Monday, January 15, 2007

D.C. Metro vs. Chicago El

Today's Washington Post includes a comparison between D.C.'s Metro and Chicago's El. Surprisingly, writer John Kelly warms to the El, though maybe that's because he realizes how great Chicago is in general:

Last month the entire Kelly family -- our dog, Charlie, included -- piled into the minivan so we could drive 12 1/2 hours and spend Christmas in Evanston, Ill., a gem of a town on the banks of one of the finer Great Lakes and home to My Overachieving Sister-in-Law.

There's no better way to experience a neighborhood than to be in possession of a dog. Forced to walk Charlie at least twice a day to empty him, My Lovely Wife and I drooled at the handsome houses on Orrington Avenue and across from Centennial Park.

Yes, Evanston, which neighbored my hometown and was itself my hometown for four odd years, is a "gem." Even though where I currently live in NoVa kind of reminds me of Evanston, Evanston's Victorian-style homes, eminent stone churches, concentrated downtown, and its perch on the lake makes for much more of a community feeling than the dispersed, ahistoric areas of Arlington County with extemporaneous names like "Courthouse" and "Ballston." I'm not surprised that a Washingtonian is allured by it.

Even I can't romanticize the El, though. Kelly, however, manages to do so:

In fact, when all the assorted out-of-towners took a trip en masse, one of our party was stuck, helpless, at the Transit Card machine as the train approached. He contemplated jumping the turnstile -- he's from New York -- when an amazing thing happened: The driver of the train, who could see him fumbling with his money, waited.

No subway trains are as plush as Metro's -- those carpets, that upholstery -- but I did notice that the L trains I rode were cleaner than Washington's in one way: There weren't as many newspapers. Is it possible that Chicagoans, when they carry a newspaper onto a train, actually carry it off, too? What a concept!

Does it sound like I prefer the L to Metro? Not necessarily. Those elevated platforms are cold. On the other hand, you always know where the stations are. They're perched up in the sky, not buried underground, their location marked with subtle brown monoliths.

The names of the stations are refreshingly direct, too, usually reflecting the streets they're on: Randolph, Madison, State. There's none of this New York Avenue-Florida Avenue-Gallaudet University-XM Radio-Bald Guy With a Hotdog Stand stuff.

Then again, the Windy City has two Chicago stations and two Washington stations. Woe to the person who says, "Meet you at the Chicago Station."

Red Line or Brown?

Just like our Metro, L trains echo with recorded announcements outlining prohibited behavior: No eating, no drinking, no gambling.

Did he say gambling? Whatever for?

I called the CTA to find out. Was this a particular problem? A spokeswoman would only tell me that there is an ordinance "to eliminate predatory types of behavior, such as shell games or sleight-of-hand or other games intended to cheat, defraud, or otherwise obtain money or other items."

You know, that's one thing I haven't seen on Washington's subway, even if it does sometimes seem as if the simple act of taking Metro is a gamble.

Okay, he has a good point about the absurdly cobbled-together names of D.C. Metro Stations. And actually, the double occurring names of El stations aren't as much trouble as Kelly supposes, as long as you're in your part of the city. For instance, if you live in Wicker Park, you'll naturally refer to the Damen Station on the Blue line, whereas if you live in Ravenswood, you consider Damen a stop on the Brown line. Most confusing I suppose are the two Chicago stations that Kelly speaks of, which both sit on Chicago Avenue, about half a mile from each other. Still, most people refer to and frequent the one further East, which is two blocks from Michigan Avenue and one of its gateways of frightening consumption: the American Girl Doll Store-Ralph Lauren Polo Store block. The westernmost Chicago Ave. train station tends to see more office workers than visitors.

D.C.'s Metrorail: Welcome to a Terry Gilliam movie

The El and Metro aren't totally comparable. They actually have somewhat different purposes. Washington, being a much smaller city, and its downtown much more concentrated, needs a fast-moving, state-of-the-art, comprehensive rail system that serves the city as well as the more-populated suburbs. Metro needs to be able to take people from the counties in Maryland and Virginia and dump hordes of them into only a few stations that serve the downtown. The El largely just serves Chicagoans and has a more dispersed downtown to work with--though the Loop is still home to a lot of the office space in the city--with the Metra serving as the regional transit. (True, D.C. has the MARC, but that's geared more for people coming in from the likes of Baltimore). Thus, El--with its frequent slow zones--is kind of a drag to take if you're coming from the suburbs. I'm surprised Kelly, who was going into Chicago from Evanston didn't comment on this, though I guess it must be more noticeable when you're by yourself than when you're with a big group.
The El, whose charm belies its inconvenience

If you want to understand the real downside of the El though, which Kelly doesn't mention at all, read today's Tribune, which illustrates just how out-dated the El really is:

Customers on the CTA Red, Brown and Purple/Evanston Express lines still may feel like they are traveling in one big slow zone until late 2009.

Expect packed trains and even worse delays than those already caused by rickety rails, crumbling viaducts and outmoded train-signaling systems. That's the message CTA president Frank Kruesi sent to riders on the three lines last week.

Commuting times will as much as double beginning in April when the most disruptive phase of the $530 million Brown Line expansion project begins, Kruesi said.

Seriously? When I took the El in from the suburbs to work and see friends, I often got stuck in run-of-the-mill delays. Now systemic delays are certain until 2009 because of this construction, without even factoring in the run-of-the mill delays. This gets to what annoyed me about the CTA and has me appreciating the Metro: The CTA is outdated, and it shouldn't be. Chicago is a world-class city, much more so than D.C., but D.C. is the only one with the world-class public transport. Both cities should have great transport. The El stations may be more charming, as Kelly suggests, than its Metro counterparts, but the frustrations of elevated transit outweigh the benefits of being treated to a constant visual reminder of the dynamic city below.

This weekend, if you travelled on the D.C. Metro, you were treated to exceptional service and information about the closing blue line, which barely, if at all, slowed transportation between Vienna at one end of the line and New Carrollton or Largo at the other, as one might have expected. Maps of the changes in line servicing were everywhere, as were helpful Metro employees. I know that the larger El must need more track work and general updates than D.C., and therefore can't manage such straightforwardness and convenience, but there is no reason why a small city like D.C. should have a monopoly on decent public transportation (it's the federal dollars, I guess).

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