Thursday, May 18, 2006

Commuter rail realities vs. citizen stated preferences

One of the things I find frustrating about public debates on transit and mobility are simplistic polls that superficially ask people what they want, when, in most cases, they're really asking people what they think they want without really having any idea about the reality of what they're supporting. It's the "grass is greener on the other side" syndrome: I know the flaws in my current reality, but the alternative you're asking me to support is an ideal, flaw-free vision I have no experience with - so it sounds good to me! Such is the state of polls supporting commuter rail in Houston and other cities where people are frustrated with traffic congestion, but have no personal experience with commuter rail transit.

To illustrate from the reverse perspective, imagine living in NJ or Long Island in the late 1940s, and all you've ever known is commuter rail with its share of unpleasantness: waiting in bad weather, trains that don't run on time, crowded, with plenty of stops and slow overall speeds, that drop you off far from where you actually want to go, to walk again in that same bad weather you started with. Then one day, a pollster comes up to you and asks "Would you like an express freeway to wisk you directly to your job in climate-controlled comfort?" Doesn't that sound pretty good? You'd be all over it, because you don't really grasp the downsides, since they've never been reality for you: wreaks, traffic congestion, the inability to do anything productive while driving (like reading on the train), and car, insurance, gas, and parking costs and hassles.

In that spirit, I really enjoyed reading this article in the Wall Street Journal about car commuters in Chicago suddenly forced onto commuter rail by road construction, because it articulates the nitty-gritty daily realities of the choices, something I think we could all use a lot more exposure to before we make these big decisions as a city. Now, if we could only compare commuter rail support polls before and after having people read this article...

Strangers on the Train: Highway Work Forces Chicagoans Off Road

Commuters Bemoan the Loss Of Quality Time in Cars; Ms. Dennis Lugs In a Cake
by Ilan Brat, WSJ 4/21/06

Ann Schue used to cherish the time she spent alone in her 2003 Ford Expedition during her 90-minute morning commute to her job at the University of Chicago. Nestled in heated leather seats, she planned her day while listening to the news.

Not anymore. Massive construction work on one of Chicago's main highways has forced her to trade the peace of her sport-utility vehicle for the clatter and crowds of a double-decker commuter train.

"This was a very, very big step for me," says Ms. Schue, 42 years old, who had never been on a train in her life before she recently started taking the Metra rail service. "I'm still very...," she says, choking up, then pausing to compose herself. "I miss my car."

Chicago is the rare Midwestern city with pervasive mass transit, including buses, elevated trains and regional commuter rail. But it's also typically Midwestern in that many residents so love their vehicles that they'd rather sit in traffic burning up $2.99-a-gallon gasoline than go near a bus stop or train platform.

The "Dan Ryan Dig" is changing that. Three weeks ago, two years of reconstruction began on the Dan Ryan Expressway, already the busiest road in Illinois and one of the busiest in the country. Each day on average, a total of more than 300,000 vehicles cram the 12-mile stretch of Interstates 90 and 94 that slides southward past downtown Chicago and veers toward northwest Indiana.

The Dan Ryan, which opened in 1962, was named after a late president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners. Workers are adding a lane to the expressway and redoing exit and entrance ramps to make them safer. With the work cutting the road's capacity by half, traffic at times has slowed from a crawl to a virtual standstill. Rush-hour travel times have increased by up to 30% on some days, says the Shadow Traffic news service, part of Westwood One Inc.

On Wednesday, a lunchtime fender bender blocked a lane for just 10 minutes or so -- and backed up traffic for five miles.

Other U.S. reconstruction projects have been larger when measured in monetary terms -- the largest was Boston's $15 billion "Big Dig," which replaced an elevated highway through downtown with a tunnel. The $600 million Dan Ryan project is one of the largest when measured by traffic disruption, traffic experts say.

In Chicago, thousands of commuters who have long endured jams on the highway have abandoned their cars and trucks for mass transit. Metra counted 2,000 new riders in the first week of reconstruction, up from the normal 35,000 people a day. The Chicago Transit Authority, which runs city buses and the elevated light-rail system known as the "El," has seen rush-hour ridership jump more than 20% on some train lines, a spokeswoman says.

The change for many of the new riders is wrenching. David Pettiford, 25, used to drive his Dodge Durango SUV 20 miles from his home in the south suburbs to his job at a truck-brokerage firm on Chicago's north side. Work on the Dan Ryan added up to 20 minutes to his usual one-hour commute. His wife made him switch to the Metra, which takes about an hour, because she was "sick of me complaining about the commute" and gas prices. "I would rather drive," he says.

Despite traffic and other hassles of driving to work, many car commuters consider their trip a guilty pleasure. "You don't drink, you don't smoke, you don't do crack. [Driving] was my enjoyment for a little while" each day, says Frank Pierson, 52, who works at a bank in downtown Chicago.

Even though he lives just five blocks from an El stop, he had been driving to work and paying $18 a day to park. Facing the prospect of daily gridlock, he ditched his car. He likes to sit in a single seat toward the back of his train car because "nobody sits on top of you." One recent morning, two men walked past his seat peddling aromatic oils and candies. In a car, Mr. Pierson says, "you can roll the window up.

"Taking the train is "a nightmare," says Mary Dennis, 49, a senior consultant with a mortgage bank in downtown Chicago. For about 20 years, she had been driving the 36 miles from her home in Schererville in northwest Indiana. The trip took about 45 minutes. But the Dan Ryan work stretched it to an hour, and gas prices kept climbing, so now she drives half an hour to Hammond, Ind., then rides a 40-minute South Shore train to a Chicago stop that's a 20-minute walk from her office.

She says she feels cramped on the train and has to dodge drips from Chicago station ceilings when it rains. She's not looking forward to Chicago's blazing summer heat in stuffy cars or waiting on the open platforms during the city's fierce winters. At first, she wore sneakers on the commute and switched to pumps at work. But now she wears black, thick-soled "old lady shoes." She has also traded her heavy briefcase for a cloth bag because she no longer has a back seat for storage.

Worst of all, as her office's "birthday lady" this year, Ms. Dennis must bring a cake whenever one of her 12 co-workers celebrates a birthday. One day she lugged a three-layer cake on the train and, by the time she reached her office, it was "almost as horizontal as it was vertical," she says. "But at least it tasted good."

Some South Shore regulars like Jack Sloan aren't so happy about the influx. He says the new commuters seem glued to cellphones, yammering as loudly as they would in the privacy of their cars. He wishes someone would put up "wallpaper or something" to block cellular signals. "You don't need to give your life story for everyone to hear," he says.

Stacy Long and three friends have been meeting on the 5:10 p.m. train to Indiana and sitting in the same seats for two years. Now their seats are rarely available. Ms. Long, at more than 6 feet 4, prefers a seat reserved for the elderly or handicapped when no one in those categories is using it. The other day, though, someone else had grabbed it before her.

"Now I have to sit all scrunched up," Ms. Long griped, her knees pressed against the seat in front of her. She also has had to start leaving her house 15 minutes earlier in the morning to find a parking spot at the train station. "That is not cool," she says.

Ms. Schue is still adapting to her commute from Homer Glen, Ill., to the University of Chicago, where she's an animal-health technician. Her first day on the train, she brought a big backpack filled with books "and just all kinds of crap," she says. Now she totes a small bag with "just the basics: Reader's Digest, wallet, lunch."

The switch to the train has even affected her weekends. She's been driving to a shopping mall 34 miles from her house instead of one six miles away. "I don't even know why," she says. "I just went just to go." And she's counting the days until the Dan Ryan work is done. Told that some drivers think congestion on the road isn't as bad as some had predicted, she says, "Really? Can I go back?"


At 12:15 PM, May 19, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Statistics by anecdote. So what should I get from this...that suburban Chicagoans are crybabies...or, just the 3 or 4 that the journalist found? More telling were the complaints of the regular commuters who were annoyed by the incessant and loud cell phone talk of the new riders.

If taking the train is so traumatic to Ann Schue, why doesn't she get back onto the freeway? They didn't shut it down.

At 10:25 AM, May 20, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like a failure on the part of Chicago to exploit a market opportunity. Why not have a first class car that has larger seats and an attendant to temper unruly cell phone users and remove solicitors? Alas, it may not be profitable.

At 12:43 PM, May 20, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Ah yes, but a private free market could offer exactly that in HOV/HOT express buses.

At 6:50 PM, May 20, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i think it was an onion piece and i think you might have posted it

"poll shows 95% of people support mass transit for everyone else."

At 9:56 PM, May 20, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

98%. It's a classic:


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