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Chicago Olympics May Depend on Better Transit – But Where’s the Commitment?

Chicago 2016» International Olympic Committee with pick a 2016 host site in October; Chicago faces tough competition from Tokyo, Madrid, and Rio.

Last week, U.S. Department of Transportation head Ray LaHood said that the Obama Administration would do as much as possible to ensure the well-being of Chicago’s 2016 Olympic bid. This pledge of support could include grants designed specifically to improve the city’s transport network, which has suffered from significant underinvestment in recent decades. President Obama said during the campaign that he would relish a Summer Olympics event in his hometown as a capstone to his potential second term in office, and indeed, a successful games there would solidify his political legacy.

But an Olympics Bid is a complicated thing, and Mr. LaHood’s pledge of support may be worth less than it seems, because it carries with it no definitive commitment to undertake any specific transport improvement project. More significantly, Chicago’s competitors in South America, Europe, and Asia are not holding back, and they will be offering extensive arguments for their being selected when the International Olympic Committee meets to pick a games host on October 2 in Copenhagen.

The sheer mass of individuals visiting the Olympics over a two-week period (and then its follow-up, the Paraolympics) can overwhelm public transport systems. That was evidenced in 1996 when Atlanta attempted to move its guests on the two-line MARTA rail system and on thousands of school buses; the city had been forced to expand its network from the tenth largest in the country to something closer to the third, and the temporary growth was hard to handle. To put it nicely, the crowds weren’t pleased by the network’s performance, complaining about frequent delays and breakdowns.

London, which will be hosting the Summer Olympics in 2012, will feature a series of new transit lines designed to reinforce the city’s already impressive public transportation network. The Docklands Light Railway, which runs in the city’s east side and is being expanded for the event, is expected to carry 500,000 spectators a day during the first week of the games; a new Javelin service running on the Eurostar Line will make the link directly between the central city and the Olympic Park in just 7 minutes. The transit operations serving the park will have a peak load capacity of 240,000 riders an hour. Note that Chicago’s entire rapid transit system carries just 620,000 passengers a day.

One wonders whether the American bid contender will be able to justify its network’s ability to handle the traffic generated by the Olympics, especially when the city’s three planned transit improvements — all far from games facilities and the center city — won’t open until 2016 at the earliest, if the timeline and budget stay on course. The primary improvements proposed by Chicago for the event are minor, consisting of doubling service on Metra commuter rail trains and instituting a series of bus rapid transit corridors. Worse, few of the major event facilities are directly adjacent to rail stations, though most are within a kilometer, a barely acceptable walking distance. And the money to make the BRT scheme truly effective isn’t there — unless Mr. LaHood steps in to provide the city a large grant. This is a possibility since until January the city was angling for a Washington-funded, city-wide bus network.

Rio, Tokyo, Madrid all have Olympics bids that are just as well developed as Chicago’s. Tokyo and Madrid are at a bit of a disadvantage because Beijing hosted the games in 2008 and London will host them in 2012; the IOC prefers geographical equity over the years. South America has never hosted a game, which could give Rio a leg-up, but as the chart below demonstrates, its transit network isn’t up to the standards of its European and Asian competitors. But then again, neither is Chicago’s.

Comparing the Olympic Bids’ Transit Facilities
City Rapid transit miles Rapid transit daily rides Commuter rail miles Commuter rail daily rides
Chicago 106 620 k 495 336 k
Madrid 175 2,500 k 230 880 k
Rio 26 580 k 139 450 k
Tokyo 204 8,700 k * *

* Larger than the other three, but difficult to sum-up because of the number of overlapping services.

If the IOC’s decision were solely a function of the transit systems of the respective cities, it is clear that Madrid and Tokyo would be the top contenders. But even a comparison with Rio puts Chicago’s bid to shame. The Brazilian government has already committed to a $19 billion high-speed train between Rio and Sao Paulo that will be completed by 2014 and reduce the travel time between the cities to 1h20. The city’s existing metro and commuter rail network, though smaller than Chicago’s, in general will provide better access to Games facilities — and a new, robust, funded BRT system will connect the sites in non-rail-accessible areas as well.

Mr. LaHood’s commitment to help Chicago fund transit improvements in preparation for the Olympics could well mean a reinforced BRT system, but it will not bring a major expansion to the city’s rail network — meaning that the Games will not result in a significant change in the manner in which people get around in the city. I should point out that non-transport-related investment on the city’s south and west sides could provide an effective tool to increase development in what are currently intense pockets of poverty.

The Administration’s willingness to deliver grants to Chicago may help the city win the Games next month; one major objection of the IOC has been that, unlike the other cities, Chicago doesn’t have a national government guarantee that cost overruns will be covered. But the city seems likely to host the 2016 Olympics only if the IOC downplays the importance of good transit connections, if it slants its geographic equity equation towards the Americas, and if it finds itself unwilling to take a risk on an event in a second-world city in a developing country like Rio. Otherwise, each of the other three cities seems more fit to handle the infrastructure-stressing crowds that will come with the event.

Image above: From Chicago 2016 Bid Book

29 replies on “Chicago Olympics May Depend on Better Transit – But Where’s the Commitment?”

Your concerns about Chicago’s prospective transit legacy from an Olympics are well placed. But you failed to mention the one CTA rail expansion project that could significantly benefit Olympic spectator transport as well as provide a solid legacy for regional transit — the Circle Line. As you’ve noted, the Red, Orange, and Yellow projects have recently completed their Alternatives Analysis studies. But that doesn’t mean that the Circle Line AA is still inactive — in fact the final public meetings for that AA have just been announced:

Of all the planned rail transit expansion projects in the Chicago region, I would argue that “Phase 2” of the Circle Line promises to provide the greatest utility for serving 2016 Olympics-related travel demands for the following reasons:

• Public transit will be key to accommodating Olympic travel demands by spectators traveling to venues as well as members of the general public wishing to share in the celebration at public sites around the city. Because much of the downtown hotel capacity will be reserved for Olympic VIPs and other priority visitors, most of the spectators and members of the general public will be staying in hotels and motels outside of downtown, as well as with friends and family in the city’s neighborhoods and suburban communities. The daily influx of Olympic traffic will be extremely well suited to the high capacity and ease of use advantages that characterize the region’s existing rail transit services (rather than BRT/bus shuttles).

• The existing CTA and Metra rail networks must be fully leveraged to best serve the Olympics, and fortunately there are CTA rail stations near all of the high volume Olympic venues (and most of the lower volume venues as well). A few block walk is actually good thing, to help provide space for crowds which can be filled with activities to encourage lingering and minimize crowd concentrations at stations. In addition, the CTA and Metra rail systems provide excellent general geographic coverage throughout the metropolitan area. However, the primary weakness of the current network is the lack of convenient, direct connections between the various radially oriented CTA and Metra rail lines. All of the CTA rail lines currently converge at one point – the Loop – which creates congestion and forces most travelers to go all the way downtown and then back out again if their origin and destination are on different lines. Most of the Metra lines serve stations in the West Loop that are not directly connected to the CTA rail lines that can take visitors the rest of the way to the Olympic venues.

• The primary purpose of the Circle Line concept – to provide direct, convenient connections between all of the CTA and Metra Lines on the periphery of Chicago’s expanding Central Area – is also ideally suited to addressing this Olympic transportation challenge. In fact, completion of “Phase 2” of the Circle Line alone (the western and southern segments), will result in direct links between all CTA and Metra lines and the CTA lines that serve the primary Olympic venue concentrations (Washington Park, Grant Park, Northerly Island, McCormick Place, etc.). Phase 2 of the Circle Line can be completed by 2016 and be in place to significantly improve public transit access for the games. In addition, Circle Line Phase 2 will serve as a solid legacy of the games, addressing long-standing regional travel needs and setting the stage for the subsequent completion of the full Circle Line.

If Chicago gets the nod for the 2016 Games, there will definitely be the opportunity to create significant and worthy rail transit legacy improvements here — simply by ensuring that funding is secured (and implementation schedules are met!) for key projects that are already in the New Starts (and CTA’s general Capital Improvement Program) pipeline.

Also, here’s the Chicago Zoning & Planning Commission’s Central Area Action Plan – recently approved – which is PLANNED TO provide significant additional downtown transit services:

Page 7 of this section (chapter 2) clearly shows the improvements (eg. Carroll Ave transitway; Clinton Ave subway):

The improvements are, not coincidentally, planned to be complete by 2016.

Not to nitpick, but I see ‘second-world’ coming up a lot recently. It’s a term for the Soviet Socialist Republics, and out-dated. I’d stick with ‘city in developing world,’ or something like that.

There were also references to how the new HSR lines from St Louis, Detroit, and Milwaukee would support the bid for the Olympic Games.

A faint hope. It’s a very, very tardy of our leaders to be promoting HSR and the Circle Line in Chicago when the decision is to be made next month.

I’m betting on Rio to win, Madrid second, Chicago third place.

South Africa won the World Cup for the same reason Brazil will win the Olympics — it’s about damn time the Games went to Latin America/Southern Hemisphere/country with many black and brown people.

I’d expect to see Chicago come in dead last if it weren’t for the Obama effect on the votes from African and Caribbean countries.

Pure speculation on my part, all of this. Except that our leaders are hopelessly late getting significant transit programs on the table. That’s a sorry fact if ever was one.

Tokyo’s total rail ridership, including the subway, is 36,000k per day. Just the JR East operations at Shinjuku Station have 766k boardings per day. Note that in Japan ridership is reported per day and not per weekday as in the US, which means that Shinjuku’s JR ridership is almost as high as this of the entire Metra and L systems combined.

I think this analysis is missing a few major points. One of the reasons that Rio has proposed such a large sum on transit projects is that their facilities are so spread out over difficult terrain; revealing an advantage of the Chicago bid. If I recall, around 80-85% of the Chicago facilities are within 1 km of each other and the village. Also, to compare with Tokyo is difficult since some of the major concerns by the IOC of the Tokyo bid was the congestion issue and how the system will be able to accommodate the additional load of visitors and hotel guests.

I agree that the transit proposals in the Chicago bid were mildly disappointing but if it was all about transit, NYC would have won hands down with its extensive system and Athens would have never won. But I do agree with the poster that if Chicago loses out, it will be to Rio but not on the basis of transit. The Rio bid is still filled with concerns (security, scale of capital improvement, etc.) but they want the games in the Southern Hemisphere and they gave it to Athens, right?

Often countries seek the Games to announce their arrival on the world stage. Massive investments in public transit become part of that arrival statement.

I don’t think Chicago has a compelling case in that regard. If anything, the US is probably perceived as losing its world leading position. The main argument for Chicago then could be the hope of getting higher TV revenue if the Games are held at a good time for American broadcasters and cable channels. But Rio is only an our or two ahead of the US, probably negating that advantage.

But Spain won the Barcelona Games in 1992 in part because it was their way of saying “The Franco dictatorship is long gone, economic growth and EU membership are making ours a rich country, and Spain is like the other European countries now.” (Madrid may in effect lose to Barcelona this time — been there, done that.)

South Korea’s Games in 1988 had a similar role, and of course, Beijing in 2008. Even Athens in 2994 was saying, “We’re not a poor stepchild of Europe anymore; we can do this.”

Brazil wants to make that kind of boast now. With almost 30 years of political stability and more recently strong economic growth under a slightly left-of-center government, that could be a powerful argument for putting the Games in Rio.

Governments commit to the big spending on the Games for the prestige. They also hope the publicity will pay off in the long run with future tourism and with business investment. They also hope for a surge in tourism outside the host city.

Yonah mentions the plans for HSR to link Rio to Sao Paulo. That city is also expanding its rail transit system, with several extensions underway at once. Brasilia, Belo Horizonte, and Porto Alegre are all expanding their metros. Even Recife and Fortaleza in the poor Northeast of Brazil have new or growing rail systems. And Curitiba is one place that knows how to make BRT real, not just repackaged bus transit. It’s probably easier to do rail transit in all these other places than in Rio, where part of the city stands only a few feet above the water level, and the rest clings to mountainsides of solid rock.

if it was all about transit, NYC would have won hands down with its extensive system

No, London actually has a more extensive rail system. The Underground, National Rail, and the Overground have 2.9 billion annual riders among them; the New York City Subway, the LIRR, NJT, PATH, and Metro-North have 2 billion.

The thing I think Rio would have the advantage of in terms of preparing for a 2016 Olympic Bid is that they will have a lot of their infrastructure prepared for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. So there’s a good chance they could get this accomplished plus Brazil can easily set up dedicated BRT to the Olympic sites very quickly and cost-effectively which is something the IOC maybe looking at as well.

World Cup 2014 in Brazil may actually be a negative for Rio. It will most likely draw resources and attention away from 2016 preparations. IOC does not intend to play second fiddle to any other event and they will be just that from now until 2014 in Brazil. Plus the World Cup resources are focused on soccer facilities in many cities, so the preparations needed for World Cup are only a small share of what is needed for the Olympics, and they’re distributed differently. If IOC thinks Brazil cannot keep the Games at at least as high a priority as the World Cup during 2010-2014, I bet they will take a pass. On the other hand, there will be no doubt that Chicago will give its undivided attention to the Games for the next 7 years. Rio 2020 anyone?

Wow, it’s really interesting how much lower Chicago’s ridership per mile in both rapid transit and commuter rail is than all the other cities. Chicago has far more than twice the commuter rail mileage of the other cities but so much less ridership.

Not only is the transportation improvements in the bid underwhelming but so is the stadiums themselves. I can’t say there is one defining piece of architecture in the whole thing really. The Olympic Stadium looks crappier than those of Sydney, Athens, Beijing, and London. The only saving grace is due to the lack of grandeur in the facilities there is possibly a lower carbon footprint. I think it still has a decent chance of winning but I don’t see much of a long-term legacy on the city.

Relatedly, I wrote a couple blog entries in March about how Chicago could leverage the Olympics bid to push forward neighborhood revitalization as well as the development of better wayfinding systems. In a related blog entry a few days ago, I commented on how planning for the Vancouver Olympics has led to the development of a wide variety of planning initiatives to support benefits to the local population.

Alon, do you EVER bother to look up any of the stats you state?

From Page 7 of the American Public Transit Association’s 2009 Fact Book. . .

“The largest transit agency, MTA New York City Transit, carried passengers on 3.3 billion trips for 11.5 billion miles.” Around two-thirds of this is subway. London did actually finally surpass New York this year, thanks to the huge expansion of ridership in London over the past several years, but largely due to growth in bus services. London Underground is still less than half the New York Subway in riders. For 2008/09, they’re at 2.247 billion journeys by bus, 1.089 billion on the Tube. See Transport for London’s Annual Report and Statement of Accounts for 2008/09.

Furthermore, this substantial New York number, 60 percent above what you stated, does NOT include NJT, the Long Island Railroad, or other New York area providers. It is only New York City Transit. See Page 8 of the APTA 2009 Fact Book. The total number of passenger trips for the metro area is 4.054 billion (rounded). See Page 10 of the APTA 2009 Fact Book. More than double the number you wrote down.

More importantly for your assertion, London was well behind New York in city transit ridership at the time of the Olympic bidding for 2012, not ahead of it, and with a substantial distance from central London to the stadium in contrast to New York’s approach of putting a stadium downtown, transportation was a very legitimate question mark over the London bid. Of course, as New York discovered, not bothering to offer an Olympic stadium at all is guaranteed to ruin any bid for the Games, while London answered the IOC’s concerns with a far more coherent approach to making use of the high speed rail link among other things.

When you look at Chicago in this context, the system here in the Windy City is wholly inadequate even by the standards of London’s initial bid book. This, in short, is a situation that really could break the deal over transportation. Regional rail-to-subway connections are terrible, and not scheduled to be addressed until the Circle Line and/or Clinton Street subway open in the 2020s. The capacity of the ‘el is inadequate, a 140 mile system carrying substantially fewer riders than Toronto’s 43 mile system due to short trains operating at slack headways. And many Olympic venues are significantly off major transit routes.

A word on the CTA’s Circle Line, as it was extensively covered by Jeff S’s detailed post. In theory, as Jeff points out, it looks pretty good. In practice, there are some significant problems. First is the question of whether the city will actually deliver it. The city specifically declined to give a commitment, and the line is not adequately funded in the state of Illinois’ capital bill, which is very heavy on Downstate roads to nowhere and light on city infrastructure.

Second is what happens with the Circle’s relationship to the Red Line. As things stand, plans call for trains to share the already-crowded Red Line subway, creating a significant potential issue with headways. That can only be solved if the Red Line were to get its own new route, the Clinton Street Subway also called for in city planning documents that would directly connect Union and Ogilvie Stations as part of the West Loop Transportation Center, but the subway portion alone is a $3 billion scheme that will take substantially longer to develop.

DBX, the APTA uses unlinked trips. That means that if you take the 1 to Times Square, switch to the shuttle, and then take the 6, it counts as three trips instead of one. If you count linked trips, which is how every public transportation operator does it, then New York’s subway ridership is 1.66 billion per year, not 2.2 billion. If you add PATH, LIRR, MNRR, and NJT ridership, you get 2 billion.

Alon, London breaks journeys down so that a bus trip followed by a rail is a separate trip. TfL data are broken down by mode and by operator, providing separate numbers for Underground, Overground, buses, Docklands Light Railway, National Rail etc, hence, inherently unlinked data. I see no difference in how TfL data are calculated from how APTA data are calculated.

TfL counts a trip with transfers on the same operator as one trip. This is different from APTA, which counts transfers separately even within the same mode. The data would only be comparable if TfL counted transfers from one Underground or NR line to another as two trips.

Certainly not, Alon, on the buses, where in 2006 they switched to a new method of calculating ridership that substantially upped the number. With Oyster, they can, and do, count each boarding separately.

As for rail — where as you note TfL’s ridership is by trip, not per train (adding up the lines separately yields about 1.3 billion, rather than the slightly over 1.1 billion that’s quoted systemwide) — I have a question for you with regard to US data, that I want you to answer complete with source:

I had always understood measurement by boarding to be each pass through a fare barrier. For buses, that of course produces an unlinked trip. For any fare-barrier-equipped heavy rail system, however, it does not unless passengers must go through barriers to change trains. Even a system that records exits like Washington DC can’t automatically see the middle segment of a rail-rail-rail trip. So what’s going on here? Measurement by boarding, in which case fare-barrier controlled journeys on heavy rail aren’t strictly “unlinked”? Or extrapolation of barrier-controlled journeys on an arbitrary ratio (APTA estimates about 10 to 30 percent of transit riders transfer en route, depending on the agency).

I’m not sure what APTA is doing. In New York, the MTA says that,

Subway ridership consists of all passengers (other than NYC Transit employees) who enter the subway system, including passengers who transfer from buses. Ridership does not include passengers who exit the subway or passengers who transfer from other subway lines, with the exception of out-of-system transfers; e.g., between the Lexington Avenue/63rd Street station and the Lexington Avenue/59th Street station, where customers use their MetroCard to make the transfer.

There are only two such out-of-system transfers – the one given in the quote, and one between Court Square on the G and Court House Square on the 7.

I’m not sure how APTA’s methodology got a ridership level of 1.9 billion for New York. You’d have to ask them, but I’m guessing that they either extrapolated some transfer ratio, or surveyed ridership on each train to get a total ridership for each line and then added all the totals together.

For at least 13 years there have been plans to convert the Metra Electric to operate as part of the CTA as the CTA Gray Line, now referred to as the Gold Line. This plan to improve the South Side economic condition was created many, many years before the Olympics were even thought of.

Even the IOC noted that there were no
concrete plans for rail service between the venues by the 2016 committee, just vague references to using “existing infrastructure”.

The Electric District runs within footsteps of all the South Lakefront venues, and it is a 4-track Class I Railroad; not a miniature train like CTA’s el (able to carry a much higher per hour passenger load).

When the IOC say’s Metra will carry 2/3 of the rail passengers during the event,
do they mean carrying large numbers of people from the suburbs into the city; or do they mean the Electric District carrying event participants along the Lakefront between venues?

To construct a new CTA type rail line along the Metra Lakefront alignment would cost 1 to 2 billion dollars, which no one is going to spend for a 2 week event; even with leaving a legacy for the South Side communities.

Using the Metra Electric to provide service between the Lakefront Olympic venues will NOT work without fare and service integration with adjacent CTA rail and bus services.

Due to FRA/FTA regulations, new rail lines using CTA type trains cannot operate in common or on adjacent ROW to Class I trains; so CTA type trains could not run on the 2 center Electric District tracks (even with conversion to 3rd rail) right next to Metra trains.

If the IOC was looking among other things for real rail plans, than we’ve already blown it.

It would cost less than $200 MILLION (not billion) to convert part of the Electric District to operate as the Gold line/Gray Line (the Gold Line utilizes only the Metra South Chicago Branch, the Gray Line uses the entire South Side in-city Metra service).

“event in a second-world city in a developing country like Rio.”

As opposed to Chicago, a first-world has been city in a country working hard to get back to the third world.

Sorry, but when I think about experiences going through Atlanta and Chicago, I can’t help but think about how little our country wishes to spend on building infrastructure that works. Your reminder about the fleet of yellow school buses brought a chuckle however, and all I could think was about how insulting it must be to put international visitors in a wold class event into yellow prison buses designed for children. Reeks of saying, welcome to our cheap country. We won’t build greatness for our citizens, so why should be build it for you foreign infidels.

Sorry about the rant, but we in Amerika have problems.

I think a least part of the reason for Chicago’s loss of the 2016 Olympics was the glaring lack of any kind of firm and viable transit plans.

Purposely vague references to “shuttle bus” service, and “closed roadway lanes” is all that was offered by the 2016 bid committee.

Yet even after the IOC visited Chicago to check out all the venues and facilities (and had to have seen with their own eyes the 4 track Metra Electric Division commuter rail line interlacing all the Lakefront sites; and probably wondered why the bid committee made little or no reference to it, when it should have been one of the most promoted features), the bid committee continued to promote a purposely undefined “shuttle bus” / “closed lane” transportation system.

Proposed Red, Yellow, and Orange Line extensions are all many, many miles from the Lakefront and would have done nothing for inter-venue transit.

Many South Side individuals and Community Organizations have lobbied the 2016 bid committee for years to include the CTA Gold Line/Gray Line plans to convert the Electric line to operate as part of the CTA in the bid proposals; but from personal experience they were largely ignored.

I now believe the idea of a “legacy of transit improvements” for the SE Side was the old donkey-stick-carrot trick by da’ mayor, and the 2016 bid committee.

There will NEVER be any (rail) transit improvements to the SE Lakefront Corridor now, as CTA and Metra would rather DIE and BURN IN HELL FOREVER to protect their fiefdoms, rather then work together to improve transit conditions for the people there.

Hyde Park will have [Star Trek Transporter] service before there is a Gold/Gray Line.

So sad…

Which is the key reason why Rio was going to win it, because of the World Cup they will be doing 2 years earlier.

Chicago really didn’t have anything concrete and fixing up that IC corridor wouldn’t have guaranteed Chicago the bid anyways.

I’m about 2-plus years late in commenting about this issue, but the reason why Rio de Janeiro got the 2016 Olympics had more to do with (a) its stable government, (b) its location–South America had never ever hosted a major sports competition (World Cup or Olympics) [Brazil did host the 1954 World Cup–but long before the World Cup became the mega-sized sports event that it is today] and (c) Rio getting a head-start on building a facility (main soccer/Olympic Stadium) before bidding for the 2016 Games and (d) anti-American sentiment. In 2005, New York City (where I live, by the eay) was passed over in their bid for the 2012 Olympics to London. Since this story was written, the United States lost bids to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. [Russia and Qatar, respectively got the bids.]

Rio getting the 2016 Games had absolutely zero to do with public transport because (1) all other cities bidding for these Games (Tokyo, Chicago and Madrid) have better transport systems. It was all about the above four issues that gave Rio de Janeiro, Brazil the nod to host the Games of teh XXXI Olympiad.

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