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.


  1. Krystyna Lagowski says

    Well, here in Toronto, we have some pretty nasty problems with congestion. In the 1970s, our transit system was state of the art, and it still is – for 1973. Torontonians have one of the longest commutes in Canada, 32 minutes. That’s one way. But we do have politicians who not only take transit but also bicycle. There were some great proposed improvements all ready to go, but the current administration (don’t get me started!) scrapped them. It’s a lively area of debate, which hopefully will get translated into action … soon …

    • says

      Like Toronto, Chicago’s system was state of the art at one time too. Unfortunately, that one time was in the 1890’s, when our elevated lines were first built. Our commuter rail lines haven’t much changed in decades either, although we’ve had a couple of additional lines open in the last 20 years. But our local politicians do not appear overly interested in public transportation and how it works. It is like the third rail (no pun intended) of local politics because of the huge number of jobs and sales tax revenues that it consumes.

    • says

      This is true. Atlanta is hampered by many things, chief among them I would say is regional coordination. Which is a problem because people travel in across county lines and municipal boundaries. But Chicago is in the process of re-investigating how we manage public transportation between the city (which has more ridership) and the suburbs (which has more population).

  2. says

    Hmmm. I’m not sure. It seems to work in NYC. I have family who live there and their work depends on it since they do not actually live IN the city. Maybe it’s different state to state?

    I do know in Virginia a couple of years ago our state secretary of transportation spoke – it was HORRIFYING to know how our governments mismanage state to state transportation.

    Over from LinkedIn group BHB

    • says

      I’m not saying transit doesn’t work and my headline was intentionally misleading. What I think is that because politicians do not seem to care about transit – even in places like NYC – that this is a serious problem for cities, which need mass transit to thrive. I work for a mass transit agency in Chicago, Metra; a commuter railroad similar to Metro North or Long Island Railroad in NY. My agency has compiled statistics that, based on our ridership, in certain corridors we are move as many people as an additional 7 lanes of an expressway would. Our downtown would need to bulldoze itself to accommodate all of the parking that would be needed. Politicians and the public need to recognize the benefits and necessity that transit plays in the overall city, even if you never use it.

  3. says

    Mass transit is important to keep jobs in any city. If repairs aren’t done when they need it, it will become more expensive down the line when they fail. With real estate being down, I could see where this could be a problem with the not getting real estate transfer tax.

  4. Paul Graham says

    Interesting take on Mass Transit from one who ought to know. Sad that these boondoggles take place in parallel with the overall infrastructure deficit.

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