Chicago Transit Challenges

By Peter Skosey

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn formed the Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force in 2013, chaired by Ill. Dept. of Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider and Metropolis Strategies President and CEO (and MPC board member) George Ranney. The goal of the Task Force is to recommend approaches to ensure that the Chicago region’s transit network is efficient, effective and world-class. The group’s final report is expected at the end of this month. 

In late February, I presented to the Task Force, providing MPC’s perspective on the regional transit conversation. MPC supports the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s goal to double transit ridership by 2040, but current trends will leave us hundreds of millions of rides short every year. MPC therefore recommends the following:

  • A clear and reasonable dialogue on the governance of the region’s transit system that guarantees sound use of public funds while encouraging ridership growth. The future regional transit governance model should integrate capital and operations planning across transit agencies; include a transportation demand management program; and encourage performance-based, cross-mode budgeting.
  • An emphasis on land use changes, particularly in areas of the region that have suffered from disinvestment. Most of the region’s population and jobs are located far from transit, but we have an opportunity to encourage infill development on vacant land near rapid transit. Appropriate financial and regulatory reforms could result in around a half-million more people living within a quarter mile of transit and 100 million square feet of new commercial space in that area. All these people living and working near transit would produce more livable communities and higher transit use. For example, the Boulevard at Central Station is a project near the Tinley Park, Ill. Metra station. It would include 167 apartments and businesses.
  • A level-headed discussion about the importance of identifying new funding sources to support regional transit ridership expansion. The Washington, D.C. region, whose per-capita ridership is far higher than ours, also invests significantly more in transit operations and capital spending each year. Nonetheless, the total transit spending—including fares—of the average resident in the Washington region is only about $800 annually, a minimal expense compared to the cost of maintaining private automobiles and the highway system.

As an earlier contribution to the Task Force’s process, MPC produced a report on existing conditions of the region’s transit system that offers written documentation of many of the arguments I made at the meeting. Data from the report was used for the Task Force’s Technical Memorandum and released by the Task Force’s System Performance Working Group.

The Chicago region’s transit providers—CTA, Metra and Pace—carry more than 2 million riders each weekday and are vital to ensuring the mobility of the metropolitan area’s workforce and boosting its economy.

And yet, as of 2006, only about 11 percent of the region’s residents chose to take transit to work. Moreover, though transit ridership has been increasing over the past 15 years, it is still about 20 percent lower than it was in 1980, despite a regional population that is 20 percent larger.

An effective public transit system in Northeastern Illinois requires a dialogue on governance structure, new thinking about land use and more investment. I look forward to continuing this conversation with other regional actors.

Photo Credit: Transit Challenges/shutterstock