CTA South Side

CTA South Side thoughts

Chicago Redeye: South Side Proposals

The CTA’s recent announcement of various proposals for enhancing service along the South Lakefront Corridor is frustrating to say the least. Some of the proposals involve restoring service that was cut at various points in the past, like Green Line service beyond East 63rd/Cottage Grove and express bus service on King Drive. The King Drive proposal is notorious because it paints the agency as having bipolar tendencies that would go a long way toward alienating passengers. Riders will not take kindly to services disappearing and reappearing every few years. Unfortunately, the CTA is under the mistaken impression that they are the stars of another live-action adaptation of Brigadoon and they’re apparently okay with that.

Enhanced Bus Service: The CTA has proposed a new crosstown bus route on 83rd Street, in between existing bus routes on 79th Street and 87th Street. At first glance this appears to be a reasonable move considering the two aforementioned routes were ranked 15th and 1st for weekday traffic between 2001-2010 according to my research (this consisted of looking at bus routes that have run consistently and year-round since 2001). 79th Street has almost 33,000 weekday riders while 87th Street has almost 17,000; the question is how much additional demand is there to justify a bus route on 83rd Street. If the issue is one of insufficient capacity then additional buses could be added to 79th Street, but this would admittedly be difficult considering the frequency at which the CTA is currently running buses. Presently westbound buses can have head ways as short as three minutes, and additional buses would have to compete with automobile traffic. Despite these challenges, it would be wiser to improve service on existing corridors than pursuing the creation of new ones. A new bus route on a street with only two traffic lanes means that the buses act as pacing cars for the road; unless cars can get around buses while they are stopped for passengers the speed of all vehicles will be dictated by the need of the bus to travel slow enough to collect passengers. On an east-west street with 16 intersections per mile this speed can be as low as 5 miles per hour which is incredible inefficient from an energy perspective.

79th Street could be improved through the simple act of banning street parking, at least during rush hour so that buses could have unfettered access to the curb. Another solution could be the conversion of 79th Street into a bus rapid transit corridor. All stops could be built as curb extensions so buses would not have to pull over to pick up passengers; private vehicles would be banned during rush hour so buses could have exclusive use of the road. Delivery trucks and vehicles requiring curbside parking could still be allowed. however. There are many more possible implementations, but the primary goal would be to keep 79th Street sufficiently served by transit and eliminate the need for an additional crosstown bus route.

The proposal to restore express bus service on King Drive is quite irritating since all the express bus routes were eliminated during the last service reduction, the justification being that the CTA would save money. Route 3-King Drive was the 6th busiest bus route in terms of average weekday ridership over one month and 7th busiest in terms of total monthly usage according to my analysis. The X3 express route on the other hand only peaked at approximately 3,408 average weekday riders over one month (AWRM) between 2005 and 2009. Express service on King Drive was never popular to begin with, it’s maximum AWRM being only 13% of Route 3-King Drive’s (3,400 versus over 25,470) between 2005 and 2009. The desire to reinstate express service in this corridor is another example of the CTA’s skewed priorities.

Restoring express bus service to Western Avenue would make a lot more sense; average weekday riders over one month (AWRM) peaked at 17,328 on the express route while it was in operation compared to the regular route’s AWRM maximum of 27,456 for the same period. The express route’s maximum AWRM was over 63% of the regular route’s maximum AWRM which makes the decision to eliminate express service on Western Avenue quite hard to comprehend.

Rapid Transit: The CTA is proposing to extend the Green Line East 63rd/Cottage Grove Branch to Dorchester Avenue, which signals another U-turn by the transit agency. This portion of the Green Line was demolished during the renovation between 1994-1996 [1] due to community concerns about blight. The kicker is that the decision to abandon this portion of the line meant that the CTA was forced to forfeit federal funds. Now that they want to restore this portion its a safe bet that the USDOT will not be enthusiastic about federal funding for it. They did provide $384 million for the Cermak Branch of the Blue Line (now the Pink Line) but I maintain that that was done more for political reasons than operational necessity. Jackson Park is a major civic space on the South Side, and its presence is certainly justification for L service. It is quite confusing to hear people cite blight as a reason for demolishing a transit line, as a thorough renovation could have reversed that blight. Just because something is old doesn’t mean you tear it down; if people had followed that philosophy the CTA L would be a puny reminder of better days.

The overall issue is one of necessity: does Woodlawn have enough demand to justify reinstating Green Line service. An elevated transit line would be a large infrastructure improvement that could be replaced with enhanced bus service. Some have posited [2] that the opening of the Dan Ryan Line reduced the utility of the Jackson Park branch, leading to its demolition. This does bring up an important issue: the competition between the Green Line South Side Elevated and the Red Line Dan Ryan Branch. The main advantage that the Dan Ryan Branch has is its reach farther south compared to the Green Line, which means more riders. Having two lines competing for the same passengers is counterproductive; any bus going east stops at the Red Line first which undoubtably siphons off a lot of potential Green Line riders. The Green Line also competes against the South Lakeshore express buses that serve Hyde Park and other neighborhoods. The Metra Electric also serves the lakefront, and does a better job since it runs within a few blocks of the lake making it a lot more convenient; people taking the lakefront buses or Metra Electric do not have to transfer to another route to reach their lakefront destinations in Hyde Park, Woodlawn, or South Shore.

South Shore Trains

South Shore Trains

Bus Rapid Transit: The CTA is proposing a Bus Rapid Transit Corridor on Cottage Grove Avenue as well as 79th Street and Garfield Boulevard. Cottage Grove Avenue is well suited for bus rapid transit due to its generous width of four traffic lanes plus street parking. Unfortunately the analysis of X3-King Drive ridership seems to indicate that there is a lack of interest in express bus service in this corridor. Part of the problem is the presence of lakeshore express buses running from Hyde Park to the Loop. If one is heading all the way downtown from Kenwood, Woodlawn, Hyde Park, or South Shore the lakeshore express buses are a far more logical method of travel since they run express for 47th Street all the way to Roosevelt. Cottage Grove Avenue was served by the X4 Express bus in the past, and its ridership situation strongly mirrored the King Drive buses. The average monthly ridership over one month (AMRM) was about 2,892 from 2007 to the end of service in 2010 while the ridership on the regular 4-Cottage Grove bus was 22,162 over the same period which corresponds almost perfectly to King Drive when it had two buses: express AMRM was 13% of the regular route’s. If the CTA is insistent on bus rapid transit in this corridor, it would be wise to combine the King Drive and Cottage Grove BRT proposals. One possible way of doing this would be to implement a scheme similar to the Michigan Avenue-Indiana scheme where one road handles northbound and the other southbound. The Southbound BRT could run on King Drive and the Northbound BRT could run on Cottage Grove. This would reduce the impact of buses on traffic since only one lane would be used on each road instead of two. The CTA would be wise to explore similar implementations in other heavily used corridors since many Chicago thoroughfares are somewhat narrow (Ashland, Halsted and Broadway come to mind).

Another CTA proposal involves installation of equipment to give the 79th Street bus priority at traffic signals. This is very similar to my aforementioned proposal for BRT on this street. One difficulty that faces Chicago when it comes to implementing an idea like signal pre-emption is the technological lag in many areas. Numerous Chicago traffic signals still use electro-mechanical timers instead of solid state computers with road sensors. Upgrading the traffic signal technology on the major road corridors would be a positive but expensive step; a much cheaper way to speed up buses would be to relocate all bus stops to the side of the intersection past the signal so that buses do not get stuck at signals while discharging passengers. Another step would be to eliminate the acceptance of cash on buses and use farecards exclusively. Farecard machines would be installed at major points of commerce along 79th Street to facilitate this.

Integrating Metra:

Electric Tracks

Another plan involves running Metra trains more frequently in the lakefront Electric corridor and building a new station at 35th Street. There are multiple problems with the viability of such a proposal, mainly the fact that there are already better options for transporting people along the lakefront. The south lakefront express buses make very good time, with speeds approaching 30 miles per hour which rivals the Metra Electric. More importantly, Metra is very labor intensive since trains require an engineer and at least one conductor to collect fares from passengers.

Transforming Metra into a rapid transportation system from a commuter rail system would require a dramatic change in operations. One problem with implementing frequent service (10 to 15 minutes between trains) is the amount of rolling stock that would be required. The specific number of cars would depend on the current passenger demand pattern throughout the day. It could be possible to provide more frequent service with the current fleet by running shorter trains; shorter trains would allow more runs per hour but run the risk of stranding people on the platform for long periods of time due to crowding. There is another problem with shorter trains: longer trains would either have to be assembled when they are needed or kept in a ready state. Permanently assigning some trains to low frequency duty would reduce the number of short trains available for rush hour. This type of situation would be preferred by yard operators since it would cut down on the amount of coupling and switching that has to be done and keep more trains in revenue service.

It would probably be better to simply detach the Metra Electric corridor from the body of Metra and have the CTA assume responsibility for operations. Metra simply doesn’t have the experience of providing service at such high frequency. Implementing a fare card and turnstile system would be very difficult since Metra platforms aren’t really set up for it; a lot of the head houses are quite cramped and would only allow a few turnstiles. Turnstiles did exist in the Metra Electric corridor in the past, but the functioned more as access barriers rather than fare collection devices (tickets were still checked on the train). The CTA would also have to bring back conductors whom they eliminated when switching to one person train operation.

Whatever decisions the CTA makes regarding south lakefront transit, it needs to make sure it doesn’t reverse course after a year and undergo costly dismantling of its latest blunder.

95th and Vincennes

The at-grade crossing

<<Woman Struck by Metra Train on South Side: Tribune>>

<<Woman Struck by Metra Train on South Side: NBC>>

Another fatality involving Metra and a pedestrian occurred on the South Side of Chicago, and one of the possible factors was distracted walking.  A recent article in the Injury Prevention journal [1] found 116 fatalities involving car versus pedestrian or train versus pedestrian between 2004-2011 where headphones played some role.  The study’s authors acknowledge some weaknesses in their methodology, such as “It’s also not clear whether headphones directly caused pedestrians’ injuries, or whether driver fault, alcohol, mental illness or suicidal intent could have contributed to the crashes”.  However, given the current federal government’s push to promote high speed rail and other improvements, enhanced incident tracking and record keeping geared towards injury and deaths involving trains should be undertaken.  A detailed database would be necessary when prioritizing safety improvements along planned improvement corridors.

The crossing at 95th and Vincennes as shown above lacks pedestrian gates that are featured at some level crossings.  While such gates are by no means intended to prevent people from crossing the tracks (it is quite easy to duck underneath them) they do serve to enhance the perception of the crossing as a dangerous area.  Another benefit is preventing people who might be distracted from crossing the tracks even when bells and lights are sounding.  Noise-canceling and sound isolating headphones can be quite effective at rendering people unaware of their surroundings; bumping into a gate can snap people back into reality.  A pedestrian crossing gate could possibly have prevented this tragedy and many others from occurring.  The aforementioned enhanced surveillance of level crossing incidents is needed in order to identify crossings that seem to be prone to incidents of pedestrian risk, intentional or not.

A crossing gate for pedestrians does block someone’s path, but it is still a somewhat passive measure in that people can easily circumvent it by simply walking around it (like cars often do at simple two-gate crossings where the gates only block the approaching lane on either side).  A person routinely walking around such lowered gates as part of their commute could have the instinct to avoid them ingrained in their consciousness.  This behavior in the presence of a pedestrian crossing gate could be circumvented by installing various measures intended to keep people on the sidewalks or paths.  One simple method could involve thick bushes lining the approaches, keeping people from going off the sidewalk.  The gate could be surrounded as well so that circumventing it would require some degree of hassle.  A more direct approach could involve L shaped fences on either side of the sidewalk, one of which could connect to fencing along the railroad right of way.  This would actively prevent pedestrians from getting around the crossing gate.

All of the above measures are no substitute for common sense, but with the proliferation of smart phones and electronic music players instances of distracted walking are surely going to increase.

Placing tracks below-grade to eliminate the threat to pedestrians and vehicles has been done before, Winnetka being a notable example in the Chicago area [2].  In a 25 year period before 1937 there had been 29 fatalities which comes out to an average of slightly over 1 per year.  An unfortunate number, yes, but not necessarily a crisis.  The decision to place the railroad tracks below grade in Winnetka likely had a lot to do with community image and aesthetics—not just pedestrian safety—considering the socioeconomic profile of this particular community.  Concerns about future pedestrian fatalities were not entirely without merit however; today the historic commercial core of the village is bisected by the train tracks.  In Chicago much of the trackage on the North Side of the city is elevated; the South Side on the other hand is a mixed bag.  The crossing at 95th and Vincennes is the first grade crossing heading south on the Rock Island District main line; the entire line north of here is elevated.  The entire length of the Metra Electric main line is elevated while its stub branches are at grade.  In terms of pedestrian and vehicle safety Chicago is in pretty good shape compared to many suburbs where the train runs almost entirely at grade, which makes yesterday’s incident particularly notable.  There are only about twelve or so grade crossings on the Rock Island District Main Line, which is only served by rush hour trains.  This is a somewhat manageable number if safety improvements as described previously were to be enacted.

The fact that the Rock Island District main line is only served during rush hour, with most trains routed via the Suburban line to the west, provides some background into people’s behavior near the main line crossings.  Only seven trains [3] pass through the crossing at 95th and Vincennes before noon, which means that pedestrians and vehicles here wouldn’t be as attuned to the operation of the train as residents to the west.  It’s a matter of conditioning; the more trains that pass through a community, the more conscious people would be of their presence and the necessary safety measures at grade crossings.  In simpler terms: people that cross lightly used lines probably won’t think about them as much.  Crossings like 95th and Vincennes should probably have more safety measures for precisely this reason.

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.