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Public Transportation Mon Jun 28 2010

Brand the CTA

The MTA in New York recently announced that beginning this week they would be cutting two subway lines and 37 bus lines from service. With other reductions set to take place system-wide, New York's transit agency aims to shave $93 million from its operating costs. In July, when the MTA unveils its new budget, many expect the already rumored 7 precent fare hike actually to be much higher than anticipated. While the cuts in New York will indeed cause consternation and confusion amongst many, and fuel the fire of the MTA's naysaying watchdogs, it is interesting to note here the difference in tone from these drastic reductions in service in New York to the incessant "doomsday" chatter that hangs like an ever-present cloud over the CTA in Chicago. The MTA seems to have taken these operational measures without engaging in the process of alienating and villainizing the majority of the patrons who utilize their trains and buses. Leading up to the last series of service cuts experienced here in Chicago over the past winter, the CTA made a spectacle of itself by often throwing up its hands in the face of the City, Springfield and most importantly, its riders, by essentially saying "Look, there's no way. What do you want us to do? You deal with it."

In 2007, when cuts were avoided in Chicago, the buses and trains were plastered with posters showing the relative funding that transit agencies receive from their state legislatures. Indeed, the Chicago Transit Authority ranked near the bottom in terms of support it received from the state. Now, this post won't delve into the causation of the woes of public transit and the unfortunate machinations that leave big-city transit budgets at the whim of their far-flung state capitals (and therefore, at times, unfairly targeted against) or poor choices of funding mechanisms, such as the real estate transfer tax. Nor will this post postulate on how to best remedy this and push transit in a positive direction. (For an exhaustive and fascinating take on how to do that, please visit The Urbanophile's "Chicago Transit at a Crossroads" series.) But what this post will remark upon is the impact something as simple as those posters had. The CTA's biggest failing is not in what it fails to do service-wise, but in how it fails to illustrate what it does do.

The fact of the matter is that the CTA operates a system that is in great need of infrastructural improvement. It is in great need of customer service improvement, and in great need of planning and management improvement. But perhaps most strikingly, it is in need of marketing improvement. If the CTA would change the emphasis on how it presents itself to its constituency, perhaps the citizens of Chicago wouldn't always be felt like they are being held hostage or should be indebted to a public service. For all of its failings, the CTA operates one of the most exhaustive and heavily used transit systems in the U.S. It is an asset that needs to be heralded and cast in a entirely different light to its users and to the Legislature in Springfield. By highlighting what it does do -- operates eight rail lines and 140 bus lines with 1.7 million users daily, reaches a majority of the city through its bus and rail network, eliminates additional traffic congestion, allows for the movement of the city's workforce to reach places of employment, provides direct access via rail to the city's two airports- the CTA could easily be presented in a different fashion from the plodding, old horse it's often depicted as currently.

Namely, what the CTA needs to do is brand itself as something that it surprisingly already is: unique, mobile, and growing. (Note: While overall ridership is down 2.4 percent this year, it is mainly due to a decline in bus service. Rail ridership is up 8.5 percent through May 2010.) A simple tagline within an ad campaign showing how integral the system is to the city and to the region, and how its growth will only encourage more growth, could be the catalyst to change the focus. Instead though, we get constant "doomsday" scenarios and fear tactics that make the system foreboding and unenjoyable long before one steps onto an El platform or boards a bus. By focusing on its attributes and presenting a case of wanting to improve upon its service, and not simply preventing the Brown Line and the 4-Cottage Grove bus colliding and collapsing into Lake Michigan, the CTA could find many new friends both within the city, thereby attracting riders -- and downstate -- thereby attracting funds. In turn, the CTA could finally find itself in a position to make good on its word to continue to streamline and maintain its service, and perhaps move forward by beginning work on the much-needed Circle Line and Red, Orange, and Yellow Line Extensions.

For all of the pain New York's recent cuts will cause, the MTA is still a ubiquitous part of a New Yorker's life. The CTA is just as essential and iconic to Chicago, but is misguidedly painted as a luxury and an inconvenience to those who ride it. Of course, it is not. The CTA is an indication of how healthily the city can move its workers and citizens across the area, and in effect, is an indication of how competitive the city can be. What the CTA is missing is a brand manager, someone to remake its image in a way that engages and doesn't alienate. Mass transit in the US will always be a magnet for consumer complaint; it's tax dollars visibly (not) at work. But that doesn't mean it is not necessary or cannot be meaningful. While the relationship towards mass transit and heavy rail in particular is quite different overseas, and therefore cannot be gauged on the same level as it would here, the CTA would do well to look at Madrid's Metro system and how they have effectively created a vision that humanizes the Metro and makes things happen. To co-opt their tagline, "Vamos."

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Schmüdde / June 28, 2010 9:44 AM


I think you do a great job of hitting all the necessary points - but to quote the article you cited:

"If you look for reasons why Chicago Loop is thriving, why Chicago almost alone among Midwest cities preserved its urban core, there are many, but among them its transit system must be near the top."

An underlying issue is that the city itself doesn't appear to promote one of it's greatest assets, the 2nd largest transportation system in the nation, either as a fiscal contributor or a cheerleader. People don't live her because they love the winters, they enjoy the unique quality of life that Chicago offers. As the City of Chicago attempts to attract tourists, retain (and grow) population and lure businesses they fundamentally fail to promote the transit-centered livability of our urban core. Transit might not be as sexy as putting a Children's Museum in Grant Park but it will certainly offer much more to our city's viability in the future.

Transit in Chicago: we are living on our grandfather's dime and offering very little to our children.


Sunny / June 29, 2010 5:57 AM

Those CTA posters about relative funding were totally misleading. They omitted cities with successful, functional public transportation systems -- notably, DC, Boston and New York -- and instead compared Chicago to cities with lesser investment in and reliance on public transportation like St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Los Angeles. An apples-to-oranges comparision to "prove" the point, which ultimately only made the CTA look even dumber.

Sunny / June 29, 2010 5:59 AM

Those CTA posters about relative funding were totally misleading. They omitted cities with successful, functional public transportation systems -- notably, DC, Boston and New York -- and instead compared Chicago to cities with lesser investment in and reliance on public transportation like St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Los Angeles. An apples-to-oranges comparision to "prove" the point, which ultimately only made the CTA look even dumber.

Robert Munson / July 5, 2010 7:05 PM

You make good points about how Chicago's transit needs improvement; particularly more marketing and better management.

But I think it is a mistake to expect the CTA to perform those skills which come from the private sector. The CTA is highly unlikely to perform better unless it has some competition. The CTA has a near monopoly on transit and has no incentive to become efficient or better.

If we expect Chicago's transit to improve, a more likely path is to explore private-public partnterships which can introduce competition and, particularly, those less expensive methods such as Bus Rapid Transit and light rail vehicles that the CTA has avoided for decades. And how about jitneys as feeders to be integrated into the system?

You are correct that we have neglected Chicago's transit. But to make up for lost time, we need alternatives to the CTA monopoly.

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