[ Last week Natasha Julius suggested killing Metra (the agency) as her first recommendation for Chicago transit. This week we continue with the second installment of her Beachwood Reporter series – Aaron.
Maps may be humanity’s defining achievement. Other species use tools, communicate with complex language and mourn their dead. But who else draws abstract pictures that represent their relationship to their surroundings?
Maps show more than just where things are. They show where things were and where things might be; how the disparate parts of a whole are linked; and how new parts will be added. If you look very closely, sometimes you can also see the missed connections, the regions that the shapers of that reality neglected. The unfulfilled potential of a place.
Looking at a map of Chicago’s mass transit system is both exhilarating and infuriating. Few other places boast the wealth of infrastructure we have here. And yet, outside the Loop, none of these resources connect with each other in any meaningful way. Great varicose tangles of rail twist their way past one another, never interacting, never offering their passengers the benefit of the other’s riches.
Truly strong public transit systems support the communities through which they pass and offer maximum flexibility. They don’t just dump everyone in the middle of town and forget about them. The Loop is a natural hub in Chicago due to its central location. But if you look at a map, if you spend a few minutes applying your imagination, a second tier of local mini-hubs begins to emerge. With fairly modest changes, these areas could offer innovative new ways to travel throughout the Chicagoland area. Every single decision-maker at CTA and Metra should be forced to stare unblinking at a map of Chicago every day until these Magic Eye patterns pop out at them.
Below are three suggestions for mini-hubs in three different parts of the city. This is by no means an exhaustive list; there are plenty of other potential sites in the city and near suburbs. Please note, these recommendations assume that CTA and Metra have worked out their respective fare collection and double billing issues. Without technical integration, physical integration would be pointless.
63rd Street: The Obvious Hub
Have you ever heard of the Englewood Flyover? The long-planned bridge will elevate Metra’s Rock Island tracks, eliminating a grade-level diamond crossing with tracks that carry freight and Amtrak trains. It will immediately improve the on-time performance of the Rock Island, long plagued by delays at this interchange. Doubtless it will benefit the planned expansion of the Northfolk Southern freight yard, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s pet project currently scheduled to flatten a different part of Englewood.
The Flyover is a $93 million project that brings jobs to a neighborhood that badly needs them. Those jobs will end when the bridge opens, currently scheduled for June 23, 2014. Half a block to the west is the Dan Ryan expressway and, in its median, the 63rd Street Red Line stop. If you look west from the Red Line platform, you’ll see the elevated tracks of the Green Line. This branch passes over the highway near 59th, running alongside for four blocks before heading west toward Kennedy-King College and the site of the mythical Englewood Whole Foods. The Rock Island, Red and Green lines have existed in this manner, sharing space but never interacting, since the Ryan was built in the 1960s.
View 63rd Street Hub in a larger map
Englewood Flyover. The name itself conjures a depressing image. Come and work on this short-term project; help us build the means for greater economic opportunity to more efficiently pass you by. Instead of temporary projects and a trio of trains that don’t interact, why not create a transit hub? Add stations on the Rock Island and the Green Line and connect them to the existing Red Line station. The distance is probably too great between the Red Line and Metra’s tracks to create a single building, but why not a pedway? Whatever the logistic difficulties, they have to be less frustrating than the current arrangement.
A transit hub at 63rd would immediately link half a dozen urban communities in an entirely new way. It could potentially breathe life into a branch of the Green Line that has struggled. It offers the possibility of permanent jobs and long-term economic growth. It gives people a reason to stop in Englewood and engage with the community.
It’s too much to claim that a project like this would fix all of Englewood’s problems. But if the map were redrawn, if there were an official depiction of Englewood as a worthwhile place, it could spark the imaginations of people who’ve never considered the area before. With most of the infrastructure already in place, surely it’s worth a shot.
Humboldt Park: The Innovative Hub
The 606 (nee the Bloomingdale Trail) is a new urban park project centered on an abandoned elevated freight line. When it opens next fall, it will provide the public a 2.7 mile recreational path. Cyclists, rollerbladers, joggers and walkers will have a new venue to enjoy. The path runs west from Ashland to Ridgeway, just north of North Avenue.
Per the 606 website, the trail end at Ridgeway offers “easy access to Metra.” That’s not exactly true. What the trail end offers is easy access to Metra tracks, specifically the Milwaukee North, Milwaukee West and North Central lines. The nearest Metra station is about 3/4 miles away. This neighborhood, just west of Humboldt Park, lies in a transit blind spot. The nearest CTA train, the Blue Line, is up in Logan Square. Adding a station to the Metra lines would give residents direct, reliable access to downtown and O’Hare.
View 606 Trail Head in a larger map
A station at North and Ridgeway would do more than offer service to a neglected area. It would foster a new kind of connectivity. Chicago’s bike trail system has expanded dramatically in recent years; imagine if it were linked to the mass transit system in a meaningful way. Humboldt Park could serve as the template for a uniquely Chicago brand of park and ride – the trail-to-rail model.
This could also provide the city’s newest semi-public transit service, Divvy, with a perfect excuse to expand westward. If a Divvy station were added near the Ridgeway trail end, the 606 – with its interconnected system of parks, visitor-friendly adjoining neighborhoods and beautiful views of the Chicago skyline – could draw day-trippers from the west and northwest suburbs. This could boost Metra’s ridership at non-peak times and help an ambitious public project live up to its full potential.
Ravenswood Avenue: The Logical Hub
Metra’s Union Pacific North tracks march along Ravenswood from Diversey almost to Touhy. For a mile-and-a-half stretch of this run, they are practically spitting distance from the CTA’s Brown Line. This section of the Brown Line includes stations at Addison, Irving Park and Montrose. This section of the Union Pacific includes no stations. Perversely, almost spitefully, the UP-North’s Ravenswood station is at Lawrence, just past the point where the CTA tracks turn west.
View Ravenswood Corridor in a larger map
This exercise in miscommunication is more than just obnoxious; it’s inconvenient to anyone trying to reach destinations downtown north of the river. The UP-N terminates at Union Station, notoriously cut off from the Loop tracks and State and Dearborn subways. A North Side transfer point would allow for easier access to River North and Michigan Avenue; even arguably to places like the Museum Campus and Millennium Park. Chicago residents outside the Ravenswood neighborhood would likewise gain easy access to North Shore attractions like the Northwestern campus, the Baha’i temple and Ravinia.
This problem could be addressed two ways. The existing Ravenswood station could move south to Montrose. This would create a hub in bustling Lincoln Square, close to attractions like the Old Town School of Folk Music. Alternatively, a station could be added to the Metra line between the existing Ravenswood and Clybourn stations. The obvious candidate is Addison, which would give North Shore Cubs fans a new route to Wrigley Field. At either the Addison or Montrose locations, the two train lines could be connected by something as simple as a pedestrian bridge. Remember, we’re living in the time of the single-fare system so transferring between CTA and Metra won’t require significant infrastructure.
This radical idea of fixing one’s eyes on a map has been used before. Several years ago someone looked at a f—ing map and realized the Roosevelt elevated station could be linked with the Red Line tunnel. The result is a vibrant hub that feeds travelers to the Museum Campus. There’s no reason not to look for similar opportunities throughout Chicago’s transit network.
This post originally appeared in the Beachwood Reporter on October 15, 2013.