Why Won’t the CTA Brand the Chicago ‘L’?


(Photo: Google’s brand is emblazoned on the ‘L’. So why doesn’t the ‘L’, itself, get similar respect from the CTA? Credit: cavanmoon.)

(The following article is also cross-posted under my byline at the Huffington Post Chicago.)

It’s a fair question. New York City has its subway. Boston has its T. Washington D.C. has its Metrorail. London has its Underground. Paris has its metro. In all of those cities, the colloquial name for the rapid-transit system is emblazoned on maps and signs, used in official documents, and pushed forward in press releases as a way to help riders–existing and potential–easily conceive of the rail network.

So why aren’t the most famous elevated trains on the planet–ours here in Chicago–similarly branded?

On the 1892 opening day of Chicago’s original South Side Rapid Transit Railroad, real estate speculators had already named the network: the ‘L’. Not the less parsimonious east coast monicker “El”, thank you. But a lone capital L, set off in apostrophes.

For the next 116 years, we Chicagoans have been calling our beloved elevated-train system just that, the ‘L’. So why doesn’t the CTA? Sure, they’ve got the term trademarked. I know that because the few times I’ve actually seen them use it–usually in one-off documents or on long-defunct station maps–it’s got that nifty little trademark bug following it. But why doesn’t the CTA use the term now?

Go ahead and ask around. Turn to your workmate in the next cubicle, ask your friends and family, query the very next person you meet after reading this post. Ask them, “What’s the name of Chicago’s rail system?”

If they don’t immediately say the ‘L’, I’ll take a driving lesson.

Any for-profit company would be foolish not to leverage a brand so deeply entrenched in popular parlance. (I lied at the beginning of this post. Transport for London usually officially calls the Underground the “Tube”. This abiding popular brand recognition is exactly why.)

How does the CTA refer to its most obvious and enduring brand symbol? On its website: CTA rapid transit trains–industry jargon. On its maps and brochures: CTA elevated/subway trains–a dry description.

Most oddly, even though the CTA has made a much-appreciated and long-overdue effort to replace aging and defunct station signage with far more attractive and informative versions, still the ‘L’ is neither named nor referred to as the comprehensive network that it is almost anywhere in the actual ‘L’ system, itself.

Am I the only one scratching my head here? What is the CTA waiting for? Can the agency not recognize the power of 116 years of brand recognition?

Does agency management think Chicagoans wouldn’t be able to find our downtown subway stations anymore if they call the whole system the ‘L’? (It isn’t as if millions of international urbanites have any trouble finding the above-ground stations of the New York subway or the London Underground).

Or is it just a case of inertia? After years of (hopefully now ended) mismanagement and turning a blind eye to customer opinion, has everyone at Ron Huberman’s newly revitalized CTA simply not noticed that the CTA ‘L’ system has no name?

Whatever the reason, it’s a shame. It seems to me that “CTA ‘L'” would look a whole lot better at the top of a CTA station map than “CTA rapid-transit subway/elevated system”. Or, for that matter, than the current name that sits atop the new maps that the CTA has recently installed at ‘L’ stations and inside ‘L’ cars.

Which, in case you haven’t noticed, is no name at all.

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