Friday, February 09, 2007

But Seriously Folks

I had something funny planned for today but then I saw this headline from the Chicago Tribune, “Man killed by CTA train slipped on ice.”

Naturally, CTA is investigating. Naturally, they have turned up conflicting accounts from witnesses as to whether the deceased lost his footing on an icy platform (which would make CTA at fault) or coffee that he spilled himself (which CTA would prefer).

I wasn’t there, but I’m having an awfully hard time visualizing scenario B. I am, however, all too familiar with slick CTA platforms. My own (I frequent the Rockwell Station on the Brown Line) turns to glass whenever it rains and the temperature dips below freezing. I once saw a fellow rider point this out to the “Customer Service Assistant” and mention that he might want to throw some sand on the planks for safety. “Grunt,” came the response.

So I’m blaming the transit agency whether there was spilt coffee or not.

We have a mayoral election coming up next month in Chicago. Yawn. Mayor Daley is basically running unopposed. I can never decide whether that’s a good or a bad thing. On the one hand, Daley thinks big. Scoff if you will at Millennium Park, which opened four years behind schedule and gazillions over budget. But no one can deny that it’s a stunning addition to the city’s lakefront and the sort of large-scale public works project that residents will applaud for generations to come.

On the other hand, Daley’s detractors would argue that his stranglehold on the top spot has produced rampant corruption and cronyism.

As Exhibit A, I give you the CTA.

The CTA sucks. (And when I say CTA, I speak mainly of the “L.” I stopped taking buses years ago.) At $2 per one-way trip (or $1.75 for Go Card carriers), it’s pricier for riders than most other mass transit systems in the U.S. Many’s the time I’ve chosen to walk two or three miles rather than pay full fare to advance three stops down the line.

So you’d think we’d get more bang for our buck. Instead, we are treated to constant service disruptions and delays (granted, sometimes these are legitimate, as when crews have to remove dead bodies from the tracks, after said individual slips on spilt coffee). When I commuted downtown daily, scarcely a week went by without one mishap or another. Rail car doors that wouldn’t open, no air conditioning during a heat wave, 20-minute waits between trains during rush hour (when they’re supposed to run 4-5 minutes apart), or trains that inexplicably turn “express” and blow past stations crowded with long-suffering passengers. And those are just the misdemeanors.

Raise any of these issues with CTA, and they cry “Underfunded!” But common courtesy doesn’t cost a penny.

Much as I would love a refund for every crappy ride I’ve ever suffered, I already know the answer to that—“Underfunded!” Bare minimum, simply improving communication between CTA personnel and passengers would alleviate much of the disgruntlement and anxiety riders experience when, say, they are stranded on a train for two hours without any clue as to why. Seldom, if ever, do conductors take the time to explain a situation. Just once, I’d like one of them to come clean and say, “Looks like we’ll be stuck here for the foreseeable future. Crews are removing a dead body from the tracks. I will now begin a dramatic reading from ‘War and Peace.’ Thank you for your patience. P.S.: Everyone make sure your beverages are tightly sealed.” Instead they play the same canned announcement—over and over: “Beep, beep, beep. Attention passengers. We’re experiencing delays, waiting for signals ahead.” After a couple dozen “beep, beep, beeps,” no one’s buying the signal defense. Give us the truth.

So how is this Mayor Daley’s fault? Because his pal Frank Kruesi runs the CTA. And has yet to be called on the carpet—much less fired—for his inability to run an efficient, customer-friendly organization.

People ride the CTA for a variety of reasons: Some are doing their part to save fossil fuels. Some can’t afford to fork out $20 a day to park downtown. Maybe others are undercover specialists in biohazards, collecting germ samples for their experiments.

But a lot of CTA regulars don’t own a car. If they want to get around town, it’s CTA or bust. And the CTA knows this. In the absence of competition or any directive from the mayor to improve service—or else—CTA has no incentive to treat its riders with respect. Instead, they behave as if we’re an inconvenience, not their entire reason for being.

I wasn’t on that platform yesterday. I don’t know what caused the rider to fall. But I do know that as long as Daley is mayor and Kruesi is in charge of CTA, the next time someone asks to have an icy platform cleared, the answer will still be “Grunt.”


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