Rethinking Chicago's Regional Transportation Authority

An article I happened to stumble upon recently alluded to a big problem in Chicago and the surrounding region's transit infrastructure; namely that it is split into three parts.

Metra handles the regional commuter rail of the Regional Transportation Authority, on paper as the "Northeast Illinois Regional Railroad Corporation". Rolls right off the tongue.

Metra 213 at Blue Island, IL. Photographer: Frank Novak, 1986. FRRandP photo collection.

Pace handles suburban bus service, with very few of its routes entering the City of Chicago. Many of Pace's routes, especially their longer routes, date back to the numerous suburban bus systems, which did not usually often interact with one another, with the exception of those routes which replaced interurban rail systems, like the Chicago and West Towns Railway.

Pace Bus 6666 at Woodfield Mall.

The CTA handles electric rail (i.e. the "L" train) and bus service within the City and its inner ring suburbs. It is the oldest part of the RTA, as Pace became an arm in 1983 and Metra followed the following year. 

CTA's Loop "L" Service. Photo: Amanda Marie

While each of these systems is under the authority of the RTA, instead of acting as one system, they often tend to compete with one another for riders, and more importantly funding. There is very little in the way of cooperation between the systems, and this adversely impacts regional transportation. 

Compare this to Utah's Transit Authority, which handles the commuter rail (FrontRunner), light rail and bus systems for the area between Brigham City and Provo known as the Wasatch Valley. One system, and each service transfers seamlessly with each other. One can use one single card to pay fares for each mode of transit. Isn't it sad that Salt Lake City, a region 1/5 the size of Chicago has an arguably better, and more modern, transportation system?

A 2011 Law, HB3597 was to establish a single fare between the CTA, Pace and Metra by 2015. Metra countered that the Ventra cards and the app allowed people to buy Pace and CTA tickets, which may comply with the law, but violates the spirit of it, and most importantly means that the most disadvantaged people, i.e., those who rely on public transpiration the most, do not always have accessibility to at least one-third of the region's transit.

This is not a new problem, as a 2014 study recommends merging the systems together, but the article I alluded to actually speaks to how these systems became disconnected much earlier, as in before the turn of the 20th century. A single system could not only improve service, but also reduce three boards of directors to a single one. Of course, it would be more difficult for a former CEO to join such a board and have undue influence as a result, but I digress. It would also mean less power for its members and less opportunities for corruption, but when has that ever been a priority for state government? One bureaucracy is bad enough, let alone three.

Even further, there are numerous intelligent transportation initiatives that have been developed over the last two decades; and unfortunately each agency tends to implement them at their own pace. A singular agency could benefit all three branches. This leads to service that bus and light rail commuters, such as WIFI, being a novelty aboard Metra trains in the year 2021, or one agency having a tremendous number of cameras, and Metra still not implementing universal cameras within their cars.

It is helpful to consider exactly how this situation came to be, and that's where Sandy Johnston, an urban planner and urbanist, discusses how class shaped the views of the different transportation options of the day in the above article. According to him, "the Illinois Central trains were seen as being for the rich as far back as the 1880s.", which is the predecessor to Metra's Electric Line. In those days, the Metra Electric acted more as a rapid transit line than what it is today - commuter rail. For an idea of just how problematic this arrangement is, the Electric Line actually has the most frequent service outside of rush hour of any of Metra's lines, and it still pales in comparison to the level of service enjoyed by commuters 100 years ago.

This changed during the White Flight of the 1950's and 60's, as the wealthy typically moved south and west from the city, and argued for service that served their interests, while those who remained in the city were served by the new Chicago Transit Authority, who took control of most of the city lines.

Thus, the system had always had a dynamic between the City and the suburbs, who had differing interests, and in the case of the latter, actively trying to avoid the former. The RTA commuter rail system cut service and raised fares in the 1970's and 1980's, at which time, it adopted the schedules that are typical of the system today, as it was renamed "Metra" in 1984. These schedules often did not factor in buses that could have connected to the stations, furthering the dynamic, real or otherwise, that still exists today that "Metra is for white people". 

This institutional racism survives today, according to ATU International President Larry Hanley, "Low-wage African-Americans workers have been pushed out of cities and denied access to the robust public transportation that has been shown to be essential for economic mobility, it shows how unequal access in Chicago forms a type of transit racism." The racial dynamics at play in Chicago's transportation system were expertly cataloged in Gwendolyn Purifoye's PhD dissertation at Loyola University.

Johnston notes this competitive dynamic began in earnest with the creation of the Dan Ryan Expressway, "both because it took away a lot of traffic directly, and because a lot of South Side bus routes were restructured to exclusively serve the ‘L’. CTA has zero incentive to help rehabilitate the Metra Electric line or feed passengers to it if it’s competing with one of their proudest achievements. You see this very clearly in the South Lakeshore transit study they did in 2012—they totally sandbagged the option of restoring frequent service on the Metra Electric." 

One only needs to look at a map to see how this could impact not only marginalized communities of color, but even University of Chicago students. Extrapolating to the entire system, Northwestern University and the aforementioned Loyola could be better served as well. 

A Metra Electric train at the 59th St Station. Image: Shanty

Ultimately, however, the RTA, and each of its service branches, depends on federal funding for capital construction, which means expansion and service increases are a tall order. However, the system does itself no favors by infighting amongst itself. The people of this region deserve better than systems designed for one group of people or another, but should be open and accessible to all the region's inhabitants, regardless of class or race. 

At the very least, a singular payment card that would allow a single form of payment to be acceptable on the entire system, schedules for buses that link up with trains, and vice versa, and a commitment to develop downtown transit to help link the disparate Metra lines is not too much to ask in my book.

Thanks as always for reading!


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