While researching his new book, Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile, travel writer Taras Grescoe visited cities all over the world to deliver the story on the world's great transit systems.
On a journey that takes him to New York, Moscow, Paris, Copenhagen, Tokyo, Bogotá, Phoenix, Portland, Vancouver, and Philadelphia, Grescoe goes beneath the streets to see subway tunnels being dug, he boards state-of-the-art streetcars and he hops on high-speed trains — along the way uncovering ideas that will help undo the damage a century of car-centric planning has done to our cities.
The book provides a history of each city's mass transit, and describes how each is meeting (or not meeting) its goal of moving people quickly, conveniently and affordably.
Active Trans volunteer contributor Jason Phillip recently had a chat with Grescoe about the book and how some lessons he learned could be applied to the Chicago region.
Jason Phillip: You've traveled the world investigating transportation systems in dozens of cities. What are you most excited about in terms of new thinking about transit and new ways of getting ourselves around—especially those ideas with practical implications for U.S. cities?
Taras Grescoe: The latest additions to major metropolitan transit systems in European cities, including London, Paris, and Madrid, include serious subway/metro systems for the suburbs—not just commuter trains taking people from home to work, but metros for the outskirts. That’s going to make those suburbs denser and more walkable.
We need to find a transit solution for the North American suburbs—metros are incredibly expensive to build and operate, so a bus rapid transit system might be a smarter way to go.
Can you talk about what makes for a successful bus rapid transit system? After your travels in Bogotá, Colombia, do you have any words of advice as BRT is introduced in Chicago?
I generally dislike the experience of riding most buses, but only because they become second-class vehicles on our roads, inevitably the slowest thing in traffic. In true bus rapid transit systems, they are often the fastest things on the road—and often much faster than cars in really crowded developing world metropolises. The best advice to a city regarding BRT is not to implement it in a half-hearted way.
Dario Hidalgo, who helped set up Bogotá’s BRT, makes the case that a BRT system that doesn’t include pre-payment, separated rights-of-way, real stations (preferably with platform doors and level boarding), strong GPS-supported dispatching, and good branding isn’t a true BRT system. If you introduce BRT with only some of these features, it’s likely to fail—and tarnish the whole idea in the eyes of the public.
Do you think international travel is necessary for people to understand the different ways that urban transit systems can operate?
It really does help to see how transportation works in different places. I think if it hadn’t been for my travels, I wouldn’t have picked up a deep understanding of the relationship between urban structure and density and the kinds of transport systems that fit best with them.
With that said, you can do a lot of travel on the Internet these days: Almost every major transit system can be seen in action on YouTube, for example, and with Google maps you can see how stations and routes fit into cities.
What do you think Americans would find most surprising about the history of urban transportation in their own country?
I think everybody who lives in North America, which is now so car dependent, has to be reminded how this continent was built by trains, and how its cities grew with rail transit. By the 1920s, virtually every town and city with a population of over 10,000 had its own streetcar system. The network of streetcars and interurbans was eventually so dense that you could hop interlinked streetcars from Waterville, Maine to Sheboygan, Wisconsin—a journey of 1,000 miles, exclusively by electric trolley.
Los Angeles, which everybody thinks is the quintessential automobile metropolis, owes its dispersed urban form to the Pacific Electric network. That’s why I think a transit and walkability revival is going to be most successful in those pre-WWII neighborhoods that were originally built for streetcars and buses (rather than the off-ramp-dependent post-war subdivisions).
What would it take to bring intercity passenger rail service in the U.S. up to par (or at least not embarrassing levels) compared with Europe? Is this is a more desirable goal than improving transit within cities?
Taras Grescoe; photo by Erin Churchill
The two go hand-in-hand. You can’t expect people to reduce car dependency if they can’t do some intercity travel without a car—preferably by rail. I think the U.S. needs to focus its energy on seriously improving and upgrading passenger rail service and speeds between major population centers that are currently linked by plane. That means fast rail up and down the west and east coasts (and linking to Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal!) and the major cities of the Midwest.
Most people won’t consider a seven- or eight-hour train trip if they can do the same thing by plane in under two. But four or five hours is the sweet spot—because with fast rail, you travel from downtown-to-downtown, and eliminate all the hassles of plane travel.
Can you describe why reducing people's dependence on automobiles can raise their quality of life, even if they don't expect it will?
For many people, losing the use of a car can feel like a loss of independence (or even a regression to childhood!). In many parts of North America, it actually is: The logic of sprawl means that navigating much of suburbia without an automobile is a painful and frustrating experience.
But in cities that have functional public transport, and have bikeable and walkable neighborhoods, getting by without a car can actually bring about positive changes in your life. The health benefits are the obvious benefits: Every transit trip begins and ends with a walk (a study of streetcar users in Charlotte, North Carolina, found that after only half a year they weighed 6.5 pounds less than drivers).
I know that commuting by bike year-round has seriously improved my attitude during the long winter months where I live, in snowy Montreal. There is a more subtle case to be made that, while urban highways and people zipping around in cars tend to foster alienation, bike paths, sidewalks, and public transport (bus stops, subway platforms, the vehicles themselves) add to public space—the kind of space where happy, coherent communities get built.
This article was provided by volunteer contributor Jason Phillip. Phillip is a freelance editor and writer who lives in Chicago.
Help design new transit stations in Chicago! What features do you notice are missing as you wait for the train or bus, or what do you appreciate the most?
Take this three-minute survey by Jan. 31 to share what station elements are important to you and to enter a raffle for a free copy of the book Carless in Chicago.
CTA will be building new transit stations for proposed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) projects on Western and Ashland Avenues, and in the Loop. Your input will be used as part of a Chicago Architecture Foundation design competition to help shape Chicago’s new BRT stations!
(Photo: Bus Rapid Transit station in Curitiba, Brazil. Credit: Sasha Aickin via Flickr)
Every year it seems Chicagoland transit riders get less transit service for their money. The CTA today released its proposed 2013 budget, which includes another fare increase for transit riders next year. This closely follows Metra’s proposal to increase fares for 2013.
Service cuts and fare increases have become a regular tradition, making it more difficult and more expensive for people to get around. Demand for transit has been increasing for years, and people want better transit service. Transit in our region needs to stop moving backwards. Riders for Better Transit encourages Chicagoland residents to tell their elected leaders that it’s time to stop the cuts and fare hikes, and invest in moving transit forward.
This is a temporary fix and not a long-term solution to CTA’s funding woes. We can’t get rapid transit while spending all our time just trying to resuscitate transit. Chicago should have twice as many transit riders, but we don’t have a system in place to accommodate them, and we never will if elected officials aren’t willing to actually invest in better transit. CTA and Metra aren't raising fares because it's what's best for the future of Chicagoland. They're doing it because they've been given no other choice.
The CTA next month will cut a number of routes because it was the only way it could afford to add service on overcrowded buses and trains. In 2010, CTA cut bus service 18 percent and train service 9 percent. Metra raised fares 25-30 percent this year. CTA train fares have increased 80 percent since 1990. And for too long now our trains and buses have been plagued by slow zones, overcrowding and deteriorating stations. It's clear that elected leaders have decided transit isn’t a priority.
If the best Chicagoland can hope for is to maintain the status quo of transit -- and we can’t even do that because of regular fare increases, service cuts and crumbling infrastructure -- then our region is in serious trouble. CTA and Metra are barely squeaking by. We can’t keep expecting transit riders to bear more of the burden. The system is broken and only our elected leaders in City Hall, Springfield and DC have the power to fix it. Tell them today!
On November 7, Riders for Better Transit attended the Metra hearing on the proposed 2013 budget and strategic plan. We were there to call attention to the fare increases that Metra leaves on the table in next year’s budget. While it's good to see fare increases not part of the immediate plan, it's still a cause for concern that riders might be asked to take yet another hit on transit fares in the near future.
In our comments at the hearing we reminded Metra that last year’s fare increase of 25 percent was very tough for riders. Every fare increase makes our daily lives more difficult as we try to get to work and school, visit our families and get around the region.
Every year it seems transit riders in the Chicago region get less transit service for their money. Service cuts and fare increases have become a regular tradition, making it more difficult and more expensive to get around. We know this because last year when we attended the budget meetings we said the same exact thing.
Please add your voice to ours and target the people who really have the power to make a change. Here are two ways you can help:
Every year, the Bike Commuter Challenge throws down the gauntlet, asking people to track their trips for one week as they bike to work. In extending direct involvement to all team members in 2012, participation went off the charts. Nearly 7,000 riders took more than 16,000 trips totaling more than 161,000 miles! This great success made one point abundantly clear: Chicagoland needs more challenges like this throughout the year!
That’s why we’re introducing www.drivelesslivemore.com, a year-round competition that allows you to sign up, track your trips and get points you can use toward great monthly prize contests. As long as you’re reducing your drive-alone trips—whether that’s with transit, bicycling, walking, carpooling, or telecommuting—you’re eligible to participate and win. Sign up and keep track of fuel saved, carbon emissions reduced and calories burned.
For the November competition, you could win:
Get recognized as one of the greenest and healthiest commuters in northeastern Illinois. The first drivelesslivemore.com employer challenge, called TransitWorks, is now accepting teams. Sign up today: The competition begins December 1!
And the Bike Commuter Challenge will be back next summer better than ever at drivelesslivemore.com!
Can you imagine what the Chicagoland area would look like if Metra, Pace and CTA all suddenly disappeared? Residents of cities across the eastern seaboard have been faced with a similar question about their public transportation in the wake of Hurricane Sandy's landfall on Monday.
Perhaps nowhere has the impact of public transportation service disruption been as significant as New York City and its metro region. According to the 2011 American Community Survey Estimates, over 50 percent of NYC workers use public transportation to get to work.
On Wednesday, limited service was restored on NYC buses, with further openings on Thursday, along with other restrictions put in place meant to curtail gridlock. One cannot ignore picture after picture and story after story that recount the massive problems facing those who tried to get to work on Wednesday. From all accounts, the city remained at a virtual standstill without adequate public transportation available.
While we don't use quite as much public transportation here in Chicagoland (26.8 percent in Chicago; 17.7 percent in Cook County), we could expect the impact of such a "public transportation armageddon" to bring about similar—if not worse—gridlock.
As noted in a recent blog post, every year seems to bring about threats (if not implementation) of more transit service cuts and fare increases. For public transportation to fulfill its promise, we must all recognize that public transportation use benefits everyone by getting cars off the streets and helping everyone get where they need to go in a safe and timely manner.
We need to continue to advocate for public transportation use (and biking and walking) as a benefit to everyone. It is crucial that we not increase impediments to users--including decreased service and higher fares--and instead we must work for more to be done to expand public transportation options and encourage public transportation use in the region.
Take action and tell your elected leaders it’s time to stop the cuts and invest in moving transit forward.
On Monday, Nov. 5, the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) will close the Wells Street bridge over the Chicago River for a year for a major reconstruction project. How will this impact you?
Kinzie Street and Wells are two of the busiest bike commuting routes in the city, and many people biking into the Loop on these streets use the Wells Street bridge. Since navigating downtown streets by bike can already be intimidating for many people, a good detour is vitally important.
The detour for biking will be east on Kinzie Street, turning south onto Clark Street to cross the Chicago River. CDOT has installed bridge plates on the Clark Street bridge to make the crossing safer for biking. Cars and buses will be routed off of Wells further north, which should make the left turn onto Kinzie easier for people biking. CDOT has mapped out their detours for driving, biking and transit (view PDF map here).
We're also still awaiting construction on the protected bike lane on Dearborn Street later this year, which will provide a great alternative to Wells once it's completed.
People walking will also not be able to cross the river at Wells, and will be routed to the LaSalle Street and Clark Street bridges.
CTA trains will continue to run on the bridge, except for two nine-day service interruptions in the spring. CTA will provide alternative bus and rail service during those times.
We are holding our breath waiting for the CTA to announce its 2013 budget. Are more service cuts or fare increases coming our way?
The CTA recently decided to cut a number of routes because it was the only way it could afford to add service on overcrowded buses and trains. In 2010, CTA cut bus service 18 percent and train service 9 percent. CTA train fares have increased 80 percent since 1990 – but in that same time the state gas tax hasn’t increased one penny.
Metra has already announced a 2013 budget that leaves more fare increases on the table for next year. Metra just raised fares 25-30 percent earlier this year.
Every year it seems transit riders in Chicagoland get less transit service for our money. Service cuts and fare increases have become a regular tradition, making it more difficult and more expensive to get around. Transit in our region needs to stop moving backwards. Tell your elected leaders it’s time to stop the cuts and invest in moving transit forward!
Over the summer, Metra invited riders to review its strategic plan at a series of open houses. Riders for Better Transit attended and provided feedback about the plan on behalf of our suburban members. Thank you to those of you who attended a meeting in your area and shared your own input on the plans as well.
Metra has taken the input it received from these open houses and made further adjustments to its goals and objectives, capital funding priorities and even its mission statement. They are now ready to update riders with these changes at a new round of public meetings! Find dates/times and the location nearest to you.
In most cases, these strategic planning open houses will also serve as public hearings for Metra’s 2013 budget, which was recently released. Thankfully, this year’s budget does not call for any service cuts or fare increases at this time. But it does paint a rather unhappy picture of Metra’s finances in the coming years. Particularly vulnerable, according to the budget, is Metra’s Capital Investment Program--the money needed for making long term investment in the structural aspects of the system. Metra’s budget makes it clear that if it cannot get the funding it needs from the state of Illinois, federal transportation funds and other expected sources, they may yet be forced to consider raising fares.
Active Trans plans to make comments about both the strategic plan and the budget at these upcoming meetings--and continuing our push for better transit, without fare increases or service cuts. We’ll encourage Metra to make decisions that put the riders first. Join us!
On Monday U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's Fast Lane blog featured the new high-speed rail route from Chicago to St. Louis. Below is an excerpt from Sec. LaHood's post:
"Last Friday morning in Joliet, Illinois, I did what a lot more Illinoisans and Missourians have been doing lately--I boarded an Amtrak train. Friday's ride, however, was special because somewhere between Joliet and Normal, after decades of passenger trains on this route topping out at 79 miles per hour, our train hit a speed of 111.
"That new high speed is an impressive 39 percent faster than the one passengers have been living with for years. So Friday was an exciting day for us, and as passengers in the coming weeks experience speeds of 110 MPH between Dwight and Pontiac, Illinois, it’s proof that 21st century rail is indeed coming to America."
Read the entire article here!