Chicago’s Busiest L Stations: An analysis of CTA ridership reveals scores about who needs public transit and who has access to it.

It takes a resident of Englewood, a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, about an hour to travel to the Loop via the CTA, which encompasses the L (the subway) and buses. By contrast, a resident of Edgewater, located on Chicago’s North Side, can get to the Loop in just over 30 minutes on the CTA. Both Englewood and Edgewater are roughly 8.5 miles from the Loop. 

This discrepancy is a symptom of the South Side’s lack of public transit. On the South Side, far fewer L stations serve far more residents, and anecdotal evidence suggests that buses can be slow and unreliable. Only the Red and Green Lines extend deep into the South Side, and the Red Line, which provides service to Chicago’s northernmost reaches, stops 5 miles north of the city’s southern border.  

“Access to and the quality of mass transit varies dramatically across the city,” said Dr. Kate Lowe, professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Residents who live on the South Side beyond 95th Street face an especially limited service, with sometimes lengthy and burdensome trips to key destinations.”  

On the North Side, an L stop is always around the corner. When commuting downtown, North Siders can choose between the Brown, Purple and Red Lines. The Yellow Line goes to Skokie, a North Side Suburb. Even Wilmette, an affluent suburb roughly 4 miles north of the city, is merely a ride away on the Purple Line. 

“While L service stops miles before Chicago’s southern boundary, it extends beyond [city] boundaries to Evanston and Oak Park, providing those suburbs speed service lacking in many parts of the city,” Lowe said. 

Some of these disparities boil down to geography. The South Side is much larger than the North Side, covering 132 square miles, while the North Side covers 102. The South Side is also more spread out, with roughly 9,000 residents per square mile, compared to the North Side’s 15,000, according to the Heartland Alliance. Roughly 1.5 million people live on the North Side, and 1.2 million people live on the South Side. All of this means that transit on the South Side must serve a significant population that resides across a large area. One might assume that would correlate to a more robust, sprawling transit system on the South Side. But, this is not the case. 

Combined, the Red, Green, Orange and Pink Lines provide 38 stations to South Side residents, according to City of Chicago data. This works out to one station per 3.5 square miles or 31,579 residents per one station. North Siders, by contrast, have access to a combined 81 stations on the Blue, Pink, Green, Purple, Red and Brown Lines (this does not include extra-municipal stops on the Purple and Yellow lines). On the North Side, there is one station per 1.3 square miles or 18,516 residents per one station.  

In order to determine whether the South Sides lack of transit corelates to a lack of use, Redacted Magazine analyzed City of Chicago data on monthly L Station entries between March 2019 and March 2020. We chose these dates because they yield the most recent data before the pandemic drastically reduced ridership. The map below represents where the busiest L stations are in Chicago, based on average monthly weekday ridership.  

Map of average monthly CTA weekday ridership. L train ridership shown in red gradient, bus ridership shown in green. (Source: City of Chicago Data Portal.) 

Evidently, riders flock to the Loop and Chicago’s two airports. But outside of downtown transit hubs and O’Hare Airport, the busiest L station is the 95th stop on the Red Line, which saw an average of 8,734 monthly weekday riders during this period. This is likely because the 95th stop is one of the few access points for far-South Siders to get downtown. The 69th and 87th Red Line stops (both in South Side neighborhoods) are also among the busiest L stations. 

“I’ve heard people say that Chicago has a good transit system, but I don’t see that,” said Libby Brothers, who grew up in Chatham near the Red Line’s 95th Station. “There weren’t many trains going north, ever. Maybe that’s why those southern stops are always so busy.” 

The L isn’t the only form of transport available to Chicagoans. Metra trains and Pace buses travel from the city to the suburbs, and CTA buses provide intracity transport. To do a more comprehensive analysis of bus use, Redacted examined City of Chicago data to identify the busiest bus routes, based on the average monthly weekday ridership between March 2019 and March 2020.  

Shown on the map in green, it’s no surprise that some of the busiest bus routes are those that connect South Siders to the Loop. The 79th Street bus, which was the busiest with 22,533 monthly riders, stops at the 79th Street Red Line station and from there, commuters can get downtown. The 8, 9 and 4, which each provide South Siders with an alternative to the Red Line, are all among the top 10 busiest routes. (The data did not provide insight into which individual bus stops are the busiest. Both the 8 and 9 extend into the North Side, so it can’t be assumed that their monthly ridership is solely based upon South Side riders.) 

Though these bus lines extend from the South to North Side, they provide much slower service than the L. The 4, for example, parallels the Red Line between 95th Street and E. 35th Street, though traversing this distance on the 4 takes 50 minutes during rush hour, but on the Red Line it takes 15. 

Given these data, it seems logical that the CTA would extend the Red Line further south. A project to stretch the line to 130th Street is underway, though it won’t be completed until 2029. The additions are “dependent on securing project funding,” according to a CTA news release from December, 2020. 

Meanwhile, the CTA is nearly two-years-deep into modernizing the Red and Purple Lines on the North Side. The project’s $2.1 billion Phase One focuses on building a bypass north of Belmont Station, and rebuilding the Lawrence, Argyle, Berwyn and Bryn Mawr Stations. The CTA cites heavy ridership as a reason for focusing on these locations; combined, these four stations saw 12,870 monthly weekday riders. Yet, the four southernmost Red Line stations — 95th, 87th, 79th and 69th — saw 22,432. 

“There is money being put into the CTA, but not in certain communities. Not on the South Side,” Brothers said. 

For South Siders, lack of access to transportation is more than an inconvenience. According to a 2020 paper by researchers Dr. Alireza Ermagun and Dr. Nebiyou Tilahun, transportation in Chicago, or lack thereof, acts as de facto segregation. In their research, Ermagun and Tilahun divided Chicago into areas of low, medium and high accessibility. They found that 50% of Black Chicagoans live in areas of low accessibility, compared to only 21% of white Chicagoans. This disparity in access is partially why Chicago is the third most segregated city in the nation

“On the South Side is where you see the biggest holes [in transportation], the biggest need,” Tilahun said. “And this aligns with a lot of measures of disadvantage like income and employment.” 

Access to transportation can be the difference between having a job or being unemployed. Suburban jobs account for 67% of employment in Cook County, but without a car, it can be nearly impossible for South Siders to reverse commute. And in some South Side communities, up to 60% of households do not own a car. 

“There are many households with no vehicles on the South Side. And the Red Line extension is needed to have equitable access,” Tilahun said. “Depending on where you are, the type of skills you have and the type of job you’re interested in, certain jobs might be out of reach for you if you don’t have a vehicle.” 

The fares to ride Metra trains (the Metra’s Electric District Line extends beyond 95th) are much higher than the fares for the L. And Pace buses are notoriously unreliable and do not sync up with employers’ shift schedules. As a result, the average commute time on public transit is 51.6 minutes for Black residents, 44.1 minutes for Latinx residents and 37.3 minutes for white residents

Map of average monthly L train weekday ridership and unemployment by community area. Ridership source: City of Chicago Data Portal. Unemployment data source: Heartland Alliance 

Just living on the South Side can be enough for employers to turn away candidates, according to Lowe’s research. It’s common for employers to ask candidates if they have access to reliable transportation, and to disfavor those who don’t. Job coaches even advise South Side applicants not to put their addresses on job applications. Such discriminatory practices, combined with lack of access to transportation, are perhaps why the South Side’s unemployment rate is roughly 15%, compared to the North Side’s 6%, according to the Heartland Alliance.  

Inadequate transit doesn’t only reduce employment opportunities; it permeates into every aspect of life. South Siders who rely on transit have significantly less access to grocery stores, hospitals, schools, fire stations, libraries, parks and COVID-19 vaccination sites. Living near transit isn’t a convenience; it’s a necessity that can vastly improve quality of life. 

Featured image by Dylan LaPierre on Unsplash