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Lessons from Chicago… And Beyond

This past Friday, UrbanCincy ran an article by yours truly that outlined some key differences between Cincinnati and Chicago, based on a few of my observations during a weekend trip back up there in June. A number of aspects were covered, mainly related to urban form and urban design, and the article has sparked quite a bit of thoughtful discussion in the comments section. Public transit is also mentioned:

Another key difference between Cincinnati and Chicago that cannot be ignored is public transit. While Chicago’s system of public transit is not perfect by any stretch, Chicago has a culture in which taking a train to work or for shopping is simply accepted as a routine fact of life for most people, rather than as something that is done only because one has no other choice. There is no stigma, and a wide variety of demographic groups can be found represented on the city’s buses and trains on any given day. Regrettably, only a handful of American cities have achieved this, and Cincinnati is not yet one of them.

This is a topic worth some more in-depth coverage, and it has inspired an idea for a recurring “Subway Series” here on Metro Cincinnati in which we feature a particular rail-based public transit system here in the US or overseas, and explore a few aspects of that particular transit system. Articles in this series will be broken down as follows:

  1. Historical Overview. A brief history of the system in question, when and how it came into being, etc.
  2. Present-Day Operations. A description of the system as it stands today, with a particular focus on its major infrastructure components, operations, and anything about the system that makes it unique compared to other systems in its class.
  3. Pros and Cons. An analysis of things that system does particularly well, and those things which is does particularly poorly. This could include anything from planning and design to fare policy.
  4. Lessons for Cincinnati. This is where we explore the lessons that can be applied to long-term transit planning here in the Cincinnati area, either as examples to follow or as pitfalls to avoid.

We’ll most likely be starting with the big East Coast transit systems found in Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia. In addition to their historical importance and sheer scale (particularly the case with New York), those also happen to be the systems with which I am most familiar on a personal level. Other major systems to be covered early in the series will be Washington, DC (which is already the subject of a case study on this site) and Chicago. Smaller systems such as those found in Portland, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis will also be covered, as those systems may have the most in common with what eventually develops in Cincinnati.

The schedule for this series remains to be determined, but right now I’m hoping to cover one system each month, beginning in September. We’ll most likely begin with Boston, as that city is not only home to America’s first subway (and hence a logical place to begin the series), but its Red Line subway is a close cousin to our own unfinished subway system. Boston also provides a revealing look into the benefits and drawbacks of light rail vs. heavy rail, as that system utilizes both modes to a large extend. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, I highly recommend the “World Transit Systems” section of for loads of photos and information about rail transit systems throughout the world, with a particular focus on the New York City subway system.