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Jim Dallke/MEDILL

The El's  hub-and-spoke model may cause people to stay in their own communities and not experience other areas of the city, some Chicagoans say.

Isolated by the El: Long travel times contribute to segregation, some say

by Jim Dallke
March 01, 2012


John Paul Jones/Developing Communities Project

The Red Line extension project would provide El service for Chicagoans who live south of the 95th Red Line stop. It would extend to 130th street. CLICK ON IMAGE TO SEE FULL-SIZE MAP.


The Circle Line was proposed by the CTA in 2002 and would offer commuters a way to get to from neighborhood to neighborhood without going around the Loop. CLICK ON IMAGE TO SEE FULL-SIZE MAP.

Phyllis Palmer has a transportation problem.

She lives in Chicago’s far South Side and has to take a bus more than 30 blocks just to make it to the 95th Street Red Line station to catch the El. Once aboard the northbound train, she settles in for the second leg of her lengthy commute.

“Thirty years ago I could ride from 95th to downtown in 20 minutes,” Palmer said. “Now you don’t have that.”

The CTA trip planner estimates a 31-minute travel time from 95th to the Jackson Red Line stop, but that’s not including slow zones and other delays. Palmer said she once spent 22 minutes on the Red Line just from 22nd Street to 35th Street.

The problem exists beyond those traveling North and South. To get from Pilsen, a Southwest community, to Logan Square, a Northwest neighborhood, one should expect at least and hour and 15 minutes traveling the Pink and Blue Lines.

Some Chicagoans and transportation experts think long travel times could be a creating more than just an inconvenient travel experience; it could be a contributing factor that’s keeping Chicago’s neighborhoods segregated.

Pilsen residents gathered at the National Mexican Museum of Art recently to discuss the 2012 Chicago Cultural Plan and called for a better transportation system to help connect Chicago’s diverse communities. A common complaint at the meeting was a lack of cultural interaction among Chicago neighborhoods.

“There aren’t a lot of integrated cultural experiences in Chicago,” one Pilsen resident said at the meeting. “We talked about creating cultural corridors between neighborhoods to bridge neighborhoods without having to go through the Loop.”

Chicago, like many big cities, uses a hub-and-spoke transportation model, with the Loop as the hub and train lines forking out into the neighborhoods. This model is ideal for getting commuters to downtown work, but causes lengthy transportation times for people traveling in other directions. These times affect people’s decisions on whether or not to venture to other Chicago neighborhoods, experts say.

“What you’re talking about here are time barriers,” said Bill Klein, director of research for the American Planning Association. “It has to do with the city committing to expanding its transit system and where trains actually go.”

Michael Pitula was the transportation organizer for the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization from 2006 to 2011 and studied how transportation impacts communities in Chicago. Pitula has seen how the El lines have caused lengthy commutes for people not intending to go downtown.

“Trains in the Loop provide more frequent service,” Pitula said. “If you are going west or north the times are much longer.

“The issue is that the spokes have no routes crossing the city. There are different proposals to address that.”

In 2002 the CTA proposed a Circle Line, which would enable El passengers to avoid traveling around the Loop to reach certain destinations. The plan, revived in 2009, would go through downtown and reach Old Town to the North, University of Illinois Hospital to the West and Bridgeport to the South. Budget issues halted plans for the Circle Line.

Pitula called the proposed Circle Line plan “pie in the sky” and estimated the total cost would be around $1billion to $3 billion.

Another proposed transit plan that could increase community connectivity is the Red Line Extension Plan, aimed at adding El service to the south beyond 95th Street to 130th Street.

“Buses just aren’t efficient enough [for far South Side neighborhoods],” said John Paul Jones, community organizer for the Developing Communities Project in Chicago. “We need to expand the El to neighborhoods that need the Red Line.”

The CTA is conducting an Environmental Impact Study on the Red Line Extension Project, which is projected to be completed in 2013. Preliminary engineering, final design and start of construction is set to take place between 2013 and 2016.

But not everyone is on board with the theory that long travel times on the El keep Chicagoans isolated to their communities.

“I’ve never heard of the conclusion that [the El] is a barrier between neighborhoods,” said Steve Schlickman, executive director of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois Chicago. “The El and commuter rail systems have maintained and fostered vital hubs of connectivity.”

Schlickman said the hub and spoke transit model is crucial for keeping Chicago thriving economically, and delivering people to jobs is its No. 1 priority.

“The issue of connectivity between neighborhoods needs to be contrasted with the need of connecting people to jobs,” Schlickman said. “The El is a rich job resource downtown, rather than a discouragement.”

Schlickman added that the bus system is designed to fill the gaps left by the El, and shouldn’t prevent people from visiting other Chicago communities, if they wished.

However, he said that he would be in favor of an improved transit system for the job hub by the airport.

“If we could afford to have a better link to get from the South Side to the O’Hare area, that would be a great idea,” Schlickman said.

The American Planning Association’s Klein said that long transit times are a problem across the United States and noted that travel times to Chicago’s airport are particularly problematic.

“There hasn’t been a big commitment to transit in the U.S.,” Klein said. “[Chicago’s] transit lines to the airport are kind of an embarrassment. They are very slow and excruciatingly noisy. Compare that to the airport train in Madrid, there’s no comparison.”

Phyllis Palmer said she knows people who have two- and three-hour commutes and understands why people would want to forgo a nonwork trip to visit another part of Chicago.

“When people have to travel like that, there just isn’t interest to go far into the city,” she said. “It’s something that needs to be addressed … to get people in and out of neighborhoods and increase cultural interest.”