Talking About Transit


How does this station work? Is there signal priority for the streetcar? How does existing CTA bus service interact? All transit questions unanswered by this concept.


There is a right way and a wrong way of talking about transit. Specifically, when you propose an idea for transit service without mentioning the details. As a transit planner, I love details. Because transit costs money, and because it is seen by many as government largess, if you are going to responsibly discuss your transit ideas, the more fleshed out it is the more credibility you will have with both the public and the government agency that would likely run the system. The project in which I’m referring to is the Chicago Streetcar Renaissance proposal for streetcars along North Lake Shore Drive when that road is rebuilt. I attended a presentation [actual proposal here] by John Krause of Chicago Streetcar Renaissance at the Transport Chicago conference a last month where he laid out his vision for a streetcar (or LRT) running from downtown via Michigan Avenue north along Lake Shore Drive. The vision looks really nice. Many pictures of streetcars in European cities in urban areas at a smaller scale, and perhaps even more dense than the areas around North Lake Shore Drive. And while I was sucked into the grandeur of it, the transit planner in me awoke with these questions:

  1. What is the actual route (from end to end) of service? It’s great to see cross-sections of North Lake Shore Drive, and I’m aware that the streetcar is proposed to travel down North Michigan Avenue and Sheridan Road, but what are the limits? Are there branches of service, particularly at the ends of the route?
  2. Which current CTA bus routes, if any, will this new streetcar service replace?
  3. What is the frequency of service and hours of service? Since you propose to replace many of the buses along Lake Shore Drive with streetcar service, I am wondering if the service plan accounts for headways of 1-3 minutes in the peak period. If so, then…
  4. Where to do you plan for the vehicle and crew facility? Particularly since land is at a premium downtown and along the lakefront.
  5. Will the streetcars have traffic signal preemption?
  6. How do you anticipate at-grade street crossing effecting scheduling?
  7. Could bus rapid transit provide a similar level of service for less cost?

I am not saying this project is a bad idea, by any means and I am receptive to reducing North Lake Shore Drive from a limited access expressway to a boulevard of some type with transit running alongside (or in the middle). But when you propose a new mode of transit, one in which there is no legacy network to tie into, then these types of questions are appropriate. That said, I applaud the efforts Mr. Krause has made to thinking about North Lake Shore Drive differently, and putting his efforts into a concept to show an alternative way of thinking about this corridor. But the pictures are too pretty and now we need to get to the hard part. The system design and analysis.

So, as a transit planner what would I do?

I would flesh out my concepts a little better first, making sure the streetcar is feasible from a physical, operational and market standpoint. That is, addressing the questions above and developing a service plan to compare with existing CTA bus operations. Then I would really figure out a way to pay for it.

What would you do with North Lake Shore Drive?

Why mass transit is doomed

Metra over traffic

Mass Transit in Chicago. Source: Steven Vance @flickr

I can’t recommend reading Alex Pareene’s article enough on why mass transit is doomed. Sure, it’s true that politicians don’t use it. Let’s put this into a Chicago context. How often do you think Rahm Emanuel rides the CTA, despite living a couple of blocks from the Montrose Brown Line? What about Pat Quinn, who could commute from his northwest side neighborhood in Galewood on the Metra? Before you answer – consider this fact. There exists, under the James Thompson Center (aka Illinois Capitol Building north), a non-public parking garage restricted to select public employees. A similar parking situation exists in the Daley Center, next to City Hall. When parking is free in places it shouldn’t be, what are the incentives for politicians to drive?

Another example. Several years ago, when I was an intern with the Chicago Transit Authority, the Board of the CTA took a tour of the Block 37 cavern. (Let’s neglect the fact that this behemoth was sprung from the brainchild of another politician known for never riding the CTA, Richard Daley. And let’s neglect for the moment that a $200 million basement makes a difference to precisely no one. Imagine a $200 million investment in trains and buses). How did they get there? Not by the Green Line Clinton Station, right outside CTA headquarters. No, there was vehicle transportation arranged for them. Keep in mind that this is the Board of the Chicago Transit Authority.

This is despite the fact that 27% of workers within the City of Chicago take public transportation to work. One in four.

And now, when the CTA is proposing a bus rapid transit solution along Ashland Avenue that speeds up travel times on one of the busiest bus routes in its system, it runs into vehement opposition because it makes driving a car slightly more cumbersome. Because, you know, driving is a god given right also enshrined in our constitution. And everyone drives (except for those 27%).

The problem is, Chicago’s mass transit system, combined, is the third largest in the country. It faces a significant capital shortfall of $18 billion to address state of good repair needs and needs an additional $12 billion over 10 years for normal capital reinvestment. Yet, the system’s sources of funding are not stable and subject to economic swings (sales tax receipts, real estate transfer tax, etc.).

You know when the State gets its way on a ridiculously flawed highway proposal that it cannot afford, and it steamrolled the transit agencies to vote in support of it, against their interests, that mass transit is doomed.

Transit Disinvestment

A CTA train emerges from the north portal of t...

Rising up or falling down?  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my hometown, Chicago, the CTA raised fares today.  Lots of people are upset, and for good reason. In many cases it’s easy to blame the low hanging fruit – mismanagement, corruption, government waste, high salaries and benefits, etc. Often, the 800 pound gorilla in the room is none of these things. Raising fares is a rational response to a systemic problem in this country – the poor state of good repair as it’s called in the business, or the lack of well maintained infrastructure. It is a lack of a commitment nationwide to maintaining our infrastructure – and the problem is that we’re overbuilt – causing these state of good repair issues. And I don’t mean that we’re overbuilt on transit – it’s the roads, our development pattern and our suburban experiment that is bankrupting us.

CTA, like transit properties nationwide and like Metra here in Chicago, is raising fares in part due to declining federal and state support for capital expenditures and a poor economy  that has devastated the operating side of the budget. This is happening all across the country. Therefore, it’s easy to see how transit gets into a situation, a cycle of slow, but perpetual disinvestment on the capital side, not out of poor management, but rather choices in which one must choose the least bad option. Then, the economy goes down, bringing down sales taxes – the principal operating finance mechanism – and now transit is unable to make payroll. This is referred to as the transit “death spiral.”

Transit is in a pickle. In the vast majority of cities it carries just a fraction of the overall work commute. In the Chicago metropolitan statistical area, that number is 11.5%. We’re in fourth place behind New York (31.1%), Washington D.C. (14.8%), and San Francisco (14.4%). It’s difficult to marshall the political forces needed to support transit locally and nationally when only 11.5% of the region’s work trips are made by transit. These numbers are so low precisely because of the built environment we have created. And until the fundamentals of that growth mechanism known as our suburban experiment change, I think the cycle of disinvestment in our infrastructure is likely to continue.

Cars vs. Transit

I’ve been mulling over Josh Barro’s contention that cars should not be blamed for the failures of mass transit and his conclusion that planning and zoning is to blame. His basic contention is thus:

…the real culprit keeping Americans away from mass transit and inside cars isn’t subsidies; it’s planning and zoning. Cities impose barriers to density that limit the number of housing units and offices that can be located near buses and trains, which reduces mass-transit usage. These barriers also drive up property prices in areas near mass transit, penalizing transit-oriented living and encouraging people to live farther from urban cores, in areas where they have to drive. Meanwhile, cities often require builders to include a minimum number of parking spaces in new developments, depressing the market price of parking and further rewarding drivers.

A better approach would take advantage of the fact that proximity to transit increases property values. Cities should allow dense development, collect the property taxes that are generated, and use them to finance transit. Increased development also means more transit users and more fare revenues. But locals tend to oppose greater housing density; they also often demand parking minimums, since they don’t want to face too much competition for free on-street parking. An ironic result is that the very urban liberals who like to complain about suburban sprawl can end up encouraging it.

I concur with the larger argument about minimum parking requirements and value capture but I believe the argument falls short. While, I see how decisions made in land use policy at the local level distort the market equilibrium of supply and demand when it comes to parking, it is not as simple as to just blame the planner and the zoning code. The fact is, sprawl is baked into the cake of modern urban (and suburban) development. This makes the failure (or at least, under utilization) of mass transit easier and more likely. Here’s why:


Suburban development in Colorado Springs, Colorado

Suburban development in Colorado Springs, Colorado (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’ve been basically building one type of housing for the past 60 years: single family homes with attached garages, driveways and subdivisions modeled on the Plan for Riverside. When we’re not building single family homes, we’re building townhouses and apartment complexes with a similar auto-centric design. The fact is, despite the population growth in cities over the past 10 years and outside of new urbanism and rebuilding in existing neighborhoods, we have not really built any new greenfield communities that resembles any pre-depression urban form.


Even if we were to start building communities in greenfield locations with high densities that could support transit, like residential development that was built-in the streetcar era, we still likely could not build these communities without adding significant amounts of parking or by limiting density. This is in large part because of the financial institutions that provide funding for these developments do not properly know how to value these assets. Banks like to finance products in which they know and know well. The suburban form of development is one that banks have been financing for 60 years.

Other Government Agencies

November the 15th Street - also known as Flowe...

This kind of development is illegal under most zoning codes throughout the U.S. However, there are a variety of other factors at play. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s say that we can get the financing to build an urban development along new urbanism guidelines, for example. Let’s say we’ve got the zoning in place and the transit worked out. We still might not be able to build the dense, transit-oriented community we want due to the policies of other government agencies. For example, fire departments have been opposed to new urbanism developments due to the narrow streets within these developments. It turns out that the fire trucks have become too big to fit down these streets or the perception is such that it would be too much of an obstacle to navigate.

It may come as a surprise that transit agencies might also be unfriendly to transit-oriented development, particularly if the predominant mode of access to their stations is via car. The transit agency would want to make sure its commuter parking is located as close to the station as possible. This is a common tension when building transit-oriented development.


Strip center in the 1900 block of N Clybourn Ave

Development like this, in the transit rich, dense, urban neighborhood of Lincoln Park in Chicago. Even in dense cities, retailers insist on providing enough parking to “access” their stores. (Photo credit: YoChicago via flickr)

Retailers, particularly of the big box and other large format varieties, often won’t build in town without sufficient parking. When I was in grad school, the adjunct professor for my land use planning course told us that when Chicago was first redeveloping the North/Clybourn corridor from industrial uses to retail, the city wanted far less parking than is currently there. However, the developers balked, insisting that they needed the parking so that customers could access their stores. Of course, there was already 3 bus lines and the CTA Red Line station right there.

As a transportation planner, I appreciate that Barro is trying to explain the nexus between transportation and land use. Land uses drive transportation decisions of whether to take mass transit or cars. But so do a lot of factors beyond just the zoning code and minimum parking requirements.

CDOT Plan: Reaction

The Chicago Department of Transportation just released its Chicago Forward Action Agenda, which is the department’s strategic plan. You can read a good summary of it over at Grid Chicago and the full plan is available here. The plan has six elements. Here is my immediate reaction to the plan.


  • Eliminate all pedestrian, bicycle and overall traffic fatalities within 10 years.

I agree that traffic fatalities can be reduced and/or prevent through structural and design changes, but I think only to a point. We can’t control driver behavior. While this is a laudable goal, I don’t see funding to implement the changes that CDOT’s studies may suggest. Definitely not over 10 years. I do, however, appreciate additional study that could lead to small, but immediate safety improvements, particularly for bicyclists and pedestrians.

  • Reduce pedestrian and bicycle crash injuries, each by 50% within 5 years.

Another laudable goal, but what I’d like to have seen in the actions list is (and perhaps this falls under the Complete Streets policy) a re-engineering of the roads to slow down traffic. This could be accomplished through technology like speed cameras, but also through road diets and lane width shrinkage.

Rebuild and Renew

One area that is missing, and kudos for Grid Chicago for asking Gabe Klein about this, is partnerships with the other transit agencies besides CTA. And while I accept that CTA and CDOT have close working relationships for historic, political and practical reasons, the CTA is not the only mode of public transportation in the city. I’d love to see the city partner to improve commuter rail stations, both downtown and in the neighborhoods in as meaningful a partnership as the City has with CTA.

Choices for Chicago

I cannot emphasize enough how happy I am to read that the car “should be a choice, not a requirement.” This is true multimodal thinking! Let’s hope that the plan does not do anything to make it easier to drive in Chicago. It is already easy enough. While not the purview of CDOT’s silo, I would have loved to see an action item stating that CDOT would work with the Department of Housing and Economic Development  on land use and zoning issues that would support transit and bike/pedestrian modes better.


The environmental value of a tree. Source: CDOT

One of the coolest things that I’ve seen around downtown, highlighted in this plan, is the GreenStreets campaign, where the trees have “price tags” that illustrate the environmental value of the tree.

Fueling Our Economy

I think the very first performance measure, to increase activity, sales revenue, and occupancy rates in neighborhood commercial districts, is a fantastic example of breaking out of the silo. This is a problem that will have to be addressed city-wide through multiple agencies. Recognizing that streets can “add value”  to the neighborhoods means that you begin looking at streets in “complete” terms, as in how can a street serve multiple modes simultaneously?

This is it, for now. I’m happy to see CDOT embark on a strategic plan with a clear vision for what Chicago should be. I cast a critical planners eye, but I hope to convey that this is, however imperfect, a wonderful product. Now let’s see the implementation plan.