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

Posts tagged ‘public transit’


During a recent evening ride on public transit I became suddenly aware of the aroma of baked chicken. Though one of the automated audio messages broadcast on CTA(Chicago Transit Authority) buses and trains addresses a rule against consuming food/drinks while riding, I sometimes observe my fellow riders ingesting various edibles. I will admit having done so on certain occasions (i.e., the occasional granola bar; an errant Milky Way). However, this post will address the most blatant, flagrant, and aromatic violations I have observed, not withstanding those I personally committed. Anyway, back to the aforementioned delicious smelling chicken. The gentleman enjoying the baked chicken thigh had the uncommon social grace to offer chicken to other passengers, though he was speaking with his mouth full. He never elaborated as to whether he was offering a bite of the very thigh on which he was munching-a burning question. Maybe he would have provided a separate chicken part artfully hidden on his person. Unfortunately, my curiosity was not satisfied because no one accepted his offer. Maybe I should have partaken-how would that really have been much different from the many times I’ve bought food from vendors at street fairs? In contrast to chicken, sausage is also a popular offering amongst the CTA menu of entrees. In another blog post I described the scenario of bratwurst being graciously offered on a CTA bus to a rider in response to his solicitation of others for food money. Brats make more practical sense for diners on the go given they likely constitute a less greasy option to manage than chicken.
The beverages I’ve observed being enjoyed while on transit have been pop, water, juice, beer (only once), and coffee/tea(most popular). Given the frequency with which I’ve seen coffee drinks being imbibed, I’d surmise that having paid a premium for a beverage can give one a feeling of privilege or a sense of carte blanche to write your own rules. A case in point, the man I saw with the beer was particularly brazen in that he unapologetically cracked open his can of beer during a lively, humorous conversation with a fellow rider he just met. Every CTA rider, and potential diner, should keep in mind that the CTA neither serves alcohol, nor is a BYOB eatery. In my own small data set personally observed, imbibing caffeinated beverages seems the most frequent way CTA riders break the no-food/drink rule.

In the interest of bringing this topic to a close, I propose that the CTA consider offering a prix fixe menu of appetizers, maybe tapas. This could likely be manageable and still meet the gastronomic needs of hungry travelers. Who says haute cuisine has to be served by a chef? Why not let a CTA employee with food service certification utilize those skills? The selections could be Chicago-themed. For example, Capone crullers, Navy Pier nachos, or even Daley dogs. To make this proposition a more appetizing (excuse the pun) undertaking for the CTA, and feasible, the CTA may want to limit its offerings to only cold beverages and appetizers. For example, they could offer Danish style open-faced sandwiches. Any ideas out there?



Transitory Thoughts on Urban Transit-Part 3

A SERIES ON PUBLIC TRANSIT CULTURE-today, Part 3, brats(aka, sausage) on the bus.

While Parts 1 & 2 discussed riding the elevated train, this entry addresses the bus.

As I mentioned in a recent post, I am changing my response to when a stranger asks for money for food. Make no mistake, I won’t give up any money. However, I will offer them any extra snacks I’m carrying (I often carry cheese & cracker packs). Recently, on a CTA bus, a man accompanied by a young teenager, asked me if I had anything for he and his son so they could get something to eat. As I had no snacks with me, I told him I had nothing for him. The man then posed his question to the passenger across the aisle. This male passenger, a middle-aged man carrying two grocery bags, stated in a strong Chicago, ‘da Bears’ kind of accent, “Want a brat?” The ‘man-in-need’ declined the kind offer of sausage, and he and his son exited the bus at the next stop. I told my fellow passenger I was also approached for money and I appreciated what he had said. The man then opened his shopping bag to reveal none other than brats-proving he wasn’t kidding. I’ll go out on a limb to say that such a scenario could only happen in Chicago.

Thankfully, altruistic, positive attitudes aren’t uncommon on the bus. I often see people of all types voluntarily giving up their seats for others they see as in need. Whether that means simply standing so another person may sit, or standing and putting forth the effort to raise one of the folding bench seats so that area may be used by someone in a wheelchair. Sure selfish attitudes are present too, but, often, efforts to help others abound. And that’s not only among the passengers. CTA employees are patient professionals committed to making the rides they provide safe and as pleasant as possible. On hot, near triple-digit summer days, I’ve seen bus drivers leave their air-conditioned seats to help weary cyclists get their bikes properly situated in the racks on the front of the bus.

Though there were no sausages exchanged, one evening commute earlier this year proved quite dramatic in other ways. My trip home was complicated by closure of a portion of the train line coupled with blocked streets, all of which related to a stand-off involving Chicago police and reportedly armed individuals. After being asked to exit the train, I boarded the bus to continue my commute. Boarding required another waiting period, and a line, as CTA staff were apparently addressing the practical logistics of transferring multiple train cars of passengers to buses. As the bus began moving I was standing amidst many other crowded commuters. All was going as well as could be expected until the driver on this north-bound bus turned west, and then south. At that point, a man near me began yelling that we were going the wrong way. A few others joined the shouting and added demands to exit the bus. Since we were off our prescribed route, due to additional street closures, the driver was passing bus stops, which a few other riders then began shouting about. Adding to the theatre of the moment, the man standing next to me began a loud cell phone conversation where he told the person on the line that the bus was now out of control due to a rogue driver. The man went on to direct his friend to tell his “northside crew” to cool it on the streets and stop (expletive) with the police so that he could get home. Other riders, like me, quietly observed the goings on, or poked at their smart phones. The melee ended with the bus driver stopping at a train station so we could reboard the train.

For me, on the most typical of travel days, taking the bus is a more tedious, patience-testing ride than the train. I offer several reasons for my view. First, traffic delays. The bus rides the streets and must negotiate the road with other drivers. The train, for the most part, has a continual command of the right-of-way. Its only impediments are the physicalities of the train itself, other trains, and the tracks. Second, human error. Human error certainly affects both types of transport, but many fewer humans are potentially making errors and slowing my commute when I’m on the train. Lastly, an emotional, very personal reason, riding the train just feels less pedestrian. Something about being either up above, or below, the busy streets communicates a certain urban/cosmopolitan panache.

A related note. Recently, on an 87-degree Chicago summer night, I noticed that electrical power appeared to be off on a particular block near me. A fire plug on the same block had been illegally opened and Chicago’s finest were monitoring a giant plume of water which spanned the street. I then saw 2 CTA buses, the articulated (bendy) type, parked along a nearby street. This was an unusual sight, made even more odd given these stationary buses were both full of people and CTA employees were standing alongside each bus. The AC-equipped buses were being used to cool residents of a nearby care facility for the mentally ill. How wonderful to know that in a crisis (no power = no AC) the city rises to the occasion to help those in need. I saw buses used similarly a few years ago when the power to an exclusive, Lake Shore Drive hi-rise was off and residents were left without AC or water. Although, the buses on Lake Shore Drive were well-appointed luxury liners, not city buses.


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.

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

The Urban Good Samaritan – a random act of kindness

This morning on public transit a situation occurred which made me think about human decency, altruism, and my own thought processes. In an otherwise quiet train car, a woman sitting across the aisle from me began to loudly ask passengers for help getting something to eat. I’m accustomed to such public requests-given I live in Chicago-although I would guess most pleas I hear tend to be for money, rather than food. The woman’s desparation certainly sounded sincere, unlike many able-appearing individuals who give the impression that they maintain a certain emotional distance as they beg in public. The crowd of people initially kept looking forward or down and did not respond. After the woman had repeatedly asked for assistance getting food, a well-dressed, 20-something-year-old man, sitting immediately in front of me, unzipped his courier bag, withdrew a banana, and handed it to the apparently hungry woman. The man made this gesture with almost no personal interaction other than the critical act of helping someone in need. He said nothing, and apparently never even made eye contact with the person he helped. The woman quickly started eating the banana and then paused to offer a brief, yet loud thanks to the man. The man continued staring forward and did not respond again.
Observing what occurred on the train really made me think. I must say, this situation even provoked some guilt in me. I very rarely give any money to those begging in the streets. I believe in philanthropy and I once participated in a walk to raise awareness (and money) for the mentally ill. The woman on the train likely had her own mental health issues, based on her overall presentation. Although I have worked with the mentally ill, when hearing the woman’s pleas, I found myself avoiding any consideration of trying to be helpful. I even had two packages of snacks in my bag (cheese/crackers), as well as my actual lunch, but I kept thinking selfishly that I couldn’t afford to be taking care of anyone else’s needs.
What does it take to move someone from the place of being an uninvolved observer to stepping up and acting as a good samaritan? I remember my Grandmother reading me the bible story of the good samaritan, and I recall her example of donating money, and her time, to what she deemed worthy causes. She was never wealthy but still gave what she felt she could. So, why did I remain uninvolved given what I was taught? I had extra snacks with me and could easily have afforded to give away a $.33 package of snack crackers, leaving myself another package to spare (and my lunch). Further, this woman was asking for food, not money. Thus, her ability to use my gift inappropriately was unlikely. This issue of asking for food, as opposed to money, is one I often tell myself makes such pleas for assistance more palatable and worthy of sympathy. Hopefully, after this experience I will move toward making a behavior change and consider giving of myself appropriately. After all, at the end of the day, if I had given up some of my crackers, it would not have put any real hardship on me. When I layed down for the night, I still had a roof over my head and food in my kitchen. Further, I still had some unpaid bills which no snack crackers could have paid. Wish me luck in changing into a more giving person. Tomorrow’s another day and I’ll be back on that same train. Maybe those random acts of kindness really are worth aspiring to. We can make a difference-one person at a time. What do you think?

MASCULINITY & PRIVATE TRANSPORTATION: Can the Former Exist Without the Latter?

Or, Can You Be a Real Man Without a Car?
To begin – some background.
I’m not from here (Chicago, my home of 20+ years). I grew up in rural, Midwest America where the closest thing to local public transit was when someone gave you a ride. I learned to drive a car at age 13. Don’t worry, no highway/street driving. A friend of the family let me drive their Pontiac sedan in an empty soybean field. For the younger readers, Pontiac was a GM-derivative. I’ve loved driving ever since that day when I pretended the bean field was the Autobahn (at 5-10 miles per hour of course). Before I continue, it’s very important that you understand the following gender-related driving mandate. Although driving was always done by both males and females in my family, one very strict rule was never broken – an adult male cannot be the passenger of an adult female (unless it’s his mom). The only exception I witnessed was when my mother drove my father home after he had been briefly hospitalized (and couldn’t drive). I know this sounds antiquated, but this was rural America in the 1960’s and 1970’s. When a teenage male reaches legal driving age, he HAS to have his own vehicle. If you grew up in a certain SES, a car/pickup truck was given to you. If your family couldn’t afford to buy you a new car, your parents would give you their car and take the opportunity to get themselves a new one. Otherwise, you were expected to buy yourself a used car with income from part-time jobs and/or loans from family members. So as you now know, the culture of my upbringing closely tied a young man’s identity to his vehicle. In other words, first and foremost, you were your ride.
The Option of Public Transit.
I first rode a bus in my mid-20’s. In my 30’s, I first considered the possibility that one could be an independent, self-sufficient adult without owning a car. I know it sounds odd, but, coming from a rural farming community, being a grown man ALWAYS includes car ownership. However, change is one of the few constants in life. I recall my shock when I first heard a male acquaintance, an architect no less, say he had never owned a car. Having gotten my first car at 16, a gift from my parents (used ’73 Ford Capri), I couldn’t conceptualize the reality that a male in this society could survive puberty sans automobile. But, we do live and learn.
The Parking Challenge.
Car possession does have its cons-parking, for example. Parking in the city is always a chore unless you are willing and able to pay for a garage spot. Outdoor reserved parking spots in desirable areas of Chicago can easily sell for five figures (more expensive than some homes in today’s economy). I have always lived in congested areas. I remember several times having double-parked and ran inside my apartment to quickly use the restroom so that I could go back to the car to continue trolling for a relatively legal parking spot. I lived near Wrigley Field at that time. It’s true I could have found a spot more quickly if I had been willing to park further from home. But that would have broken the cardinal rule of parking-never park more than four blocks from home. Don’t ask me who came up with this rule, given it’s a car-related rule, it’s nearly gospel to me. I eventually, and painfully overcame this dictate and went to the other extreme-I would park anywhere, at any distance from home to pursue my new goal of avoiding the parking challenge. As you see, a lot of time and effort have always surrounded the whole ‘car thing’ for me. So, to conclude, for this man, car ownership has always been equated with independence. However, I now must raise the following question, does a truly self-sufficient adult hurry out the door in the morning, on the way to work, only to then stand and wait for the bus/train? Yes, I wholeheartedly submit. Yes. Besides, now we have the capability of using our smart phones to track the location of every form of transit. So, the ‘power’ and control is back in the palm of your hand. Anyway, that’s what I tell myself as I pace back and forth waiting for transit which the “train tracker” assured me would be there 10 MINUTES AGO.