The public should always be involved in city and community planning. It can be a difficult exercise, though, but morally, and legally, we must do it. I got my own experience with dealing with the public by setting up and running, from the venue to the content, a public meeting about bicycling in Chicago in summer 2009 (reports and documents, photos).

Participants at the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council public meeting on Wednesday, June 17, 2009, discuss relevant bicycling topics.

What’s unfortunate, though, is that public participation tends to turn into meeting theater.

The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) has just released the public comments from the third “screening” of the Circle Line Alternatives Analysis study. Screen 3 presented the Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA), including route alignment and new station locations. I’ve collected a handful of some of the irrelevant or humorous comments members of the public submitted to the CTA after the open houses in September 2009. I’ve also included a selection of thoughtful, serious, and relevant ideas and questions (these ideas comprise the majority). Download the entire collection.


These comments are recorded by the CTA study team, but not addressed and thrown in “Topic Area 23, do not pertain to the Circle Line.”

  • Nobody builds 1890s technology like Chicago!
  • What would Daniel Burnham think of this “LPA?
  • The connection for regular service to the Old Orchard Mall has my support.
  • These comment cards are meant to constrain public debate. RTA does not use these. Why does CTA need to control the public? [Note: If the commenter feels the need to say this, a comment card is the wrong outlet; also, an open house is not an opportunity to debate anything]
  • What is this “future plan? [Note: It seems that the commenter is unsure of their presence at the open house, or they don’t understand that the Locally Preferred Alternative includes only a small part of the Circle Line vision]


  • Tonight I was handed a flyer from LVEJO claiming that MidCity is cheaper than Circle even though it is 20 miles longer. CTA’s study says the opposite. Which one is more accurate? [Note: I would also like to know the answer]
  • The material provided on the CTA web site (the presentation slides and display boards) do not seem to be sufficient for public comment except at the most superficial level. Especially for those citizens who were unable to attend one of the three public sessions, the web materials are all that are available, and I do not believe they are adequate to meeting your requirements for public participation.

Common Topics

While the team who puts on the public meetings categorizes the comments into distinct topic areas (in order to more quickly address them), there are at least three major topic areas I saw prudent to discuss here. Read these after the jump.

How did the CTA develop the ridership numbers?

I have noticed criticism over the past two years of the formula the federal Department of Transportation uses to calculate ridership for projects applying for federal grants, but the CTA did not use this formula. The CTA addresses the ridership question in Topic 5, Data Used for the Analysis (page 5, PDF):

As required by the FTA, CTA is working in cooperation with other regional transportation agencies and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) to develop a regional travel forecasting computer model that can be used to predict ridership for the various alternatives being studied. This computer model is based on other models already used by CMAP for other regional transportation planning purposes.

It didn’t seem that people were criticizing the ridership numbers the CTA predicted, but that they had a legitimate concern of their source and that CTA did not talk about it sufficiently.

Why no new stop on Madison and Paulina (or the United Center)?

Comment 23 said (PDF), “Should the current LPA move forward, a Madison St. station is critical. The United Center is the largest activity generator on the near west side outside of the medical district. Proximity is key to attract new users, expecially as basketball season is in winter months. A station at Madison would also encourage new infill TOD Development on existing surface parking lots, which are both owned and not owned by the United Center.”

Looking west at the United Center and one of its many surrounding surface parking lots, as seen from the Paulina Connector, a stretch of track connecting the Lake (Green Line) and Douglas (Pink Line) branches.

Comment 27 said (PDF), “This bus (20 Madison) runs 24 hours and is the only bus route the circle line crosses that will not have a direct transfer connection under the proposed LPA. PLease add a Madison station or allow one in the future.”

The CTA responds (page 8, PDF):

“…the recommended LPA does not include a station here because of the close proximity of two other stations to this community.” The CTA the mentions the proximity of an existing and proposed station; Ashland/Lake on the Green and Pink lines, and the LPA’s Congress/Paulina station would have an exit on Jackson Boulevard, just “5 blocks from the United Center.”

I would like the CTA to add a stop closer to the United Center (at Madison and Paulina). The disturbing walk to the United Center’s front door would take 4 minutes. The new station could serve as an impetus and ground zero for a neighborhood redevelopment plan that would tear up the expansive surface parking lots to replace them with neighborhood amenities (a full-service grocery store for the  Near West Side comes to mind) and high-density housing. As of now, bicyclists and pedestrians avoid the area after dusk – there are no eyes on these streets.

The CTA will not be building a station near the United Center. If built, the train above would be pulling into the Madison/Paulina station.

While the CTA’s answer could not be more simplified, I suspect there are unlisted reasons why the LPA excludes a station here: The proposed Congress/Paulina station on the same line is too close – close stations reduce travel times; The proposed Congress/Paulina station may be higher performing, in that more passengers enter and exit the station, or make transfers, than would a station at the United Center.

In general, the CTA’s insufficient information campaign.

Several people commented that the CTA has not presented enough information or data. The presentation boards at the open house displayed insufficient information, so much that some attendees felt they could not approve (or disapprove) the LPA. Others wanted information on how the $1 billion in capital costs broke down (how much for stations, tracks, trains, etc). Another topic with insubstantial data was what an equivalent Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system would look like and cost.

The CTA provides a lengthy explanation on how the $1 billion in capital costs was derived, and divides the cost into eight project categories.

However, the CTA seems to let itself off easy in describing the BRT system it studied. While Curitiba, Brasil, and other cities in Latin and South America have “ultimate BRT” systems with short headways, dedicates lanes, and double-articulation buses, BRT in North America is seen as a toolbox from which transit agencies can grab one or many tools with which to develop their BRT systems. It seems the CTA envisioned and studied only a “probable” BRT system as part of the Circle Line Alternatives Analysis project, and not what is possible (which doesn’t mean ideal).

Public participation itself

Finally, several people also wrote about the public participation process itself, and seem to dislike its setup. I wonder which setup they would prefer.