Chicago Seatless

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(Photo: Gleeful riders aboard seatless Japanese metro train.  Similar glee coming soon, to a CTA ‘L’ car near you? Credit: Mil.)

“The cattle car is being reintroduced on CTA trains…”

That’s how Jon Hilkevitch described the CTA’s plan to run seatless ‘L’ cars on some rush hour trains in Thursday’s Chicago Tribune.  I wholeheartedly agree.

At the July CTA Board meeting, agency president and Daley wunderkind Ron Huberman announced that rising ridership caused by thy skyrocketing price of gas is severely straining Chicago rapid transit, forcing the CTA to explore new ways to fit rush-hour customers into the system.

It’s an idea Huberman floated at the CTA Tattler coffee meeting that I attended back in March of this year.  Although I was a minority of one at that table, I didn’t like the idea then and I don’t like it now.

When I was back in New York last August, interviewing and riding Gotham’s persistently-packed subway system all over town, I longed for the cloth-covered goodness of a CTA ‘L’ seat–almost always available outside of the peak of rush hour in Chicago.  Much as I hate to be crammed into a packed Blue or Brown line train at 8:00 in the morning, I know that in an hour, somewhere down the route, someone else is going to be happy to plop down into a newy vacated seat once rush hour wanes.

Huberman says the seatless cars will only run during rush hour, with a maximum of two of them per train, and that anyone who doesn’t want to or cannot stand, including the elderly and those with mobility impairments, can simply choose to ride in another car.

But it doesn’t seem quite so simple to me.  I shared my ideas in the comment thread of Thursday’s CTA Tattler post regarding the “Chicago Seatless” cattle-car idea.  Here are the problems I foresee:

  • Delays during rush hour as riders hold doors while they pass along the platform to find a car with seats.
  • Crowding becoming worse in cars with seats as riders opt out of the seatless vehicles.
  • Danger as riders pass between cars on moving trains to find a car with seats.
  • Inconvenience as seniors and the access challenged are forced to hustle down packed rush-hour platforms to find a car with seats–or accidently board a seatless vehicle.
  • Damaged credibility as riders board uncrowded cars at the edge of rush hour and still can’t sit down in some of them–although they should be able to do so.

Furthermore, I’m not a big fan of the way Huberman seems to be railroading this idea (pun intended) with the CTA’s own riders.  As a media-relations professional, I know that perception is nine tenths of opinion. That seatless ‘L’ car might be a more economical option for riders choosing a $2 ride over $5 a gallon for gas.  But how attractive does that $2 ride become when the transit agency, itself, is telling you that if you ride, you’ll have even less of a chance at a comfortable commute than before?  Especially when compared to your plushly upholstered–and guaranteed–driver’s seat.

Hilkevitch wrote that the CTA has already received marked negative criticism from customers regarding the seat-removal plan, and quotes opposition from several riders aboard a packed evening Brown Line train–from both seated and standing riders.

Much as I root for the CTA, my usually convenient personal limousine around my beloved adopted hometown, I think it’s time we let the aura wear off of Huberman.  He’s had wonderful ideas before in previous posts under the Daley administration and as CTA president (expanding bus tracker, implementing better maintenance and cleaning practices, accelerating slow-zone elimination), and I still think he’s the best person to head this town’s transit system right now.

But he’s also had some dreadful ideas, too. (For example, this year’s plan to divert most Loop service for track work, and replacing the O’Hare Blue Line with a bus from Rosemont instead of having crews do the work overnight). It worries me that after more than a year on the job, the transit intelligentsia of this town is still willing to give him a free pass on every plan he and his management team come up with.

Huberman says that seatless metro cars are common in Asia.  They aren’t, though they are used during limited hours in certain cities.  But is that a reason to use them here–just because they’re used somewhere else?

Chicagoans deserve transit solutions that are tailored to their specific needs and desires, as well as a methodical public vetting of all ideas that have the potential to affect great swaths of the riding public like this one does.  Chicagoans also deserve the CTA to respect their desires once the agency hears what the riding public has to say.

In short, telling  Chicago riders, “that’s the way they’re doing it in Asia now,” is not a valid justification for removing seats from Chicago ‘L’ trains.

We’re already getting saddled with lateral (all-sideways) seating on new ‘L’ cars arriving in 2010.  Like the no-seats-at-all plan, sideways seats are supposed to allow more riders to fit on peak trains.  Market research showed riders didn’t want to give up forwards/backwards seats.  The CTA’s justification for moving ahead with the plan anyway?  That’s the way they’re doing it in New York now.

Right now, they’re also riding on the top of trains in the Indian city of Mumbai because of crowding conditions.  I tell you this so that if at some point you see a CTA train go by with a row or two of seats bolted to the roof, you’ll know why.

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