Anything but a train: Lightfoot touts luxury ORD air taxi service instead of fixing Blue Line

Rendering of an Archer air taxi.
Rendering of an Archer air taxi.

Chicagoans have been crying out for better Blue Line service, including more frequent and reliable trips to O’Hare Airport. They’re tired of long and unpredictable waits between trains, resulting in crowded platforms and packed railcars during rush hours at many stations. To add insult to injury, last month the CTA quietly cut scheduled Blue service for the second time since the pandemic started in an effort to improve the percentage-of-scheduled-service-delivered numbers for the route. As a result, the total number of scheduled Blue Line trips is currently down 39 percent compared to 2019, according to the grassroots advocacy group Commuters Take Action, which analyzes trip data.

Of course, the poor conditions on the Blue Line aren’t just affecting Chicago residents. They’re also making this super-affordable, traffic jam-free, and environmentally-friendly route between O’Hare, downtown, and many neighborhoods a lot less appealing to visitors. You’d think Mayor Lori Lightfoot would understand the importance of getting Blue Line service back to pre-pandemic standards, acting with at least as much urgency as she recently did to stop unhoused people from taking the train to the airport to spend the night.

So, of course, Lightfoot’s big announcement this week about O’Hare transportation was… expensive electric helicopter service for rich people?

Yup, on Thursday the mayor and Archer Aviation, a company from California that’s partnering with United Airlines on the scheme, said electric air taxi service between O’Hare and the Illinois Medical District will launch in 2025. Flying at up to 150 miles an hour, the roughly 15-mile helicopter trip is projected to take about ten minutes, plus whatever rigamarole passengers have to go through before and after the flight. An Archer spokesperson told the Sun-Times the company hopes to make the fare on the four passenger craft competitive with an Uber Black trip to the airport, so we’re talking a whopping $100-150 for a one-way journey.

“Technological innovation thrives here in Chicago, and this venture between Archer and United is yet another example of this strength,” Lightfoot gushed in a statement. “This exciting new technology will further decarbonize our means of transportation, taking us another step forward in our fight against climate change. I’m pleased that Chicago residents will be among the first in the nation to experience this innovative, convenient form of travel.”

Now, I gained respect for Lightfoot when she took office in 2019 and killed off her predecessor Rahm Emanuel’s and tech mogul Elon Musk’s absurd plans for luxury express service between O’Hare and Block 37 in the Loop using “electric sled vehicles” Musk still hasn’t invented years later. He claimed he could use proprietary tunneling technology to create the 17-mile route in record time for a mere $1 billion in construction and vehicle costs. But his embarrassing failures in other cities since then – including demos that simply consisted of Tesla cars being driven through relatively short passageways, only to get caught in traffic jams – have made it clear Chicago dodged a bullet.

But the helicopter scheme is almost as silly as the O’Hare Express proposal. While the e-air taxi system is probably less likely to involve a major taxpayer subsidy, it’s still an annoying attempt to let rich people buy their way out of traffic jams and riding normal trains. Moreover, the helicopter trips won’t even be particularly convenient or save much time over a Blue Line ride.

That’s because the air taxi plan shares a fatal flaw with the O’Hare Express ideas. In both cases there’s only place you can end your trip in each direction, making it likely you’ll need to take ride-hail or other ground transportation to get to your ultimate destination.

In contrast, the Blue Line has many different downtown stations, not to mention lots of neighborhood stops. That greatly increases the chances that there’s a station within walking distance of your final destination, allowing for a one-seat commute.

A car trip from the vertiport to the Palmer House is about four miles. Image: Google Maps
A car trip from the vertiport to the Palmer House is about four miles. Image: Google Maps

Moreover, the helicopter “vertiport” is located at 1339 S. Wood St., which is nowhere near the places most Chicago visitors want to go. For example, if you’re staying at the Palmer House Hotel, 17 E. Monroe St., that tacks on four miles and about 15 minutes to the journey, plus whatever time you have to spend between exiting the e-taxi and entering your Uber, Lyft, or taxi. (A CTA trip from the vertiport to the hotel takes about a half hour.) If you took the Blue Line from O’Hare, you could simply walk one block east from the Blue Line’s Monroe station to the hotel.

Granted, an express train to O’Hare is not an inherently bad idea, particularly if it has a few different downtown and/or neighborhood stations to choose from. A relatively easy and affordable way to do that would be to repurpose one or two lanes of the ten-lane Kennedy Expressway to lay tracks for express Blue Line service.

The Blue Line route (blue) and a possible route for airport express service (black.) Image: Google Maps
The Blue Line route (blue) and a possible route for airport express service (black.) Image: Google Maps

The express trains would use the existing Blue Line tunnel downtown, perhaps starting at the Clinton stop near the Union Station Amtrak and Metra commuter rail terminal, before leaving the regular Blue route and heading to the Kennedy in the West Loop or River West. (Obviously, this would require constructing some kind of new tunnel, ramp, and/or overpass to transfer the express trains between the existing Blue tunnel and the highway.) The service could charge a somewhat higher fare, say $10-15, and have features like luggage racks, cushioned chairs, and maybe an onboard attendant to make it more appealing for air travelers.

However, the expressway lane conversion idea would might make driving a little less convenient, which Chicago politicians typically view as a non-starter. They’re generally more interested in using the latest (or theoretical) technology as an alternative to the mobility solution that’s been around for decades in other countries: fast trains.


High Speed Rail Association: Use Metra Tracks for O’Hare Express

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and aviation commissioner Ginger Evans stated earlier this year that creating an express train to O’Hare Airport is a priority for this administration. However, the Blue Line is already a fairly speedy way to get to the airport, which could easily be upgraded via a few short-term improvements. Therefore, the city might be […]