It’s rush hour on a Thursday afternoon, and the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) train is packed with commuters. The Red Line – or the “L” train, as known among residents – pulls up, with numerous commuters getting on and off the train. This is rush hour traffic. It’s not the same way late at night. Since the the Red Line provides 24-hour train service between Howard Street on the North Side, through downtown Chicago, all the way to 95th/Dan Ryan Street on the South Side, there are moments when it is empty. Now is definitely not one of them.
At 3 p.m., the train is packed. Many of the commuters sit down – or try to – on the blue benches while others stand, gripping handholds or holding on to the stainless steel poles. Many are pushed together, and there will be no comfort during this 15-minute ride.
Some view the L train—the L is loosely for elevated— as the Windy City’s great equalizer, bringing various people together. Crisp suits covered in expensive trench coats rub up against moms with strollers, kids with the latest kicks and the occasional homeless person. Bodies sway in concert with every turn—a lean to the left, a lean to the right. And when the train stops and the doors open, they all shoot out into the city to meld with the rest of Chicago.
Of course, that’s a romanticized version of Chicago’s transportation system, and it’s not truly accurate. Getting around the Midwest’s biggest city has been a major issue for visitors and residents for years. The roads are congested. The buses and trains can be overcrowded and sometimes don’t show up. And the roads have more craters than the moon. Chicago transportation has been an ongoing discussion for decades.
From Carriage to Train
In Chicago’s 2021 Strategic Plan for Transportation, Chicago Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot included a letter to Chicagoans addressing the city’s long history in transportation, from its establishment as a trading post in the late 1700s to the global hub it is today.
“Our city has a deep-rooted history with transportation,” Lightfoot writes. “On top of that, Chicago is also a city of neighborhoods interconnected more so than almost anywhere in the United States by an intricate network of streets, railroads and buses.”
Chicago transportation has evolved over the years from horse-drawn carriages to the modern Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) system. But with each change comes a debate about whether the new change is helpful to the economy and those who use it.
In 1924, the CTA was established to oversee the city’s public transportation system. The CTA was responsible for the operation of buses and elevated trains, which replaced the old streetcars, and the implementation of new technologies such as automatic train control, which was introduced in the 1940s. More recently, bike lanes have been added, considering an increase in bike-sharing programs. The city’s subway system was also expanded to provide a more efficient means of public transport.
Overall, these transportation improvements were aimed at reducing traffic congestion, improving access to transportation and making it easier for people to get around the city. As the city continues to grow and evolve, it will be important to prioritize sustainable transportation options that reduce carbon emissions and support a healthy, livable city for all residents.
Taking the L train south to the University of Chicago, commuters both recognize the strides Chicago has taken and know that there is still a long way to go. Mariana Salvador, a college student who regularly uses public transportation to get to her classes at the University of Chicago, said there are ups and downs to the system.
“The CTA has come a long way in the past few years,” Salvador said. “The expansion of the subway system and the introduction of bike lanes have made it easier for me to get around the city. Plus, the Divvy bike-sharing program is great for short trips.”
But the system isn’t perfect.
“Sometimes the trains can be delayed, and the buses can be overcrowded,” she added.
Salvador recalled a time where she missed class because she kept missing the train. Angry, she took the rest of the day to learn the train system in and out. In the train station, Salvador had a determined look on her face as she pointed out the exact stops she needed to make it to her final destination on time.
Many residents have complained about the frequency and reliability of public transport for a long time. Trains in Chicago run late because of mechanical issues, signal problems, weather conditions and overcrowding. In addition, the CTA has an aging infrastructure, which can contribute to delays. And then there are the unexpected events like medical emergencies, police activity and track obstructions that can also cause trains to run late.
Tasha Franklin, a CTA worker who has been with the company for over a decade, sees commuters are part of the issue.
“In my time working here, a lot of the hold-ups have been from overcrowding commuters and commuters that are not polite,” Franklin said.
Having a lot of people in the same area can be difficult, as the inside of the train is a small area filled with different personalities and people having bad days. Franklin mentioned how people take out their anger on others within the station, causing disturbances. It makes Franklin’s job harder, stepping away from directing the train to escort the commuter off or ask for backup. Still, it’s not all bad news.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years,” Franklin said. “The technology upgrades have helped us operate more efficiently, and the modernization of the trains and buses has made them more reliable.”
Despite improvements, the transportation system in Chicago can be better. A major issue that residents face is the lack of accessibility.
“Many of the city’s train stations and buses are not equipped to handle those with mobility issues, making it difficult for them to travel independently,” Franklin said.
The City of Chicago has made significant efforts to improve accessibility and accommodations for people with disabilities in the public transportation system. These include installing elevators, retrofitting buses with wheelchair lifts, providing a paratransit service, implementing assistive technology, improving customer service and establishing an Accessibility Advisory Committee.
“Chicago’s transportation system is definitely improving, but we can’t stop now,” Franklin said. “We need to continue to invest in our infrastructure and make sure that everyone in our city can access reliable, efficient transportation.”
The city has plans in the works to upgrade existing infrastructure. A proposed extension of the Red Line train to the south would improve access to jobs, education and healthcare for residents in underserved neighborhoods. The city is also investing in its bus system, with plans to create dedicated bus lanes and install new bus rapid transit (BRT) corridors to improve reliability and travel times. Additionally, the city is exploring the use of new transportation technologies, such as electric scooters and autonomous vehicles, to provide more transportation options for residents.
The CTA’s efforts to improve accessibility and reliability, as well as the expansion of bike lanes, are steps in the right direction. Commuters like Salvador and Franklin are optimistic about the future of transportation in the city.