How Rail Snobs Miss Out on Their Cities

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All throughout our this-city?-no-this-city? deliberations about what city to settle in when the end of our Chicago journey finally arrives, I’ve constantly been reminded of a mistake I made when I first arrived here in Chicago 14 years ago. The mistake? Acting as if the borders of my new city ended where our rail lines did.

Back home in New York, even now, many years after MetroCard transfers ushered in the ability to cross the city bus and rail on a single fare, some people still think of the areas of the city only served by buses “two-fare zones.” That’s exactly what they were, too, for most of my life back in Gotham. Usually, that denoted areas far out at the borders of The Bronx, Brooklyn, or Queens. Sometimes it meant the far edges of Manhattan. It always referred to Staten Island. Collectively, places where the amazingly far-flung subway just didn’t go. Meaning also collectively, places that were a pain in the ass to get to–so often you’d go out of your way not to go those places.

These days, seamless electronic fare payment and a large and growing network of speedy Select Bus Service buses (i.e. BRT–Bus Rapid Transit) makes it a lot easier to travel through five-borough bus territory. But anyone millennial age or older will remember the stigma of those “two-fare zones.”

Armed with my rail-snobbish memories of slow NYC buses, for the first two years that I lived in Chicago, I refused to take buses if I could at all help it. The ‘L’ was speedy and pretty far-flung itself, and I always lived (and still live) within walking distance of a major ‘L’ line. That meant for the first two years I lived here, while I was getting my bearings and learning to stop making comparisons with my hometown, I kept wondering where the rest of the city was.

My life revolved around Lakeview and the Loop, connected by a speedy Red Line, then Logan Square and the Loop, connected by a speedy Blue Line. But interesting areas of the city that were off the beaten ‘L’ path–like Clark Street in Lincoln Park (and in fact, a lot of the lakefront), Andersonville, and the many neighborhoods in-between Chicago’s radial ‘L’ lines? They were a gigantic blind spot for me, until I finally got over my rail snobbishness and started actually taking them.

Immediately I realized how much better Chicago’s transit system works than New York’s does in terms of multimodal bus-rail–or even bus-only–trips. The city’s main thoroughfares being laid out in a nearly perfect grid, buses spend a lot less time mired in gridlock here. (Chicagoans don’t think so!) Finally embracing the multimodal ease of Chicago’s transit system, the city practically exploded for me. Places that used to take me forever to travel between via roundabout ‘L’ itineraries became easily accessible, and neighborhoods I had never explored–or even known about–before became favorite destinations.

I know, I know. But even as a trained urban planner, that NYC rail bias can run extraordinarily deep. Of course, now when I visit my hometown, the one thing I still dread doing is taking the bus. But that’s because I know how much better bus service can be in a city that strongly values the multimodal nature of its transit infrastructure. (NYC came very late to that game with its SBS service.)

When we were considering moving to Los Angeles, it used to drive me crazy to read articles from east-coast newspapers about the alleged disrespect California’s largest city shows towards its transit system. My experience in Chicago taught me to explore the full picture of transit without preconceived notions, and I knew that thanks to 2008’s Measure R (and continuing with 2016’s Measure M), L.A. was actually THE leading American city by far in terms of transit planning, funding, and construction, including rail lines, BRT, and on-street rapid-bus services. By far.

Lots of Angelenos actually do ride buses and trains, which together cover every corner of the city and county (and which, in terms of rail and BRT, are still-growing systems.) So often people asked me why I would even consider living in a city with “no transit” or “only buses.” I’d do my best to politely take down the decade-out-of-date bias, but it was usually to no avail. Like my experience when I first got to Chicago, transit biases are hard to correct.

The city we have actually settled on to be our “eventually city” after our time in Chicago is done–which I will tell you at least is not New York (take your jaw off the floor)–has generated the same kind of conversations from people who already know what that eventually-city will be. How will someone like me who doesn’t drive a car be able to “get anywhere” in a city without a giant subway system? Even though the city we’ve chosen to eventually–such a safe, qualifying word!–grow old(er) in has an award-winning bus system, one of the nation’s oldest and largest (and free!) BRT systems, a commuter-rail system that is about to double in size, and an extraordinarily healthy ridesharing market. All of which is centered around a vibrant, livable downtown.

It’s all a question of priorities. Living downtown in a city like that and availing yourself of that kind of constellation of paid and free transit options, your housing costs might be higher, but your total costs still lower than the cost of actually owning and maintain a car. My answer to how will I “get anywhere” is (and always has been, even for L.A.) “Why would I need a car in the first place?”

Or even a subway system, for that matter?

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