Chicago absolutely needs CrossRail

Chicago absolutely needs CrossRail. The city in its ambition to be taken more seriously at the international level needs a direct, express rail connection between O’Hare, Union Station, and the South Side. Chicago would be miles ahead of other American cities if such a system were built. In fact, the only comparable system being built at the moment is the Union Pearson Express in Toronto. This connection would put the city on par with places like London; Johannesburg, South Africa; or Oslo, Norway. In a recent column in the Chicago Red Eye, transit columnist Tracy Swartz pondered the need to build such a system. Perhaps a good intentioned effort at playing devil’s advocate, the fact of the matter is Chicago needs CrossRail.

CrossRail Chicago is a campaign, modeled on a project in London of the same name, to build a high-speed, high-quality rail link between Chicago’s Union Station, O’Hare International Airport, the South Side, and McCormack Place running uninterrupted through the city. The project is proposed by the Midwest High-speed Rail Association. Although it is neither part of the Go To 2040 or Transit Future campaign, the project is part of a larger melange of ideas that organizations have presented in the past few years to improve the transit and logistics infrastructure in the city and across the region.

CrossRail Chicago Map

This map shows the CrossRail Chicago project being discussed. It is technically phase one of a much larger effort to bring high-speed rail to the Midwest.

In her consideration of the need for CrossRail Chicago plan, Swartz refers back to former CTA President Ron Huberman’s track improvement program along the Blue Line and his desire to get trains to travel upwards of 70 mph. This is considered a potential alternative to the Midwest HSR plan and one with more widespread and positive outcomes for the Northwest Side of Chicago. Nobody could really challenge how fantastic it would be to see trains on the CTA traveling at speeds 15 mph more than they do (or should) now. This is great thinking on her part, but is also highly unrealistic thinking though. The spacing of stations along any CTA ‘L’ is simply to small to allow for such speeds to be reached, and if possible it would occur for such brief periods as to provide little benefit in the long run. The argument presented in the Red Eye at its root misunderstands the long-term reasoning for CrossRail and really just undercuts the whole effort.

Superficially, CrossRail Chicago would be a service competitive with the CTA’s Blue Line ‘L’ and taxis for passengers traveling between the Loop and O’Hare, and it would be quite competitive to say the least. People arriving at O’Hare now seeking to get into the city via public transit options can choose between the Blue Line and taxis. Taxis cost upwards of $50; while the Blue Line costs $5 for a one-way trip from O’Hare ($2.25 from all other stops) it takes roughly 40 minutes to get into the Loop. Even after the four-year Your New Blue modernization project is done a Blue Line trip calls at all stops and will still take roughly 30 minutes. The express trains along the route proposed for CrossRail would be approximately 20 minutes (perhaps even less) in new trains outfitted specifically for travelers between the Loop and the airport. If it is modeled anything like the Heathrow Express in London, which runs from Paddington Station to Heathrow Airport in 15-20 minutes, riders will pay a premium, but for premium service.

It would certainly help make Chicago a more attractive place to hold conventions, but also help make it a more attractive city for multi-national businesses. The importance of comfortable and convenient international travel shouldn’t be underestimated: in a world where cities, not nations, are competing with each other for influence, the city can’t cut short on positive infrastructure projects. Civic institutions, cultural institutions, infrastructure, and business are all important to the health of a city. Projects like CrossRail build into this combination.

Deutsche Bahn high-speed trains arrive at the spacious and modern Flughafen Bahnhof connecting practically the entire country to one airport.

Deutsche Bahn high-speed trains arrive at the spacious and modern Flughafen Bahnhof connecting practically the entire country to one airport.

And let’s not forget that it would make for much more comfortable rides for everybody too. No longer would travelers have to compete for space with commuters on the ‘L’, nor would commuters have to contend with luggage crammed on cars badly equipped for that. Travelers could then make much easier connections to commuter trains headed south and intercity trains and busses. It not only provides a high-quality option for travelers, but improves alternatives too: the program would require a new station which would likely improve the connections to the airport for people using Metra and the CTA or regional busses.

Most importantly, the project is a major albeit small piece in a larger puzzle aimed at bringing high-speed trains to the Midwest. This is really the impetus behind the whole project; the project really comes down to making sure trains can get into and out of Chicago’s Union Station as easily as possible. This would make Chicago not just comparable to London, but also Frankfurt, which is essentially the airport to all of Germany. The high-speed rail connections available mean air passengers can easily board a train in any part of Germany and get off right at the nation’s primary airport and Lufthansa hub. Chicago could become that for the Midwest. In fact, this would offer travelers even more alternatives. High-speed trains could replace short connecting flights from cities like Madison to Chicago and make travel easier at busy times of year or during inclement weather… which Chicago and the Midwest gets plenty of.

This is the point that is most important to take home about the CrossRail plan. Yes, Swartz makes a good argument for looking into better financing the already existing rail infrastructure in Chicago. The problem is that this is done by questioning the validity of another highly valuable project, one that has the best potential to be a successful public-private partnership; also, it doesn’t address the real issue of underfunded coffers for municipal services, the paper trails to which all ultimately end on LaSalle Street or in Springfield. Projects like this shouldn’t be seen as the problem, rather government ineptitude should get that blame.

The CrossRail proposal on the localized scale in Chicago gets much of its strength by recognizing the city’s importance as a global transportation, business, and convention hub. It builds and expands on that in a way that is trying to position the city’s infrastructure planning thats secures the city’s place in what its good at, hopefully to grow from there. These are the things that should get broad support even when they are just ideas being thrown around.

So, if you were thinking let’s just invest in the Blue Line a whole lot after reading the Red Eye critique remember CrossRail shouldn’t be seen as a hindrance to other projects, but complement it… Chicago needs CrossRail.


The time is right to reform driver’s ed

From every angle America’s driving culture is beginning to falter and in some very succinct ways showing signs of slowing down. After 40 something years of urban growth that supported the expansion of suburbs and highway systems the urban planning community and many municipal governments are beginning to see the error of their ways and move towards more sustainable patterns of growth. This hasn’t been universal, but the trends are certainly showing greater embrace of human environment that are not explicitly car-centric. Indeed, the behaviors of Americans are even beginning to show a shift. Younger Americans are learning to drive later and there are some substantial increases in biking and transit use. Makes me wonder if the time is ripe to reform driver’s education at a national level. Driver’s ed is an institution that is oddly placed in American culture. At one end it plays a significant role in what, for many Americans, is still an important mile stone: learning to drive. But, it definitely sets the tone for how we’ll drive our how life through and reflects our strong driving culture.

Reforming driver’s education in the USA has the potential to radically change the way we move about. Young Americans can very easily get their driver’s licenses by attending what is rather minimal instructional courses beginning before students are 16 years old. That is how it went in my household. My driver’s ed experience was in no means good. In fact, it is amazing that any of the people who went through the process turned into good drivers. The equipment was old and the teachers were in charge of 50 plus students. One class period for example we were responsible for naming things that might be good to have in a car for emergencies. I was probably the 45th person to be asked and despite there being a lot of good things reasonable to have in a car for safety finding 45 individual things is hard. My answer ultimately: fire.

This epitomizes what driver’s ed is like in so many places. It is lackluster and ill-prepares young people for the responsibility to drive. This creates a situation wherein I think Americans generally become bad or irresponsible drivers over the course of their lives. I more often fear drivers walking around the city more than I do the possibility of being the victim of violent crime. This isn’t to say driver’s ed is poor nationwide. Recently Oregon has been lauded for improving standards for driver’s education programs and has seen a decrease in related youth fatalities. In most other places in the USA the first year driving remains one of the most dangerous years of young Americans’ lives.

These experience compare with what a young German goes through to learn to drive. My German exchange brother went through two years of driver’s education course  at costs exceeding €2,000 for example. My siblings and I as well as most of our friends spent little more than one semester in the classroom and certainly less than a few hundred dollars in real costs for the whole process. Germans can begin courses before they’re 16 years old, but have to be 18 to drive. In Germany, this is done for multiple reasons, but primarily to prepare drivers for the road as best possible and discourage young people from driving until they’re a) actually ready or b) absolutely need to learn.

For these last reasons though it appears that now may be the time to seriously begin considering options for reforming driver’s education and licensing laws and requirements to better fit a world where we drive less, but also expect more from those behind the wheel of a car.

First, the sheer lack of any national standards for driver’s education programs demands changing. Standards need to be established. Although Oregon has demonstrated that improvements can come from the state level the lack of national standards puts no pressure on states that are less than progressive in improving something as crucial as driver’s education as a public safety issue. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration does have guidelines, there are not binding however. The programs should receive constant revision and be designed to produce the best possible drivers. Such programs should focus on much more than good driving, rather responsible driving. It should include segments on anger management behind the wheel, respect for other road users as well as cyclists and pedestrians. Programs should look at driving not as the unquestioned means of transportation in the United States, but talk about congestion, why it happens, multi-modal transportation options, and combining cars into a network of mobility options. It should also put a strong emphasis on the civic responsibility that one undertakes to drive safe.

Secondly, I think it is time to push back the minimum driving age for most young Americans. It is understandable to me that a driving age as young as 16 may remain pertinent in some of the country’s more rural locations, however it is unreasonable to argue that all 16 year olds should be granted such a responsibility due to the small segment of them who live in places too rural to see biking or public transit as viable options. I would argue its time to push back the minimum driving age to 18 and the minimum learners permits age to 16, except in cases when people live in areas deemed appropriate to begin learning younger.

Such areas should not include poorly designed areas of suburban sprawl. Part of reforming driver’s eduction should certainly be to encourage more sustainable living arrangements. Sprawl has been proven to be an unhealthy social, economic, and environmental model of living and needs to be systematically tackled. This can be done partially though encouraging more developers and communities to demand better town planning, but also by making the prospects of youth immobility a disincentive to choose to live in sprawling poorly connected places. It is not unfathomable to think that part of the reason sprawl is so reasonable a living arrangement is that we casually grant young people the privilege to drive.

Additionally, it may help equalize some of the ironies of American society. While getting a driver’s license is still a major mile stone for many young Americans and the moment is hyped up in American media it is odd that in this country it is considered reasonable to grant young people the heavy responsibility of driving, but these same young people are considered too immature to watch movies with explicit sexuality, nor are they considered responsible enough to consume alcohol or vote. Granted these laws reflect a complex mix of politics and culture, but such things change as the evidence by the drop in 16 and 17 year olds getting licenses.

Finally, this should all be done not over a semester of a year, but over two or more years. Driver’s education should by no means be a rushed affair. It should be undertaken within a time frame that makes for responsible, prepared drivers.

Ultimately a cultural change is necessary, but possibly already underway. Driving can no longer be seen as a right, but rather a privilege. Much of this change can be approached via driver’s ed using it as a way to 1) make our roads safer 2) save lives and 3) better integrate multi-modal living models into our society. Safer roads are a boon for everybody and seeing a move towards more sustainable living models would be an added bonus and potential result of such changes to driver’s education.

Add Divvy to Ventra and other ideas

The ‘L’, CTA busses, Pace busses,Metra commuter trains, Divvy bikes: getting around Chicago using public transit usually includes a mix of and potentially all of these options. In our interconnected world wherein the ubiquitous smart phone and high-tech communications and payment technologies allow us a number of conveniences like we’ve never seen before. Ventra is a perfect example of this: the much touted new payment system for the CTA and Pace (which still has not expanded to Metra) remains oddly archaic. Although it offers some high-tech potentially for greatness it could be utilized as a tool to not only make Chicago more interconnect, but also provide insight into other means of improving the transit landscape in the region. I think it is easy to forget that it isn’t these high-tech tools alone that are innovative, but how we use them that makes the difference.

The idea of pushing simple, but modern amenities on Ventra was well explained by RedEye CTA columnist Tracy Swartz earlier this week (link). As she points out, the basic functions of Ventra are now working fine although there were certainly glitches while rolling out the system. Additionally, there are clearly missing pieces to the puzzle: there is no Ventra app, debit and credit card users cannot register their cards online to add passes (as of now, if they don’t add a pass at a CTA/Ventra fare machine they will always pay full fare). That’s not to mention one single important factor missing in Ventra: you cannot use it on Metra!

As Chicago Ideas Week roles out we should certainly be thinking about the improvements Swartz mentioned to make Ventra a better fare system, but here are some proposals that while not necessarily high-tech include improving Ventra or were inspired by thinking about the city’s year-old fare payment system:

1) Include Divvy: Not all of us have bikes, and even those of us who do have bikes don’t always have them around when we want to use them. In a truly intermodal city, moving between bikes, cars, trains, cabs, and pedestrian areas should be seamless. Divvy, Chicago’s bike-share system, is just one step close to making such transitions possible. The kicker: moving from one form of transit in Chicago to another consistently requires a new set of fares, different payment systems, and predictably unpredictable rates. An easy solution to make this easier is to include Divvy usage in Ventra passes.

Divvy Bikes

At the moment, rates for Divvy could remain as they are separate from fares for CTA, Metra, and Pace for riders who only plan on using Divvy. The way inclusion of Divvy could work would be to include two CTA/Pace pass options. One option would be with and one without Divvy usage. This should apply one-day, three-day, week, and month passes. To get Divvy use as part of your transit pass you would pay slightly more per pass. Much like you swipe your Ventra card at entrance turnstiles for the ‘L’ and busses you would swipe a reader at Divvy stations to rent a bike. With passes that allow you to use Divvy you would be allowed to rent bikes for an unlimited number of 30 minute periods each. To prevent abuse of the system and overtime charges such passes could only be purchased with credit or debit cards. Any overages on Divvy use would then be charged to that card.

This would certainly help make Divvy more affordable. Although a $7 day pass allows for unlimited 30 minute rides, that cost only makes sense if you plan on using Divvy multiple times a day as a means to save money. For people who might need to make only one or two trips on Divvy over longer periods of time, being able to use it in conjunction with their Ventra cards would add a welcome increase in mobility. Indeed, it may increase the use of Divvy by residents and create a virtuous cycle of making transit and bike use more reasonable.

2) Adopt the A’dam method (and it doesn’t have to do with bikes):

This is a step, again taken from the Dutch, that could change how we use transit in Chicago and operateVentra. The check-in, check-out method requires riders to swipe their card when they enter and exit a mode of transit. While this might not be the best way to do things on the CTA or Pace, it is way of integrating Ventra onto Metra. When riders exit and swipe to check-out the appropriate amount of money is deducted from Ventra based on the zone they checked-in. Turnstiles would prevents riders from never checking in or out and stealing rides. In addition to this, passes could be added that allow riders unlimited rides within a certain period of time on CTA, Pace, and Metra within certain zone limits. This could then be layered with Divvy by offering use of Divvy with each pass option.

3) Fix Fares Zones: Reforming the archaic fare zones that exist in Chicago is necessary to help make these other suggestions work well. Although open fare payment options are proposed for Ventra, which would ease the inconsistencies between fares on each transit method in Chicago. Fares don’t make much sense across transit modes in the region and create unequal transit opportunities across the city.

There should be one rail fare zone that includes all of the Chicago and the suburbs that have ‘L’ stops or are conveniently close to suburbs with them. Within this zone (Zone 1), prices for CTA ‘L’ and Metra trips would be equal as would CTA bus and Pace bus trips. Transfers would be the same as well within this zone.

Metra Fare Zone Map

This makes fares more consistent, equitable, and predictable. The inconsistent and inequitable prices paid currently are well visualized in the map above. Looking at this one can see how a ride on the ‘L’ can get you many of the same places as Metra within Cook County, but for a fraction of the price and with more frequent service.

Take a trip on the Purple Line Express from the Loop to Davis Street in Evanston for example. On the ‘L’, that trip will cost you $2.25 and take 47 minutes. A trip on Metra has time savings of 10 minutes on the Union Pacific North, but that costs $4.25 however. The same thing happens on the South Side. Metra riders pay significantly more for a one way ticket along routes that run as far south and parallel to the Red Line. End this by making fares zones that facilitate and encourage intermodal and intersystem transfers.

Madrid Metro Fair Zone Map

Berlin Transit Fare Zone Map

It would also make the system significantly more in tune with other major cities that have subways and commuter rails systems. As the transit and fare zone maps of Berlin and Madrid above show the central city and bulk of the metro systems stay within one fare zone and it is more or less the outlying regions served mostly by commuter rail that fall into continued zones.

Innovation isn’t always restricted to high-tech solutions and we can’t necessarily think that it will come packaged as a silver bullet. But looking at what is available in Chicago, what happens in other cities, and thinking about what will make transit more convenient should be included in our sense of innovation. Now that Ventra has been in use for a year it allows us to look at what is working and what could be done differently. Yes, an app is necessary, it should have been developed from the start. The same goes for actual open fare payment systems. But, an examination of Ventra allows for broader thinking on how to improve fare collections, intermodal transfers, and intermodal cooperation as a whole and think outside the box on innovations within our transit systems.

Petition and opposition to the Illiana Tollway


The pressure is on for both sides of the fight surrounding the proposed Illiana Expressway in the FAR south suburbs of Chicago to garner enough votes to determine whether it will ultimately be included in the updated draft of the Go To 2040 regional plan for Chicago and the six counties in Chicagoland. Up until a few days ago two voting entities, the CMAP Board and the MPO Policy Committee were scheduled to hold simultaneous meeting and vote on the updated plan and the inclusion of the Illiana Expressway October 8. Crain’s Chicago recently reported that the MPO Policy Committee, chaired by Acting Secretary for IDOT Erica Borggren and Illiana supporter was moved to October 9. It is still officially unclear what the change was made, however it can presumed the change was made, because it is more difficult to go to two meetings.

Opponents of the Illiana have been putting up a strong fight in spite of support for the project by Gov. Pat Quinn and IDOT. The project has been voted one of the 11 biggest highway boondoggles by U.S. PIRG and the Environmental Law & Policy Centered sued in federal court to give the CMAP Board (which is generally opposed to the Illiana) the final say over the project, which would nullify the opinion of the MPO Policy Committee (chaired by Borggren and supportive of the Illiana).

It goes without saying I am fully opposed to the Illiana. It is an incredibly unsustainable project and fails to meet any criteria necessary for it to hit the triple bottom line of sustainability (economically, socially, and environmentally). The project has failed to gain the support of regional leaders including Cook County President Toni Preckwinckle and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, local organizations like the Active Transportation Alliance and the Center for Neighborhood Technologies, and even national organizations like the Sierra Club and Openlands. It is only supported by short-sighted state policy makers who continuously support investments in highways despite downwards driving trends and the other needs of the region.

As of now I endorse any leader and group that votes against including the Illiana Expressway in the Go To 2040 plan or expresses opposition to this project.

In hopes of creating a stronger voice against the Illiana expressway proposal I am also starting a PETITION against the project.

If you are opposed to the project please take the time to write letters to your County Commissioner or county governments, municipal leaders, the CMAP Board, Governor Pat Quinn, IDOT, and IDOT Acting Secretary Erica Borggren to express your opposition to this unwise project.