Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

Improving Chicago Public Transit Idea #4: Put the Public In Public Transit by Natasha Julius

[ This is the last part in Natasha Julius’ four-part series on Chicago transit that originally ran in the Beachwood Reporter. If you missed them you can go back and read part one, part two, and part three – Aaron. ]

The demise of the Jackson Park Green Line has been in the news recently due to Mayor Emanuel’s proposal to rename Stony Island Avenue in honor of Bishop Arthur Brazier. Most of these stories have focused on the 1997 demolition of the elevated structure east of Cottage Grove. However, the struggle over the last leg of track began much earlier.

In a sense, the Jackson Park line was always disposable. Built to serve the World’s Fair in 1893, the tracks originally extended into the park itself. The line was awkwardly and unceremoniously hacked off at Stony Island shortly after the Fair ended, and Stony remained the terminal for nearly 90 years.

View Former Jackson Park Line in a larger map

In March 1982, the line was closed south of 59th Street after a routine inspection discovered that the bridge over the Illinois Central (now the Metra Electric District) tracks at Dorchester and 63rd was no longer safe. It was around this time that calls for the demolition of the line beyond Cottage Grove began to grow louder. Ultimately, Mayor Jane Byrne decided the line was worth saving. It reopened as far east as University in December of that year, with plans to extend the line to Dorchester and build an intermodal transfer hub.

It is important to note that the rehabilitation of the Jackson Park line continued until 1994. In fact, part of the demolition order passed in 1996 involved forgoing some $9 million in federal grants and asking the feds to forgive $9 million that had already been spent. There is a lot to be said about the influence of clout in the CTA’s decision, but at its heart this is a story about the failure of the city to treat its transit assets as a public service.

This failure, which continues to color transportation policy to this day, leaves the entire system vulnerable to the whims of politics and profit. Chicago under Jane Byrne saw value in the Jackson Park line; Chicago under Richard M. Daley did not. And so, no matter the commitments the earlier administration made, the prospect of demolition remained an easy and available option, a political chip to be played when the new administration saw fit. The Jackson Park line offered potential connectivity between the CTA and Metra, and between the lakefront and the neighborhoods on the interior. We could be talking today about the dedication of the Bishop Arthur Brazier intermodal transit hub, and about the very real unification of dozens of south shore communities. We are not, and in all likelihood we never will be.

This pattern repeats itself in ways large and small throughout the Chicagoland transit world. Think of the bus lines that were removed or truncated earlier this year; the buses are gone, but plenty of decorative bus shelters remain at key intersections so JCDecaux can rake in more advertising dollars. In this atmosphere, it’s difficult to view initiatives like the Ashland Avenue BRT corridor as serious attempts to address transit issues. Who’s to say the city won’t abandon that idea after a year or so, under the guise of disappointing ridership – leaving in place, of course, a new series of mini-billboards on the median of a major arterial street.

It would be so much snappier to call this piece “Put the Public BACK in Public Transit,” but that would assume that those responsible for planning our mass transportation systems at one time had the public’s best interest at heart. If the powers that be – including Governor Quinn’s blue-ribbon committee – are so inclined, they can begin to earn the trust of a cynical ridership by abiding by a few simple rules:

1. Stop putting train lines in inaccessible areas.Truly strong public transit systems support the communities through which they pass and offer maximum flexibility.” It’s worth reading this statement again, because at its best mass transit does more than shuffle people from point A to point B. It allows for the idea that point A, and point C and all the other points in between might be worthwhile places to explore and enjoy. Have you ever been to a Red Line station in the middle of the Dan Ryan? They are non-descript boxes sitting over miserable spits of concrete in the middle of a 10-lane highway. There is nothing about the experience that inspires the imagination; nothing that might tempt the individual to stay. And because the station entrances are mired in the midst of busy entrance and exits ramps, there is a heavy incentive not to engage with the local neighborhood.

The Red Line’s Dan Ryan branch and the Blue Line’s Forest Park branch are lingering symbols of just how disengaged Chicago had become from the idea of a functional public transit system. They were built with the idea that private cars should take pride of place, and that the convenience of individual drivers is more important than the needs of the larger community.

Many of the routes under discussion for future system expansions – and many of the routes discussed in this series – are former industrial lines that could end up divorcing themselves from their surroundings in similar ways. But if these rights-of-way are treated as true public spaces, they can be developed in a way that returns space to the people of this region.

2. Stop building stations where stations already exist. There is a long stretch on the Green Line without a station. It runs from Roosevelt on the north all the way down to Bronzeville. There is a natural inclination to add a station somewhere along that route.

When, however, that station is placed one block away from an existing Red Line station, and when it just happens to be right down the street from one of the mayor’s pet projects, you start to wonder if the placement truly reflects the needs of the traveling public.

View New Green Line station in a larger map

Wouldn’t a station further north, in an unserved neighborhood, make more sense? How about 18th Street, allowing easy access to Ping Tom Park and the southern entrance to Soldier Field? Or how about 16th Street where, just for the record, an abandoned rail right-of-way snakes directly into McCormick Place itself? The construction of new stations should always serve the public first, not the whims of private entities and especially not the egos of public officials.

3. Start putting stations where stations don’t already exist. If you’ve ever been to the United Center, visited the statue of Michael Jordan, and stared out across the parking lot toward Chicago’s majestic skyline, you’ve looked right at the Pink Line. And if the timing was right and you happened to spot a train approaching, you probably noticed it not stopping. Because there is no station there.

View Pink Line tracks in relation to United Center in a larger map

Every other major sporting venue in the city has train station within easy walking distance. In the case of Soldier Field, it’s a Metra line but once we kill Metra that won’t be a problem anymore. In the case of US Cellular Field, there’s three train stations within easy walking distance. Wrigley Field, of course, has the Addison station. Why would the CTA not put a station at the doorstep of a major cultural institution in a rapidly developing neighborhood (and, incidentally, within walking distance of one of the city’s premier selective enrollment high schools)? Once again, it’s difficult to explain in terms of public benefit.

4. Don’t stop looking at your map until public transit is relevant to every person living in the Chicagoland area. The continued failure of transit decision-makers to place the needs of this region’s commuters first has very real consequences. It has allowed agencies like the CTA to adopt a strategy of periodic retrenchment, gradually thinning services in some areas until they are no longer viable for many of the people who need them. And so those people find other ways to travel, and their abandonment of inadequate services is used as an excuse for further reductions.

Starting today, Chicago’s transit officials should adopt a new approach. Pull out a map, consider the neighborhoods that are underrepresented and the institutions that aren’t served, and start a program of strategic engagement. Focus on the smallest changes that will have the biggest impact on real people, the simple shifts that could make mass transit viable to entirely new populations. And don’t stop until everyone is served.

This post originally appeared in the Beachwood Reporter on October 18, 2013.

Topics: Transportation
Cities: Chicago

14 Responses to “Improving Chicago Public Transit Idea #4: Put the Public In Public Transit by Natasha Julius”

  1. David Holmes says:

    This article makes me curious as to whether there is a correlation between the magnitude of population losses in Chicago neighborhoods from 2000-10, and the degree to which they are underserved by the mass transit system. I imagine that if a challenging inner city neighborhood lacked even the advantage of some better access to the mass transit infrastructure, that this could be the final straw for at least some residents.

  2. david vartanoff says:

    First, renaming Stony Island for the bishop, NO WAY!. Second, of course the Green Line should be restored to a new multimodal station adjacent the Electric (which once the http://www.grayline.20m.com/ is implemented willgive Chicagoans many new travel options. Of course building from the Ashland 63rd Station to Midway would then offer much better access to South Siders (run Midway to Garfield, reverse run to Jackson Park.
    As to the restoration of the Cermak Road stop on the Green Line, this is just correcting an old mistake–CTA has a very bad habit of erasing L stations and entire branches when the bean counters haven’t taken enoughvalium. The RR on 16th St is not abandoned; that is the St Charles Air Line which connects the former IC’s Lakefront Line to the Omaha Line and various spurs on the West Side. If CN can be persuaded to give it up, it should immediately be taken over to serve Mc Place and part of the ROW given to CTA for a Lakefront to Med Ctr, United Center (restore the Paulina Connector) to O’Hare service.

    So, Yes, Natasha, is right, transit needs to pay more attention to gaps in the network.

  3. david vartanoff says:

    @ David Holmes. You bet. When I read about people commuting 1 1/2 to 2 hrs each way to work, I am appalled. (Part of the evil of the white flight of offices to the edge cities was in my view making it easier to filter out urban minority applicants who can’t afford cars) Think about Altgeld Gardens whose express bus connection was whacked in an early 90s service cut at CTA.

  4. pete-rock says:

    Let me offer a little insight on the Jackson Park Green Line. I worked for the City of Chicago in the planning department during the ’90s. The City and CTA did want to restore the Green Line to Stony at the time. But Bishop Brazier was a strong opponent of restoring the Green Line. He viewed the 63rd Street L as an impediment to revitalization in Woodlawn and wanted the tracks gone. He wanted to introduce single family residential to 63rd where possible (which he did to varying success) to replace the crumbling commercial there.

    Misguided thinking? Yes. But Bishop Brazier was a powerful political figure whose voice mattered to Mayor Daley.

  5. The lack of even any talk of a Pink Line station near the United Center has always perplexed me. I can understand potential public pushback when expensive new track needs to be laid, the projected usage of certain new stations would be speculative, or there is a large NIMBY quotient in place. However, none of that exists where that potential United Center Pink Line station would be and it would be an immediate benefit that both city residents and suburbanites can tangibly see and understand. If anything, the surrounding neighborhood badly wants that additional El access. It seems to such low hanging fruit for the CTA, yet I haven’t seen it discussed by any public officials lately.

  6. david vartanoff says:

    @ pete-rock What you say dovetails with what I was told by others. That Said, the vacant land from 63rd & Stony Island to the IC (Metra Electric) embankment is vacant rubble. Just another monument to Richard II.

  7. Eric says:

    “They are non-descript boxes sitting over miserable spits of concrete in the middle of a 10-lane highway. There is nothing about the experience that inspires the imagination; nothing that might tempt the individual to stay.”

    Come. On!

    Nobody takes transit for “inspiration”. They take it because it’s the fastest/cheapest way to get to their destination.

    Nobody wants to stay in the station. They want to get to their destination as fast as possible.

    Yes, it would be nicer if the Red Line weren’t in the middle of a freeway. It would make for a somewhat more pleasant commute, increase the opportunities for TOD, etc.

    But the Red Line currently exists. Whatever improved fantasy line you’re thinking of doesn’t, and would take billions of dollars to build.

    Have you thought about where those billions have come from?

    The planners you disparage have thought about this. They are aware that the available transit funding is much lower than you, or they, would like. In general, they evaluate new routes based on ridership per dollar spent, and similar objective measures. And they realize that not every route that looks good on the map can be built in the forseeable future.

    Rather than feel-good slogans like “don’t stop until everyone is served”, they are trying to serve as many people as possible, given the real constraints under which they work.

  8. Andrew says:

    With regards to the lines-in-medians, I think this post ignores the incredible difficulty of securing right-of-way. I don’t like taking the Red Line South very much either, and I think the Orange Line is misplaced on its railroad alignment (Bridgeport, for example, would be MUCH better served with a stop at Halsted/31st instead of Halsted/Archer) but I’m also not under any illusions that either of these would exist if the city/CTA had had to find entirely new rights-of-way for them.

  9. Alan Robinson says:

    There is a very serious problem in providing enough frequency on the south side Green line given the preeminence of the red line. This is especially true after it branches to Ashland and Cottage Grove. Unless a big source of ridership on the line is found or riders eschew the Red line, there’s not much point in extending the line to Cottage Grove.

    However, if the Green line was through routed with the ME South Chicago branch, or rerouted along 59th to serve the university and hospitals, ridership may be increased enough to support all day frequent service.

  10. Robert Munson says:

    In reviewing this series of 4 articles and its comments, they clearly serve well to stimulate the inner-transit-planner in most of us. I compliment Natasha for making interesting a very detailed topic… one I struggle with (if you will note my absence of posts from “The Urbanophile” since October.)

    Good stimulant also are Natasha’s principles in this last article. To take them to the level of being practical for the agencies who must make better decisions that serve riders and taxpayers alike, let me suggest three principles structuring my writing. I consider them the 3Rs of sustainable transit. Possibly Natasha’s series and various comments get condensed by these principles.

    #1: Realign government powers. There is a general consensus that land use and transit investments must be tied together tightly on the City and metropolitan levels. And it sure would be helpful if all 3 state transportation departments largely departed from metros.

    #2: Reinvent transportation. For this, realigned powers should be flexible enough to harness the private sector. Reinvention takes time, but should start now.

    #3: Reform the new powers. These new “agencies” should be independent and directly elected in informative campaigns using public funds.

    Realign. Reinvent. Reform. What think ye of these 3Rs?

  11. Nathanael says:

    Brazier was widely accused of being the mastermind behind the teardown of the Elevated.

    (If you dig up old articles you’ll find a LOT more about him being behind the teardown.)

    No way in hell should anything be named after him. Ever.

  12. Nathanael says:

    I see that “pete-rock” has firsthand experience of Brazier’s campaign to demolish the Jackson Park branch.

    The man’s actions were monstrous and he should certainly not be honored.

  13. Mkyner says:

    Robert, how would the Reform step be implemented in a place like metro Chicago where there’s such established political interest against reform?

  14. Robert Munson says:

    Thanks for asking.
    That 3Rs formula, I admit, is based mostly on my experiences in Chicago… which tends to be more extreme than most cities in terms of powerful mayors. Regardless of the city, the key is to have a mayor who is as interested in reform as in governing. Reform usually loses steam as the first term ages.

    But whatever your city’s situation, Reform is everyone’s responsibility. And if politicians resist reform, there are not many options for everyone to resist back… except to resist new taxes until effective reform comes. Silently, this largely is happening in Chicago and, I read, many other parts of the country. The opportunity for reform gets stronger as municipal budget crises become chronic… which is happening to many cities.

    To answer your question about what can be done: resist higher taxes until you get Reform in return. Call it a deal.

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