A Challenge to Chicago: Increase Transit Ridership Before System Expansion

Before expansions of Chicago’s rapid transit system occur I propose a challenge: increase ridership to the level of peer cities first; Chicago’s transit system is punching far below its weight. In an ideal world, the system would be expanding. But resources are needed to do that. One of the best ways to get more of that is through riders. It’s a simple solution, and Chicago needs to get its act together.

Chicago, Berlin, and Barcelona are ideal cities to compare. Each city have comparable populations and densities, they’re all major cultural and economic centers, and they all have similarly sized metro system each within larger multi-model framework. The largest of the three metro systems (size is system length in kilometers) is Chicago’s ‘L’ at 165 km followed by Berlin’s U-Bahn at 151 km and Barcelona’s Metro at 146 km. The marked difference is the number of trips on each system. Berlin’s U-Bahn and Barcelona’s Metro respectively see 517.4 and 416.2 million trips annually. Chicago’s ‘L’ only sees 238 million trips annually. That’s fare less than half Berlin.

CITY CIT POP URBAN POP CITY DENSITY SYSTEM LENGTH (km) STATION COUNT ANNUAL RIDERSHIP
CHICAGO 2.72 million (2015 est.) 9.55 million 4,447/km2 165.4 km (102.8 miles) 145 238.1 million (2014)
BERLIN 3.61 million 5.87 million 4,000/km2 151.7 km (94.2 miles) 173 517.4 million (2014)
BARCELONA 1.6 million 4.74 million 16,000/km2 146 km (91 miles) 180 416.2 million (2014)

This is a huge problem for a simple reason: in relation to its size, the ‘L’ is getting too few riders to properly pay for itself (or expansion and improvement). Theoretically, if each of these systems cost the same to operate and riders pay the same fares, then the larger system in Chicago costs more per rider for the basic reason that fewer riders share these costs. It also means more subsidies are needed for operations, rather than going towards capital projects.

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The Berlin U-Bahn (Line U1) crosses the Spree River with the Fernsehturm in the background. This is a former crossing between East and West Berlin. (Source: Getty Images)

Dig in and the numbers are more revealing. Using a basic single-ride fare x number of rides annually to calculate and gauge potential revenue from fares on each metro system Chicago only makes $535 million a year on fares. Berlin, where a single trip costs $1.85 (€1.70), fares would generate $957.2 million annually. In Barcelona, fares would generate $978 million annually at $2.35 (€2.15) per trip. To get to these revenue levels, a single trip on the ‘L’ would need to cost something like $4 (possibly more). That’s unless more people ride the ‘L’. If it saw as many riders as the Barcelona Metro, the system would generate $936.4 million from fares; at the ridership levels of the Berlin U-Bahn it would generate $1.16 billion from fares.

The CTA’s total operating expenses in 2014 were $1.3 billion. That’s just a little context.

This basic calculation doesn’t express the actuality of how transit systems are funded however. It is of course more complex. Reduced and subsidized fares, advertising and other revenue all affect  funding calculations. Total CTA fares (bus and ‘L’) brought in about $575.1 million dollars in 2014. According to my calculation, that’s how much the CTA should make just from fares from ‘L’ trips. Obviously, my equation doesn’t take into account the above variables or transfers. What is terribly obvious however is that the CTA is on the loosing end of its (comparatively) low ridership and the math related to revenue generated from fares.

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Riders wait for a train on the Barcelona Metro. (Source: alamy.com)

The upshot is opportunity exists to increase ridership without making huge investments in expansion. Indeed, even at current service levels there is room for growth. Anecdotally speaking more people can fit onto most CTA trains and buses at all hours. Rarely do I find myself actually on a full train and the goal should be changing that first, then expansion.

The solutions I propose aim to be within the realm of political and fiscal probability and are listed from easiest to most difficult to implement.

  • Fare Integration: All the transit providers in Chicagoland need to (finally) implement (real) fare integration and abandon the superficial program that currently exists. One means to achieve this is reorganizing the Metra fare zones so fares are compatible between Metra, the ‘L’, and buses; installing tap-on, tap-off turnstiles allows passengers to use Ventra cards on all service types.
  • Divvy Integration/Improved Bike Facilities: The last-mile can deter people from transit since it doesn’t often directly reach people’s final destination. Integrating Divvy into fares is vital to getting people that last mile. While Divvy docks aren’t ubiquitous, they offer one useful option. A single-ride on Divvy should be integrated into single-ride fares as a transfer option. Unlimited ride tickets should included Divvy usage as well. Single-rides on Divvy should be equitable to a transit ride as well. Additionally, numerous ‘L’ and Metra stations lack enough bike racks to encourage biking. Often, racks are full, people are forced to lock bikes to sign poles and trees (blocking sidewalks), or bike racks are in low visibility areas, leaving bikes prone to theft.
  • Zoning (A Friend): Look at land use around transit stops in Chicago and it’s obvious why people don’t use transit: too few people live or work near it. Even in neighborhoods with dense populations, there are gaps in the system where instead of dense offices and housing adjacent to transit there are surface parking lots, strip malls, and drive-thru restaurants. Chicago’s Transit Oriented Development ordinance (TOD) is a step to correcting this, but that program needs to be reinforced with ordinances that don’t just promote TOD, but outright ban undesirable types of development. Within TOD zones, transit unfriendly developments like strip-malls and drive-thru’s should be banned; and where they exist Aldermen and the Department of Planning and Development should encourage redevelopment as TOD through the use of eminent domain (for underused property) or RFPs/RFDs (Requests for Proposals/Development).
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The new Whole Foods development in Englewood is in a suburban style strip mall. It is only a half block form the Halsted Green Line. It is a 10 minute walk from the 63rd Red Line.

 

  • Invest in Transfers: One unfortunate element of the region’s transit network is the inability to transfer often and easily. Major investments are needed in new transfer stations, especially between Metra and the ‘L’. Currently, there are only two stations where riders can transfer between the two systems–Oak Park and Jefferson Park–and two between Metra Lines–Western and Clybourn. Transfers should occur in the same facility, and not force people to walk between facilities with no way finding and exposed to the elements. This must change. Investments in station facilities improve riders ability to transfer modes and bring more ridership potential to communities. Points where this is a possibility include:
    • Main Street-Evanston (Purple Line, UP North)
      • Combine existing facilities
    • Mayfair/Montrose on the Northwest Side (Blue Line, MD North, possibly UP Northwest)
      • Build new connecting facility, add station for UP Northwest, upgrade MD North Facilities
    • Davis Street-Evanston (Purple Line, UP North)
      • Combine existing facilities
    • Ashland (Metra UP West, MD North, MD West, North Central Service, possible Ashland BRT)
      • New station
    • Montrose/North Center and Irving Park/North Center (Brown Line, UP North)
      • New stations
    • Kedzie/Little Village (Pink Line, Metra BNSF)
      • New station combined with existing facility
    • Northwest Highway/Des Plaines (North Central Service, UP Northwest)
      • New station
    • Ashland (Orange Line, Heritage Corridor, possible Ashland BRT)
      • New station combined with existing facility
    • Halsted/Bridgeport (Orange Line, Heritage Corridor)
      • New station combined with existing facility
    • Cermak/Chinatown (Red Line, Rock Island District)
      • New station combined with existing facility
    • Blue Island-new ‘Union Station’ (Rock Island District, Metra Electric)
      • New ‘Union Station’, single station facility for all trains through Blue Island
    • New Lenox (Rock Island District, Southwest Service)
      • Move existing station and build as new transfer station
  • Increase Metra Service: Although I didn’t include commuter rail in my calculations, increasing Metra service is a cheaper alternative to building ‘L’ lines. The infrastructure already exists. The key is making this increase along with other improvements. Metra mustn’t necessarily increase service system wide either. The North Central Service, for example, might not support more service beyond it’s O’Hare station, but increased runs might make it a good option for people going to the Loop, thus increase service just between the O’Hare Transfer and Union Station. This also serves more densely population Northwest Side neighborhoods with less transit access. Another well-discussed and obvious candidate for service increase is the Metra Electric.

These are simple proposals. Some cost more than others, but they’re not radical. They’re proven to make travel on transit more comfortable, convenient, and seamless. The only thing that is radical about this is the needed political will to implement it. That often is missing or undercut by competing interest. To improve transit in Chicagoland a concerted effort needs to be made to increase ridership within the existing service and infrastructure and take advantage of the gains made by increased revenue from fares. Then let’s get to those big extensions. There is nothing that says a system the size of Chicago’s should have the low ridership it does.