Wednesday, July 8, 2009

CTA vs. Metro

We were in Chicago for the long weekend and had the opportunity to ride the “L” and many Chicago buses during the visit. Again, we caveat any “review” of a mass transit system by saying it’s really hard to get a clear read as a tourist, and after the past couple of weeks, the Detroit People Mover would probably seem better than Metro.
So yes, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) appeared superior to WMATA, and substantially so.
Our first impression was negative—only one machine to buy day/weekend passes at the airport? Not so great, but luckily, there wasn’t much of a line.
The L isn’t much to look at. Over it's 8 lines, 144 stops and 106 miles, it's pretty industrial. Except for little swaths of cloth on the back and bottom of the seats (Why bother?), the car interiors are so indestructible looking that they could probably be washed out with a power sprayer.
Over the course of 1.5 hours give or take on the trains (Blue, Red and Brown lines), there was not one unexplained stop between stations. However, when the trains do stop at a station, hold on. They stop rather abruptly.
Another thing we like about the L is that you don’t need to swipe a card to get out of the system. All rides are a flat fee--$2.25 with cash, $2 with a farecard.
Chicago is a much friendlier town than DC, so we suppose it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that CTA workers reflect their city in that regard. In Chicago, the train operators look out the cabin windows down the sides of the trains while operating the doors, like they do here. One time, we happen to be in the front car and, as we walked by the conductor, he actually greeted us with a smile and wished us a good day. That has never happened to us here. Many Metro employees seem to be saying "stay the f away" with their body language.
On the bus, it was also friendly. As we were trying to shove our farecard into the coin slot, the driver politely directed us to the farecard slot. We sat near the front of the bus and watched how the driver politely answered the many questions passengers were peppering him with. We won't go so far as to say he bent over backwards, but he didn't add an additional level of unpleasantness to the ride.
We’ve never taken a WMATA bus, but from what readers have relayed to us, it sounds like the drivers here could take a lesson from this one Chicago driver at least.
The L seemed better equipped to handle large crowds, too. We were there during Taste of Chicago, an event that is on a par with many of DC’s big events. Was the L packed like a sardine can? Were the platforms suffocating? Not at all. Trains were frequent, and we even found seats. Chicago's extensive bus system may provide an explanation as to why the trains were not so crowded.
Late at night, the buses and trains came with enough frequency that you were never left feeling like you wanted to pull your hair out. That could also be because there are no signs telling you when the next train will come. CTA does offer a NextBus like system for checking bus arrival times.
Unlike Metro, the CTA offers service round the clock.
CTA trains and buses have excellent pre-recorded station and transfer announcements unlike the muffled gibberish you so often hear on Metro.
Have you had much experience on the CTA? How would you compare it with Metro?

BART vs. Metro

Other news:
More lawsuits filed against Metro (WTOP)
Metrorail operators scared to operate trains after crash (Examiner)
No late night trains after soccer tonight (WaPo)
Four mainstream media outlets happen to see the texting driver video yesterday. Wow!
Hat tip to NBC4's Jim Iovino!

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Anonymous said...

you run a site devoted to complaing about metro and you've never taken a wmata bus?????? I guess you get kudos for admitting it, bu WTF??

hoborocks said...

I love my WMATA! And will defend it against all interlopers, L or not :-)

The car interiors are indestructible, yes, but that's because of the relative age of the system. WMATA: 1976, Chicago: 1892. The technology is just older.

As for the farecards, I feel that it's a reason that the Metro is so much cleaner. As in NYC, the L is fairly dirty, and you'll find people riding it all day and all night just as something to pass the time, sometimes acting as panhandlers as well. That's something I don't miss on Metro.

As for friendliness, Chicago is just a happier town - and I'd wager they don't deal with as many tourists (percentage-wise - DC is a city that everyone goes to a at least a couple of times in their lives, and it's a common destination for foreign travelers; Chicago is a smaller destination in terms of international tourists especially). I think if we had to deal with tourists less we'd be a happier town too :-)

You've never been on a WMATA bus? They're actually fairly friendly there too. Sure, sometimes you hit a bad one here and there, but the majority of buses I've been on (mostly in the Arlington area, but also a couple in DC - G2, 10B, 23A, 22B/ART 87, ART 82, Circulators are coming to mind) have had friendly drivers who are willing to wait and give you a chance.

"Unlike Metro, the CTA offers service round the clock." Which is extremely expensive. The off-peak fare for WMATA is $2.35, which is right next to Chicago's $2.25 The Minimum is $1.35 - not everyone will be paying as much as the people heading the furthest, so it's just a question of money at that point.

I'll give you the NextBus and the voice announcements. Those are things we need to work on (and the voice announcements might be a violation of ADA??). But given the number of tourists, I think that can explain the delays (people not sure whether they're supposed to get on a given train, people taking pictures in the doorway) and the crowds.

That and...goddamn...the L is SO SLOW!

Scott Gentzen said...

Just a quick comment on the friendliness of WMATA bus and train operators.

Didn't know before the crash but since the crash, I learned that train operators have to be bus operators.

Let's get Metro Fixed said...

Have been up front from the start about not needing to take the bus here. Never have implied otherwise. Any posts about the buses here have been directly from other users or via Twitter.

Anonymous said...

I agree with hoborocks. The L is so disgusting, especially the stations. Plywood floors?! Also, don't take for granted that the Metro tells you how long you have until the next train. I do have my fair share of complaints about the Metro (been inside Metro Center lately? It's 100 degrees in there), but it is so far the best Metro system I have been on.

brh said...

During my brief stay in Chicago, I found CTA to be pure misery. The el was dirty, cramped and slow. Stations were also cramped, filled with route signs that made even less sense than tourists claim WMATA's do. Stations often had -loud- street performers, which probably wouldn't bug me so much if the stations weren't so tiny. It was unavoidable. Maps were more difficult to read, and lines often had stations with the same name (as the names are based on streets). Finally, it was pricier than Metro. The only good part was walking around under the trains. Hated that system.

raidenbomb said...

Have to disagree with the L haters. I'll take slow and steady over sputtering any day. Lived in Chitown for 2 years before moving here 3 years ago. Regular user of each. Chitown is no Paris, but it edges out Metro in my book.

Anna said...

I won't get on you for not having ridden a Metrobus, but since I do seven days a week I just want to say that I've found almost all of the bus drivers to be incredibly nice and friendly AND I've never heard one not being helpful to tourists, who ask the same questions over and over. In fact, DC bus drivers are probably one of the few things I still consider to be positive about the system. As a general note, not directed at the author because he/she's going on other people's accounts, but I know it's easy to find things to complain about, but complaints about WMATA have way more credibility when you can give credit where it's due.

Anonymous said...

I lived in Chicago for several years and had the great pleasure of taking CTA. WMATA takes CTA any day of the week- by a HUGE margin. HUGE. I will certainly concede that CTA is open 24-hours a day, on some lines and routes, and that is significantly cheaper than WMATA. But I will gladly take my much nicer railcars over theirs, I will gladly take my train arrival time notice over peeking my head down a dark grungy tunnel every few seconds for 10-15 minute headways, having no idea when the next train is coming. I will gladly take WMATA stations which are not only ridiculously cleaner and better maintained compared to CTA, but generally are crime free, which you certainly cant say for CTA. WMATA is fully accessible, CTA- HA! Metro has hundreds of elevators in its system, and yes, they go out of service every now and then, so you might have to go one more station further down the line if you need an elevator. Try CTA where very few stations are handicap accessible, and you climb stairs which are ready to collapse at a moments notice. WMATA gets its fair share of complaints for single tracking and delays, but can generally operate at speeds 50-60 mph. Try that on CTA. I find it extremley hard to believe that platforms, both elevated and subway were not overcrowded and that trains werent packed like sardines. I had very *very* few experiences on CTA that weren't packed. Did you even take the blue line from O'Hare? Trains operate at speeds of about 5-10 mph because the system is so old and unmaintanied. Atleast WMATA is out there nightly and on weekends doing the trackwork so that trains throughout the system down have to operate like the trains in the CTA. I really had to laugh at you calling Chicago a happier town. You went there during the taste of chicago- which is, dun dun dun, Chicago's biggest party of the year! Of course everyone's being generally friendly, it's a party, dude! People on WMATA have generally been friendly to get up so someone in need can sit down, without even thinking or having to be asked. People will queue up by the doors and allow other to get out first before attempting to board on WMATA, this rarely happens on the el. I love it to death, but Chicago is a city of pushing and showving, and Washington, in my experience, has been far more friendlier, with special regard to mass transit. This is just the tip of my gripes that WMATA handles so much better. I'm sure I'll think of many many more.

I have to laugh at this review. Really laugh. Had you taken any real objective analysis of the systems I think you would realize just how absurd it is to claim that the CTA is "substantially superior" to WMATA. HA! Thanks for the trip report, but this review could have been a whole lot better had it been a bit more objective, rather than a fairy tale tourist/I hate WMATA/Let me think of everything that WMATA fails at perspective.

Bottom line, I'll take WMATA over CTA any day of the week.

Anonymous said...

After two years of living in Chicago and taking the Brown line to work every day, I'll take the Metro over the CTA hands down. The blue line is such a shoddy piece of work they can't operate the trains more than 10 miles an hour in some spots. The new stations on the brown line already need major repairs again and most of the time the cars smell like urine. And even though I left for work at the same time every day when I would actually make it to the station was a complete crap shoot.

The only plus to the CTA is the direct train to aiport access. But that's about it.

Anonymous said...

to hoborocks: Chicago is not just some bum-f*** midwest town in the middle of is a HUGE international destination!!!!

Jamie said...

Really, the L better than Metro? That system is a rickety, noisy, crumbling pile of scrap metal. It is slow, it looks like crap, and you have to climb rusty steel ladders to get to the station sometimes.

It seems that your basis for comparing transit systems is weighted heavily on the friendliness of the operators, and the frequency of pre-recorded messages.

Those things are pretty low on my list when it comes to evaluating a system that I rely on to get me from point A to point B. Honestly, I am totally fine without chatty metro train operators, and I'd probably rather they focus on their job than on being Friendly McGee. I am pretty sure the bus drivers aren't even allowed to speak to you while they are driving, anyway, for obvious safety reasons.

Beyond that, the fact that you had no incidents in your handful of trips ON THE WEEKEND means means nothing. The system is under stress during rush hour. I would hazard that Metro, when far below peak capacity, operates pretty damn smoothly on the weekends, too.

Anonymous said...

Do you people even read the posts you're commenting on?

Anonymous said...

I understand you don't need to take the bus for your commute. But you really should make a point to see for yourself how it is. If for no other reason than to give credibility to anything you post about Metro bus.

Let's get Metro Fixed said...

There's an open invitation to ANYONE to send us their experiences, positive or negative, about the bus or train.

Anonymous said...

As far as courtesy from WMATA professionals go, it's the same situation as anywhere else: if you're nice to them, they will be nice to you. It's just Dalton's third rule from Road House: Be nice.

Anonymous said...

This is a rather late comment, I guess. I grew up in Chicago and the CTA ( buses and trains) was essential transportation. I left at age 20 but visit Chicago to see family. I have ben to Chicago 4 times this year so far And use the CTA when I can. It allows me to fly my fave Southwest Airlines into Midway and then take the CTA Orange Line to downtown, change to the Blue Line and get all the way out to the O'Hare area where my brother lives - all for $2.25!! (Takes abut 1.5 hrs but driving could take as long and cost as and tolls.)

I love/hate all the same things as you and others have mentioned but the CTA. It is a utility vehicle. And old. But it works and is cheap and, hey, it is part of my personal history so I "get it".

I also have extensive BART (SF area) experience, having lived there when it was built and ridden it a lot then and every time we visit that area. Again, an essential transportation tool. I like it but it has some real problems - like live-in homeless people in the stations AND the trains. Really.

I had a week of solo experience with the (13 line) Tokyo subway system and had NO problems at all - even though I do not know ANY Japanese. It is not fancy but it is clean, reliable, safe, quick, cheap. You do have to do a LOT of stairs and walking to use the stations and make connections. It's good exercise - at least if you are not disabled. No real access for disabled I could see.

I use the NYC subway/buses when there. Sometimes. I prefer to walk if it is nice weather. Or take a cab. The NYC system is strictly a faster, cheaper alternative - it is strictly utilitarian. And old.

I have lived in the DC area and used Metro for over 20 years now. METRO seemed like BART to me, but slicker, cleaner, more upper class. It seemed kind wonderful at first. So new. So clean. So slick. I have never had to use it for daily commuting. It has never had good signage, lighting, or connection with the various bus systems. And the operating hours are still sometimes too few. It is showing its age prematurely because of a woeful lack of good management, lack of regular funding, and lack of proper maintenance. And the employees are not so helpful.

All systems work to some extent and have good and bad features. The better ones strive to improve.

Hope this sheds some more light on the comparisons.

Anonymous said...

Amazed that you think the CTA is better. As a former resident of Chicago, and now live in DC I can say that Metro is hands down better. Especially if you lived on the Blue Line like me. For the entire time I lived in the city it was under construction and ran most days about 5-10 mph where it should have gone about 55. It would be faster for me to bike 4 miles than it would for me to take a train the same distance! That says something.

The price standard is also bad. The entire thing is one price. It cost me the same price as somebody coming from the suburbs whereas I would only go a few stops. That's crazy! In DC I rarely pay more than 1.65 for a trip during rush hour whereas would pay 2.50 in Chicago! Of course people in Vienna should pay more than me. They ride more of the system.

The one better thing about the CTA than Metro is that it has a dedicated source of funding. Metro is the only system in the country that does not receive a regular amount from a governing body. This needs to change and Metro will blow away Chicago any day.

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