The History of the City of Chicago Central Area Transit Circulation Efforts

This paper chronicles the evolution of the City of Chicago’s efforts, through private and public means, to address the distribution and circulation of people in the city’s Central Area.  It covers the evolution of public transit in the Central Area and the specific efforts in the second half of 20th Century to create a circulation and distribution system.

In the first part of the paper, the authors address the rise in public transit in the late 19th Century to meet the demands of Chicago’s surging population, the evolution of rail technology, the consideration of subways and challenges for development of elevated and surface lines, public and private sector involvement, the establishment of the Chicago Transit Authority and other topics.

The second part of the paper chronicles the formation of the Chicago Central Area Committee, an organization of business and civic leaders, and public sector plans for Central Area transportation during a 30-year period starting in 1958.

The paper concludes with the history of the Chicago Circulator Project, a plan to establish on-street light rail technology service in the Central Area.  Plans initially took shape in 1989; the project was halted in 1995.


Principal Investigator(s):

Stephen E. Schlickman, JD


Stephen E. Schlickman, JD

Laura Klabunde, MUPP




The paper summarizes the history of the evolution of public transit serving the Chicago’s Central Area from the 1850s to 1990s.


Provide a history of how public transit evolved in Chicago from the mid-19th Century to the late 20th Century.  Explain the origin, the major investment in the planning and design, and the political sea-change that led to the demise of the Central Area Circulator Project, the last grand plan to improve downtown transit.

Expected Results or Products:

The paper is divided into three parts.

Part 1 summarizes the evolution of public transit from the middle of the 19th Century to the creation of the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA).

Part 2 covers failed efforts to improve transit circulation by reconfiguring the CTA’s Central Area rail system from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Part 3 covers the last major initiative to upgrade Central Area circulation, the ill-fated Chicago Central Area Circulator Project in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  It concludes that a new comprehensive transportation plan and related improvements are needed to best serve the continued growth of the Central Area.



Download the report


P.S. Sriraj
Urban Transportation Center
University of Illinois at Chicago
412 South Peoria Street, Suite 340
Chicago, IL 60607
Voice: (312) 413-7568
Fax: (312) 413-0006