The Transit Tourist takes a look at other transit systems across the globe from the first person perspective of a visitor. What can Metro learn from how these other systems treat the uninitiated – and often bumbling – tourist?
This is…The Transit Tourist – Chicago, Ill.
|City Population: 2,695,598||Transit Agency: CTA||Miles of Rail Track: 224.1|
|Density: 11,864 people/sq. mi.||Rail Lines: 8||Bus Routes: 140|
|Area: 234 sq. mi.||Rail Stations: 143||Op. Budget: $1.39 bil.|
Source: US Census and transitchicago.com
The Chicago “L” — a heavy rail system that runs both above and below ground — runs from downtown to both of the city’s major airports, O’Hare and Midway. The train and area buses are run by the Chicago Transit Authority, the region’s equivalent to Los Angeles Metro.
The Blue Line runs to the airport and takes about 45 minutes to travel to downtown Chicago. The Orange Line runs to Midway and takes about 25 minutes to reach downtown.
There is direct access to the “L” station at O’Hare from terminals 1, 2 and 3 — although like everything at O’Hare, it can involve a long walk.
Here’s a pretty useful web page on the CTA site that explains all the basics about traveling by rail to or from the airports.
A one-way trip fare was $2.25 (rail) and $2.00 (bus) using a stored-value Transit Card with one-transfer costing $0.25 and additional transfers free. The taxi fare between O’Hare and downtown is about $40.
For several reasons, the best option for visitors is to buy the one-day ($5.75), 3-day ($14) or $7-day ($23) pass. Beware that most ticket machines around town only accept cash and they do not make change — an important consideration for those who want to put stored value on a Transit Card.
My Chicago transit experience was primarily dominated by rail. It’s easy to see why when considering all of my activities were in downtown or its inner peripheral. Throughout my entire stay I was never more than a five minute walk from a station.
The downside to such connectivity, as I alluded to above, is that once you’re on the train, the trips feel longer than they should be. This feeling was exacerbated when I rode a Red Line train that filled to capacity and then some, though this appeared to be an anomaly caused by a perfect storm of peak hour commuters and Cubs baseball fans returning from Wrigley Field. On my other trips, trains were at least half full and at most standing-room only.
Much of the rail system is old and trains can be slow. That said, its reach is considerable, with 224 miles of tracks — about three times the size of Metro’s system — running beyond Chicago’s city limits and deep into well-known suburbs such as Evanston (the home of Northwestern University)
Because of the short duration of my trip, choosing the most time efficient method of transport was paramount. Unfortunately, given the option to walk, take the train or take a taxi, the bus lost out. This is in large part due to me spending most of my time in the most rail-dense part of the city with a variety options, of which, the bus was consistently the slowest.
I’ll provide my real-world example. Compare the time and costs from the Park West Neighborhood to the South Loop:
- Bus: 37 minutes
- Walk & Train: 28 minutes
- Taxi: 12 minutes
Considering the bus and taxi times do not factor in traffic, rail wins on all three fronts: reliability, cost and efficiency. Both times I considered taking a bus, I was on the same street as my destination but a few miles away. Knowing Chicago’s streets generally run in a massive grid, I figured a straight-shot on the bus would be a no-brainer. But both times after checking Google Maps, it turned out that walking a few blocks and taking the train would still be faster.
Taxis, on the other hand, became a viable option when I traveled in larger groups, mainly in the evenings when traffic became less of a factor and cabbies took the streets en masse.
I had two interactions with customer service, both through service attendants at the stations. There was nothing noteworthy in these encounters other than I was actually face-to-face with a person and was able to get the information I needed. Given that, I’d have to say the CTA’s customer service was solid.
> Frequent and reliable train service to the city core from both airports.
> In downtown and its peripheral core, the city’s built environment is conducive to pedestrian activity, making the prospect of walking to stations or stops less daunting.
> Real-time arrival information at select train stations and bus stops.
> A vast majority of Chicago’s tourist attractions are available via transit (the CTA has a sightseeing brochure here) and if you’re moving about the Loop, you’ll never be more than a few minutes walk from a train station.
> Station attendants for assistance at most of the stations.
> Longer travel times due to emphasis on system connectivity.
> Even though it’s still a short walk to a train station or bus stop, the experience is probably less enjoyable in the cold and dreary winter months. The thought of waiting for trains at aerial or freeway-median stations in the dead of winter makes me shudder. (Note from Source Editor Steve Hymon: waiting at aerial stations at night in the winter months is indeed a miserable experience).
> Limited options for using debit/credit cards at ticket vending machines and other restrictions when using cash to fill stored-value cards.
What Metro Can Learn:
> First impressions go a long way. Making the existing airport-to-doorstep options as simple and hassle-free as possible should be of utmost importance. Los Angeles World Airports’ LAX Flyaway works well if you know what you’re doing ahead of time, but it isn’t a very obvious or customer friendly choice otherwise. Long-term, first-impressions are something to keep in mind as the Crenshaw/LAX and the Airport Metro Connector projects create opportunities to reshape visitors’ perceptions of transit in LA.
> Use of station attendants. With the locking of turnstiles at Red and Purple Line stations imminent, readers have suggested Metro look at using station attendants — and, indeed, attendants will be on hand. While I’m a huge fan of technology, my experience in Chicago suggests the use of attendants is arguably the most effective way to ensure customer satisfaction and prevent potentially negative experiences.
> Dynamic display and information systems. At some of the stations, the CTA installed standalone video kiosks for promotional material and advertisements. Metro seems to be catching on to this idea to an extent (for example, the recent “More to Love” Orange Line Extension video clips and other promotional slide shows on station displays). I was also happy to see real-time train and bus arrival monitors (most of which were recently installed). This type of information is much more useful than timetable-based arrival times which Metro currently uses, especially when trains are running on altered schedules.