Diverging Approach: Greatest Hits

I’m looking forward to an upcoming event on Wednesday, “A Discussion of the Chicago Sustainable Transportation Platform”, being co-hosted by the Midwest High Speed Rail Association’s Young Professionals Board and Young Professionals in Transportation (YPT). The 5:30pm panel will feature Steven “Abolish Metra” Vance, Yonah “Metra is where innovation goes to die” Freemark, and Lynda Lopez, a Streetsblog Chicago writer who I unfortunately am not familiar enough with to give a fun Metra-related middle name. (Lopez brings a valuable voice to the Streetsblog table, focusing on urban equity issues in transportation.)

While I’m sure Wednesday’s session will focus primarily on urban Chicago transportation issues, especially in light of the upcoming mayoral elections, you can’t talk sustainable, equitable transportation in Chicago without talking about Metra on the South Side (and elsewhere in the city), and you can’t talk about Metra without talking about the agency’s suburban focus, so tonight I wanted to (1) give a signal boost to Wednesday’s event (it’s free!) and (2) briefly go over a deceivingly simple question:

What should Metra do differently?

It’s a deceivingly simple question because literally everyone who has ever ridden Metra has no shortage of ideas on how it can be better, and because to fully dive into the topic would be a semester-length urban planning grad school course. In the interest of letting you, the reader, digest this post in a single sitting (editor’s note: this post ended up being very long anyway, apologies), and in the interest of keeping my blood pressure at a reasonable level, here’s our basic five-point plan on how to fix Metra, with the caveat that these may evolve as I go on future rants about suburban transit.

1. Metra needs to understand they are a transit agency, not just a railroad.

The leading thought process at Metra is that Metra is a railroad, which seems fine on the surface: they do run a whole bunch of trains on tracks they share with freight railroads, of course. However, that same mindset leads to Metra focusing on running trains rather than moving people. While reliability is undoubtedly a big part in mode choice decisions made by travelers, I’m not sure if Metra understands that a 95% on-time performance rate (that is easily gamed anyway) with ongoing ridership losses is nothing to celebrate. From my observations, there are two prevailing schools of thought out there: (1) Metra’s overwhelmingly core demographic is suburb-to-downtown peak-period trips and thus ridership losses can be remedied with additional capital funding that allows Metra to modernize its fleet without needing to continually raise fares annually by providing more reliable locomotives and upgraded coaches with 21st-Century amenities; or (2) Metra’s entire structure and business model are in danger of collapsing due to demographic shifts and changes in commute patterns, options, and preferences, and thus the agency needs totally shift its entire operating paradigm beyond basic infrastructure improvements to catch up with the 21st Century to stay relevant.

Probably doesn’t need to be said that this blog believes in the latter. And perhaps it’s a little cynicism (or nihilism) on my end, but unless the latter takes precedence over the former, tax hikes to fund Metra’s serious capital backlog will be at best insufficient to reverse ridership losses… and at worst counterproductive as drivers see their tax dollars going to improve a service that continues to lose riders, because white-collar Millennials in the suburbs can do things like work remotely or use flexible work hours that allow them to commute outside the traditional peak period (or not at all).

So let’s talk about shifting paradigms and moving people, not trains.

2. Metra’s schedules need a total reconstruction and modernization based on observed and predicted trends throughout the region.

Metra is the fourth-busiest commuter railroad in the country, with 11 lines connecting 242 stations throughout the third-largest metropolitan region in the country. It also does not have a dedicated service planning department. The service planning Metra does have is more or less just scheduling trains and is officially part of the Transportation branch of the Operations division. Strategic Capital Planning (SCP) at Metra (of which I am an alumnus), which includes long range planning and data collection/analysis, is in a totally separate part of the agency, under the Administration umbrella. What this means is the SCP group collects data on ridership, fare collection, and demographic trends, analyzes the data, presents the data to the Board of Directors, and then… every 18 months or so a new schedule might come out that looks a hell of a lot like the old one but adds a few minutes to each train to maintain an acceptable on-time performance rate or, more recently, consolidates a few trains or accidentally screws up the busiest line on the system that ends up prompting Congressional intervention.

Moving scheduling into the existing SCP structure would likely encourage more frequent and more substantial schedule updates that would allow Metra to better tailor their schedules to data from the field to optimize efficiency and boost ridership. While Metra’s data collection efforts in the past have been poor (there were no actual on-off counts performed between 2006 and 2014; Metra’s month-to-month ridership estimates are based on ticket sales, which may actually overstate ridership due to the multipliers used for monthly passes), the news out of the last board meeting that Metra is purchasing automatic passenger counters (APCs) that can provide much better station- and train-level ridership data much more quickly is exciting.

While that’d be a pretty significant improvement inside of Metra, this is also a good time for us to bring up, yet again, or oft-repeated call for pulse scheduling. In a nutshell, pulse scheduling would greatly enhance the reach of the Metra system for minimal cost by realigning the schedules to have trains meet downtown and leave shortly thereafter, allowing passengers to make easy, quick connections between trains throughout the day. While it’s a far cry from MHSRA’s Crossrail Chicago proposal to through-route some trains on the Electric Line to O’Hare via new electrified track in Union Station and on the Milwaukee West/North Central Service corridor, letting a family from Deerfield cross through Union Station to get on a waiting BNSF train to easily go out to Brookfield Zoo would surely kick up off-peak ridership a smidge while changing next to nothing in terms of operation costs.

3. Fix the Chicago Problem.

Metra is a suburban railroad currently structured around three service patterns: very fast trains from the far reaches of the region to get downtown early in the morning Monday through Friday; very fast trains to the far reaches of the region to get out of downtown in the evening Monday through Friday; and just enough service any other time of the day to justify the operational subsidies Metra receives through the Regional Transportation Authority’s sales tax revenues. Metra is also the only form of rail transit in significant parts of Chicago’s Far South Side and the Northwest Side. (72 of Metra’s 242 stations are within Chicago’s city limits.) The CTA’s rapid transit system is located where it is — or rather, it’s not located where it isn’t — directly due to commuter rail services making rapid transit duplicitive and a more challenging market to serve back in the interwar period of the 1900s. Of the original four elevated railroad companies that eventually became the CTA’s ‘L’ service, none of them went south of 69th Street. However, during early planning for the city’s ultimate rapid transit network, commuter railroads were expected to adequately serve those Chicago neighborhoods not served by the ‘L’. As a legacy to that network, the CTA now wants to invest in a $2.3 billion extension of the Red Line to 130th Street that more or less parallels the Metra Electric main line. In the meantime, off-peak Metra service on the three branches of the Metra Electric operate hourly at best. (While it’s great that Metra finally got around to coordinating the schedules to provide 20-30 minute headways between Millennium Station and Hyde Park, it’s worth noting that CTA fares cost half as much as Metra’s while providing service at least twice as often, albeit a bit slower.)

Metra has a Chicago problem: despite having 72 stations, the City of Chicago has a single seat on Metra’s 11-person Board of Directors, and Cook County’s five board appointees are explicitly prohibited from being City of Chicago residents. With 91% of the Board comprised of suburbanites, it’s hard to get the Board’s attention for issues within the City of Chicago outside of the downtown core. (For what it’s worth, suburban CTA riders have the opposite problem: the CTA’s seven-member board is comprised of four mayoral appointees and three appointees from the Governor of Illinois, so suburban representation is not necessarily guaranteed.)

What we’re left with are four significant transit corridors that have rail infrastructure and trains but not actual rail transit service: the Metra Electric main line from Hyde Park through Kensington-115th and beyond; the Metra Electric South Chicago branch; the “Suburban” Branch of the Rock Island through Beverly and Morgan Park; and the Milwaukee West line between Western Avenue and Mont Clare. It’s probably no coincidence that all four of those corridors run through significant communities of color. (I left out the Metra Electric Blue Island branch due to its short length and single-track grade-level operations and I also left out the Milwaukee North between Western Avenue and Forest Glen since there’s significant overlap with the Blue Line and UP-NW service, but both of those corridors could be contenders as well.)

Metra has two options for those corridors: start putting real investments and initiatives in those corridors to boost service levels and lower fares to something more competitive with the CTA, or just admit defeat and let someone else handle operations in those areas. A new division of the CTA — or a new branch of the RTA — that uses smaller multiple-unit trains on these corridors at 15-minute frequencies would be fascinating to see, revolutionary for these neighborhoods, and would free up Metra to run more express service on these corridors to lower travel times and headways for their suburban riders. In the meantime, Metra’s going with neither approach, and the city and the region suffers for it.

4. Metra needs a totally revamped proof-of-payment fare structure that is fully integrated with Pace and Metra’s suburban partners.

Every Metra train, from nine-car packed-to-the-gills Schaumburg express trains on the Milwaukee West to two-car late night trains on the Metra Electric have at least two conductors onboard the train, a colossal operational expense. (Metra’s busiest trains are 11-car Naperville express trains on the BNSF, but those trains are staffed by BNSF employees, not Metra employees.) Metra claims there’s a mandate from the Federal Railroad Administration that requires three-person crews on each train (the third person being the operator in the cab); however, I’ve done a decent amount of searching online and haven’t found any rule making that kind of requirement. Meanwhile, CalTrain out in the San Francisco Bay Area operates similar service to Metra (right down to the gallery car bilevel coaches) using a proof-of-payment fare system that drastically reduces the amount of manpower required to operate trains. Proof-of-payment would also allow Metra to more easily move on to more modern rail car designs and not stay so invested in the old, inefficient gallery cars. I’ve written about proof-of-payment before, and if you’re reading this, you’re enough of a transportation nerd that you probably know about proof-of-payment anyway, so I won’t rehash it too much.

But the Metra fare structure can be improved in so, so many other ways as well. First and foremost, Metra — and Pace, and the CTA — should immediately move towards implementing fare capping strategies to make the system less expensive and more accessible for people with lower incomes.

(For the uninitiated: fare capping uses electronic fare media — in this case, Ventra cards — to track a rider’s fare purchases over a set period of time and automatically provides discounts at certain threshholds rather than relying on expensive upfront purchase prices for multi-ride or multi-day passes. For instance, currently a Metra one-way Zone B fare is $4.25 and a monthly pass is $123.25. A monthly pass is priced at 29 one-way fares, so in a 20-workday month it’s a definite discount over the one-way fares. However, for lower-income people, $4.25 a day is easier to budget than a $123.25 lump-sum payment all at once. A basic fare capping system would charge all Zone B riders $4.25 per ride for every ride through their 29th ride of the month, and then allow free rides for the rest of the month. Unfortunately instituting fare capping is not revenue-neutral since there are some riders who cannot afford not to do pay-as-you-go today, which puts transit providers in the awkward position of disproportionately profiting off their poorest riders.)

A lack of fare integration between the three service boards is a well-documented failure of the system so I won’t get too deep into it here, other than to say it’s a no-brainer. But just as important — and something that flies under the radar much more often — is the awful park-and-ride system that exists at Metra’s suburban stations. Most of Metra’s park-and-ride facilities are owned and operated by the various suburban municipalities which means, unless a community has more than one Metra station, parking policies are often done in a near vacuum with no standardization even between adjacent stations. This creates unnecessary issues where parking may be undervalued (to the point where communities lose money on their parking lots due to required maintenance), riders may be incentivized to use stations other than their nearest station (which increases driving and suburban congestion), and perverse disincentives to using other transit (for instance, Pace feeder routes with higher round-trip fares than the cost of daily fee parking). As the common thread linking the network of park-and-ride facilities, Metra should take a more proactive approach in recommending parking policies near their suburban stations.

I have plenty of other fare fodder for Metra, but I’ll save that for a different post.

5. Metra — and Pace — need to create a joint regional suburban transit plan based on holistic needs and travel patterns first and mode choices second.

Metra runs trains; Pace runs buses. However, Pace is being innovative with their bus fleet and finding new partners to stretch their capabilities, such as their upgraded offerings along the Jane Addams Tollway. (Shameless plug: check out the I-90 corridor first-hand at our first-ever Pace Bus Crawl on Saturday, January 19!) In the meantime, Metra is… purchasing second-hand locomotives from Amtrak and is being told by the entire industry that their bilevel coach design is functionally obsolete. However, in the absence of an integrated fare structure with Pace, the two systems will never fully reach their combined potential (see previous point).

But there’s nothing that forces Metra to be a rail-only agency. Right now, Pace operates feeder bus service to and from several Metra stations throughout the region. Metra operating their own buses is a stupid-easy end-run around everyone’s lack of interest in full fare integration between the three service boards while allowing for better transfers between buses and trains and broadening Metra’s overall operational flexibility across the board.

Think about Metra with a dedicated fleet of buses and some of the potential modifications they could do:

  • Fully fare-integrated feeder service to decrease the need for park-and-rides in the heart of suburban downtowns. (Freeing up park-and-ride facilities for development close to suburban train stations and applying some sort of value capture on the development would be a massive, sustainable funding source for Metra.)
  • Off-peak downtown Loop Link shuttles between the downtown terminals and the ‘L’ combined with pulse scheduling for easy, fast regional connections.
  • Taking over Pace’s successful I-55 corridor as a companion service to the freight-congested Heritage Corridor.
  • Running far-out shuttle service in places like Harvard and Woodstock, shaving an hour off off-peak UP-NW runs to increase frequencies to Palatine and Arlington Heights, with the potential added perk of giving McHenry off-peak service.
  • Finally getting Metra service into Kendall County through timed-transfer bus shuttles to/from Aurora.

While I’m sure Pace wouldn’t like Metra encroaching on their turf — the same way Metra has never been terribly happy about Pace’s Interstate 55 service siphoning off BNSF and Heritage Corridor riders — a directive from the RTA that defines Metra’s market as suburbs-to-downtown trips and Pace’s as suburb-to-suburb trips, as well as a joint effort between Metra and Pace to plan for an integrated future together would be downright revolutionary for suburban transit. (And maybe — just maybe — Metra could finally admit that the STAR Line is dead in the water if Metra and Pace can determine logical north-south high-speed Pace corridors that would link various Metra lines by building off of Pace’s successful partnership with the Illinois Tollway on Interstate 90.)


I’m looking forward to Wednesday’s event. It should be a great panel with a good mix of strong opinions and passion on how to improve the transportation network in Chicago. If you’re there, please be sure to find me and say hello. (I’ll also be around on Friday afternoon for our Ho’L’iday Happy Hour event, if you want to skip out of work a little early and dive into the weeds of suburban transit while we chase down the CTA Holiday Train.) At the end of the day, I can (and will!) continue to shout my opinions into the void about how we can make suburban transit more attractive, more sustainable, and more equitable for the region as a whole, but the only way any changes will happen is by having these kinds of conversations and discussions with everyone — academics, professionals, riders, staff, everyone — to form some excitement for a bold new vision forward.

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Diverging Approach: Reboot

They say, “write what you know.” For me and this blog, that usually amounts to my variety of (mis)adventures on Chicago-area transit. I originally started this site as a suburban advocate for transit, providing train crawl resources to make it easier for suburbanites to plan fun outings on Metra in the hope that, if someone has a good time on transit when they’re just hanging out in the suburbs on a weekend, they’ll be more likely to choose transit for future trips. Earlier this year, I realized that being a suburban advocate for transit wasn’t enough; I also needed to become a suburban transit advocate, someone who fights for a better transit system to serve the suburbs. That’s when I launched Star:Line Chicago and this blog, as someone who knew just enough to be dangerous with my modest background working at the CTA and Metra.

I enjoy running this blog, and I’ve gotten a lot of productive feedback from friends, industry peers, and a few laypeople who have stumbled upon the site.

But, as regulars know, I became somewhat less of a suburbanite this summer, when my wife and I bought our first house and moved from our rented two-flat in LaGrange to our bungalow in Forest Park. In doing so, I traded in my Metra monthly for a CTA/Pace 30-Day pass. If you’re not familiar with Forest Park, the village lies in one of the grayest areas of suburban living: our taxes don’t go to CPS and we’re not officially Chicagoans, but we ride the CTA, our houses have city lot sizes and alleys, and our neighborhoods are very diverse. The difference for a childless household in Forest Park and in a neighborhood like Jefferson Park is basically where our property taxes go and what color the streetlights are.

And Jefferson Park has Metra.

As some of you have probably noticed, since the move I’ve blogged (and tweeted) more frequently about Pace than Metra, since that’s my experience now. Living in Forest Park is a great opportunity for me to get to know the Pace system better, an important part of going car-less or car-light in the suburbs. Expect more Pace material in the future; I’m hosting our first-ever bus crawl in January if you want to experience Pace first-hand.

But I’m still a Metra regular; I’ve simply gone from a “normal” Metra commuter to an off-peak specialist. I’m writing this on the Milwaukee West right now.

And off-peak is Metra’s biggest weakness and greatest opportunity,

Earlier this week I put together a Crawl Concierge request for someone out in Geneva who wants to crawl the UP-W. The UP-W – officially my nearest Metra service, in Oak Park and River Forest – ‪is apparently on a construction schedule (which didn’t show up as a service alert on the Ventra app or on Metra’s website), which means the official schedule says inbound trains get to Ogilvie on even hours,‬ instead of on the odd :50s as scheduled. ‪To put it another way, according to the published schedules, an inbound rider from Elmhurst could get off at Oak Park, wait 8 minutes, transfer to the Green Line, make all 13 stops to Clinton (the stop before Clark/Lake) and beat the UP-W train to Ogilvie.‬

‪Of course, it doesn’t actually take 32 minutes to go the 9 or so miles from Oak Park to Ogilvie; Metra adds the time padding to maintain its on-time performance. Likewise, the train probably won’t actually get into Oak Park as scheduled at 3:28pm.

The national standard for on-time trains is as long as the train reaches its final destination within 5min 59sec of the published arrival time, the entire train is on time; tacking on extra minutes at the end of the run is an easy (and lazy) way to maintain on-time performance.‬ It also leads to what I call “Schrödinger’s Delays”, where in this case a train can come into Oak Park well behind schedule but magically makes it downtown on-time. The customer experience is waiting longer on a cold platform for a train that could arrive 15 minutes after when the schedule says it’ll get to the station, just to see Metra present a stellar on-time performance at the next board meeting.

Whether Metra wants to believe it or not, it’s almost 2019, and people use technology and transportation apps to help make their mode choice decisions when they travel. Construction schedules that provide for more realistic arrival/departures at intermediate stations would have shorter in-vehicle times and can help make transit more attractive, even if it means getting downtown a little later. ‪During the week, Metra has an inherent competitive edge: going downtown requires driving through heavy traffic and paying for expensive parking, giving the train a speed and cost edge, especially considering Metra runs frequent express trains on many lines. But off-peak, Metra needs to be more aggressive in courting ridership.‬ ‪Trains run slower (more stops) and less conveniently (higher headways), whereas there’s less road traffic and cheaper parking. And sure enough, by time period off-peak is where Metra’s seeing the worst losses. ‬

Courtesy of Metra’s September 2018 Ridership Report.

‪Of course, Metra’s Weekend Pass went up 25% this year ($8 to $10) so that undoubtedly plays into those ~10% year-over-year ridership losses for Saturdays and Sundays, but that’s all the more reason why Metra can’t afford to slack off on weekend schedules.‬

Metra needs to run more weekend trains. Full stop. And, let’s be honest, there’s zero appetite for that from the board due to budget issues. But the next best thing is doing a comprehensive audit of weekend service and modernizing the schedule.‬ ‪Growing up in Itasca, I got to know the weekend schedule of the Milwaukee West pretty well, and as far back as I can remember the only difference between 1989’s schedule and 2019’s schedule is a few minutes here and there.‬ Thirty years ago, ‪hourly inbound morning trains and hourly outbound afternoon trains make sense if “banker’s hours” were needed for Saturday half days. But Metra needs to realize that in 2019 their core market on weekends is leisure riders and families, not white-collar downtown workers.‬ ‪Suburbanites make a definite choice in how they get downtown outside of rush hour, and they choose not to ride Metra on weekends because two-hour headways to come home at night are insufficient. ‪

Metra needs to better understand how travelers use their system when they don’t have the inherent advantages of the rush hour market. Off-peak, people take Metra either because they absolutely have to or because they absolutely want to, with not many riders in between.‬ Adding later trains would get more people on morning trains, an induced demand Metra fails to tap.‬ ‪Kill the outbound 1:30p, 3:30p, and/or 5:30p Saturday afternoon departures on each line that has them and replace them with 7:30p, 9:30p, and/or 11:30p and see what happens. (Hint: more people will choose to ride the train.)‬

‪In this era of funding constraints, Metra’s (rightfully) trying to pick off all the low-hanging fruit they can when it comes to fleet maintenance (rehabs, buying second-hand, etc.), but on the schedule side all they have in their toolbox is botching PTC rollouts and ongoing threats of service cuts.‬ ‪Metra’s greatest opportunities for growth are off-peak and reverse commutes, but their bread-and-butter continues to be peak hour peak direction commuters that is almost the sole focus of the agency as ridership slides.‬

Off-peak ridership boosts aren’t the silver bullet Metra needs for everything to be okay; as the Metra board says at every opportunity, Metra’s underlying funding model is outdated and inadequate. But that’s no excuse for Metra’s off-peak service to run on outdated and inadequate schedules. Nibbling on the edges of the margins is not a long-term way to run a railroad, but Metra has to accept they aren’t just a railroad any more. Metra needs to think of themselves as a suburban transit provider first and a railroad second.

But they don’t. And they won’t.

Which is why I still tilt at these windmills. Being able to take Pace to Metra is a big reason why my wife and I will be a one-car family after the new year – even though we don’t live in a Metra community – and every day there seems to be a new, dire warning about how man-made climate change will doom us all. Metra needs to evolve to better serve the suburbs for 2019, not 1989.

Diverging Approach: Be Careful What You Wish For

Thanksgiving has come and gone, the Christmas season is here, the world’s on fire and we’re all doomed, and Chicago’s looking at the business end of the first winter storm of the season. Ho Ho Ho!

It’s a great time of year to take stock of everything we have to be thankful for, to catch up and spend time with friends and family, and to get rip-roaringly drunk because, yes, the world is on fire, and our federal government’s response is to drop the report quietly and unexpectedly on Black Friday when no one is paying attention.

With New Year’s on the horizon, a concerted effort to minimize our carbon footprint will undoubtedly float to the top of a lot of people’s resolution lists. But while people will bicker about saving the world by going vegetarian or nothing mattering because a handful of companies belching out most of the greenhouses gases anyway, the absolute easiest thing you can do to shrink your carbon footprint is to simply drive less. Plus, while well-minded people will continue to walk a fine line between “every little thing helps” and “some changes are actually worse for the environment than just doing things the old way,” spending less money on fuel and oil changes directly goes to your personal bottom line and makes the savings more apparent.

For city folks, this is nothing new. Most city-dwellers in transit-rich areas know car ownership is more folly than freedom, given high costs of parking, urban traffic congestion, and so on. But for those of us out in the suburbs, driving is more than a way of life: it’s how our communities were constructed.

Take, for example, the RTA’s Halloween promo, asking commuters how scary Chicago would be without transit. A fun little reminder of the important role transit plays in our region, and part of the constant drumbeat to get more funding from Springfield. But here’s an important thing to consider: that video was shot just outside the Blue Line subway, likely interviewing transit riders who just got off CTA trains. Transit riders know how important transit is, for obvious reasons; people in downtown Chicago, an area literally built around the Loop Elevated and hemmed in by commuter rail lines know it more than anyone.

But out in the suburbs? I’d like to see the RTA do a similar video out at Woodfield Mall or along Randall Road or any of the other suburban shopping meccas. According to the Active Transportation Alliance, a whopping 92% of suburban workers don’t use transit. Imagine life without transit, the RTA asks, not acknowledging that for the vast majority of our region, life without transit is the only life they know. I’ve personally been very disappointed – and if you follow Star:Line on Twitter you already know – how the RTA and Metra frames suburban transit as something that makes it easier for drivers to drive in an effort to get drivers to support increased funding for transit.

It’s 2018 in the Chicago suburbs. We treat driving as this immutable fact of life, as if we didn’t build a massive highway and freeway infrastructure from the ground up only within the last sixty years or so. Railroads and surface transportation companies, which transformed Chicago from a marshy trading post at the mouth of a small river to the second-largest city in the country in a century, now have to go to voters, hat in hand, begging for a few extra scraps under the guise of congestion relief on roads and freeways that were farmland a generation ago, and we all just go along with it. We use metrics like “delay” and “level of service” to define “acceptable” highway facilities, where the implication is that unless I’m hurtling down a concrete ribbon at speeds multiple times higher than what the human body has spent thousands of years evolving to handle in my two-ton metal death box, a solution requiring significant government intervention in funding and engineering is necessary.

Driving is unnatural. Obviously, you can make the same argument about riding a train or a bus, but we become different people when we’re driving a car. The human brain literally behaves differently when driving. And it makes sense: riding transit, or even getting a ride from a friend or an Uber, has an implicit handover of control that we do as a compromise to get to wherever we’re going. The train comes at this time; get on or get left behind. Your Uber is nine minutes away; your journey will not begin until then, and then someone else will drive you to your destination.

But when we drive? I’ll drive my car whenever I want, wherever I want. I control how fast I go; I control what route I take; and when I get there, I can leave whenever I want because my car is waiting for me right where I left it. This is the freedom our grandparents dreamt of growing up in crowded cities and the freedom our parents came to expect in new suburban subdivisions built just for them. But then, when congestion happens, it’s a personal affront to the driver. The other people in front of me are preventing me from doing what I want, and it MAKES ME MAD! I’m complaining to my village board and I’m calling my state representative: they spent all this money building me these roads all over the region and they don’t even have the common courtesy to keep them free of traffic.

In the meantime, as I write this post, I’m currently riding on a crowded Metra train that comes once every two hours on Saturday nights. I took a Pace bus that doesn’t have timed transfers to the train, so I sat by myself in a modest shelter waiting 20 minutes in 40° weather for the train. I do this because I prefer not to drive (and, let’s be honest, it’s an extremely on-brand thing for me to do). I’m heading to a bar back in Itasca to drink and be merry with close friends. One of said friends – who shall remain nameless – lives two blocks away from the bar and drives to the bar every time. He works out religiously and brags about how far he runs through the neighborhoods, but ask him to walk to the bar and he stares at you like you grew an appendage in the center of your forehead.

If the RTA is going to refine their pitch to suburbanites, they should stop asking people to imagine the region without transit, but to start imagining the region WITH transit. Imagine a suburban Chicago where you don’t need a car. Imagine a transit network that did more than take people downtown on weekday mornings and back to the suburbs on weekday afternoons. Imagine living in a region with enough transit that you don’t need to plan your entire night around when the trains come. Imagine a bus home waiting for you when the train stops. Imagine not having to do the suburban drop-off-of-shame, when you have to find a ride back to the bar at 10am on Sunday to pick up the car you (smartly) left there the night before.

It’s Christmas time, a time of year to dream and believe. And it’s Chicago: dream big.

Diverging Approach: Sliding Doors

It’s the observed Veterans Day for state employees, so I had the day off. Knowing this, a few weeks back I scheduled a doctor’s appointment for today so I can save some of my sick time. However, what I didn’t foresee was my car crapping out. My wife and I each have our own car, but we’ve been talking about becoming a one-car family, and for the foreseeable future we will be: I think it’s an electrical issue with my car, which is a 1999 Chrysler Sebring with 194,000+ miles. Combine that with the fact that we purchased a house this summer in a transit-friendly area, and there’s a very, very strong chance that I’ll just donate the car to charity rather than spend money on trying to get it up and running again. My initial goal was to get 200,000 miles out of the car before it bit the dust, but, like most things in life, fate apparently had other plans.

But that got me thinking: my house is in Forest Park; my doctor’s office is in Hoffman Estates not far from St. Alexius Medical Center and a brief walk away from Pace’s new Barrington Road park-and-ride facility. What better way for me to practice what I preach than by actually taking transit instead of driving? Honestly, I could just change doctors — both Loyola and Rush Oak Park Hospitals are way closer to home and both much more transit-friendly — but if you’ve ever dealt with doctors (or the American medical system as a whole) you know that once you have something that actually works you’ll be willing to jump through some hoops to make it work.

In honor of Veterans Day, I wanted to try something a little different. According to the Census Bureau, there are an estimated 328,535 veterans living in the Chicago metro area; of those, 85,447 — or 26% — have a disability, compared with only 10.9% of non-veterans (675,108 disabled out of 6,147,190 non-veterans 18 or older). Furthermore, the Census Bureau estimates that 22.315 Chicago-area veterans live in poverty. Also today, the Better Government Asssociation released a deep-dive article on the Village of Dolton and highlighting the plight of suburban poverty. Suburban poverty is real, it’s pervasive, and it’s growing. Pile on the ever-looming threat of climate change, constricted operations funding and capital budgets, and all the other negatives we generally already know about car-centric planning and design, and a sustainable, efficient suburban transit system has never been more important of a pressing need.

So today, I’m posting a thought experiment: how would my off day be different based on my transportation options? Below is a tick-tock of my day running in parallel: in the red universe I drove a car; in the blue universe I used transit. Enjoy.


6:30am: My alarm goes off. I faintly hear my wife downstairs leave for her teacher training in Naperville, taking the car with her. My alarm usually goes off at 6:30am on workdays; most days I hit snooze a few times and roll out of bed around 7 or so. Today will be no different. I left the alarm on because I know I have to get up at a decent hour to catch my first bus of the day. (So much for sleeping in on my off-day.)

6:30am: I instinctively wake up around 6:30am, even though I turned the alarm off before I went to bed last night. (So much for sleeping in on my off-day.) I roll over and fall back asleep.

6:39am: Alarm goes off. I hit the snooze. I roll over and fall back asleep.

6:48am: Alarm goes off. I hit the snooze. I roll over and fall back asleep.

6:57am: Alarm goes off. I hit the snooze. Before I roll over and fall back asleep, I do some quick mental math in my head: my appointment is in Hoffman Estates at 11:20am, so as long as I make it to Rosemont by 10:00am I should be fine. Which means I need to leave here by 8:45am to give myself enough time to get up there. So I can stay in bed until 7:45 or so. Cool. I roll over and fall back asleep.

7:06am: Alarm goes off. I hit the snooze. I roll over and fall back asleep.

7:15am: Alarm goes off. Alright, fine, I’ll get up. After I check Facebook.

7:15am: Ah, sleeping in. I’ll get up right after I check Facebook.

7:45am: Just one more FailArmy video, then I’ll get in the shower. As long as I’m at Rosemont by 10:15am I’ll be fine.

7:45am: Just one more FailArmy video, then I’ll get in the shower.

8:02am: Eh, as long as I’m at Rosemont by 10:30am I’ll be fine.

8:07am: Okay, fine, I’m up. Time for a shower.

8:45am: Okay, fine, I’m up. Time for a shower… after one more Facebook video.

8:50am: I’m dressed and out the door, heading to the bus stop at Harlem and Fillmore. If I miss the bus, so be it, there’s another one 15 minutes behind it. I’ll grab breakfast at McDonald’s.

8:59am: As I approach the intersection of Harlem and Fillmore, I see the 307 bus zoom past. Cool. I head to McDonald’s. It’s a little chilly this morning, but a few extra steps won’t kill me.

9:03am: I order a sausage burrito and a medium soda. I drink too much soda, I think to myself. But at least I walked here.

9:05am: They forgot to give me a hot sauce packet. I go back to the counter and ask for one. No big deal.

9:10am: Okay, NOW I’m up. Time for a shower.

9:10am: I head over to the bus stop when the Transit Tracker in the Ventra app says the bus will come in five minutes. I notice this bus only goes to Harlem/Lake and not all the way to Elmwood Park, but I’ll still be able to transfer to the 90 without a problem.

9:15am: I board the 307 and head towards Oak Park. I browse Twitter for awhile.

9:28am: The bus gets into Oak Park and drops us off right by the Green Line terminal. Two other riders and I walk over to the waiting #90-Harlem bus. This is a nice transfer during the cold months, especially when the bus is waiting for you.

9:29am: My wife texts me to let me know our friend who is pregnant with twins knows her due date, and it’s the same day as her husband’s birthday and their daughter’s birthday! Life is funny some times. How great would it be if they all ended up having the same birthday?

9:29am: My wife texts me. I’m in the shower and don’t notice the text until I leave the house.

9:33am: The 90 pulls out onto Harlem and starts the trip towards the other Harlem Blue Line station.

9:40am: The 90 (and the 307 bus, for that matter) aren’t too bad on Harlem south of North Avenue where the road is five lanes wide, but once that lane drops off it becomes a slog. It’s a bit of a contradiction in terms of Complete Streets planning: a lot of transportation planners don’t mind having some on-street parking since it creates a buffer wall between moving traffic and pedestrians on the sidewalk, but for transit riders the bus has to continuously move in and out of moving traffic, slowing down travel times. In the meantime, on Harlem’s five-lane sections, the bus simply stops in the right lane to pick up and drop off passengers. Car drivers don’t like it and it’s probably caused plenty of rear-end collisions, but it makes for an easier trip for transit riders and bus operators. Either way, this is a great time to point out the near-complete lack of higher-speed north-south transit routes in our region outside of downtown.

9:50am: It should take me about 45 minutes or so to make the drive up to the doctor’s office, but I do need to stop for gas and grab a quick breakfast, so I’ll head over to the gas station now.

9:54am: We’ve made it three miles in the last fifteen minutes. I don’t know how people do this all the time.

9:54am: $30 to fill up the tank?! I don’t know how people do this all the time.

10:00am: I go into the McDonald’s drive thru and order a sausage burrito and medium soda. I drink too much soda, I think to myself. I’ll go for a walk later to make up for it.

10:02am: They forgot to give me a hot sauce packet. Of course they did.

10:06am: Made it to the Harlem Blue Line. According to the CTA’s train tracker displays, the next outbound train comes in six minutes. Not bad.

10:06am: I merge onto 290 at Des Plaines Avenue, and it’s slow going. “There is a six minute delay due to congestion. You are still on the fastest route.” Thanks Google. Piece of shit Ike traffic.

10:11am: My wife texts me again to ask how I’m feeling (I’m fighting off a mild cold) and to wish me luck at the doctor’s office. I’m a lucky guy.

10:11am: My wife texts me again. I don’t notice because my phone is sitting on the passenger seat.

10:12am: I board a standing-room-only Blue Line train headed toward O’Hare. An interesting mix of people: travelers with suitcases, airport workers with brightly-colored safety vests on, a few office workers in suits get off at Cumberland. The Blue Line is an interesting place no matter what time of day it is.

10:12am: The Ike starts to open up a bit after 25th Avenue. As usual.

10:20am: I exit the train at Rosemont. I’d love a bottle of water right about now — but the vending machine is broken. Oh well. I have a few options for buses to Barrington Road: the 603 and 605 will both get me there. Looks like I missed the 10:02am 605 (maybe sleepy-me was right, I should’ve gotten to Rosemont by 10:00am), but the 603 comes at 10:34am. Good enough.

10:21am: I drive through the work zone between Route 83 and I-355. The signs say “work zone speed limit 45” but no one is going slower than 60. Slow down in work zones, you dicks.

10:26am: The 603 pulls into Rosemont. I hop on and settle in to one of the comfy seats. Kudos to Pace for reclining seats, WiFi, and USB chargers on their new I-90 express buses.

10:29am: I have determined that none of the USB chargers on this bus work. Oh well.

10:33am: I miss the westbound tollway ramp because everyone who fucking drives is a fucking asshole who won’t let anyone else merge into traffic even though it’s a fucking cloverleaf and the entire fucking point is that everyone has to fucking weave in and out. Everyone sucks except me. I exit at Algonquin Road and double-back to the tollway on 53.

10:34am: We leave Rosemont on time. I’m almost caught up on Twitter.

10:48am: As we pass IDOT’s office, I look around at the drivers on the tollway around me. They seem sad, buckled into their little metal boxes. I wonder if they wish they didn’t have to drive.

10:48am: As I pass IDOT’s office, I look over and see a Pace bus in the right lane. The riders on board must be sad, trapped in that big metal box that only comes once an hour. I wonder if they wish they were driving.

10:52am: I exit at Barrington Road and pass the new Pace park-and-ride station. I still need to get out there sometime to check it out for the blog.

10:53am: The bus dropped me off at the new Barrington Road park-and-ride, which honestly is a pretty good-looking facility. I’ll make sure to explore it a bit on my way back home.

10:56am: I park at the doctor’s office and check in. I haven’t been here since last September, so there’s the usual clipboard of paperwork to fill out.

11:05am: I finish with the paperwork and bring it back to the desk clerk. Now I finally get to check my Twitter feed.

11:07am: Of course, the only stretch without a sidewalk between the bus station and the doctor’s office is in the doctor’s office parking lot. Typical suburbia. But hey, I’m on time!

11:08am: I check in at the doctor’s office. I haven’t been here since last September, so there’s the usual clipboard of paperwork to fill out.

11:16am: I get called into the exam room. I’ll finish the paperwork in there after the nurse takes my vitals.

11:16am: I get called into the exam room.

12:05pm: All good at the doctor’s office. Time for a nice lunch at Garibaldi’s. Mmm… pizza.

12:05pm: All good at the doctor’s office. Time for a nice lunch at Garibaldi’s. Mmm… pizza.

12:50pm: Time to walk back to the bus station.

12:50pm: Time to walk back to my car.

12:53pm: I know I’m going to hit traffic on 290 near 294, so I’ll just take the tollway home.

12:59pm: Back at the Pembroke entrance to the Barrington Road park-and-ride, time to do a deep dive. I’m a little underwhelmed at the dial-a-ride and circulator bus stops on Pembroke Avenue. Oddly, there’s no crosswalk, so I’m not sure how ADA-accessible this location can be.

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Not pictured: the shuttle operator standing outside the open door vaping before starting his run.

1:02pm: The southern access to the main bus stop is, uh, not terribly welcoming. Riders have to walk through basically oversized culverts to access the platforms along the tollway main line; what’s worse, the lights haven’t been installed yet, so it feels dark and dank all the time. Of course, the lights in the north tunnel to the park-and-ride are installed and ready to go: it is, after all, a park-and-ride facility, so the station is oriented far more strongly for drivers driving to the station than any pedestrians walking there from nearby.

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Welcome! Step right in to this dark drainage culvert.

1:04pm: The stops themselves are functional, but two things struck me: (1) lighting at the platforms use the same high-mast lighting used elsewhere on the tollway, so everything still feels scaled at the automobile level rather than at the pedestrian level, and (2) there is literally no place to sit. No benches at the platforms, in the stairwells, or even on the skybridge across the highway. Seems like a glaring oversight for a transit facility, although hostile architecture in transit isn’t exactly unheard of these days.

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Wonder what the LEED score is on a facility like this with so much hardscape.

1:06pm: I finally found the bus tracker displays: they’re upstairs in the skybridge, which seems like a really weird place for them. Generally it makes sense to have tracker displays in places where people, you know, wait for transit. Not that it matters: one had a slideshow on loop from the grand opening; the other is the Windows 10 idle screen.

 

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Eastbound bus tracker. Not sure if it’s hooked up to the internet; the clock is an hour ahead.
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Westbound bus tracker. Please log in.

1:07pm: This view makes me miss the tollway oases, which are becoming endangered.

img_6457

1:07pm: A slight delay as the left lane is closed; workers are putting the center pillar in for a future interchange with Interstate 490. This is what they destroyed the Des Plaines Oasis for. I miss that oasis.

1:11pm: I head over to the north side of the station and walk over to the park-and-ride lot. Pretty decent usage for a Monday that some people have off. Overall it looks nice, but it’s still a parking lot.

img_6456
Yep, it’s a parking lot. That tall building in the back is a hotel that doesn’t have a direct sidewalk connection to the transit station. Hopefully that changes in the future; a direct non-driving trip to Rosemont seems like a great asset for a hotel to brag about.

1:13pm: Pace sprung for a $8.4 million pedestrian bridge over the tollway but didn’t invest in covered bike parking? That’s a missed opportunity. 

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Not every bike rack has to look like this, you know.

1:15pm: Here’s a few future local bus bays on the north side of the station. As someone who works along Central Road, I’m extremely interested in new service in that corridor, since the current service kinda sucks.

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I’m a fan of the pylon wayfinding signage, but the map on the top doesn’t match what was actually built on the south side of the station.

1:17pm: Hitting traffic as I take the ramp to southbound I-294. So many trucks! And doesn’t anyone in this city work any more?!

1:19pm: Alright, back on the eastbound platform waiting for my bus. That’s enough deep-diving for today. But, uh, looks like Pace forgot where one of their routes goes after they made the signs.

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How long do you think it took someone to notice that the “Randall Road-Schaumburg Express” doesn’t go to Rosemont?

1:25pm: Since the bus trackers aren’t working yet inside, I’ll text in to see when the next bus comes.

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Technology, am I right?

1:26pm: Another missed opportunity: a brand new station with brand new everything, and the schedules are the same old Pace-standard printed handouts on a corkboard. Functional? I suppose, but inconvenient and not terribly easy to read. Just make a chronological list of buses regardless of route or destination specific to that station and be done with it. It seems to work at Metra’s downtown stations on the video monitors; it probably would work just as well in print at outlying stations. Give people credit: most people can read a single chronology and understand two different timelines within it. (Hopefully.)

img_6452
Quality service information you’d expect at a multimillion-dollar transit facility.

1:30pm: There are three routes that serve this stop at this time of day:

  • The 603 from Elgin to Rosemont runs hourly; next bus at 1:32pm.
  • The 605 from Randall Road to Rosemont runs hourly; next bus at 1:59pm.
  • The 607 from Randall Road to Schaumburg runs every half hour; next bus at 1:32pm.

For the two routes to Rosemont, it’s good to see that they’re somewhat balanced in terms of headway; but the 603 and 607 arriving at exactly the same time doesn’t make any sense at all.

1:30:30pm: RIP to the O’Hare Oasis too as I pass by it. Really miss those oases. And this traffic… ugh.

1:31:00pm: Actually, it does make sense: assuming both buses are present at the same time, riders can transfer from the bus from Elgin to the bus to Schaumburg.

1:31:30pm: Nope, back to not making sense, since the 554 runs that route anyway without requiring a transfer.

1:32:00pm: Definitely doesn’t make any sense, since the 607 came and left without waiting for the 603.

1:32:30pm: Luckily the 603 was right behind it, and I’m back on my way.

1:34pm: Glad 93.9 already switched over to all-Christmas music. I hope they play the only Christmas song that matters soon.

1:50pm: While I was a little underwhelmed with the Barrington Road station, definite kudos to Pace and the tollway for the I-90 offerings. Service is quick and headways aren’t awful; the rolling stock is pleasant; and at the standard $2.25 fare it’s economical too. This service should be the nail in the STAR Line’s coffin. I’m back at Rosemont now… I have some time to kill and I’m up here, maybe I’ll head over to O’Hare to check out the new rental car facility.

1:51pm: FINALLY made it back home — crawling at 25 miles per hour on I-290 is brutal. Driving in traffic stresses me out. I’ll fire up the Xbox for a bit, that should calm my jangled nerves.

1:52pm: Blue Line is shut down due to an “animal on the tracks”; no trains between Harlem/Higgins and O’Hare. So much for checking out Lot F. The CTA employees say a shuttle bus will be arriving “shortly”.

1:54pm: Hmmm… Grand Theft Auto or Battlefield? 

1:56pm: The 303 pulled up. I’ll just take the bus back home instead of exploring more and waiting for a shuttle bus that may or may not come.

1:57pm: Definitely Battlefield 1. I drove enough today. Plus, you know, the armistice and everything.

2:06pm: The bus leaves Rosemont. I start a tweetstorm about the lack of communication between CTA and Pace.

2:11pm: More tweets. I realize I’ve been slacking on the blog. I should do an update tonight.

2:20pm: I forgot how slow these north-south routes are. Definitely going to blog tonight.

2:25pm: Oh man, we haven’t even reached the slow part of the route yet. I wonder what time I’ll get home. Actually, I wonder what time I would’ve gotten home if I just drove.

2:25pm: That was a bullshit loss. Come on, this one will be a win.

2:29pm: That would be a fun Diverging Approach post, racing myself in different modes of transportation.

2:40pm: Even with their main street closed at the railroad tracks, Melrose Park’s downtown is still busy. I need to come back here some time next time I’m feeling Mexican food.

2:49pm: You know, Maywood’s got a lot of potential. Although I can only imagine what this area would be like today if the Eisenhower Expressway construction didn’t kill the interurban.

2:58pm: Arrived at the Forest Park Blue Line terminal. Hopped on the train to Harlem (the Forest Park one) to save a few minutes.

3:01pm: Arrived at Harlem. Walking home. The weather is brisk, but pleasant walking weather.

3:13pm: Maybe I’m just bad at video games. Losing isn’t fun.

3:14pm: I got home and pulled out the laptop. This will be a good blog post. But honestly, I’m glad that’s a trip I only have to make a few times a year. Suburb-to-suburb transit trips are definitely challenging. Even today — a midday trip on a Monday when most people are working — a 45-minute doctor’s appointment took the better part of the day in transit using five different bus lines and two trains. There’s still a long way to go, but Pace’s new Barrington Road station is a great start to improving our suburban transit network.

3:14pm: Today kind of sucked. But at least I didn’t have to deal with Pace.

Diverging Approach: Orange and Silver

Happy Halloween! In addition to tricks and treats, today marks the 25th anniversary of the opening of the CTA Orange Line. Like all birthdays after a certain age, this one is bittersweet: it’s great that Chicago has been able to boast rapid transit connections to two airports, but it’s also a bit depressing that the Orange Line represents the most recent actual expansion of the ‘L’. (The Pink Line was formed in 2006 using existing parts of the Green Line, the Blue Line, and a reconstructed non-revenue track called the Paulina Connector.) The Orange Line is unique: it’s the CTA’s first ‘L’ expansion that didn’t run in the median of an expressway since the expressway network was built in the 1950s and 1960s, although early plans did call for a rapid transit line in the median of the Stevenson Expressway.

The history of the Orange Line is a curious one, with a significant amount of its funding provided by the killed Crosstown Expressway project. In 1972, Governor Richard Ogilvie campaigned for re-election heavily on making the Crosstown come to fruition; he lost 51%-49% to Dan Walker, who campaigned to kill the Crosstown.  (While a single highway project generally isn’t enough to swing a governor’s race especially after Ogilvie pushed through Illinois’s first state income tax, given how close Walker’s margin of victory was and how many Illinois voters are concentrated in Chicago and Cook County, it’s not unreasonable to consider the Crosstown being a decisive issue in the race.) The final nail in the coffin for the Crosstown came with the election of anti-Crosstown Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne in 1979 (who, coincidentally, also won by a 51%-49% margin). Mayor Byrne led the charge to use funds for the Crosstown to expand rapid transit to the Southwest Side, although the funds wouldn’t be designated as such until 1986 when Congressman William Lipinski called in a favor from President Reagan after Lipinski voted to support aiding the Contras in Nicaragua. Mayor Byrne also used some of the Crosstown money to extend the Blue Line to O’Hare, although she also reportedly pressured the CTA to build the extension to go straight into the terminals rather than leave space for a future extension (like at Midway) in order to expedite construction before the mayoral election. Mayor Harold Washington ended up cutting the ribbon on the O’Hare extension anyway.
If there’s one thing to take away from this brief history, it’s that we named a train station after a governor who wanted to expand our expressway network (and later served on a panel that tried to kill Amtrak’s public subsidy) and we named a freeway interchange after a mayor who killed a highway project to expand our rapid transit network.

Welcome to Chicago politics.

(Ogilvie wasn’t really a bad guy – Ogilvie Transportation Center bears his name because he helped form the Regional Transportation Authority and was a long-time railroader who successfully steered the Milwaukee Road through bankruptcy to form the Wisconsin Central. He also happened to be a Purple Heart veteran from World War II, helped fight the Chicago mob, and guided Illinois through a new state constitutional convention.)

Diverging Approach: A Tale of One City

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

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

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

And yet…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But by that point, it will be too late.

Diverging Approach: Flip It and Reverse It

Correction, 10/9/18: This month’s board meeting is today instead of Wednesday, for whatever reason. This post has been updated accordingly.

This Wednesday Tuesday is Metra’s next board meeting, and all eyes are going to be on the proposed 2019 budget. The budget will outline any proposed service cuts, a doomsday the board warned us about last month when they also pledged not to raise fares next year. I’m very interested in seeing what Wednesday Tuesday holds, but I’m going to use this post to talk about something else on the agenda that is, dare I say, a little progressive:

Metra wants to do a public-private partnership with a consortium of Lake County businesses to strengthen their reverse commute options on the Milwaukee North.

That’s… awesome. For any other transit agency this would be just an interesting development to keep an eye on, but for Metra this is a BFD. This pilot project – assuming the board approves it – hits the trifecta of things we’ve been pushing for: (1) more frequent trains that (2) reflect evolving commuting patterns in the region while (3) finding innovative financial solutions to make it happen.

To be clear, it’s not perfect. First and foremost, I’m sure the public-private partnership (P3) funding scheme for the pilot will get lots of press, and rightly so. But the future of transportation funding should not be focused strongly on P3 funding. Our public agencies operate at a loss in order to provide a service to its constituents; private companies operate to maximize profit to their shareholders. Sometimes there are projects that fit squarely in the middle part of that Venn diagram where both sides prosper (usually by the private side infusing needed capital for public-agency improvements and getting a portion of the generated revenue as a return on investment), but sometimes the two sides have differing objectives that often – not always, but frequently enough – leave the taxpayers holding the bag since most P3s limit the risk exposure from the private sector in order to make the project more financially feasible for investors. (See: parking meters, Chicago.)

There’s also the added wrinkle of transportation equity: a P3 pilot along the Milwaukee North corridor is possible because of the wealthy communities and businesses in the Lake-Cook Road corridor, but my fear would be a similar pilot that would serve a significant number of workers heading to a less-prosperous area – say, reverse commuting to the O’Hare area on the NCS or to Joliet on the Rock Island or Heritage Corridor – failing to get off the ground since there’s less political and financial capital to spend.

In Metra’s defense, the proposed P3 arrangement looks to be pretty solid and straightforward: Metra pays half of the annual operating expenses ($350,000 of $700,000) and $1 million towards $4.75 million of track improvements, with the private sector (Lake County Partners) paying the rest. In return, if the two-year pilot proves fiscally feasible, Metra will continue operating the service. This particular corridor already sees a significant number of reverse commutes, and it’s terrific that those businesses and communities sees the potential benefit of expanded Metra service to serve their workers.

Of course, Metra is still Metra, so the proposed evaluation is written, in my opinion, too conservatively: for the project to be considered a success, the new trains need to show a ridership increase of 300 riders a day (148,300 annual trips, or a total of 600 new daily rides on 255 workdays a year, at an average fare of $4.72 which comes out to almost exactly $700,000) AND new fare revenues of at least $700,000, so they’re covered in case the per-rider average fare doesn’t pan out. The pilot evaluation is also written to discount cannibalizing ridership on the Union Pacific North, so UP-N existing riders changing to theoretically more convenient MD-N trips won’t count towards the pilot’s success. In other words, Metra is demanding a 100% farebox recovery on this pilot, even though operational revenues are budgeted at 55% of expenses and farebox recovery is currently 54.4%. If the pilot was held to the same standard of the rest of the network, all the pilot would need to be successful is 160 new round-trip riders daily (160 x 2 x 255 x $4.72 = $385,000 = 55% of $700,000), which isn’t much more than Metra expects within the first year.

I’ll be able to dive deeper into the proposed additional service on Wednesday Tuesday when more details about schedules, publicity, and branding will presumably be made available. In the meantime, I’m genuinely excited about this, especially since I’m not expecting much in the way of other good news to come out of Wednesday Tuesday’s board meeting. This is a huge step forward for Metra, and this blog wholeheartedly endorses this kind of innovation pushing the envelope at Metra, even if we have a reservation or two. But Metra’s staff deserves credit for working out the details with Lake County Partners to get this in front of the board, and we strongly encourage the board to approve the item on Wednesday Tuesday.

(P.S. – If anyone on the board is reading this and has any heartburn about a proposed $700,000 increase in operating expenses should the pilot prove successful, please take note of CFO Farmer’s monthly financial report which will show – once again – that Metra’s operating budget is favorable to budget this year to the tune of $20 million, just through August. I’m sure he’d be able to find the $700,000 somewhere, or maybe set aside some of the end-of-year favorable operations budgeting to other pilot programs or at least fewer service cuts.)

Diverging Approach: Keep Up the Pace

Today is October 1. It’s the first day of Halloween month, that classic holiday where people either try to scare their peers, try walking in a different set of shoes for a day, or they simply don’t like having fun.

Today, I did all three of those things: I commuted. From a suburb. To another suburb.

On Pace.

Okay, pick your jaws up off the floor. This is important, because according to the Census, in 2015 a full 2.3 million people in the Chicago region live in the suburbs and commute to a different suburb for work. That doesn’t even include reverse commuters who live in Chicago proper and work out in the suburbs. Combine those statistics with Metra’s lackluster reverse-commute offerings in much of the region, and the simple fact that most suburban job centers are far from Metra stations anyway, and it’s easy to see how important a successful suburban bus network is to allow suburban workers to commute if they don’t (or choose not to) own a car.

Today I put my money where my mouth is and commuted to IDOT’s District 1 office in Schaumburg, where I had some early morning meetings. (I’m usually at that office once a week, but generally I use a state vehicle to commute between the Chicago office and the Schaumburg office.) The office is located a little bit west of Roselle Road off Central Road, immediately north of Interstate 90. It’s in a great location if you’re driving there from almost anywhere in the region, although ironically it’s not directly accessible from state highways — Roselle Road and Central Road are both Cook County highways, and that stretch of Interstate 90 is part of the Illinois Tollway. There is a single Pace bus line nearby: Route 696 serves the intersection of Roselle and Central Roads, and it’s a tolerable seven-minute walk to the office.

On the map, a transit commute between my home in southern Forest Park should be a slam dunk: the 696 serves the Northwest Transportation Center off Martingale Road, and I live not far from the Forest Park Blue Line terminal. Find the route that connects the two transit terminals and it’s easy as that.

But of course it’s not actually that easy. I completed my workday with round-trip commuting on Pace — but to do so, I had to ride NINE different Pace buses throughout the day. For both commutes, I actually was pretty fortunate transferring between lines: I never had to wait more than about five minutes at transfer points. (Pace, unlike some other transit agencies, understands how a conscious effort to have coordinated transfers greatly extends the reach of your network when frequency is low and headways are high.) Some of my experience is almost certainly unique to my individual situation: the District 1 office is basically on an island when it comes to lunch options, so I was back on the 696 to get to and from somewhere  to grab food. But there are plenty of areas of Schaumburg (and Oak Brook, and the Lake Cook Road corridor, among others) with similar issues, and I was fortunate enough that Pace was an option at all.

So here’s how I commuted today. Here’s the regional RTA map (that will open in a new tab) if you want to follow along.

  • 6:40am: Leave home. ($0.00) Without doxxing myself, I live in the southern half of Forest Park, about halfway between the Eisenhower and Roosevelt Road, and halfway between Harlem and Desplaines Avenues. If I was lazy, I could’ve walked down to Roosevelt and grabbed what would end up being my 10th bus of the day to get to the Forest Park Blue Line station, but instead the weather was decent so I walked the 15 minutes or so to the station to grab the bus.
  • 7:00am: Board Pace #757 at Forest Park. ($2.00/$2.25) I travel on a 30-day CTA/Pace monthly pass, but for kicks I’m going to keep track of how much today would’ve cost me if I didn’t have a pass. The blue figure shows how much it would cost using pay-as-you-go on a Ventra card; the green figure shows how much it would cost using cash. The 757 is really the only long-distance express bus that serves the Forest Park station, which seems like a potential missed opportunity for people who live and work out in the Oak Brook area. (The 301 serves this connection, but it’s a local bus that slogs down Roosevelt Road.) The 757 shoots up Interstate 290, then serves the Route 83 industrial corridor in Wood Dale, Bensenville, and Elk Grove Village before cutting up Higgins and Arlington Heights Roads to serve the random corporate buildings on Golf Road in Rolling Meadows before heading to the Woodfield area.  Well, most buses continue to the Woodfield area: there are only five round-trips offered each weekday, and a single westbound trip ends at Golf and New Wilke Roads instead of continuing onto Woodfield. Take a wild guess which bus fit in my schedule.
  • 7:55am: Transfer to Pace #208 on Golf Road. ($2.30/$4.50I opted to get off the bus at “Golf/Traffic Signal/Wal-Mart” (the official name of the bus stop) to wait for the next westbound bus, which would be either the 208 or the 606. It really doesn’t matter, since both routes end up at the Northwest Transportation Center; the 208 came first. The 208 does some heavy lifting for Pace, linking the Woodfield area to Evanston via Golf Mill mall and three Metra lines. With half-hourish headways seven days a week from early morning through evening, it’s basically as good as a more traditional suburban arterial bus route gets. This is also a good time to point out that transfers cost 30 cents on Ventra but aren’t available at all if you’re paying cash, which means it’s extremely important to have a Ventra card for suburban bus trips. And, of course, Ventra retailers aren’t exactly common in the suburbs: all of Elk Grove Village, for example, has only one retailer that sells Ventra cards: ironically, a gas station.
  • 8:19am: Transfer to Pace #696 at the Northwest Transportation Center. ($2.60/$6.75I’ll end up on the 696 three more times before the day is done, since it’s the only bus that comes close to the IDOT office. The 696 is basically the opposite of the 208: a low-frequency bus that just kind of meanders around to cover a lot of ground at the expense of travel time. It checks a stereotypical list of suburban destinations — a courthouse, a community college, a commuter university, one Metra station, and two malls.
  • 8:35am: Exit the bus and walk to the office. I end up arriving around 8:40am, close enough to my 8:30am start time and definitely in time for my 9:00am meeting, so mission accomplished.
  • 11:45am: Leave the office for lunch. I was a bit concerned when I left the office at 11:45am: I wanted to leave five minutes earlier but got caught up wrapping up a few emails. The 696 was scheduled to be back at Roselle/Central at 11:52am, and the following bus wouldn’t arrive until around 1:30pm, which is far later than I was willing to wait to get food.  Interestingly, the District 1 office was built with a fully-functioning kitchen and cafeteria on the first floor, but decades of belt tightening combined with, well, everyone has a car and there’s no shortage of places to grab lunch in Schaumburg reduced the cafeteria to an odd unstaffed convenience store setup where cameras watch you self checkout whatever bagged snacks or any of the handful of pre-made sandwiches and salads you wanted. Either way, sticking around the office wasn’t really an option for lunch, so I was back on the 696.
  • 11:54am: Board Pace #696 at Roselle/Central. ($4.60/$9.00Correction: now I’m back on the 696.
  • 12:00pm: Arrive at Portillo’s on Golf Road. When in Rome.
  • 12:45pm: Leave Portillo’s. Unfortunately the bus doesn’t come for another half hour or so, but the weather is nice so I decide to walk along Golf Road and wait for the bus to catch up to me. Golf Road in Schaumburg is a pretty crappy place to be a pedestrian, by the way. Since I’m on Pace time, I have to take a long lunch and will be losing out on a half hour of comp time. A small price to pay for my art, I suppose.
  • 1:10pm: Board Pace #696 at Roselle/Remington. ($6.60/$11.25The bus took longer than I expected, so I walked a little further than I expected and sweated a little more than I expected as well. Feet are a bit sore.
  • 1:13pm: Exit the bus and walk to the office. Glad I have a 30-day pass, otherwise I’d be a little pissed about paying $2 for a four-minute bus ride. But it covered a lot of ground and crossed over the tollway, so I suppose it’s worth it. Hashtag suburbs. Also, here’s a quick panorama of the signalized crossing at Roselle and Central.
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The pedestrian countdown timer to cross Central Road (right) starts at 45 seconds.
  • 4:30pm: Leave the office to head home. My workday officially ends at 5:00pm, but the 696 schedule is having none of that: the bus comes at about 4:37pm or around 5:55pm, so choose wisely.  I choose to burn another half hour of comp time and try to get home at a decent hour.
  • 4:38pm: Board Pace #696 at Roselle/Central ($8.60/$13.50I notice two people on this bus who were also on the 208 and transferred to the 696 with me this morning. The bus is surprisingly crowded with people headed back from Harper College.
  • 4:56pm: Transfer to Pace #600 at the Northwest Transportation Center ($8.90/$15.75Now, if I wanted to, I could’ve hopped back on the last 757 of the day, which departs the Northwest Transportation Center at 5:00pm. However, (1) I’d rather try a route I didn’t already try; (2) I wouldn’t mind checking out Pace’s new I-90 services (although the 600’s been around for awhile); and (3) I wanted to see what my options were if the 696 ran late and didn’t allow for the 757 connection. The 600 is a great route: express between the Northwest Transportation Center and the Rosemont Blue Line. That’s it. No weird loops, no long gaps in service, just a straight shot down the tollway, every 15 minutes, all day long. I don’t make a habit of complimenting our suburban transit options too often around here, but I must say I was definitely impressed by the special fleet Pace uses on the I-90 corridor now. Comfy seats that recline, reading lights and vents at every seat, and a USB charger (although it’s a little hidden, so you kind of have to know it’s there).
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A certain commuter railroad should take some notes on what new seats on transit could look like… but then again, there’s no cup holders on the bus.
  • 5:35pm: Transfer to Pace #303 at the Rosemont Blue Line ($9.20/$18.00As great as the 600 was, that’s as bad as the 303 is during rush hour. Seriously, what an awful experience the 303 was. It felt like most of the trip was spent standing still: it took at least three signal cycles for the bus to make the right turn from southbound River Road to westbound Irving Park Road in Schiller Park; we got stuck for a freight train in Franklin Park (not unusual); and it took a good five minutes to make a single left turn from southbound 25th Avenue to eastbound North Avenue. It was a solid hour of grinding through the inner tier suburbs, and served as a constant reminder of why people hate traveling on buses.
  • 6:45pm: Transfer to Pace #301 at the Forest Park Blue Line I left off the prices for this trip because honestly it was a transfer of convenience: I was hungry, there’s a Portillo’s at Desplaines and Roosevelt (I know, Portillo’s twice, living the dream) that’s definitely walkable, but it was a cross-platform transfer and I have a monthly pass, so why not?

Takeaways over take-out

I ended up getting home around 7:30pm after grabbing a quick dinner. It dawned on me that I had spent about four and a half hours to work a six and a half hour shift that cost me an hour of comp time to make the buses work. I live in an area pretty well-served by transit, and I was going to an area just outside a major suburban job center, and my workday was 70% longer because of my commute. This was a one-off occasion for me, but as we previously discussed, it’s not exactly unheard of for people to live in one suburb and commute to another: statistically speaking, it’s the norm. Transit agencies wonder why telecommuting continues to become more and more common and why transit is hemmorhaging ridership, especially on the bus side of the house. “Must be Uber and Lyft!” the thinking goes. Or — and bear with me — it’s because service is lackluster, travel times are too long, reliability is sketchy, and frequency is crap.

I’ll admit, as a transit advocate who also happens to be an IDOT employee — but not speaking on behalf of IDOT, of course — our agency is working on becoming a better partner for transit, but we still have light years to go. (“It’s a big ship, and it’s hard to turn around,” Secretary Blankenhorn said at last week’s American Planning Association state conference, “but I hope we’ve at least gotten it to the point where it’s harder to turn it back in the direction we used to be headed than it is to keep moving forward.”) Things that make bus service more reliable and easier to operate, such as dedicated facilities and improved signal coordination or pre-emption, fall squarely in our wheelhouse. While we’ve made some progress with bus-on-shoulder throughout the region, it’s good to see Pace is reaching out to other partners such as the Illinois Tollway to get more progressive transit infrastructure in more innovative ways.

But, as usual, there’s other issues that we can probably make incremental progress on right now. First and foremost, let’s check back in on the cost for non-pass holders. If I didn’t have a 30-day pass on my Ventra card, I would be out $9.20 for a single day’s worth of trips. And then the cash price was almost double that! Someone who doesn’t have a Ventra card would be out $18 just on transit fares alone. A 7-day pass is only $15 more expensive, but you’d need to have a Ventra card first. Even still, $9.20 is not a small amount of money for a daily expense, but it’s still easier for some people to spend $9.20 daily (imagine a server making the $4.95/hour minimum wage plus tips) than plunking down $105 all at once for a 30-day pass. This is where fare capping would be useful. We already have a “smart” system with Ventra; fare capping would be incredibly easy to roll out. In this case, a fare capped system would basically have everyone move over to using transit credit on their Ventra cards; no more dedicated passes. Then, fares are automatically deducted until you reach a certain price and time threshold. For instance, with a $33 7-day pass, instead of charging $33 at once, riders would be charged the same $2 per trip as they’re charged now, but when they hit $33 their rides are free for the rest of the week. Or a similar system for the $105 30-day pass. Or somewhere in between, where the first $33 is full-price and the next $72 has a per-ride discount of some sort. Fare capping is useful for two key reasons: first and foremost, it’s more equitable for lower-income workers who may not be able to afford the upfront cost of a pass but end up paying more with pay-as-you-go than the pass is valued at. But secondly — as I think I showed today — when you stop worrying about per-ride charges, you’re more inclined to use transit more often.

I’ll dive into more Pace-related discussions in future postings, I’m sure, and if you want to send me your ideas, go yell at me on Twitter. But in the meantime, I’m happy to say that I walked in the shoes of a Pace supercommuter today… although like most Halloween costumes, it’s a good experience to endure once a year and can be kinda fun if you’re in the right headspace, but it’s important to remember that being able to take the costume off at the end of the night is a luxury not everyone has.

 

Diverging Approach: The Tragedy of Central Illinois

Last week, I was able to attend this year’s annual American Planning Association – Illinois Chapter conference, which was down in Springfield in honor of Illinois’s Bicentennial this year. Many of you know that I lived in Peoria for three years and graduated from U of I, so central Illinois will always hold a special place in my heart.

But honestly, central Illinois is full of missed opportunities. First things first: Illinois is relatively unique in that – with one significant exception – there are zero municipalities in the state with a population between 150,000 and 2.5 million. (Aurora is the exception: the city recently broke 200,000, but I’m not counting it right now since much of Aurora’s recent growth is a result of a conglomeration of subdivisions sprawling over four counties.) On paper, with a stat like that, it’s easy to assume there’s nothing but corn and soybeans between Joliet and St. Louis – and, to be fair, that’s generally true. But in the middle of the state, there’s a triangle of five small metropolitan areas all generally within a 90-minute drive of each other: Peoria, Bloomington-Normal, Champaign-Urbana, Decatur, and Springfield. These five areas are just far enough apart to be considered distinct, but if at some point in the past they consolidated into a single area it’d have national significance. Here are the 2017 Census estimates for each metropolitan area:

  • Peoria: 372,427
  • Bloomington: 188,232
  • Champaign: 239,124
  • Springfield: 208,697
  • Decatur: 105,801
  • Total: 1,114,281

Obviously, 1.1 million people is a far cry from the Chicago region’s 9.5 million, but if those five areas were a single MSA, it’d be the 51st-largest in the nation, right behind Buffalo-Niagara Falls. (Not a terribly “sexy” metro, but hey, they do have a professional sports team.) Instead, these areas are divvied up into several media markets and different area codes, which compounds the independent isolation of these communities. If they were able to consolidate at least partially – such as choosing a single airport to be “the” commercial airport for the region instead of spreading flights around between Peoria, Bloomington, and Springfield – it could have significant economic benefits (for instance, some large national retail chains won’t even consider entering a sub-500k market).

The paradox of central Illinois is that these five regions have their own anchors that make it difficult to choose a focus point. Springfield’s the capital. Peoria’s the largest. Champaign-Urbana has the state’s flagship university. Bloomington has ISU and State Farm. Decatur has… well, ADM moving up north was a kick in the teeth for Decatur, but they’re still hanging on. Each of these communities is simultaneously too big to fail and too small to succeed.

Unlike most Diverging Approach blog posts, I have no big call to action or any lofty goal here tonight. While there are definitely takeaways from a deeper dive look into this part of the state – namely the dangers and market cannibalization of Balkanized municipalities competing against each other instead of working cooperatively to benefit everyone – tonight I just want to recognize the downstate communities that had – and continue to have – an impact on the formative years of my life.

Diverging Approach: Doomsday

On Wednesday, the Metra Board of Directors took a page out of the old CTA playbook, holding fares steady but trotting out transit doomsday predictions due to the suddenly-dire fiscal situation the agency finds itself in. Relying on a patchwork of fleet fixes due to a lack of a state capital bill since 2009 layered on top of the expensive unfunded Positive Train Control mandate, Metra simply needs more capital funding to keep trains up and running. This isn’t exactly a shocking new development; if you’re reading this blog you probably already know that transit funding throughout the country and especially here in Chicago is generally anemic and insufficient.

What’s new this time around is Metra diving head-first into the RTA’s #InvestInTransit push to try to rally political support to get the ear of enough people in Springfield and/or Washington to get capital funding flowing to Chicagoland. Not just that, they’re taking the task straight to ridership, mounting a social media campaign to have conversations with riders about the challenges Metra currently faces and soliciting innovative solutions to improve service and the railroad’s financial future.

Well, as long as they don’t cost money.

Or aren’t 100% accurate.

Or require using Metra’s bonding authority, which currently sits at 0% utilized.

Seriously, Metra’s aversion to good debt is bizarre. “Debt” has negative connotations, of course, and it’s generally not a great thing to spend money you don’t have. But it’s also not a direct parallel to a credit card (despite what some libertarians may try to tell you). If Metra were a person, they’d have no student loans, and no car payment but they keep renting a shitty apartment from a landlord who keeps jacking up the price. But instead of getting a mortgage to buy a nice, bigger, newer house for a smaller monthly payment, Metra is content with whining to mom and dad in Springfield to just give them more money every month to keep the same crappy apartment with spotty WiFi and air conditioning that only works 80% of the time.

While it’s great that the Metra board is using their platform to advocate for financing change, getting on the bully pulpit to rally the riders, I’m not sure if the board realizes they themselves can be those very change agents. In the meantime, Metra’s staff is in the unenviable position of fighting on two fronts: how do you get people excited about changing the funding structure in Springfield while digging in and defending the same systemic structural failures within Metra that led to this death spiral?

In one of today’s Twitter exchanges, Metra threw the (budget) book at yet another passive-aggressive comment:

Well, I have good news and I have bad news. The good news is that this blog did go ahead and dive into the budgets and audits so you don’t have to. The bad news is, well, Metra may or may not have raised fares unnecessarily over the past few years. I’m not an accountant, nor am I a journalist, so if anyone reading this is either of those I encourage you to dive in yourself. But basically, since Fiscal Year 2015 and continuing through Fiscal Year 2017, every time Metra raised fares for the year Metra’s actual operating figures ended up more favorable to budget than the amount projected to be raised by the fare increase.

If that sounds like economic gibberish to you, same here, but what it comes down to is Metra pinching their pennies so well that they ended up financially better off than a fare increase alone would have provided. For instance, in Fiscal Year 2016, Metra’s budget predicted operating costs would end up $385.2 million in the red. (The RTA sales tax generally covers those losses.) Instead, Metra’s operations actually finished only $363.1 million in the hole, so the year went $22.1 million better than expected. Good news, of course, but Metra also raised fares to add an expected $6.5 million in revenue that year. If that prediction came true and if all that fare increase was included in the Fiscal Year 2016 data, that means without the fare increase Metra would have still been $15.6 million ahead of budget.

So why did Metra raise the fares in 2016? More importantly, with an extra $15.6 million available, why did the board still vote to raise fares by another $16.1 million in 2017 when you had $15.6 million to play around with on paper? (FY2017 ended up $26.6 million favorable to budget (-$365.1m vs. -$391.7m budgeted), by the way, so theoretically there’s enough to cover the missing $500,000 from 2016 AND cover the $17.0 million 2018 fare increase AND the $3.0 million service cut.)

Again: I’m not an accountant, and I’m sure Metra moved those surpluses into the rehab program or PTC or other capital needs. I’m not accusing Metra of stealing or misappropriating funds anywhere. But it does come back to an important consideration when talking about Metra’s finances: Metra doesn’t exist to make money. On the contrary: Metra was organized to bail out the failing private railroads who couldn’t afford to run commuter service any more. We, as a region, chose to levy a tax on ourselves to subsidize a new, publicly-owned railroad because we collectively understood the value it provides to Chicagoland. It’s great that Metra continues to position themselves in as fiscally-solid of a footing as possible, but honestly it’s in the region’s worst interest for Metra to try to maximize passenger revenues, since it leads to mounting ridership losses, more expensive tickets, and service cuts. Year-over-year, Metra’s year-to-date ridership is down by nearly two million rides. That’s two million more times this year that someone either contributed to congestion by driving or Uber/Lyfting, or they simply stayed home and did not spend their money somewhere else in the region.

In the meantime, Metra is now trotting out a new monthly scorecard that shows ridership falling across the board with big, red, angry, downward-pointing arrows, but right next to it are happy green arrows showing that fare revenue is up. “Fewer people are riding our trains, but that’s okay because we’re making more money!” is a heck of a message for a public service to make. Memo to Metra: yes, you’re a railroad, but you exist to provide a public good. The taxpayers of the region are your shareholders, and the profit you turn is not financial. Do something! I sincerely hope there is a capital bill that comes out of Springfield and that there’s a lot of zeroes after whatever number they assign to Metra.

But honestly, there continues to be so much Metra can do now for little to no budget that would seriously move the needle on ridership and passenger satisfaction, and holding out for a fat check to keep running the same service from 70 years ago is a waste of time and resources. In no particular order, here’s Star:Line’s short list of cheap improvements that can be rolled out tomorrow.

  • Let the planners plan schedules. I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of working with the staff in Metra’s Strategic Capital Planning group, and I can say with no hesitation that Metra has assembled a great group of planners. But when it comes to actually scheduling service, that’s taken care of in the operations division, totally separate from SCP. Operations can move trains like nobody else, but Metra exists to move people, not trains. Rolling scheduling into the planning group at least makes it easier to get perspectives from a demographic and ridership point of view and would provide a more responsive service better equipped to adapt as regional trends continue to evolve and change.
  • Pulse scheduling. Metra offers free transfers on weekends with the Weekend Pass, and there’s still buzz about a Daily Pass for weekdays. But a 90-minute layover at Union Station isn’t going to encourage anyone to use Metra for longer-distance trips.
  • Coordinated park-and-ride pricing. Most of Metra’s suburban parking lots are owned by the various suburbs, who are more or less able to do what they want with their lots. A concerted effort by Metra to try to smooth the edges between adjacent municipalities’ parking policies and rates would encourage daily drivers to use lots closer to their homes or, at the very least, help fix the inversion seen in places like Lisle where a daily parking space costs less than a round-trip Pace feeder route and kills Pace ridership while increasing parking demands in suburban downtowns.
  • Improve off-peak/weekend schedules to lower headways in higher-demand time periods. Our raison d’être. Someone in the NUMTOT Facebook group posted this CB&Q (today’s BNSF) schedule from 1883. Chicago burnt to the ground 12 years before; people still worked on Saturdays; Chicago’s population was a little more than 500,000. And they had an 11:30pm “theatre special” outbound train! 125 years later, Metra continues to shoot themselves in the foot with two-hour, 10:40pm/12:40am departures that literally scare suburbanites away from using Metra to go downtown. In the meantime, trains run hourly between 12:40pm and 6:40pm, a schedule that only makes sense in the context of pre-labor movement workweeks that included Saturday half days. It’s 2018. Come on.

Look, Metra’s in a tough spot. The fleet’s not getting any younger, the state’s financial situation is, uh, poor, and we’re still two months away from a gubernatorial election so don’t bank on any multi-billion-dollar capital spending bill landing on Governor Rauner’s desk any time soon. In the meantime, Metra’s 2019 budget is due, and it’s time to make some tough decisions. But before we start slashing service willy-nilly, there’s still plenty of options Metra can pursue. And it’s not just high-level huge implementation stuff like proof-of-payment or flexible fleets or fare integration or any of the other big-picture improvements (that Metra should pursue anyway!), but little stuff like running trains when more people would use them or making sure that fare increases are actually needed.

Oh, who am I kidding. Metra’s probably going to do something stupid like shutting down the Heritage Corridor or killing Sunday service on the Rock or something else drastic and short-sighted.

Enjoy doomsday, kids!

Diverging Approach: Meltdown

It’s been an impossibly long summer for BNSF riders. Tonight’s collapse, a signal issue near Union Station that resulted in multiple cancelled trains, was the second time in a week the dreaded Union Station overcrowding plan was rolled out to try to avoid commuters getting trampled in Chicago’s busiest train station.

I’m not going to go into too much depth on tonight’s particular failure – this is one of those things that just seems to happen a few times a year, and local media just loves running pictures of the throngs of humanity shoulder-to-shoulder in the South Concourse, so it’s well-publicized and documented. But on one of the hottest days of the year, it’s yet another chapter in a 2018 Metra wants to forget. Besides, this is one of those failures where Metra can wash their hands of it and trot out yet another non-apology apologies because it (probably) wasn’t a Metra signal that failed – Amtrak owns Union Station and the last mile of track – and it wasn’t a Metra-operated line – BNSF operates and dispatches their trains, Metra just owns the fleet – so really, what can Metra do about it?

The short answer is, Metra can actually do a lot about it, but (1) it involves playing the long game, and (2) it involves doing something different.

Metra is a tenant in Union Station, and basically something less than a tenant on the BNSF. (Metra has a similar agreement with Union Pacific for the three UPs, but Union Pacific has the added perk of also owning Ogilvie Transportation Center, so they’re a little better vertically-integrated in that operation.) Like all tenants, they have to deal with a landlord who throws nickels around like they’re manhole covers and keeps the purse strings tight. In this case, it’s hard to blame Amtrak too much for the state of Union Station: at any given time, Amtrak is one or two Congressional elections from ceasing to exist. Furthermore – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – Metra is a railroad. They can’t just pick up their tracks and move to a different train station if they wanted to. (Actually, that’s literally what they’re doing with CREATE on 75th Street, but still.) The relationship with BNSF is even more one-sided: Metra having their busiest, most profitable line operate under a purchase-of-service agreement is borderline extortion. “Either pay us money to run your trains or we’ll stop doing it” is a hell of an incentive for Metra to play nice with BNSF, although the potential political fallout makes that more of a nuclear option than a trump card for BNSF.

But, like any other lease, eventually they have to be renewed. Those renewals are Metra’s best chance to flex some muscle and at least try to play a little hardball. Even though it often doesn’t feel like it while you’re riding, Metra is in the year 2018. This is the age of budget constraints, but it’s also the age of Big Data and the age of asset management. It’s never been easier to integrate some sort of performance metrics into these third-party financial agreements. While Metra’s hand isn’t strong enough to say “we won’t pay you if on-time performance dips below 95%” (and that metric can be – and already is – easily gamed anyway), Metra could easily frame whatever performance measure they wanted as a bonus incentive. Maybe there’s a 5% payment bump if X number fares are collected, and a 5% penalty if more than 25% of the fleet has broken heat/air conditioning at any given time. In my personal ideal world, there should be ridership incentives: if we’re paying BNSF to run trains and ridership is declining on those trains, give the BNSF a reason to get some more skin in the game and get more people on their trains. (Since Metra has settled into an unfortunate habit of raising fares annually, it may not be fair to penalize BNSF solely for ridership losses.)

The RTA and the three service boards have recently been rolling out their #InvestInTransit initiative to shore up more funding to, well, invest in transit. And it’s absolutely true that transit is extremely underfunded: there’s no regular dedicated funding stream for capital improvements like new trains or upgraded signals. This blog obviously supports it wholeheartedly.

But.

There shouldn’t be a but, and before I started this blog there wasn’t.

But now there is.

Trains need to be safe. Trains need to be reliable. Ideally, trains need to be cheaper to maintain, which is generally what you get with a newer fleet.

But what kind of return on investment are we getting by spending tens of millions of dollars on new trains that run on schedules without significant changes since the 1980s? Do we need new signals to cram one more rush-hour train in as more people telecommute or work flexible hours as trains run only once every two hours the rest of the day? Will concrete ties and continuous welded rail change the requirement of three-person crews on each train, two of whom (the conductors) routinely only check tickets maybe only three or four times on the entire trip? Will more ADA-accessible train cars actually make it easier for disabled riders who are stuck with uncoordinated (and non-fare-integrated!) bus transfers to trains?

Maybe that’s the pessimistic side of the coin, so let’s look at the more optimistic side of things: literally anyone who has spent any amount of time on our transit network knows how underfunded is. (Okay, maybe that’s a downer of a way to start the “optimistic” argument, but hang in there.) What kind of changes can Metra make today that would get more people using the system? And likewise, wouldn’t it be a much easier political lift to go to elected officials with numbers showing more people using the system DESPITE its condition? Instead, Metra’s entering death spiral mode: fares go up, ridership goes down, service gets cut, ridership goes down more, so fares go up again and service gets cut again…

But to get out of that spiral, Metra needs to do something different, and they’re making the bold decision not to do that. And yes, doing nothing is a choice, and it’s a decision actively being made. When the house is burning down it’s hard to say where’s the best place to start spraying water, but you have to at least try reaching for the hose.

Today’s meltdown wasn’t Metra’s fault. But last week’s was (a SouthWest Service train crapped out on the approach into Union Station, blocking the tracks). Metra should’ve had a better handle on BNSF’s crappy record with air conditioned cars this summer. Metra definitely could’ve handled the PTC schedule rollout better. Then there was the phantom tornado warning. And to top it all off, Metra probably didn’t need to raise fares last February. (A blog post for another time.)

A quick glance on social media shows that riders are getting more and more impatient, sick and tired of paying more and more for declining service on the BNSF.

So why isn’t Metra?

Train Crawl: OktoberWest 2018

Prost!

Join The Yard Social Club for our third annual OktoberWest train crawl on Saturday, September 8. Whether you’re a seasoned veteran of our crawls or you’ve never tried a train crawl before, OktoberWest is a great way to spend your day in the suburbs. We’ll make stops at a Polish bar in Chicago; an Irish bar and a Mexican bar in Franklin Park; an Italian “pizza pub” in Itasca; and an American railroad-themed bar in Hanover Park before heading back to Itasca and wrapping up at the village’s Oktoberfest street festival.

The festivities officially begin at 11:45am at Eva’s Sports Bar, two blocks from Mont Clare. (Some of us may head up there early for breakfast/lunch before the crawl kicks off.)

Travel Guide and Schedule

2018OktoberWest (1)
View the Travel Guide as a PDF.

More Information

Check out the Facebook event for more information, or head over to Eventbrite to RSVP.