Diverging Approach: What’s NEXT?

The RTA’s pandemic-era strategic plan, Transit Is The Answer, recently dropped and is currently out for public comment through the weekend. As a whole, I think the strategic plan is well done and is very much appropriate for this moment in our region’s history. The strategic plan strikes the proper balance that every good strategic plan should strike: ambitious and visionary, while also realistic and clear-eyed about the notable challenges we need to overcome in the near future.

While the plan does spill a good amount of ink about the “whats” — what operational changes need to be made, what improvements need to be built, what issues need to be addressed — in my opinion the plan’s strengths really come from the “hows”, spending considerable time confronting the elephant in the room: funding and funding sources. Our pre-pandemic funding paradigm was shaky in its best years (I’m old enough to remember Metra raising fares to try to cover additional capital expenses and God knows how many CTA “doomsday” budgets), but now in the pandemic era where transit is going through something of an existential crisis (who saw that one coming?) as hybrid work becomes the norm for the white-collar workers who used to drop $200 a month on Metra monthly passes, the RTA’s existing 50% mandatory farebox recovery ratio seems like even more of a pipe dream.

It’s true that Transit Is The Answer focuses on funding at high levels, specifically focusing on ways to generate more revenue from public sources to reduce the three service boards’ reliance on farebox recovery, but it doesn’t go too deep on revenue changes at an agency-by-agency level. With the most complex fare system in the region, modernizing Metra’s fare structure seems ripe for the picking. In Metra’s defense, they’ve made some great moves in the pandemic era: the $10 Weekday Day Pass introduced in 2020 has been extremely successful, especially following the expansion of the program to include $6 Weekday Day Passes for three-zone trips, closing something of a “donut hole” the initial flat-fare $10 pass opened up. (While it’s unfortunate that Day Passes have since been locked behind the Ventra app “paywall”, the passes themselves are terrific additions to Metra’s fare structure.) The creation of the new flat-fare $100 Super Saver Monthly in 2022 — combined with the new $30 Regional Connect Pass that finally creates a unified three-agency all-day fare product — has been similarly successful, to the point where Metra’s board literally brought it back by popular demand for 2023.

Unfortunately, simpler is not always better. Similar to the Zone A-B donut hole initially formed by the $10 Day Pass rollout (the initial $10 Day Pass was still more expensive than a two-zone round-trip and thus offered no cost savings to city riders), the current structure also opens up some gaps in the system. For instance, the current distance-based 10-zone system for one-way trips (and cash round-trips), a 2-zone Day Pass system that requires a smartphone to access, and a flat-fare $100 systemwide monthly pass, provides far more value to riders in the collar counties than Zone A-C riders in the city and inner-suburban Cook County.

ZoneOne-Way Trips to Justify a $100 Super Saver MonthlyDay Passes to Justify a $100 Super Saver Monthly
This chart does not include Rock Island or Metra Electric fares, which are currently covered by the South Cook Fair Transit Pilot program. Note that Day Passes are more affordable than 10-Rides for all same-day round-trips, except in the South Cook Fair Transit Pilot area.

What makes this system unfortunate is that a Super Saver Monthly is required to be eligible for the Regional Connect Pass, and the current fare structure least-incentivizes the Zone A-C riders who would be most likely to benefit from all-month CTA and Pace use. The current fare zone structure also still doesn’t address larger issues, such as Metra’s most basic fare (a one-zone one-way, guaranteed to be less than five miles) is still twice as expensive as a comparable bus trip on CTA or Pace.

Since this is a time of transition and change, and with Metra likely going to a new fare structure of some sort in 2024 — Super Saver Monthly was intended to be a pilot program; Metra staff presented a new fare structure draft for 2023 before the board chose to extend the current structure through the year; and Metra is currently facing an unfunded budget gap once pandemic relief funding runs out in 2024-2025 — I decided to try my hand at a crayon for a totally new fare structure for Metra: the Near-term Equitable eXpress Ticketing (NEXT) Plan.


First and foremost: NEXT is what we on Transit Twitter call a “crayon”: while it reflects a larger plan and idea, it’s essentially just lines on a map, with no in-depth analysis performed in terms of how much revenue would be generated, what kind of ridership impacts it’d have, cost projections to implement, estimates of revenue-neutrality, or anything like that — I’m happy to leave those analyses to the professionals. The larger point of the exercise is to illustrate a concept and to spark conversations and discussions, rather than trying to gift-wrap an immediately-implementable product (although it is intended to be realistic and plausible). In this spirit, this plan also uses current* schedules and stopping patterns, and makes no recommendations or suggestions in terms of service changes. This plan also assumes that Metra’s overall fare collection systems and policies (conductor-based, Ventra app-compatible, new TVMs coming online this year, no integrated transfers with CTA/Pace beyond Regional Connect, etc.) would be maintained and does not make any recommendations for new fare media or fare infrastructure (e.g. tap-on/tap-off, fare gates, etc.).

(* NEXT was created prior to Metra’s recent announcement of new schedules for SouthWest Service trains. This plan and map have not been updated to accommodate the new schedule.)


Coming into this exercise, creating a more equitable fare system for Metra was at the forefront. As such, the following core principles were used:

  • Neighborhood-to-neighborhood and suburb-to-suburb trips should have (relative) fare parity with CTA and Pace local service. In parts of the city or inner suburbs where Metra functions as neighborhood-level rapid transit (e.g., Grand Avenue corridor between Franklin Park and Grand/Cicero, Rock Island Suburban Branch, both Metra Electric branches), costs should be comparable to CTA and/or Pace service.
  • Headways notwithstanding, Metra does offer a superior transit product when it comes to trips to and from the central business district. As such, price premiums for trips all the way to or from downtown are still warranted, although suburban passengers who board or alight outside downtown should have a lower fare absent of full transfer integration with the CTA.


Continuing the “equitable” goals from above:

  • Express trains should be priced at a premium to reflect the significantly higher quality of service, considering by their very nature they can only be utilized by collar-county commuters to and from the city and are also the most expensive style of service to operate while also excluding inner-suburban and city riders. Express trains also operate when driving to and from downtown is least competitive, when congestion is highest. In terms of times, the overall cost structure is entirely inverted: Metra’s shortest trip times are provided when road traffic is heaviest, and Metra’s longest trip times — all-stop off-peak trains — operate when road traffic is lightest. Imagine if, during the busy holiday season, the U.S. Postal Service offered Priority Mail, Express Mail, and Overnight shipping products all for the same price as a first-class stamp. That’s effectively how our commuter rail network is currently priced.
  • The corollary to the above is that collar county riders should not be charged higher fares off-peak or during reverse-commute periods when travel times on local trains to and from downtown are far less competitive relative to driving.


While fare parity for local trips and premium pricing for express trips are core parts of the plan, the plan was also created in an attempt to still overall simplify the existing fare structure. To do so, the ultimate fare table focuses on only six “levels”: three zone-based Basic Fares, and three distance-based Premium Fares. Additionally, not only are Premium Fares only required during the peak, they are also only required during certain parts of certain trips during the peak. For all other trips and segments, the three-zone Basic Fare structure applies at all times.

To further simplify the system, a comprehensive Train Directory is included that clearly identifies which trains use which types of fares, Basic or Premium. Additionally, Premium Fares are only required for transit through the express zone. Outside of the express zone — for instance, intermediate trips between suburbs, or between a city stop and the downtown terminal — Basic Fares are still valid.

The Map

This is what you came for. Click here to see a larger version of this image.

How it Works

At its core, NEXT compresses Metra’s existing ten-zone system into three basic zones, using Roman numerals:

  • Zone I is the downtown zone, and includes only the four terminals (plus Van Buren and Museum Campus on the Metra Electric).
  • Zone II is the inner zone, which includes the rest of Chicago and most of the inner suburbs. Generally, Zone II is the area that express trains do not serve.
  • Zone III is the outer zone, which generally encompasses all of the collar counties as well as some outlying parts of Cook County.

To expand the reach of one- or two-zone tickets, there are also two “flex zones” as well. In these flex zones, stations can be in either neighboring zone (with some exceptions) based on whichever zone is more advantageous to the rider.

  • Zone I/II can be in either Zone I or Zone II for all trips. This allows single-stop trips from the downtown core to be considered one-zone Zone I trips (and thus have comparable fares to the CTA), while also expanding the fare Zone II range for reverse commuters or “traditional” commuters who board/alight early to transfer to CTA for last-mile connections.
  • Zone II/III likewise can be in either Zone II or Zone III for local trips only. Zone II/III in the northern suburbs generally corresponds to suburban job centers (e.g. the Lake-Cook Road corridor or O’Hare), and in the South Suburbs allows for Rock Island/Metra Electric transfers between Joliet and University Park via Blue Island and Kensington to remain entirely in Zone III. On express trains, all Zone II/III stations are considered to be in Zone III, as all express zones begin (inbound)/end (outbound) in Zone III.

Using the latest version of our (in)famous Yard Social notation, trains are grouped into 52 different classifications, based on individual stopping patterns. (Note that, since Metra uses 142** unique stopping patterns — that’s not a typo, one hundred forty-two** unique stopping patterns — many trains shown above still make slightly different stopping patterns than what’s shown on this map.)

(** The number will tick up to 143 later this month once the new Palos Park express pattern starts operating on SWS.)

For a quick crash-course in this year’s Yard Social updated notation: each station is assigned a letter, which corresponds to a stopping pattern. Using the Rock Island as an example, stations are either “R” stations, “S” stations, or both. “R” trains will stop at (most) “R” stations but not “S” stations; “S” trains will stop at “S” stations but not “R” stations, and “RS” trains will stop at both “R” and “S” stations. All-local trains are shown with a circular background; express trains are shown with a diamond background. Symbols shown in full-color operate both peak and off-peak; symbols shown in dark gray only operate during the peak, and symbols shown in light gray only operate at select times during the peak. With a more comprehensive branding effort, these symbols can easily be appended to individual trains in printed media like schedules (and our Weekend Guides, which admittedly haven’t been updated in way too long, although weekend schedules have not changed since their last update).

This dovetails into NEXT, since “diamond” express trains will require Premium Fares through the express zone, while “circle” local trains only need Basic Fares for the entire trip. Express zones are assigned one of three classifications, increasing in price for transit through the zone (since the respective zones get longer).

  • The standard Expresses are shown in purple on the map and requires any Express Fare for transit through the zone. Generally, these trains will make all Zone III stops but skip most or all Zone II stops.
  • The next level, Deluxpresses, are shown in pink on the map and requires a Deluxpress Fare for transit through the zone. These trains generally make outer Zone III stops, but will also skip inner Zone III stops in addition to Zone II stops.
  • The fastest trains, Superexpresses, are shown in teal and make only the furthest Zone III stops before running express the rest of the way to or from downtown, and as such require the highest premium fare, the Superexpress Fare. Superexpress trains are only (currently) in service on the BNSF Line, where trains will only stop at Aurora, Route 59, and Naperville before running express all the way to Chicago Union Station.

Two important clarifications for Premium Fares: the Premium Fares listed above are only needed in the express zone only; riders traveling between intermediate stations without going through the express zone need only a Basic Fare. Additionally, while Premium Fares are the most expensive one-way tickets, there are also steeper discounts for multi-ride tickets to offset the cost premium for frequent riders.

Additionally, since all one-way fare products are separated by a consistent $1.50, one-trip incremental “upgrades” can also be purchased. For instance, a three-zone rider who usually only travels off-peak (and therefore usually only needs a Basic Fare) can purchase a one-time $1.50 incremental upgrade to transit the Express Zone. Upgrades are additive, so the same rider could purchase two $1.50 incremental upgrades to transit a Deluxpress Zone.

The fare table itself is meant to be straightforward: a $2.50 base fare (Quick Trip, single zone) with $1.50 incrementals to scale up to the next ticket level. This allows NEXT to reach its goal of fare parity with the CTA for single-zone trips; the $4.00 Local Trip (two zones) is also a discount for all current riders, since the current two-zone fare starts at $4.25; and the three-zone Standard Trip is priced at the same current three-zone one-way (but on NEXT a three-zone trip covers the entire region).

Multiple-trip fare products would also be made available, with discounts similar to current offerings. For the three Basic Fares, a Daily Pass is priced at a single round-trip. For single-zone trips this achieves parity with the CTA’s Day Pass (also priced at $5), while the other Daily Passes would be slightly increased from the current $6/$10 pandemic-era levels (that may not be sustainable long-term anyway) to $8 for a two-zone Daily and $11 for a three-zone Daily.

Ten-Ride Basic Fare tickets would also be made available, with a flat $5 discount at each price level. This once again provides single-zone fare parity with the CTA/Pace 7-Day Pass, priced at $20, assuming five travel days per week. 10-Ride Local Trip (two-zone) tickets would be priced at $35, and Standard Trip three-zone 10-Rides would – theoretically – be priced at $50. (More on that later.) To simplify monthly ticketing, a single $75 Monthly Pass would be offered for all three Basic Fare levels which, once again, reaches parity with CTA/Pace 30-Day tickets. A single flat-fare $75 also allows Regional Connect Passes to be sold by the CTA, offering the same $105 total price for unlimited CTA, Pace, and (local) Metra service regardless of which agency sells the “core” ticket.

For Premium Fares, the scale simply continues: $7.00 for the Express Zone, $8.50 for the Deluxpress Zone, and a flat $10.00 for the Superexpress Zone. These fares are a modest increase over current one-way fares but are only in effect during the peak (and only on certain trains), so the fare increase would only be borne by riders who already receive the highest quality service.

To balance out the one-way premium fare for, uh, Premium Fares, multi-ride tickets would have better discounts than Basic Fares. Daily Passes would still be priced at the round-trip level, but the return trip is priced as a $5.50 Standard Fare rather than a second Premium Fare, even though the Daily Pass is still valid for other express zones at that level. For instance, a commuter who rides two “normal” Express Zone trains would only pay $6.25 per ride with a Daily Pass (a current Zone A-D fare). Likewise, per-ride costs on Deluxpress round-trips drop to $7.00, and $7.75 for Superexpress round-trip riders.

Premium Fare 10-Rides would also be priced at a steeper discount: the cost of four Daily Passes (assuming a 10-Rider in the collar counties rides round-trips each travel day). For Deluxpress riders a 10-Ride would be $56.00 and $62.00 for Superexpress riders. For Express riders the price comes out to the same $50.00 level as a Standard Fare 10-Ride; this is why a Standard Fare 10-Ride would not be offered (or, to frame it another way, a 10-Ride Standard Fare ticket includes Express Zone trips for free).

Monthly Premium Fare tickets would be priced at the cost of two 10-Rides. This math works out nicely in that most collar county commuters – using “normal” Express trains – would be at the same $100 Super Saver Monthly price point. Monthly riders on higher-class trains would pay slightly higher Monthly fare prices, but would still be a steep discount from pre-pandemic fare prices.

For all tickets, the root pricing would change from a “per segment” basis to fixed-duration ticketing. All tickets would now be good for three hours after activation, which would thus accommodate transfers between lines. (To reduce the likelihood of “leave behinds”, one-zone one-way Quick Trips would only be valid for one hour.) Additionally, round-trips on a single fare would also be prohibited – and mobile activations enforced – by including the name of the origin station on all tickets. In this case, that ticket would not be valid on any train heading towards the station printed on the ticket.

Ridership Implications

As I mentioned earlier: I’ve done zero ridership evaluations or projections on how this would affect ridership, either overall or on a line-by-line/station-by-station level. However, this system probably would improve overall efficiency of the network by (1) pushing discretionary trips off of the peak by offering lower fares for non-express trains, and (2) incentivize more efficient utilization of peak-period trains by providing discounted fares for “lesser” express trains, decreasing the need to run more complex or longer-distance express trains (which, again, operationally are the most expensive trains to run from a labor and utilization perspective). This system is also scalable with flexibility to accommodate up to three different express patterns per line, providing plenty of future scheduling flexibility.

Known Issues

Like any attempt at a one-size-fits-all system, especially retrofitting a new system on a network as complex as Metra’s, there will be some gaps in coverage and inefficiencies. For instance, from an equity perspective, it’s hard to explain how it’d pass the sniff test for UP-N trains – which pass through some of the wealthiest communities in the state – to not require Premium Fares at all during the week. (UP-N’s strong bidirectional market combined with only two tracks available makes scheduling express trains challenging.) Likewise, there would be some issues when (if?) the South Cook Fair Transit Pilot wraps up***. However, these are issues that may be out of scope for a “crayon” like this, and would require more complex analyses (that’d probably require more detailed data than what gets made public) to reconcile.

(*** – My personal preference would be to segue directly into a fare capping pilot for South Cook Fair Transit 2.0, in which case NEXT would still be compatible for more equitable deployment since so many fare levels are indexed to CTA fare products.)

I don’t envy the task Metra (and the other service boards, and the RTA) has ahead of it when it comes to long-term fiscal planning. We have another year or two with pandemic funds keeping the budget balanced, but the cliff is coming, and there are tough decisions to be made. But now’s the time to think big, think bold, and think outside the box to try and find innovative ways that not only bring in sustainable revenue streams, but also create a more equitable network that better serves riders throughout the region for all trip purposes, rather than the traditional 9-to-5ers heading to a Loop office. Maybe NEXT is what’s next.

Diverging Approach: Metra Markups

Ever since the One-Day Weekend Day Pass came out last year, I’ve found myself unintentionally becoming something of a “Metra Donor”. When I ride Metra on a Saturday, one of two things inevitably occurs:

  1. I think to myself, “I have no plans on riding Metra tomorrow, might as well save three bucks and get the $7 One-Day Pass,” and while I’m on the train I get a text from someone making plans the following day, which means I’ll have to buy a second $7 One-Day Pass for Sunday too, or
  2. I think to myself, “There’s a good chance I’ll be back out tomorrow, might as well buy the $10 Two-Day Weekend Pass now,” and then I end up staying in on Sunday.

When Scenario 1 happens, I end up giving Metra an extra $4; when Scenario 2 happens, I end up giving Metra an extra $3. It’s always important to check your privilege, and in this case I’m well aware that my “donations” to our commuter railroad are part of my privilege: most of my time on Metra these days involves going somewhere to spend discretionary income, so being out an extra $3 or $4 a few times a month isn’t going to keep me up at night.

Regardless though, that is a privilege I have, and importantly it’s a privilege a lot of my less fortunate fellow suburbanites can’t enjoy. As such, I feel responsible to use the small internet soapbox I’ve built for myself over the years to speak out against an inequitable part of Metra’s fare policies: Ventra app-exclusive discounts, an inequity that unfortunately will grow when the new otherwise-awesome $6 Three-Zone Day Pass goes into place on February 1.

Over the last few years — predating the pandemic — Metra has been encouraging riders to switch to using the Ventra app for paying fares whenever possible. To be clear, there are plenty of reasons to do so, both for riders and for Metra. For riders, using the Ventra app is the only way that stored value on a Ventra card can be used to purchase Metra fares (which appears to be basically a loophole to satisfy legislation that the three service boards of the RTA use a unified fare product, although with a near-total lack of integrated transfer fares and the inability for staff to accept a Ventra card as fare media onboard trains or from a ticket agent may satisfy the letter of the law but most certainly not the spirit), and the Ventra app allows riders (with smartphones and bank accounts) to purchase Metra’s full suite of fare products wherever they are, whenever they like. For Metra, stronger Ventra app use means less transaction time for conductors, less cash exchanged, less need for ticket agents, better data about purchases and ticket usage, avoiding the (mostly imagined) potential fare evasion of riders sharing hard-copy tickets, and more. For years, Metra’s only truly integrated fare products — LinkUp (good for transfers to/from Pace full-time and to/from the CTA during rush hour only) and PlusBus (Pace only) — have been Ventra app-exclusive, and also behind an even larger functional paywall since only monthly passholders are eligible to purchase LinkUp and PlusBus passes.

Metra has been quite successful in nudging riders towards using the app, even without financial incentives. Some of the fare mode shift undoubtedly can be attributed to the pandemic, which makes a touch-free fare payment method very attractive in the age of social distancing. Ventra made up 70% of ticket sales in November 2021, before slipping slightly to about two-thirds in December.

Metra’s second foray into app-exclusive tickets started back in early 2020 with the launch of the Round Trip Plus fare product, which took almost two years to launch and landed mostly with a thud since it came out almost immediately before the world stopped with the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite being a Ventra app-exclusive, Round Trip Plus represented Metra’s first official intra-agency transfer ticket: for the price of a normal round-trip ticket (technically two one-way tickets; Metra does not sell round trip tickets) a rider had unlimited rides between the two fare zones listed on the digital ticket regardless of line traveled, which means downtown transfers — which are still technically not permitted under Metra’s current fare policy (see page 8) — were available for the first time on weekdays without requiring a second full fare. (Weekend transfers have been permitted for decades using Weekend Pass fare products.)

As part of Metra’s recovery plans, the agency rolled out a new $10 Day Pass during the pandemic. The $10 Day Pass was an instant game-changer, allowing riders to have the same flexibility and mobility of the $10 Weekend Pass on any given weekday as well. Importantly, the Day Pass was also available as a cash fare product, both at ticket agents and from conductors onboard trains. The $10 Day Pass is functionally a huge handout to the furthest-out suburbanites: Zone A-B riders are still better off using normal fare products, while a Zone J rider saves $9 per round-trip. By December 2021, 21% of Metra’s ridership were using $10 Day Passes, second only to 10-Ride Passes (31%) in terms of fare products used. (This is also indicative of a gap in knowledge for riders: there is financially no reason anyone who lives in Zone C or further should buy 10-Rides in the age of the Day Pass, and the math for Monthly Passes is also dubious for many, if not most riders.)

In January 2021, Metra loudly celebrated the launch of a new $7 One-Day Weekend Pass, but quietly mentioned that, as part of the new fare product, the long-standing $10 Two-Day Weekend Pass would now only be available as a Ventra app-exclusive. While the net benefit for most riders is a $3 savings since most Weekend Pass holders only travel one day on the weekend, for non-app riders who pay cash, this new policy effectively resulted in a 40% increase in weekend fares (two $7 One-Day Passes vs. one $10 Two-Day Pass).

We’re now on the verge of Metra doubling down on their inequitable app-exclusive fare policy: effective February 1, Day Passes are becoming app-exclusives, including the new $6 Three-Zone Pass, which will overwhelmingly benefit Metra riders who live in the city of Chicago and inner-tier suburbs. This will, in no uncertain terms, increase costs for riders who don’t use the Ventra app, a demographic that skews towards lower-income riders throughout our region.

If you’re reading this, there’s an overwhelmingly good chance that you’re reading this on a smartphone right now (or you’re reading this on a desktop as part of a PDF that got emailed to you as part of a bundle of news clips). It’s easy to take smartphones for granted, especially after QR codes made perhaps the most surprising resurgence of the 21st Century. To be clear, there’s nothing particularly wrong with the Ventra app: glitches still happen from time to time, but by and large it’s an easy, reliable platform for the large majority of riders who have smartphones.

However, a “large majority” doesn’t — or rather, shouldn’t — mean much for a public transit agency that represents the only public transit provider for dozens of municipalities throughout northeastern Illinois, and the most-used public transit provider in dozens more. (Pace does a good job in many suburbs, but there’s a lot of holes in the collar counties that are only served by Metra.) In the interest of checking privilege, as mentioned earlier, it’s important to note that smartphones, while common, still aren’t universal: Pew Research estimates that 15% of Americans still don’t have a smartphone. In our region — where we can assume that 77% of the region’s 9,618,502 residents are adults, that means there are about 1,110,937 of our neighbors who are adults without smartphones. That’s greater than the entire population of DuPage and Kendall Counties combined. Breaking down Pew’s crosstabs makes the issue even more significant in terms of equity and likely transit-dependent populations:

  • The proportion of adults without smartphones jumps up to 25% for adults without a high school diploma/GED.
  • 26% for adults making less than $30,000 annually do not have smartphones.
  • The largest proportion is seniors: for the 65+ age group, a whopping 39% of seniors don’t use smartphones.

There’s also an important subgroup not included in this data: people who use smartphones, but have no interest in using them to pay for Metra fares, for whatever reason. Infrequent riders may not see the value in downloading the Ventra app, registering an account, and entering their credit card information into an app they may only use a handful of times a year (or less, if they’re just passing through the Chicago region). Smartphones — especially older smartphones — can also be unreliable in terms of signal strength or battery life. Smartphones also require active data packages, which some budget-conscious riders might not want to deal with just to ride a train.

This also doesn’t account for disabled riders who may not be physically able to use a smartphone app, or the unbanked, people without easy access to credit or debit cards and are restricted to cash transactions by necessity. Morning Consult estimates that 10% of Americans are totally unbanked, and while it’s possible to use Ventra without a credit/debit card, the process is arduous: Ventra vending machines generally don’t exist in the suburbs (except at Pace’s busiest stations, such as Elgin or the Northwest Transportation Center in Schaumburg), and retail locations to add transit value are typically far from Metra stations. Metra is currently procuring systemwide ticket vending machines (TVMs) of their own, but the roll out is expected to take some time, and in typical Metra fashion Ventra integration is explicitly an afterthought:

The first phase will consist of 225 machines to replace the 45 existing ticket vending machines (at downtown stations and the busiest Metra Electric Line stations) and existing point-of-sale credit card readers at 58 manned stations, and 75 machines to pilot a proof-of-payment system. The second phase will add 350 more machines so that all 242 Metra stations would have at least one vending machine.

The weather-hardened, fully ADA-accessible vending machines will accept cash or credit and could eventually accept Ventra cards. They will sell any Metra ticket, printing them at the time of purchase to save on costs, and will be available 24 hours a day. Currently, most stations do not have agents, and most of the staffed stations have agents only in the morning hours.

Metra expects the first-phase machines to be installed starting in the middle of 2022 and finishing about a year later. Phase Two deployment will depend on when the option is exercised.

[emphasis added]

It’s understandable why Metra wants to shift more fare transactions to the Ventra app, but that shift shouldn’t come at the expense of riders who can’t easily adopt the app. Moreover, if the new TVMs that are coming online later this year will truly be able to “sell any Metra ticket”, forcing more fare products to be app-exclusive for only perhaps a year or two is most certainly an unnecessary burden and expense on Metra’s lowest-income riders.

To quantify the differences in best available cash fare and best available Ventra app fare, here’s a spreadsheet showing cost differences based on number of round-trips in a month and zone pairs. This spreadsheet does not account for weekend trips, which are generally cheaper; also note that most months have only 20-23 weekdays.

Click here to see a larger version. If you’re using a screen reader, click on the above link to view the raw data in the spreadsheet.

For many — but not all — Metra “power users” who make 20+ round-trips per month, there’s no difference between cash fares and the Ventra app, since Monthly Passes are still the best fare option. However, the $10 Day Pass and the forthcoming new $6 Three-Zone Day Pass upend the math for most riders, with substantial savings of up to $120.75 per month — if you use the Ventra app. Riders without smartphone access have to pay full price, which results in what we’re calling a “Metra markup”, just to be able to pay cash for their trip. It’s also worth noting that some of these estimates may be undercounting the #MetraMarkups, since they require an extra one-way trip to a staffed station for riders who board from unstaffed stations to purchase the tickets.

If you do have access to the Ventra app, here’s a cheat sheet detailing what kind of fare media you should invest in for any given month:

Summary: If you don’t have a smartphone and you commute 16+ days a month, get a monthly pass, even though you’ll be paying more than app users with Day Passes. If you do have a smartphone, just use Day Passes unless you’re making 20+ trips a month, and even then, you might still want to stick with Day Passes depending on your zone pair.

In case you prefer narratives to spreadsheets, here are four examples of the new #MetraMarkups we’ll see later this year as a result of this new policy change. While these examples are all fictional, they’re also each plausible and represent reasonable examples of real-world trips and financial decisions.


Anna lives in Zion and works “traditional hours” (Monday-Friday, 8am-5pm) at a light industrial company in Ravenswood. Despite the long journey, she is fortunate to have a single-seat commute to her job, which doesn’t allow her to work remotely. Anna is a single mom and shares a smartphone data plan with her teenage daughter, although “sharing” is a strong term: her daughter routinely uses most of the cellular data, and as such Anna keeps her smartphone data off as much as possible. Since fewer than 10% of Metra cars have wifi, she doesn’t use the Ventra app since she’s worried about additional data charges on her smartphone.

Since both Zion and Ravenswood are unstaffed and her daily commute doesn’t involve going downtown, once a month Anna has to wake up early and drive down to Waukegan to buy her monthly Metra ticket from the station agent there. Every month, she has to explain to the agent that yes, she needs a Zone I-B ticket, not a Zone H-A monthly ticket, even though they’re the same price.

  • Commuting days, March 2022: 23
  • Best Fare Product: 23 $10 Day Passes on the Ventra app, $230
  • Anna’s Best Cash Fare Product: Zone B-I Monthly Pass, $239.25
  • #MetraMarkup: $9.25 (4%)

This also doesn’t take into account any opportunity costs: for a single mother, there’s plenty of additional utility in paying $10 per day rather than a lump sum $239.25 at the beginning of each month, which also tends to be when rent or mortgage payments are due. The Day Pass products should be seen as a step towards fare capping, and it’s extremely unfortunate that cash riders will no longer be eligible for these discounted tickets. March is also a “best-case” scenario, with 23 working days: in February, for instance, Anna may only have 19 working days (20 weekdays, with one day off for Presidents Day); in that case, her best cash option is still the $239.25 Monthly Pass, but the app would allow for 19 $10 Day Passes ($190) for a #MetraMarkup of $49.25, or 26%.


Bill is semi-retired and lives out in Belvidere, way down Interstate 90 near Rockford. Bill’s looking forward to going downtown for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade for the first time since 2019, and he planned ahead by getting a hotel room downtown. Not wanting to deal with traffic or parking costs, Bill drives to Elgin to park overnight and take the Milwaukee West down on Saturday morning and will return Sunday morning.

Bill’s son runs a website devoted to helping infrequent transit riders navigate Metra for social outings throughout Chicagoland, and his son strongly encourages him to use the Ventra app to buy a $10 Two-Day Weekend Pass for his trip. Bill has a smartphone, but he doesn’t want to download an app just for Metra since he only rides maybe twice a year, plus even with his “cheaters” (dollar store reading glasses) it’s a hassle for him to add a credit card to his Ventra account via his smartphone.

Since Elgin has a Ventra vending machine at the Pace terminal across the street from the Milwaukee West station, Bill runs over there and adds $10 to his Ventra card, which he only uses for St. Patrick’s Day and once or twice a year when he parks at Cumberland to take the CTA to a Sox game. The conductor laughs at Bill when he tries to use the Ventra card to pay for his Metra fare and instead charges him $7 cash for a One-Day Weekend Pass instead, telling Bill to buy another $7 One-Day Weekend Pass at Union Station tomorrow morning for his ride home.

  • Commuting Days, March 2022: 0 (one round-trip over a weekend)
  • Best Fare Product: $10 Two-Day Weekend Pass on the Ventra app, $10
  • Bill’s Best Cash Fare Product: Two $7 One-Day Weekend Passes, $14
  • #MetraMarkup: $4 (40%)


Carlos lives in Chicago’s Mont Clare neighborhood and works at O’Hare Airport. He works day shift (Monday-Friday) at a logistics company near the south edge of the airport and transfers to Pace Route 332 at Bensenville. Carlos has a six-year-old Android that can’t hold a charge for the full length of his shift and while he appreciates that Metra has been adding power outlets to their coaches, since he’s on reverse-commute trains there’s no guarantee that one of the two cars that are open on his train has somewhere to plug in his phone on his way home from work. Because of this, he doesn’t use the Ventra app.

No stations near Carlos have station agents, which means once a month Carlos has to make a special trip downtown to buy a Zone B-D Monthly Pass. This costs him an extra $8.50 (two $4.25 one-way cash fares) because the conductors don’t always let him use his Zone B-D Monthly Pass for a Zone A-B trip and doesn’t want to deal with the hassle even though his Monthly Pass should cover three-zone trips. Since Carlos doesn’t buy his Monthly Pass in the Ventra app, he’s not eligible for the discounted PlusBus transfer ticket.

  • Commuting Days, March 2022: 23
  • Best Fare Product: Zone B-D Monthly Ticket ($159.50) + Pace PlusBus ($30), only available on the Ventra app = $189.50
  • Carlos’s Best Cash Fare Product: Zone B-D Monthly Ticket ($159.50) + round-trip to CUS ($8.50) + Pace 30-Day Pass ($60) = $228
  • #MetraMarkup: $38.50 (20%)


Doris lives in western Berwyn and works in the dorms at UIC. She generally commutes on a CTA/Pace 30-Day Pass, taking the 302 to the 157, but about twice a week she likes to treat herself and take Metra from Halsted Street to Harlem Avenue now that more BNSF trains stop at Halsted. Due to a vision impairment, Doris doesn’t use a smartphone. She buys paper 10-Ride tickets, which requires her to make an extra trip to Union Station once a month.

  • Commuting Days, March 2022: 10
  • Best Fare Product: 10 $6 Three-Zone Day Passes, $60
  • Doris’s Best Cash Fare Product: 2 Zone A-B 10-Rides, $81
  • #MetraMarkup: $21 (35%)

There is an important outlier to discuss in this conversation: the math doesn’t change at all for Rock Island and Metra Electric riders currently partaking in the South Cook Fair Transit Pilot. The discounted fares on these two lines make one-way fares more competitive than Day Pass products, so there’s parity between cash and Ventra app fare products in the pilot area. Maintaining fare parity between cash and cashless transactions is a major benefit for these riders, and riders on other lines should not be penalized for their methods of payment. If Metra wants to incentivize riders to spur more ridership, any financial incentive should be based on frequency of use rather than method of payment.

It’s also worth noting that there are some potentially very easy solutions to this problem. First and foremost, Metra could simply keep selling paper Day Passes onboard the train, as they’ve done for about a year and a half now. This wouldn’t be an open-ended program, as the new TVMs are on the horizon, and given that Metra’s more optimistic outlook for ridership recovery still only results in 50% of pre-pandemic ridership levels by the end of FY 2022, there’s plenty of time to transition to TVMs before conductors get overloaded with additional cash transactions.

Another potential solution could be a ticket buy-back program: riders who pay for a one-way ticket in cash onboard a train can take their ticket stub, present it to a station agent once they get downtown, and be able to pay the difference for a Day Pass. For instance, if someone pays $6.75 for a one-way Zone A-E ticket, they could present the ticket stub and pay an additional $3.25 for a full Day Pass ticket. Likewise, Saturday One-Day Weekend Pass holders could return on Sunday and turn in their ticket for a $3 Sunday One-Day Weekend Pass, which provides parity with the $10 Two-Day Weekend Pass on the Ventra app without requiring any new fare media. Both of these would help meet Metra’s objective of simplifying cash transactions onboard while not penalizing cash riders.

Of course, these solutions wouldn’t solve the “issue” of having paper “free ride” tickets out there that could nefariously be used by the infamous “fare evaders” that may (or may not) plague the commuter railroad. However, it’s important to recognize that no transit system that charges fares will ever catch 100% of fare evasion, and at some point compromises must be made. Despite the perpetual campaign to fight fare “evasion” on Metra, the Active Transportation Alliance points out that Metra police only made 43 fare evasion arrests between 2016 and 2018, which strongly suggests that actual fare evasion is not a major cause of revenue loss. The question we must ask is if tilting at the fare evasion windmills is worth charging cash riders who don’t or won’t use smartphones significantly more in fares than wealthier riders who do use smartphones, and there’s no equitable way to answer that in the affirmative.

As our region continues to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, we have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — or rather, we have the duty and responsibility — to rebuild and restructure our legacy systems to better serve historically-overlooked populations, to better serve everyone in Chicagoland rather than just a special subset of travelers that historically commuted in a particular pattern. Fare policies that unfairly penalize lower-income populations while offering discounts to wealthier riders should be reimagined to at least treat non-smartphone users equitably with smartphone users.

Metra’s new fare policies go into effect on February 1. This Wednesday, January 19, 2022, is the next Metra board meeting. Members of the public can submit comments to Metra by Tuesday, January 18, and the comments will be read into the record during the board meeting. More information can be found here.

Diverging Approach: Power of the Purse

At February’s Metra board meeting, the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) presented their draft recommendations outlying how the RTA plans to divvy up $486.2 million from Round 2 of the federal Covid-19 assistance package, which was passed in December. The RTA plans on using what they call Critical Need Areas (CNAs) to help allocate the financial assistance between the three service boards. These Critical Need Areas are identified throughout the region based on three factors. Here’s how the RTA defines these factors, quoted from their pretty spiffy interactive story map on the topic:

  • transit propensity, which considers who is most likely to use transit to commute before the pandemic and now;
  • regional equity, which explores who is most likely to need transit to access essential goods and services in our region in general; and
  • high-mobility industries, the industries most likely to need workers on-site and in-person to perform their jobs.

The full interactive story map is worth a read, so I encourage readers of this blog to check that out. But if you want to skip to where the rubber hits the road, here’s how the RTA wants to split up the cash:

  • Paratransit gets $20 million right off the top.
  • Of the remaining funds, CTA gets the lion’s share of the funding (77.5%, or about $350-360 million). Since the CTA didn’t really cut any service during the pandemic, even with this extra funding in place the RTA is projecting a $372 million deficit in the CTA’s budget.
  • Next up is Metra (17.9%, or about $80-83 million). It’s unclear how this impacts the existing $70 million operational deficit that was included in the FY2021 budget, but the RTA says even with these additional funds Metra will be in the hole somewhere between $70 and $155 million based on “full schedules”, since Metra sliced operations roughly in half during the pandemic.
  • Finally, Pace would get the remaining funds (4.6%, or $21-22 million). While this is the smallest wedge of the pie, it’s also enough to get Pace to a breakeven budget, according to the RTA’s memo.

These figures aren’t set in stone: the RTA is soliciting public input through this Friday (March 5), so if you’d care to make a comment about how the RTA is splitting the pot, you are encouraged to send your comments via email to communications@rtachicago.org.

The RTA’s Transit Critical Need Areas (CNAs). Screenshot from the RTA’s interactive story map.

First and foremost: the RTA needs to be commended for taking an equity-centric approach to distributing these important funds. Having a process that’s open, transparent, and data-driven to try to guide funds to the areas where they are needed is exactly the kind of approach our region needs to allocate funds more equitably, and here’s to hoping more of these types of interventions and guides are used moving forward for other purposes as well.

That said, Metra needs a bigger piece of the pie.

It’s clear from the numbers that all three service boards need far more assistance than what was provided in the last round of federal assistance, and we all have our fingers crossed that more help is on the way. It’s important to note that, since there’s a finite amount of funds available, boosting Metra’s percentage can only come from taking funds away from the CTA and/or Pace. However, a quick look at the map above shows that Metra’s services reach more than 18% of the identified CNAs throughout the region, and in areas where Metra overlaps with other transit services — such as parts of the City of Chicago south of 95th Street and in the Grand Avenue corridor west of Cicero Avenue — Metra is often the only rail transit provider in the area. This is especially important to consider along the Rock Island and Metra Electric lines, areas currently part of the South Cook Fair Transit pilot program that finally puts Metra closer to fare parity with the CTA. Furthermore, there are dozens of suburbs where Metra is the only transit service that reaches the City of Chicago, or the only transit service still operating at all. There’s an awful lot of suburban Chicagoland that’s highlighted as a CNA but beyond the reach of the CTA and with only limited service options provided by Pace.

The Metra board took the RTA to task for the “transit propensity” metric at the February board meeting, and while it’s true that historically Metra’s target clientele has always been white collar 9-to-5ers who probably have other transportation options available in a pinch, it’s also true that Metra needs more resources than it currently has to successfully transition from a commuter rail model to a more modern regional rail model that will be needed post-pandemic to broaden their ridership base beyond traditional commuters: as this blog has said in the past, riders can’t ride trains that don’t run. Regular Metra riders have already made significant sacrifices throughout the pandemic in the form of service suspensions/cuts, and every effort needs to be made to provide Metra with the resources it needs to start expanding service offerings again.

That’s not to say the RTA should just throw a few more bucks at Metra and call it a day, however: the RTA is right to prioritize equity throughout the region with the limited funds it has to distribute, and it’s important that critical coronavirus assistance doesn’t end up only funding more express trains from Barrington or some other service enhancement that doesn’t target the neediest travelers in the region. However, there is likely a compromise solution where the RTA can leverage its power of the purse, and I encourage them to do so: if Metra can demonstrate how these additional coronavirus assistance funds can be used to specifically target service enhancements to better serve these Critical Need Areas, the RTA should be willing to swing the needle further into Metra’s direction.

The RTA is accepting public comments on their distribution plans through this Friday, March 5. Members of the public who wish to comment can submit comments via email to communications@rtachicago.org.

Diverging Approach: Downtime

The light at the end of the tunnel that is the COVID-19 pandemic gets a little brighter by the day. The holidays are behind us and, thankfully, Illinois did not appear to have as large of a post-holiday spike in cases as was anticipated. Vaccines are slowly being rolled out, case positivity is falling, and most regions of the state are moving forward to lower tiers and fewer restrictions. Of course, days are also getting longer and, while we’re still most definitely in the depths of winter, calendar pages keep turning towards warmer days and being able to spend more time outside. There’s plenty to be optimistic about.

Also cause for optimism are recent statements (and a few actions) by our commuter railroad. As we celebrated last week, Metra announced their intent to move forward with the first non-gallery-car coach procurement in the agency’s history, and more recently, Metra’s CEO Jim Derwinski mentioned that Metra would “love to start experimenting… with one of our partners on something that I’ll call regional rail, where trains are much more frequent,” going on to suggest half-hour off-peak headways and fifteen-minute peak headways. The article also says that the CEO alluded to flattening the peak a bit: “[Peak] Trains may be shorter, they may not be as frequent, but definitely [will address] the things that people want — express trains from where they’re at, the busiest stations downtown, that sort of thing.”

This is, of course, good news. Leadership at Metra is certainly starting to talk the talk, and there’s plenty of reason to hope and believe that in the very near future the railroad will start to walk the walk as well. Unfortunately though, some of the recent service changes we’ve seen don’t fully match that ambition: added service on the Milwaukee North that went into effect last week, for instance, brought back the odd one-direction semi-skip-stop pattern on morning trains that just about exactly matches the historic MD-N schedules (but still lacking the more robust reverse-commute trains that were being piloted in 2019).

There is also — in this blog’s opinion — cause for concern to focus so many resources on peak-period express services. While it’s true that everyone loves riding on an express train, while the agency still has a $70 million operational budget gap to address, adding service that by definition only benefits a select few riders does not seem to be an efficient use of funds.

For instance, today Metra announced that, beginning February 1, the Rock Island will be adding several new trains, including a second express round-trip to/from 80th Avenue. This means that, effective February 1, the Rock Island line will have more express trains now than it did before the pandemic hit. While it’s true that 80th Avenue was one of the busier stations on the Rock Island in pre-pandemic times, it’s also true that a majority of riders who rode the RI boarded downstream of 80th Avenue. Social distancing is of course important these days, but crowding onboard RI trains does not appear to be a significant issue according to Metra’s data.

Boardings at LaSalle Street are not included.

A similar trend is evident throughout Metra’s system: long-distance express trains most benefit riders who live furthest away from the downtown core, even though (using 2018 data) 45% of Metra’s ridership came from Zones A-D, with an overall plurality of riders boarding in Zone E.

Downtown boardings are not included. Note that Zones K and M have since been merged into Zone J.

The other issue with focusing on restoring peak period express trains — and, in some cases, peak service in general — is a raw inefficiency with scheduling crews. Metra’s service area is robust, with lines that extend as far as 65 miles from the downtown core (UP-NW). What this means is that scheduling peak-only service means most trains can only get a single revenue run in before the peak ends: a crew begins out in the hinterlands and makes their trip into the city and, in most cases regardless of local or express format, there simply isn’t enough time to deadhead the train back out to the end of the line with enough time to still arrive downtown by 9am or so. That crew and the train then sit idle for several hours until the evening rush period, where they make an outbound run and, once again, run out of time to make it back to the city for another evening peak trip.

Local media taking Metra to task for spending too much on onboard labor costs is something of a long-standing tradition, and to be clear this post is not accusing the agency of waste or accusing workers of any fault of their own. Conductors and engineers are essential, safety-critical staff that are necessary to the ongoing safe operation of trains and the safe loading and unloading of passengers throughout revenue service. (Conductors on Metra also collect fares and check tickets, but in more modern networks this is done differently and as such they really shouldn’t be considered essential duties in the 21st Century.) Likewise, onboard staff and their unions should always fight for the best pay and working conditions they can negotiate.

What this post is arguing for instead is using post-pandemic service restoration plans to totally reimagine scheduling as a whole, including how crews and equipment are deployed and operated throughout the system. To that point, the upcoming service change on the Rock Island is also somewhat promising: while there is the new express round-trip scheduled and even though the added two consists and crews still have to deal with midday downtime, it appears that the same consist and crew will be operating an early-morning round-trip, and additional added peak-period service on the suburban branch also includes filling some existing holes in the midday schedule.

Below is a stringline chart of service on the Rock Island, a draft of a larger project I’m working on to try and determine the most efficient use of crews and equipment on each of Metra’s lines using published schedule data. (There are a few reasons why this post is titled “downtime”, after all.) The dashed consists below (pink and lime) reflect the new service that will be added on February 1: note how adding two new consist/crews will serve ten new runs.

Also note that there are still two black “unpaired” peak trips, which suggest a long layover during the midday, and likewise note the long layovers for the pink, blue, and gold consists. Based on my estimations, Metra needs to operate eight consists throughout the day to provide scheduled service on the Rock Island, and despite that there’s still a gap from 11:50 to 12:10 every weekday where there are zero trains in service anywhere on the line.

Yes, there are more of these coming, and yes, there will be more in-depth explainers to accompany them once I get them all up on the site.

These charts are also useful because they very easily show not only where there are gaps in service, but also what resources are available to fill them: in this case, Consists Pink and Blue (or one of the two peak-only consists) could be used to interlace service through the midday period to halve the midday 2-hour headways on the main line and, depending on labor rules, the only added cost to Metra would be fuel.

I’m a certified Professonal Transportation Planner with two college degrees and I’m using my talents to draw lines on Excel charts. Things are going great!

For the record: while added service is always great, it’s nonetheless concerning that there’s little if any public feedback loop on these schedule changes. On the aforementioned Milwaukee North changes, for instance, several stations actually lost service as part of the schedule update (Deerfield, Lake Forest, Prairie Crossing, Grayslake, Round Lake, Long Lake, and Ingleside each lost one inbound train; Libertyville lost two inbound trains). We’re all blazing new trails as the pandemic continues and the “new normal” still feels very fluid and elusive, and — as we’ve literally told Metra before — it’s important now to work with the communities most impacted by service changes to help determine the best ways to make service more responsive and efficient.

It’s been nearly a year since the pandemic first ground life in Chicagoland (and around the world) to a halt, and faced with some of these catastrophic changes we’re all forced to adapt to, our local transit agencies deserve no shortage of credit for the work they’ve done to keep transit (mostly) operating for essential workers, with Metra in particular deserving additional credit for indicating that the agency is open to the seismic shifts that will be necessary to keep the railroad relevant as we eventually transition back to whatever the “new normal” looks like. In the meantime, the need to find new ways to operate and to leverage assets — both capital assets and human assets — to provide robust, responsive service to help ensure an equitable recovery for everyone in our region.

Transit, bars, and restaurants are all experiencing extreme financial hardships throughout the pandemic. The Yard Social Club remains committed, now more than ever, to use our unique little corner of the internet to help all three by providing up-to-date resources and services to help Chicago-area residents ditch their cars for an afternoon and enjoy a transit-focused pub crawl. If you’d like to support our operations to help support sustainable suburbia, be sure to follow @YardSocialClub and @StarLineChicago on Twitter.

Diverging Approach: Beginning of the End

It happened. It finally happened.

At today’s board meeting, Metra’s board finally marked the beginning of the end of the loathed gallery cars by approving an (up to) $1.8 billion contract with Alstom to build new, modern, bilevel passenger coaches. These low-floor coaches will include more modern amenities, including dedicated bike racks, powered doors throughout the coach (including lavatories and between coaches), partially-heated floors and more. Other than the unwieldy boxy design (that is apparently intentional to make them better blend in with the existing gallery car fleet), this procurement is a massive step forward for a more modern, more accessible, actual 21st-Century fleet.

Check out the video here:

The initial contract is for a base order of 200 coaches, with options for up to 300 more; Metra’s existing fleet is 840 cars, so even if the contract is maxed out we’ll still have gallery cars around for many more decades.

To be clear, the procurement still is far from perfect: cycling advocates have pointed out that the vertical bike racks as shown can be difficult to use with heavier bikes; this fleet of unpowered cars does nothing to create a more nimble, more flexible fleet of multiple-unit coaches that can be more efficiently used for “milk run” all-stop operations that would be important for better off-peak frequency; and this blog is still concerned with spending $61.6 million on new coaches in FY2021 while the railroad reports a $70 million as-yet-unaccounted-for gap in operations funding for the same duration.

But it’s important to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good and still celebrate success stories like these. This is a huge step forward for Metra, and while there are still lots of operational deficiencies that need to be addressed post-pandemic, everyone involved — including all of us squeaky wheels who did bend the board’s ear — should be proud of the work done to make this procurement a reality and to finally roll out a 21st-Century fleet befitting one of the nation’s largest passenger railroads.

There’s still much work to be done in terms of modernizing operations to make Metra the regional rail provider it needs to be for a post-pandemic suburban Chicago: pulse scheduling, proof-of-payment, integrated transfers, and increased service are all pressing needs, as well as the looming shadow of the aforementioned $70 million budget hole this year. But today is a day for celebration and appreciation. Today is a victory, and tomorrow we keep pushing forward.

A thank you to friend-of-the-blog @inaoifeble who kept tabs on today’s board meeting and live-tweeted the spectacle. The video of the full board meeting is available on Metra’s website (meeting starts at about 1:23:40).

Diverging Approach: Kaizen

While I was working at the state, they had me sit in on an internal seminar series about kaizen, or the Japanese business philosophy of continuous improvement. For me, the process came somewhat naturally: as long-time readers of this blog are no doubt aware, continual reassessment of existing conditions and trying to find more effective and more efficient ways to get things done are a regular topic of conversation in Diverging Approach blog postings.

Of course, continual improvement is something that I also like to do in my personal life as well, which means we’re going back to the map. Our Metra map has gone through several iterations in the past, and while this year’s version of the map is stylistically similar to the most recent version, I’ve gone ahead and — based on Metra’s reduction/simplification of services during the pandemic — restructured how the various lines and stopping patterns are identified from the ground up.

Grab the PDF to zoom in (or to print it out yourself at home).

If there’s a silver lining to the pandemic, it’s that Metra has committed to being open to significant changes in their schedules to make them easier to understand and to remember, which we’re already starting to see in the latest version of the previously-notoriously-complex Union Pacific North line schedule. The Metra Electric suburban express zone consolidation from three express zones to two also simplified the schedule, as well as the BNSF Line going to a reduced two-track schedule.

Here’s a crash course in how this map works:

  • Each line is identified by a color, a logo, a unique name, and letters to indicate simplified stopping patterns. Metra’s existing line naming process — based largely on legacy (or present) railroad companies is not intuitive for new riders and can occasionally be confusing even for long-time customers. This map simplifies all that and presents the same data in different ways, since everyone processes information in different ways and an all-of-the-above approach can reduce barriers to entry for new and infrequent riders. Lettered services generally run alphabetically from north to south, with “A” trains to Kenosha and “W” trains to 93rd/South Chicago, with groups of letters departing from the same downtown terminal: A-F trains use Ogilvie; G-Q trains use Union Station; R and S trains use LaSalle Street Station; and U-W trains use Millennium Station. (This system is also forward-compatible with moving SouthWest Service (Q) trains to LaSalle Street Station, as well as for future SouthEast Service (T) trains using LaSalle Street Station.)
  • Line colors and “boldness” indicate how frequently service operates. The more a train line looks like a transit line on a CTA map, the more frequently trains run. As the colors wash out, trains run less frequently: outlying stations with decreased frequency are shown as thinner lines (like UP-N north of Waukegan and MD-W west of Elgin); weekday-only lines are less colorful (see the weekday-only SWS); and peak-only services are shown more faintly as white and gray lines that fade into the background (see the HC, NCS, and express services).
  • Similarly, colors of the “roundels” used for trains also indicate service frequency. The full-color roundels show trains that run the most frequently; gray roundels indicate trains that only run during peak periods, and the “outline” roundels indicate more limited extended services that do not run as frequently for either peak or off-peak trips.
  • Letters refer to different stopping patterns. Ideally, letters could be used to identify trains themselves (e.g., “This is an R train to Joliet” or “This train will make all scheduled M, N, and O stops to Aurora”). New in this version is an expansion of the “combined service” local model on the Rock Island (RS) and Metra Electric (UV) lines systemwide, with two- (or three-) lettered trains on most lines indicating local services that more intuitively assigns stations to “service zones”: for instance, at Itasca — a “K” station — both (K) express trains and (KL) local trains serve the station.
  • The shape of the background of a lettered route indicates a deviation from the normal stopping pattern. Taking a page out of the New York City Subway system’s design manual, stopping patterns shown as a diamond rather than a circle indicate a limited-stop express train within that service zone (e.g., <U> trains only serve Homewood-University Park rather than the full Kensington-University Park (U) zone). Likewise, short-turn trains that don’t make all stops in the service zone — usually the counterpart to the diamond trains — are shown as a square (so [U] trains serve the Kensington-Homewood stations the <U> trains bypass). Also, as shown above, these shapes translate well into normal type, using parentheses for circles, angle brackets for diamonds, and square brackets for squares.
  • The map itself is formatted to be printed at home, formatted for legal-size (8.5″ x 14″) paper. In the near future I’d like to make a version of this map that isn’t constricted by the size of a page, but for now this page size matches our four-fold Travel Guides, which will be updated next summer hopefully after the dust settles from the pandemic. It’s also easier for anyone interested to print at home, if they so like.

Our unique line naming system is back, too: each line is named after a passenger train that previously operated on all or part of the line, but without directly referring to the heritage (or current) operator, which often leads to confusion, like how there are three “Union” lines that do not actually serve Union Station, or how there are two North Lines, two West Lines, and both a Northwest Line and a North Central line, the latter of which shouldn’t be confused with the old Illinois Central lines, which run in a totally opposite direction… and so on. Like before, each line has its own logo (and here’s your annual reminder that I’m not the best graphic designer out there), and each line also has a corresponding standard-issue emoji, because this is the 21st Century, after all.

Ashland Line (Union Pacific North) 🎣
History: The Ashland Limited was a Chicago & North Western train to Lake Superior. Also known as the Fisherman’s Special, hence the logo and emoji of a fish on a hook.
Services: (A) weekday peak express trains to Waukegan, (B) weekday peak local trains to Highland Park, (AB) daily trains to Waukegan with continuing service to Kenosha, <B> special event outbound trains to Ravinia Park

North Western Line (Union Pacific Northwest) 🧭
History: The North Western Limited was a Chicago & North Western train to the Twin Cities. The line is also known as the Northwest Line, it follows Northwest Highway, etc.
Services: (C) peak express trains to McHenry (weekdays) or Crystal Lake (daily), with continuing service to Harvard; (D) daily peak local trains to Des Plaines (weekdays) or Arlington Heights (weekends); (CD) daily local trains to Crystal Lake with continuing service to Harvard

Kate Shelley Line (Union Pacific West) 🌩
History: The Kate Shelley 400 was a Chicago & North Western train to Iowa. Kate Shelley was an American railroad heroine who prevented a train crash after a bridge washout during a storm, hence the thunderbolt logo and emoji.
Services: (E) weekday peak express trains to Elburn, (F) weekday peak local trains to Elmhurst, (EF) daily local trains to Elburn

Marquette Line (Milwaukee North) 🛶
History: The Marquette was a Milwaukee Road train to Iowa, via Madison. Named for an early Midwestern explorer, the logo and emoji is a canoe.
Services: (G) weekday peak express trains to Fox Lake (with differing stopping patterns between AM and PM peaks), (H) weekday peak local trains to Lake Forest, (GH) daily local trains to Fox Lake

Laker Line (North Central Service) ⛵
History: The Laker was a Soo Line train to Duluth. The North Central Service operates over the former Soo Line, which is now owned by Canadian National. Logo and emoji of a sailboat.
Services: one round-trip peak (J) local train to Antioch each weekday, one <J> express round-trip peak train to Antioch each weekday

Arrow Line (Milwaukee West) 🏹
History: The Arrow was a Milwaukee Road train to Omaha. The logo is an arrowhead facing west; the emoji is a bow and arrow.
Services: (K) weekday peak express trains to Big Timber Road, (L) weekday peak local trains to Franklin Park, (KL) daily local trains to Elgin with extended weekday service to Big Timber Road

Western Star Line (BNSF Railway) ⭐
History: The Western Star was a Great Northern train to the Pacific Northwest that locally ran on the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (a predecessor of the BNSF Railway). Logo and emoji is a star.
Services: (M) weekday peak express trains to Aurora; (N) weekday peak express trains to Fairview Avenue; (O) weekday peak local trains to Brookfield; (MNO) daily local trains to Aurora. Some combined (MN) express trains also operate during weekday peak.

Abraham Line (Heritage Corridor) 🎩
History: The Abraham Lincoln was an Alton Railroad train to St. Louis that continues in modern times as Amtrak’s Lincoln Service. Logo and emoji is a formal hat.
Services: two round-trip (P) local trains to Joliet each weekday

Blue Bird Line (SouthWest Service) 🔵🐦
History: The Blue Bird was the Wabash Railroad’s train to St. Louis that operated on the present SouthWest Service tracks. Logo and iOS emoji is a bird’s head; on Android, a two-part blue circle and the default bird is used.
Services: (Q) weekday local trains to 179th/Orland Park with continuing peak service to Manhattan; one round-trip <Q> express train each weekday

Rocket Line (Rock Island) 🚀
History: The Rockets were the Rock Island’s signature passenger trains that criss-crossed the Midwest. Logo and emoji is a rocket.
Services: (R) daily express trains to Joliet; (RS) daily local trains to Joliet via the Suburban Line (see below)

Suburban Line (Rock Island) 🏠
History: The Suburban Branch is the long-time name of the local Rock Island line through Morgan Park and Beverly. Logo and emoji is a single-family house.
Services: (S) daily local trains to Blue Island; (RS) daily local trains continuing to Joliet

Panama Line (Metra Electric) 🚢
History: The Panama Limited was a legendary Illinois Central passenger train to New Orleans, named after the Panama Canal. Logo and emoji is a container ship.
Services: (U) weekday express trains to University Park; <U> weekday peak limited-stop express trains to University Park; [U] weekday peak short-turn express trains to Homewood; (UV) daily local trains to University Park (see below)

Magnolia Line (Metra Electric) 🌸
History: For a little over a year, the Illinois Central added some standard coaches to the Panama Limited; not wishing to sully the prestige of the Panama Limited name, the IC designated the coaches as a separate “train” called the Magnolia Star. The logo is a simplified magnolia blossom, and the emoji uses a flower.
Services: Prior to the pandemic, (V) local trains made all stops to 115th/Kensington; currently, that particular service pattern no longer exists. However, (V) extended local service to Blue Island and <V> weekday peak express service to Blue Island continue to operate, with (UV) local service operating north of Kensington daily.

Diamond Line (Metra Electric) 💎
History: The Green Diamond was Illinois Central’s train between Chicago and St. Louis. The logo and emoji is a diamond-like gem.
Services: ( W ) daily local trains to 93rd/South Chicago, with <W> weekday peak express trains to 93rd/South Chicago

Click here to download the full PDF, which can be printed at home on 8.5″ x 14″ paper.

Diverging Approach: Peanut Gallery

It’s budget season, and as expected, Metra’s proposed 2021 budget represents the ongoing struggles the commuter railroad is having during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s not Doomsday yet — despite a $70 million projected hole in the budget, Metra is not raising fares in 2021. That’s not to say the outlook doesn’t still remain grim, of course: Metra’s anticipating only getting back to 50% of pre-pandemic ridership by the end of 2021, and not approaching 100% until 2024 at the earliest.

Recently, we’ve been cautiously optimistic about some of the things we’ve heard from Metra. After spending the beginning of the pandemic “innovating and transforming” themselves with drastic service cuts and proudly declaring that any riders whose workplaces have not reopened “are not a potential customer”, more recently a more progressive mindset appeared to emerge, with talk of exploring new fare options and developing more equitable service recovery plans that “must compete with the automobile” to look beyond Metra’s historic core constituency of white collar 9-to-5ers.

A quick read of the draft budget brings things back down to Earth.

The budget document kicks off with a whopper of a claim and a slap in the face to countless riders who were stranded by Metra’s total suspension of service during the George Floyd protests at the beginning of June. This blog discussed it; Streetsblog Chicago discussed it; the Active Transportation Alliance discussed it; and yet this is the actual first paragraph at the top of Page 1.

While the global pandemic has changed many things, one thing has remained unchanged: Metra’s commitment to the commuters and the communities we serve. From the beginning of the crisis to today, Metra never stopped running. We couldn’t. The essential role we play in the lives of our citizens and the economy of our region is simply too important.

Metra 2021 Proposed Operating & Capital Program & Budget, emphasis original

It goes downhill from there. The document is available here, but here’s what I think the important bullet points are in terms of operations:

  • Metra is projecting a $700 million operating budget with a $70 million shortfall in 2021. Absent additional aid from another unit of government (likely Congress), Metra will need a combination of cuts and fare increases to plug the hole since they are required by state statute to have a balanced budget. The $700 million operating budget represents a 15% decrease from the budgeted 2020 operating budget.
  • That $70 million hole does not include $51 million in CARES Act funding that is being carried forward to 2022.
  • Metra is anticipating rebounding to 20% of pre-pandemic passengers by the end of 2020; 50% by the end of 2021; and 80% by the end of 2022. Ridership is then forecast to stabilize at about the 80% level through 2023.
  • Service levels — as measured by vehicle revenue miles — are expected to remain at current levels through 2021, with service gradually increasing in 2022 and 2023, but remaining 15% below pre-pandemic levels until at least 2024.

Despite the almost certain anemic ridership levels over the next few years, with guaranteed ongoing service cuts and as we adjust to a post-COVID world, Metra wants to spend $594.6 million over the next five years to start replacing and expanding their fleet of bi-level gallery cars, an obsolete design that nearly every other North American commuter railroad has evolved beyond the need for. (And make no mistake that this is a fleet expansion, not just a replacement: the budget specifically says the intent of the program is to “increase the spare cars ratio”.)

This blog has discussed the flaws of the gallery car design previously, but in a nutshell the major issues of the car involve a single entry/exit point per car that also requires traversing four steps, which increases station dwell times as passengers take longer to load and unload, while also creating more significant issues for disabled riders, the elderly, cyclists, families with strollers, riders with luggage, and just about everyone else. The biggest strength of the gallery car design is that you can fit a lot of riders on each coach and conductors can easily check each rider’s tickets, and if you think committing to a vehicle design that encourages more crowding and more face-to-face interactions is a little misguided following a year or more of social distancing and mandatory mask use during a global pandemic, you might be on to something.

Our friends over at Streetsblog Chicago have one of the more definitive takedowns of the gallery car style. The epilogue to that blog post is that Metra had to cancel a 2017 procurement because they literally could not find a suitable manufacturer willing to build gallery cars for them. The nearly-$600 million procurement Metra is currently planning is based on a 2019 RFP (request for proposals) that permitted additional coach design styles to be considered, and while a selected bidder has not yet been chosen, it appears that Metra is teaming up with Virginia Railway Express (VRE) — one of the only other commuter railroads that also still use gallery cars — to have a joint procurement of, you guessed it, more gallery cars. (If you do listen to that podcast episode, skip ahead to the 35th minute or so to listen to VRE’s executive director discuss the procurement and the gallery car style.)

In the 2021 budget, Metra wants to spend $61.6 million on new gallery cars. In the same year, Metra is targeting only 50% of pre-pandemic ridership levels and a $70 million operations budget hole. This is not an argument against continuing to make important investments in state of good repairs during the pandemic recovery, but this gallery car order looks like the perfect opportunity to easily fill this short-term gap in funding: squeezing another year out of the old fleet while maintaining acceptable levels of service will have far better returns on investment in terms of long-term ridership and fares than shiny new coaches that may rarely run after draconian service cuts.

Furthermore, as a procurement launched pre-pandemic, it’s entirely possible — if not probable — that the onboard rider amenities scoped out in the original procurement are no longer relevant, or cater to the white-collar commuters who will make up a far smaller share of riders post-pandemic. Do we need cup holders if masks are mandatory onboard for the foreseeable future? Are additional armrests a good investment while the agency is spending $1 million on an ad campaign to remind potential riders how the agency is focusing on continually cleaning high-touch surfaces? With cycling up throughout the region, do we still want to commit to a fleet that requires bikes and disabled passengers to compete for space or do we want to create a more bike-friendly fleet like other peer agencies have done over the last decade? As Metra has said numerous times throughout the pandemic, ridership shifts “that would normally take 10-20 years seem to have occurred in 10-20 weeks.” Do we really want to commit to another five decades of gallery cars for nearly $600 million at this point in history?

To be clear, using capital funds to cover operational expenses is a dangerous game to play, especially given Metra’s history in doing so. However, there’s a significant difference in regularly using capital funds to plug systemic deficits in the operational budget and delaying a fleet expansion project during the most seismic societal shifts in our lifetimes to ensure a half-billion-dollar investment can be used for proper rolling stock on the railroad of the future, not on coaches that are parts of museum fleets. (Besides, Metra’s explicitly used fare increases since 2015 to help fund capital improvements, so it’s that much more unreasonable to ask ridership to once again pay through service cuts.)

Cancelling — or at least delaying — Metra’s $61.6 million capital outlay for new gallery cars in 2021 would fill 88% of the projected $70 million budget deficit; using an additional $8.4 million of CARES Act funding, or 16% of the $51 million of CARES Act funding Metra is planning on carrying forward to 2022, would entirely mitigate any service cuts in the absence of additional aid from the federal government. Deep service cuts right as ridership is just starting to return to Metra’s service post-pandemic will have far more dire long-term consequences to our region than just grinding out another year with the existing fleet. (Also note that Metra will still be spending nearly $70 million on rehabilitating and rebuilding locomotives and coaches in 2021.) In the meantime, Metra should use this opportunity to seek input from current and potential riders to better understand what a post-pandemic fleet should look like to cater to a more diverse base of ridership, rather than doubling down on an outdated 20th Century design now, 21 years into the 21st Century.

Metra’s draft 2021 budget is available to review here. As a draft document, Metra is seeking comment from members of the public via a virtual public hearing on Thursday, November 5, 2020, from 4pm to 7pm. Comments can also be submitted between now and 24 hours after the end of the public hearing via email.

Diverging Approach: Glimmers of Hope

This post was written as a guest post for the blog of the Active Transportation Alliance, where it was first posted.

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, the only certainty we have these days is uncertainty. 2020 has, without a shred of hyperbole, been the most challenging year that most of us have had to persevere, on multiple fronts.

That challenge has come down hard on transit agencies across the U.S. and, locally, Metra has been hit hardest.

Metra’s core market historically has been white-collar suburbanites commuting to and from the Loop for 9-to-5 Monday-through-Friday jobs. This market was already shrinking pre-pandemic as more workplaces offered remote work flexibility. Now, many more of these residents have the privilege to work from home full-time. Those who do not often have other transportation options – namely driving.

With the Loop a virtual ghost town, even workers who may have to go into the office a few times a week can find faster commutes on the expressways and cheap parking rates downtown.

As a result, Metra ridership remains down more than 90 percent six months into the pandemic. In response, the agency slashed service across the board. While traditional rush hour service remains relatively frequent on most lines, reverse-commute and off-peak service are barely hanging on.

For months Metra’s strategy has been to take a wait-and-see approach. The agency remains committed to its core market of white-collar suburban riders, hoping ridership will gradually return as more offices open up and people feel more comfortable riding transit.

But the time for waiting is over. There is a clear need for Metra rethink its approach to delivering service and build a suburban transit network that works for all residents.

Chasing an already dwindling market of privileged riders isn’t working financially. More importantly, it doesn’t help address the growing racial and social inequities in our regional transit system.

As recently as August, Metra claimed that “if [a traveler’s] business has not returned to the workplace, they are not a potential customer,” a wildly short-sighted claim that overlooks multiple core constituencies that can prove essential to a stronger, faster, more robust recovery for the agency.

There were glimmers of hope at Metra’s September board meeting, however. The agency appears ready to forego the previous schedules entirely, many of which have not been significantly changed since Metra’s creation back in 1984. They are considering creating line-by-line service restoration plans that, among other things:

  • Provide consistent and frequent service throughout the day;
  • Create easily understandable models of service with memorable service patterns;
  • Include new express services, where appropriate;
  • Consider Metra-to-Metra transfers as well as transfers to and from other service providers;
  • Explore additional reverse commute markets and other new ridership markets; and
  • Promote regional equity.

These goals are consistent with steps Star:Line Chicago and Active Trans urged the board to take in our public comments at Metra’s May board meeting.

Metra is also willing to pop the hood on their existing fare model, including new loyalty programs for monthly pass holders; lower monthly pass costs and additional multi-day fare products; a new individual weekend day pass; new peak and off-peak pricing; and more.

Active Trans made several recommendations for more equitable Metra fare offerings in the Fair Fares Chicagoland report published last fall.

Additionally, Metra announced that Romayne C. Brown would succeed Norm Carlson as the chair of Metra’s board of directors, effective November 1. Ms. Brown has decades of experience working in transit, including climbing the career ladder at the CTA from beginning as a rail conductor in 1978 to completing her CTA career as Vice President of Rail Operations in 2010.

Ms. Brown – who will also be Metra’s first female African-American chairperson – has already prioritized implementation of the South Cook Fair Transit pilot. This crucial project aims to lower fares for Metra Electric and Rock Island commuters on the South Side of Chicago and in the south suburbs while also promoting convenient transfers and integration with Pace and CTA.

It is exciting to see Metra openly discuss so many important parts of an equitable recovery and restoration for all. However, things will almost certainly get worse before they get better given short-term ridership projections and fiscal outlooks. It’s clear that Metra’s current fiscal outlook is grim.

Without additional financial assistance from the federal government, talk of reduced fares and increased service will inevitably invert to an increased fares and reduced service “doomsday” scenario.

It is very promising to see Metra start talking the talk: we encourage them to start walking the walk.

Diverging Approach: Existential Crisis

Tomorrow is Metra’s August 2020 board meeting, their fifth since the first COVID-related shutdowns of Illinois began in the middle of March. As you may know, transit ridership across the board nationwide remains in the toilet, with Metra in particular getting their teeth kicked in (who could’ve seen that coming?) with ridership around 10% of pre-pandemic levels. What’s worse for Metra is that their ridership seems to be stabilizing at that level rather than rebounding like some other transit networks have seen.

Metra is, of course, well aware that this is a bad situation, with ridership bottoming out rather than rebounding. Each board meeting since March has had a similar call to action during the financial reporting segment of the meeting:

  • April: “We need to actively innovate to meet the changing public needs”
  • May: “We need to actively innovate to meet the changing public needs”
  • June: “We must innovate and transform to meet the new reality”
  • July: “We must innovate and transform to meet the new reality, and then let the riding public know we have innovated and transformed”
  • August: “We must innovate and transform to meet people’s needs where we can, then let people know what we have done to meet their needs”

You can feel the backsliding beginning already (“meet people’s needs where we can”), given that thus far “innovating and transforming” has only resulted in service cuts and a Weekend Pass you can use on a weekday.

In August’s presentation though, they lobbed this grenade:

Under the heading “who is a potential Metra rider”, they give the game up as succinctly as I’ve ever seen: “If their business has not returned to the workplace, they are not a potential customer”. In the midst of what should be an existential crisis for the commuter rail model as a whole, the commuter railroad that serves the nation’s third-largest market cannot fathom anyone using their service for anything other than commuting. This is a blind spot big enough to park a freight train, and for all the talk of “innovating” and “transforming”, it is downright concerning that the sole transit provider in dozens of suburban communities remains all-in on the Loop white-collar 9-5 Monday-Friday commuter market that – by the most optimistic outlook – is months or years away from returning to pre-pandemic levels: Metra’s projecting only 31% of their “normal” daily ridership will be back by the end of the year.

This is not just a crisis for Metra’s bottom line: if Metra goes belly up or rolls out doomsday cuts that kills most or all off-peak operations, our region as a whole suffers. My spouse and I live in the suburbs, and having convenient access to Metra outside the typical commute is a big reason why we chose to become a one-car household earlier this year. (A lack of existing off-peak service on Metra was also a critical reason of why we moved to a more CTA-friendly community.)

Metra is essential to the livelihood and mobility of suburbanites and city-dwellers alike. Since Illinois has entered Phase 4 of COVID recovery, I’ve personally used Metra dozens of times already, and Metra’s staff deserves a lot of credit for operations so far: trains are spotless, conductors have and use adequate PPE, and mask usage among riders is quite good. I’ve recommended using Metra during the recovery to just about everyone I’ve talked with since, and I’ll continue riding trains regularly.

And yet, no matter how many $10 Weekend or Day Passes I buy, I am apparently not a potential customer since I’m unemployed. If anyone else out there is a frequent-but-not-potential Metra customer, you have until 5pm today to get a comment into Metra’s board meeting to let them know that yes, you exist and yes, you rely on Metra outside of commute hours.

Diverging Approach: Commit to the Commute

As Illinois and Chicago barrel forward into Phase 3 of the coronavirus recovery, our world is slowly starting to get back to normal – or at least, our new normal that will follow COVID-19 is coming into clearer focus.

Unfortunately, despite our hardest efforts, transit has become something of a public health punching bag, with a common sentiment that public transit (and/or those who use it) are unclean or unsafe in light of the ongoing pandemic. Even worse, just when there was a light at the end of the tunnel, Chicago executed its first-ever citywide shutdown of all transit in an (ill-advised) attempt to quell protesting and looting following the George Floyd murder: CTA and Pace stopped running entirely overnight, while Metra shut down for over 60 consecutive hours.

This can be – or possibly will be – a fatal one-two punch for our transit network as we know it. Metra has straight-up abandoned off-peak service on three of its 11 lines and the rest of the system has ridership losses north of 95%. Additionally, Metra seems content to let ridership drive service restoration rather than vice versa; in planning parlance this is known as a “death spiral”: less service means fewer riders, which means less service, which means fewer riders, and so on.

While Metra’s long-term strategy should be acknowledging a new normal with much more work-from-home for their white collar commuter base and adjusting schedules accordingly to flatten the peak while adding off-peak service to attract new non-traditional commuters (or riders who travel for reasons unrelated to commuting entirely), even systems like the CTA and Pace, who have had far fewer service reductions during the pandemic, will continue to struggle getting ridership back as riders stay home and as commuters have less reason to commute with work-from-home opportunities.

Work-from-home can be great on occasion, and as workplaces reopen it’s likely that many will still require workers to work from home several times a week. Transit’s recovery – if it ever comes – will be a slow, drawn-out, painful affair.

But work from home has no shortage of downsides, too. Beyond issues of distractions and productivity, it’s healthy to have some distance – figuratively and literally – between your work life and your home life. Whether that’s the idea that you can get just one more task done before calling it for the night, or that your boss now feels comfortable calling or texting you on your personal cell phone whenever, or just a little spike in anxiety you get whenever you pass your laptop during your “off” hours, some sort of buffer space is good for you and your health.

That’s why The Yard Social Club and Star:Line Chicago is finally launching our Commit to the Commute campaign. Commuting – especially on foot or on transit – shouldn’t be a chore as much as it is a release: catch up on a podcast, read Twitter, dive into a book, or just stare out the window and daydream. Commuting is “me” time, and the best part is at the end of the day, you can leave work at work and disconnect once more on your way home.

Our Commit to the Commute campaign has three prongs:

  • Tag us on social media. Show us what you enjoy about your commute! What can you do on transit that you can’t do while working from home or when you’re driving? Tag us on Twitter or Instagram (@StarLineChicago), use the #CommitToTheCommute and #LeaveWorkAtWork hashtags, and we’ll share.
  • Join us for Happy Hours. Once indoor bars get rolling again (hopefully later this summer), we’ll be hosting a few regular downtown meetups to connect commuters and grab a quick one before heading home.
  • Hop on a train crawl. When Illinois moves into Phase 4 and groups of up to 50 are allowed again, we’ll help ease you back into a comfort zone using transit with our famous train crawls throughout the city and suburbs. Get reintroduced to our region’s transit system with a safe, fun way to explore where the buses and trains can take you.

These are challenging times, but here at The Yard Social Club and Star:Line Chicago, we want to do whatever small things we can to bend the commuting curve back and remind everyone in Chicagoland how vital our transit network is to everyone.


Diverging Approach: Blackout

I will try to be brief.

This blog’s “lane” is suburban transportation, but we cannot discuss transit service disparities and regional inequities in infrastructure without recognizing the systemic racism inherent in our region’s society, in our region’s history, and in our region’s geography.

While the events of recent days were ostensibly kicked off by the murder of yet another unarmed Black person at the hands of police in Minnesota, the resonance these protests have had right here in our own backyard is a testament to the ongoing failures in equity and tolerance right here in Chicago.

And right now, our city and our transportation agencies are letting us all down, at this time when we need them most.

As a pandemic continues to ravage the state of Illinois with over 5,000 lives lost and an estimated unemployment rate of nearly 17%, disproportionately affecting the poor and communities of color, it is absolutely unconscionable for our leaders to shut down our public transit network entirely in some misguided effort to quell civil unrest that still reaches as far as Waukegan, Aurora, and northwestern Indiana anyway.

A map of current Metra service in June 2020.

At 6:30pm on May 31, for the first time at least since the South Side Elevated started 24-hour service in 1893, and possibly dating as far back as the 1871 Chicago Fire (or even earlier), there was not a single transit vehicle in revenue service in Chicago, despite decades of fires, floods, blizzards, frigid cold, sweltering heat, 9/11, and even the last round of riots in 1968. After nearly three months of what is now clearly just kabuki theatre of “the importance of serving essential workers”, our transit service was – and in many areas, still is – nowhere to be found when workers and residents most needed safe, reliable passage through our region. Three days later, transit access to the urban core still does not exist, with CTA providing no bus or rail service in the area bounded by Fullerton, Western, 47th, and the lake; and our commuter railroad has ceased operations entirely.

A sign at Metra’s Ogilvie Transportation Center on Sunday, May 31 denies entry to Metra riders (despite trains still operating normally at the time).

I do not pretend to know who made the call to cancel service, but I do know that it doesn’t matter: in this moment when so many are in the streets marching to protest a system that has failed to protect them, our transportation system is letting them down once more, and they will not forget. To add insult to injury, in some communities of color the only buses local residents see on their streets right now are filled with police officers dressed in full riot gear, traveling to square off with mostly-peaceful protesters.

Three articulated CTA buses full of police officers make their way northbound on Michigan Avenue the afternoon of Sunday, May 31.

After decades of structural racism and systemic disinvestment, we owe it to our region’s most vulnerable residents to declare that mobility is a right: public transit is not some commodity to be rationed, but rather a public utility that is essential to the well-being of all. Pulling the rug out from these residents right now, during an ongoing pandemic and with the wildest future uncertainties most of us have experienced in our lifetimes, is nothing short of negligence. The absolute last thing we want to do is give people one less certainty they can count on.

In the short-term, we’re just encouraging people to drive more, which just fuels the existing perpetuating cycles of inequity, as the “haves” can continue to self-segregate away from the “have nots” while contributing to existing pollution and health impacts that continue to plague the most vulnerable among us. But in the long-term we are not only continuing but exacerbating the disinvestment in these communities, with inevitable deferred maintenance and service cuts “due to low ridership”.

Our transit agencies need to immediately restore service to all parts of our region and assert that mobility is a right for everyone in Chicagoland.

Diverging Approach: Now What

Illinois’s Stay at Home order is now confirmed to stretch well into May as we struggle to contain COVID-19. While today’s announcement is hardly unexpected, it does drive the point home that the inevitable recovery will not be easy or quick, but painful and protracted no matter what steps we take now.

It’s also abundantly clear that we’ll never go back to where we were two months ago, even when the coronavirus wanes and we get “back to normal”. So let’s take a quick look into the almost-guaranteed-to-be-wrong crystal ball on three predictions and more positive possibilities, and what this could mean for suburban transportation.

Prediction: CTA and Pace will struggle, but Metra will absolutely get their teeth kicked in

I take no joy in writing that, but that’s the way I’m reading the tea leaves. A large majority of service-sector workers, some of whom we’ve (finally) established as “essential”, will continue to work in-person jobs doing tasks that need to be done in-person. We can’t stock shelves via Skype, bank tellers can’t telework, and bartenders can’t pour new pints through a Zoom meeting. However, most white collar workers will likely never spend five straight days working from an office again.

While this new normal will require some dramatic changes for city dwellers on the CTA and blue-collar workers who rely on Pace’s arterial services in inner-ring suburbs, it will absolutely decimate Metra’s entire model of shuttling 9-to-5 upper-middle-class white collar workers from the burbs to the Loop five days a week. All three service boards are undoubtedly in for a world of pain in regards to fare revenue, but Metra is uniquely positioned to get utterly blown out as the remaining monthly pass market – which already needed 15 commuting days each calendar month to justify a high-upfront-cost ticket – vaporizes overnight.

Possibility: A dramatic reinventing of the commuter rail model as a whole (or at least trying something new every once in awhile)

Metra’s held onto operational models, fare models, funding models, and literal equipment from the 1950s for far too long, and the day of reckoning is here. (Has anyone ever tried bringing that up before?) A bold reimagining of literally everything is warranted, but there are a few pieces of low-hanging fruit to pluck right away with fare policy and operations.

With the monthly ticket market functionally wiped out, now is the time to implement some form of fare capping that gives riders more flexibility with ticket options while also lowering barriers to entry for new potential riders. As social distancing becomes part of the new normal, fare parity with the CTA in areas served by both providers will take on a new urgency as a way to better balance passenger loads, and likewise new integrated fare products for CTA and Pace transfers are required as the monthly-dependent Link-Up/PlusBus market also dries up.

Metra will also need to acknowledge that they will likely never again need all of the peak-period capacity that they previously ran. However, this can be an opportunity: they will be able to save on operation costs over time and should then be able to expand off-peak services to attract new ridership markets. Additionally, instead of simply reverting back to the old schedules, Metra should consider a phased quarterly approach to adding peak service back into the current “temporary” schedules through the recovery. Doing so would also create a new corporate culture of regular internal ridership analyses and subsequent schedule updates based on recent and projected ridership demand.

There’s also the good news that Metra currently has a unique opportunity to field-test new ideas or operational changes with minimal impact to riders. So try something new. Try anything new.

Prediction: We’ll each drive less, which means we’ll all drive more

As Illinois stays all-in, car traffic on our highways is a fraction of what it used to be, and for good reason: demand for lane space is in the toilet right now because no one is leaving home. But that won’t last, because once we do start going places again, we’ll get right back on the roads since gas will continue to be absurdly cheap and traffic is light. As transit riders shift away from monthly passes for commutes, the old monthly riders will have even less incentive to take transit when traffic is light (since the marginal cost of using off-peak transit went from $0 with a monthly pass to the full fare price without).

Traffic congestion is not an issue that needs solving by engineers, but rather a natural condition of a market reaching an equilibrium: when cost (time and money) is less than benefit (whatever value a driver assigns to wherever they’re going), a trip is made; when costs are too high relative to benefits, the trip either doesn’t happen or gets otherwise altered such that benefit > cost some other way and the modified trip gets completed. (That’s also a crash course in induced demand.)

In other words, just because some people will go out less frequently after quarantine lifts or some people will work from home more often, over time other drivers will inevitably appear to fill those gaps.

Possibility: Claw back road capacity now before the market finds a new equilibrium

Bus lanes, buffered bike lanes, woonerfs, traffic calming… for any ped-, bike-, or transit-oriented plan that was already on the books, do it all now and let post-pandemic traffic react to the new road designs instead of the vice-versa status quo of the last 60 years. (Infrastructure spending will hopefully be part of future Congressional recovery bills.)

Most importantly, do it for good (in an equitable manner with as much local buy-in as possible) and do it for good (run a few pilot programs if needed, but every new implementation should have a realistic chance of becoming a permanent change instead of an “emergency use only” application that disappears when we’re no longer in crisis mode).

Prediction: An already-hostile image of transit will get ramped up on steroids

Transit has been “othered” for decades, but now stereotypes about transit as a last-resort are going to go into overdrive in the age of social distancing. As the job market falters with homeless shelters already at capacity, complaints about “unsafe” and “unclean” riders on the CTA will (and have already started to) skyrocket, further depressing any demand for rapid transit. Additionally, Metra physically cannot social distance so long as they continue to rely on a conductor-based method of fare collection that relies on a face-to-face transaction with each and every rider.

After years and years of stripping transit funding down to the bone, riders and non-riders alike are accustomed to cramped, full buses and trains. This becomes a lose-lose situation for post-pandemic transit: any crowding means transit agencies can’t adequately social distance and thus are mismanaged to a fault, but empty buses and trains must mean our agencies are already supplying plenty of transit capacity so the only reason why they would want more operating funds is because they are mismanaged to a fault.

Possibility: Manage expectations, but be proactive

Transit will be in a dark place for the foreseeable future. Even when COVID-19 is behind us, the money we aren’t spending now in fares and sales taxes will manifest in the budgets of upcoming years. Homelessness in Chicago and on the CTA has been an issue for quite some time already, with no easy solutions then and even fewer now. These times will not be easy and there will be some very tough decisions that will need to be made, but it’s crucially important to remember – and hammer home the point with messaging – that public transit is essential to everyone in a functioning modern metropolis: it was essential before the pandemic, it’s essential during the pandemic, and it will be absolutely essential to an equitable, successful recovery.

The one thing we all can do right now – and this “we” involves the agencies themselves and the rest of us who care enough to fight for better transportation solutions – is to be good communicators and advocates for public transit. The CTA, Metra, and Pace are all expending plenty of manpower and financial resources to keep buses and trains safe, clean, and reliable for transit-dependent essential workers right now, and those efforts will need to continue (and need to continue to be highlighted) through the recovery. While the need to maintain social distancing efforts remains crucial to fighting the pandemic, there are ways to effectively communicate that without declaring that “public transit is unsafe for the foreseeable future”, which only serves to stigmatize those who depend on transit while tainting the well for transit’s potential market share post-pandemic. To that end, Star:Line Chicago and The Yard Social Club will be launching our #CommitToTheCommute campaign as the recovery begins, a multi-pronged campaign to do the following:

  • Share and promote what our agencies are doing to keep riders safe and get people back on transit, both locally and nationally
  • Highlight the benefits of commuting on transit at least a few times a week rather than driving or shifting to full-time work-from-home
  • Hosting frequent transit-based social events to help new or infrequent users feel comfortable using transit again (while supporting local bars and restaurants as well)

While we all have a new normal to get used to, and while there are most certainly challenges ahead of all of us, now is the time to look forward (and to have something to look forward to). Stay safe, stay well, and stay at home. We’ll get through this together.