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Daley's Trolley

Notes on the "Central Area Circulator": Is It the Salvation of the Loop, or a World's Fair on Wheels?

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It's a balmy autumn day in 1998, and you decide to lunch in Grant Park. You never used to have time for such a treat, but these days it takes only 14 minutes to get there from your office at the Sears Tower, and that includes the walk to the trolley station at Canal Street--leaving plenty of time for a sandwich and a quick gawk.

You settle beneath a tree and start to nod off, lulled by the sun and the rustle of discarded hot dog wrappers in the breeze, but are startled back into wakefulness when a trusting suburban family of three wander heedlessly into a turn lane from Monroe and nearly get run down by a cab. You wouldn't think they could turn any whiter than they already are, but they do.

"This is too nice," you say to yourself as you drift off again, your armor against big-city insults temporarily askew. "This . . . it's like Portland!"

Thus will life in the Loop be lived by the end of the decade if Mayor Daley has his way. People will be whisked in minutes from one end of the distended Loop to the other aboard state-of-the-art shuttles faster than conventional buses, more convenient than the el or subway, and capable of moving large groups of people. Transit planners, with their natural bent for poetry, have dubbed this miracle a central area circulator.

The Loop circulator, in the works since 1987, is just now emerging from the "nice idea" stage. Preliminary studies for the system were released in September, which gives us a chance to ask a question or two. Such as: Will this thing be the salvation of the Loop? Or will it be a world's fair on wheels?

The first question most people ask about a central area circulator--What is it?--has an easy answer. What isn't central area circulation? Each weekday people take a couple of million trips that originate and end within the Loop: lunch-hour shopping trips, office-to-office visits, and the like. This circulation within the Loop is accomplished mainly on foot, but the Loop segments of CTA bus routes serve as an ad hoc circulator system, while in fringe areas of the Loop many circulator trips are made in cars (including taxis).

Circulation trips are only one of three kinds of trips people make to and within the Loop. "Line haul" trips (by train, car, or bus) carry people to the Loop from outlying neighborhoods and suburbs. This traffic must then be "distributed" from the major downtown transit nodes to their ultimate destinations elsewhere within the Loop. Like circulation trips, most distribution trips are made on foot or by CTA bus (including rush-hour shuttles)--though more than 1,000 one-way distribution trips per day are made aboard Wendella sight-seeing boats, which ferry between Madison Street near the river and Michigan Avenue.

A generation ago transit planners needed to worry only about line-haul service to the Loop, as everything worth visiting was within a ten-minute walk of a train station or el stop. That is no longer possible in a downtown whose nether regions lie as far afield as Halsted, Roosevelt Road, and Division. At peak travel times, buses traveling on clogged streets can move even more slowly than a vigorous walker. Many large companies now provide their own distributor service to employees by chartering private buses--a measure of how inadequate public transit has become.

So there's a need for a transit link scaled between line-haul and shoe leather. Any number of transit technologies might serve as the basis for a circulator. For 20 years Jacob Dumelle, the former chairman of the Illinois Pollution Control Board, plumped for commuter hydrofoils on the Ship and Sanitary Canal, ferrying southwest-siders to and from the Loop at 60 miles per hour. The weather, alas, is a bar to year-round river travel, and the idea of a floating circulator sank out of sight at City Hall pretty quickly.

City Hall planners and their consultants also ruled out other possibilities early on. Expanding existing commuter-train and el systems, including subways, and using the new "people movers" (also known as AGT, or automated guideway technology) were rejected on the basis of cost or aesthetic impact or because they could only go where people aren't. Only two technologies survived the vetting: buses and light rail vehicles.

Light rail vehicles, or LRVs (also known as LRT, for light rail transit), could be described as postmodern trolley cars. Electric vehicles powered by overhead wires ride on existing streets, in exclusive LRV lanes, on standard-gauge railroad tracks. Each LRV can carry 70 seated passengers and another 130 or so standees; two can be linked to double that carrying capacity to 400.

The newest streetcars are smoother and quicker than anything Grandma rode--they've been essentially reinvented since the streetcar's heyday in the early part of this century. LRV systems are common in European cities, and older systems continue to serve in Toronto, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland. Brand-new systems of varying scope and complexity are running or in the works in Edmonton, Calgary, San Diego, Sacramento, Portland (Oregon), San Jose, Denver, Los Angeles, Saint Louis, and other cities.

LRVs have low carriages that enable passengers to board conveniently from sidewalk stations. Passengers may enter at any door, since the validating of fares is done not by the driver but by roving inspectors. Because an LRV car can be loaded and unloaded quickly, its "dwell time"--the time spent stopped at each station--is short, like the el rather than the bus. Dwell time can be as brief as 24 seconds, even at rush hour.

Such facts favor a Loop circulator system served entirely or substantially by LRVs. And the general assumption has been that some kind of trolley will form the basis of the system. But the choice has yet to be made officially. That decision is expected in November, when the planning department will announce its preferred modes and routes to the feds. Budget, technical factors, and neighborhood complaints are also expected to affect the choice of mode. Planners have analyzed four possible systems: a "full-build" LRV system, two systems that mix buses and light rail, and a bus-only system.

While buses are cheaper and more flexible, light rail is less polluting and offers greater capacity and durability. And, perhaps most attractive of all in an environment as congested as the Loop, LRVs are not prey to the paralyzing effects of traffic the way buses are. On the debit side, LRVs can be noisy (squealing wheels on corners can hit 80 decibels), they're more complicated machines than buses, and they're more expensive to build. A lot more expensive to build. The vehicles themselves cost roughly the same as buses, but a good light rail system requires substantial infrastructure improvements. Just to install the rails would cost from $3,000 to $6,000 per route-foot, depending on how much a given street has to be upgraded to handle the LRVs.

Nonetheless, light rail looks inexpensive compared to new elevated trains and hugely cheaper than subways. Measured in terms of capacity, a full-build LRV system is even more economical than buses. The former would cost six times more to build in the Loop than a bus-only system, but it would increase Loop transit capacity eight times more than the rubber-wheeled variety.

The Loop's current bus-based circulator system results in maximum congestion, maximum pollution--the maximum Manhattan effect. But Loop bus service should get a little better over the next few years even without a circulator. New routes will serve parts of the Loop not now served, and the routes will be more efficient. When the southwest el begins rolling in 1993, that will reduce congestion by pulling many buses off the street.

Conventional bus service could be further improved to make buses a plausible circulator choice. New models, now used by such advanced metropolises as Denver, carry more passengers and have wider doors and lower floors so that they're easier to load and unload. The bus-only circulator system would consist of a separate fleet of 90 of these amazing machines: articulated buses using new fare-collection systems would carry up to 100 people each over 13 miles of new bus-only lanes.

Better, but maybe not quite good enough. Having larger buses would reduce the number of vehicles on the streets but wouldn't do much to improve their efficiency and speed. Because buses move at such variable rates, their arrival times at intersections are pretty random; that makes it hard to coordinate their arrivals to coincide with green lights. New buses can be equipped with so-called signal-preemption gear that can electronically command a traffic light to turn green--but such interruptions would leave traffic on cross streets in chaos.

Worse, expected growth in public- transit demand could mean that in a few years as many as 100 buses per hour might be crawling in each direction along even minor Loop streets at rush hour; bus counts could rise to as much as 150 per hour on Jackson and Washington (between Canal and Wacker) and Michigan (from Lake to South Water and again from Van Buren to Jackson). When one-way volumes reach these levels, it becomes necessary to give buses a second traffic lane to prevent them from clogging curb lanes to the point of paralysis; giving the buses an extra lane speeds up their movement but crams all other vehicles into even fewer lanes, slowing traffic overall.

To make a bus system work, you need more buses; but if you put more buses on the street, buses won't work. Now you know what to say when your kid says she wants to grow up to be a transportation planner.

In September the city released its draft environmental impact statement, required to qualify the project for federal funding. The result of an 18-month research effort, the 349-page draft EIS required the attention of more than 100 people at 12 government agencies and nine consulting firms. Altogether they produced more than two dozen technical papers, based upon more than 100 studies on such topics as the physiographic ecology of Chicago and the economic impact of transit stations.

To make sense of an EIS you have to understand that it's usually written less to demonstrate a project's feasibility than to develop a political consensus. The project must be approved by the feds among others, and the questions asked by federal bureaucrats are not always the questions asked by the rest of us: not "Will this thing make the air cleaner downtown?" but "Will this thing result in nonattainment of National Ambient Air Quality Standards?" Readers can take my word for it that the answer to one is not necessarily the answer to the other.

Given the standard for such statements, city planners have produced a document remarkable for its integrity and common sense. Take the issue of ridership. Ridership is crucial in a system that expects to earn anywhere from half to three-quarters of its operating costs from the fare box. In the U.S. cities with new LRV systems, actual ridership has generally been higher than predicted. Heavy rush-hour ridership was no surprise, but in several cities midday travel by lunchers, shoppers, tourists, and workers just out for a lark vastly exceeded expectations.

The city's most optimistic estimate of daily Loop ridership in the year 2010 is about 120,000--but it could be as low as 78,000, depending on how the system is configured. These are responsible, even pessimistic numbers. For one thing, their projections of potential traffic to and from McCormick Place assume present levels of conventioneering, but attendance is certain to increase by the end of the decade as the facility doubles in size.

The most crucial population of potential riders is Loop workers. The city estimated their numbers in 2010 using 1989 projections supplied by the Pollyannas at the Northeast Illinois Planning Commission (NIPC), which has projected development-driven employment increases of 30 percent by 2010 over 1985 levels, pushing the number of people traveling into the Loop each workday to 880,000.

Of course planners have to assume that tomorrow will be pretty much like today; otherwise they couldn't plan anything and would have to go back to being accountants. But it seems rash to conclude that the next ten years will be like the last ten years, at least in terms of Loop development. The years 1979 to 1990 are unmatched in Chicago's 20th-century construction history--save for the 1920s, when a building binge left the city so exhausted it took 40 years before Loop construction began again in earnest.

In 1989, Loop office vacancy rates were below 13 percent. But the downtown office vacancy rate by the summer of 1991 was above 21 percent. Cityfront Center is typical of the scaling back. Under city zoning rules, the maximum allowable build-out would cram 15.6 million square feet of new office space into 50 acres, and NIPC based its ridership estimates in no small part on that assumption of growth. But Cityfront's developers, in their 1991 annual report, state bluntly that it is "unlikely" any new office construction will start there in "the next several years."

To correct for NIPC's unseemly optimism, the city's planners deflated some of NIPC's projections. For example, the city's calculations of circulator ridership on opening day, in 1998, assume only the completion of office projects actually under construction (not just approved) as of 1990. By the standards of honesty in the world of project analysis, this is the equivalent of finding a $100 bill on the sidewalk and turning it in to the lost and found.

When it comes to central area transit Chicago has been a day late and a dollar short for a long time. Burnham originally planned Wacker Drive-type lower decks to run along both banks of the river--which would have provided the perfect bus-only route connecting the commuter rail stations with North Michigan and Cityfront Center. And like most U.S. big cities, Chicago abandoned the streetcar for buses just as dramatically improved trolley technology was being perfected--a policy decision akin to closing down airports in 1958, just as the first jet airliners were rolling off the assembly line. The subways (State Street and Dearborn, opened in 1943 and 1951 respectively) were bargain-basement projects, built without a second track that might have allowed for convenient express service to and from the Loop.

Construction of the full-build LRV system is expected to cost $590 million in 1990 dollars; inflation should push the eventual cost to more than $747 million. (The bus-only alternative would run less than a hundred mill in 1990 dollars.) These are not large numbers by today's standards, however. In 1989 the Illinois Tollway Authority spent roughly half a billion on I-355 so that motorists could save two minutes on the drive from Bolingbrook to Glendale Heights.

The other light rail systems built recently have cost more than planned. And unlike the new light rail systems in other North American cities, Chicago's would be built entirely downtown, where costs are inherently higher. (Portland's 15-mile light rail system cost an average $15.3 million per mile--but the downtown leg cost nearly $26 million per mile.) A Chicago full-build LRV circulator would be in effect a prototype. Integrating it with the existing Loop traffic infrastructure would almost certainly require changes--some no doubt expensive--during the preliminary design and engineering phase. As a result, the construction budget for a light rail system allots a whopping 30 percent to contingency funds for unexpected costs, compared to 15 percent for a bus-only version. So the projected costs for a Loop LRV system, though high, may prove to be overestimated.

Capital costs could be trimmed by paring the size of the system or by opting for buses rather than trains. But planners worry that cutting back the light rail component too much will undermine the economics of the whole project--because even the best buses lack the capacity and the market appeal of trolleys. Attracting lots of riders requires a system that takes lots of people to places they want to go. A full-build LRV circulator--28 stations, 15.1 miles--will draw enough riders to earn 70 percent of its operating costs at the fare box; a shorter leg of 6.5 miles, from Monroe to Streeterville, would not earn even half its costs. As Robert Previdi of the New York Transit Authority put it in a recent letter to the Trib: "To attract ridership, public transportation must be more than just adequate. . . . You cannot expect people to get excited about riding a scooter. That is why the vision should be to make the trolley more like a Learjet."

In short, to make money you have to spend money. The present scheme calls for capital costs to be shared equally by the feds, the state, and the city. Originally it was assumed that Washington would pick up at least half the tab; but Washington these days helps those that help themselves, and it became apparent that a larger local share, financed by special assessments on local business, was probably essential to get any federal funding at all. (The larger local share was essential to get state funding, too, although in Springfield the requirement was political rather than bureaucratic.)

The one-third share to be paid by Loop property owners is generous by historical standards, but the question has been raised whether it is enough. (Metra chairman Jeffrey Ladd, for one, has complained publicly that property owners should foot maybe half the total bill.) Transit improvements usually add to the value of property, and in many cases the circulator will return to Loop landlords a lot more than the 2 to 3 percent of assessed valuation they will be paying for it.

This projected return explains the enthusiasm for the circulator among the city's big-buck developers. On the 40-member steering committee that reviewed the city's draft environmental impact study were representatives of the Greater State Street Council, Chicago Central Area Committee, Chicago Development Council, Civic Federation, Chicago Association of Commerce and Industry, Charles H. Shaw Company, Chicago Title and Trust, Metropolitan Structures, and U.S. Equities. As James Reilly of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority put it to the 1990 annual shareholders' meeting of the Chicago Dock & Canal Trust: "What made Chicago was the Loop. I mean, we say it so often we don't even remember what the Loop was. The Loop was a mass-transit loop, and that's what held together the downtown and made the downtown a coherent real estate development option and area. Time has grown past that. The circulator can do that again."

There have been a couple dozen informational meetings so far held by planners to explain the draft EIS. At one of them Bill Wendt, publisher and transit gadfly, rose and angrily denounced what he called "dishonest dealing" by planners and their bosses, who wanted to isolate the Loop from the rest of the city and convert it into a middle-class preserve. "My question is, are you going to serve wine and cheese on this thing?" Wendt boomed. "Tea and crumpets?"

The city's draft EIS only obliquely addresses how a circulator might affect--and be affected by--the sociology of Chicago transit. It's estimated the full-build LRV version would attract 120,000 riders per day by 2010, most of them commuters and shoppers from the suburbs, out-of-town tourists and conventioneers, and upscale downtown residents. Indeed, it's hard to look at the projected routes and ridership figures and not conclude that the circulator, especially the full-build LRV version, is intended as a middle-class alternative to the CTA.

As part of the planning process focus groups were convened, with interesting results. Suburban commuters just loved the idea of the circulator, and tourists were intrigued by it. But people from the Chicago neighborhoods said, in effect, what's in it for me? The briefcase crowd on their daily errands would be spared having to ride Loop segments of the CTA's line-haul routes with the great unwashed. True, transit service for transferring CTA riders would be somewhat improved, mainly by speeding the connection between subways and the west Loop. But the most dramatic improvements in service would be to such underserved destinations as North Michigan Avenue, the Metra rail stations, convention and tourist attractions, and upscale residential enclaves like Cityfront Center. (Significantly, the city did not even include subway stops as origins in its travel-time calculations; rush-hour travel times are from Metra stations only.)

Local planners are sensitive to the perception that they are pandering to a certain class, if only because that perception can pose political problems for their boss on the fifth floor. Acting planning director Charles Thurow bravely asserts that the circulator will make it easier for the less privileged to take public transit to emerging job centers. A Michigan-to-Canal trolley on Monroe, for instance, would help break down the system of rail-transit apartheid in the west Loop, which is now served by two suburban train stations and the Ravenswood and Evanston els.

Still, not a few of the people close to the project see the circulator mainly as an adjunct to the RTA's commuter-rail system. According to the planners' scenarios for 2010, 52 percent of the commuter ridership aboard the circulator will be transferees from Metra trains, even though Metra riders will account for only 30 percent of expected weekday transit into and out of the Loop.

By 2010, under the full-build LRV option Metra ridership is expected to increase by more than 6,000 a day. Some of those riders, as noted, would be people who'd otherwise drive. But a whopping chunk of them would be el riders who switched. Under the same scenario use of CTA line-haul buses into the Loop would increase slightly--by 1,400 trips a day, max--but the els would lose 2,400 trips a day. Not disastrous, but hardly helpful to that agency's cash flow.

The economics of the circulator demand that it appeal to people who don't usually take public transit. This creates a bias toward LRVs, whose usability and cosmopolitan associations make them much more attractive to the occasional transit user than even the best buses. It also creates biases toward the cosmetic. Nearly 10 percent of the total 1990 construction cost of a full-build LRV system would go to "designer" shelters, 1,200 new street trees, and new stone paving of the sort that has become standard in demarking LRV rights-of-way and stations. (Remember: If it isn't granite, it isn't light rail.) The assumption seems to be that unless the system reminds riders of the cash machine at the mall back home, a lot of them won't go anywhere near it.

Most of the recent LRV systems in the United States are single lines connecting remote suburban locations with downtowns. And the LRV-automobile interface is fairly simple: trolleys run along abandoned railroad rights-of-way (as in the system a-building in Saint Louis) or through mostly residential suburbs where the only traffic jams are caused by raccoons piling up around the best garbage cans. Cross traffic is kept off the tracks by the same kind of system used by conventional railroads: crossing gates with warning lights and bells activated by sensors in the track.

No U.S. city has attempted to integrate an LRV system with a traffic-control system as complex as the Loop's. Making it work will pose a hundred challenges to the ingenuity of engineers and traffic-control specialists. The man you see on the el at the end of the day with the furrowed brow and a badly chewed necktie is probably a city traffic engineer who's spent eight hours trying to figure out how to squeeze a two-car LRV train--at 88 feet, the typical light rail car is twice as long as a conventional city bus--across the lower level of Michigan through a maze of support pillars. According to one participant in one of the early studies, 12 separate configurations were offered as solutions to this particular puzzle. (The mayor should appoint Jim Thompson to the circulator's governance board; he could cash in some of his frequent-flier coupons and take colleagues and contractors to someplace like Amsterdam, where they know how to do these things.)

For a circulator to work, it must be given priority (as the old streetcars were not) over the existing modes of surface transit in the Loop. Cars would be allowed to cross LRV tracks but not drive in them. Some right-turn lanes would be eliminated. As a matter of planning principle, a circulator would not be allowed to deprive building owners of their present access to driveways, loading docks, and parking bays; however, in cases where the LRVs run in curb lanes access will have to be restricted to the hours between 1 and 5 AM.

It seems possible that a city that finally learned how to move a parking ticket through the collection system can learn to move as many as 75 trolley cars per hour through Grand and Columbus, even in the face of a dedicated car-using public. An unimpeded right-of-way is especially crucial to an LRV system, since fixed-rail cars, unlike a bus, cannot swerve around obstacles. Reports from other cities suggest that drivers don't clog LRV rights-of-way as heedlessly as they block regular lanes for car use. (There is something about being parked on train tracks that makes most people more civic-minded.) However, no study has tested whether Chicago drivers resemble those of Edmonton, Calgary, San Jose, Sacramento, San Diego, or Portland. Here, curb lanes are frequently clogged by double-parkers and delivery vehicles (although the city's enforcement of no standing/no parking restrictions is improving). Such routine encroachments reduce the efficiency of some Loop intersections by as much as 50 percent.

Some of the improvements to the Loop's traffic-control system necessitated by an LRV are already planned anyway. Planners expect, however, that any "new" street capacity resulting from improved traffic management would be overwhelmed by the increase in traffic as the Loop grows. A Loop circulator will itself aggravate traffic congestion on some streets. Some traffic lanes now open to cars will be taken away, and the general "level of service" at major intersections through which circulator routes pass will be degraded to varying extents.

Access encourages development where there is none, and densifies development where it already exists. Improved transit can transform a parking lot into a mid-rise apartment block, but if the demand is there it can also transform that apartment building into an office tower. And since not every trip generated by new office buildings or apartment blocks will be made by public transit, the circulator might actually increase the number of auto trips being made on Loop streets.

The circulator has been in the "nice idea" stage since 1987. When the city released the draft EIS in September, with the first detailed description of the project's costs and capacity, some no longer found the picture attractive. The Tribune, which has boosted the project from the start in its editorials, manifested its disappointment in a piece headlined, "Report casts shadow over Loop trolley." Among other things the story reported that the full-build system would cost substantially more than it would return in such benefits as cleaner air, and would not actually speed travel times around the Loop.

The points raised by transportation writer Gary Washburn in the Trib are likely to become the lumber and nails out of which a case against the light rail circulator will be built. Washburn notes that by 2010 average Loop travel times during morning rush hour are expected to be essentially unchanged, circulator or no circulator. "Travel time" includes the time needed to walk to a trolley or bus stop and the wait for the next vehicle as well as the time spent aboard it; trolleys move faster than buses, but because there would be fewer trolley stops people would have to walk farther to catch one--so some trips by trolley would take longer than by bus.

But measuring a transit system's value by average travel time is as dubious as measuring the quality of a climate by its average temperature. On such key and heavily traveled routes as that between North Western Station and Cityfront Center, travel times would in fact be faster by light rail than by bus--in this case by five minutes, an improvement of nearly one-third.

Transit economics has its own laws of relativity--for example, that the slower travel times are to begin with, the more significant even small improvements are. Planners in Chicago did a sensitivity analysis that tested how speed affected people's choices about whether to take a bus or a train or walk; they found that boosting average speed by as little as a quarter-mile per hour resulted in shifts from one mode to another potentially as large as 30 percent.

But speed isn't the only factor that influences transit choice. Because most Americans despise walking even two blocks to a transit stop, they perceive the time required for this chore to be longer than it actually is. The city's planners allowed for these subjective factors by doubling the "walk and wait" portion of each trip in their formulas. These "weighted travel times" work against the light rail circulator, but because it's so much faster than a bus, travel times end up about the same anyway.

What planners didn't do is adjust travel-time calculations for the fact that people find trolleys easier to board and exit and more pleasant to ride than buses. Had travel times been weighted for these comfort factors, the light rail circulator might well have emerged as the traveler's preferred alternative.

Nor was the circulator flattered by the formulas used to assess air quality. The Trib noted that the full-build LRV system would have virtually no effect in improving regional air quality, since its construction would result in only a 1 percent drop in total emissions countywide in 2010. However, dirty air is not experienced countywide, it's experienced on individual street corners; and there the improvements--especially regarding irritating particulates from diesel engines--are likely to be dramatic.

Planners properly charged to the light rail circulator's account the pollution that would be produced by generating the electricity needed to run it--including significant amounts of sulfur dioxide compared to what would be produced by oil-using alternatives. But they assumed that the system would be run on peak-period power generated entirely from Commonwealth Edison's coal-fired plants. A significant chunk of Com Ed's capacity, however, is supplied from coal plants that will have reached the end of their 40-year "useful life" by 2010; unless the utility undertakes an expensive overhaul, the circulator will be run on electricity generated either by nukes or newer, cleaner-burning fossil-fuel generators.

Even factoring in the pollution costs of electricity generation, the full-build LRV system would reduce carbon monoxide by more than 500 tons a year by 2010, compared to a 68-ton reduction in a bus-only system. The LRV system's reduction of smog-producing volatile organic compounds would be nine times that of a bus-only system. Those CO and VOC reductions would be concentrated in the Loop.

The Loop circulator, of whatever type, has a complex program. It is meant to reduce auto use and thus clean the air. It is meant to attract both commuters, who value reliability in a transit system above all else, and tourists, who look for comfort and intelligibility. It is meant to make doing business in the Loop more efficient. (Planners estimate that unless something is done, by 2010 an additional 473,000 hours per year will be wasted by Loop workers and visitors stuck in traffic.) And it is meant to change the image of the Loop, making it more marketable to impressionable convention bookers and tourists.

Meant to serve many purposes, a system may prove uneconomical at one and very economical at another. Calculating the net costs and benefits of such a project will be too tricky for the feds, whose cost-effectiveness formulas often add up two and two and get five. The Urban Mass Transit Administration measures cost-effectiveness by the numbers of riders such systems attract to public transit. The UMTA formula pegs the per-new-rider cost of a full-build LRV circulator in the Loop by 2010 at $17; UMTA's wise men have decreed that any mass-transit project that spends more than $6 per new rider is not worth the money. But that $6-per-rider standard has not been adjusted for inflation over the years, partly because the Reagan administration found that a low standard was a useful way of disqualifying urban mass-transit projects it didn't want to fund.

As for the cost per new rider, it should be understood that federal transit planners' minds move along fixed tracks of their own. In their universe, the purpose of rail transit is to replace automobiles. When they use a term like "new rider" they mean "new to public transit." But unlike new LRV projects in other North American cities, which link car-bound suburbs to downtowns, the Loop circulator is meant to serve riders who are already downtown. It's being built as much as an alternative to the bus as to the car: the full-build LRV should reduce the number of autos entering the downtown at rush hour by a scant 1.5 percent, but should reduce the number of buses by 27 percent. UMTA apparently has no cost-per-bus bottom line, but it seems obvious that if you want to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution in the Loop, removing one bus counts at least as much as several cars.

The Department of Planning should make its recommendations about the system's mode and routes known to federal transit officials in time for Christmas. (Appropriate, that.) Nuts-and-bolts design work should begin soon thereafter. Much remains to be decided: the type or types of vehicles to be used; the corridors to be served, and specific routes within the corridors; which agency will run it, and under what kind of administrative setup; the fares and schedules, including linkages--physical and financial--between it and the CTA and Metra systems.

At the moment City Hall is run by the first mayor in modern times with a passion for making things work--but his planners will have to show him how. They seem eager to take on the circulator as a professional challenge. As project administrator Katherine Marrin put it at a recent meeting, "We're gonna do it." These are people who for years have spent most of their time having their intelligence insulted by developers and their integrity compromised by aldermen, and they seem invigorated by the chance to actually do what they have been trained to do.

Should a circulator be built? Probably. A well-designed circulator will solve some important problems; it may aggravate some other problems, but these probably can't be avoided in any event. The more crucial question is whether the circulator can work in Chicago. Such systems work in other cities--but then so do their schools and libraries.

The city will continue to accept public comment on the proposed circulator until Friday, October 25. Written comments should be directed to Katherine Marrin, Project Coordinator, Department of Planning, 121 N. LaSalle, Room 1000, Chicago 60602; call 312-744-9610 for information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Victor Krasnopolsky.

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