Transit of Tomorrow

The Future of Transportation in Chicago

Airplanes on the lake, a bike superskyway, trains galore—and more bold ideas to reimagine how you get around the city.

W hen it comes to the future of Chicago transit, Chrissy Mancini Nichols, a director at the Metropolitan Planning Council, has a rather modest desire: “If you’re riding the Brown Line, it doesn’t just sit and lurch.”

That doesn’t seem too much to ask—until you consider how cash starved the city’s transit system is. In a report released this year, analysts from Nichols’s nonpartisan group, which pushes for civic progress, stated that the Chicago metropolitan area provided only $790 million for new vehicles and track extensions in 2011. That’s 25 percent less than in 1991—after being adjusted for inflation. Of major U.S. cities, only Atlanta had a bigger dip in funding.

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And when the city does pony up money for new projects, glitches always seem to happen. In June, the Chicago Department of Transportation announced that its heralded new bus rapid transit line in the Loop will have to wait until next year as the city haggles with downtown business owners over lane reconstruction. That was on the heels of its other planned bus rapid transit line, along Ashland Avenue, meeting fierce opposition from local aldermen over its lack of left-turn lanes. Even the 606, the long-awaited elevated pedestrian/bike trail in Bucktown, won’t open until 2015 now, due to construction delays caused by the polar vortex. It’s as if a guy named Murphy is running the department.

But for a moment, let’s forget about today’s budget constraints and political kerfuffles and think long term. Just as frustrations with transportation in this city seem to be mounting, several ambitious plans proposed by Chicago urban planners, architects, and transportation advocates have bubbled up. Some are realistic. Others are more idealistic. But they all have one thing in common: the goal of dramatically reshaping how people in this city get around.

 

1. Expand the El Lines

Future el map
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Hover over or tap the plus signs for details on each part of the proposal.

What if you could whiz from Millennium Park to the University of Chicago without getting in your car? Or speed from the North Side to O’Hare without having to schlep down to the Loop to transfer to a different train line? That’s the dream of Transit Future, a campaign that the civic group Active Transportation Alliance launched in April with the Center for Neighborhood Technology, an advocate of sustainable urban communities.

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The most eye-catching changes proposed in the ambitious plan (and the most welcome for West and South Side residents) are three additional lines: a north-south Lime Line along Cicero Avenue linking the West Side neighborhoods; a South Lakefront Service, which would use existing idle track running from the Loop to Hyde Park to connect Chicagoans to 50,000 jobs on the South Side (and South Siders to everything north of Roosevelt); and a shuttle connecting O’Hare and Midway Airports. Beyond that, each of the existing lines would get upgrades and extensions (hello, 130th Street and Westfield Old Orchard).

The city could never afford to do all that, you say? Transit Future has already worked out funding based on a similar proposal being implemented in Los Angeles. If Cook County were to raise its sales tax by half a penny, the $20 billion increase in annual revenue would pay for all expansions and then some.

Chances this ever happens: Unlikely. Lines connecting the West and South Sides have been discussed for years, and raising Cook County’s 9.25 percent sales tax—already one of the country’s highest—would be political suicide.

 

2. Divvy Up Lake Shore Drive

 

As many as 155,000 vehicles clog North Lake Shore Drive every day. That’s why the Active Transportation Alliance partnered with 15 local civic groups to craft a plan to give travelers their own Drive: Those who now ride the bus would use a new light rail line running down the median, drivers would have two lanes in each direction, and bikers would get a special trail on the lakefront path. The train would stop every half mile from Hollywood Avenue to Oak Street, ferrying an expected 69,000-plus commuters to and from the Mag Mile each day (stops would continue every quarter mile along Michigan Avenue).

The group also wants more pedestrian access points to the lakefront to reduce foot traffic at major exits such as Belmont and Lawrence. One added bonus for drivers: The plan includes a few new exits, including Addison (you’re welcome, Cub fans). There’s no cost estimate for the plan, but the Illinois Department of Transportation says overhauling the Drive would be “hundreds of millions” of dollars.

Chances this ever happens: Likely. The Illinois Department of Transportation needs to overhaul Lake Shore Drive anyway (built in 1937, it has never been seriously upgraded), and IDOT is already hosting public hearings on this and other proposals.

 

3. Build a Bicycle Superskyway

Imagine a network of elevated bike paths crisscrossing the city that would let cyclists ride in peace, freed from the worry of getting slowed by traffic or doored by a cab and able to enjoy a bird’s-eye view of neighborhoods from Logan Square to Pilsen. The city has a head start on the infrastructure: about 20 miles of unused railroad tracks, according to Metra transportation specialist Dan Miodonski. He proposed the idea while a student at UIC’s College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, and after the city announced its plan for the 606, the 2.7-mile elevated bike and walking trail under construction on the Northwest Side. Converting more tracks could cost up to $30 million per mile, or $600 million, based on the 606 model.

Chances this ever happens: Likely. The 606 has already been hailed as Chicago’s version of New York’s High Line, so the excitement gives the mayor a good incentive to expand it.

4. Blanket the City with Bus Rapid Transit

 

Forget new train lines, some transit visionaries say. It would be cheaper to upgrade the city’s major bus routes to a rail-imitating bus service already used selectively in New York and Canada. It would work just like the el: You’d swipe your Ventra card at a station and wait for the bus to arrive, then relax and enjoy a dedicated lane and green lights all the way (traffic signals would be synchronized). Chicago has already stuck its toe in the BRT waters: In 2012, the city launched the Jeffery Jump, an express bus service from the Loop to 103rd Street via Jeffery Avenue. The mayor is pushing for a 16-mile route along Ashland Avenue next, followed by one that would circle the Loop.

While the Emanuel administration has proposed only two BRT lines, proponents such as John Greenfield, the editor of Streetsblog Chicago, and Philip Enquist, a partner at urban planning firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, advocate transforming two dozen major thoroughfares—running both east-west (including Irving Park Road, North Avenue, and 79th and 95th Streets) and north-south (California, Western, and Cicero Avenues)—about one every mile in each direction. “[Public] transit will become a much more attractive alternative to driving when you can actually get places as fast as driving,” says Enquist. Consider Ottawa, which installed BRT in 1983 and saw ridership skyrocket to 96 million annually, the highest in North America. And it’s relatively economical: BRT lanes cost about $13 million per mile to build, according to the Metropolitan Planning Council, far less than $100 million per mile for new el trains. Converting all those thoroughfares would end up close to $2.5 billion.

Chances this ever happens: Very unlikely. Aldermen already object to the proposed Ashland and Loop routes because they limit left turns for cars. Good luck getting 22 more lines.

 

5. Resurrect the Street Car

Don’t worry, you won’t soon see screeching trolleys with their clanging bells, like the ones that plied the streets of Chicago until the 1950s. Now winding through Paris and Germany are ultrasleek, whisper-quiet electric trains that can hold up to 300 people. Chicago Streetcar Renaissance, an advocacy group headed by architect John Krause, wants to roll those out here, too. They would replace the routes of overcongested bus lines (say, the No. 22 along Clark Street). Stations would be about every third of a mile, and you could go from Daley Plaza to Wrigley Field in 20 minutes.

Krause imagines several lines throughout the city: an 11-mile line on Lake Shore Drive from Loyola University to McCormick Place; a SuperLoop circulator connecting Navy Pier, the Merchandise Mart, and the Museum Campus; and an 11-mile line from Lincoln Park Zoo to Hyde Park. All told, the cost would be about $59 million per mile, or $1.6 billion for all three lines.

Chances this ever happens: Not likely anytime soon. The city wants to build out its bus rapid transit system first.

6. Transform Union Station into Grand Central

New York has Grand Central. London has King’s Cross. Gabe Klein, the former head of the Chicago Department of Transportation, doesn’t see any reason Union Station can’t be on par with them—and wants to consolidate the massive number of trains going into the Loop each day.

In 2011, Klein’s office at CDOT issued a proposal for a brand-new complex on South Riverside Street that would blow out Union Station to a four-level superhub, expanding Amtrak and Metra lines to handle 420 trains per day by 2040 (up from 300 now) and offering express bus service to Ogilvie Transportation Center. The hub would also connect to new el lines, either by rerouting the Red Line or splitting from the Clinton Street station on the Blue Line. Voilà! No more wandering out in the snow to get from Metra to the el.

The proposal also calls for opening up thousands of square feet of commercial space for shops, bars, and other hallmarks of destination train stations. If everything makes it in, the remodeled hub would cost upward of $4 billion and be called the Union Station Transportation Center. (Note to CDOT: Work on a better name!)

Chances this ever happens: Unlikely. Versions of this plan go back more than a decade, and commuters still have to schlep to the Red Line.

7. Turn Lake Michigan into a Giant Runway

James Price Chuck, a Chicago entrepreneur and real-estate developer, was jogging along Lake Michigan in 2012 when he saw an old plane swooping over the water. Having lobbied for seaplane projects in Croatia and Montenegro, where he once worked, he recognized an opportunity. He did some research and found that Navy Pier has several distinct advantages for seaplanes: Its northern edge is mostly vacant, its proximity to the Chicago River’s breakwater system keeps the surrounding waters fairly calm, and it’s within 400 miles of three dozen big cities.

If he can score the support of City Hall, he aims to build a new dock at Navy Pier (cost: $100,000) and launch a private venture that would run nine-seat aircraft on daily routes to St. Louis, Indianapolis, and other nearby cities (think 75-minute trips to Springfield for little more than $200 each way). The planes he’d use are amphibious, meaning they can land on regular airstrips—so if you needed to get from Streeterville to O’Hare in five minutes flat, this would be your connection. A sure-fire crowd pleaser for the 1 percent set.

Chances this ever happens: Very likely. If Alderman Brendan Reilly (42nd Ward) signs off, Chuck hopes to start service by April 2015.

Top photo: Thomas Harlow; Illustrations: Colin Hayes

 

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