Hub, Spokes, and Circumferential: Understanding and Making the CTA better

Daniel Lee, Editor

The CTA is the second largest transit network in the United States, and the Loop cannot be called anything but Iconic. Rumbling trains over the downtown area service 750,000 people daily. Its ability to move people quickly and efficiently has benefited everyone in Chicago, clearing traffic and allowing greater freedom of movement without a car. 

But why does it feel like it sucks so much? Why does every trip feel like it takes twice, or sometimes three times as long as it should?

To understand this, let’s look at the layout of our Transit network. 

Built in the 1890s, The “L” rapid transit network is a Hub-and-Spoke system, similar to the way airlines operate. Lines radiate outwards from a central hub. With the exception of the Yellow line, all other lines in Chicago run through downtown. That means in order to cross the city by train, you’ll have to go through downtown first.

Hub and Spoke models are efficient, requiring less routes to serve the same amount of people, and allow for easy and rapid expansion. They require less infrastructure, and less people, to maintain. More trains can use the same tracks, and trains are used more efficiently. 

However, the need to go through a hub is also a Hub-and-Spoke’s model’s greatest weakness. While less routes are needed to serve an area, trip time is increased for any trip who’s destination isn’t the hub area. Anybody who lives in the West side of the city has felt this. If you need to go North or South, you’ll need to spend an extra 30 minutes going through downtown before you can go where you want. You could take a bus, but the bus takes just as long or longer, as it has to wait in traffic. In the past 130 years, it’s gotten harder and harder to transit our city through the loop, as the spokes of our system grew further and further apart. 

The solution to this is what’s called a “circumferential line”. If your hub and spoke system were its respective parts on a bicycle wheel, the circumferential line would be the rim of your wheel, connecting all the spokes together. In Chicago, this could look like a new train line running through the city, starting at UChicago, connecting the Red and Green Line Garfield Park stations, and continuing through to Kedzie. Running up Kedzie, it’ll connect the Orange, Pink, Blue, Green, Blue (again), and Brown lines, before finally ending at the Kimball Train Yard. 

A new train line reduces the current amount of people riding the other lines, as inner city transit can be shifted away from the need to transit through the loop. As travel becomes more convenient, less people will drive, clearing up traffic on the roads, and improving safety and accessibility. New stops along this transit corridor become economically revitalized, as new green space and transit options are added (like bike lanes). New businesses, jobs, and opportunities are available to more people, leading to overall benefits to all of Chicago. 

The “L” is an iconic part of our city, and millions of people depend on it every year to help them move around the city. But as our city grows, and its demands increase, we have to be willing to invest into our city’s future.  A circumferential line in Chicago would make the CTA truly world class, allowing everyone in Chicago to move around faster, healthier, and happier.