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Infrastructure Technology Institute

The Colorful Past and Bullish Future of Chicago's "L"
Reprinted from Northwestern University Library "Footnotes," Spring, 2011.

From it’s impressive 1892 debut as four wooden cars pulled along by a steam locomotive to its future in an age of tightening budgets, the Chicago “L” was the subject of lectures by author Greg Borzo and Northwestern professor Joseph Schofer at a Board of Governors event last October.

Borzo (Medill ’95) documented the “L”’s colorful history in his 2007 book The Chicago “L” (Arcadia Publishing). Though not the first urban elevated train system in the United States, the “L” has proved the hardiest, surviving its New York predecessor, which debuted in 1867. Borzo attributed its survival to the fact that it did not compete, like streetcars, with automobile traffic on the city’s downtown streets but instead literally rose above it.

Though you’d never know it from looking at a modern “L” car, it was an elegant way to travel in its heyday. The first “L” car (now on display at the Chicago History Museum) featured mahogany woodwork, gold-leaf trim, and stained-glass windows. Special funeral cars operated from 1906 to 1934 and carried mourners––along with the caskets of their departed loved ones––to cemeteries on the city’s outskirts in virtual traveling funeral parlors, their grief cushioned by plush upholstery and black velvet drapery.

Even without gold trim and mahogany, the “L” has maintained its own iconic glamour, Borzo pointed out, as “Chicago’s greatest movie star.” Whether telegraphing to the audience that a scene is set in Chicago, supplying a romantic backdrop, or supporting an action hero’s gymnastics, the “L” can be seen in a long list of films, including Spiderman 2, The Blues Brothers, Risky Business, The Fugitive,  and Code of Silence.

The “L”’s existence has never been seriously threatened by the lure of an underground system, which, Borzo said, has been considered much too expensive an undertaking except during the years when the Great Depression created an ample supply of cheap manpower. Consequently, only about 10 percent of Chicago Transit Authority tracks run underground. What does threaten the “L”’s survival are the CTA’s perpetual budget crises, which have so far contributed to the destruction of eight miles of “L” track and many more route miles. “Every time there’s a funding crisis, an obvious thing to do is close down an ‘L’ line,” Borzo said. “The danger is that they’ll chip away at it until it becomes just a little tourist attraction.”

Schofer addressed that possibility. As a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Robert R. McCormick school of Engineering and Applied Science as well as director of Northwestern’s Infrastructure Technology Institute, he has researched the user, service and finance aspects of public transportation. He says that research suggests there are exciting opportunities as well as pitfalls on the tracks ahead. While budget cuts and failing infrastructure are realities, the real challenge, he said, “is managing the tension between fixing the old and building the new.”

Technological improvements will help the CTA create a better customer experience, providing riders with real-time information about schedules and delays, for example, and developing a fare card that can be used seamlessly on all forms of public transportation, including the “L,” buses, and commuter trains.

Meanwhile, Schofer said, market forces are in the “L”’s favor. Whereas young professionals once fled the city for the suburbs (and long commutes), today there is a greener goal: living, working, shopping, and relaxing within range of a walk, a bike ride––or public transportation. “I think this is the beginning for the ‘L’,” Schofer concluded, “and not the end.”