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A Model System: Considering Chicago’s Multimodal Transit Nodes

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Chicago is renowned for its robust transit system; the city is home to an expansive network of buses, subways, and trains that boasts an annual ridership of almost 500 million. Key to the system’s success is effective connections between key transit nodes. For example, from a major gateway like O’Hare International Airport, it is easy to take the L or Metra train downtown to connect with a bus or other L line to reach a final destination.

While rapid connections between airports and downtown are essential to functional public transit, many major American airports such as Dallas-Fort Worth, LaGuardia, and Las Vegas McCarran lack train connections, leaving visitors to rely on less efficient options. As federal, state, and local governments consider reinvestment in infrastructure, we turn our attention to the magnificent example set by Illinois’ capital city. In order to create transit that is convenient and affordable for all, building multimodal transit networks should be a top priority for all cities.

Exterior of Dan Ryan/95th CTA Station

Aerial view of Dan Ryan CTA Station

95th / Dan Ryan CTA Terminal Station by exp, Chicago, IL. Photographs by James Steinkamp Photography. 

As spaces of transition dedicated to multiple types of transportation, multimodal transit hubs have unique architecture. The forms of transit that they serve will vary based on the needs and geographies of individual cities. In Istanbul, for instance, ferries often to connect to bus stations while in Shanghai a maglev train connects the airport with metro service. Meanwhile, in Chicago, buses and trains are the core of public transportation: the Dan Ryan/95th CTA Station combines both.

Located on Chicago’s Southside, the Dan Ryan/95th CTA Station was completed in 2019 and connects Chicago’s Red Line rail service to public buses, intercity Greyhound service, and Metra trains, along with additional pedestrian bridges across the roadways. This architectural space reflects the broader functions of the transit system. A large central hall over the tracks serves passengers taking L Red Line trains; it is surrounded by a quadratic covered walkway for bus services. In accordance with other L stops, the station’s decoration leaves no confusion as to the color of the line — the exterior is wrapped in red cladding and the base of the pedestrian bridges is similarly bright red. Signposts on the interior help passengers to navigate the station with large maps for planning trips throughout the metro system.

While multimodal transit plans are most often associated with linking major connections, they can also include ground transit such as bikes and electronic vehicles. The O’Hare Multimodal Transit Terminal is one such example and has been a welcome addition to the airport’s capacity. Yet, while its shuttle service offers an easier connection between the Metra stop and airport terminals, the project has faced criticism for increasing the number of new parking spots at a time when reducing pollution and carbon emissions are a priority for health and safety. The facility also brings together all of the airport’s rental car services in a single location, with additional spaces for electric charging vehicles.

Washington / Wabash Elevated CTA Station by exp, Chicago, IL. Photographs by James Steinkamp Photography and Tim Klein Photography

Beyond multimodal connections, Chicago is also investing in much needed expansion of L stations. In many cases, previous stations had scarcely been updated in a century and required major overhauls. Two new stations are heavily influenced by the glass and steel aesthetic of Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. In 2018, a new station for the Washing/Wabash was designed by exp and financed with Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funds. Above the namesake elevated tracks, angled beams form a sine curve over the waiting area. More recently, in June 2021, renderings for the State/Lake Station by Skidmore, Owings & Merill were released.

Creating new ways to better connect existing transit is important to improving American infrastructure, however multimodal transit hubs alone are not enough. Serious investment in existing technologies such as streetcars, high-speed rail, and buses are crucial. Running services more frequently, building accessible stations, and subsidizing public transit will help to create an effective transit network that is better for people and the environment.

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