Picturing the transit Doomsday

The Chicago Transit Authority’s long-rumored Doomsday has finally come. Starting on February 8, bus routes and trains across the city saw steep reductions in service, corresponding with the layoffs of over one thousand CTA employees. Though some cuts may be overturned quickly thanks to renewed talks between agency officials and transit unions, the city’s $95-million shortfall won’t be easily patched over. With some changes likely to remain permanent, however, there’s not yet a clear picture of how Chicago’s transportation system will really be affected.

A new project from University of Chicago graduates Max Shron and Luke Joyner aims to create just such a picture. Their “heat maps” of the service changes are now online at their website Picturing Transit (picturingtransit.com). Two maps chart the mean travel time differences by neighborhood, comparing averages taken from the CTA website from before and after the service changes; the first map displays the changes that affect the morning commute to the Loop, while the second displays how the reverse commute in the early morning has changed. A second pair of maps presents the same data arranged block-by-block. “Everyone was talking about these cuts as these huge, deep cuts,” Joyner says. “It’s surprising that the effect to the morning commute is basically negligible…In some places it’s even gotten better.” The neighborhoods around the end of the Red Line at 95th and the Dan Ryan are especially well-served by the service changes.

Shron and Joyner also created maps of transit time independent of service changes, showing which blocks have the longest and shortest morning commutes to the Loop. Unsurprisingly, blocks next to the El stand out in a bright star pattern against the darker surrounding areas, representing a commute that is on average 15 minutes to a full hour shorter than their neighbors’. A bar graph below the map reveals that the majority of commutes take between 45 and 75 minutes.
The maps are in flux just as much as the state of the service cuts. The block-by-block maps show that late-night travel times are getting better on the South Side, but “I don’t think that anything’s getting better anywhere at night,” Joyner says. He attributes the error to a bug in the CTA trip planner. Overall, though, Joyner trusts their results. “You can look at the map and read how the city is actually built.”