CTA looks great compared to some other city transit systems

Here’s a guest post from Tom:

I have been a life-long Chicagoan, and I have used public transportation for a good part of my life here. I’ve used the “green limousine” through high school on the north side and up until I changed jobs, rode the Blue Line from Oak Park to Washington street almost every weekday. I have seen the best and worst of the CTA in action.

However, I recently was at a two-week training seminar in Philadelphia and, because of cheap hotel rates and other logistical nightmares, was able to experience that city’s public transportation system.

I have to say, we in Chicago need to praise what we have come to accept as minimal standards. I found EVERY subway station in Philadelphia that I used to smell of urine (stale and fresh). They STILL use tokens. You can only buy a weekly pass from a human being, and not on a weekend. And not without exact change.

There were no buttons to press for an emergency. There was no even mildly disinterested person to ask questions. In other words, I took a 10 year trip back in time to our CTA of old. I could not wait to get back to a cleaner, more modern system that at least was TRYING to treat users as valued customers instead of nuisances.

philly transit station.jpg

Train at a Philadelphia subway station. (Photo by ktransit.com)

I know that all of us who use public trans wants a leaner, more usable system. I also acknowledge that the CTA has a long way to go to live up to other cities and their systems. I mean, look at the Blue Line stops along the Eisenhower; I’ve seen less corrugated steel roofs in a shanty town that protect from the rain better (LOOK at the Oak Park stop for proof).

 However, I think that the whiniest riders need to take a step back before they completely lambast the CTA and realize that it IS better than it has been. I know my nose knows that it’s a gallon of urine cleaner!

Thanks for letting me vent.


Kevin here: Are there other big cities where the transit system really sucks, even compared to the CTA?


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  • However, what is Philly's subway crime rate? Also, did SEPTA have big service cutbacks this year? Or, as Clout Street reported today, 4 transit boards spending $1 million a year on lobbying? Does it have one division getting court opinions that by suing the RTA it is not suing itself?

    Probably the real question is that it was said that Moscow had an underground palace for its subway. I wonder how that still compares.

  • i'm originally from the philadelphia area and whenever the CTA annoys me, i just think about SEPTA. not only is it still on tokens, you can't even buy them in every station - some are unmanned with no machines and if you don't have any, you're out of luck. and it's downhill from there.

  • SEPTA is a hot mess. This is no secret.

  • I'm not trying to jump on any other systems, but I'm always amazed by Toronto's out-dated fare collection system. Tokens, daily passes that look like lotto tickets, paper transfers, a new pass every month, and fare booths staffed by a TTC employee (they do make change, but that's about it). I'm pretty sure they are in the process of upgrading, but it pales in comparison to any modern smart or paper re-loadable system.

  • As for other systems - Tokyo, heck any city in Japan, is hyper-advanced, it's really a matter of pride. Even London and Paris are up to date though in London's case, much has to do with the 2012 Olympics and their moves to spruce things up - farecards are automated, trains are clean, but they are doing so much work on their system during the weekend, getting around takes more time. Paris Metro - a nice system, and even in a land that makes US labor protection look like nursery school, they STILL have automated fare cards in place (c'mon Philly!)

    For Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Seattle, Dallas, I thought the rides were nice and as long as you live near a station, convenient. They have free-zones and honor systems, different relative to other cities but it appears to work. We have enough tsuris with free rides for seniors, can't imagine free-zones here the way things are today.

  • In reply to 20fie18:

    I'm all for eliminating free rides for those not in need (and substantially raising the criminally low transfer fares; that alone would collect most of the money the CTA needs), but I've always thought it would be nice to offer on buses a ride-one-stop-for-free deal. Just a sort of convenience for those moments when you're in a downpour or almost running a little late or loaded down with packages or whatever; get on, stay near the door and tell the driver you're going one stop, and get off.

  • In reply to 20fie18:

    I would like to see the fares made more even because really, it is SO much slower for those who have to use buses that it should be less than those who can live conveniently to the train. I think the fare differential between bus & train is warranted, but that requires them really working those smart card systems. It should be $2.50 to go from bus to train or train to bus (right now it is $2.25 going one way and $2.50 going the other) but it should be $2.25 between bus & bus. And you could kill the 2nd free transfer so if you bus to train to bus it is $3. Yes that is steeper but at that point you are using more of the CTA and ought to just buy a monthly if you do that daily. The fare cards could be programmed that way and they should do it. Evens things out a bit without a massive hike that truly penalizes bus riders while train riders get off free. Only way to even that out would be to hike the train fare again and then allow free transfers from the bus.

  • In reply to Michi:

    That's a tough sell ... I was also going to add that it seems that cities that have a large sporting event (Olympics/World Cup) always do pretty well in terms of upgrading their transit systems. London has this fare card system (Oyster) that works on zones where you have to swipe in and swipe out. If you forget to swipe out (yes, it happened), at 12:01AM the next day, the system deducts the maximum fare you could have spent for the day for a single trip. Also, the fare card system is like a third the cost of a cash trip - I forget the exact discount but it was big - esp. since the US Dollar vs British Pound exchange stinks for us right now. Anyway, I don't know the inner workings of Chicago Card/Card Plus systems but unless CTA starts to penalize cash customers (The Tollway system did it - and look at the increased participation of I-Pass!), it will be years before it can consider zones or some sort of graduated payment plan for transit use. I think zones make more sense for Chicago because of the sq mile area CTA covers but it will involve changing how fare is collected and create all sorts of discriminatory accusations by groups that feel cash and stored value/passes should be the same even though they don't cost the same to process. Not sure how I-Pass avoided that.

    Other systems ... another first hand experience ... Palermo Sicily, bus operators don't even talk to you let alone take fares - it's forbidden. People climb on the bus and validate their ticket at a machine. Randomly a 'conductor' comes aboard at one stop and while the bus is moving, asks to see everyone's ticket or pass to make sure they've paid. This semi-honor system speeds along loading/unloading the bus with minimal additional human resources. Not sure how that would be done here but it might come in handy on those popular routes where people could use both sets of doors to board esp the articulated bus routes.

  • In reply to Michi:

    I do know that back in the 1980s, CTA sold several old 6000-series cars to SEPTA. I'm not sure if they are still in service, though. Fortunately, I've never had to use it.

    The other transit system with which I am slightly familiar with is St. Louis. They don't use turnstiles, but fare inspectors will randomly check for tickets. The vending machines at each station can vend any kind of ticket you want whether it is a 1-day pass, 1-week pass, single ride, etc. The trains are clean and the stations don't stink (most of them are surface or in an open cut).

  • In reply to Michi:

    So you asked what other big city has a transit system that sucks. I lived in San Francisco for years before coming to Chicago and the MUNI in San Francisco truly sucks! For a city noted for its public transportation options, the MUNI (SF's public transit service) is notorious for poor service, almost 33% driver absentee rate on any given day, waits of up to 45 minutes for a bus, overcrowding, numerous accidents, and poor vehicle maintenance. The public HATES MUNI with a passion. Rescue MUNI is a citizens group created just to battle MUNI and force the city to do something about it. Chicago's CTA is a paradise compared to San Francisco and that's saying something since on a world scale, CTA is very much below average.

  • In reply to 20fie18:

    In Buffalo for the streetcar, and other nearby cities, like Rochester, for buses, the idea of a free fare zone was that it would encourage downtown business, in that one could, during lunch hour, eat somewhere on the other side of downtown. Of course, for the most part, those cities no longer have a downtown business district, although Buffalo has such attractions as the baseball stadium and hockey arena.

    I suppose the honor system still works in Buffalo, although it takes a conductor to inspect the tickets. My understanding about the Rochester bus situation is that they implemented a Chicago-like no transfers issued policy and did away with the free fare zone and paying when exiting on an outbound ride past the downtown free fare zone, but unlike Chicago (1) reduced the base fare, (2) abolished zone fares to the outlying areas, and (3) sell day passes on the buses. Supposedly that is working in increasing ridership and revenue.

  • Omaha. Bus comes infrequently, doesn't usually go straight, few routes, hardly any north and south (and mostly those are just jogs in east-west routes), and nothing at all on most of the west side. Moving to Chicago at the end of this month, and as a person who cannot drive due to vision and neurological issues, the difference between MAT (which didn't really work for my needs) and CTA (which will, based on my research and prior experience) is the difference between being free to go to work, church, and the grocery store on my schedule, and not.

  • I don't think it is. This train car looks like it has three doors on the side. Chicago-l.org has some pictures of 6000-series cars running in Philly here http://www.chicago-l.org/trains/gallery/6000s03.html .

  • Thanks for reminding us that things could be worse. Yes, they could be better. Apparently Delhi has a fabulous shiny new subway that costs pennies to ride, but that's not our reality here in the US of A. Despite its shortcomings, I'm glad to have the service we have. Three years into to my renunciation of the car and despite the service cuts I'm still happy to go CTA all the way.

  • CTA may hold up nationally as an acceptable system. I would consider the CTA system far below the benchmark on the international stage though. The systems which I have seen in the developing world (China, India, etc.) are far superior to what is provided to CTA customers. I suppose it all comes down to spending and budgetary priorities.

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