I’ll admit it’s not the perfect time to be defending the Chicago Transit Authority. A major fare increase is on the table. The system remains operationally unsteady. The media continues to report debacles like the Block 37 “super station” and the impact of budget cuts on the Brown Line project.
But you know what? I’m feeling optimistic. I’m starting to see a stream of good things out of the CTA. Let’s not minimize the challenges or the pain or how far the agency still has to go, but the new leadership brought to the table by Ron Huberman is really starting to propagate out to the riders in a tangible way.
Let’s refresh on my definition of public transportation. It’s exactly that: transportation for the public. Transit should be a public service, not a social service. It exists to serve the general public just like parks, libraries, police and fire, etc. It isn’t only for the poor, the disabled, the elderly, etc. It’s for everyone. But it’s also about transportation, not about secondary outcomes like the environment, neighborhood revitalization, congestion reduction, or creating public works trophies for cities. Those things might indeed happen, just like poor people might choose to ride transit. But the core mission of transit is getting riders where they want to go in a manner that is competitive with the alternatives in terms of cost, end to end journey time, and quality of experience.
That’s why I’m happy about the new leadership at the CTA. There seems to be a new rider focus at the agency that I’ve never seen before. Consider some of the recent changes:
- The rollout of Bus Tracker, to give the public access to real time bus arrival times, available via the internet or on mobile phones. Coming soon: a texting based interface.
- The new alerting system for planned service disruptions where people can sign up with the CTA for service alerts via email. In the works: a similar service for unplanned disruptions.
- Pulling seats off Brown Line cars to create more room. Capacity can’t be increased while the three-track restriction is in progress, and in the meantime this is a creative solution to the problems. This may not be the ideal permanent fix, but it’s good in the here and now.
- Exploring the idea of grocery stores at L stations. This might not be viable, but adding services that benefit riders and potentially rake in revenue is a great idea. Let’s get creative here. (My personal wish item here: public restrooms, at least at certain major stations)
- Getting the CTA on board early with Google Transit.
- The new linkage with iGo cars at stations.
Here’s the best example of the changes at the CTA. Yours truly spent three years publishing a blog about the CTA. It was well-read, I’m pleased to say, and was featured in publications like the Chicago Reader. I never once heard from the CTA about it, however, even to tell me I was full of it. Fast forward a bit: when someone started the present-day blog I mentioned called the CTA Tattler, not only did the blog attract CTA attention, Ron Huberman himself decided to get involved. The blog owner has a direct pipe to Huberman to get reader questions answered, and he even hosts periodic “Coffee with Ron” sessions where people can sign up to meet Huberman in a small group format. That’s a sea change in attitude almost beyond belief. The CTA is waking up to the possibilities of the new media and seeing it as another opportunity to get close to riders and their needs, not just as an irritant. (Note: the publisher of the CTA Tattler seems to do something for CPD, where Huberman used to work, so there may be a connection between them and/or the CTA itself might be behind the blog. I don’t know if it is or not, but if so, my respect for their new media skillz would only go up :))
Beyond the rider focused initiatives, there are even more good changes:
- Refreshing the online store to bring in money and start better leveraging the CTA brand for revenue generation.
- Experimenting with high tech digital advertising screens that can drive additional advertising revenue.
- Getting beyond rail centricity by looking at Bus Rapid Transit. While smaller cities pooh-pooh the idea of bus transit as not sexy enough, despite the examples of places like Curitiba and Bogota, the CTA isn’t too proud to even try learning from Cleveland and its HealthLine system. In an era of limited budgets, options like this need to be looked at.
What a lot of these have in common is the “quick, easy, and cheap” approach that I touted for Indianapolis. As I showed in that city, there’s a lot we can do right now, that doesn’t cost a lot of money, to start making transit better. That applies just as much to the CTA as to IndyGo.
The CTA is facing a mountain of obstacles. Let’s not minimize that. Problems range from a $10 billion capital needs backlog just to bring the system up to snuff, to a senior citizen free ride program that both put a hole in the CTA’s budget and worst of all plays into stereotypes of transit as a social service, to bureaucratic inertia. There are many, many more. Many of them are beyond the agency’s control. Even for those that can be changed, you can’t turn a battleship bureaucracy on a dime. But rather than throwing up their hands and just blaming the world, the new CTA has looked at what can be done with the resources at hand. And as it turns out, there’s a lot. There’s a world of difference between the “can do” attitude and the “can’t do”. For a future post, maybe I’ll put together my quick, easy, and cheap list for Chicago. Because there’s even more in this vein that can be done.
Do I think Huberman and the CTA are perfect? No. But I do think there’s been a big change here, based in new leadership, and dare I say it, we may have hit the inflection point.
One thing is for sure, the city can’t hope to host a successful Olympics without a quality transportation system. I’ve been to Madrid several times and seen the competition up close. They have completed brand a new international airport expansion, with its Richard Rogers designed terminal that might be the most stunningly gorgeous in the world. They have a fabulous, high quality metro system, and many miles are being added as we speak, as are additional high speed links. Chicago’s got Midway pretty much squared away with its nice new terminal. The O’Hare modernization proceeds at its current slow pace, dogged by lawsuits and airline industry problems. The CTA is the “final frontier” that has to be put in place. Let’s hope the quest for Chicago 2016 will prompt the community to break the logjam and enable both the long term and short term improvements that are needed to create a world class transit system come into being.