Chicago can't compete without good trains

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CNU President and CEO John Norquist addresses the importance of Chicago's transit and the need to solve the funding crisis in today's Chicago Sun-Times:,CST-EDT-REF09.article

Chicago can't compete without good trains

By John Norquist

Quick. What do Tokyo, London, Paris, New York, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Dubai have in common?

Yes, they are all world financial centers with which Chicago both cooperates and competes in today's fast-paced global economy. And yes, several of them are Olympic cities, an elite group Chicago very much wants to join. But here's another key similarity: They are all investing billions in fast and efficient transit service. And that is where they part company with Chicago.

London is building a new express cross-town subway. New York is building the 2nd Avenue Subway, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg's much-publicized PlaNYC 2030 includes new lines in Brooklyn and Queens. Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tokyo are all adding hundreds of miles of new train service. And Dubai, the new financial hub of the Middle East, is adding 70 kilometers of rail transit with 55 stations.

Meanwhile, with transportation funding still unresolved in the Illinois legislature, Northern Illinois is girding for service cuts and fare increases. While people fear the scheduling headaches that could result, something bigger is at stake. Continuing lopsided support for highways over transit will jeopardize Chicago's ability to compete as a world financial center and begin putting at risk the many thousands of jobs connected to Chicago's commodity and financial markets. It will forgo opportunities to strengthen Downstate regions as well.

Here's how. In 2004, with CTA and Metra ridership growing as young professionals sought out the urban excitement and opportunity of the Midwest's economic capital, the State of Illinois pulled back on investment in the region's transit system. The state kept up spending on highways and tollways, but the capital funds that pay for transit improvements and serious repair began drying up. Instead of positioning Chicago to compete with London, New York and Tokyo in ensuring efficient, predictable transportation to and from its employment core, the state seems more interested in competing with Detroit to see which region makes a better truck stop.

Be sure there is no comparable plan for London or New York like the proposal last fall from some Illinois legislators for a truck way across the West Side of Chicago. In fact, plans are advancing to remove the Sheridan Expy. in a rapidly improving Bronx neighborhood. Paris is working to remove the only grade-separated highway in the city, the Auto Route Pompidou. This road where Princess Diana perished is increasingly considered a blighting influence. Instead, the French invest in high-speed rail and an improved Paris Metro.

Transit allows Chicago to be a high-rise city where the proximity of so many highly skilled professionals makes markets more efficient, supports the cosmopolitan culture that attracts investment and leads to more service jobs for non-professionals. To understand how much the market values good urban living, look at real estate prices in New York or London. Or look at Chicago compared to other Midwest cities. Chicago's Regional Transit Authority is second only to New York's and is unrivaled in the Midwest. Detroit and St. Louis competed with Chicago in the 19th and early 20th century, but saw their city populations more than halved between 1950 and 2000. Decisions to throw away their streetcar networks and build huge freeways everywhere only hastened their decline at a time when Chicago retained the L and suburban trains.

Advocates of Chicago's Olympic bid say it may spur new investment in infrastructure, especially rail transit. But why wait for the system to decline and then have to make up lost ground? Now is the time for the legislature and Gov. Blagojevich to provide the RTA the tools it needs to raise the capital to deliver world-class transit service. If RTA matched the investments going into New York and London, the Chicago region and all of Illinois would reap spectacular benefits. Imagine fast and on-time service on all the L and commuter lines. Imagine the Circle Route speeding up north-south travel and new Amtrak routes to Rockford and Peoria, strengthening inter-city economic linkages. Imagine high-speed rail to all the major cities of the Midwest. The yields on these investments are a state and region that are more attractive to people and commerce. Illinois should go for the real gold, securing Chicago's future as the market capital of the world.

John Norquist is president of the Congress for the New Urbanism, a Chicago-based organization promoting neighborhood-based development nationally. He was mayor of Milwaukee from 1988-2004.


Very True - Chicago an Underachiever in Transit

Although only one of two U.S. cities (New York is the other) to offer 24-hour transit service on some rail lines, Chicago's transit system definitely underachieves in service frequency and route planning. Norquist's point about the necessity to compete with other Alpha World Cities is very valid, however, before Chicago can do that it needs to catch up to other American cities that are transit-oriented. San Francisco's downtown MUNI stations show and announce (audibly) the arrival time of all trains passing through the stations. This allows passengers the ability to adjust their travel routes if they are in a rush. At the very least, real-time arrival schedules ease the burden of waiting - when you know your train is going to be there you can relax - instead of becoming frustrated and taking that frustration with you when you board.

To its credit, the CTA is slowly implementing a GPS system on buses that will allow passengers to use the internet or phone to see when buses will arrive at particular bus stops. Although this real-time scheduling service is better than none at all, it's less accessible than those in San Francisco, London, et al.

To add to Norquist, for inner-city transit the Circle-Line is truly the key that will open the door to increased TOD, economic growth, and efficiency in Chicago. It will cost lots of money and take years for approval and construction, but the Circle Line (even multiple Circle Lines) is perhaps the only way for Chicago to improve its spoke-shaped system and compete with other big cities across the world.


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