Chicago Streetcar Renaissance
When it comes to public transportation in Chicago, we do the two ends of the spectrum well, but we're missing the broad middle.
We have efficient rapid transit on elevated and subway trains that make commuting quick and easy for some, but for most of us the stations are too far away to walk to. We have lots and lots of local buses that stop in almost every block. You don't have to walk far to get on a bus in Chicago, but because they stop all the time, because it takes so long to load passengers through a single door, and because when they do get going our buses are stuck in traffic with cars, they crawl along at an infuriatingly slow pace.
The elevated is great for the few who live within walking distance of a station, though it tends to spoil the neighborhood between stops with its noise and dangerously dark and vacant streets below. The bus works well for those unable or unwilling to walk a few blocks.
There's a huge gap in the middle of the transit spectrum.
What we're missing is quality transit service for the large majority of us who are happy to walk five or ten minutes for a ride that will save us half an hour. For most of us, that short walk is an opportunity to drop off dry cleaning on the way to work or pick up some groceries on the way home. I'm not going to walk more than a couple of blocks to sit on a bus that's stuck in traffic, but for one that runs freely in a lane of its own, with signal prioritization so it always gets a green light at intersections, I would certainly walk a little further.
What I really want is a long electric train running smoothly on rails, with fast boarding through multiple doors and no steps. I don't want to have to climb up and down long staircases to get to it, and I don't want to wait on an isolated platform removed from all eyes on the street. I want a ride that runs right through the heart of my neighborhood and goes straight into the Loop. I want it to go where the shopping is, so I can do errands on the way to and from work. I want to be able to hop on and hop off easily so I can pick stuff up along the way. I want it to go fast when I'm on it, not get stuck in traffic or stop at every intersection. But I want it to be safe and predictable when I'm walking alongside it, or when my kids are biking in the street with it, and I don't want it to pollute the air I breathe with diesel exhaust.
What I want is a modern streetcar.
One of the handful of diagonal streets that radiate out from the Loop might be a good place for a modern streetcar line. These streets are aligned for commuting: they connect neighborhoods with the central business district. Some, like Clark Street, are too narrow for heavy car traffic anyway (every one of Chicago's streets was originally designed for streetcars and pedestrians). It doesn't make sense anymore to let a few people drive to work on the narrowest radial streets when it's ruining the commute for the rest of us. Removing car traffic from a diagonal street would simplify some dangerous three-way intersections and make traffic flow more efficiently on the grid. This would be a great place for a pedestrian-priority neighborhood shopping street-a way to combine commuting and shopping, a place to hang out at the end of the day and on weekends.
We should still have the elevated trains, obviously, but we shouldn't be buying any more of them. Elevated trains and subways have become so expensive to build that we've essentially stopped building them. They cost ten times as much as streetcars, and they don't spark development all along the line like streetcars do-development that generates tax revenue to pay for the capital cost of the infrastructure.
We should still have local buses crawling along the streets of the grid, connecting each block with the major traffic arterials, with the L stops, and with the new radial streetcar streets. On busy commuter routes, streetcars are much cheaper to operate than buses, because each driver can transport several times as many passengers, and the drivers are the main cost of any transit system. But buses still make sense for most routes. Local buses provide near-universal accessibility, which is expensive but important.
Chicago's most densely populated neighborhoods are just too dense to be well served by cars and buses alone, but not dense enough for new subways. We should be glad to have our elevated trains and our local buses, but we should plan on upgrading from bus to streetcar on some of our busiest commuter routes. We can use that infrastructure investment to stimulate the economy, boost local shopping, revitalize our urban neighborhoods, and make the city more attractive to families and businesses.
We've got to do something responsible but effective to deal with the growing congestion problem. The old elevated trains and local buses will continue to play their roles at the two ends of the transit spectrum. But the majority of us in the middle are going to need something else. For us the answer is the modern streetcar at the heart of the neighborhood, the one-in-a-hundred street where commuting and shopping are given priority over through traffic and parking. And for the city, the streetcar offers a growth-oriented modern transit system that can stimulate the economy while reducing congestion.