Diverging Approach

Diverging Approach: Mayday

This Saturday, the Chicago Chapter of Young Professionals in Transportation is hosting their second-annual Transportation Camp, an “unconference” where professionals, students, and anyone with a passing fancy in transportation issues can hang out and talk turkey about trains (and cars and trucks and buses). If you’re free, I highly recommend attending the camp, which this year is at DePaul’s downtown campus. While I would love to be there, unfortunately my in-laws decided to have a daughter thirty years ago this weekend, so I will be celebrating with my wife in downtown Forest Park.

But, of course, I’m happy to leave you all something to discuss in the meantime. In the last Diverging Approach blog entry, I teased Version 3 of our infamous regional Metra map. (I also offered up my own station optimization interactive assessment tool, which if anything just proves that I basically never really stopped working for transit agencies: I just stopped showing up to the office and they stopped paying me. Old habits die hard.)

Between that post and this post, however, I kept tweaking the map. And tweaking it some more. And a little more. And totally changed a few things as well. No work of art is ever completed; it is only abandoned, and tonight’s the night I abandon the map for another year. So let’s dive into it.

Click here to see a larger version, or click here to download a PDF.

I kept the overly-stylized “lotus” orientation, where you can think of the Metra system as a flower floating on Lake Michigan, blooming out towards the hinterland. (There’s probably a joke in there about the delicate nature of Metra’s aging rolling stock as well.) As I’ve mentioned in plenty of previous blog posts, our visioning of Metra’s network expands the system from 11 distinct lines to 14: the Rock Island has two separate service patterns, and the Metra Electric has three.

Dating back to the first map, one of my goals of this ongoing exercise is to try to show just how complex Metra’s system is in a single map. It seems counterintuitive to try to make a transit map as confusing as possible and, to be fair, I actively tried not to make things unnecessarily complicated here. But one of Metra’s weaknesses — and, honestly, one of their strengths as well — is presenting a unified, homogenous network when the legacy of commuter rail service they oversee is anything but. To an extent, it does Metra a service to show the conflicts between the lines and the different service patterns used. The Metra Electric is a good example: the half-mile spacing along the main line doesn’t really fit the commuter rail model of higher speeds and longer distances seen in the south suburban areas of the line; our map splits off the city parts of the main line and joins them with the Blue Island branch, which allows me to show the suburban operations as a distinct service, which in my opinion better represents how the service functions anyway.

This version of the map gets more complicated with service patterns by trying to show not only the Metra system as a whole, but also adding a temporal element to show frequency and service levels at particular times of the day. This being The Yard Social Club and our tireless advocacy for sustainable suburban transportation, rather than focus on where Metra can take you during rush hour, I approach the map as an exercise to better show where Metra can — or can’t — take you throughout the day and throughout the week.

This leads to a complicated legend with different line styles and different dot styles representing service times and frequencies. (Yes, it’s complicated. Again: that’s the point.) The style of each line indicates overall hours of service: a more traditional transit-looking line (solid color with black edging) represents a line with service seven days a week; as the line washes out more, service gets cut back until peak-only service, which is a white line with gray edging that almost — but not entirely — fades into the background. (Barely notice the Heritage Corridor? Good. That’s the point.) I also included the “extended service” concept as well, where service and headways closer to downtown don’t necessarily correlate to the same level of service further out. This leads to a few non-traditional “terminals” listed for some of the lines, but what’s shown on the map is more indicative to where most trains actually terminate during the off-peak.

On the station side, in this version I expanded beyond just “normal”/peak-only stations by diving into off-peak headways and splitting each station into one of four categories:

  • Core Service: The bread-and-butter of Metra’s off-peak service, these are the typical stations that see headways of no worse than every two hours during off-peak. Admittedly, “core” is a bit of an odd word to use here, but obviously I’m not going to call one train every two hours “good” and even “standard” seems to imply that we’re settling for this when we should be doing much, much better for off-peak riders. So I landed on “core”.
  • Basic Service: The “basic” service level is one step below “core” and generally indicates a station that is situated on a line with core service but that particular station doesn’t get that many trains. This is mostly — but not always (coughNCScough) — related to “extended” service, where many off-peak trains don’t actually quite make it all the way out to places like Kenosha or Harvard. Oh, and it highlights a few random issues like that off-peak skip-stop on the UP-W line at Melrose Park and Maywood, which is just another one of those things you notice that just kind of overlaps uncomfortably with suburban racial demographics and makes you wonder how it could survive a theoretical Title VI challenge.
  • Peak Service: Pretty straight-forward, these are your standard peak-only stations.
  • Minimal Service: It’s a station, and occasionally a train stops there, but there are a few places where frequency is limited to single-digit trains per day; in some cases, that digit is “1” like on that random 19th NCS train of the day that makes four stops, changes lines, grabs a few more passengers, and expresses back to Union Station at 7:30pm. If it looks like the station icon just blends into the line behind it, well, that’s the point.

Alright, I’ve buried the lede on you all for too long, so now let’s talk about the fun part of this map: the new line names! I kept the lettering system (albeit with some tweaks that will require me to eventually go back and change most of our Weekend Guides around, but that’s okay because they need updating anyway) since I still strongly believe the letters are an easy short-hand to refer to lines in certain cases. However, I did go ahead and simplified the lettering scheme: peak-only express services now have their own dedicated letter. I also gave up trying to simplify the UP-N schedule into express and local services; no two “express” trains have the same stopping patterns and very few of them skip more than about five stations at a time, so they aren’t really express services anyway. The overall idea is that, during rush hour, the “primary” letter represents local service (either a short-turn supplemental service, or a milk run farther out) while the “secondary” letter represents an express service, regardless of how long the express stretch is or where the train terminates. (This is slightly different on the BNSF and Metra Electric lines, where the express patterns are much more regimented and easier to combine into distinct stopping patterns or at least split consists for the <M> trains to Downers/Main-Aurora.)

But the biggest change — and maybe your reward for dealing with all my pedantry above — is the totally new, from-the-ground-up line naming system developed for this map. I tossed out the old parallel-road-corridor naming system, which had plenty of holes, listened to comments I received from some people, and flexed my creative muscles to come up with this one.

First, a quick note on why I feel Metra needs to revamp their line names. In a nutshell: they aren’t intuitive and can be plenty confusing for non-regular riders. There are two separate North Lines; two separate West Lines (and, of course, a Northwest Line); three lines with “Union” in the name, none of which go to Union Station; a defunct railroad (Rock Island); the Milwaukee “District”; a few totally random names (Heritage Corridor, SouthWest Service, North Central Service); and so on. Railroads in Chicago have a rich history, and it’s true that the three Union Pacific lines and the BNSF Railway are owned and operated by the respective freight railroads, but with the Metra branding and unified fleet that’s a distinction without a difference for most riders. This also leaves open the possibility of forced name changes should one of the private railroads consolidate (such as the three Chicago and North Western lines becoming the Union Pacifics back in the 1990s).

The compromise I came up with for this version of the map is to create line names based on old named passenger trains that served each route, but (generally) without a direct reference to an individual railroad. This way, the network still pays homage to our region’s rich railroad history, while streamlining the line names into something simple and memorable for riders. I also tried to avoid Amtrak train names to reduce potential confusion (which kind of sucks because that disqualified a few of the more well-known historic trains, like the Hiawathas and the Zephyrs). And, just for kicks, while I’m no graphic designer, for the first time ever I included line icons that — 21st Century bonus! — also have corresponding standard emojis for smartphone users.

The Ashland Line
(A, Union Pacific North)

  • History: The Ashland Limited was a Chicago and North Western train from Chicago to Ashland, Wisconsin, via Green Bay. I was tempted to go with the Flambeau, another C&NW train that used what’s now the North Line, but as a true blue Chicagoan I couldn’t in good conscience go with a name so similar to “Lambeau” on the only line that goes into Wisconsin and has a forest green color scheme to boot. (The forest green color Metra uses is officially “Flambeau Green”. You’ll see I overlapped a few of these line names with Metra’s throwback color names, so I’m hoping that could be a foot in the door to actually making some of these changes.) Plus, the corridor parallels Ashland Avenue pretty closely in the city, so that’s good enough for me.
  • Line Icon: A fish, being fished. (The Ashland Limited was also occasionally referred to as the Fisherman’s Special or the Northwoods Fisherman.)
  • Emoji: 🎣

The North Western Line
(C, Union Pacific Northwest)

  • History: The North Western Limited was the Chicago and North Western’s primary train between Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago before the streamlined 400s were used. This one could have also been called “The Viking Line” for the C&NW’s Viking; Metra uses “Viking Yellow” for the color. Honestly, I’m playing a little fast and loose with this one: the North Western Limited used today’s North Line up to Milwaukee before heading to the Twin Cities, but considering it’s currently the Northwest Line that parallels Northwest Highway and used to be operated by the Chicago and North Western, let’s keep this one simple. (And it did operate over the current UP-NW’s tracks between Ogilvie and Clybourn, after all.)
  • Line Icon: A compass. (And yes the compass is pointing in the correct direction: since the needle always points north, if you’re heading northwest, this is what the compass should look like.)
  • Emoji: 🧭

The Kate Shelley Line
(E, Union Pacific West)

  • History: Kate Shelley has a prominent place in railroad folklore. An Irish immigrant living in Iowa in 1881, she overheard a C&NW inspection locomotive wreck into Honey Creek following a bridge washout during a round of severe thunderstorms. Since a passenger train was due through the area later that night, Kate ran through the storm to a nearby train station to alert railroad staff of the wreck. Her quick thinking saved the passenger train as well as two of the crew members from the initial wreck. C&NW would later run the Kate Shelley 400 over what’s now the Union Pacific West Line between Chicago and Iowa. It’s never a bad time to celebrate another brave woman in Midwestern history. (Plus Metra already officially uses “Kate Shelley Rose” as the color for the line.)
  • Line Icon: A thunderstorm.
  • Emoji: 🌩

The Marquette Line
(G, Milwaukee North)

  • History: The Milwaukee Road ran the Marquette from Chicago to Madison and points west over what’s now the Milwaukee North (before the Illinois Tollway effectively killed demand for passenger rail service into Wisconsin).
  • Line Icon: In honor of early Midwestern explorer Father Jacques Marquette, who cut through what’s now Chicago in 1673, this line uses a canoe.
  • Emoji: 🛶

The Laker Line
(J, North Central Service)

  • History: Metra’s service now operates over tracks controlled by Canadian National, but way back when, the Soo Line operated The Laker between Chicago and Duluth over this corridor (north of Franklin Park). Interestingly enough, the line between Franklin Park and downtown swung south and paralleled what’s now the Blue Line in Oak Park and Forest Park, which makes a fun corridor to discuss in the context of the O’Hare Express. “The Laker” is also a good name for this corridor since it cuts right up through the center of Lake County.
  • Line Icon: A sailboat. Maybe on the nearby Chain O’Lakes.
  • Emoji: ⛵️

The Arrow Line
(K, Milwaukee West)

  • History: The Arrow was the Milwaukee Road’s Chicago-to-Omaha train, which operated over what’s now the Milwaukee West corridor. Metra calls the color “Arrow Yellow” after the train, but personally I feel like “yellow” is a bit misleading.
  • Line Icon: I used a stylized arrowhead, pointing left (west) as a hat-tip to the current Milwaukee West name.
  • Emoji: There’s no direct arrowhead emoji and I feel like one of the standard arrows is a little too, uh, direct… but there is a bow-and-arrow, so whatever, close enough. 🏹

The Western Star Line
(N, BNSF Railway)

  • History: I really, really wanted to use the Zephyr here; the last version of the map that I posted in the last blog post still had the Zephyr listed. But, since this line does serve Union Station, and since Amtrak runs both the California Zephyr and the Illinois Zephyr over this same route, I unfortunately decided that it’d be too easy to confuse. I also considered the Mainstreeter, which is just a cool name for a train plus would be pretty representative of the small towns served by this Metra service, but I opted against it since there’s literally a “Main Street” station on this line (as well as one on a different line). That left the Western Star, a Burlington/Great Northern train that connected Chicago to Spokane via Glacier National Park. Plus, hey, a Star Line!
  • Line Icon: Not Luxo. But close.
  • Emoji: ⭐️

The Abraham Line
(P, Heritage Corridor)

  • History: It’s nice when history is still current. The Alton Railroad began the Abraham Lincoln in 1935, and since then the operators have changed (from Alton to Gulf, Mobile and Ohio, and on to Amtrak) but the long-distance train keeps rolling today as Amtrak’s Lincoln Service. To distance the Metra line from the Amtrak service, I kept the Abraham and dropped the Lincoln.
  • Line Icon: Lincoln’s trademark stovepipe hat. If regular Heritage Corridor riders prefer to see it as a tombstone, hey, go for it.
  • Emoji: 🎩

The Blue Bird Line
(Q, SouthWest Service)

  • History: The Wabash Railroad originally ran the Blue Bird (and the Banner Blue, which Metra uses as the color of the line) between Chicago and St. Louis via Decatur.
  • Line Icon: It’s a bird’s head. Or at least it’s supposed to be a bird’s head. I’m not good with animals.
  • Emoji: Another iPhone/Android conflict here: Apple’s bird emoji is actually blue (doesn’t look too dissimilar from my icon, actually); other emoji libraries use a bird that looks more like a cardinal here. When in doubt, add the blue ball in front. 🔵 🐦

The Rocket Line
(R, Rock Island – Main Line)

  • History: When Amtrak was first formed in 1971, the government offered railroads a simple deal: pay a small fee and/or give Amtrak your passenger rolling stock to let Amtrak run passenger service, and in return the freight railroads would no longer be on the hook for providing (money-losing) passenger service. The Rock Island was one of six railroads that opted out of joining Amtrak, continuing to run their famed Rocket trains into the 1970s. In Chicago, the Peoria Rocket and the Des Moines Rocket (later the Quad Cities Rocket) operated over the Rock’s tracks between downtown and Joliet.
  • Line Icon: A rocket, theoretically flying north-northeast from Blue Island to LaSalle Street Station.
  • Emoji: 🚀

The Suburban Line
(S, Rock Island – Suburban Branch)

  • History: Another freebie, the Suburban Line has been known as the Suburban Line (or Suburban Branch, depending on the source) since before the Great Chicago Fire. Since in our lettering scheme the Rock’s Rockets are R trains and the Suburbans are S trains, no need to get too deep in the weeds here.
  • Line Icon: A single-family house. Picket fence and 2.3 kids not included.
  • Emoji: 🏠

The Panama Line
(U, Metra Electric – Suburban Main)

  • History: The most famous Illinois Central train that doesn’t have a song written about it, the Panama Limited was one of the most luxurious trains in the country, connecting Chicago and New Orleans over the Illinois Central’s main line. The original train was named after the Panama Canal, which was still being constructed when service first started.
  • Line Icon: Since the train was named after the Panama Canal, the icon is a (very crude) container ship.
  • Emoji: 🚢

The Magnolia Line
(V, Metra Electric – City Main/Blue Island Branch)

  • History: The Panama Limited was one of the most luxurious trains in the country, with an all-sleeper consist. In 1967, as the Panama Limited was losing ridership (along with just about every other passenger train in the nation), the Illinois Central threw a few coach cars onto the Panama Limited and briefly called the coach accommodations the Magnolia Star, probably to try not to sully the luxurious reputation of the Panama Limited. I wonder if there’s some sort of allegory in there for how Metra treats suburban riders vs. city riders…
  • Line Icon: A simplified magnolia bloom.
  • Emoji: 🌺

The Diamond Line
(W, Metra Electric – South Chicago Branch)

  • History: The Diamond represents a few different Illinois Central trains, including the Green Diamond, the Diamond Special, and the Night Diamond between Chicago and St. Louis. While the South Chicago Branch never hosted long-distance trains (for obvious reasons), these trains still share the old Illinois Central main line into downtown north of 63rd Street.
  • Line Icon: A basic diamond on a teal background.
  • Emoji: 💎

So what are your thoughts on the map? What should I change next year when I get restless about the map again? Go yell at me on Twitter. (P.S. – one of the most important things I did to this version of the map is format it to fit nicely on an 11×17 piece of paper. Here’s a PDF if you’d like to print it out at home or at work.)

One last quick plug for Transportation Camp: this Saturday, May 4 from 9am-5:30pm at the Chaddick Institute in DePaul’s Loop Campus (14 E. Jackson, 16th Floor). $30 for the day ($20 if you’re a student) is a bargain to nerd out all day long. Get registered over on YPT’s website.

Diverging Approach: The Purge

Editor’s Note, 1/22/20: The PABST Report has been updated with 2018 data, optimized for mobile use (with the Google Sheets app) and now features generated reports for each station. If you already know our methodology, feel free to go straight to the report.

Metra’s draft Station Evaluation Policy procedures are out, and Metra’s encouraging the public to review and comment on them by April 15. From Metra:

The policy establishes a plan to review existing stations at least every two years.  Metra will collaborate with community stakeholders to create plans of action for stations with low ridership, in order to increase ridership, improve customer experience, and build support for Metra service among nearby residents.  The policy also identifies a process for working with communities to address stations where ridership is not able to be improved.
In addition, the policy provides guidance for consideration of infill stations (that is, new stations on existing Metra lines, between existing stations).  Proposals for new access points to the Metra system must weigh the potential benefits to new riders against drawbacks to existing riders, before they can proceed.


Metra taking a data-driven approach to analyze current levels of service and assessing their built assets (in this case, stations), is most certainly a good thing and fits in quite well with the Metra Board’s ongoing pursuit to run service as efficiently as possible despite a chronic lack of funding for operations and capital improvements.

Unfortunately, the draft plan as written leaves plenty to be desired. Metra’s triage method of analyzing stations relies on a single metric: weekday boardings. Regardless of how many trains a day serve each station, all the stations are measured against each other looking only at raw utilization. The first pass of the analysis is simply assuming the top half of all stations are “Sustainable”, whether that’s the thousands of people who board at Route 59 every day or the 410 boardings per day for the median station. The bottom half of stations are thus considered “Underperforming” by default, which means each station in the bottom half effectively needs some additional analyses to determine ways to boost ridership. While this will undoubtedly keep Metra’s planning staff (or Metra’s consultants) busy for each two-year cycle, it may be a little bit of overkill. Of course, the meat of the Station Evaluation Policy comes for the stations that fall in the bottom 10% of boardings, the “Unsustainable” stations. While the plan is ostensibly written as a way to boost ridership systemwide by performing deep-dive data analyses at Metra’s worst-performing stations, cynically it’s also easy to see how this overall plan will be used to simply produce a list of stations for the Board to cull.

I have three major issues with the “Unsustainable” stations. First and foremost, publicly branding a station as “Unsustainable” (or “Underperforming”, for that matter) could potentially be kryptonite for potential transit-oriented development projects, which is a bitter irony: TODs are potentially a great way to boost ridership at a station by creating newer, denser development within walking distance of the station, but it may scare a developer away if they think the station itself is threatened. Second, since “Unsustainable” is defined as the bottom ten percent of the system, there will always be a significant number of “Unsustainable” stations regardless of ridership levels. The assumption with this kind of system is that Metra inherently has too many stations, which may not actually be the case. In a worst-case scenario, with an iterative process that shuts down the bottom ten percent of stations every other year (an unlikely scenario, but not impossible), Metra could theoretically declare 80 of their 242 stations “Unsustainable” within the next decade.

And the third reason I’m not a fan of the “Unsustainable” branding is, well, when you map everything out, this process targets Chicago’s South Side with almost surgical precision. By relying on this mathematical method, Metra may be able to meet Title VI standards that are intended to prevent disporportionate negative impacts to majority-minority populations. (Stations that could potentially be slated for closure would still need to pass a Title VI analysis before the Board could vote to close those stations.)

I’m not accusing Metra of specifically targeting neighborhoods of color for service cuts, of course; half-mile spacing for rail stations through an urban area does not fit Metra’s commuter rail service model and invariably leads to waste regardless of the demographics of the neighborhoods served: more maintenance costs, longer travel times, and significant costs to bring these grade-separated stations up to Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards. However, what I fear is that Metra will move to close and remove many of these South Side stations, which would significantly raise future costs if the Electric Line ever goes back to a more rapid transit-style service that the South Side sorely needs. (Two numbers to keep in the back of your mind when discussing a modernized Metra Electric service on the South Side: $2.3 billion, the CTA’s projected cost of extending the Red Line to 130th Street, and $931 million, Metra’s projected cost of the “Modern Metra Electric” alternative in the recent cost-benefit analysis. And if you really want to make yourself mad, check out these 1957 Illinois Central timetables that included 24-hour service and 20-minute off-peak headways on what’s now the Metra Electric.)

The “Chicago problem” is something this blog has discussed in the past: upwards of 70 of Metra’s 242 stations are within the City of Chicago, but the Metra Board is statutorily restricted to only a single member who lives in Chicago proper. Furthermore, the above map is a great example of why I tend to see how Metra operates their service differently than Metra’s official count of 11 lines: I consider Metra to operate no fewer than 14 distinct services, and it’s more effective to think of the Metra Electric in particular as three separate lines rather than a single operation: the Suburban Main Line, which operates similar to the rest of Metra’s suburban services; the City Main Line/Blue Island Branch, which has station spacing more similar to rapid transit service but operates with commuter rail headways (and fares); and the South Chicago Branch, which operationally is similar to the City Main/Blue Island Branch but is distinct for its mostly street-running operations down 71st Street and Exchange Avenue through a denser built environment. To help illustrate this, I went back and updated our infamous map. (A forthcoming blog post will dive deeper into the new map, but in the meantime, here’s a sneak peek.)

Check it out as a PDF.

Back on topic for the Station Evaluation Policy: the draft also includes a recommendation for infill stations, which would require that any new infill station would have to be projected to make it into “Sustainable” (top half) station territory within the first decade the station is open, which seems unrealistic since none of Metra’s seven new/infill stations that opened in 2006 met that standard themselves. While it’s good that maybe Metra is trying to avoid the lackluster performance of these new stations, I worry that requiring a station to make it into the top 50% within a decade will require a massive coordinating development like Lincoln Yards or a massive sea of parking like the “Sustainable” 80th Avenue, Pingree Road, or Route 59 infill stations to meet those projections. (Of course, with Metra’s capital funding shortfalls, maybe that’s a feature of the analysis, not a bug.) It’s also worth noting that some of these recent infill stations were either poorly executed or victims of just bad luck: Rosemont was built in the middle of nowhere and lacks off-peak service for potential riders heading to the entertainment district; Schiller Park is more or less inaccessible from the east side of that community due to the existing rail yard in that location; Belmont Avenue is walking distance from the Franklin Park MD-W station, which sees significantly more service and is the first station served for peak-period expresses; the two SWS stations opened just in time for the housing bubble to cool off the Will County market; and so on.

StationOpening Year2016 BoardingsDraft Classification
Grand/Cicero MD-W200696Underperforming
Belmont Ave NCS200632Unsustainable
Schiller Park NCS200636Unsustainable
Rosemont NCS200635Unsustainable
Washington St/Grayslake NCS2006110Underperforming
Laraway Road SWS200624Unsustainable
Manhattan SWS200622Unsustainable

If you’re reading this, whether you agree with me or not, I encourage you to review the draft proposal yourself and shoot an email to Metra to let them know your thoughts — good or bad — before the April 15 deadline.

It’s been just about a year since this blog barged in with my two cents about the BNSF’s new Positive Train Control (PTC) schedule, wrote a letter to Metra about it, got my comments more or less dismissed, and observed the predictable shenanigans that followed last summer. I was going to do something similar this time around, but (1) I know there are a few people at Metra who read this blog anyway, and (2) if I’m going to give Metra some constructive criticism, I want to be able to offer up some justifiable, productive alternatives as well. So, as a self-appointed Blue Ribbon committee of one, I brainstormed what I’d want included above and beyond triaging the system based on boardings alone and seeing where the chips fell from there. I came up with five key performance indicators (KPIs) that I think should be used to give an easy, high-level assessment of each station:

  • Parking. Since I know Metra historically hasn’t met a parking lot they didn’t like, I wanted the assessment to see how efficient parking is at each station that has it: does the station have an appropriate amount of parking or is the station overparked? How well are parking permits utilized, and can changes to parking lot management help improve the efficiency of existing parking lots to grow capacity without actually adding new hardscape?
  • Accessibility. Is the station currently ADA-accessible? If not, would it be relatively easy to bring the station up to accessibility standards or would it require a significant investment?
  • Boardings. Do a lot of riders use the station? Do more people board or alight at each station?
  • Service. How many trains serve each station? Are the trains themselves relatively busy (which can increase dwell times and decrease service reliability), or is there a surplus of service, which suggests ridership issues at that station are not related to service levels?
  • Trends. Is ridership increasing or decreasing at each station? While ridership decreases are obviously a more pressing issue, are there stations that have significantly gained ridership? Can we determine why ridership increased in those locations, and are there any lessons learned we can take away to apply to other stations for improvement?

Then I realized that all that data is already accessible (at least for 2016; still waiting on 2018 to get published) over on RTAMS. Instead of telling Metra what they should do, I could just do it myself.

Thus the PABST Blue Ribbon report was born. It’s nothing fancy: basically just a glorified spreadsheet that ranks each criteria on a 5-point scale for a quick and simple station assessment to provide a quick snapshot of each station. Go ahead: try it out for your station, and let’s talk about it over on Twitter. If you’d like the direct link to open it up on your own (or if the drop down menu isn’t working for you), check it out here. If you’re on a smartphone or tablet, make sure to download the Google Sheets app for best results. For a systemwide snapshot report, check out the “Scorecard” tab.

This report isn’t meant to make recommendations for station closures or station improvements (although in a few circumstances, a few standard recommendations will automatically pop up in the report), but rather a simple snapshot of KPIs to help guide conversations. So go ahead, play around with it (but try not to break it), and see how your station rates. And don’t forget to let Metra know your thoughts on the real Station Optimization project as well.

Diverging Approach: Investing In Transit

John Greenfield over at Streetsblog Chicago posted a good article today about Metra’s awful start to 2019 and the desperate need for more capital funding. It’s a good read if you’re unfamiliar with the trials and tribulations Metra’s dealt with this year (much of it beyond Metra’s control, including a freight derailment that knocked out the overhead catenary on the Metra Electric and Amtrak’s now-infamous clumsy employee who accidentally killed the Union Station signaling system for a day).

Metra’s Twitter account boosted the Streetsblog article with a thread about the need to solve the capital crisis Metra currently faces:

It’s good that Metra is taking their arguments for more funding straight to the people and encouraging more direct action to get a capital bill passed. To be clear: our region — and our state, and our nation as a whole — needs to invest more in transportation infrastructure at just about every level to keep the built environment safe and productive while providing healthier, more environmentally-friendly alternatives to driving that are efficient, practical, and useful. Metra’s rolling stock is downright ancient, and their current strategy of just going second-hand everything is obviously not sustainable.

It’s no secret: Metra’s capital needs are dire. The fleet experiences regular breakdowns; signal systems routinely cause significant delays; there are currently in-use bridges that are over 100 years old.

And Metra has used 0% of their bonding authority, in favor of trying to rally ridership to lobby Springfield on their behalf.

Now, there’s a definite argument for fiscal restraint in the face of an uncertain future. As Metra’s tweetstorm points out, we’re on the wrong side of a decade since the last state capital bill was passed, and “it is understandable fewer people choose to ride Metra when half our assets are in marginal or worn conditions”. But if the needs are so dire and the potential outcomes so negative, why not pull out the credit card for some fleet upgrades? Why teeter on the brink of a death spiral of increasing fares and decreasing ridership when Metra could finance some important capital improvements today that could start to turn the ship around? When the Better Government Association, a government watchdog charged with calling out wasteful government spending, publishes an editorial basically saying a unit of government isn’t taking on enough debt, it’s quite the statement.

But it’s also worth asking if more sustainable capital funds are the only thing that’s needed to save Metra. In other words, a sustainable capital funding source is no doubt important, but are outdated and unreliable infrastructure the primary causes of Metra’s ridership losses? Undoubtedly, it has no small impact on ridership (and rider morale); a quick perusal of @OnTheMetra‘s Twitter mentions will make that abundantly clear. But just a few years ago Metra rolled out a brand-new fleet on the Metra Electric line and the Electric Line is losing ridership faster than any other line, with a whopping 18.1% drop in ridership from 2014 through 2018. Will new locomotives and coaches boost ridership elsewhere in the system?

Metra, as an agency, was formed to bail out Chicago’s failing commuter rail network with public subsidies back in the 1980s. The state’s fatal flaw in creating the Regional Transportation Authority was setting up a (mostly) sustainable operations subsidy, but no corresponding capital improvement subsidy. That’s not Metra’s fault, of course; the CTA and Pace also have to deal with the lack of dedicated capital funding. Metra has done an absolutely stellar job of maintaining the Chicago commuter rail network since the 1980s, maybe to a fault: as the CTA and Pace innovate with new service patterns, new service options, and service expansions, Metra keeps grinding on with mostly the same network and very similar services it inherited. (While Metra is able to claim that they’ve opened a truly-new rail line more recently than the CTA has — the NCS opened in 1996 compared to the Orange Line’s opening in 1993 — since then the CTA has also totally rebuilt both branches of the Green Line, most of the Brown Line, what’s now the Pink Line, all of the Dan Ryan branch of the Red Line, and is about to embark on a Red Line extension deeper into areas that would probably be better served by increased frequencies on the Metra Electric instead.)

If Metra was formed to bail out a fiscally-failing commuter rail model with public subsidies and now, 35 years later, finds itself in a fiscally-failing commuter rail model that requires additional public subsidies to bail itself out, perhaps now is the time to refresh that model as a whole. It’s okay to start small with incremental improvements: Metra needs a new fleet, no doubt about that, but a stronger pitch for more investment in transit includes what Metra will do more effectively with that new fleet, or plans Metra has to modernize their service that they can’t do because of capital limitations. A new fleet that pushes on-time performance from 92% to 96% won’t get anyone excited — nor should it, because that 4% is probably not why ridership is dropping. However, rolling out something like pulse scheduling — one of this blog’s favorite topics because it doesn’t really change operating costs but creates convenient transfer opportunities to expand Metra’s reach and passenger mobility throughout the region — alongside the reliability improvements a modernized fleet would bring to help guarantee convenient transfers could be made can turn some heads and pique some interests. Likewise, if Metra can pitch a capital improvement as making a significant positive impact on operating costs — like, say, a new fare collection system that would reduce the need for conductors — that proposal would likely be a lot more palatable to politicians regardless of political party. Metra has plenty of fun ideas in the queue to enhance or expand service systemwide, yet they stick with a message of maintaining a (declining) status quo as their lead argument to rustle up some new capital funds. Get people excited about the future and they’ll probably be more motivated to pick up the phone and call their representatives.

Increasing capital funding to Metra is a good idea, full stop. Our region depends on Metra, and investing in transit is a good investment. However, a new capital bill out of Springfield that lets Metra buy a few new trains, swap out a few signals, and replace a few bridges but doesn’t encourage Metra to update their operational structure to reflect the shifting demographics and travel trends in the Chicago region just kicks the can down the road a few more years and we’ll just end up in the same spot all over again. After all, a capital bill that brings Metra into the 21st Century is already 19 years out-of-date.

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.