By Cassandra Roman and Maclaine Purdy
Over the last 15 years, the CTA Blue Line has seen continuous increases in the number of riders and has had little to no updates to accommodate both old and new passengers alike. This includes remodeling train cars and stations, security additions, and adding more cars/running more cars during high traffic times. Over 86,000 passengers ride the Blue Line on an average work day, which services 33 stops.
Rider Growth on Northwest Side
The increase in riders at the stations is majority due to Chicago residents moving northwest of the Loop and into neighbors such as West Town, Wicker Park, Bucktown, East Village and Logan Square. Recent high-rise construction on streets such as Milwaukee and Division, have been points of focus for dispute. This dispute includes building zoning laws, the lack of parking for residents in the new buildings and elimination of parking for other residents on the block.
Dr. Joe Schwieterman, a DePaul professor in the School of Public Service Department of Public Policy, said, “We have something in the zoning ordinance called the ‘Trans Development Ordinance’ and that gives special bonuses and special allowances for people building near rapid transit stations.” He goes on to add after being asked whether new construction should halt,
“Counter argument being we shouldn’t stop potential beneficial development in our city just because there is a one hour ‘crunch’ on the rapid transit lines. Everyone has a different view on that, but the city needs development, and its keeping people in the city and they are paying lots of property tax… I’m not going to take a side one way or another.”
This migration trend to the northwest neighborhoods is one of the largest factors that contributes to overcrowding on the Blue Line. With the increase of people that are utilizing the line as their main form of transportation, there are no efforts from the CTA to accommodate these ‘extra’ riders.
Schwieterman said, “On my assumption on standing room has been that the CTA insists that every car they might be able to run over the loop, which has the real sharp curves, so we have real short cars compared to almost every other city in the world. They have to go around the loop with 90-degree curves so you don’t have much standing room…when it gets crowded it gets very uncomfortable.”
Blue Line riders not only are frustrated with the lack of room on the train, but the lack of cars during rush hour.
Emily Koebnick, 32, a member of the Ukrainian Village Neighborhood page and Blue Line rider for over 4 years shared her personal experience during high traffic usage. “I find the morning commute at times unbearable. Often we let trains pass because they are so full people fall out the doors when they open. I do think that it has gotten more crowded over the last four years.”
Overcrowding and delays during rush hour are not the only challenges CTA faces today. Competition with Rideshare apps such as Uber and Lyft have been a large factor in the decline in riders over the last few years.
Uber and Lyft not only service you from your exact location, but their shared ride function now competes financially with CTA fare ($2.50). Dani M, 28, of Ukrainian Village says, “I really only use that (Rideshare app) if I have to be somewhere and don’t have time to mess around with the Blue Line…or if I’m going somewhere public transportation can’t get me to without more than one transfer”.
Perception of Safety
In the last five years the safety on CTA trains has improved due to a major expansion and installation project of surveillance cameras that was worth $26 million. While improvements and plans are in the works, they are not keeping up with the growing rate of commuters as well as the constant delays that trains experience on a daily basis.
The amount of riders at the Northwest stops has increased drastically and the CTA seems unable to keep up with the growing numbers. Koebnick,“I feel safe for the most part. I have taken the “L” to the airport at odd times (mostly super early to the airport). I always like when it is busier and there are more people around so those early mornings I stay very aware while I’m waiting (phone away, ear buds out)”.
While the addition of more cameras has been helpful, many still feel like the presence of more employees on the platforms would go a long way.
Brief History of the Blue Line
In 1958 the Blue Line was created then known as the West-Northwest Route that stretched from Damen to Forest Park and 54th/Cermak. The Forest Park station was known as the Congress Line with elevated tracks that ran parallel to the highway was the first of its kind in the 1950’s, and would pave the way for many cities all over the United States. The north end of the Blue Line then known as the Milwaukee Line followed suit with elevated tracks running first to Jefferson Park in the 1970’s, and then to O’Hare in 1984 with tracks running parallel to the highway. The name change not take place until 1993 when the CTA adopted a new color naming system.
Red Line vs. Blue Line
There is a distinct difference between the Blue and Red lines in regards to the stations as well as the train cars. Schwieterman, explained the differences between the two lines, and the ways in which the two are being handled by the CTA.
Schwieterman said that “the Red Line is our showpiece, it’s our most glamorous and high-profile line. There is this huge project for the red/purple modernization which is going to modernize the whole part north from Belmont up to Evanston.”
He further elaborated on the ways in which the Red Line continues to grow and expand while the “Blue line is somewhat the stepchild of the red line and doesn’t get the same amount of attention. And you still have a lot of wooden platforms up by California, and it’s getting pretty old up there as you probably saw.”
In the recent years, not much has been done with the upkeep of the Blue Line stations while the Red Line has received and continues to receive funds for improvements.
Looking into the Future
As of now, the Blue Line has no set plan(s) to change current operations. This includes running more cars during rush hour, lengthening station platforms in order to add more cars, and adding more security personnel down on the platforms.
Schwieterman had some concluding thoughts for the future agenda of the CTA- “I think the stations could use a face lift, especially outside of downtown. Logan Square and others they are pretty weathered. I still think we are lacking digital signage at most stations. I’m skeptical we are really going to get fast trains to O’Hare in the next decade. I am just wondering if the CTA had a car on every train that maybe was an extra $2 that had luggage racks and hangers for your bag, and just some sense that your in a car that’s designed for airport travel”. With the recent 95th station renovation on the Red Line, totaling $280 million dollars, Blue Line riders will likely be waiting for changes for quite awhile.”
The CTA did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story.