At Large Heavy Rail
posted by October 17 at 10:09 AMon
Yesterday afternoon I needed to get from McHenry, Illinois, where my mother lives, to Midway Airport, where I’m beginning to think I live.
McHenry is deep in Chicago’s northwest ‘burbs, closer to Racine, Wisconsin, than downtown Chicago. Midway is on Chicago’s near south side. Googlemaps says you can make the 57.9 mile journey in “about an hour and 29 minutes,” which is a lie. It’ll take you closer to two hours, particularly at rush hour. Hell, during rush hours—6-9 AM, 3-7 PM—it can take two and half hours or more. And they’re miserable hours, stuck in traffic, crawling along Chicago’s congested expressways.
Luckily for us, and luckily for my stepfather, we didn’t have to drive to Midway. The Chicago area is served by a large commuter rail system—heavy rail, not light rail—and the city has elevated trains and a subway system downtown. So instead of driving all the way to Midway we caught the 2 PM Metra from Crystal Lake, which got us to downtown Chicago in an hour and twenty minutes. Then we walked three blocks to the Orange Line, and caught the elevated train to Midway Airport, about a twenty minute ride. Total cost? $7.15. It took a bit longer than driving—if you don’t count my stepfather’s two hour drive back to McHenry after dropping us off—but the small amount of added travel time was worth it. We weren’t stuck in a car, crawling along the expressway, dodging psychos in Hummers. On Metra, we could spread out, read the papers, and, when we needed to, even use a bathroom if we needed to.
Here’s the heavy rail we took to downtown Chicago…
Our journey to the aiport, needless to say, wouldn’t have been possible on a bus, the mode of mass transit recommended by people that don’t ride mass transit. Well, I guess it would have been possible, provided buses run from McHenry to Midway. I don’t think any do—and I’m certain we wouldn’t have taken one if they did. A 58 mile bus ride treats commuters to all of the aggravation and delays of driving without any of the, yes, aesthetic rewards of train travel. The experience of riding a train is, simply put, more pleasant than riding the bus or, in my opinion, driving. Just looking out the windows of a train is a pleasure—you see towns and businesses and backyards, not other cars and neighborhoods destroyed when the expressway came through.
And guess what else I saw when I looked out the windows of the 2 PM from Crystal Lake? Condos—lots of them. Dense, new developments crowded around the train stations in the ‘burbs. Most of the stops along the route were in ‘burbs that, once upon a time, were small towns in their own right, not just bedroom communities. And most had retail strips—stores, restaurants, and even old fashioned movie theaters—that were looking pretty derelict until the condos came in. Now instead of rail and auto commuters hunkering down in their split levels when they’re not driving to the mall, these little ‘burbs have lively downtowns of their own thanks to condo residents.
Yes, yes: condos are always and everywhere destructive, a plague upon the land, a force for evil, etc. But the large and, in most cases, tasteful condo developments I saw from the train are making it possible for people to live in the ‘burbs—for the peace and quiet, for the schools, for the tedium or whatever—without having to rely on cars to get around or get groceries. The condos at the rail stations are also making it possible for people that might not otherwise be able to afford to live in the ‘burbs, i.e. people that can’t afford a detached house on a half acre, to live in a community that appeals to them.
Anyway, blah blah blah. We have a transit vote coming up ourselves, don’t we? Fifty miles of light rail or something? Fifty miles seems like a lot, I’ve heard some people say. Shouldn’t we go slower? Build a line here, a line there, see if we like it? Putting those fifty miles in perspective: Fifty miles is roughly the length of the commuter rail line that took me from McHenry to downtown Chicago yesterday—and that’s just one of Chicago’s eleven commuter rail lines, which serve 230 stations along 495 miles of track. And then there’s the Chicago Transit Authority’s eight rapid transit lines that serve 144 stations along 222 miles of track.
You don’t need a car to get around in Chicago. You must have a car to get around Seattle. We bicker, other cities build.