Urbanophile Blog Says Chicagoans Don’t Want Better Transit

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This content originally appeared on my former Chicagosphere online-media blog, hosted on the Chicago Tribune‘s ChicagoNow network.

Local urban-affairs blogger Aaron Renn says there’s a very good reason Chicago doesn’t have a world-class transit system: it doesn’t want one. Recently on his The Urbanophile blog, Renn began a multi-part series examining why Chicago never seems to be able to get its act together to plan, build, and maintain innovative public-transit infrastructure the likes of which other world cities have enjoyed for years. Even though Chicagoans love to complain at length about the CTA, could it be we actually think the agency is doing a good-enough job?

Renn announced his transit series, “Chicago Transit from Good to Great,” over the weekend at the C-BOM: Community Blogging & Online Media discussion meetup that was first proposed on Chicagosphere earlier this summer. (The event was a great success and you will find a summary and much more information in these pages soon.)

In Part One of his analysis, entitled “Building the Vision,” Renn drops the bomb:

“I think Chicago doesn’t have a great system because its citizens don’t want one. If there were greater citizen demand for a better system, that’s what we would have. Absent that demand, we get at best a good system. That’s because it is impossible to create a great, world class regional transit system without more money – a lot more.”

The funding needed just to repair and maintain the transit system we’ve got is in the billions, and that’s before talking about new vehicles, routes, and stations. Trouble is, according to Renn, transit advocates tend to be bad marketers. They need to sell voters on the idea of spending money–and lots of it–on transit.

But their sales pitches often concentrate on dry facts and figures rather than stirring visions of how a well-funded bus and rail system would benefit the lives of local citizens. (Renn makes a point; any good salesperson will tell you, it’s the sizzle that sells the steak.) As a result, Chicagoans just shrug and continue to make do with decaying wooden platforms and annual transit funding “doomsdays”.

In Part Two, entitled “Raising the Bar on Design,” Renn suggests Chicagoans would feel more pride in local transit–and thus support its improvement to world-class status–if the CTA offered a more aesthetically pleasant place to be. Renn laments the “value engineering” that led to rebuilt Brown Line stations losing platform-length canopies and gaining bleak platforms with few passenger amenities.

He goes on to offer numerous photographic evidence of how other cities have adopted forward-thinking, visually stunning designs for bus vehicles, bus shelters, metro entrances, and rail stations the likes of which are almost nowhere to be found in Chicago. A few examples from the blog (larger and captioned on Renn’s site):

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Forthcoming are concluding essays on how to fund aesthetically pleasing transit improvements while containing costs.

Earlier this year, Renn (a former communications client) won first place in a global transit planning competition sponsored by the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, so he’s not speaking out of his farebox here. He regularly engages in complex urban problem-solving on The Urbanophile in many areas in addition transit. (In June I wrote about his thoughts on the Art Institute’s Nichols Bridgeway.) In fact, the blog has become a de facto source for innovative urban thought thanks to Renn’s almost incessant publishing pace and highly detailed essays.

However, telling Chicagoans they already have all the transit system they want is like saying we wouldn’t notch winter up a few degrees warmer if we had it within our power to do so.

Indeed, in his opening essay, Renn says:

“People in Chicago like to grouse about the CTA the way they complain about the weather. But that doesn’t translate into anything more than amusing newspaper columns and blog postings. Like the weather, the problems of transit underinvestment are viewed as simply the ‘background noise’ you have to put up with to live in Chicago.”

Maybe the two problems are linked. It’s true, as citizens of a particularly chilly city, we’re always whining about a perennial problem that we can’t do anything about. But maybe, just maybe, we leave the CTA the way it is because winter (well, and City Hall and late-collapsing baseball teams) has already well trained us to pick easier battles.

Could it be really Chicagoans are simply too used to crappy transit to care anymore? All that complaining we do about the CTA can’t just be for sport…can it?

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