"Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work." — Daniel Hudson Burnham (1846-1912)
Those inspired words by the architect who created urban plans for Chicago merit repeating as the Chicago Transit Authority on Monday launches its first weekday test of a modest proposal aimed at reducing uncomfortable "crush-loading" on buses and trains.
When CTA President Forrest Claypool unveiled the crowding-reduction plan over the summer, he raised expectations among riders that cattle-car conditions would ease and travel times would shrink.
That's the assumption. But let's take a "for instance." From 7:30 to 8 a.m. on the Blue Line, the CTA is already maxed out on capacity, agency officials said. The nine eight-car trains inbound during the half-hour are overfilled, carrying an estimated 5,590 passengers — or about 78 passengers per rail car — at points between O'Hare International Airport and Grand Avenue, according to agency officials.
The decrowding plan adds only one eight-car train trip to this half-hour, reducing the average load per car to about 70 passengers, or eight fewer riders, officials say.
"If you are throwing an extra eight-car train on there, you are taking 600 people off other trains," said Michael Connelly, CTA vice president of scheduling and service planning.
But the bottom line is that trains will still be very crowded. Each rail car contains about 44 seats.
"It doesn't mean that everybody is going to have a lot of nice personal space, but it will improve the situation," Claypool said.
In reality, the fixes represent minor cosmetic surgery on a patient, i.e., the CTA service grid, which had 18 percent of bus service and 9 percent of rail service cut in 2010 during a budget crisis. But overall the system and its service delivery hadn't received a thorough physical exam since 1997.
Instead of a major service restructuring that reflects changes in neighborhood demographics and travel patterns, the crowding-reduction plan is being done on the cheap, with Claypool emphasizing that there is no additional cost to riders or taxpayers. He's introducing $16 million in extra service out of operating expenses in 2012 estimated to be $1.27 billion.
About 22 million more riders are on the CTA today compared with June 2011, ridership data show.
The $16 million investment comes at a cost, too, by discontinuing 12 bus routes as well as eliminating segments on four bus routes that experience relatively low ridership. In most cases, alternative transit service is available to commuters willing or able to walk about half a mile or less, CTA officials said. Perhaps they're counting on global warming making that longer walk to a bus stop a little easier in December, January and February.
CTA rider Celeste Williams said many commuters in her Far Northwest Side neighborhood will find themselves walking as far as a mile as the result of CTA eliminating the No. 64 Foster-Canfield, No. 90N North Harlem, No. 69 Cumberland/East River and No. 56A North Milwaukee bus routes.
"Neither CTA nor Pace were able to provide any type of working solution for those suffering from this inconvenience," said Williams, who attended a public meeting on the plan. "It is exceedingly difficult for the elderly and very young to traverse these distances in inclement weather."
The crowding-reduction plan looks good on paper, it can be argued, as the CTA does. The plan, which began Sunday, adds service to 48 of the system's busiest and most congested bus routes during rush periods and adds 17 train trips on the Red, Blue, Brown, Purple, Orange and Green lines, officials said.
Your Getting Around reporter is eager to hear from riders about whether their CTA commutes starting Monday are improved by the service tweaks.
CTA officials say customers will notice shorter waits between buses and trains. But some of the improved frequencies amount to only a one-minute change, which appears almost meaningless on bus routes when traffic congestion is taken into account. On the No. 49 Western, northbound buses from about 6 a.m. until about 7:25 a.m. will run every three to seven minutes under the new plan, instead of every four to six minutes.
It's already abundantly clear that the decrowding plan has angered riders who are losing their bus service.
It angers those who don't trust a Northwestern University Transportation Center analysis conducted for the CTA that indicates the suggested alternatives won't result in new overcrowding problems.
It angers those who were assured by Claypool and CTA Chairman Terry Peterson at a public hearing in September that CTA staff would fully address concerns about the bus service cuts laid out by senior citizens, disabled people, everyday commuters and business owners. The CTA board unanimously passed the original plan weeks later.
Colman Buchbinder said he will be inconvenienced by the CTA shortening the No. 11 Lincoln/Sedgwick bus route by eliminating service between Western and Fullerton avenues. He wishes the CTA had made big plans, as Daniel Burnham counseled.
"The CTA in its desire for its own efficiency will hurt the community and the businesses along Lincoln Avenue, which in turn will hurt sales tax revenue, etc. They should have a wider vision," Buchbinder said.
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