Should Chicago Resurrect its Streetcars?

Chicago Streetcar Renaissance web site

Chicago Streetcar Renaissance web site

Recently we published an article about a small movement to improve Chicago’s pedestrian mobility and lakefront access through the use of cable cars (“aerial trams;” think Switzerland, not San Francisco).  It received a good amount of readers and was fairly well received.

Now another group is thinking about the expansion of Chicago’s transportation options, this time with an eye on light rail.  Chicago Streetcar Renaissance recently started up and is advocating a return to at-grade, co-mingled rail transportation in Chicago.

Metro Light Rail Red Line in Houston, Texas

Metro Light Rail Red Line in Houston, Texas

Over the last decade, hundreds of cities around the world have embraced surface light rail as a method of moving more people through increasingly congested urban areas.  Even such car-centric cities as Dallas, Houston, and Phoenix are building light rail and light rail expansions as fast as they can.  They’re finding that more and more as people eschew the physically and socially detached lifestyles of the suburbs that rail transportation can help build, and even rebuild, neighborhoods.

Historically, Chicago had a huge love affair with light rail, even before it was cool.  The Windy City was the capitol of trolley transport for over a hundred years, before it was discontinued in the 1950’s.  Surface rail was so popular that we had to elevate some of it to make room for more.  That’s where we got our famous L system.

The question is, a half-century after we buried the tracks beneath layers of asphalt, is it time to revisit this romance?  Chicago Streetcar Renaissance argues, “yes.”  It envisions a starter line on Clark Street, connecting the Loop with Irving Park.  If you’ve ever taken this route on the CTA’s current #22 bus, you know the ride can be excruciatingly slow.

A TTC street car in Toronto

A TTC street car in Toronto

Officially, the trip is supposed to take an hour.  But as thousands of riders will tell you, it’s usually closer to 90 minutes or more.  Light rail advocates think the trip could take just 20 minutes on a modern LRV guideway.  And timetables from other cities make that seem realistic.

While certain parts of Clark Street parallel and even intersect the CTA’s Red Line subway, a large portion of it is dependent on the #22.  As the Streetcar web site puts it:

The Clark Street line would run through the four zip codes with the highest transit ridership in all of Chicago. In these neighborhoods, drivers are the minority. They’ll still be able to drive to work, but not down Clark Street: Clark is going to be optimized for commuting and shopping.

It runs through the area with the highest transit ridership, but where it’s too far to walk to the elevated train, so those riders have been relegated to buses stuck in traffic.

But if the buses are stuck in traffic, won’t the trains get stuck in the same traffic?  That’s what naysayers in Houston predicted when its Main Street line went into service.  It turned out to be wrong.  With modern signaling giving trains priority, it’s almost unheard of for a train to be stuck in traffic.  The biggest threat to the on-time schedule in the Bayou City is all of the Texans with their big SUVs making illegal left turns into the train.  They don’t seem to understand that the train always wins.

Could light rail be a winner for Chicago?  The Clark Street corridor, with 70,000 people getting on the bus each day could be a great test bed.  And if you explore light rail systems in cities around the world, it becomes clear that Chicago, as a city of neighborhoods, seems like a perfect fit.  Light rail is regularly used to turn crumbling neighborhoods into vibrant communities, and to knit together parts of the urban fabric that are too far to walk, but not far enough to require a subway.

The Metro Transit Blue Line in Minneapolis in the snow

The Metro Transit Blue Line in Minneapolis in the snow

Light rail certainly isn’t a cure for all of Chicago’s transit woes.  But as the demand for mass transit increases here, a neighborhood-friendly surface rail system would be a great compliment to the city’s existing transit infrastructure.

As a point of interest, here are the cities in America with light rail systems.  The ones in bold italics are ones that have been recently opened or expanded.

  • Baltimore
  • Boston
  • Buffalo
  • Charlotte
  • Cleveland
  • Dallas
  • Denver
  • Houston
  • Hudson County/Bergen County, New Jersey
  • Los Angeles
  • Minneapolis
  • Newark
  • Norfolk
  • Philadelphia
  • Phoenix
  • Pittsburgh
  • Portland
  • Sacramento
  • Saint Louis
  • Salt Lake City
  • San Diego
  • San Francisco
  • San Jose
  • Seattle
  • Trenton/Camden



Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

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