My RTA Wish List

August 6, 2013 at 8:17 pm

The news of 4 Metra board members resigning as of today has brought the role and appointments of the board into the spotlight. In fact, the role of the RTA in all of Chicagoland’s public transportation is being questioned, too, and Governor Quinn announced he will appoint a panel to determine how to revamp RTA.

Whether or not you think another politically-appointed panel is the answer to our regional transportation woes is another issue; I can’t really think of how RTA has affected me directly on a day-to-day transportation basis. But I’ve seen how other cities’ transportation systems operate at a regional level, and ours seems weak.

For starters, RTA is not in charge of any seamless ticketing mechanism for transportation. Contrast this with, for example, Transport for London’s Oyster Card or the Navigo pass in Paris, administered by STIF (Syndicat Transport Ile de France, Transportation Authority of Ile-de-France). STIF is perhaps the best example I can think of when it comes to regional transportation cooperation. STIF not only coordinates the fares paid across all transportation modes, they also coordinate large projects. RTA is sort of like STIF, just not as effective.

If I could have 3 wishes granted for the future of RTA, these would be it:

Seamless Ticketing

This is already required by 2015, but Metra will not be compliant within a year and a half (you don’t need a crystal ball to see this). Passengers should be able to use one card to pay for all types of transportation – more on this in a second.

Last year I wrote about how Metra should integrate with Ventra to create seamless ticketing, and this would be a major change given Metra’s 20th century death grip on paper ticketing. But everyone would benefit from a universal fare card. At each station, there would be several validators upon which passengers “touch in” before boarding the train. This registers the starting station. Those without a fare card can purchase a one-time card from a vending machine, like Ventra. At the end of the journey, passengers would “touch out,” and the fare would be calculated based on zones traveled.

Oyster card readers at Maze Hill station in London. There is no turnstile, so it is up to passengers to validate their fare before boarding. Credit: Stephen Craven.

Fares would be inspected randomly aboard the train to ensure compliance. To ensure wider compliance, turnstiles could be added at popular stations and downtown termini, where most passengers exit the train.

There are many turnstiles at the World Trade Center PATH station in New York to accommodate many passengers. Credit: Subway Nut.

One Fare Structure

Recently I wondered how much it would cost to take Metra into work instead of paying for a CTA pass. The cost for me (Ravenswood > Ogilvie, B-A) is $85 monthly. That is nearly the cost of the CTA unlimited monthly pass, except the CTA is a much better deal for me: Many services I use run 24/7 and at much higher frequency than Metra.

The CTA and Metra should be interchangeable as transportation modes, not competitors. Not just because I’m selfish with my wallet, but because it could relieve congestion on some trains.

If passengers (like myself) are using the CTA because it’s a better overall deal, but would like to take Metra into work (my commute time would be cut by 20 minutes) while still being able to use the CTA for a local grocery run, allowing Metra passholders to use CTA and vice versa could relieve congestion. Some passengers packing themselves into CTA trains would switch to Metra trains

A Fast North-South Connection

Currently, all Metra trains terminate downtown and form a hub-and-spoke network. There is no fast way to get from, say, Evanston to Hyde Park on public transportation without either:

  • Taking Metra to Ogilvie station and walking to an Electric line train at Millennium station (20 minute walk and some waiting time)
  • Take the Purple line (sometimes) or Red line and transfer to a Metra Electric line train, or take the Red/Green line and a bus to Hyde Park

Both options take well over an hour. Even a north side commute to downtown can take nearly an hour once walking and waiting times are accounted for. Commuting, even in a large city, should not take so long. Imagine, for example, if there were a new train service from Evanston running parallel to the UP-N Metra line. It would stop more frequently than Metra, but less so than the CTA; perhaps every 1.5 miles. At Clybourn, it would tunnel underground and run through downtown, connecting Ogilvie and Union stations as well as the Red and Blue line subways. To the south, it would run parallel to the Electric line, similar to the Gray line – giving tons of south side residents access to frequent public transportation.

Update: See my proposal for a north-south connecting train service that could exist in Chicago.

I admit this wish is inspired by London’s Crossrail project, which uses some existing right-of-way outside of and new tunnels in Central London. Hundreds of thousands of people would gain faster access to downtown and other neighborhoods, and if the fares were coordinated, CTA passengers could connect to the new rail line without paying an extra fare.


What are your wishes for the RTA? In Chicago, it often seems that transportation agencies are not cooperating, but competing. IDOT builds highways, CDOT builds bike lanes and city roads and helps operate bike share, CTA runs public transportation, Pace and Metra serve the suburbs and shuttle commuters into the Loop. None really seem to work well with each other. When I visit other cities, I’m taken aback by how easy it usually is to move on public transportation – even though it should be intuitive to do so, not surprising. The RTA should have a greater role in coordinating the various aspects of transportation in the Chicago region.