With New Year’s on the horizon, a concerted effort to minimize our carbon footprint will undoubtedly float to the top of a lot of people’s resolution lists. But while people will bicker about saving the world by going vegetarian or nothing mattering because a handful of companies belching out most of the greenhouses gases anyway, the absolute easiest thing you can do to shrink your carbon footprint is to simply drive less. Plus, while well-minded people will continue to walk a fine line between “every little thing helps” and “some changes are actually worse for the environment than just doing things the old way,” spending less money on fuel and oil changes directly goes to your personal bottom line and makes the savings more apparent.
For city folks, this is nothing new. Most city-dwellers in transit-rich areas know car ownership is more folly than freedom, given high costs of parking, urban traffic congestion, and so on. But for those of us out in the suburbs, driving is more than a way of life: it’s how our communities were constructed.
Take, for example, the RTA’s Halloween promo, asking commuters how scary Chicago would be without transit. A fun little reminder of the important role transit plays in our region, and part of the constant drumbeat to get more funding from Springfield. But here’s an important thing to consider: that video was shot just outside the Blue Line subway, likely interviewing transit riders who just got off CTA trains. Transit riders know how important transit is, for obvious reasons; people in downtown Chicago, an area literally built around the Loop Elevated and hemmed in by commuter rail lines know it more than anyone.
But out in the suburbs? I’d like to see the RTA do a similar video out at Woodfield Mall or along Randall Road or any of the other suburban shopping meccas. According to the Active Transportation Alliance, a whopping 92% of suburban workers don’t use transit. Imagine life without transit, the RTA asks, not acknowledging that for the vast majority of our region, life without transit is the only life they know. I’ve personally been very disappointed – and if you follow Star:Line on Twitter you already know – how the RTA and Metra frames suburban transit as something that makes it easier for drivers to drive in an effort to get drivers to support increased funding for transit.
It’s 2018 in the Chicago suburbs. We treat driving as this immutable fact of life, as if we didn’t build a massive highway and freeway infrastructure from the ground up only within the last sixty years or so. Railroads and surface transportation companies, which transformed Chicago from a marshy trading post at the mouth of a small river to the second-largest city in the country in a century, now have to go to voters, hat in hand, begging for a few extra scraps under the guise of congestion relief on roads and freeways that were farmland a generation ago, and we all just go along with it. We use metrics like “delay” and “level of service” to define “acceptable” highway facilities, where the implication is that unless I’m hurtling down a concrete ribbon at speeds multiple times higher than what the human body has spent thousands of years evolving to handle in my two-ton metal death box, a solution requiring significant government intervention in funding and engineering is necessary.
Driving is unnatural. Obviously, you can make the same argument about riding a train or a bus, but we become different people when we’re driving a car. The human brain literally behaves differently when driving. And it makes sense: riding transit, or even getting a ride from a friend or an Uber, has an implicit handover of control that we do as a compromise to get to wherever we’re going. The train comes at this time; get on or get left behind. Your Uber is nine minutes away; your journey will not begin until then, and then someone else will drive you to your destination.
But when we drive? I’ll drive my car whenever I want, wherever I want. I control how fast I go; I control what route I take; and when I get there, I can leave whenever I want because my car is waiting for me right where I left it. This is the freedom our grandparents dreamt of growing up in crowded cities and the freedom our parents came to expect in new suburban subdivisions built just for them. But then, when congestion happens, it’s a personal affront to the driver. The other people in front of me are preventing me from doing what I want, and it MAKES ME MAD! I’m complaining to my village board and I’m calling my state representative: they spent all this money building me these roads all over the region and they don’t even have the common courtesy to keep them free of traffic.
In the meantime, as I write this post, I’m currently riding on a crowded Metra train that comes once every two hours on Saturday nights. I took a Pace bus that doesn’t have timed transfers to the train, so I sat by myself in a modest shelter waiting 20 minutes in 40° weather for the train. I do this because I prefer not to drive (and, let’s be honest, it’s an extremely on-brand thing for me to do). I’m heading to a bar back in Itasca to drink and be merry with close friends. One of said friends – who shall remain nameless – lives two blocks away from the bar and drives to the bar every time. He works out religiously and brags about how far he runs through the neighborhoods, but ask him to walk to the bar and he stares at you like you grew an appendage in the center of your forehead.
If the RTA is going to refine their pitch to suburbanites, they should stop asking people to imagine the region without transit, but to start imagining the region WITH transit. Imagine a suburban Chicago where you don’t need a car. Imagine a transit network that did more than take people downtown on weekday mornings and back to the suburbs on weekday afternoons. Imagine living in a region with enough transit that you don’t need to plan your entire night around when the trains come. Imagine a bus home waiting for you when the train stops. Imagine not having to do the suburban drop-off-of-shame, when you have to find a ride back to the bar at 10am on Sunday to pick up the car you (smartly) left there the night before.
It’s Christmas time, a time of year to dream and believe. And it’s Chicago: dream big.
It’s the observed Veterans Day for state employees, so I had the day off. Knowing this, a few weeks back I scheduled a doctor’s appointment for today so I can save some of my sick time. However, what I didn’t foresee was my car crapping out. My wife and I each have our own car, but we’ve been talking about becoming a one-car family, and for the foreseeable future we will be: I think it’s an electrical issue with my car, which is a 1999 Chrysler Sebring with 194,000+ miles. Combine that with the fact that we purchased a house this summer in a transit-friendly area, and there’s a very, very strong chance that I’ll just donate the car to charity rather than spend money on trying to get it up and running again. My initial goal was to get 200,000 miles out of the car before it bit the dust, but, like most things in life, fate apparently had other plans.
But that got me thinking: my house is in Forest Park; my doctor’s office is in Hoffman Estates not far from St. Alexius Medical Center and a brief walk away from Pace’s new Barrington Road park-and-ride facility. What better way for me to practice what I preach than by actually taking transit instead of driving? Honestly, I could just change doctors — both Loyola and Rush Oak Park Hospitals are way closer to home and both much more transit-friendly — but if you’ve ever dealt with doctors (or the American medical system as a whole) you know that once you have something that actually works you’ll be willing to jump through some hoops to make it work.
In honor of Veterans Day, I wanted to try something a little different. According to the Census Bureau, there are an estimated 328,535 veterans living in the Chicago metro area; of those, 85,447 — or 26% — have a disability, compared with only 10.9% of non-veterans (675,108 disabled out of 6,147,190 non-veterans 18 or older). Furthermore, the Census Bureau estimates that 22.315 Chicago-area veterans live in poverty. Also today, the Better Government Asssociation released a deep-dive article on the Village of Dolton and highlighting the plight of suburban poverty. Suburban poverty is real, it’s pervasive, and it’s growing. Pile on the ever-looming threat of climate change, constricted operations funding and capital budgets, and all the other negatives we generally already know about car-centric planning and design, and a sustainable, efficient suburban transit system has never been more important of a pressing need.
So today, I’m posting a thought experiment: how would my off day be different based on my transportation options? Below is a tick-tock of my day running in parallel: in the red universe I drove a car; in the blue universe I used transit. Enjoy.
6:30am: My alarm goes off. I faintly hear my wife downstairs leave for her teacher training in Naperville, taking the car with her. My alarm usually goes off at 6:30am on workdays; most days I hit snooze a few times and roll out of bed around 7 or so. Today will be no different. I left the alarm on because I know I have to get up at a decent hour to catch my first bus of the day. (So much for sleeping in on my off-day.)
6:30am: I instinctively wake up around 6:30am, even though I turned the alarm off before I went to bed last night. (So much for sleeping in on my off-day.) I roll over and fall back asleep.
6:39am: Alarm goes off. I hit the snooze. I roll over and fall back asleep.
6:48am: Alarm goes off. I hit the snooze. I roll over and fall back asleep.
6:57am: Alarm goes off. I hit the snooze. Before I roll over and fall back asleep, I do some quick mental math in my head: my appointment is in Hoffman Estates at 11:20am, so as long as I make it to Rosemont by 10:00am I should be fine. Which means I need to leave here by 8:45am to give myself enough time to get up there. So I can stay in bed until 7:45 or so. Cool. I roll over and fall back asleep.
7:06am: Alarm goes off. I hit the snooze. I roll over and fall back asleep.
7:15am: Alarm goes off. Alright, fine, I’ll get up. After I check Facebook.
7:15am: Ah, sleeping in. I’ll get up right after I check Facebook.
7:45am: Just one more FailArmy video, then I’ll get in the shower. As long as I’m at Rosemont by 10:15am I’ll be fine.
7:45am: Just one more FailArmy video, then I’ll get in the shower.
8:02am: Eh, as long as I’m at Rosemont by 10:30am I’ll be fine.
8:07am: Okay, fine, I’m up. Time for a shower.
8:45am: Okay, fine, I’m up. Time for a shower… after one more Facebook video.
8:50am: I’m dressed and out the door, heading to the bus stop at Harlem and Fillmore. If I miss the bus, so be it, there’s another one 15 minutes behind it. I’ll grab breakfast at McDonald’s.
8:59am: As I approach the intersection of Harlem and Fillmore, I see the 307 bus zoom past. Cool. I head to McDonald’s. It’s a little chilly this morning, but a few extra steps won’t kill me.
9:03am: I order a sausage burrito and a medium soda. I drink too much soda, I think to myself. But at least I walked here.
9:05am: They forgot to give me a hot sauce packet. I go back to the counter and ask for one. No big deal.
9:10am: Okay, NOW I’m up. Time for a shower.
9:10am: I head over to the bus stop when the Transit Tracker in the Ventra app says the bus will come in five minutes. I notice this bus only goes to Harlem/Lake and not all the way to Elmwood Park, but I’ll still be able to transfer to the 90 without a problem.
9:15am: I board the 307 and head towards Oak Park. I browse Twitter for awhile.
9:28am:The bus gets into Oak Park and drops us off right by the Green Line terminal. Two other riders and I walk over to the waiting #90-Harlem bus. This is a nice transfer during the cold months, especially when the bus is waiting for you.
9:29am: My wife texts me to let me know our friend who is pregnant with twins knows her due date, and it’s the same day as her husband’s birthday and their daughter’s birthday! Life is funny some times. How great would it be if they all ended up having the same birthday?
9:29am: My wife texts me. I’m in the shower and don’t notice the text until I leave the house.
9:33am: The 90 pulls out onto Harlem and starts the trip towards the other Harlem Blue Line station.
9:40am: The 90 (and the 307 bus, for that matter) aren’t too bad on Harlem south of North Avenue where the road is five lanes wide, but once that lane drops off it becomes a slog. It’s a bit of a contradiction in terms of Complete Streets planning: a lot of transportation planners don’t mind having some on-street parking since it creates a buffer wall between moving traffic and pedestrians on the sidewalk, but for transit riders the bus has to continuously move in and out of moving traffic, slowing down travel times. In the meantime, on Harlem’s five-lane sections, the bus simply stops in the right lane to pick up and drop off passengers. Car drivers don’t like it and it’s probably caused plenty of rear-end collisions, but it makes for an easier trip for transit riders and bus operators. Either way, this is a great time to point out the near-complete lack of higher-speed north-south transit routes in our region outside of downtown.
9:50am: It should take me about 45 minutes or so to make the drive up to the doctor’s office, but I do need to stop for gas and grab a quick breakfast, so I’ll head over to the gas station now.
9:54am: We’ve made it three miles in the last fifteen minutes. I don’t know how people do this all the time.
9:54am: $30 to fill up the tank?! I don’t know how people do this all the time.
10:00am: I go into the McDonald’s drive thru and order a sausage burrito and medium soda. I drink too much soda, I think to myself. I’ll go for a walk later to make up for it.
10:02am: They forgot to give me a hot sauce packet. Of course they did.
10:06am: Made it to the Harlem Blue Line. According to the CTA’s train tracker displays, the next outbound train comes in six minutes. Not bad.
10:06am: I merge onto 290 at Des Plaines Avenue, and it’s slow going. “There is a six minute delay due to congestion. You are still on the fastest route.” Thanks Google. Piece of shit Ike traffic.
10:11am: My wife texts me again to ask how I’m feeling (I’m fighting off a mild cold) and to wish me luck at the doctor’s office. I’m a lucky guy.
10:11am: My wife texts me again. I don’t notice because my phone is sitting on the passenger seat.
10:12am: I board a standing-room-only Blue Line train headed toward O’Hare. An interesting mix of people: travelers with suitcases, airport workers with brightly-colored safety vests on, a few office workers in suits get off at Cumberland. The Blue Line is an interesting place no matter what time of day it is.
10:12am: The Ike starts to open up a bit after 25th Avenue. As usual.
10:20am: I exit the train at Rosemont. I’d love a bottle of water right about now — but the vending machine is broken. Oh well. I have a few options for buses to Barrington Road: the 603 and 605 will both get me there. Looks like I missed the 10:02am 605 (maybe sleepy-me was right, I should’ve gotten to Rosemont by 10:00am), but the 603 comes at 10:34am. Good enough.
10:21am: I drive through the work zone between Route 83 and I-355. The signs say “work zone speed limit 45” but no one is going slower than 60. Slow down in work zones, you dicks.
10:26am: The 603 pulls into Rosemont. I hop on and settle in to one of the comfy seats. Kudos to Pace for reclining seats, WiFi, and USB chargers on their new I-90 express buses.
10:29am: I have determined that none of the USB chargers on this bus work. Oh well.
10:33am: I miss the westbound tollway ramp because everyone who fucking drives is a fucking asshole who won’t let anyone else merge into traffic even though it’s a fucking cloverleaf and the entire fucking point is that everyone has to fucking weave in and out. Everyone sucks except me. I exit at Algonquin Road and double-back to the tollway on 53.
10:34am: We leave Rosemont on time. I’m almost caught up on Twitter.
10:48am: As we pass IDOT’s office, I look around at the drivers on the tollway around me. They seem sad, buckled into their little metal boxes. I wonder if they wish they didn’t have to drive.
10:48am: As I pass IDOT’s office, I look over and see a Pace bus in the right lane. The riders on board must be sad, trapped in that big metal box that only comes once an hour. I wonder if they wish they were driving.
10:52am: I exit at Barrington Road and pass the new Pace park-and-ride station. I still need to get out there sometime to check it out for the blog.
10:53am: The bus dropped me off at the new Barrington Road park-and-ride, which honestly is a pretty good-looking facility. I’ll make sure to explore it a bit on my way back home.
10:56am: I park at the doctor’s office and check in. I haven’t been here since last September, so there’s the usual clipboard of paperwork to fill out.
11:05am: I finish with the paperwork and bring it back to the desk clerk. Now I finally get to check my Twitter feed.
11:07am: Of course, the only stretch without a sidewalk between the bus station and the doctor’s office is in the doctor’s office parking lot. Typical suburbia. But hey, I’m on time!
11:08am: I check in at the doctor’s office. I haven’t been here since last September, so there’s the usual clipboard of paperwork to fill out.
11:16am: I get called into the exam room. I’ll finish the paperwork in there after the nurse takes my vitals.
11:16am: I get called into the exam room.
12:05pm: All good at the doctor’s office. Time for a nice lunch at Garibaldi’s. Mmm… pizza.
12:05pm: All good at the doctor’s office. Time for a nice lunch at Garibaldi’s. Mmm… pizza.
12:50pm: Time to walk back to the bus station.
12:50pm: Time to walk back to my car.
12:53pm: I know I’m going to hit traffic on 290 near 294, so I’ll just take the tollway home.
12:59pm: Back at the Pembroke entrance to the Barrington Road park-and-ride, time to do a deep dive. I’m a little underwhelmed at the dial-a-ride and circulator bus stops on Pembroke Avenue. Oddly, there’s no crosswalk, so I’m not sure how ADA-accessible this location can be.
1:02pm: The southern access to the main bus stop is, uh, not terribly welcoming. Riders have to walk through basically oversized culverts to access the platforms along the tollway main line; what’s worse, the lights haven’t been installed yet, so it feels dark and dank all the time. Of course, the lights in the north tunnel to the park-and-ride are installed and ready to go: it is, after all, a park-and-ride facility, so the station is oriented far more strongly for drivers driving to the station than any pedestrians walking there from nearby.
1:04pm: The stops themselves are functional, but two things struck me: (1) lighting at the platforms use the same high-mast lighting used elsewhere on the tollway, so everything still feels scaled at the automobile level rather than at the pedestrian level, and (2) there is literally no place to sit. No benches at the platforms, in the stairwells, or even on the skybridge across the highway. Seems like a glaring oversight for a transit facility, although hostile architecture in transit isn’t exactly unheard of these days.
1:06pm: I finally found the bus tracker displays: they’re upstairs in the skybridge, which seems like a really weird place for them. Generally it makes sense to have tracker displays in places where people, you know, wait for transit. Not that it matters: one had a slideshow on loop from the grand opening; the other is the Windows 10 idle screen.
1:07pm: This view makes me miss the tollway oases, which are becoming endangered.
1:07pm: A slight delay as the left lane is closed; workers are putting the center pillar in for a future interchange with Interstate 490. This is what they destroyed the Des Plaines Oasis for. I miss that oasis.
1:11pm: I head over to the north side of the station and walk over to the park-and-ride lot. Pretty decent usage for a Monday that some people have off. Overall it looks nice, but it’s still a parking lot.
1:13pm: Pace sprung for a $8.4 million pedestrian bridge over the tollway but didn’t invest in covered bike parking? That’s a missed opportunity.
1:15pm: Here’s a few future local bus bays on the north side of the station. As someone who works along Central Road, I’m extremely interested in new service in that corridor, since the current service kinda sucks.
1:17pm: Hitting traffic as I take the ramp to southbound I-294. So many trucks! And doesn’t anyone in this city work any more?!
1:19pm: Alright, back on the eastbound platform waiting for my bus. That’s enough deep-diving for today. But, uh, looks like Pace forgot where one of their routes goes after they made the signs.
1:25pm: Since the bus trackers aren’t working yet inside, I’ll text in to see when the next bus comes.
1:26pm: Another missed opportunity: a brand new station with brand new everything, and the schedules are the same old Pace-standard printed handouts on a corkboard. Functional? I suppose, but inconvenient and not terribly easy to read. Just make a chronological list of buses regardless of route or destination specific to that station and be done with it. It seems to work at Metra’s downtown stations on the video monitors; it probably would work just as well in print at outlying stations. Give people credit: most people can read a single chronology and understand two different timelines within it. (Hopefully.)
1:30pm: There are three routes that serve this stop at this time of day:
The 603 from Elgin to Rosemont runs hourly; next bus at 1:32pm.
The 605 from Randall Road to Rosemont runs hourly; next bus at 1:59pm.
The 607 from Randall Road to Schaumburg runs every half hour; next bus at 1:32pm.
For the two routes to Rosemont, it’s good to see that they’re somewhat balanced in terms of headway; but the 603 and 607 arriving at exactly the same time doesn’t make any sense at all.
1:30:30pm: RIP to the O’Hare Oasis too as I pass by it. Really miss those oases. And this traffic… ugh.
1:31:00pm: Actually, it does make sense: assuming both buses are present at the same time, riders can transfer from the bus from Elgin to the bus to Schaumburg.
1:31:30pm: Nope, back to not making sense, since the 554 runs that route anyway without requiring a transfer.
1:32:00pm: Definitely doesn’t make any sense, since the 607 came and left without waiting for the 603.
1:32:30pm: Luckily the 603 was right behind it, and I’m back on my way.
1:50pm: While I was a little underwhelmed with the Barrington Road station, definite kudos to Pace and the tollway for the I-90 offerings. Service is quick and headways aren’t awful; the rolling stock is pleasant; and at the standard $2.25 fare it’s economical too. This service should be the nail in the STAR Line’s coffin. I’m back at Rosemont now… I have some time to kill and I’m up here, maybe I’ll head over to O’Hare to check out the new rental car facility.
1:51pm: FINALLY made it back home — crawling at 25 miles per hour on I-290 is brutal. Driving in traffic stresses me out. I’ll fire up the Xbox for a bit, that should calm my jangled nerves.
1:52pm: Blue Line is shut down due to an “animal on the tracks”; no trains between Harlem/Higgins and O’Hare. So much for checking out Lot F. The CTA employees say a shuttle bus will be arriving “shortly”.
1:54pm: Hmmm… Grand Theft Auto or Battlefield?
1:56pm: The 303 pulled up. I’ll just take the bus back home instead of exploring more and waiting for a shuttle bus that may or may not come.
1:57pm: Definitely Battlefield 1. I drove enough today. Plus, you know, the armistice and everything.
2:06pm: The bus leaves Rosemont. I start a tweetstorm about the lack of communication between CTA and Pace.
2:11pm: More tweets. I realize I’ve been slacking on the blog. I should do an update tonight.
2:20pm: I forgot how slow these north-south routes are. Definitely going to blog tonight.
2:25pm: Oh man, we haven’t even reached the slow part of the route yet. I wonder what time I’ll get home. Actually, I wonder what time I would’ve gotten home if I just drove.
2:25pm: That was a bullshit loss. Come on, this one will be a win.
2:29pm: That would be a fun Diverging Approach post, racing myself in different modes of transportation.
2:40pm: Even with their main street closed at the railroad tracks, Melrose Park’s downtown is still busy. I need to come back here some time next time I’m feeling Mexican food.
2:49pm: You know, Maywood’s got a lot of potential. Although I can only imagine what this area would be like today if the Eisenhower Expressway construction didn’t kill the interurban.
2:58pm: Arrived at the Forest Park Blue Line terminal. Hopped on the train to Harlem (the Forest Park one) to save a few minutes.
3:01pm: Arrived at Harlem. Walking home. The weather is brisk, but pleasant walking weather.
3:13pm: Maybe I’m just bad at video games. Losing isn’t fun.
3:14pm: I got home and pulled out the laptop. This will be a good blog post. But honestly, I’m glad that’s a trip I only have to make a few times a year. Suburb-to-suburb transit trips are definitely challenging. Even today — a midday trip on a Monday when most people are working — a 45-minute doctor’s appointment took the better part of the day in transit using five different bus lines and two trains. There’s still a long way to go, but Pace’s new Barrington Road station is a great start to improving our suburban transit network.
3:14pm: Today kind of sucked. But at least I didn’t have to deal with Pace.