Diverging Approach: Kill the Weekend Pass

I hate getting gifts.

My wife knows this, and I think she knows that when I say “you don’t have to get me anything” when my birthday or Christmas rolls around that I actually mean it, but she still does her best, since I think she would feel awkward not giving me something (even if I explicitly tell her not to get me anything), and she likes me to have something to open for those special occasions. She’s too good for me, and I’m incredibly lucky to be married to her.

But still, I hate getting gifts.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate a thoughtful gesture, of course. If someone goes out of their way to do something kind and special for me, of course I’m grateful for the effort. But, simply stated, I generally have most things I’d like to have, within reason, of course — if someone wants to buy me a boat for my birthday, it’s coming up in the summer, let’s talk about delivery options. For smaller, more “normal” gifts though, I have just enough social anxiety that I have an irrational fear of disappointing someone who gave me a gift that they put a lot of thought and effort into because I won’t be able to hide my disappointment, to the point where I’d rather get nothing at all.

I don’t want to sound snobbish or high-maintenance or anything — I’ve received plenty of gifts in my life. Checking my privilege as a straight white male who is an only child in a family somewhere between middle class and upper-middle class, I’ve gotten more than my fair share of free things throughout my life, and I’m grateful for everyone who has shown me so much generousity over the years. But that upbringing combined with my personal history cuts the other way too: I’m an only child of divorce, who took the first job I could following a summer on medical bedrest and in the face of the Great Recession (that happened to be in Peoria), followed by moving into my grandmother’s in-law apartment in her Northwest Side bungalow to help defray some costs as I put myself through grad school. While I’m lucky to have a supportive family and network of friends through it all, day-to-day it was still filled with a lot of alone time and self-reliance. Eventually you just kind of get used to being on your own, and that becomes the new normal: if you want something, you save up (or splurge) and just buy it yourself, easy as that. So when it comes time to receive a gift — especially a relatively unexpected one — there’s a certain sense of dread I get, worrying that, bluntly stated, the gift will suck.

This weekend, Metra gave a gift to the region, and for their most loyal riders, the gift sucked. As most of the people reading a blog like this already know, Metra offered free rides systemwide this weekend. Following the railroad’s abysmal record through the polar vortex days (I still haven’t forgotten that in the polar vortex post-mortem, Metra CEO Jim Derwinski said he regretted running too many trains), Metra decided to offer free trips all weekend long as a “pat on the back” for coping with Metra through the bad weather.

Now, for infrequent or new riders, that’s not a bad gift at all. Two free days of riding the train — during the Chicago Auto Show, no less — is a pretty sweet gig. As someone who has purchased 10 of the last 11 Metra Weekend Passes offered due to my usual weekend travels, it was a pleasant surprise to keep an extra ten bucks in my wallet. But I also didn’t have to deal with Metra during the polar vortex. Instead, the people who did deal with the polar vortex — a significant number of whom ride with monthly passes anyway — didn’t really get anything from the free weekend since weekend trips (between downtown and their home station, at least) are included in their monthly passes. And, of course, drawing more attention to weekend schedules can quickly turn negative as well: free weekend rides to someone who lives along the North Central Service or the Heritage Corridor won’t do much to sway opinion.

The timing of the promotion also seemed a little, well, off to me. If it was supposed to be a “thank you” to the riders who dealt with the brunt of the polar vortex, the gift was misguided since it doesn’t do much for the core commuting market with monthly passes. A more effective “thank you” would be discounts on March monthly passes; interestingly, Electric Line riders are getting discounts on April monthly passes, but I feel like that message got trampled by the regional free weekend and Metra’s missing an opportunity for more positive messaging. If it was just a weekend ridership grab, why not wait for the weather to turn a little warmer in the spring?

Of course, there was another stated purpose for the free weekend:

“We survived the polar vortex – now let’s have some fun,” said Metra CEO/Executive Director Jim Derwinski. “There is a lot to do in Chicago and the suburbs and Metra can take you there. We’re hoping this weekend will convince people who have never ridden Metra or who haven’t ridden Metra in a while to become paid customers in the future.”


Giving people resources to use transit throughout the region for leisure trips on the weekends in the hopes that they’ll become more comfortable with transit and be more inclined to choose transit on their own in the future is, of course, a great idea that sounds really, really familiar.

I spent some time at Chicago Union Station on Saturday to scope out the crowds, and there did seem to be a bit of an uptick in ridership, at least on the Milwaukee lines. (Weekends on the BNSF are always busy, so it was a little harder to get a read on any ridership gains on those trains.) If the goal was a quick ridership boost, it probably isn’t too soon to declare mission accomplished; with a projected financial cost of $300,000 for the weekend, Metra could make a decent dent in that simply on the value of free marketing from local media and word-of-mouth. Whether it leads to any long-term gains in ridership — even just weekend ridership — obviously remains to be seen, but I’m sure Metra will be keeping a closer eye on their weekend ridership numbers for the next few weeks.

But that brings up another consideration: how will Metra define this weekend being a “success”, and what are the potential ramifications either way? While free transit is gaining ground in some European countries, it’s hard to believe Metra — which always seems to be about two board meetings away from doomsday — would take a $16 million hit in their operations budget to make weekends free all year long. There’s also the elephant in the room regarding onboard fare collection, where conductors missing out on collecting fares already provides a non-zero number of “free” rides daily. To put it another way: if more people ride when the trains are free but not when fares are normally priced, does that really mean anything useful to Metra?

Meanwhile, our transit neighbors in Indiana have quietly been going in a different direction post-polar vortex. To coincide with the Chicago Auto Show at McCormick Place — which the South Shore Line serves, alongside the Metra Electric — NICTD (the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, the South Shore Line’s operator) has also been giving out free fares — but only off-peak, and only one way. (Also worth noting: this promotion was planned pre-polar vortex, and the South Shore Line doesn’t usually doesn’t offer any special weekend fares.) It’s a great hook: come to Chicago for the Auto Show and your ride there is free!

It’s also brilliant because people are irrational, and we think differently when we hear the word “free”. If NICTD ran half-price fares both ways, the cost to the rider would be the same, but “free” just sounds better. Not only that, but it also changes the mental budgeting process for a trip. For most transit trips, travelers have to plan chronologically, focusing on how to get to your destination first, then figuring out the return trip (sometimes significantly later). On Metra, a $10 Weekend Pass means you pay more upfront and get free rides later on (if you even end up using them); on NICTD for the last two weeks, the free ride comes first.

For instance, let’s say you’re taking Metra to the Brookfield Zoo on a normal Saturday. If you’re coming from Naperville, you’ll look at a BNSF schedule, figure out what train you want to take there, determine what time you need to leave the house to get to the station, and figure out how much cash you’ll need to bring for the train fare. In this case, a family of four (two adults, two kids) will quickly figure out that they’d need $20 for two Weekend Passes. At $20 to take a train that runs once an hour (on Saturday mornings, every two hours the rest of the weekend) and makes 11 stops between Naperville and Hollywood, the obvious next thing you do is look up how much parking costs at Brookfield Zoo ($14) and all of a sudden you’re mentally assigning dollar values to how much your kids have to enjoy riding a train to make it worth your while. (The additional $1.50 in tolls doesn’t even cross your mind.) You’re not even looking at the return trip schedules yet and Metra’s mode choice is already in significant danger, even though the trip home is “free”.

Meanwhile, in Indiana, a similar family of four wants to head to the Chicago Auto Show from Michigan City. They’ll check the South Shore Line schedules, and then see on the website that their ride there is free. “Neat! Why would I pay for parking and tolls when I can ride the train there for free?! And it’s only $20.50 for the four of us to ride the train back home.”

As someone who has built an entire website around train crawls, it pains me to say this, but I’m offering up a pilot study for Metra to consider to try boosting weekend ridership:

Kill the Weekend Pass.

That’s not an easy thing for me to say, especially because the Weekend Pass is by far one of the best values in transit fares, to the point where it’s actually something that other commuter railroads are trying. Messaging the Weekend Pass’s demise would also take some finesse.

But it can be done. Get rid of the Weekend Pass and replace it with two things: First, downgrade the Weekend Pass to a Weekend Day Pass: the same unlimited rides, system-wide, for $10, but only for a single day (Saturday OR Sunday, not Saturday AND Sunday).

Second: make all weekend inbound trains free.

Think about that: Metra will get you downtown for free, you just pay for the return trip. For most riders, that would be the standard full fare ticket, which systemwide is less than $10. However, per person, assuming most riders are in the Zone D-F band, that’s only about $3 cheaper than what they’re paying now. Considering Metra’s core demographic is (and likely always will be) suburbanites heading downtown, focus on getting them downtown and they’re a captive audience. It’s an easier message, too: right now, Metra faces headwinds trying to market the Weekend Pass for groups bigger than about three people: it’s easy to find parking, even in the heart of the theatre district or up in Wrigleyville, for less than $30 a car. But “leave the car at home, we’ll take you downtown for free” can be a much stronger message that could be enough to encourage people to switch over to Metra, even if they’re only saving a buck or two.

This also should (theoretically) reduce the unintentional fare evasion that frequently happens on weekend trains, as conductors can concentrate their efforts on collecting fares for people leaving the downtown terminals, which from my personal observations is where conductors are most effective in terms of collecting the most fares. (In the long run, Metra should eventually switch over to proof-of-payment for all fare collection, full stop. But in the meantime, if Metra’s unwilling to abandon the conductor fare collection model, this will at least reduce uncollected fare issues.)

There are downsides to this approach: namely, it costs money, and without knowing weekend ridership numbers there’s no guarantee Metra wouldn’t end up losing money compared to the current Weekend Pass system. Free inbound trains would also make transfers more costly between lines, which is why I’m proposing maintaining a $10 all-inclusive option. (By cutting it back to a single day instead of both days of the weekend, I think the financials of this kind of proposal would pencil out a little more cleanly than without it. And, you know, gotta keep the crawls going.) I could also see Metra having concerns about Zone B-C “freeloaders” who would use Metra to get downtown fare-free and simply take the CTA back home, but that’s more of an indictment of the RTA’s ongoing lack of integrated fares than a reason not to try something that would stimulate more suburban ridership.

I’d hate to see the Weekend Pass go, but I also doubt that a free weekend inbound proposal would actually go anywhere since this is just me spitballing. However, it’s worth discussing how people use (or don’t use) Metra on the weekends and how Metra can be competitive when its inherent peak-period advantages in travel time and parking costs both disappear off-peak. I think it’s long overdue for Metra to dive deeper into weekend ridership and better understand where people are going, how people are getting there (whether on Metra or not), and what it’d take to get more people onboard trains.

Of course, if Metra actually wants to significantly move the needle on weekend ridership, they just need to change the schedules. At any price point, why would I take Metra to a 7:10pm Sox game at Guaranteed Rate Field when my return options are leaving the game early to get back to Union Station by 10:40pm or figuring out how to kill an hour waiting for the 12:40am? While more service is generally better, I’m confident there are still improvements that could be made with the same number of trains running either on different headways or at different times.

The important thing is, whatever it is that lit a fire under Metra to take weekend ridership losses more seriously, it’s the best gift we as a region could get, provided it evolves into action on boosting weekend ridership. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that Metra continues to look at targeted strategies focused on building ridership rather than doomsday service cuts where service is already too infrequent and unreliable.

Diverging Approach: Transit Throwdown

Tomorrow is Lincoln’s Birthday, which means many humble civil servants have a random Tuesday off work. Whether or not you have the day off, it’s a great time to get cracking on our Transit Throwdown! Make a copy of our base map, mark it up with all the ways you want to make Chicago transit great again, and tweet it at us by Tuesday, February 26. We’ll review the entries and get a bracket together for Twitter voting through March. Last map standing gets $20 in Ventra transit credit.

More details are here. Good luck and have fun!

Diverging Approach: Lighting a Fire

As the polar vortex leaves Chicago in its wake again and we all thaw out, something very interesting is happening in the south suburbs tomorrow. The weather has obviously been brutal and the deep freeze landed Chicago in the national spotlight, and Metra’s switch heaters at Tower A-2 are going viral because, holy crap, Chicago lights our train tracks on fire. It’s almost custom made for the Internet age with a ready-to-go clickbaity headline, short cell phone videos of trains rolling through fire and brimstone, and plenty of fodder for professional photographers to work with to show how Chicago deals with mind-numbingly cold temperatures (or, you know, normal winter temperatures below 40°F).

Metra’s leaning into the national stories, I imagine happy for something to distract from the mechanical failures, emergency track repairs, and signal problems that most rational people would logically expect from 36 straight hours below 0°F with wind chills befitting a Martian hellscape.

And kudos to Metra’s social media team for using the newfound attention to try to pivot and bang the #InvestInTransit drum again. It’s absolutely the right thing to do here. While the flaming switch heaters are cool to look at, they’re also emblematic of just how antiquated the incredibly-complex A-2 junction is (where the Milwaukees cross the Union Pacific West at Western Avenue). A-2 is one of the most complex interlocking plants in North America, and a significant operational chokepoint that needs improvement if Metra wants to increase frequencies on any of the lines passing through it, or simply to improve reliability for the current schedules. Arguably, it’s Metra’s most important capital improvement systemwide.

Many plans to improve suburban transit options throughout the region have to deal with the A-2 gauntlet of crossovers and switches, including the Midwest High Speed Rail Association’s CrossRail Chicago vision to electrify parts of the Milwaukee West and North Central Service to ultimately through-route future high-speed rail trains through McCormick Place and Union Station to O’Hare Airport.

But the Metra Electric is the backbone of the CrossRail Chicago plan, and the polar vortex has not been kind to the MED. In case you were too busy watching the A-2 videos, a one-two punch of the cold wreaking havoc on the catenary and a freight derailment taking out an overhead truss in Harvey has shut down the Metra Electric for the last two days, with the shutdown continuing at least through tomorrow. (The South Shore Line, which uses Metra’s tracks north of Kensington/115th, is also suspended.) With all the other problems the MED has in terms of ridership losses outpacing the rest of the system and the overall levels of disinvestment in the MED’s marketshed as a whole, a three-day shutdown is the last thing the line needs.

Not great.

But as I said earlier, something very interesting is happening in the south suburbs tomorrow, and it’s shaping up to be a mini pilot study of a lot of the things this blog routinely offers up. Included in the mitigation plan for tomorrow is the following:

  • Fare integration with Pace and the CTA. The three service boards inevitably get caught up in “who takes the loss?” tit-for-tats whenever an actual fare integration plan gets floated, but Pace, Metra, and the CTA have something of a gentlemen’s agreement when it comes to service disruptions and accepting tickets from sister agencies. While the shutdown contingency plan on the MED is far from a real fare integration scheme, Pace and the CTA opening their (bus and Red Line) doors to Metra fares on a handful of routes is a good start.
  • Timed, free bus shuttles to Metra trains. Metra’s working with Pace to provide limited bus shuttles between pairs of MED stations and Rock Island stations, and they’re running them for free! There are only three sets of shuttles being offered, and schedules are not perfect – looking at you, half hour layover in Oak Forest – but it’s a start.

It’s not a perfect plan – there’s a glaring hole in free bus coverage south of 95th Street in Roseland and Pullman, the small-but-non-zero group of Rock Island riders who transfer to the Metra Electric in Blue Island and head to Hyde Park are still screwed, there are a lot of suburban MED stations with no transit alternatives at all, etc. – but I hope Metra, Pace, and the CTA collect some data from tomorrow’s experiment to see what works, what doesn’t, and what takeaways there are for similar contingency service in the future. While Metra likely hopes tomorrow is a one-off situation, this is a unique opportunity to gather and analyze data that can be used to bolster future contingency plans or even make its way into regular service some day.

Diverging Approach: The Sandbox Gang

Northwestern University’s Transportation Center hosts the Hagestad Sandhouse Rail Group (informally known as the Sandhouse Gang) regularly throughout the year since 2002. Back when I used to work at Metra, I went to a few of their events, which were quite interesting. As their home page states, the “sandhouse” is an old railroading term for a building where sand was dried and, since it was one of the few warm places on cold nights like tonight, folks who did the hard work on the railroad in the yards and on the trains would meet up in the sandhouse and, more or less, shoot the shit.

Northwestern’s Sandhouse Gang carries on that noble tradition, mostly for railroad alumni and grad students. Topics are a mix of the locally-relevant (“A Tale of Two Stations: Construction challenges associated with the new CTA Wilson and 95th Street stations”), the high-level theoretical (“Transit Network Design Under Stochastic Demand”), and good old-fashioned foamer deep dives (“Rail/Air Competition in the New York-Chicago Market, 1945-1970”). The events are free, but generally hosted at 3pm on weekdays in Evanston.

The Sandhouse Rail Group steering committee is composed of Diana Marek, the “NUTC’s cornerstone for more than forty years”; William Sippel, an attorney who co-founded a law firm dealing exclusively with railroads; and Norman Carlson, who chairs the board of directors of everyone’s favorite commuter railroad. They know their stuff and have decades of railroading experience.

In the meantime, right now you, dear reader, are reading this blog, written by someone who washed out of Metra a year and a half after washing out of the Chicago Transit Authority (whose employ I was also under for about a year and a half). I have ideas, and the point of this blog is to get them out there and start discussions on how things could be better out here in the Chicago suburbs, but I’m by no means an expert. I’m just someone with a passion for quality transit, someone who spent too much time driving for the last fifteen years or so, and someone with just a little too much time on his hands. I’ve been doing this because I didn’t think there was an adequate forum to discuss suburban transportation in the Chicago region.

But I admit, it’s been pretty one-sided. I’ve had a few good conversations over on the @StarLineChicago Twitter account, but otherwise Diverging Approach is mostly me just screaming into the void.

At the same time though, you’re reading this now, so you care about transportation in the Chicago region, too.

So let’s make this interesting. And interactive.

The Sandhouse Gang has over a century of railroad experience at the helm and the support of a Big Ten university; I have a cheap laptop, the internet, and a bunch of opinions. But you, dear reader, probably also have a cheap laptop, the internet, and opinions on ways to improve Chicago transit. While this blog usually focuses on — and occasionally gets criticized for — pragmatic, short-term solutions that can thoretically be done cheaply and easily by transit providers (cough cough Metra pulse scheduling cough cough), a wise man once said that little plans have no magic to stir men’s blood. So let’s think big.

Instead of the sandhouse, we’re heading to the sandbox.

This link will take you to a Google Map I’ve prepared of the current state of Chicago-area transit. It includes just about every CTA, Metra, and Pace transit route that isn’t a local bus. Open it up and copy it to your Google Drive, or download it as a KML/KMZ for Google Earth.

Then change it.

Go wild with it. Finally build the Ashland BRT. Run a streetcar down Lake Shore Drive. Build the STAR Line. Run a water taxi down the Fox River. Extend the BNSF to Oswego (Ugh.) Run a Tesla tunnel out to O’Hare. (Double ugh.) This is your chance to figure out what you think the Chicago region needs and see how it looks on the map.

But it’s also important that we all share and discuss our individual transit futures, bounce ideas off of each other, see what sticks, see what doesn’t. So to facilitate that discussion — and just to have a little bit of fun as we enter the duldrums of winter — we’re launching the Star:Line Chicago Transit Throwdown. Finish your plan and send it back to me (via Twitter or email) by Tuesday, February 26. I’ll review all the submissions and post them all in a single Diverging Approach blog entry by Friday, March 1.

Then, just in time for March Madness, the bracket begins using Twitter polling on Monday, March 4. (Bracket format will depend on number of entries received.) Last map standing at the end of the bracket will win a brand-new Ventra card with $20 of transit value ready to go.

You care about Chicago-area transit; after all, you’re reading this blog. I’m offering you my soapbox — small as it may be — to get your ideas out into the world and to help make the world around you a better place. Let’s see what you got!

Map Notes and Contest Notes

Express buses that only serve a single employer are not included on the map. The X9-Ashland Express and X49-Western Express buses are not included because, come on, we all know they aren’t actually express buses. If your plan involves changing frequency, fares, schedules, or other things that don’t show up well on the map, float a bottle out on the lake and add details as needed.

Each person can submit up to three different maps, and you can continue editing your maps even after submitting them to me (up until the deadline). Teams are welcome and encouraged; however, the winning prize will still be capped at $20 for the team as a whole.

If you have any other questions or suggestions, send me a Tweet or DM @StarLineChicago, or email me.

Diverging Approach: Carrots and Sticks

Pace, like the rest of Chicago’s transportation agencies, faces some daunting capital funding challenges. However, Pace is doing something quite savvy: today, which also happened to be J.B. Pritzker’s inauguration, Pace got two pretty positive write-ups in both of Chicago’s newspapers of record, despite asking for $1 billion in new capital funding, posting a 3% slide in ridership, and openly cutting service including totally axing 12 routes.

They did it by talking up their recent improvements, touting their successful experiments with bus-on-shoulder, and getting some excitement building about launching Pulse service on Milwaukee Avenue (despite Pulse’s launch being two years later than expected). Pace’s I-55 service has exploded, with daily ridership up 750% since 2011. That’s not a typo — Pace ridership on I-55 went from 400 daily riders to 3,000 in eight years. (Well, it may be a typo: the Trib says it’s 750%; the Sun-Times says it’s 600%. Some digging through RTAMS would probably tell us who is correct, but right now we don’t need to dive that deep into the weeds.) The articles are a great example of an effective way to appraise the state of Pace’s operations and show how Pace as an agency is constantly reimagining and retooling their service to better serve their constituency through innovation and adaptation. One of the routes Pace is cutting, the 304, dates back to the days of streetcars through the near western suburbs, but that historic lineage isn’t enough to save a route simply hemmorhaging riders. No one wants to cut service, but when the agency can make a convincing case that (1) those riders will be otherwise accommodated and (2) the resources freed up by those cuts will be used to improve service elsewhere where capacity is limited, it’s a lot easier to accept.

(For what it’s worth, even though the Chicago region desperately needs north-south transit options west of Ashland Avenue, I’m a bit skeptical about how belt bus service would work on Interstates 294 and 355, but that’s a blog post for another time.)

Compare and contrast that approach with that other suburban transit board, which has been more or less going with a doomsday approach to trying to secure more capital funds, threatening significant (but unidentified) service cuts and continued fare increases for what more or less amounts to simply maintaining the status quo in terms of service schedules and service options moving forward. No one gets excited about only maintaining the status quo (especially when there are plenty of issues with current service anyway) and it’s a lot harder to drum up good press. It’s also a particularly bitter pill to read about Pace’s dramatic growth on the I-55 corridor the same day all Heritage Corridor service gets cancelled.

The good news is, at Metra’s Wednesday board meeting, there’s a chance to get people just a little more excited. Metra is (finally) releasing their Cost-Benefit Analysis, which looks at a whole bunch of Metra improvements and gives some data about, well, basic cost and benefit projections to help Metra prioritize their capital improvement plans moving forward. I don’t want to give too much away — I saw some earlier drafts back in my days working at Metra — but a lot of the pie-in-the-sky projects we transportation nerds discuss amongst ourselves are included, including some strategic triple-tracking projects and actually adding some real service to the Metra Electric.

Metra has a chance here to get people excited about capital improvement projects, and this blog certainly hopes the board sees the cost-benefit analysis as a way to publicly advance some bold, exciting plans. While we don’t advocate for all the projects in the cost-benefit analysis — a moratorium on line extensions further into the hinterlands should be seriously considered since projects like pushing the BNSF out to Oswego or Sandwich will just encourage more sprawl and make it more challenging to reduce headways in the middle zones where Metra sees most of their ridership anyway — it’s at least a starting point to see what’s realistic, what’s possible, and what would give our region the best bang for our capital buck. This will likely be more palatable to riders and potential riders as well, given that Metra’s more recent efforts to drum up support for new capital are somewhere between holding riders hostage (“look, nothing’s going to get any better unless we get a bunch of new money”) and extortion (“the service is fine for now, but it’d be a shame if something were to… happen to it”).

The cost-benefit analysis will be a good first step to making some real positive improvements to the Metra system, but all it is is a first step. Not following through on the projects, or going back to doomsday scenarios while this report languishes, should be considered a failure. Every project in the cost-benefit analysis will have some merit, and while Metra’s staff is doing the right thing by using a data-driven approach to help prioritize their plans, each of those projects will also need champions — both internal and external — to bring those projects to fruition. The cost-benefit analysis will be a huge asset for Metra and their staff should be proud of what it represents, but staff and the board need to make sure they stay excited and keep pushing these projects forward.

So to Metra’s staff and board: I just want to tell you both good luck — we’re all counting on you.

Speaking of Pace, our Pace Pub Crawl is this Saturday, January 19! You’ve read about Pace collaborating with the Illinois Tollway on the Interstate 90 corridor, so here’s your excuse to come on out and check it out first hand, and otherwise nerd out about suburban transit with us over food and drinks. The crawl starts at the Rosemont CTA station at 11:00am. Check out our Facebook event for more details!

Diverging Approach: Home for the Holidays

Tonight I took Metra home. Not like going-home-from-work home, but going-to-the-house-I-grew-up-in-for-Christmas home. It’s not unusual for me to take Metra back to Itasca; I’m a bonafide weekend regular at Tree Guys. But on Christmas Eve, it’s always a special trip. (My wife has the car and is visiting her family out in Carol Stream tonight; we’ll exchange presents later when we both get back home.) As long as I’ve been alive, most of Itasca comes out for the annual Christmas Eve luminaria, a village-wide tradition hosted by the town’s Lions Club. Throughout the entire community’s residential areas, residents put candles in paper bags along the town’s streets and sidewalks. The luminaria has its roots in the southwestern United States, and somehow found its way to this corner of DuPage County by 1960.

The lore of the luminaria.

As a young Itascan (and as an only child) lighting my family’s luminaria quickly became one of my roles at Christmas. There was always a bit of a debate as to where to set up the luminaria: right next to the street, as was common before most of the town got curbs and sidewalks, or along the sidewalks but less visible from the street. As I got older – and most certainly this year when I made the 15-minute walk home from the train station – I realized the only correct answer is to put the luminaria along the sidewalk. Cars have their own headlights, after all, and anything that encourages people to get out of their cars and explore the town on foot is a positive anyway. Besides, the tradition states that the luminaria is meant to “light the Christ child’s way home,” and Jesus strikes me as a walker.

But I also realized, beyond the religious aspects of it, the luminaria has a practical purpose as well. In the suburbs, all too often cars are not only seen as a status symbol among the decently-well-off (see the last month of television commercials where rich white people in McMansions buy each other luxury cars as gifts), but also as an indicator of class and caste. People aren’t supposed to walk, bike, or use transit in the suburbs, at least not as a form of “real” transportation. Transit especially is generally seen as the mode of the unwashed masses, with barely-existent buses weaving and winding their way through circuitous routes in the name of coverage and stations without amenities as basic as benches that can seat more than two people in the fear that some weary traveler would actually use a bench to rest.

But, for one night of the year, the luminaria lights Itasca’s sidewalks, providing just a little extra light during one of the darkest times of the year for everyone going on their merry way. It’s a reminder for all of us that, regardless of whether tonight is a night for celebration or just another day in the life, we all have the responsibility to do what we can to lighten the loads of those who travel alongside us through life: friends, family, neighbors, strangers, everyone. Even if all we’re doing is shedding a little extra light on someone’s walk home, it’s on all of us to realize, in the long run, we’re all heading the same direction and we owe it to each other to use the talents we’ve each been blessed with to make someone else’s journey just a little bit easier.

I’ve brought the luminaria tradition to our new home in Forest Park, and next year if you have some extra lunch bags, a few candles, and something to weigh down each bag, I encourage you to light up the night as well. Share your light with those around you every chance you get: if there’s just one person whose holiday season you can make just a little brighter, it’s always worth it.

From The Yard Social Club, Star:Line Chicago, and me personally, riding a lonely Pace #307 bus down Harlem Avenue, here’s wishing you and yours safe travels this holiday season and throughout the coming new year.

Merry Christmas.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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

Westbound bus tracker. Please log in.

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


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

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

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. 

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.

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.

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.

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.)

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.