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Morning Commute Feeling More Crowded? Blue Line Sees Explosive Growth, Data Show

The California stop is seeing twice as many morning riders compared with 2002, and growth elsewhere on Blue Line’s O’Hare branch is far above average.

Above Photo: Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune

It’s not just you. Blue Line trains along the O’Hare branch are getting more crowded during morning rush hour.

Uber and Lyft have chipped away at CTA ridership overall in the last few years, but morning rush hour use (between 6 a.m. and 11 a.m.) has increased 13 percent across all stations since 2002, according to a Chicago analysis of CTA data acquired through a Freedom of Information Act request. Northwest Side stations have seen the highest rates of growth.

Six of the top 10 stations with the biggest increase in morning rush hour use are along the northern branch of the Blue Line, including all stations between Belmont and Damen.

The California/Milwaukee and Logan Square stations saw the greatest ridership growth (in terms of number of riders) of any L stop between 2002 and 2017, the data show. There were an average of 1,600 more people going through each of the two stations on a weekday in July 2017 compared with July 2002—that’s a growth rate of nearly 110 percent at the California station.

The 10 stations with the biggest growth in ridership during morning rush hour (6 a.m. to 11 a.m.) since 2002

Station

Average July 2002 Weekday

Average July 2017 Weekday

Change in Riders

Percentage Change

California/Milwaukee (Blue)

1502.5

3135.7

1633.1

109%

Logan Square (Blue)

2524.6

4137.3

1612.7

64%

Lake/State (Red)

1549.0

2881.8

1332.7

86%

Western/Milwaukee (Blue)

1731.7

3033.6

1301.8

75%

Roosevelt (Red/Green/Orange)

1722.8

2988.7

1265.9

73%

Belmont-North Main (Red/Brown/Purple)

4192.6

5370.2

1177.6

28%

Division/Milwaukee (Blue)

1971.2

 

3032.4

1061.3

54%

O’Hare Airport (Blue)

1339.2

2117.6

778.4

58%

Damen/Milwaukee (Blue)

2378.3

3075.9

697.6

29%

Belmont-O’Hare (Blue)

2028.3

2684.0

655.7

32%

All Stations

164218.2

186004.3

21786.2

13%

At the center of this public transit commuter boom is Logan Square. Several large residential projects, including one at 11 and 15 stories tall, have sprung up near the intersection of California and Milwaukee Avenues since the “transit-oriented development" ordinance passed in 2015. (The law incentivizes developers to construct housing near CTA and Metra rail stations by allowing taller and denser projects that require fewer parking spaces than buildings not located near rail stations.)

Logan Square could get yet another massive TOD, if a recent proposal comes to fruition. The plan, which surfaced in October, calls for a large mixed-use project at 2525 North Kedzie Boulevard, about 600 feet from the Logan Square L station. Unlike similar proposals, which typically start with a developer approaching a local alderman, this proposal is being driven by the CTA, which owns the building. The agency sees the 43,154-square-foot site as a “prime transit-oriented development opportunity in the heart” of Logan Square, officials wrote in a document soliciting development proposals. A development is expected to be approved by February.

Commuters wait for the Blue Line headed toward the Loop at the California stop on a recent morning Photo: Mina Bloom

Depending on who you ask, this kind of growth is good or bad. TOD proponents say the growth is a win, especially during a time when CTA ridership is down citywide (mostly because of lagging bus ridership). Commuters, however, are becoming increasingly frustrated by the packed trains and fear more development will only exacerbate the problem.

“The first year I lived here, I’d be one of five people to get off the train [at California]. It was always busy at Damen. Now it’s here,” says Erica Henry, 34, who has been getting on the train at California for eight years.

Other passengers, like Carrie Burnett, 32, place at least partial blame on the TOD projects.

“I think it has a lot to do with TOD. They’re great and all, but it seems like the CTA isn’t really doing anything to keep up with the increase of people,” Burnett says.

So why is CTA pushing a brand-new TOD in an area where passengers say overcrowding is already a problem? 

First, it’s a revenue opportunity for the agency, which recently proposed to increase fares after a decrease in state funding. "The revenue we can raise from sources other than fares is invested back into increased service, benefiting customers,” said CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase in a statement. "We believe it’s equally important to be a catalyst for transit-oriented development, which creates jobs and increases the vitality of a neighborhood.”

She noted that the CTA’s ongoing Your New Blue project (launched in 2014) has upgraded some of the O’Hare branch’s stations, tracks, signals, and power supply, with the aim of making service faster and more reliable. Though there are no plans to increase the number of cars running during rush hour, the agency is focusing on how it spreads out trains during rush hour and plans to introduce new, upgraded train cars on the Blue Line within the next few years.

Logan Square isn’t actually growing—it’s just changing. From 2000 to 2014, the neighborhood’s total population dropped by 8,660 people, according to the most recently available U.S. Census data. During that same period, the white population in the neighborhood increased by 47.6 percent while the Hispanic population decreased by 35.6 percent, the largest loss of Hispanic residents in any of the city’s neighborhoods, according to the data.

New residents are simply taking the train more, and developers are taking notice, including Enrico Plati, the developer behind The Savoy, a 138-unit “micro-apartment” project being built at 2342-48 North California Avenue.

“It’s a positive—not a negative—to build more properties along the CTA rail,” Plati says. “I would say my development is going to create demand that I’m sure the city will be able to meet.”

Alderman Joe Moreno, a big proponent of TOD projects, especially along the Milwaukee Avenue corridor, characterizes the growth this way: “It’s a good problem to have, but it’s still a problem that we need to solve.”

Moreno’s opinion is shared by DePaul University transportation expert Joseph Schwieterman, who says so long as existing CTA services are at a minimum maintained, development should continue. He points out that CTA is contending with budgetary issues where the focus is on preserving routes and avoiding cuts while foregoing major new construction.

“I personally don’t think you stop the development because rush hour is extremely crowded, but that is a downside,” Schwieterman says. “You don’t stop TOD for that reason, but you have to attend to the sardine can conditions that have become common at rush hour.”

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