A look at relationships, personal growth, & living/working in the 21st century.

Archive for May, 2012

Chicago Welcomes NATO

Why are so many people so quick to label the upcoming 2012 NATO summit as a disaster in the making? If Chicago truly is the world-class cosmopolitan city it claims to be, why can’t it successfully host an event involving complex logistics and high-level security challenges? After all, New York, though never having hosted a NATO summit, has the United Nations and hosts world leaders on an almost daily basis without shutting down. And, by the way, the US has twice hosted NATO summits in Washington, DC (1978 & 1999). So, America knows how to host NATO.

I met a NATO-related visitor over the weekend outside a downtown hotel. He said he was suffering jet lag, having just flown in from eastern Europe, but he needed to head to Michigan avenue to buy some additional clothes for the week. He asked me for directions to his favorite store. He was friendly, looking and acting like a typical business traveler. As our brief conversation ended, I wished him well and welcomed him to the city. I never asked his particular political viewpoint, so I don’t know if he was a journalist covering the summit or a protester. I didn’t care to even know. I just wanted to offer the assistance he requested. As we parted ways, to my surprise he said he wanted to apologize for any inconvenience he or his colleagues would be causing the citizens of Chicago. How incredibly cordial! I’m no security expert, and appearances can be misleading, but this friendly visitor hardly seemed a threat to anyone. So why are so many people acting so fearful about the upcoming summit. I’ve heard some people say they are planning to leave the city for the days the summit takes place, those who have the means and option to do so, that is. I certainly concede that terrorism is a reality in the world, here as well as abroad. And I acknowledge that NATO certainly puts Chicago in the world’s line of sight for a few days, even more intensely than usual. But I think the other factor at play with this situation is simply change. Change means the unknown, and many people see change in only a negative manner. But the sometimes discomforting unfamiliar feeling accompanying change also broadens our range of experience and promotes growth. Isn’t change one of the few constants in life?

Chicago has never before hosted such a publicly watched, yet privately attended, event as the 2012 NATO summit. President Obama will be hosting many of the world’s most powerful leaders. NATO, founded in 1949, has its headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. According to Wikipedia, NATO uses its summits, as opposed to its more frequent ministerial meetings, to introduce policy, invite new members, launch major initiatives, and to build partnerships with non-NATO countries. Whatever NATO’s particular agenda for this summit may be, I have a hard time believing this summit will be an event those who run this city will regret having hosted. Why not see this event as another opportunity for Chicago to show the world it can be utilized as a great meeting place where people can come together to make history. After all, much earlier in Chicago’s history, we hosted the world in a very successful manner for two world’s fairs (World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893; Century of Progress Exposition of 1933). So, if you are a Chicagoan, let’s all keep some positive energy going about the upcoming summit. Because if we’re only looking for problems, then that’s all we’ll see. If you’re not a resident of Chicago, please wish us well as we welcome this historical event. And, please come visit us for great food, great times, and great people. Because when you arrive, as you’ll see on many signs, we’ll show you that we’re glad you’re here!

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Transitory Thoughts on Urban Transit

A SERIES ON PUBLIC TRANSIT CULTURE / Parts 1 & 2: Entry & Slow-Dancing

Part 1: Entry
Let’s begin with some transit-type mayhem of the pre-boarding type – the turnstile. The turnstile can be seen as gatekeeper to the next world, as a portal from the usual urban landscape to the realm of transit utopia (I’m being optimistic-please bear with me). While turnstiles mediate entrance to the trains, commuting via bus involves a looser entrance where the human factor comes into play given a driver controls bus entrance (to be addressed in an upcoming post).

On a recent morning commute, as I approached the turnstyle, I saw a man standing almost directly in front of the fare-card slot. I then had to decide whether to: a) just step around him, which would involve invading his personal space, or b) say excuse me and wait for him to move from my path. As I approached, planning to dodge him without speaking, he said, “Would you put me on the train please?” I made momentary eye contact, and then, sparing him my less-than-civil thoughts, silently walked past him (option ‘a’). He didn’t appear at all phased by my indifference and appeared to be readying himself for his next target. I know the dangers of assumptions, but this ambulatory man, of my race, looked ‘disabled-by-choice.’ The economic times may be hard, but this gentleman’s approach to panhandling left me less than sympathetic toward him.

Part 2: Loss of Personal Space – a.k.a. Slow-Dancing on the El.
When I arrived at work one recent morning, the office manager said, “How are you?” I responded with what I see as the obligatory, “Fine,” and then added, “but I think I just slow-danced with six people on the El.” To explain, the El is what many Chicagoans call the train. This form of public transit has below ground, above ground/elevated (hence the term “El”), and ground level tracks. On some of its elevated tracks this train traverses the Chicago river. But more interestingly, on other routes it travels UNDER the river. Sorry, I digress. Back to the commute. So, on the morning in question, I stepped into a standing-room-only train car to begin what is usually the 10-minute portion or final leg of my 30-minute commute. And, to clarify, not only were all the seats occupied, but open standing space was non-existent. I ended up near one of the doors surrounded by other standing riders. I was able to extend my left arm to grasp a pole – not that this was necessary since falling down was not an option given my body was practically enveloped by the bodies of other riders. With each acceleration or slowing of the train, I tried to brace myself with my left (non-dominant) arm, which was closest to a pole. However, given my arm was almost fully extended, I realized I had little leverage. I finally resigned myself to my sardine-like reality. This situation left me wondering why the CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) has not put more thought into reducing the stress of such unpleasant, yet apparently inevitable experiences. My commute left me haphazardly packed in the over-crowded train car. I felt like a cheap, knock-off cell phone accessory thrown into a bag of similarly tacky items, packed by an uninterested bagger at a discount store. So, why can’t the CTA attempt to make its often tightly-packed riders feel packed in a ‘special’ way? Why can’t cramped riders’ feel they were ushered into a transit vessel more similarly to the way a certain fruit-named company places its technology products into well-designed, aesthetically pleasing packaging? Sorry, again I digress. The point of this is that there is simply almost no accounting for the riders’ personal space needs while on public transit. Further, CTA trains and buses both include seating facing the center aisle. Some very recently introduced new CTA train cars have even more aisle-facing seating. Sadly, using such seats is a set-up for getting stepped on if you have adult-size feet. Once again, there’s no accounting for the personal space needs of many Americans.

Public transit need not be uncomfortable. My experience with public transit in northern European countries (Denmark, Holland, and Sweden) has been pleasant in that passenger space and comfort seems to have been at least amongst the list of top-ten priorities for transit vehicle designers. Trains were spacious, silent, and offered a smooth ride. Maybe we can learn something from our European friends about moving people economically AND comfortably.

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Turnstile image courtesy of http://www.wikimedia.org