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.

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.


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.


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).

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.

Trenitalia and The Real Possibility for High-Speed Rail in the Midwest

This past Friday at the Midwest High Speed Rail Association’s fall luncheon Marco Stegher, Americas Area Manager for Italferr S.p.A., the international consulting arm of the Italian railway company, discussed the Italian high-speed rail (HSR) network and how its development and successful and continuing implementation could be replicated in the Midwest. Progressively introduced since the 1970s, the Italian HSR network now connects most of Italy’s major cities and is one of the most modern, technologically advanced systems in the world.

If a Midwestern system got built in one fell swoop the costs would easily climb to $80-90 billion. It’s unlikely that money is forthcoming. The U.S. government is unlikely to provide more than $500 billion in total infrastructure spending in the coming years let alone 1/5 of the total transportation spending to one project. Looking at it this way the likelihood of HSR in the Midwest seems like a preposterous proposal. But it need not be so.

Enter the Italians!

Never would I ever have thought we’d look to the Italians for infrastructure inspiration. Within my friend group of Europhiles, the Italian experience remains a running joke, most recently expressed in this quote from a NY Times Magazine posted on Facebook:

In his history “The Italians,” Luigi Barzini writes that one of the basic pleasures Italy reliably provides for visitors is “that of feeling morally superior to the natives.” I sometimes felt this pleasure myself. The inefficiency of the Italian bureaucracy, whether selling you a postage stamp or fixing a street, was often marvelous to behold.

When it comes to HSR though, they’re about the best example we might have to work from.


The Italian HSR network is still growing with a mainline serving Milan, Florence, Rome, and Naples. (Source: wikipedia.org)

In spite of the jokes, the Italian rail system has managed to build an impressive HSR network that is effective, but small compared to the total rail network, and also overcame impressive engineering odds due to terrain and an ancient built environment. Over 320 out of 700 some odd miles of the Italian HSR infrastructure is viaducts, bridges, trenches, and tunnels because of Italy’s mountainous terrain. That is in addition to the need to engineer around centuries old cities and sites. That is a staggering accomplishment to consider. Overcoming this is not what has makes the Italian system such a strong example for the Midwest however.

The Italian network was not built at once. Incrementalism was and continues to be the best path forward for Italian HSR. The approach is simple: build a network that integrates true high-speed rail infrastructure with varying types of conventional rail infrastructure. By not clearly segregating trains by type a greater number of connections can be achieved and travel times can be cut by taking advantage of higher speeds when possible. The network is still incomplete, but the original plans are coming online; meanwhile plans for expansion domestically and internationally continue.

This results in what Stegher calls a “blended network”. It can dramatically improve the passenger rail experience regardless of whether HSR goes directly to a destination or not. For example, the network doesn’t directly connect Rome to Venice, but since the Italian HSR service can run on dedicated infrastructure and conventional rail infrastructure, a significant portion of the journey can be speed up ultimately cutting travel times by 90 to 120 minutes from previous travel times even when trains only run as true HSR (> 150 mph) for a portion of the journey.

In the context of the Midwest, the current Amtrak Empire Builder from Chicago to Minneapolis-St. Paul takes approximately 7 hours, 45 minutes. Even if the only segment of this route to get an upgrade to HSR was the Chicago-Milwaukee segment, that would still bring the trip to under 7 hours. At current average speeds on conventional tracks, a proposed route between Chicago and the Twin Cities via Milwaukee, Madison, and Rochester would take 8 hours. Upgrade just the Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison and Twin Cities-Rochester segments to true HSR and total travel time drops to around 5 hours.


The Midwest High Speed Rail Association envisions a blended network connecting Midwestern cities, with a core express network radiating from Chicago. Current projects including improvements in Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota. (Source: midwesthsr.org)

In total, there are less than 700 miles of dedicated high-speed rail lines in Italy. That constitutes less than 10% of the over 10,000 miles of rails in the country. Yet, this comparatively small network has dramatically changed how Italians move around the country. Since the Milan to Rome route became fully functional roughly 70% percent of trips between the two cities is by train with the other 30% by plane. The proportion used to be reversed almost exactly according to Stegher.

This is truly impressive and it speaks for the ability to develop HSR at a managed yet meaningful rate. According to Stegher, there is real possibility for the Midwest to replicate this. He points out that the region is like Italy in the 1970s when HSR was first planned. The basic infrastructure exists, but there are a variety of challenges: electrification is necessary, but this can happy in cities as part of intracity rail operations. Branding is important as is the purchasing of train sets that can utilize a variety of infrastructure. Indeed, a blended network can be used to increase the speeds of all train types from conventional to regional passenger trains to freight trains.

The ultimate challenge is bringing together the capital and political will. That may be easier said than done, and it’s not even that easy said these days. The upshot of going for a blended network however is that the initial costs are lower since it is more about complete a variety of small projects over time; they’re a gradual means to an end.

Getting the Detroit People Mover Going


After a friend came back from a trip to Detroit we go on the topic of transportation, which led us eventually to one unique, if quirky, piece of transit infrastructure: the Detroit People Mover. Built in 1987, it probably wasn’t the best transit investment in the beginning (let’s face it, it was a shoddy attempt at urban revitalization); and the introduction of the Q-Line street car will pivot the city’s transit priorities in a different direction. It’d be a shame to see the Detroit People Mover go to waste however and be removed like the Sydney Monorail after barely three decades in service. It still posses worth as a piece of the city’s transit infrastructure.

From even casual observation it’s quite clear urban people movers have been a less than successful form of urban transportation. The sheer dearth of systems is evidence enough. On top of that the type service they provide often does little to actually make getting around the cities any easier. Like in Detroit or Jacksonville, another U.S. with a downtown people mover, systems are spatially limited to a core central business district and specifically to sites that would most likely appeal to casual visitors: convention centers, casinos, or stadiums.

Detroit has an opportunity to make its people mover really work for the city. As the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority moves forward with a ballot initiative to fund the construction of a transit master plan–on top of the soon-to-be-open Q-Line streetcar–an integrated, multi-modal network could help bring more use to the People Mover.

True success for the People Mover doesn’t line in how well it connects to other transit modes entirely, but also to what other areas the DPM directly connects riders. That’s what will make it a viable transit system. Although people movers (which are coming into their own as automated subway systems become more common) have limited success, the examples of the Lille Metro, Miami Metromover, and the London Docklands Light Rail show how successful these simple transit systems can be.

What I propose for Detroit is using the people mover, in conjunction with the Q-Line, as the primary downtown transit mode. This means expanding it into the surrounding neighborhoods and also to places that are attractive destinations to visitors and tourists. The DPM will never become the backbone of Detroit’s transit system, but it shouldn’t be left behind as new plans move forward.


The people mover expansion would include approximately 12 miles of new route composed of four extensions from the Downtown loop connecting to Belle Isle, Eastern Market via , Windsor (Downtown, Windsor Viarail, and Windsor University), and (a hopefully refurbished and functional) Michigan Central Terminal. The expansion would cost somewhere in the range of $500 million dollars. This is a very vague estimation however based on the cost of the Miami Metromover and taking into account the inflation rate from 1995 when it was completed, but also recognizing that construction costs in Detroit could be very different. However, the operating costs of the Metromover are rather low and could apparently be covered by a $1 per ride fare, which indicates the recovery on investment could be rather easy.

A key element of my plan is connecting Windsor and Detroit better with the people mover. Part of this is accomplished by building two “international routes”, which would be built with stations modified to account for the complexity of having customs offices essentially all over Downtown Detroit and Windsor. The idea is that the international routes would have limited stops supplemented by more frequently stopping local routes on either side of the boarder. Another option is to use the tap-on, tap-off fare payment method that prevent you from exiting non-customs exits if you entered on the other side of the boarder while allowing riders to enter and exit the system as leisure if they remain on the same side.

The upshot of using the DPM for international mass transportation however is that the automated vehicles remove the need for employees to constantly deal with boarder crossings as well. The only concern would be with passengers. Additional precautions can be made by designing stations so that if passengers end up on the wrong train and thus wrong side of the boarder, they can return hassle free to the appropriate side. Regardless, it would be interesting as an experiment in developing international mass transportation.

Any similar steps are ones in the right direction though. It makes no sense to let the DPM go the way of the Sydney Monorail when it still has potential as part of Detroit-Windsor’s larger transit network.

**A guilty conscience forces me to admit I haven’t been to Detroit in awhile and most of this post is based off conjecture from a brief visit three years ago, what I know from other published sources, and my friend’s account of his trip (for the record he’s an urban planner too). I would absolutely love to know locals thoughts on this, what the general option of the people mover is, transit in Detroit, what I got right, and what I totally got wrong.