The Chicagoland region ”underspends on transit operations and capital” compared to peer cities, and the “region’s economic competitiveness will suffer” as a result, according to a recent analysis by the Metropolitan Planning Council [PDF]. The report takes a look at Metra, the CTA, and Pace as a collective system, comparing it to transit networks in 17 other regions.
MPC first notes that despite population growth of 20 percent, the region spent 25 percent less on transit capital investments in 2011 than in 1991. (Of all the regions MPC studied, Atlanta is the only other one that invests less in transit now than 20 years ago.) Combine that with the location of homes and jobs far from existing transit, and, as MPC reports, you get a Chicagoland region where most people now live “far from convenient public transportation.”
There are economic consequences to Chicago’s shrinking transit funds. The report cites a study linking increased transit service to a proportionally greater increase in gross regional product. “In Chicagoland,” MPC writes, “that means that $250 million more annually committed to transit services could produce a $5 to $10 billion increase in [gross regional product].” Report co-author Yonah Freemark says that the development pattern transit makes possible — with many people and jobs in tight proximity — “expands employee productivity,” because with better access, “people are able to find jobs closer to their skill sets. This results in higher incomes.”
Chicagoland has an old rail transit network, so it’s reasonable to compare these service metrics in our region to similarly old transit systems, like Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia. Those regions “have funded far larger increases in transit mileage” — a measure of how much ground trains and buses cover — between 1991 and 2011, MPC reports. Transit mileage increased by 17 percent in that period in Chicago, while the other old transit systems added between 31 and 40 percent. MPC says Chicagoland transit ranks last among these cities for increases in the number of vehicles operated and total service hours as well.
The report says in no uncertain terms that “the Chicago region has failed to expand its offerings… a direct result of a lack of adequate funding.” How would riders benefit if the region decided to catch up to similar cities? The report says that providing more funding for transit would mean “more frequent buses and trains on popular routes” and ”maintaining service on lines through transit-dependent neighborhoods.” Frequent service leads to more riders, MPC says, because it means a bus or train is there when they need it. Cutting service, as those who lobbied CTA to keep the 11-Lincoln bus, including a vehement Alderman Ameya Pawar, can attest, means many residents lose a vital lifeline to their city.