Mass Transit Usage Needs an Incentivized Boost

I’ve been spending a lot of time on Chicago-area expressways recently, commuting back and forth to the city as I run between a new freelance contract position and my part-time retail job on days when those schedules butt up against each other. When I was working full-time downtown I was a regular train rider, largely because I don’t have the patience for driving that much and would like to either read or get some writing done on the trip, not just sit there trapped in my car and getting frustrated at the radio. Driving on those roads during rush hour means I’m spending a lot of time at best creeping along if I’m not standing still completely for minutes at a time, watching the El rush by me or just missing the train experience.

image via UIC
image via UIC

Mass transit is inarguably a better idea. It’s better for the environment, it’s more efficient and it doesn’t require nearly as much infrastructure. And it’s more and more essential the further you go down the income ladder, with inner-city workers needing it to get to the job – or jobs – they have because owning a car is too expensive and unreliable. But oddly it’s something that isn’t incentivized in any way.

Some employers will offer transportation benefits, allowing you to set aside a portion of your paycheck in a way that reduces the tax hit on money you’re going to be spending anyway. But what’s missing, I think, is something along the lines of the deduction that can be taken on home mortgages. We as a society have identified that home ownership is something that should be encouraged and so that benefit is offered to those who make that choice. So why isn’t there a similar incentive offered to those who take public transit?

There’s a storyline in the Cameron Crowe movie Singles where Campbell Scott’s character is trying to create a new mass-transit system that will offer people coffee and other amenities in an effort to get them to ditch the cars that are clogging the Seattle area’s roads. The plan is shot down on the simple premise that “People love their cars.” And I’m sure similar thinking, along with a from the automobile and oil industries, has killed many initiatives along these lines, whether it’s the kind of incentives I’m proposing here or simply better investment in mass transit systems around the country.

I can’t think of a better way to get people to make the switch from individual cars to public transportation than some tangible benefit for doing so. While local and state governments wrestle with how to categorize and regular ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft and the valuations for those companies continues to grow, those are the wrong conversations to be having. One Uber ride could cost as much as a monthly bus pass in some areas, but the bus service there may not be conducive to many people using it so it’s not a viable option. But it’s the only option for those who can’t afford those pricey private services, so someone on the lower end of the income spectrum may be dependent on those mass transit services whose income is being eaten into.

To put it simply, what I’m proposing is that cities and states do two things:

First, develop a series of incentives, likely in the form of tax deductions or other tangible benefits, for any level of mass transportation usage. This should be applicable and available to everyone, regardless of whether we’re talking about daily bus fare or monthly train passes. Have it make sense for them to use this as their go-to choice. Not only will it benefit those at all levels of income but it will be good for the environment since one train carrying 300 people has less of an impact than 300 cars carrying one person each, a problem even Uber or Lyft doesn’t solve.

Second, invest in the mass transit that’s available. Use the additional income that comes with increased usage and upgrade train lines, offer wi-fi on buses and so on. Provide a tangible daily benefit for choosing the better of two options by offering a pleasant experience.

I’m not sure if this is the absolute best solution and I suspect that push back to it would be as firm as it is predictable. And let’s be honest, the current presidential administration hasn’t exactly signaled it’s looking out for the best interests of the environment or the individual. But something needs to change in how we approach the issue of transportation that will be beneficial to all parties, not just those who can easily afford regular Uber trips.

One Picture Sums Up the State of the Newspaper Industry


I took the above picture a few weeks ago while on the Metra train from Aurora into Chicago. It’s the shelf those sitting on the upper level can put their bags or other items on.

When I first started working downtown back in 1998 that shelf would be littered with strewn about copies of the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times. Between that and anything left on the actual train seats you could, by the time you reached the city, assemble five full copies of the paper from what was leftover. Someone might take the Sports section but leave Business and Local. Or take Business but leave the front section. If you didn’t subscribe yourself you could still read the paper and these additional readers were, to varying degrees, counted by the publisher when it came time to sells ads. So every subscriber would, through pass-along, equal to or three actual readers.

Now that shelf is empty. If anyone is reading the newspaper they’re doing so on their tablets or phones, where they’re the only eyeballs counted. There’s no pass-along and then digital/mobile revenue is a fraction of what print ads brought in.

You can write any number of hot takes about the state of the newspaper industry in Chicago and elsewhere. But that image, an empty shelf that once teemed with the work of local journalists and winters, shows just how things have changed over the last 20 years.

The Magic of Cubs Twitter

cubs logo

My latest on Voce Nation:

Full squad workouts began last week in Mesa, AZ, as Chicago’s National League Ball Club – the Cubs, in case you’re unfamiliar – begin Spring Training along with the rest of the league. And it looks like they’re already in midseason form.To be clear, I’m talking about the @Cubs Twitter account, not the team itself, though they’re looking pretty good as well.Now let’s be clear: After last year’s amazing roller coaster ride of a season, Cubs fans like myself are full of hope. Traditionally giving a Cubs fan hope is like telling a dog it’s time for a walk then lying down and taking a nap: It’s just mean and you’re probably going to be cleaning up a mess in the downstairs hallway when you wake up. But…last year, man. Yeah….last year.

Source: It’s Baseball – and Twitter – Season on Chicago’s North Side « Voce Communications

Collected thoughts on the future of Chicago media

Last night I opened my computer, fully intending to get some writing done while occasionally checking on Twitter to get updates on the Cubs game. Well the game was delayed because of rain but then I noticed the super-bright Scott Smith was having a conversation where he was soliciting thoughts and opinions on how to build a better media landscape in Chicago. I offered my own paltry takes, which made it into Smith’s Storify collection of everyone’s offerings. There’s a lot of great thinking in here, so read the whole thing.

Opening Day 2014

The Cubs take the field in Pittsburgh today for the first game of 2014. While the 2013 season largely eluded me I’m excited about the start of a new one, maybe because this winter was so mind-crushingly oppressive.

But the fact remains that so many of the games this season, as they have been for the last 12-15 years, won’t be played during the day. And I’m sorry but night games just don’t work for me and wouldn’t even if I did have a cable subscription, which I don’t. Too many of the games have increasingly been on channels I didn’t get and, quite frankly, I’ve got other things to do in the evening.

Plus, my contention that a reliance on night games on one of a half-dozen cable channels is killing generations of potential new fans remains firmly in place. As I’ve said before, the fandom of myself and my generation was built on being able to turn on the game on WGN-TV as soon as I got home from school every day. If it was a 1:20 game I could still catch the 7th inning or so. It it was a 3:05 game I could catch it starting in the 2nd or 3rd. So I saw almost every home game and many of the road games throughout my entire childhood.

If you’re making games inaccessible – they’re currently not part of WGN Radio’s streaming either – you’re not giving the fans the in they need. Why would I pay $200-$300 for a bunch of us to go to a game – or even for an MLB multimedia package online – if I’m not already invested in the team and the players?

Anyway, media theory aside, today the Cubs take the field for the first time in the 2014 season. The snow has indeed melted away from Wrigley Field, though the team won’t play there until the weekend. The wind will surely be blowing since it’s April in Chicago, though which direction is anyone’s guess. And a legion of fans will get their hopes up that predictions of it being an ugly year are over-stated and that somehow the ragtag team that’s been assembled will at least make things interesting in the NL Central this year.

Meet Clark…you’ll find him on Addison

So yeah…

The Cubs have an official mascot. His name is Clark, and he’ll make his debut Monday during a visit to Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center’s Pediatric Developmental Center.

via The Cubs have a new official mascot: Clark the Cub. – redeyechicago.com.

ChicagoCubs_Mascot_2013_Iconsai

I was originally going to say something snarky and mean about this, but then realized that was just being a jerk for the sake of being a jerk. This is a mascot meant for kids, not professional marketers pushing 40, which is the demographic most of the commentary is coming from. So I’m going to sit back and let this one just blow past me, like many of the Cubs hitters do.

See what I did there?

Maddux goes to the Hall

Congratulations to one of the, by all accounts, nicest guys in professional sports. Always a class act on the field, obviously a mentor to younger players of all kinds and just a great pitcher. Too bad his career was sullied by so much time spent in Atlanta. 🙂

Maddux broke into the majors with the Cubs in 1986 and after a couple rough seasons blossomed into a perennial All-Star in 1988. After winning his first Cy Young award in 1992, Maddux left for the Atlanta Braves where he pitched from 1993 until 2003, winning three more Cy Young awards (1994-1996) and the 1995 World Series. Maddux returned to the Cubs in 2004 and pitched two and a half more seasons in Chicago before finishing his career with the Dodgers and Padres.

via Frank Thomas, Greg Maddux Elected To Baseball Hall Of Fame: Chicagoist.

Brookfield Zoo seal pup

Because I’m just a big old softy who’s a sucker for pictures of cute baby animals born at local zoos and such.

Photos: A Grey Seal Pup Is Brookfield Zoo’s First Birth Of 2014: Chicagoist.

30 calories of soda

Just another rainy day in Chicago

Thought #1: There are many upgrades that are needed at Chicago’s Union Station. But I think we can all agree that one of the most urgently needed is something at the entrances akin to the membranes that surround the Gungan city in The Phantom Menace that dry you off when you walk through them. Someone get on this.

Thought #2: One of my favorite past times while walking to the train station in the evening is counting the numbers of umbrellas that have been stuffed into garbage cans on the sidewalk out of frustration when they completely failed their owners.