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Nicole Cohen and Melissa May/MEDILL

How does Chicago's transportation measure up to that of competing bid cities? Three people familiar with the opponents' transit systems weigh in.


Going for the gold: Does Chicago's transportation system stack up?

by Nicole Cohen and Melissa May
Feb 12, 2009


Melissa May/MEDILL

Chicago 2016's Olympic bid book arrived in Lausanne, Switzerland, Thursday. Transportation is an important element in the International Olympic Committee's decision.


One of Chicago's biggest strengths is the proximity of venues to transportation. 

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Could Obama help Chicago win the games?

When it comes down to a decision, it may all come down to politics as usual.

“In the final analysis, it’s politics that determine which [city] gets the bid,” said Bill Martin, former United States Olympic Committee president.

Martin said it’s a “strong positive” that President Obama is from Chicago and could signal an opportunity for the International Olympic Committee to recognize his city.

“I think Chicago has a great chance,” Martin said. “I think they’ll get the games.”

María Choca Urban, program director of transportation and community development for Chicago’s Center for Neighborhood Technology agreed, saying who you know and who you are can have a powerful influence.

“From what I have heard and read, a great deal of the Olympic decision rests on personal relationships and salesmanship,” Choca Urban said.

“I think the fact that Barack is from Chicago, he’ll be able to speak as an enthusiastic booster.” 

As the Chicago 2016 Olympic bid book left the Third Coast for the coast of Switzerland this week, the City of Broad Shoulders settled in to await a decision that could renew a legacy of making no little plans.

The bid books Chicago, Tokyo, Madrid and Rio de Janeiro submitted to the International Olympic Committee present each city’s case for hosting the games, a decision that will be announced in October.

An increasingly important bid-book requirement is that each city demonstrate the proficiency and potential of its transportation system.

“You’ve got to have a clear-cut transportation plan that works,” said Bill Martin, former president of the United States Olympic Committee.

In recent years the IOC has placed increased emphasis on efficient transit. Atlanta’s bid for the 1996 Olympics serves as a point of reference.

“[Transportation] was not a real factor at that time,” said Charlie Battle, a member of the Atlanta Olympic Organizing Committee and international relations advisor for Chicago 2016.

In the late ‘90s the IOC created an evaluation commission to review bid cities. The newly formed commission included a transportation specialist.

When this happened, bid cities scrambled to revamp their transportation systems. Battle gave the example of Athens, which contended with Atlanta for the ’96 bid and eventually won the 2004 bid after overhauling its transit options.

“I’m not going to say they lost because of transportation, but I think it significantly enhanced their bid in 2004,” Battle said.

What makes a good transportation system?

Existing infrastructure and multiple transportation options are two key elements of a successful transit system, said Siim Sööt, interim director of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“To some extent [transportation] is a little difficult to quantify,” Sööt said.

The size of a transportation system alone does not necessarily reflect its ability to handle an Olympic crowd. Lots of stations or lines might imply frequent service, but that is not necessarily the most important factor, Sööt said.

“The Olympic Committee has to look at exactly where the stations are, where the venues are.”

Sööt said the correlation between location of venues and the density of a public transportation system is one of Chicago’s strengths when it comes to the race for 2016.

Some easily accessible proposed venues are Grant Park by the el and bus, McCormick Place by bus and Lincoln Park by the Red Line.

“I think one of the good things about the Chicago proposal is that most of the venues are eminently reachable by public transportation systems,” Sööt said.

“We don’t have the extensive systems and frequency of trains that Tokyo and Madrid have, but our venues are located where we have the most concentrated parts of our public transportation network.”

Experience counts

Another thing Chicago has going for it is its experience in transportation systems. The city also is no stranger to handling large crowds.

“With 8 million people in the region, we are accustomed to large activities,” Sööt said, giving election night in Grant Park as an example. “We have a history of handling large crowds and movement of large numbers of people.”

“We have a track record running that system,” said María Choca Urban, program director of transportation and community development at Chicago’s Center for Neighborhood Technology.

“We have a track record rehabilitating the system. I think all of those things reflect favorably on Chicago.”

Unfortunately, what Chicago has in experience, it often lacks in resources.

“We’ve neglected our transit system for way too many years,” Choca Urban said.

Job one should be a major overhaul of facilities, Choca Urban said.

“By that I mean track, rolling stock, signals, switches, just to make sure that all of that was in the best shape that it can be for the Olympics.”

Options make a difference

Another consideration is the use of environmentally friendly transportation. Tokyo, for example, committed in the bid information posted on its Olympics Web site to use only zero- or low-emission vehicles.

Choca Urban said Chicago may find it difficult to make good on its promise to provide green transportation to athletes and Olympic officials.

“Environmentally, they’re talking about using the greenest cars they can get for Olympic officials and athletes,” she said. “But they’re talking about importing a thousand buses to do this shuttling, and I don’t know that they can say with certainty that those buses will be hybrid buses or be environmentally sound.”

Like Sööt, Choca Urban recognizes the importance of having options in transportation.

“The mayor is big into talking about bicycle rentals and things like that,” Choca Urban said. “Will there be facilities for [visitors] to park and lock their bikes and go watch their event?”

Despite some problems with Chicago transportation, many experts said the system’s positives outweigh the negatives.

“If transportation were the only criteria, then Tokyo would be the hands-down winner,” Sööt said.

However, because of the proximity of Chicago’s venues to transportation, Sööt said he believed Chicago is very well-positioned.

Should the torch be sent to Chicago, the city may find itself in the position to make much-needed improvements that could transform its system.

“Mass transit is important,” Martin said. “It’s a great opportunity to develop a lasting legacy in Chicago.”