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.

The unfinished “concrete bathtub” Block 37 CTA station

Here is an inside look at the partly completed Block 37 CTA station that was once intended to be home to express service to both Chicago airports:

The superstation, which was mothballed in 2008, runs on a diagonal from beneath the corner of Randolph and Dearborn streets, southeast to the corner of State and Washington streets. I’m not supposed to say how you access the space — security concerns, you know — but let’s just say that a variety of elevators, locked doors and ladders are involved.What’s striking once you get in the space is its size: as long as a football field-and-a-half (472 feet), 68 feet wide and averaging 28 feet high. Call it a concrete bathtub — or an “envelope,” as our tour guide, Chicago Transit Authority Chief Infrastructure Officer Chris Bushell, put it — with rows of support pillars receding into the dim far distance. And all completely unlit, except for some temporary light strung up on the mezzanine and the portable lights we brought along…

The money needed for express train service, likely in the billions, never was obtained. And any private-sector interest melted away when the economy entered its worst downturn in many decades in the late 2000s. So, the city stopped after completing the shell and built no more.

By that time, though, City Hall had spent $218 million — $171 million of CTA bonds, $42 million in tax-increment financing and $5 million from outside grants, the CTA says. And to make the station useable — to connect the tracks, build the escalators, attach all of the needed electrical and plumbing to the outlets — will take an additional $150 million or so, the CTA says.

It’s too bad the city won’t say what they envision doing with this space. Just how long will it stay empty? Because of this, I’m a little surprised Chicago was willing to show reporters exactly what they built. Not only was several hundred million spent, the city still does not have any faster train service to the airports. All together, this is not exactly a shining moment in Chicago infrastructure.

Unscientific survey results of the day: CTA riders supposedly split on new seating arrangement

The Chicago Tribune had a story on the front page of its website a day ago that says Chicago residents are split on the new seating arrangements in new CTA cars. Unfortunately, the story has a fatal flaw: it is based on an unscientific poll.

The aisle-facing, bucket-style seats on the new CTA rail cars have prompted strong reactions among riders — though evenly split pro and con, an unscientific survey suggests.

More than 2,500 people participated in the online poll conducted this month by the Active Transportation Alliance, a Chicago-area group that promotes safe transportation, bicycle use and other alternatives to automobiles.

Forty-nine percent said they would prefer New York-style benches with no defined separation between passengers instead of the individual “scoop” seats that are on the CTA’s new 5000 Series rail cars, the Active Transportation Alliance reported.

Forty-eight percent of respondents said they prefer the scoop, or bucket-style, seats, and 3 percent said they had no preference, the poll found.

“While the poll results are unscientific and it was nearly a draw, one clear conclusion is that transit riders have strong opinions when it comes to issues of comfort and convenience,” said Lee Crandell, director of campaigns for the Active Transportation Alliance. “We’ve shared the results with the CTA and encouraged the agency to always seek input from the transit riders about significant changes to the system.”

While the newspaper perhaps should get some credit for acknowledging in the first paragraph that this was an unscientific poll, it then makes no sense to base the story on this information. One could talk about some divergent opinions on the seats without having to rely on an unscientific poll. Why not interview a few riders in the “man-on-the-street” style newspapers like? Should the CTA listen to those poll results provided by the Active Transportation Alliance? No – they suggest at least a few people don’t like the new seats but they aren’t necessarily a large number or a majority. In the end, I find this to be irresponsible. This poll tells us little about anything and even with the early disclaimer, is likely to confuse some readers.

I also think this story will blow over soon enough. New York riders seem to have done just fine with these seating arrangements and Chicago riders will get used to them as well.

The CTA makes it official: will sell naming rights to almost anything

This has been in the works for a while (particularly with the revamped Apple stop at North and Clybourn on the Red Line) but the CTA officially announced today that it will solicit “bids soon to sell naming rights to just about anything it owns.”

The transit agency expects to award corporate sponsorships by next spring, officials said. Rodriguez said the CTA will go out for bids next week to hire a corporate adviser who will help package the sponsorship opportunities.

“We want to find new ways to generate revenue, and we want to do so in a way that will enhance the experience of our riders for improvements, services and amenities,” Rodriguez said.

But he and other CTA officials declined to offer any estimates on how much money the venture might generate.

“Providing 1.7 million rides every single day is a value to somebody someplace,” Rodriguez said. “The question is, What’s it worth?”

Savvy marketers will want some idea of how much bang they’re getting for their investment, experts say. Marketers also would have to look past the “what-ifs” of having their brand name associated with the unpleasant realities of public transportation, which include unkempt stations, rail line breakdowns and potential crashes.

A couple of things seem remarkable about this:

1. Sociologists are often concerned with the lack of true public spaces in cities (and suburbs). This is bound to have some effect on what were previously public spaces; now there were be even more reminders about corporations.

2. The CTA is going forward with this without being able to say publicly how much money they might be able to raise? This seems foolish. Will they still go forward if bids end up being lower than expected? Might it have been better to line up some more deals before going public with this?

3. How exactly will these new revenues be used within the CTA?

4. What are the next steps for expanding the CTA budget if these deals do not bring in as much money as expected or costs continue to rise and these new revenues are not enough?

5. The agency said it “will be sensitive to avoid naming rights that are in poor taste or at all questionable.” This could lead to some interesting battles over which companies can purchase naming rights and which cannot. What may be responsible to one neighborhood is not necessarily responsible to another.

“Most romantic ‘L’ station” analysis with faulty generalization

Among other features, Craigslist offers a “missed connections” page where people can try to identify and track down people they ran into in public life. Based on this data, Craigslist recently released a list of the “most romantic” spots in Chicago’s CTA system:

Turns out it’s Belmont. The stop on the CTA’s Red, Brown and Purple lines won the title of Chicago’s most romantic ‘L’ station in a report the Web site released Thursday. The crown for most romantic train line went to the Red Line.

The site did a four-week study this summer of more than 250 missed connections postings (read, “potential hookups”) in Chicago and ranked stations based on a scale called the Train Romance Index Score Total — or TRIST for short.

The TRIST is calculated by dividing the number of missed connections that mention a CTA station or line by the number of riders a year who use that station or line. Then, that number is multiplied by 10 to get a whole number and rounded to two decimal places.

The romantic train line is defined as having the best odds of a passenger spotting another rider across a crowded train or platform and then posting a missed connections listing to get in touch.

The data is limited (a pretty small sample) but the generalization is the biggest issue: does this really reveal what is the most romantic spot on the CTA rail system? It is probably much more indicative of who uses Craigslist (young North-siders?).

My guess is that this was simply meant to be fun and promote Craigslist. But sometimes statistics and arguments like this take on a life of their own…