and surrendered to the unwashed masses.

Municipalization was a radical concept at the time — imagine the government taking over all the cab companies today — and had many people crying "Bolshevik." It was considered one of the key elements of an overall strategy to democratize urban spaces. Making a city livable for everybody, opening up opportunity to everybody, hinges on people's ability to move around. There is nothing the bosses would like better than to keep everybody holed up in their own neighborhoods, aware only of their own block, their own family and their job. When people move around and information is exchanged, people stop fearing each other as much and begin to talk to each other. The clouds part; people begin to think of the entire city as theirs, not just their block or their neighborhood.

The CTA is not a passing fancy or fetish property: it is a key element in the social fabric, and when it doesn't work well, it keeps people poor. It makes people ignorant — ignorant of opportunity, ignorant of diversity, ignorant of each other.

Right after the municipal elections in April, His Elective Majesty Richard M. Daley, Mayor, appointed his chief of staff, overachiever Ron Huberman, to replace outgoing troublemaker Frank Kruesi. When appointing Huberman, the Mayor said "I want him to examine the CTA from top to bottom, reduce costs wherever possible and make whatever changes are necessary to make it run more efficiently."

All nice, vague things — but really, as we welcome this new supposed independent slate of aldermen, eying the post-Daley era, Huberman task is much greater: he needs to save the CTA from irrelevancy, but it's on its way to becoming more of a kitschy fetish property and less the vital infrastructure component it is meant to be. The cost of riding the CTA, the almost complete lack of accountability to any type of workable schedule, and the gaps in serviceable areas are nudging it towards irrelevancy, like the sad, empty "People Mover" that creeps along its meaningless route in downtown Detroit.

You cannot have a public transportation where it is still cheaper and more convenient, even on medium-to-long trips, to use a car. Despite the skyrocketing cost of gasoline in Chicago — I paid $3.78 for gas yesterday — it is still cheaper for me to drive almost anywhere in the city from my house; and the nuisance of looking for parking is offset by the nuisance of 20 or 30 minute waits for a bus. Chicago is moving closer to becoming a "car city," like so many of the "cities" of the South, at a time in its history when the opposite should be happening. Flush with young urban professionals and a residential development craze that is packing more and more people into smaller and smaller areas, the City needs to be undertaking a massive, comprehensive and interagency (and intergovernmental) program to grow and strengthen the CTA ahead of the developers. It's bad enough that people are getting chased from their own neighborhoods; what an added insult that once they get where they're chased to, they have to stay.

The Mayor loves trinket solutions, creative little administrative changes that are supposed to have massive implications on a system-wide scale — remember when Paul Vallas had all the CPS kids' eyes checked into, because maybe the systemic problems of underperforming schools and rough neighborhoods would be solved if a sliver of a percentage of kids could read the blackboard better. But because it was (ugh) "outside the box" thinking, people were quite taken with it.

Well, that isn't what the CTA needs. Huberman needs to think big, not block-by-block, like he did with his "cop-in-a-box" electronic surveillance program at the police department. He needs to think big, no — huge. He needs to think "federal money" huge. If a coterie of Chicago politicians could muster the energy to move their old bones to D.C. constantly until they got the redevelopment money to build the abomination of Presidential Towers, they can save this city — save it from becoming a Los Angeles-style series of suburbs — by going after real federal money to expand and improve the CTA.

We need to know when buses will arrive. If bus 1A is scheduled to arrive at 8:30 and gets there at 8:25, guess what? It should sit there for five minutes. Because nobody cares if it's Bus 1A; people only care if it's the 8:30 bus.

We need to look at poor and underserved neighborhoods and watch the pattern of ridership. When are people choosing to drive rather than hop a bus or walk to the train? What can we do to stop that?

It is supposed to be "rapid" transit — it's the people's transit. Those car sharing programs crack me up. The very fact that they're so popular, and growing, is worrying. Because the CTA is supposed to be our car sharing program. We pay taxes and fares not just for that trip, but to share these cars and this system. And it should be just as convenient as that car sharing.

The fight for municipalization was lead by the people and was championed by the independent leaders of the City Council who fought for decades to reclaim movement from the bosses and give it to the people. Chicagoans need to start making some noise, or we'll lose the CTA again. But instead of being taken into private hands — although that is always a threat, given the Skyway "solution" — it'll just fade away, and we'll all be surprised at how much we miss the sound of an elevated train.

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Brian / May 25, 2007 3:50 PM

That's why we should all write our state legislators in Springfield and insist on better public transit funding.


About the Author(s)

Richard F. Carnahan is a true South Side Sox fan who's played a bit part in Chicago politics more than once over the years. Contact him at

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