Diverging Approach: A Tale of One City

In terms of Chicago-area transit, these are the best of times, and these are the worst of times.

Today, the Metropolitan Planning Council released their Transit Means Business report, which is an interesting read that puts hard numbers on the anecdotal data many of us in the transit world already know: businesses generally like being close to transit. More jobs are created at businesses close to transit, workers don’t particularly enjoy driving, businesses are willing to pay higher rents to be closer to transit, and so on. The event itself was hosted by McDonald’s in their new West Loop headquarters; the Golden Arches’ relocation from Oak Brook to the Fulton Market area is something of a feather in outgoing Mayor Emanuel’s cap.

Meanwhile, Pace wants to cut fourteen routes next year due to low ridership. Metra’s banging the Doomsday drum as loud as they can to try to rustle up more financial help from Springfield. The CTA is mostly stagnant on the budget front as ridership falls. The RTA, which oversees the three agencies, is still trying to make the #InvestInTransit hashtag trend on social media. The transit agencies are sounding the alarm: our region’s transit network is at risk, and Springfield hasn’t passed a capital funding bill since 2009. The advocates, like MPC and Active Trans, are writing the white papers to defend increased public funding as fast as they can.

And yet…

Does the average Metra rider see Eisenhower-era cars as a hot enough fire that needs putting out with new taxes? Do CTA riders see perennially-postponed line extensions as simply the cost of doing business when the CTA has a pretty impressive track record at reinvestment in the fleet and the existing infrastructure? Do Pace riders take the cut routes as simply an evolution in travel patterns as Pace focuses on more “premium” service on I-55 and I-90?

If you’re reading this, I know I’m preaching to the choir: our transit system is falling apart, and we need more funding. If you ride our trains and buses, you know that the system works, but it’s generally nothing to write home about. I started this blog to advocate for better suburban transit, because that’s generally a constituency without a voice. Our official stance is that there’s plenty of great suburban travel options out there that allow suburbanites to be less reliant on their cars, but also we believe the suburban transit agencies can do more within their existing structures and budget constraints to improve suburban transit offerings.

But why did (well, does: I know I generally just shout into the void) that advocacy vacuum exist? Sure, there’s the @OnTheMetra crowd, but that Twitter presence doesn’t exactly translate to riders calling out Metra board members or showing up at Metra board meetings. Yes, their voices are being heard on Twitter, but it’s Twitter, one of the least-productive places on the Internet. Even the CTA doesn’t really have a dedicated rider’s union or advocacy group that exists out in New York or Los Angeles or D.C. or Boston. Sure, we have the Active Transportation Alliance, but Active Trans’s focus is overwhelmingly on, well, active transportation modes such as biking and pedestrian issues; transit is mostly an afterthought (although, to be fair, walking and biking are the two best ways to get to and from transit, so it’s obviously not entirely unrelated).

In light of all this, we have to consider an unfortunate truth that has probably never before been written about government units in Illinois: Are we too good at saving money? Does our transit network work TOO efficiently? Have our transit providers sufficiently managed expectations to a point where as long as a bus or train shows up when it’s supposed to and gets us where we’re trying to go in a decent amount of time that we just kind of roll with it? Unlike D.C. or New York, we haven’t had to have long-term line shutdowns for maintenance (and when we do, it’s for a total reconstruction). Unlike San Francisco, when new stations open, they aren’t almost immediately shuttered due to shoddy construction.

Metra hasn’t officially expanded their system since 2006. Halloween marks the 25th anniversary of the most recent new-alignment track the CTA opened. That’s not to say the agencies have been sitting in their hands, of course: Metra just opened its newest station earlier this year and is most of the way through a massive bridge replacement project on the UP-N, among other significant capital projects; since the Orange Line started service, the CTA rebuilt the Green Line, the Douglas Branch (and cobbled together the Pink Line from it), the Brown Line, the south branch of the Red Line, and enough of the Blue Line to get rid of most of the slow zones. We’ve gotten really, really good at making lemonade from decades of lemons.

But all that is just enough for us to get by, and not enough to truly modernize or have a system befitting a Global City in the 21st Century. Ridership is falling because we’re too busy trying to shove our 1990s square-peg infrastructure and service patterns into a 2010s round-hole region.

To be clear: there’s still so, so much our transit agencies can do with existing resources today that will bolster ridership and improve traveler satisfaction without additional help from Springfield or Washington, and that’s what I’ll keep advocating for here on this blog. I was more than a little dismayed at last month’s Metra board meeting, where a particular board member (Director Baldermann of Will County, starts around the 32-minute mark) expressed serious concerns about spending $350,000 a year for two years on a reverse-commute public-private partnership pilot project (Metra’s 2018 year-to-date operating budget is $19.7 million favorable to budget; both years of the pilot would cost Metra 3.6% of the extra money the board didn’t think they’d have right now) and followed up by going straight to potential “entire line” cuts instead of common-sense cost-neutral schedule modifications to grow ridership such as downtown pulse scheduling, coordinated transfers with Pace, or shorter weekend evening headways. (The irony of Will County’s representative making these comments when the Heritage Corridor and the southern tip of the SouthWest Service are almost certainly high on the potential cut list wasn’t lost on me.)

That said, we all know Metra can’t cut their way to prosperity, but also it’s important to acknowledge that just jockeying the same old trains around without actually adding any service will not generate a high level of sustainable ridership increases and revenues needed to keep Metra abreast of the demographic and workplace changes happening in our region. Our transit network is only treading water while the world moves on without us. The transit boards are sounding the alarm. The think-tanks are sounding the alarm. I’m sounding the alarm to our 56 fans on Facebook and 109 followers on Twitter. (Again: screaming into the void.) Our region can not afford to fall into the death spiral that other regions are dangerously approaching, and there’s absolutely no urgency from people outside of our professional transportation bubble. The region needs more of us – all of us, not just the usual transportation echo chamber – to demand more from our elected officials and to remind them that Chicago isn’t Chicago without the ‘L’, without our buses, and without Metra shuttling suburbanites to and from downtown.

Eventually, that will change. Something will inevitably happen that reminds our neighbors and our leaders why investing in our transportation network is imperative for our region’s success.

But by that point, it will be too late.

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