I flew into Chicago last Tuesday. Because I was in no hurry, and I’m a fan of public transit, and I could save my company $25 if I didn’t take an airport shuttle, I took the CTA train. Good thing I wasn’t in a hurry: I saw a sign that the train line’s speed was up, from 15 mph to 35. 15 is unbelievably slow. I go 15 mph on my bike!!
While the train follows a freeway for much of the way in, it does so at a slower speed, so I got a lot of opportunity to remind myself just how ugly a northern city is in winter.
The entire palette was dull: grays, browns, dingy blacks, off whites. Even blues and greens looked dull … wisely, because winter is a sloppy season, not many buildings are brightly colored.
The local subway in Chicago is actually elevated—it’s called the “L” for that reason—though it’s been in so many movies (such as the Fugitive with Harrison Ford) that that’s hardly news to many people. But there were a few huge differences between the trains in Toronto (where I grew up) and Portland (where I live now).
First, the “L” is much older than the TTC subway, and the downtown core is surrounded by The Loop. So there’s a loop of elevated track running about 40 feet above the street, making turns right by the windows of office and apartment buildings. Again, I’d seen it in movies, but it had been a long while since I’d actually been peering in people’s windows while riding public transit. I spent an interesting minute watching a woman working at her desk; the train was so commonplace to her, she didn’t pay us any attention.
A station on the “L”
Getting off the train was interesting too. It’s about three flights above street level, and the platform is wooden, and everything feels very cadged together and rickety, and on the turnstiles are textured with countless coats of paint.
In the last week I ended up riding the El in Chicago, the MAX in Portland, and the Toronto subway. The “L” (sometime it’s called the El) is by far the oldest, grottiest, quirkiest, slowest, and hardest to navigate. Funny thing was, it was also the most interesting. Then again, I didn’t have to depend on it to get to work.