Frequently-asked questions

There are still a few places (like New York) where the density is so high they’re willing to invest billions of dollars in a few short miles of subway. Even if we could afford to do that in Chicago, or if we were willing to spend all our capital budget on one little project, do we really want to put transit riders underground just so we can abandon the street to through traffic and parking? Around the world, new high-capacity tramways have shown the benefits of putting the new rapid transit line—and all the foot traffic that comes with it—right in the street where people want to be. It’s not just a transit project then, it’s a way to reclaim public space and remake the image of the city.



If this is such a great idea, how come the City’s not already working on it?


Good question.

How could the streetcar cost less to operate than the bus service it replaces?


Most American streetcars don’t, but the high-ridership lines we’re studying would cost less than buses for two reasons: capacity and speed.


A standard Chicago bus holds about 60 passengers (the “scheduled load”) and an articulated bus about 90; the typical modular vehicle used for new high-capacity tramways holds 300. So you can move the same number of people with a fraction of the vehicles and drivers.


But having four times the capacity doesn’t do you any good unless you’re willing to come around one-quarter as often. In Chicago you can’t cut the frequency from 5 minutes to 20 minutes at rush hour, because no one will wait that long. You only get the full benefit in the busiest corridors, where the time between the buses you’re replacing is less than 2 minutes. So streetcars only cost less to operate than buses on the very busiest routes, or where several high-ridership routes come together.


Our streets are already too congested—and too narrow—to take away a lane of car traffic to create a dedicated transit lane.


It is precisely the places where the most people are trying to move through the narrowest space that we need to optimize the capacity of the street by prioritizing the most efficient modes over the least. A city that prioritizes through traffic and parking on every one of its 814 streets can’t grow without being overwhelmed by traffic congestion, and that congestion is one of the main reasons to avoid the city in the first place. If we want to grow the population and the economy, we’re going to need to prioritize transit on a few key streets.

What do you think we should do to fight congestion and make Chicago easier to get around in at rush hour?

This streetcar plan is not going to fix the congestion problem.


That’s true.


It’s well established now that we can’t build our way out of congestion. Adding highway lanes invites more people to drive, and to live and work in car-dependent places. The new lanes fill up almost immediately and we’re left with just as much congestion on the roadway—plus more suburban sprawl on one end of it and more downtown traffic on the other. We spend so much money trying to efficiently pump cars into downtown and then overlook the problems they create when they get there. People look at a congested urban highway and think, “We really need another lane to handle all those cars.” But no one looks at the downtown area at rush hour and thinks, “We really need to pump another highway lane’s worth of cars in there.”


The only way to win that game is not to play.


We can’t build our way out of congestion, but we can build a transit network that is immune to it.

Why not build more of the L?

Elevated trains and subways are too expensive—about ten times as much as streetcars. So for the cost of extending the Red Line 5 miles into the far south side, you could build 50 miles of rapid streetcar lines all over the near south side and benefit a lot more people. 

Elevated trains are great to ride on, but they’re noisy and create dark and dangerous places beneath them. As a result, they boost property value at stations, but undermine property value between stations. Just look at all the vacant land and surface parking lots along the L in Chicago. Most cities with elevated trains took them down decades ago. Because elevated trains spoil the street, they generally run in back alleys, abandoned freight rail corridors, and highway medians rather than right where people want to be.


Slow transit is expensive. It turns out that where ridership is very high and congestion is very bad, it’s very expensive to hire lots of drivers to drive people around slowly in a lot of little buses that are stuck in traffic. If you could double the average speed, you could provide the same number of rides with half as many vehicles and drivers, each one making two cycles of the route in the time it used to take to make one.


The Chicago Streetcar concept just copies the well-established standards for new tramways in Europe. Several key features (all of which could be done with buses too) make it faster than local buses in mixed traffic:

  • Dedicated lane

  • Signal priority at intersections

  • Stops half as often as a local bus

  • Rapid level boarding through multiple doors

  • Payment before boarding

So why not BRT?


Bus rapid transit is a great idea, and there’s room in Chicago for both light rail and BRT, though the two have somewhat different optimal applications.

BRT is better when it can avoid the downtown street grid. The high-capacity BRT lines that are becoming common in the developing world are most effective as commuter routes on highways with grade-separated crossings, enclosed stations, lots of buses, and an extra passing lane at stations.


In Chicago, BRT is probably better for moderate-ridership routes. For the corridors with the highest ridership, the buses come so frequently that they can’t be given signal priority without shutting down traffic on the surrounding grid. Where ridership is extremely high, the longer streetcars would operate at a more workable frequency—with enough headway between them to give them signal priority.


You have less of a problem if all the buses follow the same route, so they can “platoon”—move together down the street. For this to work, though, all the buses in the platoon have to wait until the slowest has finished boarding. Buses from different “branch routes” can come together downtown and share the same “trunk,” but they can only have signal priority if they platoon, and they can only platoon if they have a staging area where they can get into the right order before entering the trunk—they have to be in the right order because people need to know where to wait at the curb for their bus route.

BRT is better where capital is scarce and labor is cheap, since it requires more vehicles and drivers.


Streetcars are better as catalysts for property development.


Streetcars attract more new riders to transit.


Streetcars mix better with crowds of pedestrians and cyclists.


Streetcars create a more pedestrian-friendly shopping environment.


Streetcars are better where optimizing the quality of public space they move through is important to the image of the city.


Also, BRT and light rail are not the only alternatives to local buses stuck in traffic. There are several potential upgrades that don’t involve the expense of relocating utilities, building special stations, or buying special buses that don’t work at standard bus stops. You can still eliminate half the stops, give the bus a dedicated lane and signal priority, and allow people to prepay and board through both doors.


Is there any way to get rid of those overhead wires?

Yep. Check out this video.