Streetcar desire: John Krause wants trams on Clark Street


Krause is tired of going Nuts on Clark waiting for for the slow-moving #22 bus.

[This piece also appeared in Checkerboard City, John’s weekly transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

Acid jazz pulsed on the sound system as a group of stylishly dressed transit fans clinked wine glasses last week at Vapiano, a sleek Italian restaurant at 2577 North Clark Street in Lincoln Park. They were there to launch the Chicago Streetcar Renaissance, a campaign to create a world-class streetcar line on Clark from the Loop to Wrigley Field, and eventually add lines in other parts of the city.

“Our mission is to grow the economy and the population of Chicago every year while reducing traffic congestion and making the city easier to get around,” says John Krause, 45, the architect who founded the movement, nattily attired in jeans and a dove-gray sports jacket. “That means every year there will be more people and fewer cars, more commerce and less congestion.”

He has a vision of the clogged traffic and the notoriously sluggish buses on Clark replaced by efficient, comfortable streetcars, more pedestrian traffic, on-street cafés and broad bike lanes. “The only way you can get rid of cars is to replace them with something better,” he explains. “In a car paradigm everybody assumes the city is going to grow more and more congested. But a public transit system is the opposite. The more people who use public transit, the better it gets.”


Streetcar in Strasbourg, France. Image courtesy of the city of Strasbourg.

Krause studied and worked in Gothenburg, the second-largest city in Sweden, for eight years and was inspired by the excellent infrastructure there. “They have streetcars and separated bike lanes all over town,” he says. He got the initial idea for the streetcar campaign last summer, and that fall his wife gave him a ticket to the Rail-Volution conference in Washington, D.C. as a birthday present. “People there gave me so much positive feedback about the idea that it encouraged me to do this in a really public way,” he says.

Until the 1950s Chicago had the biggest streetcar system the world had ever seen, Krause explains. He shows me an old map of the network, when virtually every major street had an electric streetcar line. But in the postwar era diesel buses and private cars replaced the trams and soon the roads became snarled with traffic. Nowadays Chicago is ranked as one of the most congested cities in the country, with the cost of time wasted in traffic estimated at $7.3 billion a year.


Early 20th Century map of the Chicago streetcar network.

The Clark streetcar line would pass through the four zip codes with the highest transit ridership in Chicago, with over 70,000 daily bus boardings – more riders than most of the CTA ’L’ lines. But Krause says the poor quality of the area’s bus service doesn’t reflect its high ridership. Half of Lincoln Park’s commuter buses (the #22 Clark and #36 Broadway) go down congested Clark Street. The other half (#134 Stockton/LaSalle Express, #143 Stockton/Michigan Express, #151 Sheridan and #156 LaSalle) run on the eastern border of the neighborhood with less congestion but no retail. In addition, he says, the land along Clark is underutilized, with multiple surface parking lots in River North and plenty of unoccupied storefronts in Lincoln Park.

Krause would like to consolidate all six commuter bus lines into the Clark Street streetcar service. This would double the frequency of service on Clark, bring commuting and shopping onto the same street and increase the foot traffic, helping the local merchants. Automobile through traffic would be rerouted to Stockton Drive and Lake Shore Drive but cars would still have local access to Clark for tasks like deliveries and dropping off and picking up passengers.


Rendering of the current traffic configuration on Clark Street. Image courtesy of Chicago Streetcar Renaissance.


Proposed configuration. Image courtesy of Chicago Streetcar Renaissance.

The streetcars would get priority in the travel lanes so they’d never get caught in car traffic, as well as signal prioritization, meaning stoplights would turn green when the trams approach them. The streetcars would cut costs because they can carry three-to-six times as many people as a typical bus, and driver salaries make up much of the expense of operating the CTA, Krause says. Furthermore streetcars offer a faster, smoother, more comfortable ride, so they’d attract people who normally wouldn’t consider taking the bus. “Currently the bus is seen as the transportation system of last resort,” Krause says.

Why did he choose Clark? “If you were to do this on Western, where the city’s planning to do bus rapid transit, it still wouldn’t be a nice street to dine on or send your eight-year-old to ride her bike,” says Krause. “Because Clark is narrow, if you did what I’m proposing you would get a world-class modern rapid transit system in the street with nearly the capacity of a subway, at one-tenth of the cost. You would also get the most pedestrian-friendly shopping street in town. Once you remove the cars it becomes a place where anyone would want to open a restaurant, or get an ice cream after dinner and walk around, or sit at an outdoor café.”

Having created an attractive website about his proposal, featuring images of vibrant European street scenes with streetcars, pedestrians, bikes and cafés, Krause’s next step is to assemble a design team and raise money to do a feasibility study. To build excitement for the idea, Krause is currently talking to Active Transportation Alliance about possibly staging an Open Streets car-free event on Clark. “My idea is to mock up what it would be like with streetcars on Clark Street between Diversey and Armitage, using buses instead of streetcars, with 12’-wide bike lanes and no parking,” he says.


Krause with fellow streetcar enthusiasts at Vapiano.

Launch party attendee Christina Liu, a civil rights lawyer, was excited about the streetcar concept. She’s ridden trams in San Francisco, Seattle, Amsterdam, Brussels and Istanbul. “The streetcars in Istanbul are great,” she says. “It’s like a very long train that looks very aerodynamic. It’s clean, it’s beautiful and it’s easy. It’s kind of as if Metra had advanced into the 21st century and went on the street and then made it’s way up Clark Street.”

Ryan Hart, who owns a sports marketing company, returned to Chicago last fall after living in Asia 14 years. “People are so obsessed with cars here it’s kind of ridiculous,” he says. “We need more streets where you can sit at a café and drink a beer. We need community, not just cars racing down the street.”

Mechanical engineer Maurice Ball says Krause has his work cut out for him. “He’s got a mountain in front of him, because the Chicago mindset is the American mindset – we’re in love with the car,” he says. “But I admire his tenacity. You gotta start somewhere.”

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John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs, from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation's bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

65 thoughts on “Streetcar desire: John Krause wants trams on Clark Street”

    1. So? If I made the leap from occasional transit blog commenter to advocate I’d push slightly beyond the realms of possibility too—it better highlights issues with the current status quo and excites people’s imaginations.

    2. To me what’s cost prohibitive is another 50 years of declining population (lower now than at any point since 1910) and rising congestion ($7.3 billion cost per year). We can’t spend the next 72 years waiting on buses stuck in traffic for the parking meter contract to run out. Let’s come up with some solutions. The status quo is not free.

  1. I’m visiting Toronto now.  On this visit and previous ones, I’ve seriously envied Toronto’s streetcar system. The streetcars are medium sized and run frequently (5-10 minutes intervals) throughout the day, so making connections is much easier than in the CTA system, where it’s not unusual to have a 15-20+ minute wait on an off-peak trip.

    In parts of the Toronto system, the streetcars have their own lanes in the median, separated by curbs. In other areas, the streetcar tracks are in traffic lanes and are flush with the pavement.  Streetcars also have their own sets of traffic signals, giving them an advance green light at intersections. Very nice system.

  2. Well, this would be really expensive to build, but yes, cheaper to operate than buses if there are enough people riding it to force ridiculously high frequency.  But if support materializes, I would hope that nearby business owners would tax themselves for it or otherwise pay for it.  Because I don’t think the taxpayers should pay to make rich people’s commutes cuter.  Oversimplifying, of course.

    It’s also rather silly to say “wasn’t it so wonderful when we had all those streetcars.”  No — those streetcars were slower than today’s buses, because they also ran in mixed traffic, but worse.

    1. I’ve been in a few “vintage” streetcars in San Francisco and New
      Orleans, and they are incredibly slow, even when given their own right
      of way. I can’t imagine the streetcars in Chicago in the 50’s were any

    2. The streetcars we had in the 50s were old, small, slow, and stuck in traffic. But even then, they were electric and they were everywhere. I wish we had spent the last 50 years modernizing all that infrastructure into the kind of high-capacity, cost-effective transit system many European cities enjoy instead of replacing it with the most expensive and inefficient option on the menu: a vast network of roads that need maintenance and private cars that need gas. 
      The Chicago Streetcar Renaissance is not about going back to the way the city was in the 1920s. It’s about leaving the pollution and congestion of the twentieth century city behind and moving forward with a city that gets less congested, easier to get around in, and more convenient to live in every year.

      1.  “a vast network of roads that need maintenance and private cars that need gas.” Not to mention, automobile insurance, traffic tickets, parking tickets, vehicle maintenance, seat belt laws, anti cell phone/texting laws, whatever else escapes my mind at the moment, all placed in the capable/culpable hands of non-professional “drivers” some of them not even old enough to vote and…. I should know I was one of them, and once in a blue moon still am. :-), 🙁

    3. I agree there’s something distasteful about upgrading transit service first in a wealthy part of town. But there’s no public money now to build a streetcar line anywhere, let alone where it would do the most social good. I’m looking at Clark Street because I think there’s a business case for financing the project privately, and we need to get one streetcar line up and running to demonstrate the appeal to riders, the economic growth, and the operational efficiency and savings for the CTA. At this point I think the fastest way to get a streetcar on Cottage Grove is to build one on Clark Street first. Until then, let’s support CDOT’s efforts to bring BRT to places where people spend more on their cars than on their homes. 

      1.  You make an excellent point about attracting private financing. If you can justify the economic benefits of the project, especially the local advantages to commerce and property values, then you should be able to attract some kind of PPP or use the new infrastructure bank for a project that, if it works as you describe, would generate huge economic benefits.

        If you can’t justify the economic benefits, I’d be opposed to an “if you build it, they will come” approach for new infrastructure along the Clark corridor. The city just has too many other pressing infrastructure needs.

  3. I also am a former resident of Sweden. I can definitely bike faster than the traffic on Clark, but the current bike land configuration feels unsafe to me. I would love to see Clark become more “European.” I think it would definitely boost real estate values because currently it’s quite an affordable area (relatively) partially because the public transportation is so mediocre in the area.

  4. This would be a great idea, but not very likely considering the city can’t even get Bus Rapid Transit right. Maybe starting off with a BRT route on Clark would be a good stepping-stone to lead to eventual streetcars? Some parts of Clark (mainly south of Armitage) are so wide, that it baffles me why CDOT didn’t continue the bus only lane or add bike lanes.

  5. What kind of benefit there would be for bus passengers besides a smoother ride and the psychological satisfaction that they’re riding rail? Replacing express routes sounds like a net minus to me—the LSD expresses (like the 134 and 143) have a fairly strong niche market among downtown commuters because they provide a relatively quick trip from their riders’ doorsteps to downtown, which is something an all-stops streetcar down Clarke wouldn’t provide. 

    Describing it as being a “subway” is misleading—even if Clarke Street were turned into a transit mall, it will still be sharing the street with pedestrians, bicycles, and local-traffic automobiles, as well as noise-conscious business owners and residents. It will not be able to reach the same speeds as a fully-separated rail line. There’s no mention of stop spacing, either—would it be very wide (1/2-1 mile), with local bus service stopping at shorter intervals to provide more local circulation? Or would it be a compromise between wide-rapid transit spacing and all-stop buses (1/4 mile), reducing speed even more?

    Finally, I’m slightly bothered by the fact that when Americans go to Europe (or Asia) they come back with great impressions of the rail systems there without recognizing the buses, which they often do better as well—they just don’t stand out as much because there’s less big, obvious infrastructure to gawk at. Things like rationalizing stop spacing, providing separate lanes, and improving shelter facilities can do a lot as well. Add in signal priority and you’re pretty close to achieving a lot of the goals of this proposal, probably at less cost.

    1. The main (only) benefit of rails in the ground would be higher capacity per trip.  In areas this dense, this might actually make a difference.

      It may also, annoyingly, be a more politically viable way of introducing the improvements you’re talking about.  But yes, someone would have to pay for it.

      1.  Another benefit would be that it would be safer for bikes and peds since it would be  a fixed route, so you wouldn’t have to worry about unpredictable driving by bus operators.

      2.  I’m not sure why this Clark streetcar would be politically viable. It’s putting the most modern system in the most affluent neighborhood in the city. Who could possibly object to that except…every other neighborhood in the city.

        The place for this kind of thing is Western or Ashland or Irving Park, to spread economic development away from the lake and across the city.

        1. I think BRT is the right choice for Western, Ashland, and Irving Park Rd. Those streets are going to be dominated by car traffic no matter what transit system you give them. Building a streetcar line on Western is not going to make me want to stroll on the sidewalk there or let my 8-year-old daughter (if I had one) ride her bike to school. BRT is a great way to make the grid operate more efficiently, but it doesn’t have the kind of transformative power of the modern electric streetcar (there are some important exceptions to that). I wouldn’t move my family from Naperville to the city or my company from Houston to Chicago to be near a bus line.

          For the taxpayers of Chicago who do not live near the proposed streetcar line, it’s important to realize that you’re already losing a tremendous amount of money every day on lots and lots of small buses with lots and lots of drivers driving thousands of people very slowly into downtown in heavy traffic. If we replace that system with a high-capacity, cost-effective, long modern streetcar moving quickly with priority in the street through the most densely populated part of town on a street that is both aligned for commuting (weekdays) and links the Loop with many tourist destinations (weekend), your taxes will go down. I think.

          1. John, I am not sure how you come to the conclusion that streetcars lead to lower taxes. Can you explain how one leads to the other?

          2. I watched a PBS show a couple of years ago on their website.  It showed how the US government then (circa 1898 or so) got on the rail roads to go underground in NYC.  Well, to make a long story shorter, it said they made more money from the real estate above Penn or Grand Central then they ever made off the trains.  Kind of like phone companies give away phones or the Empire State Building has made more money from tourists rather than rent. Even the Royal wedding, they complained it would cost like 30 million or whatever for security. In reality, it brought in like 280 million just in Royal memorabilia, in one day. No wonder the Royal family had no problem paying for security that day.  On the surface something may look like a money pit but it actually brings in more revenue than it cost. 

          3. Streetcars definitely do not always lead to lower taxes. But there are two ways they can do just that:
            First, they can spark property development and new business that generates tax revenue for the city. (That’s not “new taxes”; it’s people and businesses paying taxes in Chicago instead of somewhere else.) That new revenue can be enough to retire the capital debt incurred to build the streetcar. This is the model for almost all the new streetcars in the U.S. This argument makes the most sense where the cost of the new streetcar is low relative to the development potential along the route, as in Portland’s Pearl District. (I don’t think that’s true on Clark Street, but we’re just getting starting looking into that.)Second, streetcars are cheaper to operate than buses. In the most densely populated and heavily traveled commuter corridors like Clark Street, they can be high-capacity, high-efficiency modern streetcars that are much, much less expensive to operate than buses. Deployed in the right locations, streetcars save taxpayers money by reducing the amount of subsidy we give to the CTA. (But someone still has to pay the capital cost.)In the very best case scenario, where all the conditions are optimal, a modern streetcar line might be able to operate profitably–with no taxpayer subsidy at all, and generating enough revenue to pay down the capital debt to build it. That means it could be privately financed through a public-private partnership. Not many people think this is possible, but I’m looking into it.In most places, the case for a streetcar line will include both development potential and operational savings. The combination of the two together makes the investment work.It’s important to remember that the status quo is not free just because we’ve gotten used to paying for it. We’ve been stuck with the most expensive and inefficient transportation infrastructure available–roads and cars–and the costs of maintaining those roads and fueling those cars are going to get ugly. I think we should be considering transitioning to a more cost-effective, efficient, growth-oriented transportation system, starting with the places where it makes the most sense. Eventually we’re going to want to own a system that’s not so spread out and not dependent on fossil fuel, but is compact and convenient and powered by clean, renewable energy that gets cheaper every year and never runs out.

          4. Since you mentioned your hypothetical 8-year old child, I wanted to note that the “8 to 80 rule” for city streets is a crazy fiction when it comes to bicycle riding. Bicycle riders are supposed to follow the rules of the road when they bicycle and last time I checked 8 year olds cannot pass driver’s exams. Bicycling is exercise and recreation before the age of 12 and should be looked at as such by transportation planners. Making city streets safe for hypothetical 8 year olds to ride bikes is utopian nonsense, not sound planning.

            It’s easy to invoke children to advocate any plan and box in critics of any plan — after all, who doesn’t want to be seen as on the side of children? — but people who imagine streets where UPS trucks, emergency vehicles, construction equipment and 8 year bicyclists peacefully coexist are doing children no favors.

          5. Hold on: why does an 8-year-old need to be able to pass a driving test to have a right to bike to school? Does she need to know how to parallel park? Remember please that people and bikes came first. We let people drive cars in the streets with us only if they agree to drive safely. In great cities all over the world, kids are biking safely to school today, as they used to in Chicago, and as they will again some day soon.

          6. “To remain safe on Illinois roads, it is important to follow the same traffic safety laws that govern vehicle drivers.” – Secretary of State Jesse White, from the opening paragraph of the Illinois Bicycle Rules of the Road

            There is no test to take, but the expectation is that bicyclists have mastered the rules of the road the same as if they had taken a driver’s test.


            Children don’t have the maturity to consistently make judgments about yielding and right of way and what to do when an emergency vehicle is approaching in a changing traffic environment. Children also have immature cognitive skills which cause them to make errors that adults do not make when judging speed and distance, essential skills to operating a bike in a road or simply walking across a road in a crosswalk.


            I’m not saying cars take precedence over human lives – that would be grotesque. I am saying roads for motor vehicles are not a place for children. If the discussion is “We have put too much emphasis on roads at the expense of spaces for people” then I’m 100% with you. If the discussion is “Children can co-exist in roads safely with cars in the same space” I’m not with you because they cannot.

            I’m all for streetcars and trams but not because they do anything with safe bicycling for children or as a means of eliminating cars from the street. I like them because they are cheaper per passenger mile over the life of the system, and scalable to the future needs of the city in a way that BRT is not.

          7. I think most people away from the lakefront use the bus to get to the train that takes them to the Loop. This is part of the reason that a Clark Corridor makes sense. Western doesn’t make sense not just because of ambiance, but because it would not address the issue of getting to the Loop.

        2. Uh, do you think people all over the city are clamoring to have major thoroughfares converted to local-only transit malls? They’re not. I suspect that the political push back would be local, from people who live or have businesses on or near Clark.

          It might be a good idea, but I don’t believe there’s a ground swell of reverse NIMBYism here.

          1. What is reverse NIMBYism? “Yes, in my back yard, please!” Maybe we should coin a term for people who are clamoring for bold initiates in their communities, like my neighbors who got the Albany Home Zone built on our block. YIMBYPs?

    2. I lived in Europe back in the late 80’s.  And I stayed in England for about 4 months in 1990.  I never rode a bus the whole time I was in Europe.  I passed through 7 different countries numerous times while I was there.  And still I never stepped on a bus.  The only time I rode a bus was in England and, that was maybe 20 minutes total.  I rode one in Leeds to get to a friends house from the train station.  And I rode a double-decker bus in London a couple of times for about 10 minutes.  I rode the Underground and trains and walked everywhere else in England.  To be perfectly honest England was the only place I remember even seeing buses.  Rome didn’t have much of a subway because of all the old ruins.  So I rode the tram mostly.  I just had to look on the internet to see if Paris and Amsterdam even have buses.  I guess they do.  But I don’t recall ever seeing one.  I was only 2 hours from Paris when I lived in Europe and I used to go down there all the time.  I stayed down there for 2 week stretches a couple of times and I never had to take a bus anywhere.  I traveled all over Paris and it was Metro or walking all the way.  I never even had to catch a cab.  

    3. An express bus that doesn’t make very many stops doesn’t pick up very many people at their doorstep. Those buses don’t bring foot traffic to local businesses and they don’t allow you combine commuting and shopping. They get quickly to the Loop, but once there they crawl in very heavy traffic. Unless you’re getting off at the first stop, you’ll spend more time on the “express” bus in the Loop than you would on your whole streetcar trip.

      The Clark Street buses today stop at least every 1/8 mile, sometimes at every corner. At this point I think the streetcar should stop about every 1/4 mile, somewhere between today’s buses and the L. It makes sense to have a local bus come along periodically and pick up people at every corner who are unable or unwilling to walk the extra couple of blocks to the streetcar stop.

      I am an American, but I lived in Sweden for 8 years, where I rode both streetcars and buses. You’re right that buses can do most of what streetcars do at a lower capital cost, which is why I support BRT in most places. But in the most densely populated neighborhoods in Chicago, on a street that is both aligned for commuting and connects many major tourist destinations, the ridership would be high enough to motivate investing in a system that has much higher capacity than buses and operates less expensively. 

      1. Would it be a good initial step to simply have the Clark bus (and others) make less frequent stops to see how much that improves its performance?

        Beyond the time of actually stopping, the problem is really that buses don’t accelerate very quickly from a dead stop, much less when they have to merge into traffic at the same time.  I take the 77 Belmont from Clark all the way to Kimball a few times a week, and the difference between doing that at 9 pm vs. 6:30 pm (the two times I alternate between) is mind-boggling.

        I think people would be willing to walk an extra block if they knew it was going to be a big time-saver in terms of getting where they wanted to go.

        1. Two other easy steps to take to improve bus travel times is to 1) enforce no parking in bus stops so the bus driver has ample space to pull over, and 2) in key places eliminate pulling over to the curb – build a bumpout/curb extension so that the bus does not have to leave traffic and merge back in. Traffic behind the bus will simply have to wait until all passengers have finished alighting and deboarding.

          1. Those might work, but I don’t think either of those are easy steps, and they are definitely a lot more difficult to implement than simply removing stop signage (the covered stops are a different story). 

            For #1, they barely enforce any traffic violations these days at all, so I doubt they have the manpower to pull that off.  

            I also personally don’t see a lot of violations for bus stop parking, but the general issue I see is just physics, a vehicle the size and weight of a bus requires a slow, gradual stop and then the reverse to accelerate to the speed of traffic.  Even if there’s no traffic at all it’s slow.

            For #2,  that traffic waiting behind the bus also includes other buses, so I’m not sure that’s a net win unless you’re combining it with BRT.

            There were a *lot* of frivolous bus stops that were installed during the housing boom of the 90s/early Oughts, and it seemed then like any major developer was able to request and receive a bus stop when they were constructing big residential buildings on commercial/arterial strips.  I don’t really think it’s possible for public transit to provide that kind of door-to-door service and also to be quick.

            An example of a finally-removed superfluous bus stop is there was an EB Belmont bus stop on both the east and west side of California and Elston, and only a year or so ago did they finally get rid of the one on the west side.  That has made a big difference both for bus riders, drivers who want to exit Belmont to head right on to Elston or California, and then for cyclists who aren’t trying to get around the bus while also dealing with frustrated drivers.

          2. Also, push harder for people to exit in the rear, enter in the front. If you’re not old, not in a wheelchair, or not dealing with a very small child, get off at the back door while people enter in the front.

        2. Good point, Carter. I think our bus system was designed to provide mobility for those who can’t drive. That’s a worthwhile goal, and I think some of our buses should stop on every block. But I think it’s more important to provide effective mass transit, too, and that means most of the buses should stop less frequently and should be given priority in traffic where and when appropriate (like on streets that are aligned for commuting at rush hour). 

          There’s a huge gap in the spectrum of public transit in Chicago between the L, which is fast but doesn’t go very many places, and the bus, which goes everywhere but is stuck in traffic with all the cars. We need to be pushing for more options in the heart of the transit spectrum, where the vast majority of us are. 

          Fewer stops for most buses is a step in the right direction. Express buses and bus-only lanes are another. Go to Bus Rapid Transit and now your’e walking. As Gabe Klein says, “We have to walk before we can run.” BRT is walking; modern streetcars are running.

          1. I think a *very* good start would be to take the space freed up by Rush Hour Parking Controls and to clearly designate them as for buses only, and to crack down on any motorists using that space.  I still don’t believe those pass legal muster to be considered actual lanes of traffic as they have no markings whatsoever. 

            I’m all for a return to a street car system, viewing that map explains to me perfectly how this City used to be able to function with almost a million more people – can you imagine what traffic would like right now with a population of 3,600,000? 

  6. By the way, the streetcar map you posted can’t be from 1924.  Cermak Rd wasn’t called that until after Anton Cermak’s assassination in 1933.

    1.  Good catch – you must have really zoomed in on the map to notice that. I’ve fixed it on the post and alerted John Krause that he might want to edit that on his website.

  7. This would be amazing.  I live right by Clark, and the 22 is my main bus route.  It’s so slow, I feel like I am going to grow old and die before I reach my destination.  I love this plan.

    I don’t even think it needs to be seen as anti-car.  I would happily give up driving on the street if we could get something like this — I would use it whenever I was traveling to neighborhoods where parking is a huge headache, or whenever I was planning to have drinks, or when it’s snowing and I don’t want to drive.  I think people who like to drive have a harder time with things like bike lanes (I don’t, but there’s a lot of resistance).  Everyone complains about the crapy public transit because we would all like the option of fast, convenient transit when we need or want it.

  8. Is he proposing to eliminate cars on Clark Street?  They seem to have disappeared in the proposed configuration rendering.

    1. Yes. It would become a Rapid Transit / Pedestrian corridor with only delivery access. Read the website.

    2. Over the 5 miles from Wrigley Field to Daley Plaza, the local conditions change several times. Over the next generation, those conditions will change further. I see no reason to force one solution on the whole route. And I want locals to have some influence on what their streets are like. In some blocks residents will prefer on-street parking; in others businesses will prefer a more pedestrian shopping environment that attracts foot traffic. 

      These are the principles I’ve been working with:
      1) Give transit priority in the street on a handful of streets that are aligned for commuting at least during rush hour. That makes transit much faster, much cheaper to operate (because the faster the trains make their rounds, the fewer of them you need), and much more attractive to people who now drive and park downtown.
      2) Discourage through traffic on these few streets in order to bring more people and fewer cars into downtown every year.
      3) Allow local access by car as much as possible, which is probably everywhere, including deliveries and delivery parking.

      At this point I believe the minimum to achieve these goals is for the streetcar to stop in its lane and for the sidewalk to “bulb out” to meet it. No one can pass the streetcar, and while it’s stopped the road before it clears of traffic. You could still drive down Clark but you can’t get there faster than on the streetcar. 
      The idea is for the streetcar to operate as efficiently as if in a dedicated lane, but to still allow local access traffic.

      What do you think?

  9. So the people on Sheridan Road or east of Sheridan would have to walk to Clark for public transportation. Sounds like a great idea with Chicago winters. Also, I guess all the retail and restaurants on Clark don’t need customers from out of the local area since there will not be any parking.

    1. And as we all know, all customers of retail and restaurants on Clark Street drive to get there. That’s why so many of them have parking lots, right?

    2. The percentage of customers who drive to Clark street is absurdly low… removing their street front parking would have minimal impact… especially is the area is made more attractive to the pedestrian experience, becoming an destination all its own. I disagree with the proposed routing however… I think that it should be Clark South of Diversey and Broadway to the North. It would run right through the densest area of Lakeview and would be close enough to Sheridan to adequately replace the 151 if need be.

      1. Although this might be an issue north of Diversey, south of Diversey the walking difference would be 0 to two blocks. And, in addition to what UR said above, I’m guessing most cafes, restaurants and bars (which make up a big portion of the retail on Clark, would be glad to swap two parking spaces for the equivalent amount of sidewalk cafe space. At least during the summer, it would be losing four customers and gaining 24.

  10. The State Street transit mall in the 80s is a national poster child for what goes wrong when you remove automobile traffic from a retail street.  There are successful examples in other places, but whether it’s a good idea or not is irrelevant because Chicagoans still talk about what a failure that was 30 years later.  No one working for the city is going to go for this idea. 

    Then you have the light rail circulator project of the early 90s, which failed to be implemented partially due to politics, but also because it was unlike anything else in the city at the time.  By having heavy rail and buses only, the CTA achieves economies of scale.  They don’t have to build a separate maintenance facility for streetcars, or train separate staff.  They can keep things uniform, and save money.  Boston tried something as small as switching to CNG for bus fuel, and is already switching back to diesel just 6 years later,. We should be very skeptical of any plan where Chicago is a transit guinea pig.  The infrastructure we use most today has been around for 100 years.  There’s no reason to jump on the streetcar craze when it hasn’t even been 10 years since other cities got caught up in the streetcar craze. 

    You can argue that we should try to do something innovative as a global city, but it’s still a dubious plan based on the fact that it’s being done to rejuvenate vacant storefronts.  Looking at the history of pedestrian malls, the key difference between successful ones and failing ones is that the failing ones were already experiencing decline, like State Street at the time, and removing the cars only hastened that decline, reducing customer numbers even further.  Doing this on Clark when there are already concerns about it’s vitality is a dead giveaway that we shouldn’t be limiting access to it, even to people driving a car. 

    1. The key quote from Krause here is, “The only way you can get rid of cars is to replace them with something better”. State Street without cars, with buses, but with bikes banned (which was a real hassle since I was a bike messenger back then) = not much of an improvement. Clark Street with no car danger, noise or fumes, with nicer, more comfortable, faster and more frequent transit, plus more space for walking, biking and sidewalk cafes? Sign me up.

    2. I certainly don’t want to give people less access to local shopping, and I don’t want to deprive local businesses of customers. There’s a huge problem today with “leakage” in Lincoln Park retail–neighborhood residents driving to suburban malls to shop. You can’t shop by car on Clark Street today because there’s too much traffic and not enough parking. It gets worse every year. We’ve reached the point of congestion, so providing more parking will just encourage more driving and make congestion worse. What do you think we should do about it?

      Almost all of our neighborhood’s businesses depend on foot traffic. My plan is to bring a lot more people and fewer cars into the street, and to dramatically increase the amount of foot traffic. I want to make it possible for neighborhood residents to combine commuting with convenient local shopping, and for people from the suburbs to shop on Clark Street without driving and parking in Lincoln Park and Lakeview. 

      The State Street bus mall is indeed a poster child for why even densely populated cities should try to become suburban strip malls, but that’s not my child and I don’t trust the people making the posters. Chicagoans have been talking about that failure for 30 years, and for every one of those years our population and retail commerce have gone down and congestion has gone up. Are we going to spend the next 30 years talking about how great the status quo is?We have entered into a new era of enlightened governance in Chicago and the time is right to start transitioning to a more modern, cost-effective, efficient transportation infrastructure.

      The “farebox recovery rate” is only about 25% for buses, which means 75% of the cost of driving all those people slowly around in buses stuck in traffic is a taxpayer subsidy. The maintenance costs on diesel buses are obscene, even if you don’t try to fix the rattling interiors. The economy of scale argument doesn’t mean much when you’re operating your huge system at a huge loss because you’re committed to the wrong technology. To be fair, buses are the right technology for most of America and for most of Chicago, but in the 4 most densely populated zip codes (of 60) in Chicago, the right technology is the modern streetcar. Where ridership is very high, long, high-capacity streetcars save a lot of money on the operating cost of transit.

      In other neighborhoods we might invest in streetcar lines for reasons other than saving money on the operating cost. Most American streetcar lines are property and development investments rather than transit projects. (That is, in fact, how the whole city of Chicago was originally built.) Maybe we’ll decide to invest in streetcars as a way to repopulate the abandoned areas of our city, as a catalyst for growing the population and the economy. 

      Streetcars are not a ten-year-old craze. If you do a little reading, you’ll find an unbroken evolution of streetcar design, technological innovation, and best practices from cities all over Europe–cities of all sizes, densities, climates, and economies. You don’t have to take any risks or reinvent the wheel to get world-class modern transit these days, but you do have to be willing to look beyond the old diesel bus.

  11. John Greenfield I couldn’t agree more.  Bring back the TRUE smooooooooooth operators Streetcars and lay a slick, sleek, shining track for them from coast to coast. 🙂  

  12. Ohhhhhh, maaaannn………. I can’t wait for this tram!  Please, let’s make this happen! 🙂

  13. Usually we look at actual operating costs in making policty decisions, not theoretical ones.  From “Characteristics of Urban Transportation Systems,” a Federal Transit Administration report from 1992:

    BUS                     $60/1000 place miles    OR    $3.80/revenue vehicle mile

    LIGHT RAIL         $96/1000 place miles    OR    $9.30/revenue vehicle mile

    RAPID RAIL         $50/1000 place miles    OR    $6.50/revenue vehicle mile

    a “place mile” is a passenger place (seated or standing) carried one mile. I’d love to see more recent figures if FTA would commission another study, but I can’t think of anything about the underlying characteristics that has changed dramatically.

    Even setting aside the enormous capital costs, the cost of the operator is not the main variable.  Streetcars are expensive to maintain and often have a lot of deadheading.  In Portland, the streetcar’s operating costs were budgeted at $114/hour, twice what Tri-Metro’s bus operating costs were.  So for the same money, the bus could come twice as often.  And we now have several US cities where we can do side-by-side comparisons.  Figures come straight from the NTDB. These are all the US systems running streetcars and motor buses in 2006:

    Central Arkansas Transit Authority (Little Rock) streetcar 68.1  $/hour
    Central Arkansas Transit Authority (Little Rock) motor bus 64.4  $/hour
    Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (Tampa) streetcar 93.9  $/hour
    Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (Tampa) motor bus 76.5  $/hour
    New Orleans Regional Transit Authority streetcar 379.9  $/hour
    New Orleans Regional Transit Authority motor bus 205.8  $/hour
    Charlotte Area Transit System streetcar 366.1  $/hour
    Charlotte Area Transit System motor bus 79.3  $/hour
    Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (Philadelphia) streetcar 140.2  $/hour
    Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (Philadelphia) motor bus 105.4  $/hour
    Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) streetcar 73.1  $/hour
    Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) motor bus 80.0  $/hour
    Island Transit (Galveston) streetcar 78.8  $/hour
    Island Transit (Galveston) motor bus 43.5  $/hour
    Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority (Tacoma) streetcar 291.0  $/hour
    Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority (Tacoma) motor bus 108.9  $/hour
    Kenosha Transit (KT) streetcar 91.9  $/hour
    Kenosha Transit (KT) motor bus 74.9

    1. Good point, Dennis. Those low-capacity streetcars you cited all look like very expensive electric buses to me. There may be a great financial case for each of them, but it’s not the operating cost.
      What I’m proposing is a much, much higher capacity system for the most densely populated part of Chicago with the highest transit ridership, but where 70,000 people a day board buses stuck in traffic because it’s too far to walk to the L.

      I want to use actual operating costs to guide policy, too. For relevant comparisons, I think we need to look to the high-capacity per mile systems that are the standard in Europe now. How would you like to work on a study of those systems? We could really use your help!

      1. It seems a little odd to me to decide on a technology and THEN go looking for evidence to support your choice.  But I ran the 2010 numbers for light-rail systems as opposed to streetcars:

        LR $177/hr
        BUS $91/hr
        194% more

        Los Angeles LACMTA
        LR $372/hr
        BUS $119/hr
        314% more

        Sacramento RT
        LR $223/hr
        BUS $112/hr
        199% more

        San Diego MTS
        LR $136/hr
        BUS $103/hr
        132% more

        San Francisco Muni
        LR $269/hr
        BUS $157/hr
        171% more

        Santa Clara VTA
        LR $291/hr
        BUS $151/hr
        192% more

        Denver RTD
        LR $160/hr
        BUS $120/hr
        133% more

        Boston MBTA
        LR $214/hr
        BUS $134/hr
        160% more

        Baltimore MTA
        LR $243/hr
        BUS $144/hr
        169% more

        Twin Cities Metro
        LR $177/hr
        BUS $109/hr
        163% more

        St Louis Metro
        LR $228/hr
        BUS $97/hr
        234% more

        Charlotte CATS
        LR $353/hr
        BUS $89/hr
        398% more

        New Jersey Transit (direct)
        LR $303/hr
        BUS $125/hr
        243% more

        New Jersey Transit (contract)
        LR $471/hr
        BUS $99/hr
        476% more

        Buffalo NFTA
        LR $271/hr
        BUS $101/hr
        269% more

        Cleveland GCRTA
        LR $283/hr
        BUS $115/hr
        246% more

        Portland Tri-County
        LR $185/hr
        BUS $125/hr
        148% more

        Pittsburgh PA
        LR $347/hr
        BUS $137/hr
        254% more

        Philadelphia SEPTA
        LR $164/hr
        BUS $128/hr
        128% more

        Dallas DART
        LR $438/hr
        BUS $112/hr
        391% more

        Houston Metro
        LR $197/hr
        BUS $109/hr
        180% more

        Salt Lake City UTA
        LR $122/hr
        BUS $87/hr
        141% more

        Tacoma ST
        LR $278/hr
        BUS $146/hr
        190% more

        Seattle Metro
        LR $202/hr
        BUS $127/hr
        159% more


        220% more

        So let’s recap.  Capital costs for street-running trams are enormous (the downtown circulator cost was nearly $800 million back in the mid-90s).  Vehicle costs are roughly four times that of buses, even accounting for longer vehicle life.  Operating costs per hour are more than double but crush capacity is only 50% greater.  And the only way it works is for current bus riders to be forced to walk several blocks west to board a streetcar.  Perhaps this is a solution looking for a problem?

        1. Dennis,


          Thanks for your thorough comment.

          Have you looked at any systems that are similar to what I’m

          Good conditions for low cost: short route, no bridges or
          tunnels, minimal relocation of utilities.

          Good conditions for high revenue: very high density, aligned
          for commuting, connecting many major tourist destinations with downtown.

          The number of riders per mile on a weekday would be
          something like 14,000; the average on the CTA trains is 3,161.


          I’m convinced that the future of mass transit is in the
          street, and I think you agree with me on that. The only way to grow the
          population and the economy without becoming overwhelmed by even more traffic
          congestion is to prioritize transit service on the handful of streets that are
          most perfectly aligned for commuting, at least during rush hour.


          For the moderate-density, sprawling cities of most of
          America the most fiscally conservative technology will be BRT. For the most
          densely populated urban areas like the Clark Street corridor, high-capacity rail
          transit running in the street could be the answer. In sprawling, auto-dependent
          American cities, transit systems operate at a loss and need to be subsidized
          (though that subsidy pales in comparison to the subsidies for the far less
          efficient car infrastructure). There may be very good economic arguments for
          investing in all of the rail systems you cited, but operational profitability
          is not one of them. In the U.S. we don’t have any systems running in the
          near-optimal conditions of Clark Street as described above, but there are
          examples in Europe that do operate at a profit. (We’re gathering evidence of
          those examples now, so I’ll ask you to stay tuned.)


          I believe the future is compact not sprawling, convenient
          not congested, electric not diesel, and rail not bus. I hope it turns out that
          the best choice for my neighborhood is modern streetcars because, like everyone
          else, I’d rather ride a streetcar than a bus and I’d much rather live in a
          streetcar city than a bus city. But I promise you, Dennis, I will not spend
          anyone’s money based on my hopes and my beliefs. We’re trying to fund a
          thorough feasibility study using relevant comparables. Aren’t you curious to
          see where this goes? Why don’t you join us? You seem to have a lot to

        2. Seattle’s Light Rail Trains can carry 200-400% as many people as their busses, so overall that would seem to make the light rail system cheaper to Operate, Also, they made the unfortunate decision to build the lower risk, lower ridership segment first, which is why cost per boarding hasn’t quite come below busses yet (IT is below ST’s express busses, but not Metro’s Local busses) Once they expand the train system into North Seattle adding much much more dense ridership, the cost per boarding is expected to drop well below that of the bus. Also, once we start running full 3 or 4-car trains, the capacity is ridiculously higher than that of busses, and the speed is far higher, as there’s no legendary seattle traffic to navigate for trains. 

        3. Hmmmm, seems like pretty incomplete information… Do these numbers (as they relate to the bus scenario) take into account the cost of the pavement needed, traffic congestion and loss of productivity, traffic related accidents, environmental degradation? If not, what do these numbers measure? Capital costs for the status quo are somehow acceptable? Sustainable? Unsubsidized?

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