Tuesday, January 28th, 2014
[ 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.