All photos by and courtesy of Allan Rosen

THE COMMUTEMy First Bus Ride

After spending 45 minutes exiting Chicago O’Hare International Airport, since there were no clear airport exit signs, I finally arrived at the PACE bus stop to get to Evanston. I could have taken the train, but that would have meant a long, indirect trip through downtown. I got lost a few times, mistakenly following signs to ground transportation rather than to Airport Transit (the airport’s internal rail line), which accessed PACE buses.

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Parking garage entrance on Michigan Avenue (Click to enlarge)

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The trip took an hour and 10 minutes, although the posted schedule stated an hour and a half. The driver told me she could make the trip in 45 minutes, without traffic, but I do not see how. We must have averaged 30 MPH, stopping only about once every mile through Chicago’s suburbs.

The schedules showed that the bus I needed (#250) operates every 30 minutes. Since the signage left much to be desired, seeing the schedules in disarray, and being the only one waiting, I was worried that the bus would not arrive at all. At first I thought that it was an awful lot of routes to stop at that one stop (Routes 250-330), but then I realized that the dash meant “and” not “through.”

It was getting close to the 3:18 p.m. schedule time and there was no sign of a bus or other intending passengers. Finally, at precisely 3:18 p.m., a bus arrived, discharging three passengers, picking me up, and leaving immediately. “What — no layover,” I wondered. No other passengers boarded until we left the airport. The bus never really did fill up even after some school students boarded. I guess that’s why it operated only every 30 minutes.

A City Behind The Times

In some respects, New York City seemed way ahead of Chicago, when comparing the capacity and service coverage of our subway system to theirs. Some stations had ancient fare controls.

Check out that exit gate and wooden platform so common on many El stations. I even saw one elevated station with a bus shelter as its only weather protection.

A City Friendly To All Forms Of Transportation

However, in other respects, Chicago seemed way ahead of New York, by embracing all forms of transportation. For example Chicago is very bike friendly. All buses I saw had bicycle racks.

Many elevated stations had indoor bicycle parking. One major transfer hub had a virtual bicycle-parking garage.

Bike lane share signs were all over, yet I only saw one lane reserved specifically for bicycles and that was in Evanston just outside of Chicago.

One non-handicapped accessible subway station had a ramp along the wall of the stairway just wide enough for a bicycle tire to accommodate wheeling a bicycle up and down — an ingenious and low cost solution to making subway stations more accessible to bicycles.

Chicago does not believe in making travel difficult for motorists in order to help cyclists. On Michigan Avenue, comparable to New York’s Fifth Avenue, but wider, there were entrances from the sidewalk and street to a public parking garage built below the street. I don’t know what the garage charged, but I imagine it was hefty, judging from the parking rates at one of the beach parking lots — $22 for more than four hours.

My Opinion Of Chicago’s Transit’s System

I felt as if I went through a time warp, seeing all the wooden elevated platforms, although many were first now undergoing a transition to concrete, something New York did more than 30 years ago. On some elevated stations I saw newly replaced wooden platforms… yet we can’t have a wooden boardwalk. The CTA does not believe that one solution fits all situations. Their rationale must be why upgrade platforms and fare controls at lightly utilized stations?

The same was true on the bus fare boxes. Although New York decided to replace all its bus fare boxes when converting to MetroCard, and then replaced all 4,000 tops a second time when the MTA changed its mind from a card swipe to a card dip on the buses just before MetroCard was introduced, Chicago is more cost conscious. They merely added a small addition to existing fareboxes, which accepted coins and bills.

This, however, is a little confusing for new riders. Seeing three separate slots, I hesitated a moment trying to find which of the three was for cards. The driver pointed me to the slot on the right. So when I got on the next bus, I automatically inserted my card in the right side slot, which on that bus was for dollar bills. The driver angrily told me I needed the slot on the left. I asked why on some buses you inserted your card on the left and on others on the right, and another driver kindly explained that on older buses, it was on the right, but on newer ones, it was on the left. I figured when most riders used cash, it was decided to put the card slots out of the way, all the way to the right, but as more riders used cards, it made more sense to switch the placement of the card slots to make them more accessible. Guess the CTA figured it wasn’t worth the additional cost to replace all their fare boxes or to make them consistent.

However, that was my biggest complaint. Generally, I was impressed with Chicago’s system and the city itself. Yes, Chicago’s rapid transit does not operate between 1:00 and 4:00 a.m., except for only two lines that operate 24/7, and only about a half dozen bus routes operate 24 hours a day, but I can say the system took me wherever I needed to go, except for one instance when we ended up walking a mile to a store to buy a camera battery because we were told to get off at the wrong stop and no bus operated between the subway stop and the store. I rode on close to a dozen different bus routes and, other than the bus from the airport, I never waited more than 15 minutes for one. I only saw a single case of bus bunching in four days, although some routes are surprisingly long, probably exceeding two hours in length.

There are two versions of their subway map, a geographic portrayal of all rapid transit and bus routes, as well as a subway diagram. The subway diagram is used inside the subway cars. I thought of that for New York a long time ago. (Once you are in the subway car, all you need the map for is to double check which stop to transfer at or to alight the train. You do not plan your entire trip inside the subway car and do not need geographic accuracy there.) A complete geographic map is only necessary for the stations and for distribution, which is what Chicago does.

A Very Clean City

I was very impressed with the cleanliness of the city and the friendliness of the people. I didn’t see a speck of litter anywhere. Are Chicagoans that much different from New Yorkers or is it just that the city makes it easy to keep clean? There are big belly, trash compactor garbage cans all over Downtown Chicago, the same kind Sheepshead Bay wanted for Emmons Avenue, which Bloomberg said would break down. Where they did not exist, garbage receptacles were all enclosed, either with covers or small openings on tops — none of our open top wire baskets, which allow garbage to escape and blow everywhere.

My impression of Chicago’s cleanliness was not my imagination. Travel and Leisure magazine agreed. New York ranked as the dirtiest city and Chicago, the cleanest.

Other Nice Things About Chicago

Michigan Avenue was lined with gigantic flowerpots. When blocks were co-named for individuals, a smaller, different color sign was used, so as not to be confused with the real street names, something I also once suggested for New York.

There are no ugly newspaper boxes, but attractive kiosks instead. They also have attractive subway kiosks as well as an assortment of good and bad stations (Notice the “D” missing from Grand).

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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  • Peter

    New York did not replace all it’s wooden El stations with concrete platforms 30 years ago. A number of stations on the Jamaica and Canarsie Line had wood platforms until around 2002/2003 when the MTA rushed through a very cheap looking renovation of these stations considering that all the original details including the incandescent lamp posts were in place before they butchered these stations. Many stations on the New Lots IRT El had wooden stairs and mezzanines until just last year as well as the Culver El.

    Thank you for all these articles on our transit system as well as those of other cities. I thoroughly enjoy reading them.

    • Allan Rosen

      Thanks. Didn’t realize we still wooden platforms for so long in some places. We also had many more to replace than they did.

      • applegreen

        back in 2004/2005 the Sutter Ave – Rutland Rd station on the 3 train had wooden platforms, wooden (broken down) stairs and wooden doors (also sometimes broken down). So yeah, the New Lots line is pretty awful.

        • Allan Rosen

          I used that station until 1977. I thought I remembered reading that the wood platforms were replaced way before 2004. Maybe it was delayed 20 years like many of the rehabs were for the outlying stations.

  • Nostrand100

    Chicago doesn’t have a particularly good transit system. I am often grumpy re. New York’s system, but it is 1000 times better than the system in Chicago..
    Chicago’s system is ancient, falling apart, dangerous (in certain parts) and with poor coverage/frequency. Oh, and it’s freezing to wait on those exposed platforms in the winter months.

    • Allan Rosen

      As I said, I wasn’t there long enough to make too many comparisons, but I was surprised not to see many windscreens on so many el stations considering it is called “the windy city”. They really must get cold in the winter. But they did seem to be ahead of us regarding public information.

      • sonicboy678

        Not to mention that they’re still working on it. They’re going to close the Dan Ryan Line for about 5 months next year. During that time, Red Line trains will operate via the Green Line to Ashland Avenue/63rd Street. (I know they don’t use words like Avenue and Street in station names, but bear with me on this.)

    • comiskey

      CTA buses have text msg arrival times (something NYC is slowly implementing) so u know approximately when buses will arrive, announcements on L cars that tell you which side doors open and cars aren’t nearly as crowded as NYC even during rush hour. On older cars with roll signs, they can be changed by TO from the cab rather than walking thru every car turning them manually.

      • Allan Rosen

        Thank you for your comment. I meant to mention in the article but forgot that I liked the announcements informing passengers which side the doors would open on. In New York, we should announce whenever the doors open on the left, with the implication that if no announcement were made, doors open on the right since that is the case the majority of the time. That would greatly help the tourists on crowded lines.

        There was a problem though with the CTA automated announcements. Whenever we were moving very slowly due to construction delays, instead of announcing the reason, the automated announcements kept stating we will be moving shortly, although we were moving.

  • winson

    reminds me of an episode of Family Matters where Steve and Carl got stuck on a subway train during the holidays. The subway map in the background, though saying “Chicago Subway Map,” was actually the New York City one. Hard to imagine we are the only rapid transit system in the world that fully runs 24/7.

  • Adam Moreira

    The major advantage to me with Chicago compared to New York based on your description seems to be the bicycle racks. BTW, do Pace and CTA have a unified fare structure?

    • Allan Rosen

      PACE is 25 cents cheaper than CTA but you can use the same transit card on both.

      • gustaajedrez

        Are there free transfers between the two?

        • Allan Rosen

          I would assume so since PACE accepts CTA cards. The PACE driver told me transfers were a quarter. She didn’t say it was only for PACE buses

  • RandyO

    I don’t know where you got the idea that CTA shuts down at night. Several lines do shut down at night but the Red and Blue lines do operate 24/7 and although the Blue Line runs on only a 1/2 hour headway at night, the Red line actually runs more frequently at night than NYCTA does having a 2o min headway only between 200AM and 400AM and more frequently before and after that. Buses run all night and in many places run more frequently than buses in NYC.

    • Allan Rosen

      Yes, the red and blue lines do run all night, but that’s only two out of eight lines. I thought NYCTA operates every 20 minutes all night on every line that operates. Has that been cut?

  • RandyO

    Another comment is that the entire Chicago loop is double tracked. There are no single track portions anywhere on the loop.

    • Allan Rosen

      Unless the tracks were on two separate levels, there were several stops on the loop where the only track was the one we were on.

      • Tower18

        Sorry, you are mistaken. There is no single tracking, especially not in the loop.

        • Allan Rosen

          Correct. The single track I saw was just outside the Loop near Merchandise Mart. I don’t know if the other track was removed temporarily waiting for replacement track to be installed or if it was permanently removed. (I’ve asked that the correction be made.)

  • windy city

    Being from Chicago I am always interested in how others see us. Our entire system uses cab signals, wayside signals are mainly at junctions and interlockings. Wooden platforms are retained, even in replacement projects depending upon the structural support systems at various stations. Aren’t are cars wider than the IRT dimensions…9. ft 4 in. at the waist vs IRT 8 ft. 8 in. straight sides.? Surprised no one mentioned the open third rail and yes, our 25 grade crossings won’t be found anywhere else. Finally, we know you New Yorker are used to the bowling alley seating, but on our ‘L’ we have lots of scenery to look at and that’s impossible to do on our new cars; plus we’re getting 700 of those things.

    windy city (the name comes from bragging in 1890s to get the Worlds Fair)

    • Allan Rosen

      Thanks for the info. I wasn’t sure if “windy” came from Lake Michigan or the politicians. If its from the Fair, surprising the name was retained after all these years. Can you answer the question if any portion of the loop is single tracked because I’m sure I seen that between a couple of stations.

      • windy city

        I’ve posted on this on Sub Chat. Check under chicagopcclcars.

    • windycityfan

      @windy city are the 2200 on blue line and 2400 on green line still running? want to check them out before they are gone.

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