Addressing the need for a north-south connector in Chicago

August 9, 2013 at 12:47 pm

I recently wrote a post about a conceptual north-south connection train route that could benefit Chicagoans:

My concept idea for a north-south connecting train route in Chicago.

My concept idea for a north-south connecting train route in Chicago.

It generated a few comments and I wanted to address one thing that seemed to be confusing, and that is the scope and purpose of a conceptual project like this one. Limited-stop train service such as this is designed to complement service that exists.

Cross-city services, such as this one, are designed to create a system that integrates well with existing transportation and speeds up service, therefore making the system more attractive to more people. BRT is an example of speeding up existing service, but it still does not go that fast – around 18mph maximum (over the route). BRT is not the solution to connecting people across many neighborhoods or moving across the entire city quickly.

The disconnected nature of Chicago’s transportation exacerbates the problem of slow transit. We are forced to choose between Metra and CTA as transportation options. Metra is a good option if you own and use a car for everyday trips (grocery shopping, for example) and just don’t want to drive to work. CTA is a good option if you use transportation for more things – visiting friends, grocery shopping, and getting to work. But it takes a long time to get anywhere on CTA if you live further from the Loop. There is not an integrated pass that allows people to use both – Metra to get to work (since Metra is fast) and CTA to run errands, visit people, etc.

Metra offers an opportunity to complement the CTA in the following way: imagine you live near the Francisco Brown line station. It takes you about 50 minutes to get to work: 10 to walk to the station, 35 minutes on the train itself, and 5 minutes to walk from the downtown station (Quincy, for example) to work. However, the Brown line parallels the Metra tracks for a mile or two, and you sometimes wonder if the Metra would be a faster way to get downtown. If there were a transfer station to the Metra, you could just take the Brown line to Montrose (for example) and transfer to the Metra, potentially saving 15-20 minutes.

There are two major things that prevent this:  Fare differences and service frequency.

Fare Differences

If you wanted to transfer from CTA to Metra (or vice-versa), you would have to pay $100 (CTA monthly pass) + Metra’s monthly pass price ($78.25 and up). Metra does offer Link-Up stickers, where Metra monthly passholders can pay $55 for CTA and Pace privileges, but it is valid only during peak weekday periods.

The fares should be integrated so CTA passholders can use Metra service within the Chicago city limits (as well as Evanston, Skokie, Oak Park, and Forest Park – where the CTA reaches), and Metra passholders can connect to CTA when they get into the city. This is the first step toward strengthening regional transit and giving residents more flexibility.

Service Frequency

Unfortunately, Metra isn’t that useful outside of the peak hours. Trains only come every hour or two on the weekends and during the day. To connect to other trains (i.e. from north to south, from west to north, etc.) means going all the way downtown and often walking between stations and waiting for a train, since schedules are not well-planned.

Not that this is necessarily Metra’s fault – most of its services run on tracks owned by freight train companies and are subject to their wishes, the most notorious example potentially being the North Central Service to Antioch, which does not run at off-peak times (weekday  service only, the last train outbound being at 8:30 PM).

For true connection service to work, Metra would have to run trains much more frequently so that its passengers only had to consult schedules if they were planning to travel at very off-peak hours (e.g. after midnight). And this is not Metra’s true purpose – Metra is primarily a commuter rail system, with limited stops in the city and express service to the suburbs.

Enter a new transportation system

There is a missing link between CTA rail and Metra rail, which is intra-city rapid transportation; a way to move quickly over longer distances. I cite examples such as Paris, where there are 3 rail options:

  • Metro: Local service that runs slowly through the city, but connects many destinations
  • RER: Express service that runs quickly across the city, connecting to many Metro stations
  • Transilien: Suburban service that stops in the city at stub-end stations, connecting to Metro and RER stations

In this example, Metro is the CTA and Transilien is Metra. In Paris, you can move from one end of the city to another very quickly (yes, Paris is smaller than Chicago) using both Metro and RER.

London’s future Crossrail is another system I evoked: It is slated to make journeys so much faster across London. It will reduce some journey times by as much as 50%. Imagine if a Rogers Park resident that works downtown – a commute that can take up to an hour – could be done in 30 minutes?

Of course, funding is always an issue – is a system like this worth it? That is something that needs to be looked at in its own right. It is worth noting, however, that Crossrail is already having a real estate impact – and it isn’t slated to open until 2018.

Crossrail (current London Underground in grey) connects several districts quickly, as well as stub-end train stations. Credit: Crossrail.

The idea behind a system like Chicago Connector was not to replace existing Metra or CTA service but rather to create a third option – a hybrid between the two. It’s being able to relieve congestion on both CTA and Metra. It’s about getting more Chicagoans out of their cars and into trains, because the service is faster, more frequent, and serves more destinations.

The answer to this solution is not BRT or light rail, as some suggested. While great ideas in certain contexts, they are not the answer to the problem I asked myself – how can people outside the CTA ‘L’ service area still quickly move about the city? How can we connect train stations to each other to help complete trips (and make them more attractive)? The answer to that is to create a new service that is faster than the CTA, stops more frequently in the city than Metra, and runs at a frequency closer to the CTA. It also connects some stub-end Metra stations to facilitate transfers and open up new transportation links that don’t exist or are too cumbersome for travelers. It makes transportation as a region connect instead of compete; a concept not widespread in American cities.

While I looked at only one potential route, there are plenty more. There are areas in every corner of the city that are underserved by public transportation that could benefit from a boost. There is currently no north-south link on the western side of the city (a very good idea, but unfortunately did not meet my criteria of connecting the two downtown train stations). A proper assessment would look at the city as a whole – where are the neighborhoods underserved by public transportation, where are the neighborhoods that have many people driving to work (and where are they going?), where are people’s commutes longer than an hour, and where is the potential to connect and complement existing transportation services?