Lake Shore Drive at night

Red and Purple Line Express versus lakefront buses

The lake shore express buses are one of the few positives about the CTA.  If someone's destination is the far north side they can use the 147 Outer Drive Express bus to reach their destination instead of the Red Line.  While the CTA has historically had express service on the L and continues to use express service in the form of the Purple Line rush hour service to Evanston, it isn't tremendously useful in its current incarnation.

The Purple Line Express has several flaws that limit its effectiveness to commuters and reduce its attractiveness to city residents.  The primary problem with the Purple Line Express is the shear number of stations it serves in the Loop and River North neighborhoods.  Express services are most effective when they have a minimal number of stops; each additional stop increases the complexity of the service by introducing an increasing number of commuter types.  Short haul commuters find themselves fighting against long haul commuters when they need to exit the train as a result.

The Purple Line would be more effective if it traveled express all the way to Fullerton after leaving the Loop.  Unfortunately this is no longer possible due to the removal of the express tracks south of Armitage.  While these tracks were removed because of structural problems their absence has resulted in a lost opportunity to increase capacity.  The Brown and Purple lines are now interlined for a significant amount of the Brown Line's length, which limits each line's capacity.  Purple Line Express wait times are already longer than average, so missed trains means more commuters crowding platforms and competing with Brown Line riders.

Another weakness of the Purple Line Express is that it competes with the Metra Union Pacific North Line in that they both exist primarily to serve suburban riders.  The Purple Line Express is useful for commuters to Evanston and other suburbs but not for city residents along the densely populated north lakeshore.  The Union Pacific North Line scheduled travel time from Ogilvie to Evanston Main Street Station is twenty minutes on some runs.  Unlike the Purple Line Express there are only three stops between these stations so the Metra trains can make very good time consistently.  The Purple Line Express is scheduled to make this trip from Washington/Wells in 38 minutes.  While riding Metra requires riders to walk farther west Ogilvie has the advantage of being a terminus station with consistent time tables.  The Union Pacific North Line also has an advantage in that it does not have to share track with other services during its journey which reduces its susceptibility to delays caused by other trains.  A Purple Line Express train can be delayed by a problem on the Pink Line, Green Line, or Orange Line since they all share the Inner Loop track.

 The 147 Outer Drive Express does not suffer from any of the aforementioned problems.  After Michigan and Delaware just north of the Magnificent Mile the bus runs express for almost six miles to Foster and Marine in the Edgewater neighborhood in about 13 minutes.  All the times I've ridden this bus it has consistently made this run in the alloted time even during rush hour.  5.8 miles in 13 minutes equals an average speed of approximately 27 miles per hour which is an impressive speed for a bus in urban conditions.  During times I have ridden the bus from Wacker to Foster and back it has managed to make the trip in approximately 25 minutes.  This is consistent with the published schedule and a slightly faster than the Red Line.  The Red Line has a lot more stops between downtown and the north side than the 147 so the chance for delay is greatly increased; 27 minutes from State and Lake to Berwyn is optimistic on a good day.

The Outer Drive Express is an example of effective express bus service, dedicated to collecting passengers in the commercial core and then shuttling them as fast as possible to a residential area.  Suffice it to say, I will be using the 147 to travel to the north side from downtown from now on.

Harrison subway by Eric Pancer

Harrison and Pulaski

At the end of 2010 I conducted an analysis to support my thesis work concerning transit design that involved combing through public Chicago Police Department reports concerning crime occurring on the CTA EL.  I identified two stations in particular—Pulaski on the Blue Line and Harrison on the Red Line—as being the stations that were in my opinion crime hotspots.

Cut to six months later...

Pulaski Blue Line Robbery

For me this was no surprise since I had identified Pulaski as the most likely spot for a violent robbery on the Blue Line.  Statistics may mean nothing to the individual but clearly I identified something about this station and its surroundings that made it a prime candidate for a serious crime.

Less than three months later...

Harrison Red Line Robbery

Again!  The station I had identified as the most likely station on the Red Line for violent crime was the station that was in the news.  Once I saw the words CTA and ROBBERY I just knew it had to be Harrison.  Clearly the CTA and Chicago Police need to figure out what is going on at these two stations.

*Featured image by Eric Pancer, originally posted on Wikipedia

July 4th

Saturday Night Fever

Long story short: the performance of the Red Line Saturday night during Pride Weekend was yet another example of the CTA's inability to function correctly during major events.

Jackson to Roosevelt

Jackson to Roosevelt

After riding the 151 Sheridan bus from Belmont to Adams in a relatively brisk 25 minutes, I arrived at the Jackson Red Line station around midnight to see a train seemingly stuck at Harrison a short distance down the tunnel.  After at least thirteen minutes (according to my watch, which I looked at after reaching the bottom of the stairs only to see no trains arriving or departing southbound), the train at Harrison began moving again.  Shortly thereafter Red Line run 940 I believe arrived at Jackson.  When we departed Harrison we found ourselves stuck again behind the cursed Red Line train.  After finally making it to the Roosevelt platform, the train I was on came to a halt for over five minutes.  Shortly after my departure to secure alternate transportation, the 940 continued on its way.  This was at approximately 12:30 AM, roughly a half hour after I arrived at Jackson; at least fifteen minutes passed between departure from Jackson and departure from Roosevelt.

This whole incident should seem oddly familiar to anyone that rode the Red Line southbound during New Year's 2011.  The combination of crowds, many of whom were likely intoxicated considering the occasion, and the late hour caused the Red Line to bog down.  The Brown Line train I had taken to Lincoln Square when I was heading to my New Year's festivities came to a halt at Sedgwick because someone in the last car had apparently passed out on the train.  Fortunately an army of taxicabs was waiting on North Avenue, and I was soon on my way with time to spare.  

When I rode the CTA after the July 4th Fireworks downtown in 2009 I managed to catch the first Brown Line train that arrived at Randolph and I made it to Belmont with practically no major delays except for crowds moving on and off the train.  Once the cutbacks in service took effect I noticed the L's performance during major events start to decline.  New Year's was the first sign of trouble but easy to shake off considering all the alcohol and party crowds.  Now with this second incredibly negative Red Line experience of the year, I think I'm probably going to avoid riding the CTA during July 4th.

All of these problems can be explained by a simple rule: when you cut service, quality declines.  The CTA is not going to save itself by continually cutting service and raising fares.  While ridership declines may be offset by higher fares, the hazard is that there are going to be fewer and fewer people invested in rapid transit.  This could lead to a negative feedback loop where people leave the system, fares go up and service goes down to compensate for reduced ridership, and then even more people leave the system.  As far as July 4th goes, I'd recommend keeping a 20 in your pocket for an emergency taxicab in case you get stuck downtown.  If you're lucky to get a taxi cab...

35th-Bronzeville-IIT

35th-Bronzeville-IIT to Roosevelt

Roosevelt to 35-Bronzeville-IIT

Roosevelt to 35-Bronzeville-IIT

What an adventure I had today riding the Green Line.  Arrived at the station sometime after a northbound train had left the station and ended up waiting over 10 minutes for another train to arrive in typical caterpillar fashion, creeping towards the platform at an agonizing pace.  The CTA Train Tracker is now displayed on the flat screen televisions, making them far more useful than when they simply acted as expensive billboards for a transit agency that cut bus and train service not long ago.  The Train Tracker informed me that my train was one of three arriving in the next seven minutes, a frequency useless at 11 AM.  

After 6 minutes and 30 seconds we arrived at Roosevelt, compared to the roughly 4 minutes Google Maps says the trip should take.  Considering that the train was heading north, "The sun was in my eyes" doesn't seem like a likely excuse for this slow train operation.  And the Green Line was completely rehabilitated less than 20 years ago, so while "death awaits" speed may be possible, I'll settle for brisk.  

I can understand why the Red Line has to run slow between Sox-35th and Roosevelt due to track work, but I have yet to come across a valid explanation for why the Green Line seems to get slower every time I ride it, which is less and less these days.  

There are other things that can slow a transit system down, like transporting panhandlers, but that's a story for tomorrow...

The Red Line versus the Rock Island line

Anyone who's ridden both the Red Line Dan Ryan Branch of the CTA and the Rock Island District Branch of Metra may have noticed that METRA IS FASTER. Every time I have timed the Rock Island from 35th Street to LaSalle it has taken at most 8 minutes, including time spent pulling into the station.  Sox-35th to Jackson on the Red Line takes over 10 minutes regularly because of the maintenance on the Red Line.  

What makes this so irritating is the fact that the CTA supposedly modernized the Dan Ryan branch over 5 years ago, yet failed to fix a long stretch of their trackage.  If they had used good judgement, they would have realized that stations are only as useful as the tracks that serve them.  If the train slows down to a dead crawl, people are going to start to get annoyed and look for faster methods of travel.  The same goes for the north branch of the Red Line, where the trackage is showing its age yet the CTA undertook a massive renovation of Howard.  Any significant disruption to the north side of the Red Line will undoubtably cause patronage at Howard to drop.  

Besides the time advantage the Rock Island has, it also has a price advantage as well.  Unlike the weekly and monthly passes on the CTA that are only valid for a continuous period of time, Metra 10-ride passes are valid for one year from their purchase date; so infrequent Metra riders who want a discount can get 10 rides for only $18.30 between 35th and LaSalle.  That's only $1.83 a ride, 42¢ less than the CTA rail fare.

25¢ less, faster, and cleaner: I'm sticking with the Rock Island for the foreseeable future.