Unusually successful experiment: the CTA Yellow Line

The CTA Yellow Line to Skokie was constructed in the 1960s and quickly became a success:

The proposed transit test brought together a unique trio: a federal agency looking to improve transit, a city rail system experimenting with expansion, and a suburb grabbing at the chance to maintain a rail connection to the city. Funding for the concept was split between the three parties—$349,217 came from the Department of Housing and Development, $1,837,415 from the CTA, and $37,193 from the village of Skokie. At the conclusion of a two-year test, the parties would figure out next steps…

After one day, the CTA logged 3,959 riders, and almost immediately added weekend hours. By early 1965, 6,000 riders a day rode the Swift (the CTA estimated that the service removed 1,000 cars a day from the highway). The CTA logged more than 3.5 million rides during the two year test period, and by 1967, the passenger load had grown 170 percent from already-high 1964 numbers, hitting a record high that year of 8,150 riders a day. Chairman DeMent told the Chicago Tribune that it was “a perfect example of how good rapid transit can induce motorists to leave their cars at home.” Not only did the service prove itself, it made a profit of $216,717 on revenues of just under $800,000 in its first two years of operation. At one point, the Feds actually asked for $250,000 of their funding back.

This success didn’t necessarily lead to much change across metropolitan areas:

In short, the experiment wasn’t replicated. As some writers at the time noted, other Chicago suburbs could have set up similar lines, and even had the abandoned rail lines to do it; the Chicago, Aurora, and Elgin Railroad, which ran through western suburbs such as Wheaton and Glen Ellyn, lay dormant beginning in 1961 (to be fair, the line was eventually turned into the Prairie Path, a wildly successful rails-to-trails conversion). In the late ‘60s, Skokie voters rejected a bid to apply for a federal transportation improvement project.

Perhaps most importantly, during a period of highway expansion and urban renewal, the money wasn’t there, and additional capital for building such systems from scratch was hard to come by. Just look at the 1967 federal transportation budget. Of the $5.35 billion spent, only $160 million, or 3 percent, went to transit. As Joe Asher, a writer for Railway Age, wrote in 1968, “the streets and highways of U.S. cities suffer arteriosclerosis, the urban population chokes on auto exhaust, and one downtown after another gets chopped up to make room for new spaghetti-bowls of highways.”

It is hard to convince suburbanites to use mass transit unless it has significant advantages compared to driving. The Yellow Line to Skokie seems to offer such advantages: a relatively short ride with Skokie right outside the city, a big parking lot, and a fast train. But, could this work further out from the city? What if the train was a slower commuter train or a bus? Or, if parking was hard to find in the suburban lot?

Rather than seeing the Yellow Line as a model to follow, perhaps it is difficult to replicate. That does not mean cities shouldn’t attempt similar efforts – we have a good sense of what building more highways leads to – but they should be realistic about what is possible.

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