What if Chicago actually did have rapid transit everywhere?

This map of an overgrown Red Line is supposed to be comical, but in reality it would be awesome. Image: The Chicago Genius
This map of an overgrown Red Line is supposed to be comical, but in reality it would be awesome. Image: The Chicago Genius

When you see a headline about Chicago having a consistent grid of rapid transit lines that connect all parts the city, you know it’s got to be from a satirical publication. After all, there’s no way that could be a reality here anytime soon, at least with the current, sluggish state of express bus and train line expansion.

The Chicago Genius Herald comedy website recently ran a clever article titled, “Left Unchecked, Red Line Expansions Could Spread All Over City By Mid-2040s, Providing Dangerous Levels Of Interconnectedness And Convenience.” It was illustrated by the above map indicating new ‘L’ lines spaced in a grid every couple of miles — basically everywhere you’d want them to be if you could wave a magic wand and create a coherent rapid transit system.

The farcical piece notes, factually, that Chicago has “massive swathes of transportation deserts,” which make “getting an apartment close to transit feel ‘special,’ and [prices people] who don’t make enough money to rent or own this hypercompetitive housing out of these areas.” It posits that the proposed $2.3 billion south Red Line extension to 130th Street could be the start of changing that dynamic, ironically pretending that would be a harmful thing.

Warns a fictional developer from Sterling Bay, the firm that’s behind the Lincoln Yards megadevelopment, “These Red Line expansions on their own might seem harmless, but they put us on a dangerous path to becoming more like a European city with a robust transit infrastructure… The more trains and train lines you add, the more feasible it becomes to rent an apartment cheaply somewhere not in Lakeview while still enjoying a similar commute of someone who makes six figures… and that’s bad.”

In reality if the Red Line did magically mutate in order to connect all neighborhoods, so that rapid transit deserts from Belmont Cragin to Chicago Lawn to Calumet Heights all got relatively frequent, fast service, and you didn’t have to pass through downtown via the current hub-and-spokes system to make a cross-town trip, that would obviously be a very good thing. But such a scenario is just a pipe dream, right?

It doesn’t have to be. Several years ago the Rahm Emanuel administration proposed the Ashland bus rapid transit project, which would have created the equivalent of a second Red Line about two miles west, between 95th Street and Irving Park Road. But that got shelved after facing stiff Not In My Back Yard opposition.

And in 2014, local leaders launched the Transit Future campaign, advocating for a new revenue stream to create a comprehensive rapid transit network. The idea was inspired by a 2008 Los Angeles County referendum in which voters approving a half-cent sales tax increase to fund rail expansion. By 2013, four new transit lines had opened, with two more under construction. The Chicagoland leaders even created this nifty map of the new dream network. But ultimately the campaign went nowhere.

The Transit Future map.
The Transit Future map.

This year we’ve seen some encouraging developments, such as pop-up CTA bus lanes on 79th Street and Chicago Avenue. And there’s the approval of the Fair Transit South Cook program, which will halve the fares on two South Side Metra lines and improve Pace bus connections starting in January., making it more feasible for working-class people to use the lines for daily commutes.

But these are very modest gains compared to the LA expansion, or initiatives in other peer cities. New York, for example, has installed dozens of miles of Select express bus routes with prepaid boarding and camera-enforced car-free lanes, significantly decreasing trip times across the city.

Aside from the south Red Line extension, which residents have been pushing for since the Nixon era, sadly Chicago hasn’t made any such bold expansions of our rapid transit network. It’s not that it would be particularly difficult to do these things — we just need the political will.

But in the alternate universe of the Chicago Genius article, rampant transit expansion is seen as a big problem. In reality it would be a good problem to have. Scratch that, it would just be a wonderful thing to have.

“I’ll be damned if I let some CTA expansions give me more options in where I can choose to live and make a community,” says one malcontent in the piece. “If these sick freaks have their way, we’d be building an Outer Loop to connect the North Side and the West Side of the city. And what then?… Convenient transnational high speed rail?”

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