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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.

Categories: Chicago Transit Authority TRANSIT

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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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9 replies

  1. i think Chicago CTA have more serious problems to deal with as of now, the train system is pathetic and outdated, all the cities you have mentioned have a superb modern rail system, what they call it is not relevant… the trains on those cities do not stop 10 times on each trip as the Chicago trains do, they do not make as much noise as Chicago trains do and the rides are not as bumpy as the rides in Chicago.

    and just to make my point clearer, Chicago trains are crap comparing to any major city or comparable size city trains.
    CTA must update pretty much everything, if they cant do it for some reason than the city of Chicago should intervene and update the people working on CTA first because they are no good for their jobs.

  2. You’re correct, Charles. That rather ugly ‘L’ logo was leftover from a half-hearted, eventually shelved branding effort from the late 1990s. It only ever appeared on strip maps and on some (but not all) station maps. It never received any official support or promotion from the CTA, however, never appeared on paper maps or brochures, and has been completely eliminated on current maps and signage.

  3. I’m a bit confused. I recall seeing the “L” on previous maps inside the trains – it was removed when new maps were drawn up to include the Pink Line. I’m not imagining this; those signs were how I realized it was spelled “L” instead of “el”. (Being a Southerner, that didn’t make sense to me at the time, but I’ve come to realize Midwesterners butcher language worse than Southerners.)

  4. I’ve thought the same for many years. It should be a no-brainer. The simple T logo in Boston quickly identifies locations of stops. The same practice in Chicago would do a great job of imprinting public transit on people.

  5. While I agree with all of your points I’m sort of glad they haven’t “branded” it to death. Being in the “branding” industry for 20 years myself, I’m a little tired of all the bogus hype heaped on products, manipulated by marketers or people who have become known in the industry as “insights” (consumer insights).

    I think it’s refreshing that the people continue to refer to it as the ‘L’ on their own, without having to be told to. I also enjoy the way shoppers, even myself, a relatively new transplant, still refer to Macy’s as Marshal Fields. It’s genuine, real to the bone.

  6. You know, this was one of the biggest things that confused me when I first moved to Chicago. I expected the ‘L’ to be the ‘L’. It was a bit of a disappointment to find out it wasn’t (and still isn’t) called that officially. That’s my point: let’s make it official!

  7. The lack of branding for the ‘L’ is something that’s always bugged me. I was disappointed when CTA stopped using their ‘L’ logo. As you pointed out, we have the most renown elevated system in the world and the CTA is really missing the boat by not capitalizing on the branding opportunity.

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