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