Training for the Big Game: Why Is There No ‘L’ Stop at the United Center?

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The United Center and its parking moat, as seen from the Pink Line. Photo: John Greenfield

[This article also ran in Checkerboard City, John’s transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

Every time I take the Pink Line to Pilsen and gaze out the window at the United Center, I’m struck by the apparent stupidity of train service that goes right past Chicago’s largest sports and music arena, but doesn’t stop there. The nearest existing stations, the Blue Line’s Illinois Medical District stop to the south, and the Pink and Green lines’ Ashland-Lake stop to the northeast, are both roughly twelve-minute walks to the stadium, long enough to discourage train use. But a new Pink station near Madison and Paulina would be a four-minute hop, skip and jump to the front doors.

As it is, the land use around the arena encourages driving to Bulls, Blackhawks and Bruce Springsteen events. While Wrigley Field, next door to the Addison Red stop, is surrounded by bars and restaurants where fans can spend money after games, the House That Jordan Built sits in a vast moat of parking lots.

Streetsblog USA took notice and included the United Center in its annual Parking Madness bracket, a competition between asphalt atrocities. The stadium made it to the Final Four before being defeated by a parking crater in Jacksonville, Florida. In fairness, the Bulls are currently building a $25 million practice facility on one of the lots east of the arena, and they’ve proposed building a $95 million entertainment complex nearby.

The funny thing is, there used to be a train stop near Madison/Paulina that served the arena’s predecessor, Chicago Stadium. According to the history site Chicago-L.org, the station was established in 1895 as part of the northwest branch of the Metropolitan West Side Elevated.

The Madison stop closed in 1951 when the northwest line was rerouted to the current Blue Line route. The old station house was eventually converted to a hotdog stand, and it was demolished in the 1990s. In 2006, this stretch of track, known as the Paulina Connector, was activated again when the CTA created the Pink Line. However, spokeswoman Lambrini Lukidis told me the agency has no current plans to rebuild the Madison stop.

The United Center management didn’t respond to my request for a comment on the Madison Pink stop concept, but when I checked in with the Active Transportation Alliance, they were all over the idea. “It seems like such an obvious location,” says spokesman Ted Villaire. “The goal should be to reduce the number of car trips to a facility like the United Center. A convenient train station would encourage more people to leave their car at home.”

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Damen and Lake, where a Green Line station is proposed. Photo: John Greenfield

Local alderman Walter Burnett would also like to see a new station built near the Madhouse on Madison, but his preference would be for a Green Line stop at Damen and Lake, a seven-minute walk from the entrance, according to his assistant Reginald Stewart. That would also be useful for residents and people who work in the Kinzie industrial corridor, while the area around Madison/Paulina is sparsely populated.

Along with the Damen station, Burnett wants a new Green Line station at Western, which would fill in the conspicuous 1.5-mile gap between Ashland-Lake and the California Green stop. Stewart says the ward has been lobbying the CTA on this issue for a few years, but funding is in short supply. The Green Line’s classy Morgan station, which opened in 2012, cost $38 million; the transit agency estimates a comparable station would cost $42 million nowadays. Lukidis said the transit agency will be providing Burnett with more info about these potential station locations in the future.

Steve DeBretto, executive director of the Industrial Council of Nearwest Chicago, which promotes economic development in the Kinzie corridor, says his group has been pushing for the Damen stop for more than a decade. Along with Burnett, DeBretto co-chaired the West Side think tank for the city’s Reconnecting Neighborhoods urban planning initiative in the late aughts. That study found there was only enough demand to justify one new station near the United Center, and Damen would get more ridership, but if there is more development in the future, the new Pink station could be viable too.

DeBretto says the Damen-Lake stop is a no-brainer. It would be right by the Fulton-Carroll Center, the ICNC’s small business incubator, which houses everything from carpentry workshops to a brandy distillery. “Out of 14,000 jobs in the corridor, 500 of them are under that roof, a stone’s throw from where we’d like to see the new ‘L’ station,” he says. A new apartment building is opening across the street, and nearby employers like Standard Equipment, which maintains city street sweepers and garbage trucks, Schawk!, a commercial photographer, Goose Island Brewing and Intelligentsia Coffee Roasters, would also benefit.

The industrial council followed up with the CTA about Damen-Lake three weeks ago, DeBretto says. “We let them know it’s still a priority for us, and we’re willing to advocate for federal funding. We also think it would be a wise use of tax-increment-financing dollars.”

With interest in the neighborhood growing, DeBretto says the CTA needs to strike while the iron is hot. “The time to build the right kind of infrastructure is now,” he says. “If we’re able to build an ‘L’ stop sooner than later, that will influence the kind of development we get, so that it’s transit-oriented, rather than car-oriented.” A new station that would encourage residents, workers and sports fans alike to take the train instead of driving would certainly be a slam-dunk.

  • 2_Hot-2=handel

    The Bulls/Blackhawks, who both have owners (Reinsdorf and the Wirtz) who have either fleeced the tax payer (U.S. Cellular field) or benefited from a government protected racket (The Wirtz’s and alcohol distribution) have no interest in building a conveniently located station to the United Center because of the parking revenues. When/if? property taxes rise or land demand rises and it is financially prudent tell sell their parking lots for other development, then and only then will they support a Pink Line United Center stop.

  • Fred

    It is interesting that the Wirtz’s make more money with that land being a parking lot than with bars that their distributorship would supply.

  • BlueFairlane

    The Damen entrance of the Blue Line Medical Center stop is only 300 feet farther from the nearest United Center entrance than the Pink Line is from its nearest entrance. It would be nice to have a Pink Line stop, but there is L access.

  • The public generally has to enter the stadium from the north entrance, on Madison, which is is three times the distance from the IMD station than it would be from a Pink Madison station. See the CTA directions for taking the train to the station: http://www.transitchicago.com/riding_cta/popdest/sports.aspx#ual

  • BlueFairlane

    I’ve only been to the United Center a couple of times (once for a Bulls pre-seaseon game and once for an REM concert), but I had no trouble entering from doors on the southwest side.

    If you’re right, though, it seems to me you’d get farther lobbying the United Center to open up those doors than you would lobbying for tens of millions for the construction of a new station.

  • rohmen

    Exactly. The area could be re-figured to provide a more direct route to the IMC blue line stop for a fraction of the money it would take to construct a new station. Plus, adding a new station at Damen/Lake would only be .2 miles closer to the stadium than current stations (both IMC Blue and Ashland Green are only .6 miles away, even before any suggested changes to the IMC station).

    A Damen/Lake station for the Kinzie corridor and area residents makes sense, but making access easier/quicker for the IMC Blue is the cheaper, more realistic and closer L option if you want to increase ridership for UC events any time in the near future.

  • rohmen

    I’m sure the stadium could be convinced to add easier access on the south of the stadium if it was coupled with a redesign. There is a south gate, as blue fairlane noted.

  • Roland Solinski

    Yeah, re-figuring would be important in any scheme. The sidewalks in this area are super-skinny, since all of the streets have been widened to the max to handle the massive volumes of post-game traffic.

    A Pink Line station at Madison/Paulina could be coupled with a wide, generous mid-block walkway over the UC’s east entrance by the Jordan statue. This walkway could be lined with shops and businesses owned by the Reinsdorf/Wirtz guys. This is how most stadiums are done in Europe, where fans almost always arrive by transit. Wembley in London is a great example. https://www.google.com/maps/search/stadium/@51.560737,-0.279629,3a,75y,0.78h,85.79t/data=!3m5!1e1!3m3!1sGkN_a4U-rNj6m21kHO4l4A!2e0!3e5

  • Here are the walking distances and times to the north entrance, which is what the vast majority of attendees use:
    Ashland-Lake: .6 miles, 12 minutes
    Illinois Medical District: .6 miles, 12 minutes
    Damen-Lake: .4 miles, 7 minutes
    Madison-Paulina: .2 miles, 4 minutes

    The difference between a 12-minute walk from a station and a 7-minute or 4-minute walk would be enough to influence my decision on whether to take the CTA to an event, and I love to walk. Many people aren’t interested in walking more than 10 minutes to get to a destination.

    But, sure, providing easier access to the stadium from the south would be a good solution for shortening walking times and increasing transit use in the near future.

  • BlueFairlane

    The difference between a 12-minute walk from a station and a 7-minute or 4-minute walk would be enough to influence my decision on whether to take the CTA to an event …

    I often hear statements like this from people with your transportation preferences, but I don’t understand it. I don’t know where you live, but say you live as far from the United Center as I do. It’s going to take me about 40 minutes to get to there on the L, plus or minus five minutes depending on how long I have to wait for a train. I don’t see how a difference of five minutes walking–something like 10% of my total travel time–is really going to make much difference. And it especially puzzles me when it comes from people who prefer slower travel.

  • rohmen

    Well, and the current walk times are the point of creating a more direct walking path from the IMC stop to the UC south gate. It’s a problem with the layout, not the actual distance from UC to the IMC station.

    Both the City (current Malcolm X and parking lot to the north) and the Stadium (parking lot to the south of UC) already own the land in between, so this can actually be done if there’s will power. Seems much easier than raising 48 million, and the CTA is already getting ready to remodel the IMC station to make it ADA accessible.

    If you create a more-direct walking path, the walk time from IMC to the UC would be under seven minutes as you could easily cut off .2 or more from the trip with minimal infrastructure improvements by the city and cooperation of the stadium.

  • Interesting point. Two different things are going on here.

    If I wasn’t taking the train to the United Center, I’d probably be biking. Taking a train trip plus a 24-minute roundtrip walk seems cumbersome compared to the door-to-door convenience of cycling. On the other hand, a train trip plus a 4- or 7-minute walk to the stadium seems reasonable to me.

    But, like I said, I enjoy walking for transportation. In planning, 10 minutes is the rule of thumb for the amount of walking most people are willing to do before they start looking for other options. A 12-minute walk to the stadium would be a dealbreaker for many folks, while a 7-minute walk would be acceptable.

  • jeff wegerson

    Are these train door to UC door walking distances, because the Eisenhower Blue Line stations tend to sit an extra 300 feet more from the street because of the long sloping ramps to the train platforms.

  • Fuegofan

    “It’s Hardly Sportin’: Stadiums, Neighborhoods, and the New Chicago,” by Costas Spirou and Larry Bennett has a chapter about how that sea of parking lots came about if you’re interested.

  • Yes, the .6 miles, 12 minutes figure is from the IMD station train door to the UC’s north entrance.

  • neroden

    Because walking is WORK. It’s not just about time, it’s about exhaustion. I can sit on a train for two hours, but I can’t walk for two hours.

    So yes, the difference between 4 minutes walking and 12 minutes walking is huge, much bigger than the same difference sitting on a train.

  • rohmen

    Not to beat a dead horse, but the UC site indicates the south gates are open for all events, and google maps shows the walk from the IMC Blue line station to the south gate is .4 miles, which it estimates would take 9 minutes (not sure why 9, when g-maps estimates only 7 mins. for a .4 walk from Damen/Lake to the North Gate).

    So, the IMC station is already really only .4 miles away from the closest stadium entrance, and even that distance could be reduced by adding in a better walking path to the south gate.

    Not sure why the transit planner suggests people walk to the north gate only.

    At the risk of sounding pedantic, I again note this is a problem with a lack of knowledge by the general public and google maps/CTA transit planner on how to best use the transportation that already exists to get to the station, mixed with an overabundance of cheap surface lot parking in the area, not a true lack of access problem.

    A pink line station is a great idea, but a claimed lack of valid transit options isn’t true, and lack of transit is not what’s holding this area back.

  • HJ

    The difference between a 4 minute walk and a 12 minute walk, in a vacuum, it significant when factoring in round trip numbers.

    In the reality of events at the United Center, an extra 16 minutes in the bitter cold, unshoveled sidewalks, and rain makes an enormous impact. Add to that the neighborhood the UC is located, and an extra 16 minutes walking around at night is a deal breaker for many.

  • Fred

    I’m with you here. It seems like that 10-minute barrier is entirely mental. It is likely a 10 minute walk from the door of the stadium to your seat, but that doesn’t seem to affect anyone. It’s like parking in the very last far out spot at Woodfield or Great America and complaining about the walk to the gate/door, but walking 3 or 4 times that distance once inside is not even thought twice about.

    I guess its the drive-3-blocks-to-the-gym mentality.

  • what_eva

    Every time I’ve gone there via car (includes Hawks, Bulls, Circus, concerts), I’ve parked on the south side (either in UC lots or Malcolm X lots) and entered via the south doors. For most events, the south lots are used and the south entrances are open. As rohmen has said elsewhere, it’s more of a matter of there being an easy/obvious to get to those doors via foot.

  • Fred

    I went to the Blackhawks game last night and Gates 6 & 7 (the south gates) were open. I’m guessing the issue with the transit directions is that the address of the building is 1901 W Madison, so it, by default, routes people there.

  • cjlane

    ” the north entrance, which is what the vast majority of attendees use”

    “The public generally has to enter the stadium from the north entrance”

    Based on what, John? Why do you believe this so strongly? Because it makes your article stronger? Because *everyone* else who has commented on the entrances has disagreed with you–including me. The *only* times I’ve used the north entrance is bc I took the bus and got dropped on the north side and it’s easiest to use the closet entrance, and figure it out once inside.

    I do the same thing at Wrigley–regardless of where my seats may be, I go in the gate which is closest to where I approach the stadium from.

  • cjlane

    ” Wirtz’s make more money with that land being a parking lot than with bars that their distributorship would supply”

    Wirtz doesn’t care where people drink, just that they do.

  • While I’m confident those two statements are accurate, let me look into the details on the stadium’s policy.

  • Alex_H

    Yeah, every event I’ve ever been to there, the south gates have been open.

  • Guest

    The big difference between a proposed Pink Line stop and the existing
    IMD station is not so much distance, but that a proposed Pink Line stop would be in plain sight
    from many parking lots to a great number of patrons who currently arrive
    to the UC by car. It would advertise itself.

    The Blue Line stop, on the
    other hand, which lies below grade in the Eisenhower’s median, does not
    have this tremendous advantage a Pink Line stop would.

  • Brian Sheehan

    The big difference between a proposed Pink Line stop and the existing
    IMD station is that a proposed Pink Line stop would be in plain sight
    from many parking lots to a great number of patrons who currently arrive
    by car. It would advertise itself.

    The Blue Line stop, on the
    other hand, which lies below grade in the Eisenhower’s median, does not
    have this tremendous advantage a Pink Line stop would.

  • Jason

    For elderly, handicap, and parents with children, .6 miles on a cold winter day is a big deterrent. The pink line station makes the most sense. It would encourage many to use CTA to the United Center.

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