Created by a handful of 19th-century transit barons, Chicago's elevated train lines shaped the city and provided affordable transportation throughout its neighborhoods. After decades of decline, the system is now on the rebound.
By John T. Slania
Date of Publication: June 2, 2003
Source: Crain's Chicago Business
When private developers built Chicago's first elevated rail lines in the late 19th century, their strategy was simple: Run the routes where the most people live.
Many of the developers were businessmen with limited vision, some with checkered pasts, and their sole mission in building these lines, above and beyond anything else, was to make money. Yet they unknowingly became some of the city's earliest planners, for it soon became clear that wherever a new el line ran, residential and commercial development followed.
In this piecemeal process, they built a transit system that indelibly marked the area it served, branding the blocks it encircled as "the Loop." Their creation also put Chicago in the league of the world's great metropolises: The el became an instantly recognizable attraction as closely associated with Chicago as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris and the Statue of Liberty is to New York.
But the el is more than a photogenic scene-setter for films like "Risky Business" and "The Blues Brothers", although there were years when steep ridership declines and serious deterioration of the infrastructure might have given that impression.
Today, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), which runs the system cobbled together by the early transit barons, is in rebound mode, with some of the most ambitious expansion plans for the transit system since its first route was opened in 1892.
Transit planning in the 21st century may have a broader, more sophisticated mission than that of those first transit developers, but there are similarities.
"We're serving the same functions of the early lines in the late 1800s: addressing the needs of circulation in densely populated areas and creating development opportunities in new areas of the city," says Michael J. Shiffer, the CTA's vice-president of planning and development.
Consider the agency's wish list of projects, each of which could take at least a decade to complete.
The roster begins with a new Circle Line, which would form a "loop around the Loop" and serve the city's growing central area. The 6.6-mile line would run from Ashland and Archer avenues, north to Clybourn and North avenues, linking existing CTA lines and Metra commuter rail lines and making crosstown commutes possible to locations such as the United Center and the burgeoning Clybourn Avenue business district.
The CTA also would like to expand many of its existing lines, in some cases extending service deeper into the suburbs.
For example, there are two proposals to extend the northwest leg of the Blue Line, which runs from the Loop to O'Hare International Airport. One calls for running the line along the Northwest Tollway to Schaumburg, while another would swing the line through a portion of DuPage County before looping north to Schaumburg.
On the Yellow Line, which runs from the Chicago-Evanston border at Howard Street to Skokie, CTA leaders envision extending service north to Old Orchard Shopping Center.
A changed attitude
Meanwhile, there is discussion about two other line expansions in the city .
The Orange Line from the Loop to Midway Airport on the Southwest Side would be extended to Ford City Shopping Center. And the Red Line, which runs from Howard Street south to 95th Street and the Dan Ryan Expressway, would continue south and east to 130th Street and Stony Island Avenue, where it would link with the South Shore Line.
"The current el system does a wonderful job getting people to the Loop, but we need something to address the changing transportation needs of the city and suburbs," says CTA President Frank Kruesi. "We need to take a regional approach in the 21st century."
This expansionist vision is a far cry from the outlook a decade ago, when the CTA was faced with steep ridership declines, budget deficits and service cuts.
These days, the budget is balanced and ridership has stabilized in response to shifts in the city's population and the transit agency's efforts to improve customer service. And expansion projects, each of which will easily cost more than $1 billion to complete, now seem at least possible because of a full-throttle press for state and federal funding.
"We've tried to change the attitude that we're running a monopoly into one that we're in the business of providing transportation for people in a highly competitive environment," Mr. Kruesi explains. "And if we don't treat our customers right, if we don't continue to make improvements, we're going to get our clocks cleaned."
Some shady characters
This competitive spirit is a throwback to the mood 111 years ago, when the first train began running between Congress Parkway and 39th Street.
The 3.5-mile line, operated by the Chicago & South Side Rapid Transit Railroad Co., started service on June 6, 1892, as an alternative to the arduous trip along crowded city streets filled with horse-drawn carriages, street cars and cable cars. Passengers riding along the elevated line suspended above the street by iron girders made the trip in 14 minutes, half the time it took by cable car.
With the success of the first el line, other entrepreneurs soon were constructing rivals. The Lake Street line, which ran from 52nd (now Laramie) Avenue on the West Side to Madison Street, opened in 1893, followed soon after by the Metropolitan West Side el, the Union Loop downtown and the Northwestern line through the city's North Side.
True to Chicago tradition, many of the early el developers were shady characters.
Michael "King Mike" McDonald, builder of the Lake Street el, earned his first fortune running gambling parlors and brothels. And Charles Tyson Yerkes, best-known for the Union Loop, launched in 1897 to connect downtown lines, bought off or bullied politicians and property owners to secure the right-of-way for his project. And both men left town after being accused of selling stock in their companies at inflated prices.
"Those characters would bribe, finagle, cajole and use every form of chicanery possible to get their lines built. It was the accepted way of doing business," says David Young, a retired Chicago Tribune transportation writer and author of "Chicago Transit: An Illustrated History."
The shady dealings of their operators made most of these enterprises shaky from the start, and some teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. But an ancillary economic benefit was that people were locating their homes and businesses along the el lines, creating a pattern of growth.
"The el really helped bring a decent amount of residential and commercial growth to the city. It helped create mobility and allowed people to live farther away from their jobs downtown," says Bruce Moffat, manager of planning support for the CTA and author of several books on the transit system's history.
The independent el companies continued their bumpy ride through the first half of the 20th century, hampered by the automobile's growing popularity, the Great Depression and the city's loss of population to the suburbs after World War II.
As a result, by the end of the war, most of the companies were in receivership, and it was clear that government needed to step in if Chicago was to continue to offer public transportation.
Thus, the Illinois General Assembly authorized creation of the Chicago Transit Authority, which, after selling $105 million in bonds, purchased all the city's private rail and bus lines in 1947.
Despite the financial support from the state, the fledgling CTA started out in a hole that seemed to grow deeper each decade. The private companies purchased by the CTA had let their train cars, stations and equipment fall into disrepair. Some lines were still operating with wooden passenger cars. Low ridership forced the CTA to cut six branch lines and close 100 stations.
Meanwhile, the city's continued population decline undercut ridership. The CTA tried fare increases to shore up revenue losses, but higher fares only chased away more riders. By 1970, the CTA was losing money.
The creation of the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) in 1974, which united all the area's public transportation systems under one agency, promised to help solve the CTA's budget problems. But operating costs continued to rise, and by 1980, the CTA, whose costs accounted for 70% of the RTA's budget, had a deficit of $280 million.
Into the 1990s, CTA deficits continued to swell and fares were steadily increased, while more service cuts were made. By 1993, ridership fell to an all-time low of 118.2 million riders a year.
"That period of the CTA was like the 'Perils of Pauline', one crisis after another," says David Schulz, Chicago budget director under former Mayor Jane Byrne and now executive director of Northwestern University's Infrastructure Technology Institute, which studies transportation issues.
But the beginning of the 1990s also signaled the makings of a turnaround. Securing $500 million in federal funds, the CTA in 1993 built the Orange Line southwest to Midway Airport, a move that echoed the success of its Blue Line extension to O'Hare International Airport a decade earlier.
The CTA also moved to trim operating costs. In 1996, President David Mosena approved a controversial series of service cuts, including parts of lines, and reduced overnight hours on several el routes. The result was a realignment of service to match ridership levels. Mr. Mosena resigned soon after to become president of the Museum of Science and Industry.
"Dave Mosena took a lot of heat for what he did," Mr. Schulz says. "But what he did was devise a strategy of protecting the CTA's core service. And he set the stage for Frank Kruesi."
Mr. Kruesi, who was appointed CTA president in 1997, came to the job with a unique perspective. He was Mayor Richard M. Daley's policy chief until 1993, when he became an assistant transportation secretary in the Clinton administration.
He brought an understanding of the needs of the city's public transportation system and, more important, a grasp of how to go after public funding to pay for improvements.
Customers, not riders
Focusing internally first, Mr. Kruesi worked to trim overhead and make service adjustments to bring the CTA's $925-million budget back into balance. He then set about adjusting workers' attitudes, to place a greater emphasis on customer service. The mantra at the CTA became: "on time, clean, safe and friendly service."
"We removed the gang etchings from the windows, the graffiti, we cleaned up the trash, we added security cameras, we publicized our schedules for when the trains run," Mr. Kruesi says. "We started treating people like valued customers instead of just riders."
It's tough to measure which of these policies contributed the most to the CTA's five straight years of overall ridership increases, with almost 152 million el riders tallied last year.
The growth in the city's population was certainly a factor. But Mr. Kruesi believes the service improvements have had something to do with the uptick, and he doesn't worry about the rest.
"I don't care about things I don't have control of," he says. "I focus on the things I can do something about."
'Crawl, walk, run'
Many outside observers are impressed.
"Given the problems of the CTA over the last 30 years, service cuts, ridership loss, budget problems, it's incredible that we're now able to talk about making major upgrades to the system, and extensions," Mr. Schulz says.
Says Mr. Kruesi: "I look at it as crawl, walk, run. I think we're now at the walking stage, getting ready to run."
Which means Mr. Kruesi is spending more time running from Chicago to Washington, D.C., and Springfield, trying to sell his expansion plans to federal and state lawmakers who can provide critical funding.
He has been encouraged by support from U.S. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Yorkville, and U.S. Rep. William O. Lipinski, D-Chicago, who in recent years have helped steer some $770 million in federal funds for repairs and improvements to the Blue and Brown lines.
Former Republican Gov. George Ryan helped secure some $100 million in state funds, and Mr. Kruesi hopes to fare at least as well with Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, although the new governor faces severe budget constraints of his own.
Nevertheless, "we have some important players on the federal and state levels who have supported us," says Mr. Kruesi. "We plan to continue to compete for future funding.
"The CTA for years took the position that it would make do with what it had," he continues. "That attitude will no longer work. The future is in providing quality public transportation not just for Chicago, but the region. We are eager to serve the future transportation needs of the region, grow with it, and help it grow."
Copyright 2003 by Crain Communications Inc.