Skip to Main Content Site Map

1:1 with Jesse Elam, Director of Strategic Planning & Policy at Cook County Department of Transportation Highways

Publication Date: Sep 23, 2022

This is a transcript of a video interview with Jesse Elam on May 16, 2022 in Chicago, IL at the Mobility Innovation Collaborative workshop. Find these videos on the Mobility Learning Center here


Please tell us about yourself. 

I’m Jesse Elam. I’m with the Cook County Department of Transportation Highways. I am the Strategic Planning and Policy Director.


What inspired your project?

So our project is called Fair Transit South Cook. It is meant to provide better and more equitable, certainly more affordable transportation to South Cook in the south side of Chicago. We got there by doing a study that concluded back in 2018, called the South Mobility Study. It found that South Cook had the longest commutes of any place in the county. There were very high concentrations of households with relatively limited private vehicle availability, and we also found that many of the same households were having a hard time affording transportation to get to jobs, to get to medical services, to get to wherever. Through the study that I mentioned that we did back in 2018, we looked at a couple of different combinations of service improvements and fare reductions that would help with that.

What we settled on finally and that we discussed with Metra and with Pace Suburban Bus was a program whereby we would reduce fares on the Metra Rock Island service and the Metra Electric service by about 50%, and we would increase service on Pace route 352 by about 25%. We’ve been doing this program for, at this point, about a year and a half – we started in January, 2021. 

There is a third component to our program, and that is to provide seamless transfers. Currently, for the most part, it is not possible to get off of a CTA bus or a pace bus and get onto Metra and go somewhere without paying a whole other full fare. And so we think that’s probably limiting from the customer’s standpoint – there are people who would like to make transit trips that they cannot afford if they have to pay full fare again. So we are looking for the third component of the Fair Transit South Cook program is to find a way to fix that, to address it. And so we are working with all the transit operators to see if we can find a path to get there.


How are you engaging with your end users?

So through a variety of different means. One is intercept surveys. So we’ve periodically sent teams out to do intercept surveys at stations and at stops, make sure first that they understand the program, what it’s about, and asking questions about whether they’re benefiting from it, what they’re doing with it. Those have often been revealing – turns out when you reduce the cost of something and you provide more of it, people generally like it. So that part was no surprise, but we often got the human details about why they appreciate it. About somebody who started a new job, and they wouldn’t have been able to get to it were it not for this program, or somebody who’s a college student and they previously found it really challenging to afford to get to college every day without the program. So those intercept surveys have been good. 

We have done a lot of community surveys. So there have been two community surveys that we’ve done. Those have been professionally administered by a survey research firm, both of them with 500 – 600 responses. So that’s been a form of engagement. It’s both been a way of making sure that people know about the program, as well as a way of finding out about their attitudes about the program and how they use it. That sort of thing. 

We’ve also done quite a bit of mass media marketing. So that’s not engagement per se, but it is a good way of making sure that people are aware of it and take advantage of it. So we’ve done quite a few radio buys. We’re doing quite a bit of social media advertisements. We’re also gonna be looking at more hyper local media coming up soon. So spending more time with Patch and DNA Info (local media platforms), and that sort of thing of the world, and also highway billboards. So this time is actually really ripe for that kind of advertisement because gas prices are extremely high right now. Congestion is really bad as the pandemic is, pandemic is not exactly over, but people are back on the road. So that’s the kind of circumstances that would make that sort of advertising pretty effective. We’ve tried to strategically place billboards in the same direction as the Metra lines would be going. So when somebody’s stuck in traffic, they’ll be reading that message and maybe thinking about an alternate way of getting to work.


Tell us about your project partners and their role. 

So our chief partners are Pace Suburban Bus and Metra Commuter Rail. Our roles with them is we have agreements to reimburse Metra for the lost revenue from reducing fares, and there’s a little bit more to it than just reducing fare by 50%, but that’s roughly it. That’s all handled at the board level basically. So they approve  the agreement on their end. Our board approved it on our end, same thing with Pace. So there’s stipulations in there about paying for the increased service. There’s also paying for some potential revenue offsets. So that’s part of that. 

They’ve been engaged from the outset with exactly what the program would look like. We are also meeting with them on a very regular basis, formally about the data and how to make it better. We’re also meeting with them regularly about the marketing aspects of it. Their communications teams and our communications team meet roughly monthly to talk through things. If there’s something more specific that needs to be discussed, then we meet off that cycle as well.


How does the Shared-Use Mobility Center support your project and team?

Well, we just really got engaged with SUMC, so we’re looking forward to finding out how we can, how we can learn some things from each other. I mean, I think for one thing, that being invited to these workshops has been, I wouldn’t say it’s directly helped with our program, but it’s really shined a lot of light on the diversity of innovation that’s going on across the nation.That has been really, really helpful today.