The past few times I've travelled to the United States, it always felt like I was entering some strange and foreign Bizzaro World where everything was exactly the same except for extremely minor surface differences that leapt out everywhere. Chicago and Toronto have a great many things in common - they're both Great Lakes cities, they were once the Second Cities of their respective countries, and they both lack the sheer metropolitan weight of grand cities like New York or London. They're accessible.
This is especially true in terms of transit. Earlier this month I spent three rainy days in Chicago evaluating its subway-equivalent, the 'L.' I say subway-equivalent because "subway" is not the proper word in the Chicago context. The 'L' struck me as being very much like the Toronto subway system, turned inside out. Not only does a majority of Chicago's system run aboveground, it literally runs aboveground - it's called the 'L' because it's primarily an elevated rail system.
Even before my arrival in Chicago, I was curious about what I think of as "the paradox of the 'L.'" Chicago is one of the great cities of North America, with a population of 2.8 million to Toronto's 2.5 million - and had had a heavy-rail transit system in place more than fifty years before the opening of the first stretch of Toronto's subway. It operates a network that comprises nearly 171 kilometers of track, a length to which the Toronto subway and RT combined amount to barely more than a third.
Nevertheless, despite less comprehensively serving a smaller population, the Toronto subway has substantially higher usage than the Chicago 'L' - while a TTC study found an average daily ridership of 1,246,020 people on the three subway lines and the Scarborough RT, the Chicago Transit Authority cites average weekday rail ridership in 2008 of 640,000.
To put it another way: Toronto's 32-station Yonge-University-Spadina line alone carries more passengers than the eight lines and 144 stations of the entire Chicago 'L' system combined. This hardly seems right to me. Chicago's been at it for longer than Toronto, both in operating a heavy-rail transit system and in being a metropolis. The exact answer as to why this is the case may be beyond this post, but I think an analysis of the Chicago 'L' system may be instructive in and of itself. Just because the 'L' isn't used as heavily doesn't mean that the TTC can't, or shouldn't, learn from the CTA's experience. Nor shouldn't it try to avoid the paradox of the 'L.'
If you're interested in more information about the 'L,' two worthwhile sites I've found are the Chicago Transit Authority's own website, as well as the independently-operated Chicago "L".org.
A Loop-bound Purple Line train enters Sedgwick station
Heavy-rail service in Chicago began in 1892 with the first segment of what would become the 'L' built and run by the South Side Rapid Transit Railroad Company. As in Toronto, the early days of public transit in Chicago were dominated by private interests, but while in Toronto the railroad companies contented themselves with running streetcars, in Chicago they built their rails in the sky. Though 'L' service began with steam locomotives, it was electrified in 1898. While the Toronto Transportation Commission, forerunner of the modern TTC, was established in 1920 to put an end to wildly variant, divided fare systems within the City of Toronto, Chicago continued on with its private companies providing the public with a way to get around. Even its subways, under State Street and Dearborn Street, were begun under the aegis of private enterprise. It wasn't until 1947 that the 'L' network was unified under the control of the Chicago Transit Authority.
As I said before, the Chicago 'L' consists of eight individual lines serving a total of one hundred and forty-four stations, and while most are within Chicago's boundaries some extend into its suburbs - particulary the non-rush-hour Purple Line and the two-stop Yellow Line, or "Skokie Swift," the sole 'L' line that I did not ride during the course of my visit. The heart of the 'L' system is the central core of downtown Chicago, known as the Loop from the 'L' tracks that trace a circle above Lake Street, Wabash Avenue, Van Buren Street, and Wells Street. Seven of the eight 'L' lines extend into the Loop, bringing commuters and travellers to the heart of the city.
Unlike Toronto and Montreal, where the term "line" is interchangable with the physical infrastructure the trains travel through, the eight 'L' lines refer more to routes for individual trains, as is the case in the notoriously confusing New York City subway system. The elevated trackage in the Loop, particularly, is shared between Brown Line, Purple Line, Orange Line, Green Line, and Pink Line trains, and multiple stations north of the Loop are served by multiple lines. While this does mitigate the somewhat long headways of 'L' trains, it does require that passengers be alert and aware when they're boarding a train. This is particularly true in the Loop; while Purple Line, Pink Line, and Orange Line trains travel clockwise through it, Brown Line trains run counterclockwise, and Green Line trains can come or go from either direction. Woe to the inattentive traveller at Clark/Lake bound for Madison/Wabash, who boards a Brown Line train bound for Kimball.1
Much of the system, particularly in the built-up core of Chicago, is served by elevated rail. The State Street and Dearborn Street Subways are abbreviated underground segments that carry the Red and Blue Lines, respectively, through downtown, built to alleviate building congestion in the Loop in the 1930s. Portions of the Orange Line to Chicago Midway International Airport are at-grade along freight railroad right-of-ways, as is the "Dan Ryan" branch of the Red Line, so named because it runs in the median of the Dan Ryan Expressway, the same way Toronto's University-Spadina line runs in the median of Allen Road between Eglinton West and Wilson stations.
Unlike the Toronto subway or the Montreal Metro, which are respectively anchored by Bloor-Yonge and Berri-UQAM stations, the nature of the Loop means that there is no one central station pulling in riders from across the city - although Clark/Lake in the Loop, bridging six lines and with a free transfer to the Red Line's Lake subway station, did see 5.2 million passengers in 2008. It wasn't until after I left Chicago that I learned one of the busiest 'L' stations is, in fact, 95/Dan Ryan, the southern terminus of the Red Line and the southernmost station in the system by a significant margin. This owes a lot to 95/Dan Ryan's nature as a commuter hub served by CTA and suburban Pace buses, similar to the TTC's Finch station, which in addition to TTC buses is served by York Region Transit, GO Transit, VIVA, and Brampton Transit buses. Even so, 95/Dan Ryan's 2008 passenger traffic of 4,372,074 is far outstripped by the weekday-only use of Bloor-Yonge station, which I calculated using TTC averages to be 51,797,400 passenger entries - and that's for the Yonge portion alone, as the TTC separates transfer stations between lines for the purposes of ridership calculation.
As for Clark/Lake, possibly the most complex station on the entire 'L' network, touching every line except for the Yellow? Ridership figures for August 2009 show that on an average weekday, 18,599 people entered turnstiles there. The nine stations of the Loop put together saw 70,666 entrances on the average weekday, a 6.2% drop from August 2008. I can only imagine that this is because gas was not quite as expensive this year as it was last year. There are nine stations in Toronto that have individually greater entrance numbers.
Nevertheless, the 'L' brings transit access to a sufficiently large area that it's possible to live car-free in Chicago, or spend three days wandering around there without having to step into a taxicab or rental car. Rapid transit service extends to both O'Hare International Airport, via the Blue Line, and Chicago Midway International Airport, via the Orange Line. Midway is barely more than half an hour away from the Loop, which is good considering that international travellers have to check in a minimum of two hours before departure there.
An Orange Line train waits for travellers at Midway station
As of this writing, regular CTA fares are a uniform $2.25 on the 'L' and buses, though discounted fares are available for students and people with disabilities, while members of the United States Armed Forces and senior citizens can ride for free. The issue of free rides for seniors is a rather charged one presently, as it's seen to contribute much to the CTA's current budget deficit. For my part, I got around with an unlimited-use three-day pass which I bought from a vending machine at Midway station for $14. It's best that I did, because the system as a whole seems set up to discourage the use of money over passes or fare cards. As in Toronto, there's no change given for overpaid fares, but in Toronto you can access the entire system with cash. During the course of my observations, I didn't see a single point of access into an 'L' station that would allow a passenger to pay with cash. The three-day pass I got was simple to use - I feed it into one slot on the turnstile, and retrieve it once it's ejected from another - though I really had to yank it out of the machines. They keep a firm grip, they do.
The first thing you need to know, hopefully so that you sound like less of a knownothing tourist, is that when a slash appears in an 'L' station name, it means "and." Thus, State/Lake is pronounced "State and Lake." Now then...
Being a primarily elevated rail system, it's no surprise that Chicago 'L' stations differ significantly from their Toronto or Montreal counterparts. While those two cities generally have station buildings on the surface - in Toronto, downtown is the only place where this isn't the case - this isn't always the case in Chicago. For some 'L' stations, their only real footprints are the entry staircases. Other stations, such as Wilson on the Red Line, reflect the era in which they were built with an ornate stone kiosk surmounted by tracks, while many underground stations along the State Street and Dearborn Street Subways invert this; from the surface, they're also nothing but staircases, but heading down. Of all the stations I visited on the 'L,' Logan Square on the Blue Line was the only one with an aesthetic similar to the average Toronto subway station.
To be perfectly honest, a number of the elevated stations I visited struck me as being the Theme Park Versions of a public transit system - they seemed to me like the sort of structures that wouldn't be entirely out of place in Frontierland. They had a generally old-timey feel to me, something which is specifically emphasized at Quincy station, echoing the dawn of the 20th century. Both inside and outside the Loop, many elevated station platforms are just planked wood framed in steel. They're not particularly friendly as far as inclement weather goes, either, something I had no shortage of opportunities to discover, considering that it rained every day I was in Chicago.2 While there are roofs, they don't cover the entire platform. Sometimes they don't even cover the platform around the stairs. To me, it added to the somewhat gritty and industrial feeling that permeated the 'L' - stations that aren't refined, but purely functional. Rosedale and Davisville are the Toronto stations most reminiscent of this 'L' standard, and they are both far more enclosed than any elevated station I explored.
I don't even want to imagine what it would be like waiting for an 'L' train in the winter. Very few, if any, of the elevated stations I visited had anything as luxurious as walls. This was even true of the stations along the Dan Ryan branch of the Red Line, with cars speeding along the expressway a matter of feet away from the edge of the rails. On some days it might be invigorating. Others... not so much.
Chicago's underground stations, far more comfortable in inclement weather, are fascinating in themselves. The ones I visited, in the State Street Subway along the Red Line, predate the Toronto subway by barely more than a decade - the State Street Subway opened in 1943, while service began along the original Yonge subway in 1954 - yet their architecture and design aesthetic seems closer to the nineteenth century than the mid-twentieth.
This may be partially due to the design. Though Toronto's highly reflective Vitrolite glass tiles have been removed or covered over in all stations that had them except Eglinton, the tunnel walls are frequently nothing but naked concrete. This is mitigated somewhat in side-platform stations like North/Clybourn, where the platform walls are tiled over, but in center-platform stations such as Clark/Division or Grand, it's a bit unwelcoming. Furthermore, there seemed to be a lot less lighting in the stations than their Toronto counterparts. Still - aside from the font, the appearance of the station name etched into the tiled walls really reminded me of home.
I never encountered strong smells of any sort in the underground stations, which was thankful, but in some cases I didn't encounter much of anything. At one point, while waiting on the platform at Grand station in the early afternoon, the hairs on the back of my neck went up when I realized that aside from the other people present, there was no ambient noise of any kind. Granted, it could be a result of the renovations which were ongoing at the time of my visit, but I still found it rather disturbing. All in all, if I was looking for a place to film a Sinister Subway, I'd head to the State Street Subway.
For a more in-depth look at Chicago underground stations, I refer you to the videos of YouTube user artistmac. I've embedded one where he walks through Lake station on the Red Line - hopefully this will bring it more to life. If the surroundings seem vaguely familiar, it may be because this is the same entrance, albeit redesigned, that Larry and Balki emerged from in the opening of the 1980s sitcom Perfect Strangers. It is, thankfully, a lot brighter than I found Clark/Division to be.
Wikipedia tells me that the CTA's trains are "streetcar-derived," and that Toronto had considered the use of similar vehicles for its own subway while it was still under construction. Rush hour would have been significantly more cramped had the TTC tilted that way. Chicago's trains, to me, occupy a strange middle ground, between the narrowness of the ICTS trains on the Scarborough RT and the comparative spaciousness of modern Toronto subway cars. My first impression of the 3200-series cars, which form the backbone of 'L' service today, was that they felt intermediate between Montreal and Toronto rolling stock - that in terms of size and seating arrangements, which on the Orange Line includes single seats, they were "almost like big streetcars." As it turns out, they are just slightly smaller than, and ultimately most individually comparable to, the CLRVs that anchor Toronto's present streetcar service. At sufficiently low speeds, they even sounded like streetcars to me.
As in Toronto and Montreal, the Chicago 'L' has an automated announcement system, and while in the former two cities it's used solely to announce next-stop information, in Chicago it's played to the hilt. The announcer, who first struck me as reminiscent of a past voice of the Walt Disney World Monorail System, frequently makes public service announcements. One of the first I heard informed me that "soliciting and gambling" are prohibited on all CTA vehicles. Barely fifteen minutes out from Midway Airport this struck me as rather odd - sure, I can understand that something like that would be against the rules, but has gambling on the 'L' been so out of control that the CTA needs to specifically speak against it?
It jumps the gun, too. Chicago trains have door chimes just like Toronto ones, although not the same tone, and they frequently went off while passengers were still alighting, let alone while people were still boarding from the platform. At least when the door-closing chimes sound after two seconds at Sheppard Line stations, at least I know they mean it. Take this video I recorded of a trip from Clark/Lake to Chicago/Franklin, during which the announcement that "Merchandise Mart is next" helpfully came while the train was actually in Merchandise Mart station.
On the whole, trains in Chicago are smaller than trains in Toronto. Though eight-car trains can be brought into service during rush hour, in my experience off-peak service included nothing more lengthy than four-car trains, and apparently the Yellow Line to Skokie gets by with two-car trains. Contrast that to Toronto, where six cars are the standard and four-car trains are used only on the Sheppard Line, which itself has higher ridership than three of the eight 'L' lines (Purple, Pink, and Yellow, if you must know).
Left: A Chicago 'L' train at Southport station. Right: A Toronto subway train departing Rosedale station, the most 'L'-like of any station in Toronto except for, you know, not being elevated
Like the Montreal Metro and the Scarborough RT, Chicago 'L' trains run with a one-person crew, with the operator also serving as the guard when the train is at a station, watching out to make sure the doors don't close on anyone. It's fortunate, too, because if the announcements are any indication, if it was left up to automatics no train would dwell at a station for longer than two seconds.
Ease of Access and Ease of Use
I used to take it for granted that I could end up on a subway platform and never have to wait more than five minutes to start heading where I was going, regardless of whether it was the middle of rush hour or ten minutes to midnight on Sunday night. My travels and my researches both have demonstrated that Toronto appears to be an outlier when it comes to headways (that is, time separation between trains). The 5-6 minute separation between trains on the Sheppard Line and Scarborough RT is the longest you'll find in the Toronto system - but in Chicago, outside of rush hours, it's rare you'll find a headway that equals that. From 7:14 AM to 1:20 PM on weekdays, the scheduled frequency of northbound Blue Line trains is 7-10 minutes, and between 10:54 AM and 1:20 PM you'll have to wait fully 10 minutes between southbound trains.
I never knew how good I had it here.
Nor are there any fare-paid transfers, that I could find, from trains to buses. Stations in the Loop don't have room for terminals, but there's not much attention given to that elsewhere in the system. Most boarding zones I found were simple curbside stops, and even where there's allowance at a station for buses to stop, as at Logan Square or Midway, the bus loading zone is on the far side of the turnstiles. This is a significant contrast to Toronto, where passengers can climb directly from the subway platforms to bus loading area while remaining inside the fare-paid zone. I have, however, come to the conclusion that Toronto is effectively unique in this regard; I don't know of any other transit agency that's designed its stations to enable this.
If you're lugging a bike along with you, the CTA is willing to help. Much like the TTC, it's begun installing bicycle racks on its buses, and bicycles are allowed on 'L' trains - two per car, with a sticker saying as much on each and every car - except from 7 to 9 AM and 4 to 6 PM on weekdays, mirroring Toronto's prohibition on bringing them aboard when rush hour commuters are busy cramming the cars, as well as all Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays, but not July 3rd. I have no idea why this is. I've never been in the United States on July 4th, but I guess maybe there are a lot of people going back and forth the day before.
Some stations on the 'L' aren't exactly friendly to transfers. This may well be a result of the system's origins as lines established and run by competing private companies. While the consolidation of Clark/Lake station in 1992 permitted free transfers between the elevated platform and the underground Blue Line platform, in other cases stations that one might think were connected are entirely separate. The Red Line, in particular, is entirely disconnected from the rest of the system within the Loop; though the names are similar, Lake station on the Red Line and the elevated State/Lake station are entirely separate, and passengers must exit the Red Line fare-paid area and pay another fare at State/Lake in order to proceed.
The layout of some stations can also be confusing for the uninitiated, owing to the degree of interlining in the Loop. At State/Lake, access to the Green and Brown Lines is by staircases on one side of Lake Street, while the Orange, Purple, and Pink lines must be accessed from the other side. It's a system that demands forethought and knowing exactly how you want to get where you're going. What really makes it irritating is that some stations like State/Lake have no platform crossovers within the fare-paid area. This means that if you pass through the turnstiles only to find you're on the wrong platform and try to go around to the right one, since you used your card only minutes before you'll be locked out and unable to proceed.3
Sometimes, you just have to be a local. While the 'L' signage is good, it isn't perfect. There was one notable occasion when it wasn't until I reached the platform that I found signage telling me I was at Library-State/Van Buren station. I don't have the same complaint with the trains; given the degree of interlining, they have no choice but to have good signage. Rollsigns indicating the train's destination are present not just at either end of the train, as they are in Toronto and Montreal, but on both sides of the train as well, and are color-coded to indicate what line the train's running. It's fairly straightforward, too - with the exception of the Yellow Line, which forever shuttles between Howard and Skokie stations, all trains are bound either for their terminus or the Loop. There, it's just a matter of knowing whether you're on a clockwise or counterclockwise train that makes the difference.
Orange Line rollsigns are clearly visible on this train, stopped in the elevated portion of Roosevelt station
I haven't been able to unravel the paradox of the 'L.' It's something which is most definitely beyond the scope of a simple analysis such as this, and all I have is conjecture. Chicago's been a metropolis for a lot longer than Toronto, so it could be that it had a far greater opportunity to go all-out when the age of suburbanization started, and lost a greater share of CTA riders than did Toronto. Nevertheless, the TTC remains a system used heavily by the city's middle-class, and I never got the impression that things were different on the 'L.' It might also be that because the CTA is a far more bus-oriented system than the TTC, it's more convenient for people to take buses rather than trains from point A to point B. I suppose that, in the end, it's just a bit strange for me to see a system that appears far vaster and more comprehensive than Toronto's, but which is used less.
It'd be better for everyone if more people did ride it. I've written before about the CTA's recent "budget doomsday," and apparently it has a reputation for doing that sort of thing on a regular basis. Apparently it's come up with a new idea; right now the CTA is negotiating with Apple for 10-year advertising rights in and first naming rights to North/Clybourn station, which struck me as an Art Deco North York Centre station, in exchange for $4 million to fix it up. That's a whole argument in and of itself, but I really don't think it's the sort of recourse a public transit operator should be eager to take.
I'd appreciate feedback from any Chicagoans who might have a better handle on the situation - I'm sure there's a great deal of aspects to the system that I didn't pick upon from the limited length of my experience.
1 Not me. Fortunately.
2 I'm not bitter. Really.
3 This one actually did happen to me. Fortunately, the extraordinarily close stop spacing in the Loop meant I only had to walk two minutes to Madison/Wabash.
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