Goodbye stink, hello faster train and bus service. As the countdown begins to 2016, I chatted up public transit experts and critics, and those were some of their hopes for the CTA in the new year.
John Greenfield, editor of Streetsblog Chicago and transportation columnist for the Chicago Reader, said he's looking forward to seeing if the speed of the new downtown express bus route known as Loop Link increases because he thinks it's too slow.
“On one hand, we are psyched [Loop Link] is open," Greenfield said. "It’s a progressive street design, and it was bold of the city to reconfigure the traffic lanes to accommodate these new bus lanes, but so far the Loop Link performance has been disappointing."
He added, “The entire trip I took from Canal to Michigan, traveling a distance of .8 miles, was 16 minutes. I think that’s largely due to the bus drivers being required to go no faster than 3 mph past the platforms. I’m optimistic that as bus drivers and other road users get used to the new system, speeds will improve.”
The CTA is monitoring the performance of Loop Link buses and said that so far, overall performance has been smooth.
“Like at all bus stops across the city, operators are instructed to approach the Loop Link stations at minimal speeds,” CTA spokeswoman Catherine Hosinski wrote in an email. “The 3 mph speed limit was initially recommended for buses approaching the platforms until the operators became familiar with the corridor.”
We all wish improvements and expansion of the CTA could be made overnight, but the reality is that some of those things can't happen without spending some serious coin. The CTA just doesn’t have adequate state funds to invest in major expansions and improvements in 2016, said Stephen Schlickman, executive director of the Urban Transportation Center at University of Illinois at Chicago.
“The challenge that we face in Chicago is that we have one of the oldest transit rail systems in the country and we have not been maintaining it the way we could if we had sufficient funds for it,” Schlickman said.
“Investments like Loop Link are good, but in terms of major improvements like building a new rail line, we still don’t have the financial means to do that. The finances are really only sufficient enough to fund the renewal of existing services,” Schlickman added. “I do think the transit agencies are focused on spending the funding they have wisely and are doing a good job maintaining the system’s existing reliability.”
Schlickman said he thinks the CTA will continue to tackle and fix one of its biggest problems—the Red Line’s lack of capacity and aging infrastructure.
On a lighter note, Ryan Smith, creator of the popular Twitter account @CTAFails, is optimistic that public transit will get a lot less smelly in 2016.
“As a regular passenger on the Red Line, I know how it feels to walk nose-first into an aroma of fresh (and stale) urine, spilled coffee, B.O., and weed,” Smith said in an email. “There’s an opportunity for the Febrezes and Glades of the world to be the subway stars of 2016 and save us from the nauseating combination of scents of the CTA.”
What else can be done to improve public transit this year? Smith aired his frustrations toward train traffic.
“Several times each month I have the privilege of hearing, ‘Sorry for the delay, we have a blockade of trains.’ This is the CTA’s latest explanation for high train traffic and why you’ll be late for work,” Smith said.
“How can there be high train traffic? Did every CTA passenger decide to drive their own train to work that day? I assume someone at CTA headquarters creates a schedule and then the trains move at regular intervals down the track. … At what point does this all go wrong?”
“For 2016, let’s start by scrapping the phrase ‘blockade of trains,’ and figure out why it’s occurring and maybe even fix it,” Smith said.
The same is true for bus bunching, he said.
The CTA’s bigger projects include replacing aging track on stretches of the Green Line, and 125 new buses will be rolled out in the coming months. But a lot of projects will be continuations from 2015 and before—think reconstruction of the Blue Line stations. And the proposal to extend the Red Line from 95th Street to 130th will just be a discussion point.
Things won't look drastically different on the CTA by year's end, but baby steps are better than none.