Flickr/Jamie McCaffrey

The quiet end of a major mass transit disruption.

For the last five months, half of the main elevated rail artery through Chicago has been shut down, a painful necessity as the Chicago Transit Authority ripped out and rebuilt 10 miles of train tracks that typically serve as the busiest route in and out of the South Side. The tracks themselves were four decades old. Some of the stations around them weren't accessible to wheelchair users. They needed new canopies and lighting and paint. And the drainage system under it all required reconstruction, too.

The $425 million project threatened – as many things in Chicago do – to turn into a story about a city divided by race. The Red Line is a well-known symbol for the city's divisions, running as it does from one tip of the lower-income, predominantly minority South Side to the other pole of the well-heeled northern suburbs. Ride from one end of the line to the other (something hardly anyone has a reason to do), and you get a conveniently elevated tour of the city's extremes. You can actually watch a time-lapse of the riders in a Red Line car in a WBEZ project on segregation.

Against this backdrop, many people in Chicago noted that the CTA was willing to sacrifice a major service disruption on the South Side for track work, while riders on the North Side had been far less inconvenienced by other (less intensive) projects on the Red and Brown lines. The optics certainly looked awkward: For five months, the CTA had proposed cutting off access for 80,000 daily commuters in some of its poorest neighborhoods, inviting them instead to board the dreaded shuttle bus.

And yet, as the city reopens the newly reconstructed line early this Sunday morning, the story has turned out to be something much less dramatic: The project will be completed on time, and on budget, ushering in more reliable service that's estimated to cut local commute times by as much as 20 minutes.

Invariably, a massive closure feels like a bigger event than a ribbon-cutting, and five months of disruption – in the midst of it, at least – can seem of questionable worthiness for what amounts to modest but real improvements later. But commuters managed to adjust (a fate they can only wish for fellow transit riders in San Francisco), and now the long-term improvements for the South Side will look worth it.

Top image: Flickr user Jamie McCaffrey.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. a photo of Los Angeles in 1962
    Transportation

    Mapping the Effects of the Great 1960s ‘Freeway Revolts’

    Urbanites who battled the construction of the Interstate Highway System in the 1960s saved some neighborhoods—but many highways did transform cities.

  2. a photo of a small fleet of electric Chevrolet Bolts cars.
    Transportation

    Should Electric Vehicle Drivers Pay Per Mile?

    Since EV drivers zip past gas taxes, they don’t contribute to the federal fund for road maintenance. A new working paper tries to determine whether plug-ins should pay up.

  3. A photo of anti-gentrification graffiti in Washington, D.C.
    Equity

    The Hidden Winners in Neighborhood Gentrification

    A new study claims the effects of neighborhood change on original lower-income residents are largely positive, despite fears of spiking rents and displacement.

  4. Transportation

    Why Public Transportation Works Better Outside the U.S.

    The widespread failure of American mass transit is usually blamed on cheap gas and suburban sprawl. But the full story of why other countries succeed is more complicated.

  5. A man and a woman shop at a modern kiosk by a beach in a vintage photo.
    Design

    Why Everyday Architecture Deserves Respect

    The places where we enact our daily lives are not grand design statements, yet they have an underrated charm and even nobility.

×