This post is part of a series called North America’s Train Stations: What Makes Them Sustainable – or Not? See the series introduction for more.
The photo above is how I used to think of Union Station: the architecturally famous Great Hall. But as the nation’s third largest station, I always wondered why so few people were in it. Before I share the answer, please allow this summary background.
Score: 61 (see full scorecard)
This series’ previous post analyzed Philadelphia’s Center City stations as representing the top category called “The Sustainables;” those stations leading their transit systems toward fiscal sustainability. Other stations serve transit metropolises, but are not leaders because each has a fatal flaw. To help these flawed stations, we create a special class called “The Inexcusables.”
The Inexcusables are often trapped by lousy politics and solving each station’s flaw requires an effective governing structure. This article will expose that flaw for Chicago’s Union Station, the dominant hub in my hometown. Also typical of The Inexcusables, Union Station’s key flaws derive from mistakes made decades ago and that have not been publicly confessed; compounding the problem and raising the cost of solutions. These Inexcusable patterns betray the public’s trust and must be changed before the public invests sufficiently.
In the final analysis, the Second City’s grandest station is the center of one of the nation’s largest, disintegrating transit networks. Today, agencies are broke and don’t seem to know how to correct their mistakes.
Yet, this insolvency can be Chicago’s chance to make a new main station to lead this transit town into an era of sustainable transportation. Multiple proposals for a West Loop Transportation Center are promising, but collect dust due to lack of funding.
To understand how this condition evolved and how we can break through it, let’s start this history when Union Station was helping Chicago become the nation’s rail center.
The Best A Station Can Be: Integration Leads To Prosperity
Built by Burnham’s firm as a consortium of five competitors and led by the Pennsylvania RR (the nation’s largest railroad), Union Station tells us collaboration can serve everyone’s passengers better with easier transfers and, thereby, increase rail travel overall. In short, integrated systems lead to growth. When completed in 1922, Unions Station repeated a similar collaboration that built the central depot of the 1880s. To handle Chicago’s record-breaking growth during the previous three decades, the 1922 Station tripled capacity and innovated by terminating 24 northern and southern tracks into one convenient hub. All good… and soon-to-be-great.
Boosting economic growth, this consolidation of five companies’ terminals allowed Chicago’s Central Business District to expand; having been hemmed in by eight rail-yards and terminals. Adapting the laws innovated for New York’s Grand Central Terminal, Chicago permitted 1920s’ office buildings to be built over tracks; thus expanding the CBD and its convenient access by commuters.
The collaboration that built the 1880s depot and its replacement by the 1922 Station bookended Chicago’s ascent as the nation’s transportation center. This leverage, in turn, gave the metropolis the edge to emerge as the nation’s manufacturing center.
Union Stations’ early economic triumphs are matched by its long-history of aesthetic awards. The most recent was in 2012 with a “Great Public Space” award given by the American Planning Association. This coincided with other accolades derived from the publicity around the $65 million update, mostly of the station’s Great Hall and Amtrak facilities.
Bad As A Transit Town Can Get: System Dis-integration
The way Union Station works today is similar, metaphorically, to my closeup of this clock that centers the Great Hall. (Honestly, this is no Photoshop.)
Key functions are off just enough to distort other aspects; multiplying dissatisfaction, particularly during rush hour. The causes are mid-century mistakes made when we thought inter-city train ridership would decline further and, hence, the Station could downsize. All inter-city travel lost from its 1940s peak has been replaced by commuter ridership, plus another 20% daily ridership in this century. Union Station’s concourse overflows with passengers and cannot catch up with the times. The Station that helped make Chicago the nation’s train center now holds Chicago back.
Serving as terminus for half of Chicagoland’s suburban lines, Union Station declined for the last half century; making passenger convenience worse.
For example, today’s Union Station commuters and visitors connect to a subway via an unprotected two block walk south that, as a statement on priorities, enters under the Congress Expressway. Or Union Station commuters can walk three blocks east to catch the downtown Loop Elevated. This walk is even worse six months a year when Chicago is either brutally cold or hot ‘n humid. For passengers walking to rapid transit with baggage, there is no credible way to say “Thanks for visiting” or “Welcome home.”
Telling the tale of the times that caused today’s divorce from rapid transit, Union Station had its own “L” (Elevated) stop per the 1957 photo above (Bruce Moffat Collection.) The Loop connection starts on the right, crosses the river and train-shed with the “L” stop in the parking lot. (Across the street, the existing Great Hall is in the middle of the 8 story office block with the original concourse to its right.) This neat track connecting to the CBD was demolished in 1958 to clear the block next to what would be the world’s tallest building for over two decades.
Despite the huge increase in commuters who needed to circulate during three decades of the downtown’s redevelopment boom, Chicago never replaced the “L” station and kept Union Station disconnected from rapid transit.
When considering that Union Station ridership would rank it as the 10th busiest American airport, we need to ask how many airports that large have inadequate rapid service. Since Chicago’s airports have had almost constant and continuing public investment for the past sixty years, the City’s investment priorities can only be felt as a protracted slap to two-thirds of downtown’s daily rail riders who have made Chicago’s economy work and probably contribute more than their fair share of taxes.
Union Station’s growth mostly was based on easier transfers and the high opinions of its 1922 Concourse (above shown serving the war effort.) The Concourse evoked New York’s exquisite 1903 Penn Station; yet both met mid-Century mistakes. Chicago’s concourse was demolished in 1969. Developers of the Concourse’s substitute and its high-rise office towers got their deals; but no agency got passengers a deal that respected the visual glory and artful functionality of their former Concourse.
The 1970s design of the concourse’s substitute was so bad that an extensive $23 million renovation in 1992 (by a European star-architect) could not conceal the dirt that had been done: Chicago’s former train “cathedral” had been scrunched under an office tower. Today’s concourse is little more than a passenger pipeline dressed-up as a fast-food mall. I have been jostled through the concourse during several rush hours and I still find it confusing and claustrophobic. I’m still looking for a fellow traveler whose eyes do not seem glazed over. Seeming to reflect my feelings about leaving the concourse, the photo below is borrowed from the 2012 CDOT Plan referenced below.
Municipal failure for an over-crowded concourse gets worse as rush hour passengers next are dumped into a street-level melee as they try to cross the river or Canal Street. This frequently looks like the breakdown of civil rules. Taxis, cars, busses compete for space that doesn’t exist; so they feel justified stopping in or racing through crosswalks. To avoid over-crowded sidewalks and crossings, pedestrians also get crazy; often jay-walking Canal Street and inventing new ways to defy common sense.
Overall, this break-down of order converts an otherwise safe train commute into a hot zone endangering public safety once it encounters the street.
Seeking to explain this failure in the primary job of government, I recall the field of mathematics that says human behavior is unpredictable when systems are at capacity. This Chaos Theory says things can go wrong spontaneously. The streets outside Union Station — at almost any daylight hour — proves to me the value of this Theory.
As a final sign of system disintegration, only slow, noxious diesel buses directly serve a station with 125,000 daily weekday passengers, the nation’s third largest. Since only 11% of METRA riders get on a CTA bus, it has obvious limits. Those who choose to walk get a type of gallows satisfaction because the pedestrians often move faster than fellow commuters packed into a rush hour bus.
To sum their personal experiences, transit commuters are doing the Right Thing and deserve much better. At the least, a decent deal would reward commuters with enough convenience to encourage more good behavior.
Reflecting further government failure, Union Station’s owner (Amtrak) does not grasp the collaboration of 125 years ago that led to Chicago’s growth. The Station’s largest tenant (METRA) has so many scandals it is unlikely to survive the recommendations of the blue-ribbon committee appointed by the Governor. The same goes for the Regional Transportation “Authority.” Its four decades of failed oversight has allowed system dis-integration and agency waste of public funds. And Chicago’s Transit Authority carries baggage of recurring fiscal failures and two decades of deferred maintenance.
Recognizing the uselessness of transit’s major operators, Mayor Emanuel has put in-charge Chicago’s Department of Transportation. CDOT capped off 12 years of downtown planning with its May 2012 “Union Station Master Plan.” While not as forthright as my analysis (and certainly not written in my style), The Plan is candid for a government document; which I see as a sign of hope.
After wasting a decade of grand planning when the City had some cash, The 2012 Plan is practical… now that Chicago is flat broke. The Plan details improvements today, most of which are probably affordable. And it inspires some hope that its 5 to 10 year goals of realigning and widening Station platforms will help overcome crowding and, maybe, make more probable the benefits of through-routing. But… no funding, as yet.
Finally, the Plan clearly knows a new station is required and repeats the long-term vision of an integrated West Loop Transportation Center (imagined above) that, rich in irony, could be built over the concourse demolished in 1969. The Plan also analyzes an alternate Center one block west and stretching two blocks north to the updated Ogilvie Transportation Center; thus making the economic benefits of through-routing theoretically possible for 8 of Chicagoland’s 12 lines. With commuter travel predicted to increase between 25% and 40% within two decades, this Center offers hope that Chicago transit could enter a sustainable era… hopefully closer to on-time.
With history as judge, planning promises will not overcome the reality that governments are poorly aligned and, thus, are unlikely to spend tax dollars intelligently. But this dismal Big Picture gets more hopeful when we consider CDOT’s first small step to rebuild connectivity with a Loop Bus Rapid Transit. We hope BRT, sometime in 2015, will serve Chicago’s largest downtown buildings and reconnect the largest three commuter stations with the CTA’s rapid rail.
There are reasons to side with skeptics saying that this BRT is not a suitable solution; particularly if this City continues to tout itself as a global hub while only able to implement BRT, a technology used by developing economies. But, BRT is all Chicago can afford; having lost taxpayer support by treating its transit customers for decades as second class.
How Do We Convert Dis-integration Into Sustainable Integration?
Even for someone who enjoys writing about the future, I’ve just made a tough ask here. But starting relative to today’s transportation agency dis-integration, the positives are that the Loop BRT can meet a very low standard and still be considered a success. Yet, BRT will not renew Chicagoans’ transit greatness as long as Union Station is stuck behind the times.
Chicago’s boosters cannot mask much longer their inadequate downtown transit. This will lose the city its status as a global hub. While Public-Private Partnerships are floated to fund the low-hanging fruit, use of PPPs sufficient to make a new transit center will require reducing private risk with public funds. Politicians can pretend different and commuters can hope and pray (and buy lottery tickets), but anyone serious about transit must deal with reality: that public funds are the missing ingredient in updating Union Station and its transit network for the 21st Century.
Obstacle: taxpayers have made it implicitly clear that they have lost faith in the current transportation regime fed mostly by sales taxes; having supported the regime, only to have it fail at maintaining itself in good working order… METRA disgracefully so.
I boil down this analysis to the key strategic challenge of re-integration and how Chicagoans are likely to judge future investments: did their money for the West Loop Center replace non-integrated rapid and commuter rail with integrated systems that contribute to the economic and fiscal balance that the City needs to compete globally?
Any future strategy will not work if decision-making authority still resides with agencies proven to avoid problems and whose directors are appointed by politicians who have not admitted past mistakes, nor promised to correct them.
To get on track, Chicagoans must radically restructure bankrupt agencies; and probably start anew. To raise the funds to break beyond BRT, I advocate raising public capital and investing it through an independent publicly-elected Infrastructure Board. (Watch future posts for that proposal, separate from this series on stations.) This Board will be dedicated to increasing rail travel and protect future public investment by also serving as chief advocate for reducing the radical bias and subsidy to cars.
As guardian of taxpayers’ new infrastructure capital to integrate systems and increase commuter convenience, this dual-dedicated Board could help re-organize transportation providers into a sustainable competitive collaboration and build a suitable West Loop Center. Another pipe-dream proposal? Hardly. Here is our lesson from history: collaboration twice (1883 and 1922) built stations that led Chicago’s prosperity. Both times, Chicago clearly had the ambition to be ahead of its time. Does it now?