The Electric Commentary

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Train in Vain

I have a long commute, and I spend a lot of time on the "L." Recently the Chicago Transit Authority ("CTA") has been running ads on their trains and buses over the loudspeaker calling for people to pressure their state representatives and alderman to increase funding for the CTA. I have several million problems with this, but for the sake of my fingers and your brains, I'll restrict myself to just a few.

First of all, if the CTA were a business, it would be the worst business in the world. There are two reasons for this. First, they design their trains and buses to be uncomfortable to passengers. If you spend more than thirty minutes on any given CTA seat, you will have back spasms. Also, your knees will cramp up. You see, not only are the seats hard, uncomfortable, and generally covered in a mysterious greasy substance, but they also force you to put your legs in an uncomfortable position, as the trains outer wall angles in towards you at the bottom. This will henceforth be known as the "leg ramp."

In case that last paragraph was a bit confusing, take a chair and slide it up against a wall, so that when you sit in the chair your legs are parallel to the wall. Now sit in the chair. Not too bad right? Now you need something angled. A doorstop is perfect. In a pinch, a hardcover book will suffice. Place this object directly under your feat, angled against the wall. Now sit for 45 minutes. Now you have your own CTA style leg ramp! Remember, if you try and put your legs over to the side you'll likely bump into a really stinky bum. Your choice is between leg cramps and stench, and if you choose stench as so many of us CTA riders have in the past, you will also injure your back.

You see, the backs of CTA chairs are designed only for those who sit straight up with perfect posture, so long as that person has a substantial hump in their lumbar area. If, however, you are as humpless as I am it's going to be a long ride, especially if you are turning your legs into the stinky bum in order to avoid the leg ramp. In this instance you will be either cut by the sharp plastic edge which separates seats, or, more likely, gouged by the useless metal bar that has been inserted under the window sill for no reason.

And don't even think about sleeping! In another crack engineering innovation the CTA has developed the "arm-proof window sill." If you did want to sleep, you might try and rest your arm on the window sill, and your head on your hand. Unfortunately the window sill slants downward at about a thirty degree angle. You may be thinking that this is not a steep slant, and you're right, so just to make sure that your arm continually slides off (banging on the aforementioned useless metal bar) they coat it with a thin layer of grease. It is also worth noting that the headrests on CTA seats are actually handles for standing passengers to hold on to. They are just the right height so that if you lean your head backward (or if the train suddenly stops) you are gouged in the neck.

Many CTA captives can now sleep standing up and without a pillow. Some people actually take a pillow with them to work!

But severe and possibly permanent physical injury is not the worst thing about the CTA. It is actually relatively minor. In fact my biggest complaint with the CTA actually causes all of the aforementioned problems:

Bums and lowlifes.

Why are the seats uncomfortable? Why does it smell? Why is that banana peel from yesterday still on the seat in front of me?

Because the CTA wants to encourage their customers to get off of the train! Because if they don't, the bums will never ever get off. Can you imagine any other business actively creating a hostile environment to drive customers away? It is simply breathtaking. This problem, of course, stems from the fact that the CTA is viewed as a public utility and not a business. Public utilities cannot just deny service to some customers based on smell or yelling at me that I'm "going to hell" for fifteen minutes (Dude, I'm there already), or calling me a "stanky white person" for fifteen minutes, or for screaming into a cell phone for half an hour, or for vomiting (at least I hope that was vomit) in the aisle.

Any business would deny service to those with "no shoes or no shirt" but the CTA lets everyone on at the low low price of $1.75.

And now we get to the ads. Their are a few print ads on trains and buses, but only the CTA has the privilege of advertising on the loud speaker, which they do quite frequently. They never mention a fare hike or budget cuts, only a bigger subsidy. So in essence, even though they try to actively screw their customers, and even though they have many revenue raising options available to them, they instead request that their existing customers call their government officials in order to convince them to take money from non-customers to fund their rides to work.

I'm just astonished. It's been going on for three weeks now at least and I'm sick of it. So I have a few suggestions for them that will allow them to make more money and improve my life.

1. Raise the fair to $2.00.

2. Hire some security. If someone smells, throw them out. If someone is trying to sell me a bag of M&Ms, throw them out. It will keep customers happy.

3. Put in comfortable chairs. Please.

4. Every CTA message ends like this:

"DING DONG (bell ringing at 4 million decibels), doors closing."

Please get rid of the bell. Why is there a bell? Who thought "since we're going to make these people listen to the same voice announce the stop and that the door is closing over and over again, maybe we should put in a random bell noise. That won't get annoying the 400th time that you hear it."

5. Do not actively lie to your customers.

A few days ago a friend of mine was supposed to meet us at The Schoolyard. She got on what was from the outside a Brown Line train (which states that it will end its run at Kimball). However on the inside the train stated that it was a Purple Line train (which ends its run at Linden in Evanston. Here is the system map). This is not an unimportant distinction as the Purple Line runs express from Belmont (which is exactly one stop before the Southport stop, which is across the street from the Schoolyard) to Howard, which, as you can see from the map, is much closer to Evanston than it is to central Chicago. Everyone on board thought that it was a Brown Line train until it was too late. Hilarity did not ensue.

These are just a few simple suggestions that would improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. But I'm sure that the residents of the city will end up paying a lot more for this wonderful transit system because I live in Chicago, and that is how things work in Chicago.

So to the CTA, there's only one thing I can say:

Did you stand by me
No, not at all
Did you stand by me
No way

You must explain why this must be.


  • And yes, my two most recent commutes caused me to write this. One involved an overflowing toilet (some suburban buses have toilets) and one involved the smelliest man on earth sitting in all of the seat next to me, some of my seat, and 1/2 of the aisle.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 2:42 PM  

  • Have you ever used San Francisco's BART? The seats are comfy, the aisles are big, it's fast, it's quiet, and it's expensive; however, customers seem willing to pay the costs as the Bay Area boasts more transit users than any other metropolis in America. A model?

    By Blogger RyanSimatic, at 12:42 PM  

  • I've never had the pleasure, but I've heard good things about many transit systems. Chicago's I think is uniquely bad. They really need to redesign the cars. When they ask you for cash, they don't say they'll make improvements, they threaten you by saying they'll close down trains. Oddly, I think if they were collecting for improvement that I wouldn't mind so much. The fact that they need it to stay alive though makes me think that they're just inept and don't deserve any cash.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 1:20 PM  

  • Another thing that bugs me about public transit. Ridership is down, so revenues are down, so they want to raise fares? Are they just assuming that demand is inelastic? Have they considered that since you often need to have a car anyway (for the places the train doesn't go, or go efficiently), the marginal cost of taking the train is significantly higher than driving? Why should I take the train to anywhere other than the middle of downtown, where there is nowhere to park? and even then, if there are any other options...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:28 AM  

  • Agreed, and this is a another fact ignored by the CTA. There are many parts of the city where you do need a car to get to the train (the south side in particular). While it is horrible to drive to most Chicago destinations, as long as you can park it is still usually preferable. You make a good point about downtown too. If you're not going downtown, but will be in the vicinity of Lake Michigan, Lake Shore Drive is rarely crowded, and makes for an easy drive.

    They have a ton of logistical (and marketing) problems.

    I would rather see them raise the fare than get a subsidy though, as it is at least more fair, and will deter bums from riding.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 9:46 AM  

  • I should clarify that you are correct in asserting that raising fares will reduce ridership and revenue. It is not in their best interest as it will drive people away, but it is in my best interest because it will drive people away.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 9:50 AM  

  • This reminds me of volunteering in my 5 year olds kindergarten class.

    When we were done the teacher asked me to sign the log book, and told me that they send this to the legislature as justification for more funds.

    Except that she doesn't know that I'm the guy that did the cost estimates for the tuition tax credit bill that showed that funding could be cut by up to 40% without harming quality. Whoops.

    By Blogger Dr. Tufte, at 12:03 PM  

  • Part of the problem with making economic arguments about public transit is that private automobile transport is so highly subsidized by the government that competition isn't a reliable way to set costs. You can just hop in your car and drive down Lake Shore Drive because federal, state, and local governments invest hundreds of billions every year in road construction and maintenance. Most of that is taken care of by huge government agencies, but no one is saying that roads should pay for themselves.

    By Blogger J Bragg, at 9:50 AM  

  • "but no one is saying that roads should pay for themselves."

    Unless of course you live in Illinois, which funds many of its interstates and other roads with toll booth revenue.

    My main point is not that trains are inherently more inefficient than freeways (although I believe that Chicago’s train system is), but that they run their trains in such a way as to create a miserable experience and then act surprised when people choose to drive so that more government funding is “needed.” This is especially impressive in Chicago, by the way, as the aforementioned tollbooths make driving almost as vexing as the train. In fact, if my car did not have more comfortable seats than the train, then the train would be a much more attractive alternative.

    Which is the whole point really.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 10:20 AM  

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