No Surprise: International Report Says Region’s Transit Not Up to Par

20110805 08 CTA and Metra, Oak Park, Illinois
Oak Park is one of only two stations in the region where people can transfer between CTA and Metra trains. Photo: David Wilson

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.

The report also noted a lack of “harmonized fare integration” across the three transit agencies, which prevents a “smooth interconnection” among the three transit agencies and stymies ridership growth. “Customers are treated differently according to which services they use” by policies like Metra’s ongoing refusal to accept the Ventra card.

Similarly, the recommendations raised by the report are similar to those that we’ve heard before, and won’t be easy to implement. Any effort to integrate and improve transit service, and to change the transit agencies’s “irrational” organizational structures, “would have to be solidly built on the acknowledgement of win-win possibilities,” Merk says. He points out four opportunities to redefine transit to better serve the region’s transportation needs.

The first, borrowed from Governor Quinn’s transit task force report, was a recommendation to “increase the ethical standards of board members.” More public trust in the transit agencies’ governance might lead to deeper public support for fare increases, or other new revenue sources, that would enable transit expansions into suburban job centers.

The second recommendation focuses on the state’s periodically renewed infrastructure funding program. Quinn’s “Illinois Jobs Now!” capital spending program has almost run its course, and the next governor will likely launch a new infrastructure initiative next year. The report urges that CMAP, rather than the Springfield legislative process, choose where to invest transportation dollars within the region – another nudge towards aligning government’s actions with GO TO 2040’s goals.

A third idea is for the state to force a rationalization of the four-headed Hydra of RTA-CTA-Metra-Pace, phasing out the RTA’s arbitrary funding formula and threatening to withhold funding until the process is complete. The 30-year-old funding formula is merely a convention, not a law. Instead, the report recommends to allocate funds based on the merits of a project, echoing GO TO 2040’s call to use performance measures to apportion funding.

The final recommendation is to reach across the hundreds of legislative, municipal, and county boundaries and to propose and package projects to yield regional benefits. Merk highlighted the CREATE program as a local example — a collection of projects to remove bottlenecks that affect Amtrak, freight, and Metra trains, and local roadways.

The Illiana Tollway proposal, on the other hand, merits mention as a cross-border project “to avoid.” The report said that the Illiana Tollway didn’t have “sound project evaluation appraisal,” its public-private partnership (PPP) structure doesn’t transfer any risk at all to the private party, and that the two metropolitan planning organizations had conflicting recommendations (CMAP has voted no, but Indiana’s NIRPC has always favored it). The report also includes a broader critique of the region’s brief, but dim, history of PPPs.

One more report, no matter how illustrious the sponsor, won’t change the fact that the existing city-suburb political divide, and a “proliferation” of local governments, make reform politically difficult in Chicagoland. Previous reforms, the report said, “all took place within the context of financial problems, funding backlogs, potential bankruptcies and service disruptions,” and any future reforms will likewise probably have to wait for a future crisis. At least when that next crisis hits, the region will have a straightforward and objective guide to the necessary restructuring.

  • Jeff

    The caption of the picture at the top says only 2 Metra/CTA transfer locations. I’m counting Oak Park, Evanston-Davis, Evanston-Main St. and Jefferson Park is actually 4 transfer stations between Metra and the L. Not 2. Then, of course, is the Rock Island Lasalle station at which you can walk literally downstairs to a Blue Line station or across a short plaza to the Van Buren/Lasalle brown, orange, purple, and pink lines. Transfer between the 35th Metra Rock Island and Sox-35th is less than half a block and requires crossing only one stoplight. Millennium station is also only one short block from the elevated loop randolph station. Certainly we can do much better on that front. But we’re off to a good start. An obvious next project might be an Addison brown line metra stop at Add/Ravenswood/Lincoln 7 blocks west of wrigley. Could relieve rush hour congestion from the brown line.

  • Roland Solinski

    If you include Sox-35th then you can also include Irving Park. Still, these areas (with the exception of Jeff Park) are not designed for transfers.

    One big problem is that Metra express trains often bypass the urban stations where transfers are feasible.

    An Ashland or California/Kedzie stop on BNSF could link to the Pink Line.

  • Well Millennium station W A S “only one short block” from the Randolph “L” stop.

    In an ABSOLUTELY PERFECT example of what they are talking about in the UNcoordination between the various Agencies (CTA and Metra here)
    The “L” station on Wabash is being moved one block south to Madison/Washington, and the closest entrance for Metra and NICTD riders transfering to the CTA Loop “L” will now be 2 blocks away:

    This will come in especially handy in early February when it’s 10 below, with a 25 below windchill — THANKS TRANSIT AGENCY FOLKS

    GREAT way to create a “World Class Transit System”!!

  • rohmen

    When it’s 10 below with a 25 below windchill factor, why wouldn’t someone use the pedway, which would place a Metra rider almost right next to the new Madison/Washington station entrance (if they exit the pedway at 25 East Washington) without having to walk outside for more than half a block?

    If as a society public transportation is deemed too inconvenient because a person has to walk two blocks rather than one, we’re in serious trouble going forward.

  • Rob Rion

    The problem is the many local authorities in the city and suburbs including the residents don’t want to give up their control or their money for the whole region.

  • Jack

    totally off-topic (or maybe not), but wanted to post this link about a subject I haven’t heard discussed much:

  • I thought the idea was “World Class Transit System” (with easy connections) like other World Cities.

    Not “The Chicago Way”: “because if a person has to walk two blocks rather than one, we’re in serious trouble going forward”. We already have to walk 2 blocks from CUS to the Blue Line at Congress. So now they BUILD IN a longer transfer someplace else (ONLY in “Chicago”)

    That is exactly how we (Chicagoans) get cheated out of everything the rest of the World has, that type of thinking. And that is exactly what that International Report is talking about (“they can walk….”).

    The northern most entrances to the new station will be on the SE and SW corners of the Washington/Wabash intersection (yeah I know — “If they can’t cross a street…..”), and 25 E. Washington isn’t open all the time (and unless they put up signs, only transit enthusiasts would know about that route)

    Had they placed it reaching Randolph, it could have been directly connected to the Pedway Systen with Elevators and Escalators (as real “World Class” Cities like San Francisco do) — enabling enclosed transfers like at the Thompson Center, to the Red Line, Blue Line, and Millennium Station.

  • Vuillard

    As someone who lived in Chicago for two years and had moved there from elsewhere, I can attest to the confusing nature of Chicago’s transit. (Caveat: I love Chicago, love the L, and want nothing more than to see Chicago usurp NY and LA as the premier American city.) One of the most difficult things to deal with was wayfinding. It seemed like in almost every instance, you just had to know where things were already. Poor signage, grumpy/unhelpful workers, and strange entrances dogged me at many times. Sometimes it was merely trying to figure out which street I was coming to while biking on Lakeshore Path (no signage), sometimes it was just trying to figure out how the Metra trains worked (no workers to field questions), and sometimes it was a matter of finding a station in the first place (no signage/weirdly hidden entrances). The City of Chicago really ought to hire some transit experts to analyze its wayfinding amenities, because unless you’re familiar with the system, it’s really not at all user-friendly, unlike SF’s or NY’s are. And if Rahm wants the city to grow and attract talent, then maintaining a cryptic transit system is working against him, and the city. Plus, it reinforces the notion that Chicago is in hock to bureaucracies and other fiefdoms that care more about their own perpetuation than they do about a highly-functioning, world-class city.

  • The Pedway is still a mystery. I don’t seek out entrances – especially when I have my bike – because of all of these preconceived notions that I have about it, including that some exits/sections close at different times.

    “Designing for transfers” and “a transfer is possible” means passengers are made conspicuously aware of the first but must seek out the second. The CTA and RTA should consider enhancing the connection to the pedway between it and those two stations.

  • Political divisions on the transit boards – alongside the RTA’s arbitrary funding formulas – is a big issue, and was highlighted especially in Governor Quinn’s task force’s report.

  • Joseph Palmer

    I do not want to think about what kind of crisis it would require for reforms to start.. Maybe more appropriate it will require two or three more generations of folk sick and tired of the status quo who have nothing to gain from all the money grabery before reform will begin. I hope to be proven wrong.

  • rohmen

    And this cuts to my real problem with Chicago on a variety of subjects, which is not that the infrastructure or resources in place are really all that bad most of the time when compared to other cities, but that the City simply doesn’t know how to properly use and educate people regarding what they already have in place the vast majority of the time.

  • R.A. Stewart

    The fifth paragraph (“Approximately 36 percent of Chicago’s population works outside the city … and 46 percent of workers in the city of Chicago live in the suburbs”) points toward the other aspect that would have to be addressed if the region (or the country, for that matter) ever decided to get serious about transit, walkable communities, conservation of land and energy, or environmental sustainability: stopping, and then gradually undoing, the decades-long sprawl-oriented development that has put most employment as well as housing out of the reach of transit.

    But I’m confident that we will respond quickly and vigorously to our region’s transit shortfalls.

    By building more roads. And cutting funds for transit.

  • It is more than a little disheartening the there are four major recommendations that need to be implemented BEFORE actual physical improvements or new infrastructure are even discussed. It would be nice if the bureaucrats in charge were advocates for transit and, you know, actual rode on it to get to places. I understand new RTA chairman Kirk Dillard rides transit everyday (Metra BNSF from Hinsdale, but whatever), but his top priorities are ‘reliability and safety’, not expansion and inclusion. Assuming he doesn’t want to disband RTA/CTA altogether. Why is a liberal not in charge of this department?

  • Deni

    Yea, it’s like the announcements on the L at someplace like Washington or Quincy that “transfer is available to Metra (or Amtrak)”. It is available, sure, but not designed for it or that convenient.

    I can’t imagine what it must be like to come to Chicago as a tourist with trying to find transfers (or the entrance to the Metra Electric Randolph St station) when they are several blocks away and there is a really bad lack of signage. If you are a transit geek like me, someone who does a lot of research about public transit in a given city before I travel, you’ll be OK. But how many people are like that?

    Compared with someplace like Munich where my pre-trip research was somewhat unnecessary. Good signage and transfer points that were actually designed for transfers. And at the airport (with commuter rail practically right downstairs with almost no walking time to get to it) they have friendly, smiling people handing out pamphlets with transit maps and info on how to ride the system, as you walk out of the terminal.

    Compare that to the experience in Chicago, and well….

  • The mass transit system is in such a fiscal hole from a capital standpoint that Chairman Dillard doesn’t really have a choice but to focus on state of good repair issues. That doesn’t mean that certain extension projects aren’t being planned, they are (e.g. Red line extension, CTA Central Corridor BRT, Pace ART, etc.) but the focus necessarily has to be on making sure the system is safe and reliable first and foremost.

  • You will be proven wrong and you won’t like it. History shows that the RTA Act (the legislative act that governs the RTA and its service boards) is only opened when there is a fiscal crisis (late 1970s when RTA was created, 1983 when RTA was reformed and Metra and Pace were created, and 2008 when additional sales taxes were levied for transportation and transit projects). Whenever the RTA Act is opened people get burned. The City, suburbs, counties, everyone loses politically and that is why the status quo with these crazy funding formulas have stood for so long.

  • FG

    Is that really the pedway though? You have to through Macy’s and 25 E Washington (connection is there because it used to be the Marshall Field’s Store for Men back in the day) to get there neither of which are actually the pedway….

    However, it is still an IS and not a WAS since construction hasn’t started…

  • FG

    My concern with combining our transit agencies into one is a Philadelphia situation in which the subway and city transit is neglected in favor of suburban rail (which isn’t all that great as it is) with suburban appointee’s channeling funding to their service. Granted, Chicago is more powerful regionally in some ways than I get the impression that Philadelphia was/is in their region. It seems to work better in New York but you still have NJ and PATH (think the SS Line).

    Connecting the transit route isn’t just a “connections” issue but a construction issue – they were all privately built without connections (or were on streetcar lines) and that is a bigger capital expenditure than can realistically be funded at the moment. Of course, the loops historic retail dominance was caused by the disconnection and passengers stopping to shop during rail transfers.

  • Guest

    ” a task force convened by the governor”

    Where’s their final report – not where it was, but where it is?

  • Coolebra

    Why is it in a fiscal hole, and why doesn’t fix-it-first apply to highways?

    We appear to have bilions for road construction and expansion. What do we have for transit?

    Well, we have future transit investments, preserved right-of-way, and plans that become obsolete before they’re implemented.

    We need to spend smarter, not necessarily more. That means we have to change the rules, as existing rules are cultivating perverse outcomes, like 30-mile add-a-lanes through farmland and new PPP tollroads . . . yes, through farmland.

    Let’s stop paving farmland.

    Let’s start doing what all of our reports and recommendations claim we should be doing: improving and expanding both transit and alternative transportation in our urbanized areas, which comprise the economic engine of the region, state, and nation.

    There’s a very familiar cycle that goes by the acronym PDCA. It’s Plan Do Check Act. What we’re doing now, however, is planning and doing, but not checking and acting. The only cycle is one of addiction: An insatiable appetite for ever-increasing road capacity.

    Get real.

    Transit is in a fiscal hole because that is where we have positioned it to be.

    Our flawed studies conclude that transit doesn’t pay.

    Our formulas shift dollars away from urban areas.

    Our spending is overwhelmingly characterized by road projects.

    Yet, our goals and reports speak to different needs.

    PDCA. It’s an iterative and strategic process where we set targets, define strategies, execute them, and then see if they worked. If they didn’t, we see why they didn’t work. If someone didn’t execute properly, we fix it and repeat the cycle. If our theory is wrong, i.e., we’re using the strong strategies, then we change our strategies. We keep repeating the cycle until we move the needle in the direction sought.

    What we don’t do is keep doing the same thing over and over while expecting different outcomes. If we keep doing that, our goals will remain ever-elusive.

    There’s been enough road building and expansion to the exclusion of transit improvement and expansion.

    We can do much better.

    Resigning our region to the depths and darkness of a fiscal hole constitutes a failure to lead. We need a vision and a pathway for reaching the light.

  • Coolebra

    ” . . . another nudge towards aligning government’s actions with GO TO 2040′s goals.”

    Yep. Having alignment with the goals created through an award-winning public engagement process would be a wonderful thing.

  • Jeff

    It would be fairly easy to link the LaSalle Metra station via stairs/elevator/escalator down to a new tunnel built underneath the south sidewalk of Congress street between LaSalle Metra station and what is currently the southwestern-most stairs into the LaSalle blue line station (there will still be the SE stairs right next to it, so what’s the difference). It would be the first true interior connection between a downtown Metra station and CTA station. Try covering the whole LaSalle metra station from the weather the way that Ogilvie is, and you’ll have a true weather protected connection right down a set of stairs/escalator/elevator to the blue line subway without having to go outside. Nobody looks at a freakin’ map or visits these places on foot to figure this stuff out.

  • Jeff

    It would be fairly easy to link the LaSalle Metra station via stairs/elevator/escalator down to a new tunnel built underneath the south sidewalk of Congress street between LaSalle Metra station and what is currently the southwestern-most stairs into the LaSalle blue line station (there will still be the SE stairs right next to it, so what’s the difference). It would be the first true interior connection between a downtown Metra station and CTA station. Try covering the whole LaSalle metra station from the weather the way that Ogilvie is, and you’ll have a true weather protected connection right down a set of stairs/escalator/elevator to the blue line subway without having to go outside. Nobody looks at a freakin’ map or visits these places on foot to figure this stuff out.

  • Coolebra

    “Whenever the RTA Act is opened people get burned.”

    Sometimes people need to get burned, especially when they like to play with matches and are drawn to the flames like a moth. They don’t learn until they get burned.

    If you can’t change the deleterious status quo, burn it down and build a new one.

    That’s pretty much where we are at: Fundamental change in the way we prioritize and fund our expenditures.

    We need investments, not merely more spending.

    One form of spending is strategic, the other simply fanning an arsonist’s love of the flames with never-ending heaps of cash to feed the fire.

    Play with fire and, yep, you’re gonna get burned.

  • I don’t disagree with you, Coolebra. I was just noting the reticience that politicians have when playing with transit funding. Of course, those “never ending heaps of cash” are rapidly coming to an end, which is why we find our transit agencies in dire need of investment. At this point, I think it would be irresponsible for our transit officials to propose any significant expansion of the system without identifying how they would pay to operate the existing system at hand. And that includes identifying if the existing system needs to be fundamentally changed (closure of lines, stations, routes, etc.).

  • Coolebra

    It is irresponsible not to demonstrate – through planning and appropriate analysis – the benefits of improved and expanded alternatives to driving.

    On the other hand, it’s easy to wallow in self-pity under the banner of fiscal prudence. Being stuck in the present actually means you’re very quickly, perhaps unwittingly, slipping into the past.

    Have we lost track of the present, lagging ever so slightly behind in time that the langoliers are closing on us fast — eating up everything in their path?

    There goes one transit service from the future. There goes another. Oops, there goes the staff that operated, maintained, and planned for those same lines.

    Yep, the langoliers are efficient. Open that soda bottle on your desk. How is it that it’s flat before it was even opened?

    We need to hop on the jet and fly back into the present, with an eye toward the future – before we lose everything.

    If we have money to build multi-billion dollar highway projects, which yield little benefit, why can’t we begin to *change the rules* to allow the types of investment that yield significant returns, i.e., improved and expanded transit? |

    Unfortunately, doing that means you’ve got to play with fire and, yes, someone always gets burned.

    Fire is both a tool to reap great benefits from as well as a hazard.

    Planning only for the present while at the same time not managing the future is, by default, relegating us to the past: Service cuts, job loss, and lack of regional accessibility.

    We can do much better.