Lessons from Paris on U.S. public transit

By Samuel Rosenberg

As some of you may know, I spent the last quarter studying in Paris. Have no fear; Chicago is still the city I love, yet spending time in one of the great cultural centers of the world truly opened my eyes to certain aspects of my home city that I had not noticed previously. It is easy to list differences such as the fact that signs are in French, or that the bread tastes better, but to make connections to the mindsets of Chicagoans and Parisians based upon these observations may be more worthwhile. The most obvious physical difference between the cities is the higher percentage of public transportation usage in Paris and the general ease of using the system. Many claim without much thought, that “the States” need more funding for better public transportation. While both of these statements are true it does not change one sticking point: American culture.

A city such as Chicago has an expansive mindset not found in any European city (and not in many older American cities, such as those on the East Coast) which prevents any such mass transit improvements from having any effect. This leads to not only a geographically large Chicago, but a population that feels a certain entitlement to personal mobility and, in particular, automobile ownership. Even since the city’s founding, Chicago has been highly criticized for its annexation of suburbs. It is not a matter of right or wrong, but an issue of mindset and development. Unless this viewpoint is altered, American cities such as Chicago, Atlanta, Houston, and L.A. will be unable to truly reap the benefits of having an efficient and well integrated mass transit system.

Even if Chicago were to make the CTA free, it is highly unlikely that public transit would be utilized as intensely as it is in Paris. Chicagoans simply feel the need to use their cars. We scoff at the idea at waiting for buses or trains when we know that at home is a happy little import ready to take us where we need to go. We rationalize this choice based on ideas like the claim that it is a waste of time and money. Only if Chicago physically condenses itself and places all of its subway stops within half a mile of each other can the intra-city transportation levels in Chicago reach those of Paris. With high fuel costs, excessive parking fees, ever-present construction, traffic, and discussion of a “downtown driving tax” (similar to London’s) it is clear that even another financial incentive would not immediately alter a Chicagoan’s local travel habits.

It is not that the United States should not invest more heavily in its mass transportation infrastructure. It should, as Paris reaffirmed for me, yet goals must be realistic. Perhaps a more successful endeavor would be to first have a more wholehearted adoption of a significant, high-speed regional train network—something similar to having specially devoted tracks exclusively for high speed trains. In Europe, such trains make the commute from Paris to Brussels as long as a trip from the suburbs of Chicago to the city. Given the low cost of high speed travel in Europe, a similar system in Chicago—especially given the costs of commuting—high speed trains may actually make a dent in the travel demands of Chicagoans, especially suburbanites. This could then be translated into a greater readiness to accept more local public transportation.

Although still very early in the planning process, high-speed regional trains are already being discussed to connect Chicago to Rockford, mostly by those in Rockford, with funding being a main point of contention. Acela train service is taking hold on the East Coast and a recent transportation bill devoted more funds to the Midwest region for clearing congested freight lines. It seems as though the national movement is starting to roll, but once again the issue arises—how beneficial would it be? Would many actually prefer taking an hour-long train ride from Milwaukee over driving? Will there always be a surplus of excuses to not take the trains and hop into the car instead?

If such massive infrastructure projects were to take place, I believe the United States would have one large advantage over such projects in Europe: construction efficiency. Just as Paris is preparing its new peripheral, above-ground tramway, Chicago is laying the tracks for express trains to and from the airports. While Paris’s work is far behind schedule, it looks as though Chicago’s project will get finished on time. The mindset of expansionism and mobility that plagues our city also blesses it with a degree of competence in project completion that seems to be lost on many European projects. Perhaps a combination of the European acceptance of mass transportation and the ability of Chicago to organize projects more effectively would lead to an overall more efficient city.