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How is it L.A. is building miles of new transit routes while Chicago can't get the Circle Line started?
February 10, 2011 — Part 1 of 2 parts

Dear Cecil:

Please read this article about a massive mass transit expansion in Los Angeles. L.A.? Really? The sprawling city of low density neighborhoods, no urban or pedestrian culture and car-obsessed people is building how many miles of rail? And in Chicago the CTA can't get the Circle Line going after a decade of planning it?

— NARVEN11, via the Straight Dope Message Board

Cecil replies:

I appreciate your wanting to get things moving, Narven — given the forthcoming upheaval at City Hall, this is a conversation the town needs to be having. (It's far from the only one, of course; we also need to have a little discussion of city finances, education, economic development and about a dozen other subjects, but one thing at a time.) However, before we take matters to the next level, we need to take a closer look at your assumptions. Most of them are wrong.

First off, while you rightly call attention to L.A.'s ambitious transit program, you've bought into the enduring notion that the city that gave the world road rage is a low density, car-centric wasteland, and seem shocked that it's building a big rail system. I'm sorry, you've got most of that backward. In fact, as I've written before, the Los Angeles metropolitan area is the most densely populated in the U.S. (although some use statistical gymnastics to make it #3). Its bus system carries more passengers than the CTA's. Its rail system, while smaller than the "L," is heavily used — ridership on the L.A. Red Line, though less than on the CTA Red Line, is more than on any other "L" route.

 As for whether L.A. is more car-obsessed than other U.S. cities… well, that's not easy to establish objectively. But here's a suggestive data point. One might suppose that in a truly car-obsessed town, motorists would rather waste time stewing  in their vehicles at rush hour than use transit, right? And in fact L.A. ranks #3 in annual delay per auto commuter. What city ranks #1? It's us.

I tell you this not to be a nitpicker but to put matters in perspective. While no one's going to mistake Chicago for L.A., the two towns aren't the polar opposites you imagine. Rather, they're both big cities grappling with similar though not identical problems. If L.A. has been getting some coverage lately for expanding transit, that's because its rail system is relatively new and not fully developed. Chicago's larger and much older "L" system could stand some expansion as well, but the more urgent concern is rebuilding what we've got.

That brings us to the heart of the matter. Implicit in your question is the idea that while L.A. has been building for the future, in Chicago we've been screwing around. While I don't claim the process here has been a miracle of efficiency — we'll get back to that — local transit officials have been reasonably busy. In the 20 years since L.A. opened its first modern rail line, the CTA has (1) constructed one new route (Orange); (2) rehabilitated two others (Green and Pink); (3) rebuilt the stations on a fourth (Brown); (4) partly rehabbed a fifth (the Dan Ryan branch of the Red); (5) renewed a lot of the track on a sixth (Blue); and taken a stab at patching up everything else, although there remain sizable stretches where walking under a viaduct is taking your life in your hands.   

In light of all this, you shouldn't be surprised that planning for the Circle Line has proceeded at a leisurely pace. Though still officially on the table, the venture was last heard from in 2009. When one of your columnist's henchmen raised the issue with a CTA engineer at a public presentation the other night, he received the vague reply that the project was "out there," in roughly the same sense that the Second Coming was out there. Just don't look for it any time soon.

Disappointed? Eh, not everybody thinks the Circle Line is a brilliant idea. But this isn't the time to discuss the project's technical merits. There's a more pressing concern — one that makes your question timely, even if you got the details a bit scrambled. Whatever may be said for the Circle Line, the issue that needs to be raised is what the billions of dollars everyone thinks we ought to spend on transit is going to get us. Right now nobody knows.

The public presentation I had my lads go to made this evident. It was for the CTA's Red & Purple  Modernization Project, which calls for the reconstruction of north side rapid transit — a subject on which your columnist has bashfully expressed a few thoughts. I was interested, naturally, to note a few points of congruence between the CTA's ideas and mine:

So far so good. However, I was wounded to discover that the agency had ignored the centerpiece of my scheme, namely, running the Purple Line Express into the State Street subway. As a result, north side rail service wouldn't get any faster, which was the whole idea. On the contrary, since stops would be added to an already slow "express" service, the proposed rehabilitation would make it slower yet.  

This exemplified a larger problem, and here's where we get back to the Circle Line. In talking things over with CTA engineers, it became apparent the agency proposed to rebuild the most heavily used stretch of its rail system without having given much consideration to how it would operate, or how it would mesh with proposed expansions such as the Circle Line or the Clinton Street subway, an idea floated in the city's Central Area Action Plan. One acknowledges that these plans have had their detractors, and that the CTA can't reasonably be expected to accommodate notions for which no consensus has emerged. However, it struck us that on the most basic level the Red & Purple Modernization Project simply hadn't been thought through.

We found this alarming. For example, one alternative presented by the CTA was to replace the current four-track main line with a two-track subway. That would mean the end of the Purple Line Express, although Evanston service would be retained. How then did the CTA plan to operate the trains? Would they run all the way from Linden to 130th, a distance of some 30 miles?

The engineers didn't know — train operation wasn't within their purview. They'd been asked to look into ways to rebuild an old rail line, and from a construction standpoint a two-track subway had some advantages over rebuilding the existing four-track embankment. But as for how the resultant service would work … well, that hadn't come up.

Likewise, when we asked if there were some master plan integrating the many different transit proposals currently being touted into a coherent whole, we were referred to high-level strategy documents published by local planning organizations. But these plans, such as they are, don't get into specifics. In short, we realized, not only had the CTA never sat down to think how the completed system would function, neither had anyone else. 

I don't mean to be hard on the engineers. The ones we spoke to were nice people, happy to answer our questions insofar as as they were able, and knowledgeable within their fields of specialty. But they'd been given a narrow task, and they'd produced a narrow result.

Fortunately, planning for the Red & Purple Modernization Project is in the early stages, and there's still time to consider where all this is headed, with a view to ensuring it's not over a cliff. What's more, although I may be overly optimistic, I think an inkling of how to proceed is starting to emerge. We'll take that up next week.

— Cecil Adams
Photo by Pat O'Neil


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