TagCTA

Chicago’s Lake Street ‘L’ was originally supposed to be a monorail

I bought a copy of The “L”: The Development of Chicago’s Rapid Transit System, 1888-1932, written by Bruce Moffat, a historian of electric trains in Chicago. Moffat currently works for the Chicago Transit Authority. (If there wasn’t a pandemic, you’d be able to request a hold on one of the 50 copies at the Chicago Public Library.)

The book is about the elevated trains that were built in Chicago, in competition with the street omnibuses (horse drawn), railways (cable cars and streetcars), and suburban trains (okay, some competition), prior to establishing the Chicago Transit Authority. The CTA is a State of Illinois authority, created by the legislature, that today owns and operates all of the historic and since-built elevated, subway, and at-grade ‘L’ transit as well as buses. It acquired all of the assets of all of the ‘L’, streetcar, and bus companies that were operating when it was established in 1945.

On with the story!

Back in December 1888, the Chicago City Council approved a franchise for the Lake Street Elevated Company to build a Meigs Elevated Railway above Lake Street from Canal Street to 40th Avenue (later named Crawford and now Pulaski Road), then the western border of Chicago. A tract of land west of 40th Avenue (Pulaski Road) was incorporated into the City of Chicago four months later on April 29, 1889.

If you go to the intersection of Canal and Lake Streets today you’ll see the Union Pacific railroad tracks above, heading into and out of Ogilvie Transportation Center, a skyscraper at 444 W Lake Street, a cigar store, and a vintage loft office building.

The Meigs Elevated Railway was a steam-powered elevated monorail – meaning each track had one rail to support a train.

You may not know this: I love monorails. When my family visited Walt Disney World my favorite ride was the inter-park and world famous monorail. I’ve also ridden the monorails in Disneyland (but I don’t remember my time there), Las Vegas, Seattle, Düsseldorf airport, Wuppertal, and three in Tokyo, Japan (Chiba City, Shonan, and Haneda airport; I missed the one in Tama).

I used to be obsessed with monorails. I became a member of The Monorail Society when I was a teenager and my first eBay purchase was a Disney monorail motorized toy in March 2000. I was jealous of my friends in elementary school who had a Lego monorail, and now they regularly sell for $200. I also built a SAFEGE-style monorail out of K’NEX in high school.

Drawing of the Meigs Elevated Railway monorail.
A drawing of the Meigs Elevated Railway monorail, originally published in Scientific American, July 10, 1886. Via Wikipedia; also printed in Moffat’s book where it is sourced from Railway Age, a trade journal founded in 1856 that still exists today.

It was invented by Josiah V. Meigs in Cambridge, Massachusetts; a 227-foot long demonstration line was built in 1886 on land that is now a Fairfield Inn hotel and before that was the Genoa Packing Co. (demolished in 2013).

The Meigs Elevated Railway Wikipedia article has two photos of a plaque that was on the exterior wall of the Genoa Packing Co. The new hotel building does not have the same plaque.

The Lake Street Elevated Company organizers (seven incorporators are listed in the book) hired Morris H. Alberger to be the president. According to Moffat’s book, “Alberger had convinced his fellow directors that their railroad should use an experimental and relatively complex elevated railway system developed by Joe V. Meigs”. Alberger was also the president of the Meigs Elevated Railway Company.

Moffat discusses an eighth company organizer: Michael Cassius McDonald, “politically well connected and influential”. He was the “chief sponsor” and “promoter” of the Lake Street elevated proposal which came to be known as “Mike’s Upstairs Railroad”.

The Meigs Electric Railway – the monorail – was never built. Moffat says that the reason the monorail was never built was because it was difficult to promote and raised funds by selling shares.

Almost a year after City Council approved the MER to run over Lake Street, they “deleted the Meigs requirement” in November 1890 so that the Lake Street Elevated Company could build a traditional iron structure. The trains would also be “traditional”. (The first elevated train started running in Manhattan and the Bronx on August 26, 1878 – that was the Third Avenue Elevated – ten years prior to the Meigs monorail being approved in Chicago.)

Even before City Council “deleted” the franchise’s requirement to build a monorail, the Lake Street Elevated Company had already started building the iron structure for a train in December 1889, at Lake and Clinton Streets, where the Clinton Green Line station is now.

That’s the end of the story for the monorail, but I’ll continue talking about the Lake Street ‘L’.

The Lake Street Elevated opens!

Construction had reached “just west of Ashland Avenue” by October 1892, less than three years after the first iron girder was erected at Clinton. A year after that last construction milestone at Ashland, the tracks for service were completed to California Avenue (2800 West).

The Lake Street Elevated Company’s first service was set to begin on October 30, 1893. The opening was delayed, however, until an inauguration on Saturday, November 4, 1893, to mourn the death of Mayor Carter Harrison, who was assassinated during his fifth term. Passenger service began two days later on Monday, November 6, 1893.

Service was extended into the Loop elevated tracks in 1895.

Map of the Lake Street Elevated, from Market Street (now Wacker Drive) to Harlem Avenue and South Boulevard.
Map of the Lake Street Elevated, from Market Street (now Wacker Drive) to Harlem Avenue and South Boulevard.

Heading closer to downtown Chicago

In early 1893, the Lake Street Elevated Company wanted to run their trains down Market Street (now Wacker Drive) from Lake Street to Madison Street.

Photograph showing the elevated stub track on Market Street. The view is looking east along Lake Street at Market Street, where the elevated train would turn south.
Photograph showing the elevated stub track on Market Street. The view is looking east along Lake Street at Market Street, where the elevated train would turn south. Photo taken by a Chicago Daily News, Inc., photographer in 1908. The caption in the Explore Chicago Collections database says,

The Market Street “stub” ran past the future site of the Civic Opera Building, opened in November 1929. Operagoers and workers in the office tower of the building would have ridden the ‘L’ here until the Chicago Transit Authority

The Lake Street Elevated’s Market Street stub terminated at Madison Street. The Civic Opera Building is on the left. Image is from the CTA’s collection. Market Street was renamed Wacker Drive when the street was reconstructed as a double decker street starting in 1948.

Extending further into the Garfield Park neighborhood

Tracks were built six blocks west of California Avenue, to Homan Avenue, but the stations were incomplete. Service to the Homan station started November 24, 1893, and four blocks further west to Hamlin Avenue in January 1894.

The Homan Avenue station no longer exists. Today’s Green Line over Lake Street was rebuilt from 1994 to 1996 and the Homan station was abandoned. According to Chicago “L”.org, the CTA decided to move the station two blocks west to Central Park Drive (3600 West). It was “completely deconstructed in spring of 2000 and put into storage”. It was renovated, made accessible, and opened as the Conservatory-Central Park Drive station in June 2001.

Chicago “L”.org notes that this visitors access to the Garfield Park Conservatory, evens out stop spacing, but does not intersect a bus route which Homan Ave does. The CTA closed Hamlin station on March 18, 1956. I don’t know when it was demolished.

Onward, to Austin and Oak Park!

Back to the Lake Street elevated timeline. Serviced operated to Hamlin Avenue in 1894. The next year it was operating to 52nd Avenue (now Laramie Avenue), the western boundary of Chicago. On the other side of that boundary was the Township of Cicero. Austin, a township neighborhood, was annexed by Chicago in 1899. The Village of Oak Park eventually emerged from the township, incorporating in 1902.

Austin was location of Cicero’s town hall. The town hall building, at the Central and Lake station, is now part of the Austin Town Hall Park and Cultural Center, owned and operated by the Chicago Park District.

Austin Town Hall in Chicago, Illinois
Austin Town Hall, the former town hall of the Township of Cicero. Photo taken in 2019 by Eric Allix Rogers.

Moffat’s book describes a lot of political controversy about extending the Lake Street Elevated into Cicero, which seems fitting for the Chicago region. Passenger service to Austin Avenue (now Boulevard) started April 19, 1899.

The next month, on May 14, 1989, trains that ran east-west above Lake Street came down a ramp – to the surface – onto north-south Lombard Avenue a couple of blocks south to Randolph Street. They turned west onto Randolph Street and continued until Wisconsin Avenue/Marion Street. The tracks on Randolph Street were in the middle of the street, and owned by Suburban Railroad, an interurban railway company.

The tracks were previously owned by Chicago, Harlem & Batavia Railway. I’m including that information because I grew up there. However, the railroad never made it that far: “No effort was made to extend the railroad to that distance place, but money was spent to purchase new locomotives and passenger cars and make other improvements.”

Residents here had the option of taking trains into downtown Chicago on the Chicago & Northwestern Railway. Those tracks are now owned by Union Pacific, which also operates the former C&NW lines as Metra’s UP-West Line. The line terminates at Ogilvie Transportation Center, which used to be called Northwestern Station, which was C&NW’s second location for their downtown terminal.

Moffat discussed these passengers’ choices, writing, “Although a ride on the nearby Chicago & Northwestern was faster, the “L’s” more frequent schedule, convenient Loop stops, and lower fare drew many riders away from the steam railroad”. The same is true today; the ‘L’ costs less than Metra but takes longer to reach the West Loop.

The story about the construction and operation of the Lake Street Elevated is almost done. I’m going to end it as soon as the train reaches the current terminus at Harlem Avenue in Oak Park.

Service to Marion Street started in late January 1901, on the street level of South Boulevard, thus ending service on Randolph Street a few blocks south. Trains started servicing the Harlem station on May 20, 1910. Remember that the reason the trains are now on South Boulevard is because Lake Street runs with a slight northwest diagonal, ends at the Chicago & Northwestern Railway embankment, and resumes a few blocks west. In 1961, the line was elevated onto C&NW’s embankment.

Even though the station is currently called “Harlem/Lake”, the station is at Harlem/South Boulevard, and Lake Street is one block north.


N.B.

Meigs’s railway was mentioned in an op-ed in the Boston Globe Magazine on Sunday, February 23, 1992, as the newspapers’s architecture critic, Robert Campbell, and Peter Vanderwarker, an architectural historian, lamented the towering car infrastructure proposed in the Central Artery/Tunnel Project (also known as “Big Dig”, the most expensive highway construction in the country), as well as the darkening effect of the elevated trains. It’s really quite an essay.

The op-ed in the Boston Globe Magazine, 2/23/1992

But competition was vicious. Arson and vandalism hampered Meigs, as did his insistence on old-fashioned steam power instead of electricity. Nothing besides the Cambridge test line was ever built. The Meigs monorail made its last run in 1894. Conventional elevated trains, modeled on those of Manhattan and far more massive than Meigs’, soon darkened Boston’s streets.

[snipped]

By the end of this decade, the view will have changed radically. A dramatic Babel of steel and concrete, perhaps resembling a great sports stadium, will rise like a gray mountain in the middle distance at the left of the photo. The introverted automobile will have won its long battle for supremacy over the sociable train.

“MEIGS ELEVATED RAILWAY – Changing TRACKS”, By Robert Campbell and Peter Vanderwarker

Meigs Field, a former airport in downtown Chicago that existed between 1948 and 2003, was named after Merrill C. Meigs, a pilot and former head of the Chicago Aero Commission. He believed that Chicago needed a third airport, within 10 minutes of downtown. The airport was built and named after Meigs in 1949. I haven’t found a relationship between the two Meigs.

Damn, Metra is expensive

tl;dr: Metra costs nearly twice as much for the same trip

I went to Pullman today for a preservation organization’s task force meeting hosted by Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives. Their office is in this weird US Bank office high-rise surrounded by open space, a golf course, warehouses, and an interstate.

There are many ways to get there. Some people drove their own cars from nearby neighborhoods, others shared a ride hail car, and I and at least one other person rode Metra, the region’s commuter rail service.

The Metra Electric District line has fast service between its downtown terminal at Millennium Station and 111th Street (Pullman), scheduled for a 36 minute run. The MED is Metra’s most regional rail-like service, with several electric train services per hour during some hours.

I rode a Divvy shared bike from the station nearest my office (300 feet away) to Millennium Station – in order to get to the station faster – and boarded the Metra about five minutes before it departed.

Us Bank tower in Pullman

Taking CTA, a separate transit operator in Chicagoland, is also an option. I could have taken CTA from my office at Madison/Wells to CNI’s office in the high-rise with less than 3/5th of a mile walking. Google Maps predicts that this trip would have taken 1:06 (one hour and six minutes). It would have cost $2.75 ($2.50+25 cents transfer)

Metra, on the other hand, excluding the marginal cost of my Divvy ride because I have a $99 annual membership that nets me unlimited free rides of up to 45 minutes, took 56 minutes (5 on bike, 36 on train, 15 on foot) and cost $5.25.

A 14 percent shorter trip via Metra cost me 90 percent more. If I wanted to have saved the 15 minute walking trip and taken a CTA bus, that would have been an extra $2.25. CTA and Metra do not have integrated fares ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle and the Cook County Government is trying to do something about the price differential, and reduce the prices on the faster (and more comfortable) Metra rides. Mayor Lori Lightfoot is blocking it. Go figure.

Elevated above the ‘L’

Blue Line going down into the subway towards the Logan Square station.

This shot was slightly difficult because there are two controls on the remote control that I have to handle with the same hand: The first was the camera tilt and the second was the rotation. I think I can move the camera tilt function to the other dial. I only tried this shot twice, and this was the second one. It’s not perfect; there’s a hiccup after the rotation has finished and I didn’t tilt the camera up as soon as I would have liked.

The hot air balloon I used to get this shot is the DJI Mavic Pro.

Logan Square - the square from above

A Green Line train zooms by industrial and residential areas on the West Side

Another short aerial video I shot this month in Chicago’s West Garfield Park community area. This part of the neighborhood has a lot of industrial uses, but which abut residential, both of which are conspicuous in the 20 second clip.

Equipment is a DJI Mavic Pro.

Converting a transit agency’s GTFS to shapefile and GeoJSON with QGIS

Many years ago I wrote a tutorial on how to use an ArcGIS plugin to convert a transit agency’s GTFS package – a group of files that describe when and where their buses and trains stop – into files that could easily be manipulated by popular GIS desktop software.

That was so long ago, before I became an expert in using QGIS, a free and open source alternative to ArcGIS.

This tutorial will show you how to convert GTFS to a shapefile and to GeoJSON so you can edit and visualize the transit data in QGIS.

Prerequisites

First you’ll need to have QGIS installed on your computer (it works with Linux, Mac, and Windows). Second you’ll need a GTFS package for the transit agency of your choice (here’s the one for Pace Suburban Bus*, which operates all suburban transit buses in Chicagoland). You can find another transit agency around the world on the GTFS Data Exchange website.

Section 1: Let’s start

  1. Open QGIS.
  2. Load your GTFS data into the QGIS table of contents (also called the Layers Panel). Click Layer>Add Layer>Add Delimited Text Layer. You will be adding one or two files depending on which ones are provided.

    QGIS add delimited text layer

    Add delimited text layer.

  3. Now, here it can get tricky. Not all transit agencies provide a “shapes.txt” file. The shapes.txt file draws out the routes of buses and trains. If it’s not provided, that’s fine, but if you turn them into routes based on the stops.txt data, then you will have funny looking and impossible routes.

    QGIs browse for the stops.txt file

    Browse for the stops.txt file

  4. Click on “Browse…” and find the “stops.txt”. QGIS will read the file very quickly and determine which fields hold the latitude and longitude coordinates. If its determination is wrong, you can choose a different “X field” (longitude) and “Y field” (latitude).
  5. Click “OK”. A new dialog box will appear asking you to choose a coordinate reference system (EPSG). Choose or filter for “WGS 84, EPSG:4326”. Then click “OK”.
  6. The Pace bus stops in the Chicagoland region are now drawn in QGIS!

    Pace bus stops are shown

    Pace bus stops are shown

  7. If the GTFS package you downloaded includes a “shapes.txt” file (that represents the physical routes and paths that the buses or trains take), import that file also by repeating steps 4 and 5.

Section 2: Converting the stops

It’s really easy now to convert the bus or train stops into a shapefile or GeoJSON representing all of those points.

  1. Right-click the layer “stops” in the table of contents (Layers Panel) and click “Save As…”.
  2. In the “Save vector layer as…” dialog box, choose the format you want, either “ESRI Shapefile” or “GeoJSON”. **
  3. Then click “Browse” to tell QGIS where in your computer’s file browser you want to save the file. Leave the “CRS” as-is (EPSG:4326).

    Convert the bus stops to a shapefile or GeoJSON.

    Convert the Pace bus stops to a shapefile or GeoJSON.

  4. Then click “OK” and QGIS will quickly report that the file has been converted and saved where you specified in step 3.

Section 3: Converting the bus or train routes

The “shapes.txt” file is a collection of points that when grouped by their route number, show the physical routes and paths that buses and trains take. You’ll need a plugin to make the lines from this data.

  1. Install the plugin “Points to Paths”. Click on Plugins>Manage and Install Plugins… Then click “All” and search for “points”. Click the “Points to Paths” plugin and then click the “Install plugin” button. Then click “Close”.

    Install the Points to Paths plugin.

    Install the Points to Paths plugin.

  2. Pace bus doesn’t provide the “shapes.txt” file so we’ll need to find a new GTFS package. Download the GTFS package provided by the Chicago Transit Authority, which has bus and rail service in Chicago and the surrounding municipalities.
  3. Load the CTA’s “shapes.txt” file into the table of contents (Layers Panel) by following steps 4 and 5 in the first section of this tutorial.  Note that this data includes both the bus routes and the train routes.

    QGIS load CTA bus and train stops

    Import CTA bus and train stops into QGIS

  4. Now let’s start the conversion process. Click on Plugins>Points to Paths. In the next dialog box choose the “shapes” layer as your “Input point layer”.
  5. Select “shape_id” as the field with which you want to “Point group field”. This tells the plugin how to distinguish one bus route from the next.
  6. Select “shape_pt_sequence” as the field with which you want to “Point order field”. This tells the plugin in what order the points should be connected to form the route’s line.
  7. Click “Browse” to give the converted output shapefile a name and a location with your computer’s file browser.
  8. Make sure all  of the options look like the one in this screenshot and then click “OK”. QGIS and the plugin will start working to piece together the points into lines and create a new shapefile from this work.

    These are the options you need to set to convert the CTA points (stops) to paths (routes).

    These are the options you need to set to convert the CTA points to paths (routes).

  9. You’ll know it’s finished when the hourglass or “waiting” cursor returns to a pointer, and when you see a question asking if you would like the resulting shapefile added to your table of contents (Layers Panel). Go ahead and choose “Yes”.

    QGIS: CTA bus and train points are converted to paths (routes)

    The CTA bus and train points, provided in a GTFS package, have been converted to paths (routes/lines).

  10. Now follow steps 1-4 from Section 3 to convert the routes/lines data to a shapefile or GeoJSON file.**

Notes

* As of this writing, the schedules in Pace’s GTFS package are accurate as of January 18, 2016. It appears their download link always points to the latest version. Transit schedules typically change several times each year. Pace says, “Only one package is posted at any given time, typically representing Pace service from now until a couple of months in the future. Use the Calendar table to see on which days and dates service in the Trips table are effective.”

** Choose GeoJSON if you want to show this data on a web map (like in Leaflet or the Google Maps API), or if you want to share the data on GitHub.

The new CTA budget

[I published an edited version of this post on Streetsblog Chicago.]

The Chicago Transit Authority gleefully tweeted that “fares [will] stay the same” and they’ll continue to “maintain/improve existing services”.

There are so many points to be made.

The medium on which they sent this message is irrelevant because Mayor Rahm Emanuel will parrot this at his press conference this afternoon at the Addison Blue Line station. He’ll say something that he’s holding fares down in order to support working families, yet he (because he runs the agency) can still get projects done, like renovating the Addison station to be accessible.

Fares should go up frequently, instead of making big jumps every 3-5 years. The price of things changes much more frequently and it’s what an agency providing such an important transportation service needs to do to be less constrained in making buses and trains run. And planning and funding for more buses and trains, under the strain of growing ridership. The CTA has the expertise to develop a long-term plan that sets out fare increases annually, removing the surprise, “Will this be the year?”

Fares should go up in increments smaller than quarters of a dollar! 0.25, 0.50, 0.75, and 1.00 are not the only choices available. Requiring riders who pay in cash – who become rarer each day – to pay with dollar bills and quarters isn’t a “convenience”, it’s annoying. It gives the CTA less flexibility in settling on the right price, and it means I can’t use these dimes and nickels that are piling on my nightstand. Quarters are for laundry.

“Fares will stay the same” is what Emanuel said two years ago when the price of passes was increased. Apparently causing people to spend more money to ride the train the same amount of times, if they have passes, is not a fare increase. This year none of the prices are changing. Hiking pass prices and keeping the base fare (single rides + transfers) the same can still hurt a low income rider: it puts the discounted fare further out of reach. Many Chicagoans are unable to put down $25 at a time for a ticket that would pay for all of their rides that week, so they pay per use, and end up paying more.

What holding the line on fare increases does is detrimental to riders and to CTA workers. It continues to defer fixing the problem of underfunded transit. The CTA, and its fellow transportation providers, Metra and Pace, are unable to pay for what people need them to do.

Additionally it’ll mean that, in order to keep costs in check, the CTA might freeze wages again. Because professionals providing Chicagoans with quality transportation services are the city’s and state’s piggy bank, and should sacrifice their wages due to “hard times”.

That’s the problem to be dealt with “soon”, but there’s an immediate problem, that Jon Hilkevitch explains in the Tribune:

The governor and lawmakers in Springfield have not agreed on a 2016 budget and the state still owes the CTA $221 million in capital-improvement funding that was expected in 2015, transit officials said.

But hey, “air quality” money is going to pay $18 million to widen a bunch of intersections so people can drive faster through them – until more people switch to driving through that fast intersection.

Chicago’s TOD rule is the only reason multi-family is being built in neighborhoods

This is the ordinance that says residential developments have to provide 0.5 car parking spaces per home, and that the minimum home size can be smaller.

How many units? At least 1,500. Here’re the 19 buildings I know about that are being built within 600 and 1,200 feet* of a Chicago Transit Authority ‘L’ station – the only areas, essentially, where multi-family housing can be developed.

Why can’t dense housing be built elsewhere? Because the most desirable living areas in Chicago – along retail streets in Logan Square, North Center, Lincoln Park, Lakeview, and West Town – are zoned for single-family use. (And ad-hoc zoning districts taking the place of community land use planning.)

How do I know popular neighborhoods are zoned for single-family use? Because Daniel Hertz’s new Simplified Chicago Zoning Map makes it easy to see. Yep, even along those dense business districts and even outside the train stations.

Do the single-family home zones contain single-family homes now? Absolutely not! Much of the buildings in areas zoned for single-family homes have everything but! The particular view of the map that Hertz uses in his blog post shows that even adjacent to CTA stations, and within 1 block, there are only single-family zones (in red). There are many multi-family buildings in these red zones.

Red areas are zoned for single-family homes only.

Red areas are zoned for single-family homes only. View the map.

What ends up happening there? Teardowns. And the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce finds believes that non-matching zoning – it matches neither the existing uses nor the needs for the neighborhood – and teardowns are going to cut into consumer spending on its lively retail streets. Lakeview is seeing a population change to families which tend to have less disposable income.

More housing in a popular neighborhood means more shoppers, more property taxes, more “boots on the ground”, more “pedestrian congestion” in front of our local businesses.

Doesn’t the ordinance make station-adjacent parcels friendly to multi-family housing because of the TOD ordinance? Yes, and no. As Hertz points out, “virtually every sizable development involves a zoning variance or planned development process that goes beyond the zoning you’ll see on the map”.

The TOD ordinance is 19 months old and working exactly as intended, building more housing next to train stations, and giving more people the opportunity to have access to affordable transportation. So it needs an upgrade to be able to do more. Since, in Chicago, zoning is our land use plan, we need the best kind of zoning rules and this is one of the best.

Imagine what the TOD ordinance could do if it were expanded. Think, making the parking requirement relief and allowing different unit sizes by-right instead of going through an arduous and expensive zoning change process. Then, expanding the rule to include more than just 600 feet (which is less than a block) from a train station – people walk several blocks to get to CTA stations, and bike even more. And, beefing up the affordable housing requirements.

Let’s do this, Commissioner Andrew Mooney. Let’s do this, housing advocates. Let’s do this, transit advocates. I’m looking at you, Latin United Community Housing Association (LUCHA), Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA), We Are/Somos Logan Square, Pilsen Alliance, Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), Active Transportation Alliance, and the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT).

* The distance depends on existing Pedestrian Street zoning. If the property is on a designated Pedestrian Street then the station can be up to 1,200 for the ordinance to apply, double the normal 600 feet.

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.

© 2020 Steven Can Plan

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑