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Why is the el so focused on the Loop? Why isn't it on a grid?
April 16, 2009

Dear Cecil:

Why is the el so downtown-centric? Why isn't it on a grid like in Manhattan?

— Frank Caplice, Chicago

Cecil Adams replies:

Good question, Frank. Here's the short answer:

  • The el is downtown-centric — or more precisely, Loop-centric — because that's how rail systems in cities of Chicago's size and density have traditionally been laid out. It's a method that worked just fine for the first 70 or 80 years of the system's existence.

  • However — presumably this is why you're asking the question — it doesn't work so fine now. With the central area sprawling and neighborhoods reviving all over, you can make a good case we've outgrown the old hub-and-spoke system and need to reconfigure the el so it's on more of a grid like in New York or London.

  • People have been urging that we do this for, no kidding, 100 years. The first proposal to put the el on a grid system was published in Daniel Burnham's Plan of Chicago in 1909.

I know, I know. Everybody hails Burnham as a visionary, but when you read his optimistic assumptions (mainly: Chicago = Paris of midwest) you think, what was this guy on? However, while the town has never gotten noticeably more Parisian, it's no longer the uncomplicated burg it was. We could use a grid now and we're not making much progress toward getting one. What do we do?

We'll get to that. First some background. The reason the el is centered on the Loop is that, for much of the city's history, that was where most people wanted to go.  When the Loop elevated was constructed in 1897, virtually all the city's tall (well, tallish) buildings were located in the area bound by the river on the north and west, Grant Park on the east, and Congress Street on the south. No matter where you were — are — in this district, you're a short walk from an el stop. That's because, strictly speaking, the Loop is a grid, just a very small one. 

The rapid transit systems in other cities of Chicago's scale typically work in much the same way.  In Philadelphia and Boston, for example, all the lines converge on the central business district, but not on a single terminal — the routes crisscross to an extent, and have many stops and transfer points. If you have business downtown, you're likely to find the system handy. (You may also find it scuzzy, but that's a separate discussion.) The further you get from downtown, the less convenient the trains get. Some neighborhoods have excellent rail service; in others, you've got a long walk.


Philadelphia and Boston rapid transit systems — downtown portion

The largest cities have much more extensive rail systems, and the gridlike portion of the system is bigger. In most of Manhattan and central London, for example, you can travel from pretty much any point to any other point entirely by rail, although you may have to transfer once or twice. The network of lines in outlying neighborhoods is much denser, too. Convenience is a relative thing, and you'd be hard put to describe subway travel in New York as fast. But on the whole it beats car or bus. Why can't Chicago have that?   

Subways in lower Manhattan and central London

Duh, say scoffers. New York is not only several times larger than Chicago, it's much more thickly populated, essential for a dense rail network. It's also got two major office districts, midtown and downtown, whereas we have one. We've got a perfectly good transit grid in Chicago that will get you just about anywhere you want to go. It's called the bus. If it's a little slow, so what? In Chicago, unlike in New York, you've got an option: You can drive.

I won't get into the eco arguments. I'll just say that if you've done much traveling in Chicago, you know the driving option is getting increasingly grim. (Exhibit A: Clybourn Street. Hard to believe now, but Clybourn was once so deserted people used it for drag races.) Notwithstanding the occasional economic crisis, the city is going to get steadily denser — not as dense as New York, but possibly enough to elevate traffic to Bostonian levels of intolerability. Do we just suck it up because we'll never be able to afford more trains? Not necessarily. Consider the rail system in, of all places, Washington, D.C.

Washington Metro

Here are a few things you should know about the Washington Metro:

  • It's relatively new. The first section opened in 1976, and the basic system was completed in 2001.

  • It's one of the most physically striking rail systems in the world, largely because of the stations, which were designed by the late Chicago architect Harry Weese.

  • The Metro was funded entirely by the federal government, and wasn't cheap — as of 2001, it had cost about $10 billion, and many considered it a boondoggle.

  • It wasn't. Today the Metro carries more people than the el — 728,000 riders per average weekday. (On Obama's inauguration day, it carried a record 1.1 million riders.)

  • The Metro rail grid, if you want to call it that, is nowhere near as dense as in New York or London — the map above, which isn't to scale, makes it seem more comprehensive than it is. But looked at from a tourist's selfish perspective, Metro does a better job getting people where they want to go than the el. If you're traveling from D.C.'s Union Station to the White House, Capitol Hill, or the Smithsonian, the Metro can get you reasonably close. (I don't claim it's the most direct route.) Try taking the el from Union Station in Chicago to North Michigan Avenue or Navy Pier, or from Logan Square to Hyde Park.

  • My point: A convenient, widely used rail system in a metropolitan area of comparable size and density to Chicago isn't cheap — but it can be done.  

It's not that the el has never been expanded. Chicago is one of the few cities in the world offering rail service to two major airports. (Metro stops at Reagan airport but not Dulles.) But in other respects we haven't kept up. The last major addition, the Orange Line, opened in 1993.  The city has changed enormously since then and el ridership has boomed — since 1992, the number of people going through the turnstiles has increased 37 percent. But while lots of plans for new service have been proposed, none has made much headway. A review:

Chicago Central Area Transit Planning Study, 1968. Ancient, I know, but I include it for historical interest. The main idea was to replace the Loop el with subways, a ludicrous notion that would have cost billions and added no new service. (At the time people were convinced the el was stifling development.) The one interesting aspect of the scheme was a distributor subway connecting the west side commuter stations to Michigan Avenue and the lakefront — an idea everyone likes to this day, but no one has figured out how to pay for. Planning dragged on for years till the expense and pointlessness of the project sank in and Jane Byrne killed it. Some of the money allocated was used to build the Orange Line.

Chicago Central Area Circulator. This was an update of the distributor subway that would have connected the commuter stations to points east. The difference was that it consisted of streetcars running mostly on, well, streets. Obvious drawback: since the streets were already full of automobiles, streetcars would have been no faster (and, at $770 million, much more expensive) than buses. After years of planning, the project died in 1995.

Circle Line. As proposed by the CTA in 2002, the Circle Line would be a circumferential route operating via the Red Line on the east, the Orange Line on the south to Paulina, new track and the Pink Line up to Division, then east to rejoin the Red Line at North and Clybourn. The rationale for the scheme seems to be that it would save on transfer time between existing lines and magically stimulate development. But it would provide little new service and with 6.6 miles of new track, much of it underground, would be stupefyingly expensive. Though only tenuously grounded in reality, the project remains officially under consideration and recently was awarded a $6 million federal grant.

Chicago Central Area Plan. Unveiled in 2003, this plan offered a variety of downtown transportation improvements, the most ambitious of which was a new subway under Clinton Street that would connect to the existing tracks at Lake and Congress to create a Blue Line loop. The idea was that trains on the heavily-used O'Hare branch, instead of heading out empty to the west side, would circle around and head back northwest. Trains on the lightly-traveled Forest Park and 54th/Cermak branches would likewise circle and return to their starting points. (Trust me, it made sense at the time.) The centerpiece of the new subway was the West Loop Transportation Center, a four-level underground extravaganza with a pedestrian concourse at the top, a busway below that, then the el tracks, and finally commuter or possibly intercity rail tracks on the bottom. Though the four levels were a bit much, the subway had its points — if nothing else it would connect the el to the two busiest commuter stations, Union Station and the Ogilvie Transportation Center. However, the scheme got no traction and nothing more was heard of it till recently. Back to that in a sec.

One idea in the Central Area Plan that briefly got off the ground was premature to say the least — express rail service from downtown to O'Hare and Midway airports via the Blue and Orange lines. Neither line has passing tracks to permit express trains to overtake locals, so the plan was to build such tracks and improve the signaling so trains could pass on the left. Whether CTA has the discipline to operate on such precise timing is debatable — this ain't the Swiss National Railways. The city optimistically began building an express station in the Loop, then ran out of money and halted the project last year. Cost: $213 million. Benefit: zip.

Chicago Central Area Action Plan. The most recent scheme, revealed recently in the Sun-Times, is an update of the 2003 plan. The airport express is still in there; so is the West Loop Transportation Center. But now the Clinton Street subway extends from North and Clybourn to Chinatown. Cost: $6 billion, leading John McCarron to describe the project in the Tribune as a "boondoggle supernova." His alternative: a busway encircling the Loop, much of it built on old railroad rights-of-way.

Proposed Clinton Street subway

You're thinking: Wow, a busway. How exciting.

My feeling exactly. Don't get me wrong — there are practical arguments to be made for busways and for "bus rapid transit," a type of express bus service the CTA has been considering. If they can be done cheaply and fast, why not? But let's face it, bus-only proposals are a yawn. The experience of the past 40 years suggests even the most delusional rail projects will attract support and funding. Buses? Come on.

What lesson do we draw from all this? Making Burnhamesque plans to expand the transit system isn't a bad idea; on the contrary, arguably it's the only way to get anything accomplished. They just can't be stupid plans. I'll resist the temptation to play armchair transit planner, but a few principles suggest themselves:

  • The solution needs to involve rail. Never mind the practical benefits — people get excited about rail projects. Silly, but it's a fact.

  • New service doesn't have to consist solely or even mainly of conventional el lines (heavy rail). Boston's busy Green Line, which runs underground downtown and at grade level in the neighborhoods, uses streetcars (light rail). However, light-rail routes do need to be separated from street traffic, the fatal flaw of the aborted circulator. The Boston Green Line runs mostly on private right-of-way (medians and such) outside downtown.

  • Both heavy rail and buses have their place. Whatever may be said for the West Loop Transportation Center, the Clinton Street subway is a pretty good idea. It would give Red Line riders a convenient route to the West Loop office district, which has become a development focus, and pass through residential neighborhoods that are becoming densely populated. Meanwhile, buses are probably the best way of serving Streeterville, where rail is problematic. They can pick up passengers on ordinary city streets, then funnel into the Carroll Street busway (the top horizontal blue line on the map above) for a quick trip to the commuter stations.

  • Somebody needs to start thinking seriously about upgrading rail transit on the south lakefront, where reviving neighborhoods have seen a construction boom and high-rises are inevitable, whether the Olympics come here or not. Some South Siders have proposed converting Metra Electric city service to a CTA rapid transit operation they're calling the Gray Line. It sounds a little nutty right now, but its day will come.

  • Express rail service to the airports, at $1.5 billion, seems like a ridiculous waste of money, but we might as well salvage something from that $213 million hole under Block 37. The only reason a lot of people went along with this cockamamie scheme was that it connected the Red Line with the Blue Line. We ought to finish that part.

  • There are some small, useful rail projects that can be built while collecting resources for the big ones. A smart idea in the Central Area Action Plan is more stations on the Green Line (our Green Line), which has plenty of trains running through densely populated neighborhoods — but no stops.

  • The rail system doesn't need to be as elaborate as those in New York and London. But additions need to fill in obvious gaps and have lots of transfer points to existing lines. In short, Frank — you've put it well — it needs to be a grid.

 — Cecil Adams

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