Saturday, October 27, 2007

Herald Of The Apocalypse

West North blog has a recent post by Payton Chung entitled "CTA Bus Cuts In Perspective" that got picked up Friday by Capitol Fax Blog to leaven its discussion of transit funding issues.

The post starts with the ridership on the 84 CTA bus routes that the CTA will cut when implementing the November and January doomsdays (308,262). Since cars on average carry only 1.2 passengers, this is the equivalent of "256,885 cars a day of capacity." The author points out that this figure is higher than the traffic volume at certain points on major local expressways and even approaches Metra's daily ridership.

The author then zooms in for the kill:

If the Kennedy bridge at Fullerton collapsed, or if terrorists took out both I-55 and Lake Shore Drive, or if Metra just up and died, how would this state’s government react? I bet they wouldn’t spend years squabbling, dilly-dallying, grand-standing, and pork-padding.

Sure, people will adapt to bus route elimination (reducing trips, taking alternate routes and modes), but they’d adapt to a freeway shutdown, too.

This is over the top, and not in a helpful way. It is wrong to assume that each trip on a bus route that is being eliminated will result in a new car on the road. If the typical trip on transit is to and from a work, school or other location, then 308,000 trips would represent about 150,000 new cars even if we assume that everyone taking the bus is going to use a car if the bus route is cut.

This assumption, however, doesn't stack up either. First, as the author recognizes, at least some of those taking bus routes that will be eliminated will switch to other public transit routes. Second, others will switch to different transportation modes, such as biking, scooters, car pools, taxis, and walking. Third, a certain percentage of people currently using the bus routes being eliminated will take fewer trips overall.

While it is dramatic to suggest that an inflated projection of new autos on the road is higher than the number of vehicles that pass through certain points on major highways, that observation overlooks the fact that the CTA bus lines being cut are spread around Chicago and the inner suburbs. Not all the folks whose bus lines are being cut, for example, will be traveling on the Kennedy Expressway at Fullerton. Some are going to the Loop. Some are going to the suburbs. Some are going to other parts of Chicago.

What is the capacity of the Chicago streets and highways to absorb the additional traffic generated from the elimination of these CTA bus lines? I haven't found a source for how many miles of streets are in Chicago. The Encyclopedia of Chicago says that "by the 1990s, the Chicago metropolitan area had 54,600 miles of streets and roads, including 2,500 miles of expressways, 17,300 miles of highways and arterial streets, and 34,800 miles of local streets."

Let's assume (a) that Chicago has 10,000 miles of streets and roads, a figure likely less than its actual complement, (b) 100,000 of the riders on the CTA bus routes being cut switch to cars, and (c) all their trips are in Chicago. This means that we have 10 additional cars per mile of available street. But, of course, we don't all travel at the same time. If we divide by 24 hours in the day, this results in 0.42 new cars per mile. Let's divide by 10, however, which leaves 1 additional car per mile.

Overstating the "devastating" consequences of the impending cuts and engaging in overblown rhetoric (e.g., equating the effect of the cuts to "terrorism") will further undermine the credibility of the public transit providers and their supporters. Folks are already suffering from "doomsday fatigue" after several years of doomsday scenarios. If the apocalypse fails to materialize when the doomsdays finally arrive, who is going to believe the public transit proponents the next time doomsday fever hits the town.

Let me be clear: There are going to be adverse consequences from the CTA bus line cuts and in some areas these consequences are going to be quite noticeable. In most of the city, however, these effects are going to be barely felt during most or all of the day because the current level of transit ridership in those areas is not that high. In denser areas already facing traffic congestion challenges and with heavier existing transit ridership, the effects will be more severe, especially during rush hour. These localized impacts, however, hardly add up to a city-wide apocalypse.

Rather than fear mongering, we should focus on dealing with those localized effects. There are a range of tools, including encouraging private sector transit (e.g., van pools), improving bike commuting options, and more efficiently utilizing our stock of automobiles through shared vehicle services like I-Go and ride-sharing social networking platforms like GoLoco.

The key problem is that our transit agencies are neither empowered nor inclined to roll out such alternatives to their services. Their hopes lie with SB 572 and its continuation of business as usual with an RTA twist or two and lots more operating subsidies.


Unknown said...

Well, glad to know that my dusty corner of the blogosphere (averaging 40 hits a day) has gotten attention. Actually, not really, since the blog is to organize my thoughts, not to be a "fearmongering" bully pulpit.

I understand perfectly well where the routes are being cut (across the city, like half of the routes traversing my already hopelessly congested neighborhood), that not all riders will switch to driving (although most CTA riders are indeed "choice" riders), and that the effects will be distributed citywide (not like a single road closure).

I don't see how 300K bus trips = 150K car trips, since ADT counters also count "unlinked trips."

However, the net effect of removing current capacity that serves 300,000+ trips per day -- whether those trips are made in cars or on buses -- is going to be quite substantial. In particular, downtown office employment will be particularly affected by the elimination of many rush-hour routes. And honestly, I don't see how it's all that different from depaving roadways. The contrast between the hue and cry I hear whenever someone proposes removing road capacity (Depave LSD, anyone?), and the deafening silence that greeted CTA's budget proposal is disheartening, to say the least.

The magnitude of these cuts is stunning, and will damage our city in ways we cannot quite foretell.

Oh yeah, and your smarmy "let's be constructive" ending really grates on my nerves. I've done more than arguably any other private citizen to improve bicycling options in my neighborhood, for one. But the biggest challenge for bicyclists is safety from cars, and no amount of transit cutting will help that situation.

Anonymous said...

Our moderator seems to be a new convert to the "no problemo" school of responding to the transit crisis. We'll just start riding bikes, no problemo. We'll just take a page from New Delhi and start using jitneys, no problemo. Even if those were good solutions, the massive Blagojevich/Madigan dereliction of duty does nothing to make them feasible.

I think the contrast between state politicians' responses to public transportation and road closings is realistic and pertinent. Or for a more direct comparison, if the Springfield airport were hit by a meteor and replaced by a giant crater, there is not the slightest doubt that planes would be flying within the year, and funding would be found no matter what the cost.

I am puzzled by our moderator's newfound equanimity about the ongoing violation of our right to functional public transportation. It is an attitude that substantially diminishes this site's relevance.

Tom Bamonte said...


Thanks for comment.

1. I meant that 300k bus trips does not equal 300,000 new cars added to Chicago's complement of cars. We both seem to agree that 300k bus trips will not all shift to cars.

2. The contrast between "deafening silence" when the transit system is being cut (I guess you missed the Moving Beyond Congestion effort and attendant newspaper coverage and editorials) and when road capacity is cut is sad but instructive. Maybe it is a mass delusion, but most of the people most of the time appear to value the highways and travel by private auto much higher than public transit. We can lament these preferences, but we must acknowledge them and their implications for transportation decision making.

3. I agree that the Loop businesses will be adversely affected by the cuts. The fact that the business community does not appear up in arms suggests that the business community doesn't share our assessment of the importance of transit or of the adverse impact of the cuts, or both.

4. I certainly did not intend to be swarmy with my suggestion that we explore alternatives lying between our standard-issue public transit system and the private auto status quo. It is in this intermediate area, however, where I think there is substantial potential to transport people in a way that is more efficient and less environmentally costly than the private auto.

In sum, I believe that the City will be a less attractive and economically competitive place to live if the key alternative to travel by private auto shrinks. At the same time, those who overstate the impact of "doomsday" and perpetuate the debilitating notion that only traditional public transit can save us aren't doing us any favors either. I don't think you necessarily intended to do either in your post, but your post prompted me to address those issues. Thanks.

Tom Bamonte said...


I'm an apostate? No problemo!

If this country lacks the character and good sense to provide universal health care then it is safe to say the "right to functional public transportation" to which you refer does not exist either. Transit must prove itself in the transportation market and the political arena.

I believe that in recent years transit locally and nationally has been holding its own and maybe doing a bit better than the private auto in terms of market share.

Nevertheless, it is obvious from the reception given to SB 572's increase in operating subsidies and the RTA/Moving Beyond Congestion request for $10 billion of so of additional capital funding over the next five years that the public and their representatives are ambivalent at best about the benefits of increasing the level of public investment in transit.

As the Auditor General found, for at least the past five years all three service boards put out more service than they could afford. One of the motivations for this was to increase ridership numbers. If the public support is not there to fund the current service levels, then the transit service providers have to reduce their service levels. That's not a pretty process.

Before you cast me from the fold of true believers, however, let me just say that I think it a very bad thing that this region, the public and the political leaders cannot sustain a growing public transit system. Monocultures are bad for the soil when farming and they are bad for transportation systems as well.

Unknown said...

Ah, there's the defensive snark again. Of course I haven't missed the editorials and news stories, but again, we're talking about eliminating routes that, every day, move far more people than -- oh, the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis. Wouldn't you agree that the asymmetry between the press coverage given to these events (both of which result in a substantial loss of mobility to their respective regions, and both of which amount to a failure by government to properly maintain transportation infrastructure) is a little bit striking? Or why is it that the most cogent articles I've seen about the crisis have appeared in the NY Times and the Economist, followed perhaps by Crain's and the S-T -- while the Tribune seemingly can't be bothered to report even the basics?

I suffer from "doomsday fatigue" as well, of course, but believe me, whenever I tell people in other cities about what's happening here, they're utterly taken aback. "Where's the outrage?" And of course "most of the people most of the time appear to value the highways and travel by private auto much higher than public transit" -- the point of my post was to ponder the irrationality of this.

Also, there's no need to put "paytonc" in scare quotes in the main post. I'm not anonymous -- my full name (Payton Chung) appears on every single page of the blog. I just happen to sign in to WordPress with a shorter username.

Unknown said...

Oh yes, and just to reiterate: the city's most bicycled street (and my bike commute route) is Milwaukee Avenue. I'm sure that eliminating the #56 bus (13,000+ riders a day, on a street with an AADT of about 15,000!) will be endlessly helpful in further "improving" this bike commuting option, especially since there just aren't enough drivers trying to pull stupid tricks just to fight their way through the congestion.

The "150,000 new cars" statement is still a non sequitur. The point of the original piece is to say that a transportation facility that currently moves 308,262 Chicagoans every day is going to disappear soon. It should not matter if that's 308,262 people in buses, or 308,262 people driving in 256,885 cars, or 300,000+ people aboard commuter trains -- but evidently, it does matter. That's a point worth lamenting.

Anonymous said...

Moderator, after an exchange like this: Any wonder why people don't give a crap about your blog anymore?

JDAntos said...

Not sure I follow the 150K trips either, but 'tis true that comparing auto and transit trips is difficult.

I agree with pc's basic point, that there's a huge mismatch between the political reactions to the removal of infrastructure when it's transit vs. auto.

It's pretty hard to argue with that one, I think.

Anonymous said...

It almost delicious irony that the top of today's blog recounts how the Ryan repair is almost 100% over budget, $450 million. The Ryan carries 300,000 people a day, slightly less than the routes being discussed in this thread.

Did anybody hear about a "bailout" for they Ryan, or about permanently closing a couple lanes so it could "live within its budget"? Was there any wringing of hands over how we could possibly come up with that kind of money?

Of course not. Never has been, never will be. The sky is the limit when it comes to highways, no matter how inefficient they are, no matter that every expansion of that system increases gridlock, pollution, global warming and all the rest of the obvious evils associated with it. It is sacred infrastructure, while public transportation, which contributes to actually solving problems like the above, is treated like a panhandler trying to swindle the good worker bees out of their hard-earned money. Like I said, this is not a budget problem or a design or planning issue, it's purely political. It has made it crystal clear that Illinois desperately needs a political revolution, starting with firing Blagojevich and Madigan.

Tom Bamonte said...


If you want to make this blog better then send me something of substantive merit and I'll post it as a guest column.