All photos by and courtesy of Allan Rosen

THE COMMUTE: Hey, let’s give Chicago top billing for a change. I’ve always wondered why Downtown Chicago retained its Els when New York City decided to get rid of them in Downtown and Midtown. I think I figured out the reason on a five-day trip to Chicago in August.

While most of New York’s elevated lines were built over streets — many of them from building line to building line, blocking out virtually all natural sunlight below — that isn’t the case with what remains of Chicago’s downtown elevated lines, called “The Loop.” Most Chicago Els were built along existing alleyways, something that New York has few of, and on embankments much like the Brighton line. An alleyway, for those who do not know, is a street primarily for deliveries that faces the rear of buildings. They have no windows looking out onto the alleyway; there are no storefronts facing it and there is no sidewalk. In Chicago they can extend for miles, not just for a block or two like in New York.

A Chicago alleyway. Click to enlarge

In Downtown Chicago, some Els were built over the streets, but the outer two tracks in downtown were removed so that the two tracks that remain are over the center of the street, allowing light to hit the buildings and street below. Contrast that with our three track Els along McDonald Avenue or New Utrecht Avenue, which reach nearly from building line to building line, or the six-track El over Brighton Beach Avenue.

Chicago built its first subway line the same time we were constructing our IND system. Most of Chicago’s rapid transit system today is still comprised of Els. There are only about nine subway stops in Chicago. My guess is that some El lines were demolished with others reduced from four tracks to two at the same time the subway was built in downtown.

How Does Chicago’s System Compare To New York’s?

It is difficult to arrive at any firm conclusions as to which system is better after only spending a few days there, but some contrasts were very noticeable. The subway cars seem tiny compared to New York’s IRT and trains are only six or eight cars in length.

I can only imagine how a Chicagoan would feel upon entering one of our spacious IND/BMT cars. I did not ride during the rush hour so I cannot compare crowding levels. Most of the subway seats faced forward on the right side of the train and backward on the left side, which made it very convenient for sightseeing and photographing from the numerous Els.

That may be changing soon. Recently, cars with longitudinal seats have been arriving, which riders are not at all happy about. Seats on local buses had higher backs with padded seats and were more comfortable than our seats.

Public Information

Estimated bus arrival times were provided on many downtown bus shelters. While New York opted for the modern bus shelter with the installation of CEMUSA shelters, Chicago opted for the retro “turn of the last century” look. All shelters also have complete subway and bus maps.

Click to enlarge

 

Every rapid transit station had clear system maps also showing bus routes as well as strip maps for rapid transit lines stopping at that station.

On the mezzanine level, bus schedules were provided.

At major bus transfer hubs, like Howard, bus and train estimated arrival times were posted on flat panel screens alternating with news, weather, sports and advertisements. They are far superior to our countdown time clocks.

Chicago does not use the words “street” or “avenue” in its station names, something that would not work in New York. It works in Chicago, not only because street names are not duplicated, but because the same street name is carried through multiple municipalities with a continuous street address numbering system along a grid system of streets. The relatively flat terrain allows for the grid. In New York City, street names change frequently. In Long Island, street addresses reset to the number one in each town a street passes through, further complicating matters. In short, getting around the Chicago area is much less confusing than getting around in New York.

First Impressions

We stayed in Evanston, a Chicago suburb, which is served by the purple line. Approximately six stations were having their platforms converted to concrete and were closed. We ran “express” at about 10 miles per hour, more than doubling the length of our trip to about two hours to get back to our hotel room. Just can’t seem to get away from those darn construction delays.

Since the subway is so limited and the Els only serve a small portion of Chicago and its suburbs, the bus system and commuter rail play an important role. Coordination between systems is crucial. Buses are operated by the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) and by private bus companies such as PACE. The commuter rail is operated by METRA, which I did not ride.

Fares

Except for the rails, there is a unified fare structure. The fare is $2.25 for the subway and $2 for a CTA bus, with bus transfers costing a quarter or a transfer from bus to subway. Subway and El transfers are, of course, free. However, unlike New York, where some have to pay a double fare, in Chicago there is no extra charge to ride a third bus or subway. PACE buses cost only $1.75. Buses accept smart cards, transit cards, cash and dollar bills. Trains do not accept money.

I purchased a three-day pass, something we don’t have in New York. It came in very handy because I would have used about $50 in fares taking trains and buses everywhere — too many to even keep track. There are also daily, seven-day, and monthly passes. The passes are good for express buses but not for rail. Unlike New York, Chicago’s express buses are integrated into the local bus system and you certainly know it when the bus operates express at 60 miles per hour for 20 or 30 minutes. Even in rush hour, I never saw traffic slow much below 20 miles per hour on local streets — nothing close to Manhattan’s gridlock.

Stay tuned for the second and final part of this series next Monday.

The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).

Disclaimer: The above is an opinion column and may not represent the thoughts or position of Sheepshead Bites. Based upon their expertise in their respective fields, our columnists are responsible for fact-checking their own work, and their submissions are edited only for length, grammar and clarity. If you would like to submit an opinion piece or become a regularly featured contributor, please e-mail nberke [at] sheepsheadbites [dot] com.

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  • Flatbush Depot

    Yes! I have always been interested in Chicago and wish to visit that city. I became interested in it upon seeing The Blues Brothers and have always wanted to compare it to NYC. At some point I will visit Chicago and will be sure to use the transit system. Chicago’s el design sounds superior to NYC’s, but as you said, this is because Chicago’s alleys are longer than NYC’s. Sounds like something the builders of the IRT, BMT, and IND could not really control in most cases. Those high-backed bus seats are excellent

    • sonicboy678

      I also want to check out the public transit in Chicago! I sure hope I get to visit Chicago and other major cities to see what their systems are like. I even want to see some lesser-known places such as Culver City. (They have a small bus system over there.)

      • Allan Rosen

        I was in some small town once in California and saw a small bus pass by with the name “slo transit”. Must be the opposite of “rapid transit”.

        • sonicboy678

          San Luis Obispo! Another place I have just become aware of! That sounds like another place to see.

          • Allan Rosen

            Yep, that’s the place. Never realized that’s what the slo stood for. Thought the bus was just slow.

          • http://www.sheepsheadbites.com/ Ned Berke

            You mean slo?

          • peppertree5706

            I like the name of the bus system in Memphis. “MATA” In Spanish it means killed.

          • sonicboy678

            I hope it really isn’t slow. Our buses are too slow. Our trains don’t exactly fare much better, especially if they operate beyond capacity.

  • winson

    another thing you should note, only a small portion of the Chicago El runs 24/7. In fact, the New York City Subway is the only urban rapid transit system in the nation, and possibly the world, that is fully operating at all times. That is why so many tourists rush to get things done because they think the subway will stop running after a certain hour

    • Allan Rosen

      None of the els operate between 2:30 AM and 4 AM in Chicago. Something to that effect is mentioned in Part 2.

    • peppertree5706

      Check out Las Vegas. Their buses run full schedules 24/7.

      • Allan Rosen

        How often do they run at night?

        • Ryan Ng

          Not very often. Only once every hour, I think.

    • comiskey

      Blue (ohare line) and red lines (north south line) run 24/7. Hardly a small portion.

    • Tower18

      What NY do you live in where the subway is “fully operating at all times”

      • Allan Rosen

        I don’t believe he is considering weekend construction.

        • Tower18

          Even in regular service, it’s certainly not what I would call fully operating at night. For instance, overnight there is no B or C, the M and R are reduced to shuttles, the A, D, N, 2 and 4 are local instead of express (with the A to Lefferts becoming a shuttle), the 3 is truncated, the 5 is either truncated or a shuttle depending on time.

          Yes it’s definitely more than Chicago, but I wouldn’t call all-local service every 20 minutes, with some lines reduced to shuttles, to be fully operating. It is true that every section of route still has trains on it at all hours, though.

  • peppertree5706

    I remember one time getting stuck on a Chicago el a little

    south of the loop. I think it was the Howard Line

    (before they started using color names).

    The temperature outside was about 99 degrees and while

    the train was stuck between stops, the air stopped blowing. Ouch!

    That was about twenty minutes of hell. The train was also crowded with

    people standing close to each other. I did have a seat and a tee shirt

    on, but many were in suits and office clothes.

    Also was on the Dan Ryan Line when it shut down because of a derailment.

    I had to go up to the street and buy a pitcher of beer until it started

    running, about 45 minutes later. Glad there is a bar (or two) outside

    every subway station in Chicago. The system is a fraction of the size of

    our subway system.

  • Ryan Ng

    Note that the Loop alone has several at-grade junctions, not very efficient. The NYC Subway only has two revenue at-grade junctions between services: at the Myrtle Avenue station on the BMT Jamaica and Myrtle Avenue lines, and between the 135th Street and 145th Street stations on the Lenox IRT.

    • Allan Rosen

      What about Rogers Junction where the 5 must cross the 3 tracks to get to the Nostrand Avenue line?

    • comiskey

      2 is not “several”

  • osito57

    You can’t really compare Chicago transit with NYC transit, IMO. NYC subway has something like 15 times the daily ridership of Chicago’s rail system. Really only the Red Line on the North Side (the line you rode) has decent traffic. The other Chicago lines are half-empty and have infrequent service.
    Once you get outside of the NYC area, the U.S. is car-dominated. Chicago is no different. In Chicago, something like 80% of households own cars. In NYC the proportion is something like 45%.
    The Chicago system also has some serious safety issues, on the West and South sides. I would be somewhat vigilant riding the system at off hours. Chicago is a tough town, and more like a Detroit type of town than a NYC type of town.

    • comiskey

      Blue line from ohare to the loop is heavily used WTF do u know? And yes the 2 systems can be compared. NYC is a mess as far as dirt and poor signage. Chicago’s CTA tho smaller is so much more advanced.

      • Mill Basin

        No, Blue Line isn’t particularly heavily used (I’m using NYC as a basis for comparison, obviously).
        CTA has ancient signaling, no automated lines like in NYC (and no present plans for upgrades of any lines) is single tracked for huge stretches, and has tons of train-slowing crossings and at-grade junctions. It even has some street-running, with traffic lights!

        • Tower18

          What are you talking about? NYC doesn’t have any automated lines, and Chicago has no single-tracking on the L system (except during night and weekend construction)…and only 2 lines have any grade crossings, at the edge of the city, and only for short stretches, covering 6 stations.

          For usage, the Red, Blue, and Brown lines are very heavily used, but only the Red and Blue have any significant off-peak usage.

          • Allan Rosen

            There was a single track just outside the Loop near Merchandise Mart during the day. I don’t know if that was permanent or temporarily removed awaiting replacement. I mistakenly thought it was inside the Loop where I saw it.

    • beat bop

      Comparison I would like to make is Chicago transit system goes directly into the 2 airports whereas NY requires transfer to bus or air train.

      • http://www.sheepsheadbites.com/ Ned Berke

        As someone who goes to Chicago once or twice a year and uses mass transit to get to and from the airport, I REALLY appreciate this fact, and am continually amazed at how horrific NYC’s mass transit options to airports are. It’s a 20 minute drive to JFK from Sheepshead, but more like 2 hours by mass transit. I actually find Newark Airport the easiest to get to by mass transit, and that’s saying something.

        • Allan Rosen

          Actually I came back from Newark by mass transit. Chicago to Newark two hours. Newark to Sheepshead Bay three hours. But it was a comfortable trip.

          • http://www.sheepsheadbites.com/ Ned Berke

            Three hours? It’s been a few years since I’ve done it, but I recall it being 2. Timewise it’s not all that much different than JFK or LaGuardia, but it requires fewer transfers. And NJ Transit is much more comfortable than the A train.

          • Allan Rosen

            The map was unclear as to where to get off for NJT and I mistakenly got off the air transport at the last parking stop and had to wait 7 minutes for the next train causing me to miss my connection with NJT so I had to wait 25 minutes for it on a Sunday. Should have made it in 2 1/2.

          • http://www.sheepsheadbites.com/ Ned Berke

            And, what, no jug handle? F’ing NJ.

            ;)

      • osito57

        The Chicago airport access is basically the same as the NY airport access. Both have direct rail access to their airports.
        You’re right that in Chicago there isn’t an additional “Airtrain” connecting all the terminals like in NYC, but that doesn’t mean the system is “better”; there are just fewer terminals in Chicago, so you can have one destination point.
        There is no possible way to have “direct” service to JFK, for example. There are eight terminals. Most folks would have to transfer at some point. And at Midway airport (the smaller Chicago airport for short-haul/discount carriers) the rapid transit stop is on the other side of the airport, so you have to drag all your stuff through parking lots.
        One thing that is very weak in Chicago is the commuter rail. The commuter rail (called Metra) is 90% diesel-operated, with grade crossings everywhere (even near downtown), and doesn’t have any real transfers with the rapid transit (El trains). So, for example, if you take an Amtrak to Union Station, there is no El stop. Same goes for the Metra commuter rail stops.

        • rahmrules

          There is no rail access to LGA and all bus options to the suck! When the m’60 becomes SBS maybe things will improve. It costs $5 one way by air train to JFK so from cost perspective Chicago is better.

          • DanDan

            True, there is no rail access to LGA, but the bus options won’t suck much longer. The MTA is installing direct BRT (bus rapid transit) lanes from LGA to Manhattan and Queens, so LGA will probably have the best transit access among the Big 3 NYC airports once the BRT lanes are open.
            The subway was going to be extended to LGA under Giuliani but then 9-11 happened and funding priorities changed. Hopefully the subway is eventually extended to LGA.

  • RandyO

    The loop was never 4 track, but was always a 2 track line in its entirety. For many years, trains on both tracks operated in a counter clockwise direction in a attempt at a pseudo 4 track operation but the at grade junctions at Wabash/Van Buren and Lake/Wells as well as the one at Wells/Van Buren which is no longer there compromised the effectiveness of this operation and the loop eventually was reconfigured into its present bi directional operation. Portions of the Chicago el that do have 4 tracks are well outside the loop and the former 4 track portion of the North Side el between Chicago Av and Armitage did have the outside tracks removed. The western portion of the Lake St el was constructed with a provision for 2 additional outside tracks should traffic warrant it but it never happened. There was another 4 track el west of the loop which carried the former Garfield and Douglas Park els but that was removed in the 1950s when those lines were relocated into the median of the Congress St Expressway.

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