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In a move to make Rachel Shteir feel more at home, the CTA is deep into the process of upgrading its fleet with new railcars that replace the (pun alert)long-standing forward-facing seats with the aisle-facing benches that have been the norm in New York City for over a century.
The new L car design is another lovely parting gift from the administration of Richard M. Daley. After purchasing zero new rolling stock since 1992, the CTA announced in 2006 that it would be purchasing 406 new rail cars at a cost of $577 million, with delivery to begin in 2009.
opening the bidding process to find a manufacturer for a new 7000 Series of "L" cars - 846 cars, at a cost of $2 billion. As part of the process, the CTA has set up an on-line user survey, which you can access and take here. ‘Do you prefer to sit or stand during your journey?’ it asks after getting past some preliminaries. Then it's your preferred clinging strategy: pole, strap, seat back, or the person you apologize to after you use them to catch your fall. Finally, it moves on to placement, starting with the old forward-facing seats, before moving on to 5000, mainly inward-facing seats. 14 screens of questions in all.
This is actually a lot more user input than the CTA has ever sought before. “This is the first design I am overseeing,” President Forrest Claypool told the Trib's Jon Hilkevitch, “and we are going to do the type of research to get it right." Still, it's easy to fear the CTA is testing the waters for even more depressing changes, such as the painful-looking blue plastic benches pictured below . . .
|Photo courtesy The Chuckman Collection
There are, to be sure, a lot of people who think comfort is expecting way too much from the CTA. “If it gets you from point A to point B and you don’t end up dead when you’ve reached your destination then it’s done it’s job effectively,” one vociferous defender of the new car design proclaimed.
Still, I think it's an issue worth raising. And I'm not alone. “I think as other modes of transportation become more comfortable, it’s a shame that the CTA is taking a step backwards with fewer seats. It reinforces the notion that transit is inherently uncomfortable,” Joseph Schwieterman, director of DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development told Carolyn Suhr of Medill Reports. At a time when we're trying to get more people to use mass transit, Chicago's ‘sell’ almost seems to come down to: “The CTA - what other choice do you have?”
|photograph courtesy of The Chuckman Collection
New Yorkers pride themselves on taking in stride all manner of daily affronts and injuries that would send lesser urban dwellers fleeing to the suburbs like whipped dogs. New York is so full of amazing things; it's just the price you have to pay.
Chicago has its own store of wonders. If it doesn't match the Egyptian scale of New York, it also comes with a more relaxed idea of a city that can be vibrant and creative without so easily resigning itself to the kind of ‘Little Murders’ dehumanizations that arise out of New York's staggering density.
For most of Chicago's history, the L was a great way to see the city. For me, it was a daily, ever-changing classroom of the city's architecture and history. Now, it's all about avoiding eye contact with the passengers sitting directly across from you, even as you enter into an intimate visual relationship with the crotches of those standing mere inches from your face.
The purpose of mass transit is to transport people, but the increasing dependence on subsidiary revenues often marginalizes the passenger. Are windows now just a surface to attach ads to, so that looking out is like viewing the world through cataracts? Do trains exist for the passenger, or to provide advertisers an audience, even if it means leaving riders sometimes feeling as if they've been dropped into a vat of orange juice?
You could make the argument that these are pretty petty complaints You could observe that with our iPads and earbuds, we've already disengaged into our individual, virtual worlds. But do we really need the CTA to reinforce this? Chicago remains a city of marvels. Is it unreasonable to want to be able to see them as they pass by?
In our Age of the Supply Chain, efficiency is the deity that brooks no appeal. A train, after all, is nothing more than a machine to get us to where we want to go. Yet it's also where we spend an hour or more of every working day. When we look back on our lives, what carries the greater emotional weight: the destination or the journey?
Take the CTA survey here.