Last month, a report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development validated what Chicago researchers, a task force convened by the governor, and millions of customers have all said for years: Transit in Chicagoland is fragmented, inefficient, and far from adequate to serve the region’s transportation needs. The OECD, a “club of rich countries” that counts the United States among its 34 members, collects data and publishes research that countries and local organizations can use to understand their economies.
The report evaluated the transit network against the regional policy goals set forth in the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s GO TO 2040 comprehensive plan, particularly its goal to double transit ridership. OECD policy analyst Olaf Merk based the report on prior research by CMAP and the Metropolitan Planning Council. He also interviewed Chicago transportation experts Joseph Schwieterman, at DePaul University, and Steven Schlickman, at UIC. So, while it may be easy to dismiss the report as a naive European’s idealistic view, the report does rest upon adopted regional policies and local observers’ views.
The report dug deep into the many problems facing Chicagoland’s transit operations. A complex web of governments have conflicting authority over many different matters, and the overlap often results in contradictory policies. For example, the Regional Transportation Authority’s policies govern most transit planning in the region, and they support GO TO 2040′s goals. However, myriad policies outside of the RTA’s influence “stimulate car use,” including “generous parking policies” at the municipal level that require copious car parking at new buildings and “low gas taxes” that haven’t been raised in over 20 years.
Even the most basic level of coordination is lacking between the region’s transit systems: The services don’t even serve the same places. None of Metra’s busy downtown terminals are adjacent to CTA rail stations, and on many streets like Austin Avenue and Irving Park Road, CTA and Pace bus routes both end at the city line rather than more logical destinations. Transit service, the report said, “follows an administrative jurisdictional logic, instead of a logic motivated by traffic flows.”
Transit services haven’t adapted to changing housing and job locations, and instead continues to focus on downtown employment. “Approximately 36 percent of Chicago’s population works outside the city of Chicago,” the report explained, “and 46 percent of workers in the city of Chicago live in the suburbs.” The downtown-focused system makes it difficult to travel from city to the suburb, or between suburbs. Despite the region’s poor record at facilitating inter-agency transfers, a few junctions are being improved, like the new 95th Street Red Line station’s expanded CTA and Pace bus transfer facility, the Union Station intermodal improvements underway as part of the Central Loop BRT, and the new intermodal transfer center at Metra’s LaSalle Street station.