Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Does Chicago’s Elevated “L” Get the Fundamentals of Transit Right? 

Chicago L art
I was passing through Chicago en route to Missouri to attend my niece’s high-school graduation.

As I had a layover of several hours between my flight’s arrival in Chicago and my Amtrak train to Missouri, I thought I would take the “L” downtown to visit The Art Institute of Chicago, then walk over to the Amtrak station.
Chicago L

The “L” is Chicago’s downtown train system, so named because its first legs were “elevated” above the streets. Today, according to the Chicago Transit Authority, the “L’s” 224.1 miles of track run above ground, in subway tunnels and tubes, as well as at-grade or in-expressway medians.

My trip began at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Clear signage and a long series of moving sidewalks with colored neon lights and a huge mural made the walk from my plane to the “L” enjoyable.

Arriving at the “L” station, I easily found the transit-system map to orient myself. No worries there, as a transit officer was on hand freely offering assistance to riders. I double-checked with him that the Monroe Station was closest to the Art Institute. The fare machine was easy to use, just a two-step process – select your type of ticket or pass and then pay.

The 40-minute, 18-mile ride from the airport to the downtown Monroe station cost $5 (and curiously, just $3 for the return trip).

I found an “L” train on the platform clearly marked “blue line” and was able to confirm I was headed in the right direction as its terminus, Forest Park, was marked on the car. The car was clean, with sufficient seating, even as the train took on more passengers approaching downtown. A route map over the doorway clearly identified all the stops on the line so I could rest easy knowing where I was and how many more stations I had to go.

The automated announcements on the train were clear and informative. Announcements of the next stop, any transfer opportunities, and which doors of the train would open make it very easy for any English-speaking rider to know where to go next. Also I figured that the lack of inflection in the automated voice would be easy for a regular rider to tune out.

The “L” as Part of Downtown’s Transportation System

Chicago skylineChicago Divvy

The “L” is just one part of downtown Chicago’s transportation system. I cannot speak to the city’s bus system, but I can say that anyone looking to get around by bike will find ample opportunity. Divvy, Chicago’s Bike Share System has numerous stations downtown.

The city also offers a lot of bicycle parking distributed across the downtown. On the sunny day I walked around the city, almost all the racks were full.
Chicago bike lanes
Chicago also features two-way bike lanes with bike signals at intersections. I didn’t see much use of them. As so many bikes were parked, I figured I must have missed the bike-travel peak. I am skeptical about how adequately these lanes can meet bike travel demand. They looked awfully narrow to me.

I also wondered how easy they would be to navigate around downtown, especially when traveling against vehicular traffic.

Walking downtown is pleasurable for the most part, given its pedestrian-friendly scale, ample sidewalks, and safe crosswalks. One exception is by the waterfront when crossing Lakeshore Drive, a six to eight-lane highway which is part of US 41. Auto movement clearly dominates here and pedestrian crossings are limited. However, once on the waterfront, one can enjoy the 18-mile Lakefront Trail.

My Verdict

My transportation experience in downtown Chicago was positive. I was very satisfied with my trips on the “L,” in particular. While I can’t comment on the comprehensiveness of the network or the pricing, having traveled just one leg of the system, I can say that during my brief usage, the “L” provided:

  • Chicago artReliable service: I never had to wait for a train
  • Clear communication: good signage and maps, user-friendly fare machines, understandable announcements on trains, and courteous transit staff, and
  • Comfort for passengersclean stations and cars, and adequate seating.

These are key elements, fundamental to any transit system. No bells or whistles required.

I do have a couple of criticisms of downtown Chicago’s Transportation system though.

First, intermodal connections could be better. The “L” does not stop at the Amtrak station (Union Station). The closest one is Clinton Station, two blocks south. Considering passengers carrying luggage and inclement weather, two blocks can be a real inconvenience.

Second, I question the desirability of keeping the “L” elevated. It seems to me that putting the “L” underground, thus removing a massive and obtrusive infrastructure from the streetscape, would lead to a much more pleasurable pedestrian experience in downtown.

I noted during my visit that I avoided walking along the streets of the “L” tracks as they felt dark, closed in, and generally uninviting. And that was on a sunny day. I can only imagine how they feel on an overcast day.

I would venture to guess that undergrounding the “L” in its current location or nearby would be a boon to the businesses along its tracks. And what about using the “L” in bad weather? Wouldn’t it be preferable to be underground than exposed to wind, rain or snow?

Regular riders of the “L,” is this a fair assessment? What is your experience with the system? How do you feel about having elevated trains? Do you see it as integral to downtown Chicago?

Photos by Monique Wahba