TagCTA

The CTA must remove the Clark Junction bottleneck to modernize the Red Line

CTA Belmont bypass rendering

A CTA rendering shows what a bypass track for Brown Line trains north of the Belmont station might look like, alongside a new residential building on Wilton Street.

Ed. note: This is a guest post from Chicagoan Jacob Peters.

“Keep the RPM Project on Track – Uncouple the [Belmont Bypass] Roller Coaster” is the tagline for a new website called “Coalition to Stop the Belmont Flyover”.

Capacity is constrained at the Chicago Transit Authority’s Clark Junction track interchange (at approximately 3300 N Clark Street) which means that fewer Red Line trains can run than could be run if there wasn’t this conflict. In the same way there are opportunity costs in business, there are opportunity delays that are caused by this constraint on rail capacity.

For example, if there was no conflict at Clark Junction, then five more trains an hour could pass through the Red Line subway. This would increase Red Line capacity by 25 percent during rush hour, and fewer passengers would be left waiting for a train to arrive with space for them to board.

The way the website advocates against eliminating the bottleneck is hypocritical to the tagline of “keeping the Red Purple Modernization project” on track. That project, which would completely replace all track, viaducts, and embankments north of X station, and rebuild most stations (as well as widening and extending platforms) is largely based on a future service pattern that would run more and longer trains in the busiest transit corridor of Chicago.

This capacity increase would reduce their average commutes by a few minutes. Since the trains wouldn’t have to be spread out in order to maintain gaps in service for the Brown Line trains that need to cross the Red Line at Clark Junction, average wait times between trains would drop all along the Red Line at rush hour, further reducing commute times.

Lastly, when either the Brown, Purple or Red Lines are experiencing delays, and trains get bunched together, these delays ripple through the other lines. This happens because when a queue of delayed Brown Line trains are making their way through Clark Junction, Red Line trains must be held in order to let the delayed trains through the junction in an attempt to keep things moderately on schedule. If there was a bypass of this junction for northbound Brown Line trains, then a delay on either line would not affect the other. This would result in fewer days in which your commute is delayed.

Future capacity needs and current delay reduction is what the Belmont Bypass attempts to address. There may be other ways to achieve this with other alternatives, but the bypass would be far and away the cheapest and could be implemented soonest. Unless you plan to propose alternative means of resolving these conflicts, and funding mechanisms to make them possible, you are not really advocating to keep the RPM on track. Because without untying Clark Junction there is no true modernization.

Runoff election

The RedEye published on Monday an overview of the transit platforms from the two mayoral candidates that have made it into a runoff. (Mayor Rahm Emanuel didn’t receive a sufficient number of votes, 50 percent +1, in the February 24 election.) Chuy Garcia released his transportation and infrastructure platform about two days before the election.

Garcia paints a beautiful transportation issues platform, but when faced with a truly transformative project he is unwilling to uphold his call for “reliable transportation”. I want to vote for him again, but if he keeps on watering down projects to a point of inefficacy then how are you going to convince anyone to expand transportation funding? How can I trust him to bring about the change is needed on other important issues if on the issue that he received a masters in, he is unwilling to apply best practices?

Emanuel and Garcia should avoid grandstanding on issues of transportation because opposing a necessary transportation investment for political reasons is to let down the electorate that you are campaigning to serve. For both traversing Ashland Avenue by transit and riding Brown, Red, and Purple Line trains through Clark Junction, there is no way to move more people reliably through these areas without infrastructure improvements. Garcia shouldn’t oppose projects without explaining his alternate plan to address the same issues and achieve similar benefits – otherwise there isn’t leadership.

Alternatives

There are few alternatives. First, you could study how to use the existing CTA land around the Belmont stop more efficiently and eliminate track conflicts. It would need to be studied whether a new northbound Brown Line track and platform just to the east and a few feet higher than the current track it shares with the Purple Line could allow for the Brown Line to get high early enough to bridge over the Red Line closer to School.

This option would spare the buildings on the commercial thoroughfare of Clark, and focus demolition on residential streets.  I am not sure if it is possible given how the Belmont station was reconstructed in 2009, but I don’t have a record of it being studied or laid out why it is not an option. Seeing as the anti-bypass group is claiming that the destruction on Clark would turn it into a “permanent under-El wasteland” I would think they would want to prove whether this is possible or not.

Secondly, any alternatives analysis process [which the CTA hasn’t conducted] would include studying a subway alternative for this portion of the Red Line. In the RPM’s subway alternative there was no need for the bypass. The CTA considered a subway from Loyola station to Belmont station, but never studied each section of the potential subway separately. I truly believe that a subway with a portal at Clark Street and a portal just north of Irving Park Road would eliminate the property acquisition, station constraint, and construction phasing issues to outweigh the increased cost of going underground, without needing to consider a two-track alternative.

There was a neighborhood proposal from the 1980s for a subway between Belmont Avenue and Irving Park Road which would act somewhat as a “flyunder”, so to speak. It would include a new Wrigley Field Station that could be built to handle more than the existing constrained Addison Red Line station, including a Purple Line stop in order to match the Purple Line limited service that stops at Sheridan that’s provided on select game days.

The “flyunder” could allow the CTA to forego the large amounts of property acquisition that would be required in order to straighten out the kinks in the elevated north of Belmont, and to smooth out the curve at Sheridan. The CTA could then sell land currently under the tracks for development. In order to see if this is now feasible given the way Belmont was rebuilt, the CTA would have to study whether a bilevel tunnel from Clark Junction to Irving Park would be possible under Clark Street, and parallel to Seminary Avenue.

There is also the alternative of proposing that eliminating the realignment of the Red Line, included in the Belmont Bypass literature, would be a way to eliminate the amount of buildings affected in the scope of the bypass.  But I think that is somewhat tied into the discussion about the other two alternatives. The point is that the elevated bypass is a simple (although in the CTA’s current process, clumsy) solution to the question of how do you eliminate the Clark Junction bottleneck and the unreliability in the system that it creates.

Jefferson Park station renovation highlights train station planning deficiencies

Jefferson Park train station rendering

Jefferson Park train station rendering from the City of Chicago. The only difference you see is canopies. What you don’t see is a walkable connection ut thisetween shops southeast of here and the train station – they’re separated by a strip of parking.

Plans for the renovation of the Jefferson Park CTA station are illustrative of the City’s failure to think deeply about how to design the projects that is funding in a way that maximizes potential for residential and commercial development around train stations.

The changes proposed for one of Chicagoland’s most important transit centers are weak. There’s no development plan, or any kind of neighborhood plan or “Corridor Development Initiative” for the Jefferson Park transit center.

Current city policy identifies train stations as optimal places to build new housing and commercial uses.

Without challenging the design to respond to this policy the transit center will continue to use neighborhood space inefficiently and doesn’t respond to demands from residents to improve pedestrian and bicyclist safety and increase economic development.

Judging by the renderings, nothing is changing at the Jefferson Park Blue Line station (4917 N Milwaukee Ave). All of the improvements save for the canopy are invisible in this rendering. The CTA’s list of improvements reads like the superficial makeover that many stations got in the Station Renewal program almost three years ago, a stopgap measure until Your New Blue could begin.

There will be LED lighting, new paint, new escalators and stairs, new paving, and a new canopy. Only a few of those things make the station easier to access and use.

Jefferson Park is a major asset to the neighborhood and the city. The station serves CTA trains, Metra trains, CTA buses, and Pace buses to Chicago’s suburbs. The CTA’s September 2014 ridership report [PDF] said there are an average of 7,420 people boarding the Blue Line here each weekday, a 0.1% increase over September 2013. It’s the busiest Blue Line station outside of the Loop and O’Hare airport.*

On Twitter I said that the station should be surrounded by buildings, not bus bays. I’m not familiar with how many routes and buses use the station daily, and I’m not suggesting that space for buses go away. I’m challenging the Chicago Transit Authority and Mayor Rahm Emanuel to come up with a better plan for vehicle and pedestrian movements, and to start welcoming new development.

I pointed out the new Wiehle-Reston Silver Line station in Virginia where a residential building was constructed atop a bus bay (where I transferred from the Washington Flyer bus from Dulles). A plaza connects the bus bay to and apartment lobby and the Metrorail station.

Bus bays under an apartment building in Reston

The bus bay at the Wiehle-Reston Silver Line station in Reston, Virginia, is under an apartment building and plaza linking it to the Metrorail station.

The Metropolitan Planning Council conducted a consultation for the Logan Square Blue Line station – Your New Blue will make upgrades here, too – and the next door city-owned parking lot. Their consultation involved 700 people to decide what development at this station should look like. Their desires were pretty specific: there should be affordable housing, but not any higher than six stories.

The current policy, enacted as an ordinance and expressed in other city documents, allows developers to build more units in the same plot and save them and their tenants money by building less parking. But this policy is insufficient in that has no design review or public consultation attached. It also provides no zoning recommendations to expand the number of places to which it can apply.

A development plan, for which the CDI serves as a good, starting model, would bring residents – and people who want to live in the neighborhood – to discussions about if and how the neighborhood should change. It would hook into another city proposal, from the Chicago Department of Transportation, to build protected bike lanes on Milwaukee, but which ultimately failed. The process would probably uncover latent demand to build new housing in the neighborhood that’s stymied by incompatible zoning.**

The city’s recent choices for development and (lack of) urban design at this station as well as across from the Halsted Green Line station in Englewood where the city is selling vacant land to build a Whole Foods-anchored strip mall demonstrates how little deliberation there is in maximizing transit-oriented development, or TOD.

Their suburban forms are the antithesis of how we should be designing the stations and their environs – they should have higher densities and walkable places.

* Metra has published its 2014 station-level counts! This station had 599 daily boardings, yet not every train stops here. The Union Pacific Northwest (UP-NW) line that stops at Jefferson Park saw a 3.8% increase in ridership [PDF] from January to September 2014 versus the same period in 2013.

** There are no parcels near the Jefferson Park transit center that allow the transit-adjacent development ordinance to take effect; developers have to go through an arduous and sometimes costly process to persuade the alderman to change the zoning. The ordinance only affects Bx-3 districts (where x is 1-3 and -3 is the allowable density identifier).

Proposed residential high-rise injects TOD and population loss into Logan Square conversation

A public notice stands in front of an affected property

There used to be a Max Gerber plumbing supply store here that the absent landlord demolished to reduce his property taxes. A developer has proposed built 254 units in two towers here, in spitting distance from the CTA’s 24-hour Blue Line.

Developer Rob Buono has proposed two towers for a vacant property 400 feet away (walking distance) from the Chicago Transit Authority’s California Blue Line station. It has caused quite a stir in Logan Square about how much development is the right amount, and brings into question residents’ understanding of how the neighborhood demographics have changed.

It has also brought “TOD” into the local conversation. Buono will get some relief from exceptional car parking requirements because of the land’s proximity to the ‘L’ rapid transit station.

The process will be a long one. The first meeting, called by Alderman Moreno, was held on Thursday night. I counted over 70 people on the sign-in sheet when I came in, and many people arrive after so saying 100 people were there isn’t a stretch. Moreno described his development policy: whenever they need a zoning change they must present their proposal to the community so Moreno can get their feedback.

Before Buono spoke, though, Moreno asked Daniel Hertz to briefly talk about transit-oriented development and why the development (or at least the number of units and car parking spaces it proposes) is a good project for this place, and in this neighborhood. In balancing concerns about car traffic, keeping people close to the services and products they need, and making it easy to get around, it makes the most sense to put the highest number of housing units in close proximity to high-capacity transit versus anywhere else.

Essentially, Logan Square has lost residents – 10,000 people since 2000 – concentrating the burden of patronizing local businesses, seen as a distinguishing asset in the neighborhood, on fewer people. Additionally, adding housing is the best way to combat rising home prices (and unaffordable rents) by offering more supply which reduces demand on richer people buying, converting, or tearing down existing buildings.

While no building permits will be issued for the towers until Ald. Moreno, Plan Commission, and City Council approve the zoning change, you can track what other kinds of buildings developers are building in the area surrounding 2293 N Milwaukee on Chicago Cityscape.

You’ll see quickly that a majority of the projects permitted this year are for single-family houses. Some of these are built on vacant parcels while at least one is  being built where there was previously a multi-family house.

In 2014, within 1/8 mile of the site:

  • +0 units in multi-unit buildings
  • -1 deconversion, turning two units into one unit
  • -1 teardown, turning a two-unit property into a single-family property
  • +17 single-familiy homes
  • Net gain of a maximum of 15 units

At this rate, Logan Square may grow at an extremely low rate – these homes will likely be filled with small families. The decreasing household size is another factor in Logan Square’s population loss.

Read about people’s reactions to the towers on other sites:

Joe Moreno

1st Ward Alderman Proco “Joe” Moreno gracefully – given the circumstances – moderates the meeting.

Morgan CTA station ranks highly in rail system for building permits

Let Your Conscious Be Your Guide

The gutted cold storage warehouse in the background is within a quarter mile of the Morgan CTA station. Photo by Seth Anderson.

Excluding all of the Chicago Transit Authority stations in the central business district you’ll find that the new Morgan station ranks highly in the number of building permits issued within a quarter mile. It has a top spot when you calculate those permits’ estimated project costs. The CTA recently discussed with DNAInfo the results of a preliminary study it conducted that showed how the Morgan station is at the center of a lot of construction growth in the West Loop/Fulton Market area, and a contributing factor to this growth.

Now that Licensed Chicago Contractors shows you the two nearest CTA and Metra rail stations to each building permit, and I’ve become well-versed in writing PostGIS queries on the fly, I wrote a query that lists the CTA stations with the most building permits within a quarter mile (“nearby”).

First, though, let’s count how many stations don’t have permits nearby. With the query at the bottom you get a list of station names, the number of permits nearby, and a sum of the estimated costs of those permits sorted by the number of permits. Since I used a “LEFT JOIN” I also get a count of all the permits (the table on the LEFT) that don’t have a match with CTA stations (the table on the right).

There are 127 rows returned and a previous count of the table told me there are 145 stations, including ones outside the Chicago city limits. (There are stations in Cicero, Wilmette, Evanston, Rosemont, Oak Park, Forest Park, and Skokie.) The first row represents NULL, or all of the stations that don’t have permits nearby. That leaves me with 126 rows and 19 stations without permits, or 19 stations outside the City of Chicago.

I verified this by eyeballing it. I looked at a map and counted roughly 19 stations that wouldn’t have the 1/4 mile overlap with a Chicago building permit. The two Austin stations, on the Blue Line Forest Park branch and the Green Line Oak Park branch, are near Chicago and also showed up as a discrete station in the query results. Austin on the Blue Line was dead last, actually!

Let’s get back on track and look at Morgan now. I don’t think it’s fair to compare the Morgan station area with an expected, higher-activity area like the Loop and Central Business District so I eyeballed the list and started the #1 ranking with the first station outside the CBD.

  1. Armitage (Brown, Purple Express) is the station outside the CBD with the most building permits nearby.
  2. Damen-Milwaukee (Blue)
  3. North/Clybourn (Red)
  4. Addison (Red)
  5. Morgan (Green, Pink)

There you have it, from 2009 to today, the Morgan station had the fifth highest number of building permits outside of the Chicago Central Business District. It beat Fullerton (Red, Brown, Purple) in Lincoln Park, and Roosevelt (elevated and subway combined) in the South Loop. The station’s construction began in 2010 and the grand opening occurred May 24, 2012. During this period Morgan had the second highest amount of aggregated estimated costs at $199,911,953.00, behind North/Clybourn, at $218,118,037.37.

Take this analysis with several grains of Morton salt, though, because the following caveats are important to consider: building permits are really speculative development; much of these may be for kitchen renovations or porch reconstructions; I didn’t look up when it was “for sure” that the station was being built so I don’t know when developers would have become interested.

Looking at a longer period

I will, however, run a few more queries to find how Morgan’s position changes, starting with expanding the query to “all time” data (really the end of 2006 to today). It turns out that when looking through all available years Morgan’s position remains at #5 but other stations change position.

  1. Fullerton
  2. Armitage
  3. Damen-Milwaukee
  4. Addison
  5. Morgan

During this period, which covers the end of 2006 until today, Morgan had the highest aggregated estimated costs of the above five stations, at $236,707,083.00. It beat Fullerton’s amount of $160,825,680.30.

Looking only at “new construction”

Since these include all permit types, including water heater installations and window replacements, it doesn’t give us a good look at economic expansion in the areas surrounding CTA stations. I’ve filtered the data so only “new construction” building permits come through. I’m still interested in stations outside the CBD. Here’s how Morgan performed when looking at purely the quantity of new construction permits issued from 2009 to today:

  1. Armitage, 46 new construction building permits
  2. Southport, 38
  3. Addison (Red), 34
  4. North/Clybourn,
  5. Wellington,
  6. California-Milwaukee,
  7. Belmont (Red)
  8. Ashland (Green, Pink)
  9. Irving Park (Brown)
  10. Fullerton
  11. Damen (Brown)
  12. Division-Milwaukee
  13. Western-Milwaukee
  14. Ashland (Orange)
  15. Damen-Milwaukee
  16. Western-Congress
  17. Paulina
  18. Addison (Brown)
  19. Diversey
  20. Sedgwick
  21. Loyola
  22. Montrose (Brown)
  23. Sox-35th-Dan Ryan
  24. Morgan, 13 new construction building permits

Let’s remove that date filter and look at the whole building permits period of late 2006 to today.

  1. Southport (Brown Line), 80 new construction permits, all-time
  2. Armitage (Brown, Purple), 72
  3. Western-Congress (Blue), 66
  4. Addison (Red), 64
  5. Belmont (Red, Brown), 63
  6. Western-Milwaukee, 59
    Damen-Milwaukee, 59
  7. North/Clybourn, 55
    Diversey, 55
  8. Division-Milwaukee, 53
  9. Sox-35th-Dan Ryan, 51
  10. Wellington, 50
  11. 35-Bronzeville-IIT, 48
  12. Irving Park (Brown), 44
  13. Morgan, 43 new construction permits

Now switching the order method around and Morgan appears better when you look at aggregated estimated costs, from 2009 to today.

  1. Illinois Medical District, $236,020,000.00
  2. North/Clybourn, $172,373,335.00
  3. Loyola, $161,744,075.00
  4. Polk, $106,000,000.00
  5. Grand-Milwaukee, $77m224,500.00
  6. Wellington, $72m802,300.00
  7. Belmont (Red), $71,300,302.00
  8. Morgan, $68,300,800.00

Last query – remove the data filter and look at aggregated costs for the whole building permits period where Morgan maintains a top 10 position.

  1. North/Clybourn, $277029045.00
  2. Illinois Medical District, 236,020,000.00 (same as 2009 to today period)
  3. Polk, $188,794,975.00
  4. Loyola, $185,444,075.00
  5. Belmont (Red), $1635,00,085.00
  6. Fullerton, $129,444,051.00
  7. Wellington, $111,335,051.00
  8. Granville, $99,356,702.00
  9. Morgan, $83,995,800.00

The data I’d really like to have, though, is sales tax receipts for the same years.

This is not a valid PostgreSQL query. The brackets indicate the options I was using to retrieve the above results. The geometries are in or transformed to EPSG 3435 (Illinois StatePlane East Feet) and 1,320 feet is a quarter mile.

SELECT
 COUNT (P .permit_) AS count,
 MIN (C .longname) as name,
 min(lines) as lines, 
 sum(_estimated_cost) as sum
FROM
 permits P left join
 stations_cta C
ON
 ST_DWithin (
  ST_Transform (P .geometry, 3435),
  C .geom,
  1320
 )
[WHERE] [EXTRACT (YEAR FROM issue_date) >= 2009] [_permit_type = 'PERMIT - NEW CONSTRUCTION']
GROUP BY
 C .gid
ORDER BY
 [count,sum] DESC

Respect the corner!

Buildings on corners should have corner entrances or minimally deviate.

Contractors work on building the new entrance.*

The residential building on the northwest corner of Milwaukee Avenue and Halsted Street was built in 2003 with a first-floor commercial space with an entrance on the Milwaukee Avenue side. Normally this wouldn’t be such a big deal – Milwaukee is a busy street and this side of the street has a fair amount of foot traffic. But the other side of the building, on Halsted Street, faces one of two entrances to the Grand Blue Line subway station and a major transfer bus stop.

7-11 is moving into the building and have built a new entrance out of the corner space with floor-to-ceiling windows. Now it’ll be much easier for transit riders to get to a convenience store. The other advantage is the added visibility: seeing the entrance from far away, from all sides, saves milliseconds in our internal GPS processing time – make a bee-line to the entrance instead of “hunting” it down after you make your way in the general direction of the building.


View Larger Map

* You can see that there’s a step here so it’s not currently accessible. Originally this wasn’t the entrance so that makes sense. I don’t know what these contractors are doing but 7-11 must make the entrance accessible.

What if Metra employees were late to work as often as Metra passengers?

trainmageddon

A malfunctioning Metra Electric train in January. Photo by Eric Rogers.

It was a big deal to news media this morning when new Metra CEO Don Orseno reported at an Illinois House mass transit committee hearing that the commuter-focused rail system experienced a 30% on-time rating in January, when the “polar vortex” hit. (Apparently polar vortex is not an event that happens to a place, but is the name of a climate pattern that’s always there hovering above Canada and occasionally dips down over the United States.)

Most Metra passengers are commuters, going to work. A hair over 300,000 travel each weekday; service is drastically lowered on weekends and holidays, offering less than half the service of weekdays.

What if the organization of Metra, including all 2,500 employees in addition to the contracted railroad workers (let’s say 3,000 people), showed up to work with the same performance rating that their passengers experience?

First, Orseno – a career railroader who drives to work from Manhattan where a train comes leaves three times each day – would miss 11 work days of work each year (of 260 work days), based on their overall 95.8% on-time rating in 2012. Some routes are worse and others better. But collectively 3,000 people would miss 32,760 work days each year. That’s a lot of missed work.

Put another way, everybody – all 3,000 of them – is going to show up 20.16 minutes late to work because they’re missing 87.36 hours each year (of 2,080 hours they’re supposed to work and being 4.2% hours late). But again, I have no idea who’s working 8 hours and who’s working longer. (One of the problems Metra had during #Chiberia is that many workers hit the federally mandated limit and there weren’t always workers to take their place.)

Thankfully the Chicago Transit Authority, Pace, and ever-expanding highways and tollways are available to pick up the slack in Chicagoland’s transportation supply.

Another thing, this post is full of averages of averages, so it’s really imprecise. Today, Metra was reporting delays on a single train run of 16-100 minutes – a pretty broad estimate, but another train had a possible delay of 26-110 minutes. During the worst storm Metra experienced on January 5th and 6th, some train runs dumped passengers on platforms in subzero temperature.

Orseno reported today at the committee hearing that a “I don’t want to say middle-level” manager at Union Pacific made the call to dump the passengers. This has been “corrected” by only allowing a senior level staffer at Union Pacific make this call. Metra, which doesn’t have any performance-related incentives in its contracts with the freight railroads, apparently cannot stop this decision.

I’m waiting for the day when Metra is run like a transit system and not a railroad.

Note: I excluded vacation days because, well, no law requires organizations to offer paid or unpaid vacation days and there are probably several tiers of vacation-giving at Metra that I don’t know about.

Chicagoland transit funding has no traction

An electric train would head to Aurora more frequently than the once an hour schedule of today’s lumbering diesel train.

I reviewed Metropolitan Planning Council’s short and easy-to-read report about existing funding conditions of Chicagoland transit (CTA, Metra, and Pace) for Streetsblog Chicago. It was more eye-opening that I expected, mainly because I didn’t realize how poorly we fund transit here compared to cities nationwide and around the world.

The bit about only Atlanta spending less than Chicago when you compare our regions’ funding levels to what it was 20 years ago really caught some people’s attention.

The other part of the report, co-authored by Yonah Freemark who writes the blog The Transport Politic, that got some attention was the above map that showed how the Chicago region had more rapid (frequent) rail transit in 1950 than 2010. Lower mileage and funding over the past three decades meant fewer riders – that part is obvious and has been known to me, transit planners and managers. But this much? I had no idea.

My tweet about this map – to which Eric Fischer, Mapbox map designer and map historian responded with a map from one of the predecessor departments* of the current Chicago Department of Transportation – was retweeted ten times and clicked on over 100. That more than 70% of Chicagoland workers drive to work alone is not surprising given that our rapid transit network is built around rush hour service to downtown, where a minority of jobs are located.

* The department name on the map, published in 1939, is listed as Department of Subways and Traction, headed by commissioner Philip Harrington. This became the Department of Subways and Superhighways. The map shows two cross-Loop (east-west) subways linking Michigan Avenue businesses and intercity electric trains (that travel south, southeast, and near southwest) with the Union and Northwestern train stations (where people board trains to the west, northwest, north, and southwest).

Wayfinding signs at Van Buren Street Metra station are incomplete

New RTA interagency transfer signage near Van Buren Street Metra Electric station

“B” marks a new bus boarding area near the Van Buren Street Metra Electric station.

The Regional Transportation Authority has spent $2 million to improve wayfinding between CTA, Metra, and Pace train stations and bus stops in a needed effort to connect newbies and long-time residents to their next transfer.

Some of the signs need to show better information, though. The RTA installed signs at the Van Buren Street Metra Electric station at Michigan Avenue that create “bus loading groups,” similar to bus bays at suburban park & rides.

It works like this: you come across the nearest bus stop – I happened upon boarding area B – hoping to find the route you need. Instead, though, that route stops at boarding area A. The sign at boarding area B points you in the direction of A and from where you stand you can see a sign that identifies A.

RTA’s signs have two issues. First, they don’t tell you that boarding area C is across the street – unless you inspect the small map – and instead point you in the direction of A (from B). If you walk in the direction of the arrow from boarding area B you will not run into boarding area C or a sign that tells you where to cross the street in order to access C.

The first issue creates the second problem: by reading and relying upon the sign’s text you can’t know at which boarding area, A or C, you should board a bus route that stops at both boarding areas. (Those who also study the maps on another side of the sign will have better luck.) That’s because the same route operates in both directions and if you’re not familiar with the route, you won’t know which direction takes you towards your destination.

New RTA interagency transfer signage near Van Buren Street Metra Electric station

Both boarding areas A and C will get you on the 3, 4, J14, and 26, but only the map on the other side tells you which direction they go. Also, while the arrow points in the direction of boarding areas A and C, only the map tells you that A is across the street.

The fix seems an easy one. First, point the arrows on A and B across the street instead of north or south towards B or A, and add an intermediary sign along the walking path that communicates that “boarding area C is across the street.” Then, update the signs to indicate which direction the bus routes are going so that travelers are assured they need to visit C across the street for King Drive buses going towards Bronzeville or A for King Drive buses going toward Streeterville.

The RTA has installed other signage in this program at 95th and Western (CTA & Pace), Joliet Union Station (Metra & Pace), and Davis Station in Evanston (CTA, Metra, & Pace).

CTA fare breakdown for Ventra and fares it replaces

This CTA graphic shows all the fare media Ventra replaces. 

The Chicago Transit Authority expanded its pilot contactless card fare payment technology systemwide in 2002, and introduced Chicago Card Plus, which added the benefit of linking to a credit/debit card, in 2004. After 11 years, the two cards were hardly “popular” as Jon Hilkevitch called them today. In the context of his article I believe he meant “liked” or “admired” and not widespread, as Ventra does not have the same admiration because of all of the issues people are experiencing.

While Chicago Card/Plus users likely preferred this fare payment over magnetic stripe, for their convenience and speed, a minority of passengers used it.

Data from CTA for January to July 2013, representing 1.6 million average weekday rides.

Magnetic Stripe: 75%
CCP & CC: 19% (17% & 2% respectively)
Bus Cash: 6%

Ventra? 69% this week.

What people will say when Ventra comes out

Ventra is not a replacement for the Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus. It’s a single card that replaces the following fare media*:

  • Transit Card (pay per ride)
  • 1-day pass
  • 3-day pass
  • 7-day pass
  • 30-day pass
  • 30-day reduced fare pass for seniors 65+ and customers with disabilities
  • U-Pass
  • Chicago Card (pay per ride, linked to personal credit/debit card)
  • Chicago Card Plus (pay per ride or 30-day pass, linked to personal credit/debit card)
  • Military Service Pass
  • There might be another pass type I’m forgetting

When people see how simple this really is, and how not inconvenient Ventra makes it for them and for CTA to administer, they will be shocked. You’ll hear things like:

“I can use my credit or debit card now to pay for passes at every vending machine?”

Previously, only certain stations had the correct vending machine. O’Hare airport is notorious for having three vending machines, none of which do the same thing but that do have overlapping functions.

“I can buy a 1-day or multi-pass at all 145 train stations, and not just at Walgreens or CVS, who tend to sell out? And with a credit or debit card?”

Yep. Isn’t that convenient?

“So you’re saying that when school is out and my U-Pass doesn’t get me unlimited free rides until the next semester, I can just hit up one of these 2,000+ retail locations and throw $20 – cash or credit, no difference – on there, or add a 3-day pass because I’m running around for internship interviews?”

Yes, that’s what I’m saying.

“Boarding this bus is way faster now that everyone has a contactless card. And this only took $5 at the vending machine, a 2 minute phone call after which I got that $5 back?”

You can even register online with your smartphone.

* Paper 1-day passes will be available. A single-ride paper ticket will be available.

© 2015 Steven Can Plan

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