Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Observations from a Chicago Trip


In April, I had the opportunity to attend the American Planning Association conference which was being held in Chicago which also meant that I would have the opportunity to explore its transit system for the first time.

For those that love exploring transit systems, Chicago is a great place to go. Not only does it have its famous "L" system which is operated by the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), but also CTA buses, METRA Commuter trains which included diesel trains out of 3 stations in the Chicago Loop area, electric line that runs south from a fourth station, the last true interurban line the South Shore, PACE bus service and loads of private bus operations.

METRA Electric train at South Chicago (93rd Street terminus).



On Sunday I had the opportunity to go on a mobile workshop studying Transit Oriented Development (TOD) along the Brown Line which travels northwest out of the Loop. Along the route we were able to see several instances of first generation TOD (long before anyone thought up that word), being revived and seeing new interest thanks to the revitalization of the Brown Line that took place a couple of years ago.

Looking south from the Southport Station

One of the stops on this tour was at the Southport station which is seeing not only revival of many of the classic buildings but also infill development. What I found interesting is that they are currently building new apartments in Chicago with no parking and not seeing the confrontations that have occured in Portland. 

Overall, I rode all the "L"/Subway Lines except for the Green Line south of the Loop and the Blue Line north of the loop to O'Hare. Overall I didn't encounter any problems, the trains ran well although you could see why CTA is currently rebuilding the Red Line that is in the middle of the Dan Ryan Expressway since travel was very slow on that route and several times the trains literally would craw.  

I also rode several METRA lines including the line out to Big Timber and then connecting to the line out to Antioch, the Rock Island line out to Blue Island and the METRA electric to South Chicago. 

METRA train at Big Timber

Most of the METRA routes were impressive for the number of riders during the off-peak and reverse commute trips. All the trips I rode had good ridership numbers despite the fact I avoided the rush hour trains. The one disappointment was the new Antioch line which should just be called the Sprawl line. Most of the stations built for this line are nothing but large parking lots and most of the stations have nothing within walking distance that is visible from the train. 




The Antioch station does have a nice map showing what can be found near the station although the main business district was several blocks away and it was raining extremely hard so I decided to wait for the train to head back to Chicago.



I also had the opportunity to ride CTA buses but primarily in the loop/Miracle Mile area so I did not get a chance to get a good look at the overall system. However, with that noted all the buses I rode despite several of them having standing loads were clean and in good shape, even the older ones. 

Also impressive was the number of private transit buses running around the area. They connect commuters from the train stations to major companies around the loop and Miracle Mile and other areas of the city.



Among the observations from my short time in Chicago: 

  • METRA and CTA rail lines are not well integrated  While there is stations close to each other (Oak Park and Evanston for example), there seems to be little thought to integrating the two system to make connections and travel more convenient. 
  • Following up on the last comment, you can see the suburban/city us vs. them attitude when it comes to how the city develop and its current allocation of transit resources. 
  • You can see the scars left by Urban Renewal and the warehousing of the poor in public housing in Chicago. While the public housing is going away the problems that it created will be a part of the city for years to come 
  • Signs of severe disinvestment surround the south side of Chicago.
  • While Chicago is often used as an example of the problems with gun violence and anti-gun laws no one wants to talk about the structural societal and social-economic problems that is creating the problems in Chicago. 
  • I talked to several people who are questioning the CTA's new BRT lines. A couple of years ago they cut all the limited buses and are essentially bringing them back now and calling it BRT. Many question the performance expectations of the Ashland line as being unrealistic. 
Overall, I enjoyed my experience in Chicago and look forward to visiting the city again. 

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