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Where the ‘L’ is experiencing passenger crowding

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The CTA has also offered suggestions on how to increase capacity along its most popular lines

Curbed Chicago Flickr pool/Albert Hidalgo

It was just a week ago that the New York Times published an editorial written by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel who described Chicago’s ongoing investment in the city’s CTA and ‘L’ rail system “as a model for the infrastructure investments and economic growth.” And despite the fact that the city has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in maintaining and improving CTA tracks, stations, and train cars, a new report from the CTA highlights a handful of problem areas that the system is facing in terms of existing ridership capacity. In the New York Times, Rahm declared that “the trains actually run on time,” but this does not mean that they’re not crowded.

With increasing ridership on the ‘L’ in recent years, many stretches of various CTA lines are running at capacity during the morning and evening rush periods during the week. To define overcrowding, the CTA looks to Federal Transit Administration (FTA) guidelines, which suggest that a train is overcrowded if each passenger has less than 5.4 square feet of usable space. According to the CTA, ‘L’ cars generally have enough room to comfortably fit up to 61 passengers.

A series of graphics illustrate where passenger crowding is most typically found. The images suggest that all of the rail lines servicing the North Side experience overcrowding during the morning and evening rush periods while South and West Side lines are much less crowded. However, all seven lines that service the Loop are at capacity at some points during the day.

So, how can the CTA help boost capacity across the network? The CTA lists a number of items, including improving signal systems, junctions, easing speed restrictions, and providing additional yard capacity for train car storage and quicker turnaround. However, the report offers suggestions for improving capacity for each line. For example, regarding the Blue Line, the CTA suggests increasing traction power along the O’Hare branch to allow for more trains. In addition, expanding yard capacity at the Forest Park train yard could also allow for more capacity along the popular Blue Line.

Other lines could require much more expensive improvements to see expansions in capacity. One common constraint found in the CTA’s rail system is the use of the same sections of rail by multiple train lines. For example, the CTA says that the popular Red and Browns lines are constrained due to their use of the same infrastructure. So, to boost capacity along these systems, a physical separation may be in order at some point. However, expanding car capacity at the Kimball rail yard is a first step to easing congestion on the Brown Line.

Another interesting recommendation the CTA makes is focusing transit-oriented development in areas that are not currently plagued with capacity issues. Neighborhoods that line the Orange, Pink, and Green lines are ripe for development, according to the CTA. A graphic highlights these stretches throughout the city’s west and south sides that present opportunities for new housing and employment opportunities.

Since the transit-oriented development ordinance was first introduced and adopted in 2013, developers have lined Milwaukee Avenue with thousands of new apartment units and dozens of new commercial spaces. The boom of new developments along Milwaukee Avenue has caused considerable concern among residents as to whether the CTA will be able to keep up with the pace of demand for the Blue Line.