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Chicago Seatless

(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.

Categories: Chicago Transit Authority TRANSIT

Michael Thaddeus Doyle

I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.

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11 replies

  1. While we’re kitching sinking, I’d like someone to explain to me why the CTA needs a Park & Ride facility at Wilson. Considering that the station sits in the middle of one of the densest parts of town, is surrounded by numerous bus lines in every direction, and has a string of other L stops to the north, south, and west, who is driving here to take the Red Line? Who would?

  2. I would be ok with no-seat cars but only during rush hour. So many people stand anyway that inconveniencing another 20 or so won’t be a huge deal.

    As for side seats, I’m all for it. People can move into the center of the cars, and they’ve had them for nearly a decade. One big note, though, when comparing Chicago’s trains to New York’s trains: New York’s cars are much longer than Chicago’s by at least 10-15 feet in length. And because New York’s trains use AC electrical, there is no “jolt” every time a train accelerates or slows down as happens on CTA.

    Another thing: why does it take YEARS to make a few new train cars? CTA’s proposal went out in January 2005, (they were approved in late 2006) and it’ll be late 2010 before the FIRST of the new cars arrive? Boeing can deliver 50 747s and 20 of the new 787 Dreamliners in the same amount of time it’s taken whatever Gepeto, Inc. to roll out even the first train car.

  3. Mark, I do think CTA should beef up bus service when they can’t run additional trains.

    Steve, true, sideways seats are aimed at getting more people on trains. But it wasn’t only in Chicago where riders who were surveyed said they didn’t want to lose forwards/backwards seats. Riders in New York told NYC Transit the same thing–that was back when I was the associate director of the Transit Riders Council there. Just like the CTA, agency managers just shrugged their shoulders and did it anyway.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think anyone should bring their bike on the L. Take a bus–that’s what the bike racks are for. The L is too confined a system to have to nuzzle up against dirt-covered tires.

  4. @Dude: The CTA doesn’t have any more trains to put on the tracks.

    @Mike: Since the CTA doesn’t have any more trains to put on the tracks, they are going to put more people on the trains.

    Also, about sideways seating: it’s design is to combat the same problem as right now. Put more people on trains. And sideways seating does that without sacrificing the amount of seats. The seating configuration also puts an extra wheelchair (or bike) space in the car.

    I’m pretty sure you know all this, though.

  5. Dude has the answer – more trains more frequently at rush hour. The system needs more parellel tracks to handle it.

    Or we could just bunch 6 buses together and run them down dearborn – that would effectively be a train.

  6. How about more frequently arriving trains, especially during rush hour? Having to wait 10 minutes for a train after work only lets the crowd build up. No seats isn’t the answer, more trains is.

  7. At least they won’t have to pay for the seats on the roof; just take them from the inside and save some money…

  8. Thanks for commenting, Matt. I still prefer not to “Think Pink” in a transit sense–everytime I look at the CTA map I think of what colors might have been.

    As for solutions to crowding? At the moment, perhaps there isn’t an immediate one. I do think the CTA could run additional bus service in the peak, beefing up the already additional service added due to the Three-Track project on the north side. And Huberman’s idea for additional, short-turn trains is a good one, I just don’t think they need to have seatless cars on them.

    For that matter, I thought the point of the Brown Line rebuild was that 8-car trains–now already running–were going to help crowding on the Brown Line. The project’s not even done and we’re already about making those extra two cars seatless?

    On CTA Tattler, someone commented today that it won’t be easy to tell riders where to expect the seatless cars on trains. Every time a train turns around at a terminal, those cars will be on the opposite end of where they were. That won’t help things much.

    My point here is sometimes no solution is preferable to a tepid solution that just makes other problems worse. People can alter their travel times–they did it with Three Track, they can do it with overcrowding caused by $5 gas refugees. Unlike farecards and route colors, this is a change that will physically affect riders. I think they may grin and bear it, but I don’t think a majority are going to embrace it.

    And I don’t want that to drive away potential new CTA customers.

  9. Maybe I’m in the minority, but when it comes to the train during rush hour, I’d much rather stand. It’s a heck of a lot easier for me to get in and out of the train when I’m standing. If I’m seated, then I have to fight through the people crowded around my seat, then maneuver through the standing pole-huggers who are trying to let me by AND not shove their crotch in the face of someone seated. On a seatless car, all that funky crazy maneuvering is eliminated.

    Here’s the thing about your worries: the door-holders, the crowding, the car-hoppers, the challenges of the disabled… all that happens now ALREADY. I don’t see the seatless cars as making that any worse. After all, that’s the whole reason they’ve been introduced in the first place–because the crowding IS so bad.

    I also don’t see a lot in the way of other solutions. People want more room, but they don’t want aisle-widening cars. People want more trains and buses, but they don’t want to have to pay for them. You can’t have it both ways. This seems to be the only reasonable solution for now without upping the fares once again.

    Finally, “people” can be a fickle bunch. A concept they may not like now they may embrace later. If I recall correctly, people once opposed the idea of switching to farecards from tokens and opposed the Silver/Pink Line.

    [EDITOR’S NOTE: Matt is the scribe of the The Chicago Traveler, a b5 media travel & culture site. Think late-1990s city sites, only much cooler.]

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