Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Thoughts on the CTA

The other transportation-related aspect of my trip to Chicago last week was my use of the CTA to get around. The stretch from my hotel to the conference would be by bus, but everywhere else I would take the L, Chicago's metro system.

First, I got a Ventra card, which is Chicago's equivalent to an Orca card. These are easy to get: Any CTA vending machine sells them, and they are usable immediately. I loaded a multi-day pass on mine ($28 for 7 days) and this made it usable for every trip I made on the CTA. Like in Seattle, you just hover your card over the reader when boarding the bus, and you're good to go. Unlike Seattle, entry to the trains are controlled by turnstiles, and there are no fare inspectors.

The buses worked well enough, though I was surprised at how close together the stations were. It seemed like there was one every block. The bus was also fairly slow (I was typically taking the 66) and I probably could have made almost as good time walking. This is partially due to the frequency of stops, but more likely affected by the sheer amount of traffic in Chicago. I might have walked more often had my foot not been bothering me during my stay.

One note from a pedestrian's perspective: I never once saw a "push button to cross" crosswalk there. All crosswalks I encountered automatically assumed there were pedestrians. Not only that, but the pedestrian crossing signal typically turned on a couple seconds before the traffic light turned green, which was a nice touch.

I was expecting trains to be run-down and uncomfortable, but was pleasantly surprised. No, they are not as sleek as more modern metro systems elsewhere in the world, but they are fast, and they are comfortable enough. They are also very frequent. I think I only had to wait more than a couple minutes twice over the course of my entire stay. They were also jam packed at times. I missed a couple trains because I was not prepared for how full they were. Had I been a bit more aggressive in boarding the train I wouldn't have had to wait, but I did. The trains are a little noisy, but don't have the ear-splitting squeaking that the MBTA Green Line in Boston has (I admit I actually kind of like big, noisy trains on subway systems).

Also interesting was how close together the downtown stations. In the tunnel stations on the blue line you can even walk along the tunnel from station to station. I've never seen anything like that before. The downtown segments are a little slow, but once they leave the loop things speed up.

Passenger information was generally reliable. Most stations have screens displaying when the next arrival is due, and for the most part the trains arrived when they said they would. Maps of the system are clear enough. The Loop might be a little confusing for unseasoned transit riders but I had no problem understanding how it worked.

Overall, riding CTA was a pretty positive experience for me. I would rate the metro as my second favorite in the USA (after Washington DC) and rate it above the aforementioned MBTA as well as the bay area's BART. It helps that Chicago is a great city as well.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

My First Bike Share Experience (in Chicago)

I'm in Chicago for a conference, and yesterday I decided to use a bike share for the first time.

Chicago is an ideal city for a bike share. It's dense, urbanized, and flat. My hotel and the conference hotel are both north of the Chicago River, with the hotel near the lake front and my hotel near the Chicago brown line station. I took the bike share home after I was done with the conference.

The idea, for those unfamiliar, is that you grab a bike at any station (after unlocking it) and bike it for 30 minutes. When you're done, you find a vacant spot at another station and lock it in. With the Divvy bikes that you get in Chicago, you buy a 24 hour pass for $7, which lets you use the bikes for that 24 hour period. The catch is you get them for 30 minutes at a time, at which point you get additional charges if you haven't returned it yet. You are given a 5 digit code, which you type in on any lock to unlock a bike.

Not everything went smoothly. The screen had a different code on it than my receipt did (unless I had pulled out somebody else's receipt that had been left there, but I don't think that was it). It was the code on the screen that unlocked the bike. I tried again this morning, but neither code worked. I later learned that you have to swipe your credit card again to get a new car - if I had realized this at the time I would have been able to make it to my first presentation of the day on time!

On the other hand, the bikes are sturdy, simple, and easy to ride. They are three speed bikes, though I couldn't figure out how to shift gears. Since Chicago is flat, there are no terrain issues.

I started to wonder about our impending bike share in Seattle. Parts of the city will be very well suited for bike share, but Seattle has some pretty gnarly hills that even seasoned bike riders avoid (biking up Queen Anne Ave, for example, is not for the faint of heart - or biking down it, for that matter). At any rate, hills are going to be a way of life for any frequent biker, whether they own their bike or not. It's important to make sure that the bikes we end up getting are able to handle the hills while still being sturdy and useful.

Regardless, I'm overall pretty positive about my bike share experience, the hiccups in the process notwithstanding. I'll have more on Chicago in a future post, focusing more on their transit system.