Substantial “transit deserts” in the Chicago region

A new report is critical of the state of mass transit in the Chicago metropolitan region:

Even major suburban job centers, such as the bustling I-90 Corridor from O’Hare to Schaumburg; the crowded Oak Brook area and booming Naperville, “are not well-served by transit,” and most jobs in the region cannot be reached in even a 90-minute commute, the analysis found.

The current system stands no chance of meeting the goal of doubling transit use by 2040 and “must be refocused with customer satisfaction as the primary objective,” according to the draft report prepared for the Northeastern Illinois Transit Task Force.

At the same time, there is little coordination of planning between the CTA, Metra and Pace, the report says.

The 15-member task force was created by Gov. Pat Quinn last August to reform the transit system after the controversy erupted over the awarding of ousted Metra CEO Alex Clifford a severance package potentially worth $817,000.

A few quick thoughts:

1. I like this term “transit deserts.” It implies that mass transit is a public good that many or all residents should be able to access.

2. Coordination across these transit groups would be helpful. But, this is a legacy of Illinois’ penchant for multiple government bodies. What is the motivation for each group to work together – and possibly sacrifice something – when they don’t have to and have separate pots of money?

3. The overall issue is also a legacy of the region’s development along railroad lines that radiated out of the city. The first railroad was constructed in the late 1840s and by the 1860s there was a strong network of rail connections. You can see this on the Metra System Map today. While this system was good for funneling people and goods back and forth from Chicago (a hub and spoke model with Chicago as the hub), it doesn’t provide connections across suburbs. This sort of intra-suburb infrastructure was not built when suburban development picked up in the early to mid 1900s and the opportunity was lost. Occasional plans still float around: see the Metra Star Line that would connect three major job centers, Aurora, Naperville, and Hoffman Estates, and O’Hare along a beltway rail line.

4. The major goal of “customer satisfaction” sounds interesting. While I don’t know what other goals were considered, it can take significant efforts to get suburbanites to warm up to the idea of mass transit. It might mean wealthier suburbanites give up driving, a task that can be onerous in Chicago traffic but an option that provides more perceived independence. It might mean suburban communities have to deal with more rail traffic – this has been an issue in past years with using the tracks that the Metra Star Line would run on – which means more delays for at-grade crossings (of which the Chicago region has many). It means making trains and buses and other options both convenient, comfortable, and relatively cheap, a difficult task in sprawling suburbs.

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