Tuesday, January 14th, 2014

Improving Chicago Public Transit Idea #2: Look At a Map by Natasha Julius

[ 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.

Topics: Transportation
Cities: Chicago

10 Responses to “Improving Chicago Public Transit Idea #2: Look At a Map by Natasha Julius”

  1. Mkyner says:

    Aren’t they planning to eventually reroute the Metra Southwest Service to LaSalle Station? That would be yet more access for the 63rd Street hub.

    Several more hub locations jump to mind.

    At the east end of the 606 trail, you’re not far from the Clyborne Metra stop (UP North and UP Northwest), the Kennedy, plus potentially the Ashland BRT.

    Around Sox/35th, you already have Red, Green and Metra stops within close proximity. Could these be better linked somehow to make it a true hub? This is also right on the Dan Ryan.

    Montrose and Cicero is another such location. It already has Blue Line and Milwaukee District North stations, though the UP Northwest line runs right through without stopping. One of CMAP’s financially unconstrained projects is extending the Brown Line westward nearby, which could also be brought to this potential hub. Plus this is right by the Kennedy/Edens junction.

    So many possibilities…

  2. Shaun says:

    The UP-N line terminates at Ogilvie, not Union station. While I think the Metra station at Ravenswood should be connected to the nearby L stations, I don’t think Metra is going to spawn any new hubs unless it runs more frequently, and as the author stated, begins to cooperate with CTA on fares. Then you could take Metra to there and switch to the Brown line, making the trip to the stations closer to Kimball even faster.

    I think a good alternative might be to put in a Metra station by the Paulina brown line stop and have people transfer between stations there.

  3. david vartanoff says:

    Couple against the grain thoughts. The 606 exactly like the High Line in NYC should have been exploited for transit. A restoration of CTA’s former Humboldt Park L on the viaduct could easily connect to the Blue Line where they cross. As to the Englewood flyover, another bad maneuver. NS should have been invited to re use the semi abandoned C&WI ROW eliminating the interference with Metra. Having every Metra train play roller coaster is silly.

    As to hubs, the Ravenswood L to UP-N connection is long overdue. The proposed new station at the west end of the 606 could be useful. I would add restoring the Green Line at least as far as an intermodal station for transfers to the Metra Electric andCTA buses.

  4. Robert Munson says:

    Lots of good ideas…
    If I have only one vote, I give it to David’s multi-use option for the east-west 606. It has the highest potential to be an inexpensive multiplier of transit use, starting from its east end… even if only during rush hours to share with bikers and walkers. The hub would connect 2 of the busiest METRA lines and the Ashland BRT.. with the Blue line only 3/4 mile west and the Brown/Red 3/4 mile east by shuttle. (Those are the 3 busiest CTA lines)

    The 606 is a particularly good multiplier because the area is either already vibrant or being redeveloped. Unfortunately, we don’t get this land use and transit synergy because no one agency is in charge.

    So, the park people carried the proposal and this great urban redevelopment potential was lost… or at least delayed until the surrounding car congestion gets bad enough for people to rethink the 606.

  5. pete-rock says:

    All are great ideas. But each requires a fundamental shift in perspective among our political leaders and transit agencies. Ever since the creation of our Chicago transit system its focus has been on taking people from outlying areas to the inner core. CTA and Pace have made strides in moving away from this kind of tunnel vision, but don’t have the funds to drastically change it. Metra may actively want to keep things the way they are because it serves their suburban constituency.

    A nodal approach won’t emerge until leaders fully understand there’s more to do with transit than go into the city and go right back out.

  6. There’s already something of a Metra/CTA hub at Davis in Evanston. This is where North Shore residents going to or from Cubs games transfer. With express purple line trains it’s not too bad of a time hit if you’re going to the east side of the loop either. I agree though that an Addison station on UP-N would be a good connection to the brown line.

  7. myb6 says:

    There’s a small fortune being spent on the new Ravenswood stop, no way that’s moving. But an additional stop at Addison is ok, though Irving Park might get BRT in the future and that connection would be more valuable. There’s also potential for a value-capture-financed station at Diversey which currently lacks any decent transit.

    Cicero/Montrose has a lot of potential, I agree with Mkyner.

    I’d like to remind everyone that, as Jarrett Walker has expounded on, for transit a hub system actually makes a lot of sense. People get frustrated with our hub because Loop transit is crazy slow and many transfer points are poorly designed, hurting Loop commuters X but hurting any transfering riders 3X+. There’s a lot of room for network/systemic improvement here too. Walking-pace buses, slow-zone rapid transit with junction-crossings and awkward transfers, and isolated commuter stations kill the Loop’s hub value.

  8. Alan Robinson says:

    Along a similar line, it makes a lot of sense for the CTA to forcibly take over the Metra Electric. The majority of it’s infrastructure lies in the City of Chicago, along with the having a very large number of existing riders in the corridor. I know the Grey line and Gold line plans have the CTA take over the South Chicago branch, but why not just take over the whole thing. The additional expense of serving the suburban stations once an hour can be more than made up by the benefits to riders in the city.

  9. david vartanoff says:

    Agree, give Metra Electric to CTA. But also implement Hegewisch to Millenium service w/an infill station at 130th by Bishop Ford. This latter w/ a circulator shuttle would finally give Altgeld Gardens a path to the outside at decent speeds. All of this hinges on making ME run with rapid transit headways as it did before the Dan Ryan highway opened. There really is no reason not to fully integrate the various transit systems fpor greater flexibility and utility since they are all tax supported.

  10. Nathanael says:

    The problem with 63rd St. is the sheer stack of bridges. It makes it difficult to add platforms when all the tracks are 40 feet in the air, or more, on bridges not designed to have platforms, on top of roads and other railroads.

    The route which could most easily get a 63rd St. station is the Amtrak route, which isn’t much help for urban travel.

    Maybe when the time comes that the Green Line elevated needs to be rebuilt, a station could be added.

    As for Ravenswood — a UP-N station interchanging with the Brown Line is both relatively cheap and *obvious*. It should be done ASAP.

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