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Let’s modernize Chicago transportation with old-school technology

Chicago’s Cherry Avenue Bridge serves bicycles and trains. Photo: Steven Vance

A somewhat shorter version of this piece previously ran in Newcity magazine.

As the car-choked transportation systems of big U.S. cities like Chicago become more and more dysfunctional, tech gurus like Elon Musk want the public to believe they can save us through Jetsons-esque new inventions. Usually this new technology would allow people to cling to the luxury of traveling in private automobiles, or at least high-end, low-occupancy vehicles geared towards elites. Some of the ideas Musk has floated include underground car tunnels; autonomous vehicles that would let executives sleep in while they're chauffeured from suburban McMansions to downtown offices; pricey "electric sled" pod service to whisk travelers between downtown Chicago and O'Hare Airport at 100 mph; and Hyperloop vacuum tubes that would supposedly cut the travel time between Chicago and Cleveland to a mere half-hour.

None of that technology actually exists yet, but Musk and his cohorts assure us they're right on the cusp of inventing it. Musk would surely dismiss me as a "subway Stalinist,"  but if we want a safer and more equitable, efficient, and enjoyable Chicago transportation network by the year 2030, the "gee-whiz" schemes of self-styled tech saviors aren't the answer. The real solutions aren't as sexy, but they're way more democratic, and they use proven technology that has existed for many decades: buses, trains, and bicycles.

The basic mistake made by literal car salesmen like Musk is assuming that the future of transportation will continue to be auto-centric. But private cars -- large metal boxes that typically carry one or two occupants -- are a profoundly inefficient way to move people though cities. In contrast, bus travel isn't glamorous, but a 60-foot articulated CTA bus seats about 50 people (not counting standees) while only occupying as much road space as a handful of cars. And there are lots of ways we can make bus travel more attractive, although they require political will and proper funding.

Currently Chicago buses get mired in driver-generated traffic jams. The city has taken some baby steps to speed up service, including building a few miles of red bus-only lanes and adding transit-friendly stoplights that help prevent buses from getting stuck at reds on streets like Ashland and Western. Ideally we'd have continuous, camera-enforced bus lanes on every major street, plus time-saving features like prepaid boarding and express service with limited stops. Latin-American metropolises like Bogotá and Mexico city have had bus rapid transit (BRT) networks with subway-like speeds for many years now, so this isn't rocket science. We also need to beef up bus frequency, so you're never waiting more than 15 minutes for a ride.

Expanding the 'L' network would be much more expensive, but ultimately it's in Chicago's interest to augment our current hub-and-spokes rapid transit system, which often requires straphangers traveling from one side of the city to another by rail to travel all the way downtown and back out again. Having more north-south and east-west 'L' lines would be a game-changer. For example, a train running down Cicero Avenue could make traveling between O'Hare and Midway way more practical. At the very least, we need to keep the city's decades-long promise to Far South Siders by finding funding to extend the Red Line from its current terminus at 95th Street to Altgeld Gardens.

Speaking of transit equity, the city should follow through on recommendations from the Active Transportation Alliance's recent "Fair Fares" report, including offering reduced CTA fares for low-income Chicagoans, similar to programs in cities like New York and Seattle. Increasing frequency and lowering fares on Metra, an idea that's been endorsed by the Cook County president Toni Preckwinkle, as well as providing free transfers between Metra and CTA, would also improve access to jobs and education for residents of underserved communities. Heck, some cities, from Tallinn, Estonia, to Kansas City, Missouri, even provide free transit service, an idea that might well pay for itself in Chicago by reducing crashes, congestion, and pollution, as well as first-responder, healthcare, and property damage expenses.

On the other hand, if we want public transportation to be competitive in an era of cheap Uber and Lyft service, transit needs to be perceived as safe, sanitary, and dignified. One possible solution is an old-school idea, bringing back CTA conductors (the position was eliminated in the late Nineties) to patrol the trains at night. Their presence would deter crime and encourage compliance with rules against smoking and littering, and they could do outreach to the many homeless people who shelter on the Red and Blue lines, helping to connect them with housing and healthcare resources. Sure, finding money for conductor payroll would be an issue, but thanks to increased ridership this could be a revenue-neutral program.

Thinking outside the region, while folks like Musk say we need the Hyperloop to zoom us between cities in hamster tubes at 760 mph, they haven't actually invented passenger-safe vehicles yet. Meanwhile high-speed intercity rail has been the norm in much of Asia and Europe for many years. The 200 mph speed of Japanese bullet trains or the French TGV system would be plenty fast enough to take Chicagoans to St. Louis or New York -- we just need the political will and funding to build a network.

As for short trips within Chicago, the future of transportation involves a much older form of technology -- the bicycle. Sure, cycling isn't for everyone, but in cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen over a third of all trips are made by bike, which makes a major dent in traffic jams and smog. Our city may never reach that level, but we could exponentially increase our current, puny 1.7 percent bike mode-share by passing European-style laws to hold drivers accountable for injuring cyclists, rolling out universal bike education in the public schools, and building better infrastructure.

Chicago-style protected bike lanes, in which cyclists are shielded from traffic by a line of parked cars, are OK, but mediocre sight lines can make  it tricky for turning motorists and fast cyclists to see each other at intersections. Instead we should build a continuous network of Copenhagen-style raised bike lanes, where cyclists ride a few inches above the street, but a couple of inches below the sidewalk, so motorists don't drive in the bike lane, and pedestrians don't walk in it.

The bottom line is that, instead of clinging to the notion that traveling in private motor vehicles is a right that needs to be preserved at all costs, in a future, more utopian Chicago it will be viewed as a privilege, reserved for people with mobility challenges, families with small children, folks hauling heavy cargo, and those celebrating special occasions. But non-car transportation will become so efficient and pleasant that residents won't mind the change.

Another perk is that, with so few people driving, metered parking spots would see little use, rendering the 75-year meter contract basically worthless, which would really stick it to Chicago's much-hated parking concessionaire. They'd practically beg us to let them out of the deal, which would open up even more curbside space for bus lanes and bikeways.

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