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?


  1. says

    I am all for any proposal to make Chicago more appealing to residents and tourists however I am not seeing a huge upside to such a plan; only a huge expense. As you say, Chicago has a good public transit system and with areas of the city in need of funding this streetcar system seems more like an extravagant luxury.

    • says

      I can see a potential upside if we knew more about the operational savings of eliminating duplicating bus services. From a purely conceptual standpoint I like the concept. I actually think that far more locals residents would use the service than tourists, as it already capitalizes on a huge existing market.

      • ChicagoStreetcarRenaissance says

        Let’s get together and talk. I think you have a lot to contribute to this effort. I have answers to all your questions, and I’d love to hear what you think of them.

        However: I don’t think you should discourage people like me from putting forth proposals for important civic projects like rebuilding Lake Shore Drive. Why is mine the only proposal out there, when we live in a city with thousands of professionals who design things like this for cities all over the world? We should all be trying to establish a culture that encourages public debate and engages real experts (in addition to amateurs like me) in these projects that shape the future of our city. Do you really want to be the Taliban of Transit? “A right way and a wrong way of talking about transit”? And the right way is to keep the big picture to yourself until you’ve worked out the details? That just doesn’t reflect any kind of design process I’ve ever been engaged in, and I don’t think it’s the way it’s done in any community where the general public and design professionals are enthusiastically engaged in planning their city. I don’t want to live in a city designed by your process.

        • says

          Absolutely. And I should note that I sincerely apologize for saying that your presentation was a wrong way to talk about transit. That’s a bad headline on my part. I actually believe that you have a big picture laid out pretty well and I was attempting to address that picture with nuts and bolts details questions. Because those are the questions that a transit operator like the CTA is going to have.

          Regardless, I appreciate the work you have done and your willingness to step out on the ledge with this idea. Let’s talk offline on how we can both work to push a better transit solution on North Lake Shore Drive.

  2. ChicagoStreetcarRenaissance says

    There’s one obvious possibility you may have overlooked here: there are well thought-out answers to all of the questions you pose, and none of them fit into a 15-minute conference presentation or a schematic proposal for a project that will take thousands of man-hours to design. Why don’t you just ask your questions instead of assuming there are no answers?

    • says

      I’m quite sure that you have the answers to these questions and I’m aware that they don’t fit in neatly within a 15 minute conference presentation or concept design. But I have not seen any of the operational or service design questions answered. I would love to hear your thoughts on these questions in greater detail though.

  3. maxwell ivey says

    i think your questions are all perfectly reasonable considering how much money will be involved. Also, it sounds like this suggestion could impact other forms of transit in the city adversely. And if it can’t connect up with existing lines then its of very little real use to the people of chicago or any other city that might be considering it. I have approached a lot of people about using park trams for public transportation as i am a dealer fro a company from portugal that manufactures them. so far no one has shown any interest, but this post has made me realize that I know far too little about the issue to be making such a proposal. the trams can haul 66 passengers per load and i don’t even know how that compares to the capacity of standard buses. thanks for the post and good luck with the city, max

    • says

      I believe modern streetcar or LRT accomodates around 200-250 people per vehicle. I also believe the proposal could fit quite well within the existing network of transit services once we know more of the operational characteristics.

  4. says

    4. How about putting service/maintenance facilities in the trench shared with South Shore Line and Metra Electric trains.
    6. Give the train priority at all at-grade intersections (yep, even the ones where the off-ramps come off).
    7. I think Krause’s soon-to-start feasibility study will be looking at BRT vs. LRT costs.

    • says

      I believe putting the maintenance facility along the Metra ROW could be a great idea – there already is a Metra yard at 18th street, for example. There are, however, capacity constraints on Metra itself at Van Buren so I’m not sure how the geometry would need to be worked out.

      I also think as I’m sure John Krause would agree that TSP is an absolute must for the project. It’s the only way that the service could compete.

      I would be very interested in seeing such a study of costs. I would also be interested in seeing how costs add up if there is an elimination of duplicate bus services from this project. I am also curious to see how on-time performance is affected along Sheridan and definitely along North Michigan Avenue.

  5. Beth - says

    Sounds good to me although I know nothing about the subject. Clarity and being complete are always good practices.

  6. says

    It’s better to ask the questions now, than just to move forward into committing time, money and resources. I don’t know your business at all. I do wonder, would it be helpful to get a focus group of citizens together to get answers to some of the questions around the route? Ask on!

    • says

      There is several committees of dedicated citizens helping to inform the public planning and participation process that this concept has come out of. My questions regarding the streetcar concept are really nuts and bolts questions related to the actual provision of service – definitely not too soon to be thinking about those.

  7. Seth says

    lakefront subway line would be better, with connections downtown and then all the way down to hyde park and south shore. maybe combine it with the grey line proposal.

    • says

      Where would you have a lakefront subway line end on the north side? To supplement existing north side services, I’d actually love to see an additional Metra station at Irving Park or Addison to connect to Wrigley Field while also providing another connection to the west side of the loop.

      • what_eva says

        You can be as mad as I am that the townhouses on the south side of Addison between the brown line and the UP-N tracks was supposed to be a transfer station. Townhomes were built by a clouted developer naturally.

      • Seth says

        Great question. If you look on the map you can see that portions of the north side red line are quite far from the lakefront. then as the line goes further north it gets closer again. so a line connecting downtown with the red line could re-connect with it on the north side say at Wilson. it could then go on the red/purple tracks and turn around at Howard (or wherever there is an existing turnaround)

        agree that Metra connectivity with the L in the city is poor. sometimes Metra flies right past an L stop (think brown line) but no transfer station. there should be more stations like jeff park.

    • EDG says

      Light rail on the west side of LSD within walking distance of lakefront residents. I’m not sure if a subway is feasible given the proximity to the lake and the cost of doing that.

  8. what_eva says

    The problem I’ve always had with this plan is that there are large stretches where LSD runs through the park, far from any housing. The intersection in the example picture above with high rises right on LSD is the exception. The reason the express buses work is because they run off LSD and into the neighborhoods. eg, 134/143 at Fullerton exit and go quite a bit east to Stockton, taking people closer to their homes.

    • Seth says

      perhaps a subway under inner drive could bring it closer. or if a surface line, it could run on the west side of outer drive at least.

      • says

        I wonder if a subway is a little overkill on LSD because it’s market is really only coming from one side (west) where all the density is. One advantage of LSD in its current configuration is that transit that uses it could act as a sort of express service from parts north of Diversey to downtown. I’m almost thinking that if there is a demand for subway, I wonder if it would be under Clark St. or Lincoln Ave. going to some dense areas west of the Brown Line.

        Slightly off topic here, but as I live in Jefferson Park, I’d love to see the Brown Line extended from Kimball out here.

        • Seth says

          Good point Ryan. Maybe the best use of all our advocacy is to push for any new service having high speed/frequency, and being well connected with existing service e.g. within the fare zone transfer at both ends. Let’s expand and densify our transit network, not supplement it with add-ons.

          Our hub and spoke system has many gaps in coverage, in addition to the lack of “wheels” to connect the spokes.

          Extending the Brown Line to the Blue Line would make it possible to quickly take the Brown Line to the airport, as well as get to some outlying blue line neighborhoods more quickly until the Circle Line is built. It would probably have to go above grade again.

          • says

            Hell, just increasing frequencies on some of the east-west bus routes as well as on CTA and especially Metra would make a big difference. If Metra had the ability to run frequencies in the city of say 15 minutes even, that would make a huge difference on the north side.

          • Seth says

            right. 15min frequency is the minimum that’s convenient and useful without having to keep to a schedule (attract more riders of choice). a great example of this is metra electric to hyde park. if metra goes on ventra, riders can transfer with ease and since the multiple branches of electric all go there, it’s actually pretty frequent even today.

            with the e/w buses the issue is speed, frequency and having to wait for the bus at streetside in weather v. in a station.

            if metra can find funding to increase frequencies (and run later or 24/7) that would help ridership. but big cost and greater frequency would make electrifying more of the lines make more sense.

      • what_eva says

        And then you only have stops at Belmont, Addison, Irving and Montrose north of North Ave. That’s not much of a route.

  9. EDG says

    First, the proposal is not technical a streetcar but light rail so they need to get their terminology straight going forward to avoid confusion. And second, I’m pro-streetcar and transit but Michigan Ave doesn’t seem to fit the model of where modern streetcars have been installed in Portland, KC, Cincinnati, etc.- between downtown and underutilized downtown adjacent areas that need economic revival. There are redeveloping areas west of the Loop where this would make sense and looking at congestion in N Michigan Ave area, it needs more capacity than a short modern streetcar. But more transit as part of the LSD rebuilt makes all the sense in the world and separating modes makes even more sense given the reason this whole process was started. And the proposed cross section really does a good job of enhancing neighborhood access across LSD and providing transit like we see on the Blue Line out to O’Hare.

  10. Jacqueline Gum says

    Not living in the Chicago area, I can’t speak to the specific topic. But transit planning is germane to all urban area. Here in Charleston SC we are struggling with the same issues in a very crowded downtown area. Seems to me, in the article I have read addressing the topic they have not fleshed out anything to the degree that you suggest.

  11. C Monroe says

    The image in the picture is mislabeled, that is not a streetcar but light rail. Streetcars are smaller slower buses on tracks that have many stops. Light rail is a step above with longer trains and more limited stops. Light rail can be either or all elevated, street level or underground. perfect examples are LA’s Expo line(street level, underground) LA’s green line(elevated center freeway running) and LA’s Blue line(all of the above). Heavy rail is either subway or elevated rail.

    The problem is when transit and public get streetcars and light rail mixed up. Transit will tell the public about the benefits and speed of light rail and then put in a slower streetcar but still call it light rail when it truly is not. This actually hurts the image of light rail, so please do not do this.

  12. MinaJoshi5409 says

    Interesting topic. Cities in USA have so much space so it must make planning the streetcar relatively easy. I am saying this as UK is so crowded that any transport changes require major planning and this makes everything expensive.

  13. says

    I love the transit system in Toronto. Even though it is over crowded at times, it is moving people. Hopefully chicago will be better in the future.


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