Tipping Point: Chicago transit improvements may convert drivers - Los Angeles News | FOX 11 LA KTTV

Tipping Point: Chicago transit improvements would convert more drivers

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

Traffic congestion has the Chicago area at the tipping point. If even a small percentage of drivers would trade their cars for trains or buses, it would make a big difference.

Here's a breakdown of how we get to work:

  • 70% drive alone
  • 12% public transit
  • 9% carpool
  • 4% work at home
  • 3% walk
  • 0.7% bicycle

If one percent of the people driving alone would switch to transit, that would remove 29,000 cars from the road each day. Removing five percent would mean 144,000 less cars on the road.

So can we make it happen? DePaul University transportation expert Joseph Schwieterman said the opportunity is there, but we must do more than simply get people downtown.

"There are people on the bubble," Schwieterman said. "It won't take a lot to get a couple hundred thousand out of their cars, and that's the market we should be going after right now."

What would it take to pry you out of the driver's seat?

"There's nothing about public transportation I don't like," one man told FOX 32 News. "I just have to be able to move around fast because time is money."

Saving time and money is the claim behind a controversial plan for busy Ashland Avenue. Bus Rapid Transit - or BRT - would cost $160 million. Although cost is usually a catalyst for debate, the controversy here lies in the reduction of driving lanes for cars.

The BRT system would take one lane in each direction for 16 miles, from Irving Park to 95th Street. The CTA explains how Ashland BRT would fill a need on the busiest bus route in the city in a YouTube video called "The Complete Streets Approach."

You can watch that video in the player above.

When FOX 32 asked one Ashland driver what she thought about turning one lane into a bus-only lane, she said she would definitely be against the plan. Even when she was told riding the bus would be twice as fast as driving, she stood steadfast on her answer – "no."

"I'm not opposed to the idea for other people," she said. "But not for me."

What some see as a visionary way to make more people choose the bus and reduce gridlock, comes across to others as a nightmare because it would eliminate left turns and passing.

FOX 32's Robin Robinson said she feels like such a hypocrite asking drivers why they don't take public transit when she lives two blocks from a Metra Electric station that would take her right to her job at WFLD. But she works nights. Robinson doesn't want to be caught under that viaduct at 11 p.m. on any night - in any part of town.

"I've lived in the city all my life and just after a certain hour," one Chicago commuter said, "The Green Line, you know, I don't want to take it."

Security, comfort and reliability would all be factors in any plan to attract new riders. But deep down, we have to get past the fear of the unknown. Just because you've never taken a certain type of public transit before, doesn't mean you can't learn how.

Robin's first try at Ventra lived up to the bad rap on the new fare system. But she got a machine to work, and the CTA workers worked with her.

The Jeffrey Jump is the city's first bus rapid transit line. Robinson used the CTA's bus tracker technology intended to help riders plan their commutes. But unfortunately on this occasion, the trackers seems to have frozen. It told Robin her bus would be there in eight minutes. It didn't show up until 15 minutes later. For someone who needs to be at work at a certain time and depends on the bus to get there, those minutes can be precious.

Still, the Jeffrey Jump is a popular route that makes quick work of the trip between the South Shore and downtown Chicago - sometimes too popular. The jump is so jam packed at times that riders are forced to let two or three busses go by because they can't get on. That leads to some major frustration.

But it will take more than "express" service to attract new riders.

"Now people have cars with GPS and heated seats and cellphones and Bluetooth," Schwieterman explained. "They want something more than that mode of last resort."

Trains are considered a step up from the bus. Chicago takes pride in being the only city with rail service directly between downtown and two major airports. But many of the aging elevated lines and stations are pretty gritty.

"We need to soften the image of the CTA. That requires more than marketing," Schwieterman said. "It requires, I just think, some station enhancements that have been left behind."

Mayor Emanuel says he aims to spend $1 billion fixing trains, tracks and stations in Chicago. The mostly suburban Metra trains have always been nicer than The L. But the commuter trains took a beating regarding reliability this winter, and the amenities aren't what they used to be.

You might put up with the lack of luxury if the systems worked together to get you all the way there, once your metra train arrives at Union Station.

"I walk to the Clinton Blue Line, and then I go to the Medical District, and then I walk," student Heather Metheny told FOX 32. "If they would connect right here it would be amazing."

Yet Metheny said it's still the best way to travel to the UIC campus from her home in McHenry County. Apparently it's never as hard as the first time.

"I know the first time I did it, it was a little bit intimidating," Luis Aguirre said. "But after I did it once or twice, I was good to go."

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