Chicago 'L'

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The 'L'[1] (sometimes called "L", El, EL, or L) is the rapid transit system serving the city of Chicago and some of its surrounding suburbs. It is operated by the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA). It is the second longest rapid transit system in total mileage in the United States, after the New York City Subway, and is the third busiest rail mass transit system in the United States, after New York City and Washington, DC's Metrorail.[2] Chicago's 'L' is one of four heavy-rail systems in the United States (CTA, MTA, PATH and the PATCO Speedline) that provides 24-hour service on at least some portions of their systems. The oldest sections of the 'L' started operating in 1892, making it the second-oldest[dubious ] rapid transit system in the Americas, after New York City. The 'L' has been credited with helping create the densely built-up city core that is one of Chicago's distinguishing features.[3]

The 'L' consists of eight rapid transit lines laid out in a spoke-hub distribution paradigm focusing transit toward a central loop. Although the 'L' gained its nickname because large parts of the system are elevated,[4][5] only of the system are elevated. Of the remainder, of it are at grade, and are underground.[6]

On average 658,524 people ride the 'L' each weekday, 419,258 each Saturday, and 315,240 each Sunday.[7] Annual ridership for 2006 was 195.2 million, the highest since 1993. However, the CTA multiplies actual riders by roughly 1.2 to count riders who transfer between lines, putting the total number of riders at about 162.7 million.[8][9] In a 2005 poll, Chicago Tribune readers voted it one of the "seven wonders of Chicago,"[10] behind the lakefront and Wrigley Field but ahead of Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower), the Water Tower, the University of Chicago, and the Museum of Science and Industry.


The first 'L', the Chicago and South Side Rapid Transit Railroad, began revenue service on June 6, 1892, when a small steam locomotive pulling four wooden coaches carrying a total of twenty seven men and three women departed the 39th Street station and arrived at the Congress Street Terminal 14 minutes later,[11] over tracks still used by the Green Line. Over the next year service was extended to 63rd Street and Stony Island Avenue, then the entrance to the World's Columbian Exposition in Jackson Park.[12]

Later in 1893 trains began running on the Lake Street Elevated Railroad and in 1895 on the Metropolitan West Side Elevated, which had lines to Douglas Park, Garfield Park (since replaced), Humboldt Park (since demolished), and Logan Square. The Metropolitan was the United States' first non-exhibition rapid transit system powered by electric traction motors,[13] a technology whose practicality had been previously demonstrated on the "intramural railway" at the world's fair.[14] Two years later the South Side 'L' introduced multiple-unit control, in which several or all the cars in a train are motorized and under the control of the operator, not just the lead unit. Electrification and MU control remain standard features of most of the world's rapid transit systems.

A drawback of early 'L' service was that none of the lines entered the central business district. Instead trains dropped passengers at stub terminals on the periphery due to a state law requiring approval by neighboring property owners for tracks built over public streets, something not easily obtained downtown. This obstacle was overcome by the legendary traction magnate Charles Tyson Yerkes, who went on to play a pivotal role in the development of the London Underground and was immortalized by Theodore Dreiser as the ruthless schemer Frank Cowperwood in The Titan (1914) and other novels. Yerkes, who controlled much of the city's streetcar system, obtained the necessary signatures through cash and guile—at one point he secured a franchise to build a mile-long 'L' over Van Buren Street from Wabash Avenue to Halsted Street, extracting the requisite majority from the pliable owners on the western half of the route, then building tracks chiefly over the eastern half, where property owners had opposed him. The Union Loop opened in 1897 and greatly increased the rapid transit system's convenience. Operation on the Yerkes-owned Northwestern Elevated, which built the North Side 'L' lines, began three years later, essentially completing the elevated infrastructure in the urban core although extensions and branches continued to be constructed in outlying areas through the 1920s.

After 1911, the 'L' lines came under the control of Samuel Insull, president of the Chicago Edison electric utility (now Commonwealth Edison), whose interest stemmed initially from the fact that the trains were the city's largest consumer of electricity. Insull instituted many improvements, including free transfers and through routing, although he did not formally combine the original firms into the Chicago Rapid Transit Company until 1924. He also bought three other Chicago electrified railroads, the Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad, Chicago Aurora and Elgin Railroad, and South Shore interurban lines, and ran the trains of the first two into downtown Chicago via the 'L' tracks. This period of relative prosperity ended when Insull's empire collapsed in 1932, but later in the decade the city with the help of the federal government accumulated sufficient funds to begin construction of two subway lines to supplement and, some hoped, permit eventual replacement of the Loop elevated.

The State Street subway was completed in 1943;[15][16] the Dearborn subway, on which work had been suspended during World War II, opened on February 25, 1951.[17] The subways were constructed with a secondary purpose of serving as bomb shelters, the closely spaced support columns are evidence of this (a plan to replace the entire elevated system with subways was also proposed with this intent as well). The subways bypassed a number of tight curves and circuitous routings on the original elevated lines (Milwaukee trains, for example, originated on Chicago's northwest side but entered the Loop at the southwest corner), speeding service for many riders.

CTA assumes control

By the 1940s the financial condition of the 'L,' and of Chicago mass transit in general, had become too precarious to permit continued private operation, and the necessary steps were taken to enable public takeover. In 1947 the Chicago Transit Authority acquired the assets of the Chicago Rapid Transit Company and the Chicago Surface Lines, operator of the city's streetcars. Over the next few years the CTA modernized the 'L,' replacing antiquated wooden cars with new steel ones and closing lightly used branch lines and stations, many of which had been spaced only a quarter mile apart.

Shortly after its takeover of the 'L', the CTA introduced an express service known as the A/B skip-stop service. Under this service, trains were designated as either "A" or "B" trains, and stations were alternately designated as "A" or "B", with heavily-used stations designated as "AB". "A" trains would only stop at "A" or "AB" stations, and "B" trains would only stop at "B" or "AB" stations. The system was designed to speed up lines by having trains skip stations with fewer passengers while still allowing for frequent service at the heavily-used "AB" stations. The CTA first implemented A/B skip-stop service on the Lake Street Line (now part of the Green Line) in 1948, and the service proved effective as travel times were cut by a third. By the 1950s, the service was being used throughout the system. All lines used the A/B skip-stop service between the 1950s and the 1990s with the exception of the Evanston and Skokie lines, which were too short to justify skip-stop service. Also, the Congress and Douglas branches of what later became the Blue Line were designated as "A" and "B" respectively, as were the Englewood ("A") and Jackson Park ("B") branches of what later became the Green Line, so individual stops were not skipped while trains were serving those branches. As time went by, the time periods in which skip-stop service was used were gradually decreased, as the waits at "A" and "B" stations became increasingly long during non-peak service. By the 1990s, use of the A/B skip-stop system was only justified during rush hour due to service reductions. Also another situation was that trains skipping stations to save time, could not pass the train that was directly in front of it so skipping stations was not advantageous in all regards. In 1993, the CTA began the elimination of skip-stop service when it switched the southern branches of the Red and Green Lines; after this point, Green Line trains stopped at all stations, and Red Line trains stopped at all stations south of Harrison. The elimination of A/B skip-stop service continued with the opening of the all-stop Orange Line and the conversion of the Brown Line to all-stop service. On April 28, 1995, the A/B skip-stop system was completely eliminated with the transfer of the O'Hare branch of the Blue Line and the Howard branch of the Red Line to all-stop service. The removal of skip-stop service resulted in some slight increases in travel times on some parts of the system but greatly increased ridership at former "A" and "B" stations.[18]

The first air-conditioned cars were introduced in 1964 and the last pre-World War II cars retired in 1973. New lines were built in expressway medians. The Congress branch, built in the median of the Eisenhower Expressway, replaced the Garfield Park 'L' in 1958. The Dan Ryan branch opened on September 28, 1969,[19] followed by an extension of the Milwaukee elevated into the Kennedy Expressway in 1970.

The 'L' today

Ridership had been remarkably stable for nearly 40 years after the CTA takeover despite declining mass transit usage nationwide, with an average of 594,000 riders boarding each weekday in 1960[20] and 577,000 in 1985. Due to the Loop Flood in 1992, ridership was at 418,000 that year[21] because the CTA was forced to suspend operation for several weeks in the State and Dearborn subways, used by the most heavily traveled lines.

Although ridership is healthy and growth continues, it has not been uniformly distributed. Use of North Side lines are up, while that of West Side and South Side lines are either remaining stable or seeing some declines. Ridership on the North Side Brown Line, for instance, has increased 83% since 1979, necessitating a station reconstruction project to accommodate longer trains.[22]

Annual traffic on the Howard branch of the Red Line, which reached 35 million in 2005, is approaching the 1927 prewar peak of 38.5 million.[23] The section of the Blue Line between the Loop and Logan Square, which serves once-neglected but now bustling neighborhoods such as Wicker Park, Bucktown, and Palmer Square, has seen a 54% increase in weekday riders since 1992. On the other hand, weekday ridership on the South Side portion of the Green Line, which closed for two years for reconstruction starting in 1994, was 50,400 in 1978 but only 13,000 in 2006. Boardings at the 95th/Dan Ryan stop on the Red Line, though still the system's busiest at 14,100 riders per weekday, are a little over half the peak volume in the 1980s. In 1976, three North Side 'L' branches - what were then known as the Howard, Milwaukee, and Ravenswood lines − accounted for 42% of non-downtown boardings. Today (with the help of the Blue Line extension to O'Hare), they account for 58%.

The North Side (which has historically been the highest density area of the city) skew no doubt reflects the Chicago building boom of the past decade, which has focused primarily on North Side neighborhoods and downtown.[24] It may ease somewhat in the wake of the current high level of residential construction along the south lakefront. For example, ridership at the linked Roosevelt stops on the Green, Orange, and Red Lines,[25] which serve the burgeoning South Loop neighborhood, has tripled since 1992, with an average of 8,000 boardings per weekday. Patronage at the Cermak-Chinatown stop on the Red Line (4,000 weekday boardings) is at the highest level since the station opened in 1969. The 2003 Chicago Central Area Plan has proposed construction of a Green Line station at Cermak, midway between Chinatown and the McCormick Place convention center, in expectation of continued density growth in the vicinity.

the 'L' accounted for 36% of the CTA's nearly 1.5 million weekday riders, with the remainder traveling on the extensive bus network. The rail system's ridership has increased over time. In 1926, the year of peak prewar rail usage, the 'L' carried 229 million passengers – seemingly a formidable number, but actually less than 20% of the 1.16 billion Chicago transit patrons that year, most of whom rode the city's streetcars.[26] The shift to rail has continued in recent times. Since its low point in 1992 due to the Chicago Flood that closed subway tunnels in the downtown area, weekday 'L' ridership has increased about 25%, while bus ridership has decreased by roughly a sixth.[27]