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The 1920s: Transit in Transition
 

Expanding the Transit System to the Suburbs

Chicago residents increasingly chose to distance themselves from the maelstrom of the Loop. While the wealthiest commuters lived a comfortable carriage (and, later, car) ride away from the heart of downtown, the expanding streetcar and elevated lines offered mobility to many more. Those who could afford to opted for living in lower-density areas.

View of the Harrison Street “L” station, Westchester, Illinois, September 1926.
View of the Harrison Street “L” station, Westchester, Illinois, September 1926.

Courtesy of Chicago Transit Authority

Throughout the first quarter of the 20th century, Chicago’s growth continued to follow the transit lines, prompting one major residential real-estate developer to take out a series of newspaper ads proclaiming “Where the ‘L’ goes, profit grows.”

Apartment building, subdivision, and bungalow construction continued to follow the “L” and streetcar in radial lines out of the city. The majority of the people moving out to these new homes continued to rely on mass transit to bring them back downtown to work and shop.

View of the Canterbury “L” station, Westchester, Illinois, December 1930.
View of the Canterbury “L” station, Westchester, Illinois, December 1930.

Courtesy of Chicago Transit Authority

By the 1920s, competition, battles over unification and fares, bad management, and the need to supply stockholders with profits were pushing the privately-held transit companies to the brink of receivership. The city tried and failed to get the support necessary to purchase the transit companies and make them public, but did win ordinances and regulations that would force the private companies to improve services.

The efforts seemed to be rewarded. Mass-transit ridership in the city (and around the country) reached an all-time high in 1926. Yet automobile purchases were on the rise, as more residents embraced the convenience of using their own car to get around the city.

“Who Said There Ain’t No Santa Claus/The New 8 Car Trains”

Courtesy of Bruce G. Moffat
“Who Said There Ain’t No Santa Claus/The New 8 Car Trains” Courtesy of Bruce G. Moffat

Mass transit ridership was at its highest level in Chicago around the time of this cartoon; so high that the Chicago Rapid Transit Company—a private corporation formed in 1924 by the merger of Chicago’s competing “L” companies—was forced to start running longer trains during rush hour on most of the routes.

This cartoon, commenting on public reaction to the Chicago Rapid Transit Company's decision to run the 8-car trains, appeared in The High Line, the company’s employee newspaper.

It would take Chicago another 20 years to be able to purchase and municipalize the elevated and most of the ground transit systems. But by the time this happened, in 1947, the city had changed dramatically; and fewer politicians, businesspeople, or residents looked to transit to steer future residential and commercial growth.

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