The average Chicago transit rider takes a lot for granted on a daily basis.
Commuter rail service stretches over three states: from Aurora, Illinois to Kenosha, Wisconsin to South Bend, Indiana. The suburban bus provider, Pace, has a service area alone of 3,500 square miles. The CTA has 144 rapid transit stations, and its buses carry nearly 1 million riders daily. It’s consistently ranked among the top 5 highest quality transit agencies worldwide, and one of just four services in the United States that offer round the clock metro rail service, on its Red and Blue line trains.
Yet, without a doubt, the constant litany of fare hikes and service cuts, the often deplorable condition of the platforms and rolling stock, litter, service delays, and poorly lighted stairwells reeking of urine (or worse) are the most common subject of complaints about our renowned transit system.
But none of this is truly the fault of the CTA, Metra, or Pace.
It’s time you directed your anger at IDOT, which flexes less than two percent of their federal transportation funding to transit, even though the daily ridership of these services accounts for 18 percent of the entire population of Illinois.
Cast your invective at the people who treat driving as an entitlement and won’t reckon with the fact it is massively subsidized with devastating social costs. They bitch and complain about having their taxes pay for something they “don’t use” when in reality Chicago transit prevents an additional $2 billion in wasted time and fuel from one of the worst commutes in the nation.
You can focus your hate on the lawmakers, union leaders, and lobbyists in Springfield, who’ve seen the now $91 billion pension crisis coming since the mid-nineties, and have yet to do a goddamn thing about it except ignore it, forcing you, the transit rider, to make do with diminished service.
But, right now, here in this space, we’re zeroing in our vitriolic spew on…you. The riders, the drivers, the motormen, the employees and staff whose personally misguided choices and selfish actions make our daily commute the living hell that it is.
Rest assured, all the guilty parties will be covered here:
- the bag-on-the-seat
- the doorway stander
- the still-moving-crowded-car-“excuse me, I’m getting off, excuse me I’m getting off”-yeah-I’m-so-fucking-sure-you’re-the-only-one-getting-off-when-the-doors-open whiner
- and much, much more
…but you really can’t launch into a proper tirade on this subject without addressing the historical context behind many of these behaviors – the legacy of the “Godfather” of the Chicago ‘L’, Charles Tyson Yerkes.
Simply, Chicago’s transit system began as a profit-making venture, and Yerkes at one point controlled more than half of the elevated systems, obtaining ownership of rights-of-way through bribes to Aldermen and other corrupt dealings. Yerkes is most responsible for the current infrastructure used today and the tight turns in the Loop that Yerkes built cannot accommodate cars longer than 48 feet or wider than 9 feet, 4 inches at the window sills. And further, Chicago’s entire network is Loop-centric (except for buses which are mired in the grid’s private auto traffic) so it’s impossible to get anywhere quickly between two non-loop destinations and bypass downtown with the spoked rail network.
The interior of an MTA subway car.
In contrast, New York City’s MTA cars are primarily 60 feet long and 10 feet wide on a network that blankets the Five Boroughs with more than 450 stations. Anyone who has ridden the New York subway can attest to the comparably vast roominess of these cars and the relatively efficient movement of people.
Our own ‘L’ cars become crowded much faster, the vestibule panels create a funneling effect, and the front/rear-facing bucket seats crowd the aisles, not to mention do not comfortably fit the average Chicago ass. An MTA car features long bench seats that span from door to door (to door, yes three pairs), allowing for more people to move in and out and away from the doors easily.
The new 5000 Series CTA cars with side-facing seats add very little room
A CTA rider who will not move into the aisle from the doors with 30 people behind them on a crowding train does so because it’s the easiest thing to do. The new 5000 Series cars the CTA debuted in 2012 feature side-facing seats, but this really misses the root of the overcrowding problem: the bucket seats and vestibule panels are still present. Someone can’t easily slide down to let someone else have a seat; and the available standing space is still about a foot narrower than an MTA car, so riders still must funnel into a single line to move into the car.
Certainly there are many different ways to assign blame here for this perfect storm of behavior triggers – lack of innovation, defaulting to status quo, Midwestern “sensibilities” (read: we’re a bunch of Ohio/Michigan suburban-transplanted, nouveau-urbane, provincial thumb-suckers who don’t want to sit on side-facing benches) – but Charles Yerkes was such an arrogant, corrupt bastard – the quintessential Chicago businessmen who profited at the expense of the taxpayers – so let’s be sure to give him some blame right off the bat.
And now, let us hate…
The trolls within
1. The person that thinks they won’t make it off the train or bus before the door closes.
This archetype manifests his or herself in several different ways.
First, as alluded to above, is the rider who tries to move forward toward the door of a still moving, very crowded train, whining “excuse me, I have to get off…excuse me,” as though they are the only person who could possibly be alighting at the next station. On the bus this is even worse because there is less room and much more vehicle movement, combined with the very real fear of an impatient bus driver.
Even worse is when the person is sitting next to you in front-facing seats, making you get up while in motion.
The worst is when they wait until the bus is pulling 3 Gs into the stop and they start with that passive-aggressive shit with their coat and bag and sunglasses and gloves and throat cleariOH FUCK YOU JUST WAIT YOU’LL MAKE IT OFF I PROMISE.
2. The Seat-Hogger.
These come in two varieties:
A: The-bag-in-seat. I always ask a bag-on-the-seater to move their bag, even if there are other open seats nearby. Especially on Metra. Metra conductors who ask people to move their bags – or their feet (this is a TRAIN not a college dorm room you spoiled fucking brat) – are my favorite people in the world. This is the only reason for conductors to exist, and they should get full pay for this duty alone.
Not to get racial here, but have you ever noticed that a white person will never ask a person of color to move their bag? Is it for fear of causing a scene? I once asked an African-American woman to move her bag on a packed inbound Green Line car filled with white, hipster-cum-yuppie Pitchforkers (myself included) who just stood there. It blew up into a HUGE. SCENE. (I got the seat.)
This is actually a subset of the person who thinks they won’t make it off the train. They’d rather sit on the aisle so as not to have to interact with you at their stop, and then they barely acknowledge your presence as you try to get to the open seat, because then they’d have to explain what a weird, whiny, fucking asshole they are.
3. Won’t move in
Bus subset: won’t move back. Train subset: standing in the doorways. Both are actually a third variant of the “I won’t make it off” rider.
The bus variant is particularly pathetic. It all starts with one poor fuck, forced to stand, who thinks that, for some stupid reason, they have to exit through the front door at their stop. Or they won’t move up the small staircase to the very back. This sets off a chain reaction of increasingly agitated riders getting on whose meek pleas to “move back” gradually grow in strength – while the original offender takes a small step back each stop, caring more about fiddling with his phone, as a sea of open space remains behind him and pressure grows in front – to climax when a 5’ 1” Montessori teacher begins shrieking and unsheathes a samurai sword.
The train variant just stands in the middle of the doorway, or leaning on one of the fucking useless vestibule panels making people trip over his feet, no matter how many are getting on the train, like the Karate Kid crane-kicking the ocean.
I make sure to give these people a knock with my shoulder or bag while moving past into the car. Speaking of bags…
4. Standers with incredibly heavy, full backpacks who swing them back and forth while talking to their dipshit Roosevelt University friends.
“Either that bag or you are going to the floor.”
There should be a dark room in the bowels of the Thompson Center – behind the Sbarro, maybe – with nothing but a metal chair beneath a bare, swinging, tink-ing lightbulb where people who litter on public transit are sent. They’ll sit there, barely controlling their increasingly panicked breathing, a bead of sweat rolling itchily down the bridge of their nose, eyes darting back and forth, as a shadowy figure, barechested and hooded, slowly approaches from behind…fingering a rusty razor blade, and gently, playfully, shaking a canvas sack of ball-bearings.
I have never actually seen a person litter on the CTA (except for the time I did) – they are either stuffing their face from a styrofoam container of orange chicken from Sixty Five Chinese, or the only empty seat on the car is occupied by a McDonald’s bag half soaked with ketchup, the hot summer air stinking of its fermenting, rancid, acidic sweetness.
I was once on a bus, watching a woman not mind her kid stuff her mouth hole from a sack of peanuts, throwing all the shells on the floor. I told her she was the reason that transit bleeds money, and I was given a blank stare in return for about five stops. As I was getting off, whatever was stewing inside her brain suddenly became words, and she started yelling at me that I was a racist, and since I was white, and therefore “rich,” shouldn’t be riding the bus anyway.
This rolling bottle will drive you to the brink of insanity. (credit: fellow hater)
6. Remember the guy carefully perusing the ringtones on his Nokia, looking for the perfect one?
In the 70s he had a transistor radio. In the 80s, a ghetto blaster. Now that guy is playing the most annoying game/app ever created, sans headphones, on the pay-as-you-go mobile device of his choosing. Right. Next to you.
And on to the platform…
7. Standing on the escalator.
Yeah, I realize that some people have issues. Plus, “it’s not a ride!” is so cliche. But most of you…Jesus Christ, come on.
8. Crowds the door.
These people stand directly in front of the opening doors, after having first ran to the car most likely to have an open seat, forcing those getting off to go around them.
I use a technique, like a box-out move in basketball, where I anticipate which door is going to be closest when the train stops. I time it so I am right at the edge, cutting off a door-crowder coming up behind me like Rodman going for a rebound. Now I’m perfectly positioned at the edge of the door, yet out of the way of the alighting traffic, and I slide in just past the last person off, while Miss “Ooooh! Oooooh! Oooooh!” can’t figure out why everyone is bumping into her.
This next person takes it one step farther…
9. Trying to get on while people are exiting the train or bus.
This obsessive-compulsive worry-wart is the exact-opposite of the Door-stander, taking thinking-only-of-themselves to new heights and obliviously charging forward through the gauntlet, eyes locked on the first open seat they can reach. I laugh with glee when someone already standing grabs it out from under them.
Your policy is ill thought-out and ineffective
10. Bikes on trains.
Bikes on CTA is what it is: a square peg in a round hole, but in off peak hours, who cares? There’s a rush hour ban, but the policy could be entirely self-enforcing and most people would rather ride than deal with getting their bike through the turnstile and up the stairs.
But Metra. Sigh. Oh, ho ho hohoho Metra’s bike policy. This abortion has birthed a realm where the easy-going utopia of transit has died and a twitchy, huffy grousing reigns.
For the record, Metra allows two bikes per handicapped-accessible car, with a published limit of 8-15 bikes per train, depending on the line. No bikes on inbound AM and outbound PM trains (so much for a relevant, viable policy there). Each bike is to be secured with a bungee cord to the handicapped seating that’s not in use. Able-bodied folk have to move for both bikes and handicapped; bikes give way to handicapped. Usually to the platform where they have to frantically run to another available car. Luckily (or unluckily, as the case proves), bikes are far more frequent on the trains than handicapped.
But, good luck getting a train with more than three of these cars. Or getting an able-bodied person sitting in the bike space to move or even acknowledge your request without getting the conductor involved. Not that it matters because the consistency of enforcement by the individual conductors is as varied their personal hygiene. (Apparently, the union-required deodorant stipend wasn’t squandered on razor blades, either.)
Since there is often less space for bikes available than published, or cyclist-riders have no real way of quickly finding a car with room, bikes can stack up three, four, even five deep; some conductors couldn’t give a lessor fuck. I was once on a car with 10 bikes in it. (Others will throw your ass out quicker than the Soup Nazi.) Soon, a train car overloaded with bikes takes on a Lord-of-the-Flies vibe, thick with tension, being generated primarily by the guy with the mirror attached to his helmet visor (on the helmet he’s still wearing…while riding a train) and wearing a charity-ride half-zip jersey, incessantly whining, “What stop are you getting off at?! What stop are you getting off at?!”
If Metra would adopt some state-of-the-art fare collection tactics and not continue to be stuck in the 1950s, maybe they’d have some revenue to dedicate to a bike car like the rest of the civilized world.
11. Poorly designed access
Damen Brown Line: why the fuck did they add an exit on the west side of the street, right next to the bus stop, without including fare-card-only entry? Bus transfers still have to jaywalk – from behind a large bus, I might add – to board the train.
Irving Park Blue Line: same goes here for the Pulaski entrance: riders have to cross a very dangerous intersection at the Kennedy exit ramp because of an exit-only. Maybe if more people used this point for entry someone would clean up the pigeon shit that coats this station like paint.
Please, piss on this house.
Addison Blue Line: This is probably pie-in-the-sky, but why not add access to/from the north end of this platform to the Independence Park neighborhood via catwalk spanning the Kennedy to Lawndale Ave (much like a catwalk extends the access point of 35th Red Line to 33rd)? This way, more people can piss on the rapper’s Castle. Win-win.
12. Platforms in the middle of expressways
The ultimate in Soviet-apartment-block chique. Lacking one iota of aesthetic charm, these stations are awash in literally inches-deep litter in varying degrees of identifiableness, ranging from legible logos on recently discarded fast food containers to material that maybe was organic at some point and may become organic at some point again if left uncleaned.
One hater who contributed to this piece seethed, “…standing in a highway median early in the morning while dipshits in their luxury sedans yammer on their cell phones, staring me down, cruising in from their bullshit suburbs on their way downtown. The station is filthy and the sound of the eight-lane highway is deafening.”
However, I experience a certain amount of Schadenfreude while standing for a train here, ruefully watching people either gridlocked, screaming into a cell phone, beating their kids, reading a paper, jerking it (true story), and/or causing a three car pile-up after merging without looking.
And finally, Chicago’s “finest.”
13. Drivers and motormen
Leapfrogging around bicyclists, driving aggressively around bicyclists, passing too close, and honking at them. Dude, we’re on the same team.
Taking their sweet time at a shift change, as if nobody in the seats has anywhere important to go. Usually these drivers are so morbidly out of shape they can’t set down their bag or take off their coat without needing a break.
This bus driver.
I understand the need for express trains – but for some reason I hate it when they come barrelling through a station blaring that fucking horn or whistle or Casio keyboard held up to the PA mic or whatever the fuck that sound is – as if they have to sound all important like it’s no one’s fault that there was a 15 minute gap in service at rush hour.
They’re a transit-version of Goofy running after someone.
14. Wake up.