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"How to Fix the El" followup, and a change in format
April 14, 2011

To the Teeming Millions:

Sorry about the long delay since my last posting. To make it easier to get these columns out on a regular basis, and also frankly to give me more chance to explore subjects I find interesting, I'm changing the Straight Dope Chicago format starting this week. Although I'll still answer questions sometimes, other times I'll launch straight in as I'm doing now. I'm also not going to shoot for any particular length, not that I've tried real hard on that score up till this point. In other words, SDC will become a lot more bloglike, although it'll still focus on life in the big city. This week: some followup to Little Ed's recent Reader cover story, "How to Fix the El," plus a few thoughts inspired by a panel discussion earlier this week, "Chicago Public Transit: On Track or Derailed," presented by the Chicago Architecture Foundation, sponsored by the Reader, and introduced by Ed.

El Service Was Better 50 Years Ago. It's common to claim things were better in the old days; in the case of the CTA, it appears they actually were. A reader who commented on Little Ed's El piece, mathmanbill, was kind enough to send along PDFs of a 1960 CTA brochure, "How to Use Chicago's 'L'-Subway," plus Evanston Express schedules from 1964 and 1978. Here's how service frequency then compares to now:

WEEKDAY TRAIN INTERVALS (minutes)
Line 1960 2011
AM Rush Midday AM Rush Midday
Howard (Red) 2-2½ 4-4½ 3-7 7-9
Evanston (Purple) 5½-6
(Express)
10
(Shuttle)
8-15
(Express)
10-15
(Shuttle)
Ravenswood (Brown) 3-4 6½-7 3-6 7-10
Milwaukee (Blue) 2½-3 3½-4 3-7 7-10
Lake (Green) 3-3½ 3½-4 8-9 9-12
1961 "L" ridership: 169 million; 2010 "L" ridership: 174 million

The midday differences are the most striking. The CTA used to run two-car trains on most lines during off-peak periods — basically a streetcar service. Those days won't come again. Some differences during rush-hour service are also easy to explain; ridership on the Green Line today is a fraction of what it was 50 years ago. Evanston boardings on the Purple Line are also way down; it's the riders boarding in the city who fill the trains. The Red Line, on the other hand, is almost certainly more heavily traveled now than it was in 1960 (changes in fare collection and reporting methods make direct comparison difficult), yet the trains run less frequently. The trains are packed now; were they much less so in 1960? I was too young to ride at the time, but presumably they were.

Trip length is also interesting. Here's the Evanston/Purple Line Express schedule for 1964, 1978, and 2011 for a train leaving Linden around 7 a.m.:

EVANSTON/PURPLE LINE EXPRESS RUNNING TIMES
Time in minutes from Linden to: 1964 1978 2011
Howard 13 13 16
Merchandise Mart 37 35 44
Adams/Wabash 45 41 51

The Evanston Express in 1964 used equipment dating from the 1920s and earlier with a top speed of perhaps 40 MPH. By 1978 this had been replaced by newer cars with a top speed of 50 MPH, and there were several fewer stops, no doubt accounting for the gain in speed compared to the earlier schedule.  Oddly, the trains in use now can operate at 55 MPH, yet the trip today takes almost 25 percent longer than it did 33 years ago.

I don't have detailed schedules for other lines, but the 1960 "How to Use" brochure gives overall running times for the morning rush hour. Here's how they compare to current times:

  • Howard to Loop (presumably this would have been the Washington stop): 27 minutes. Scheduled time on the Red Line today to Lake: 37 minutes.

  • Kimball to Loop (probably Randolph and Wells): 31 minutes. Today on the Brown Line to Washington and Wells: 33 minutes.

  • Logan Square to Loop (we'll assume Clark and Lake): 13 minutes. Today on the Blue Line: 15 minutes.

  • Marion (Harlem) and Lake to Loop (Clark and Lake): 26 minutes. Today on the Green Line: 24 minutes.

Upshot: the Green Line is a little faster than it was 50 years ago, the Blue and Brown lines are a little slower, and the Red and Purple lines are a lot slower. Why the poor showing for the last two? I'm not sure; partly it may be the deteriorating tracks and structure. All I know is, we'd better not spend $4.2 billion on rehab and wind up with service that isn't as good as what we had during the Eisenhower administration.

How to Expand City Rail Service by Half for Next to Nothing.  Someone at the CAF panel discussion passed out flyers for the Gray Line, a $200 million proposal to convert the city portion of the Metra Electric commuter line to rapid transit operation. Later, one of the panelists, Lee Bey, executive director of the Chicago Central Area Committee, displayed the two rail tickets he needs to commute to work — one from Metra and another from the CTA, indicating the lack of coordination between the two agencies. Two hundred million dollars for better south side transit isn't likely to be forthcoming soon, and city/suburban rivalry has long been an obstacle to greater integration of Metra and the CTA. But there's a simple, cheap solution that would go a long way toward addressing both issues, namely a regional pass that could be used on all Chicago rail and bus lines. Such a pass would, among other things, instantly add ~75 city stations to the rapid transit system. Your columnist hopes to write a column later this year explaining in detail how this would work and why we ought to do it without further delay.

Is Good Transit Design Important? Yes and No. Panel moderator Edward Lifson raised at the question of how important good design is when building transit facilities, citing Blair Kamin's recent criticism of Metra for cheaping out when constructing a new station at 35th Street on the Rock Island line. To save $900,000, the agency substituted ordinary painted steel railings for the stainless steel railings specified by the project's architect. In Kamin's view, this ruined the effect. From what I could tell, the majority of the panelists — and the audience — disagreed, and at the risk of being thought cretinous I have to say I side with them. (Seriously, $900,000 for railings?)

Lee Bey, however, drew a useful distinction between what we might call aesthetic design — whether the thing is pretty — and urban design, which is to say, how well transit facilities work in an urban context. It's possible to succeed at one and fail at the other, the classic example in Chicago being "L" stations built in expressway medians such as the Dan Ryan branch of the Red Line and the Kennedy branch of the Blue Line. At least when they were new, these were handsome pieces of architecture, but they've long been dismal in terms of convenience — difficult to reach on foot and distant from shops, restaurants, and other amenities. (Others have made the same point.) However ugly the railings may be, the real failing of the 35th Street Metra station, which is equally the case with the nearby Red and Green Line stations, is the scarcity of shops close by. (To be fair, there's a Starbucks a half block from the Green Line stop, but the station's immediate neighbors are parking lots.) One may object that retailing requires a thriving, walkable community, in which respect 35th Street has a ways to go; all the more reason that transit facilities should be designed as part of a larger neighborhood improvement scheme. That too is a topic worthy of a longer treatment on another day.

— Cecil Adams
 

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