Local transit authorities Tracy Swartz and Greg Borzo celebrate the CTA

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Note Greg’s CTA map necktie. See more photos from the event.

Tuesday night I dropped by a meet-up for Active Transportation Alliance’s Riders for Better Transit campaign featuring Chicago writers Greg Borzo and Tracy Swartz at the Blue Frog, 22 E. Hubbard. Greg wrote the book The Chicago “L,” a very thorough history with lots of great archival photos. Greg also wrote the book Where to Bike Chicago, and contributed a chapter to the new anthology On Bicycles by Momentum magazine cofounder Amy Walker. Tracy writes the CTA-centric weekly column “Going Public” for RedEye. Since April 2009 she’s been riding a different CTA bus line every week, and in December she completed the last route, an impressive accomplishment.

Both transit writers gave short presentations at the event. Greg noted that this year is the 120th anniversary of the El system. “I think you’ll enjoy riding the El lines more than the buses,” he said to Tracy. “It will be a lot faster.” He went on to describe the El as a social space, similar to a public park, and reminisced about looking up from the book he was reading on the train one day to see another rider with the same title, sparking a nice conversation.

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Photo of two CTA trains passing at North/Clybourn by Mike Miley

Greg gives tours of the El system for the Chicago History Museum and other organizations. “I’m always surprised how many people from other countries come on these tours, from Germany and Japan and other places,” he said. “Part of their reason for coming to Chicago is to ride the El, because the El is a movie star.” Greg, who’s also a film aficionado, then showed a clip from the movie Just Visiting, about a Medieval French knight who gets transported to modern-day Chicago, in which the knight boards a train on horseback at the Harold Washington Library stop and his horse munches on a commuter’s popcorn. “A high-ranking CTA official asked me not to show this clip,” Greg said. “Not because of the horse but because it shows people eating on the CTA.

“I’ve been on the El before but I’ve never met an El-ebrity,” Swartz responded. She told the audience that she moved to town from Florida a few years ago and started riding bus lines as a way to get to know the city better. “Usually when I’d get to the end of the line the bus driver would ask, ‘Little girl, are you lost?’ Trust me, I’ve seen a lot of the city.”

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Afterwards I sat down with Tracy for a quick interview:

What was the most interesting bus line you rode?

It’s funny because being in different parts of the city there were some buses I stood out on more than others. One of the lines that stood out for me was the X98 Avon Express. It starts at the Irving Park Blue Line and you line up in anticipation of this bus. There’s no sign to denote the bus stop. And we’re waiting in line for the bus and people are saying, you’re on the wrong bus – don’t get on this bus. So, I say, no, I’m OK, I need to be on this bus. So I’m waiting in line and I get on the bus, and people are like, hey, you need to get off this bus. And I say, no, I need to be here.

So finally we get to our destination. It’s the Avon plant in Morton Grove. Everybody gets off the bus but me, because everybody works there but me. So the people on the bus totally knew that I was not a worker there. This was a bus that only is there for workers. And I ended up sitting on the bus with the driver waiting for the next shift to come so we could go back to the Irving Park Blue Line.

If someone wanted to ride one CTA line that would show them beautiful scenery or memorable sights, what would you recommend?

The one I like to recommend is the #70 Division. I feel it’s the best slice of life for Chicago. It starts in the Gold Coast at the Newberry Library. You go through the Old Town area, Goose Island, and Wicker Park, and then you through Humboldt Park and it’s beautiful. And then you go into Austin. So you start out in the Gold Coast and end up in Austin and you get to see so much of the city in between. That for me is really Chicago’s slice-of-life bus route.

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Photo of a bus stop flag by Eric Pancer

Is there a bus line that you would single out as the bus from hell, where you just had a terrible time?

I rode some non-traditional buses, like the Wrigley Field Express, the #19 out to the United Center, and the #128 Soldier Field Express. Normally when I go to Soldier Field I get off the El at Roosevelt and walk over there. Well the Soldier Field bus picks you up at Metra and it’s supposed to take you right to Soldier Field, and it was terrible. We sat in traffic, people were trying to bail off the bus because you could walk faster. It’s because there are no priority lanes for buses versus the regular Lake Shore Drive traffic trying to go to Soldier Field. So the game is about to start and we’re sitting there marooned. That was the one bus that truly felt like a waste of time.

Were there any situations where you were worried for your safety?

Sometimes college students were doing projects so they would shadow me, but I never asked for friends to accompany me. The exception was the N5 South Shore Night Bus, which has no daytime counterparts. It runs from like 11:30 at night to 4:30 in the morning. So I asked a friend of mine to ride with me, and it was funny because there were no problems but you always find some eccentric people on the bus at that hour. There was a guy wearing this leather jacket made of fake money, and then another guy reading the Home Alone II screenplay. So it was nice to have a companion that time but almost every other bus was just me.

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Photo of a CTA #60/Blue Island bus in Pilsen by James T.

After riding all the bus lines, do you have any ideas for improving CTA service?

If I learned anything it’s the need for express bus services. This year they’re working on the bus rapid transit pilot to get from one side of the city to another quicker. While I was doing this project they got rid of some express buses in the service cuts of 2010. And you don’t realize how much express buses are needed until you actually ride the Ashland bus or the Western bus every single stop. That’s the big takeaway. If you’re not going to build out the rail system then you need to move people quickly on buses where they need to go.

Anything else you’d like to tell me about your experience?

I had a good time doing it but I’m glad it’s over.

Published by

John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs,
from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation’s
bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes
regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines
and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

23 thoughts on “Local transit authorities Tracy Swartz and Greg Borzo celebrate the CTA”

  1. Sounds like quite a slice of life, riding those various bus routes.  My “biggest waste of time” experience was riding the Milwaukee Ave. bus from the Loop to Logan Square once at evening rush hour.  I got really tired of the stop-and-creep pace, especially through Wicker Park.  By the time we got to Western, I just got off and walked.  At a moderate walking pace (about 3-3.5 mph), I got to Kedzie at the same time as the bus.

    I’ve tried taking the Western bus, both on the north and south sides.  It wasn’t quite as slow as my Milwaukee Ave. experience, but it was pretty bad.  The 95W on 95th St. can be pretty bad, for a combination of reasons.  Much of that area suffers from serious gridlock during rush hours, due to vehicle traffic and railroad grade crossings (1 freight, 1 Metra, and 1 freight/Metra combo).  A few stops have very heavy passenger boarding, where it’s not unusual for the bus to sit through 2 stoplight cycles on rush hour runs, especially those with a lot of kids going to school. 

    Each route has a slightly different combination of issues, so I don’t think there’s any “one size fits all” solution.  I would LOVE to see BRT service on Western, going all the way to 95th.  That would be a lot more useful to me than the current service (Pace 349 or rush hour 49A to 79th, then wait and transfer to the 49) and would eliminate some car trips for which I don’t have a viable transit option now.

    1. The Milwaukee bus has always been a bit of a mystery to me: why not just take the Blue Line up Milwaukee Ave.? I suppose the bus is useful for people who are departing from the West Loop or are unable or unwilling to walk a couple blocks from one of the Milwaukee Ave. stops to their destination and want to be dropped off at the doorstep. Are there any other reasons for its existence?

          1. I’d guess it’s a rapid/local thing, no? If you’re going a long distance, take the L; if it’s a short trip, you might as well take the more convenient bus (no walking to/from stations or up/down stairs to platforms). Same thing with the Red Line on a couple miles of Broadway or downtown on State.

      1. Another reason for its existence is that the bus was probably once operated by a different company than the elevated train, and before that it was a streetcar, also a different company the elevated train. 

      2. In situations like that, my reasons for using the bus instead of the El have varied, depending on the trip.  If the weather is really horrible or I’m recovering from an injury and not walking well, and the bus will get me closer, I’ll suffer the slower service and take the bus. 

        The lack of handicap accessibility at many El stations is a big factor for plenty of people.  If you had an injury or illness that affected your ability to climb stairs, you’d probably be choosing the bus instead of a stairs-only El station.  A while back, I was on crutches due to a knee injury and I became painfully aware of exactly how many steps many of those stations have. It’s worse when the stations at BOTH ends of the trip have lots of stairs, and then you have to walk a few blocks after beating yourself up doing stairs on crutches.  Not fun.  In a situation like that, taking the bus can be a matter of health – preventing further injury, whether from stairs or slipping and falling on icy sidewalks. 

        I assume that you’ve been fortunate enough never to be in this situation yourself. Try struggling up and down stairs at El stations in a blizzard when you’re on crutches.  Been there, done that – really not fun.

        I know many people (mostly women, some men) who prefer a transit trip that gets them closer to their destination for personal safety reasons.  If you are a physically vulnerable person who is concerned about being assaulted or robbed on the street, reducing the time of exposure to that risk makes a difference.  This is less of an issue for me, or most guys I know, than it is for petite female friends.  However, at one location where I lived years ago, I used the El in the daytime, but at night when the blocks between my place and the El could be a free fire zone, I usually opted to use the parallel bus route that stopped right outside my door.

        Carrying bags of groceries home from the store is another argument for the bus.

        There are many different reasons why someone might prefer the bus – on Milwaukee or in a comparable situation.  Laziness often has nothing to do with that choice.

        1. Good call on accessibility. 

          These stations are not accessible: Grand, Division, Damen, California, Belmont, Addison, Irving Park, and Montrose (well, Milwaukee bus only passes by Grand, Division, Damen, and California). 

          When I interviewed someone for my article on the Wilson Red Line station, she explained that she would only use that station in the daytime and use the Lawrence station at night. 
          http://archpaper.com/news/articles.asp?id=5767

          1. Also, many red, green and purple line stations either have stairs only, or have escalators up (sometimes working, sometimes not) and stairs down.

        2. Very good points Anne. As a middle-aged, relatively able-bodied male, it’s easy to take my mobility and lower risk for street crime for granted. It’s important to keep the perspectives of seniors, people with physical challenges and females in mind as well when discussing transportation issues.

      3. The 56 exists under Belmont because the population density warrants the route. It’s simply numbers: the L stations are spaced too widely to be of any real use to most of the population.

        John, get a book on transit and start to understand the magic, 1/4-mile and 1/2-mile radius, ideals, of the original Chicago system.

        A surface-running light rail system could easily replace the #56 between the Loop and the original Logan Square terminal. Parking should be removed on Milwaukee throughout Wicker Park (there’s so few spaces that local parking garages could be built to replace surface spots).

    1. Thanks for the input. We’ve discussed this issue here before. Note that I used Greg’s preferred spelling in his book title. Like Time Out Chicago magazine, I use “El” because it’s less confusing to out-of-towners. I also think “L” looks kind of corny.

          1.  “L” is not hokey, it’s absurd. Maybe we should call the Chicago Transit Authority the HRU? I’ve met multiple out-of-towners wondering what possibly could the “L” stand for? El. That’s it. Settled. Final.

          2. Whoa, looks liek we’ve got a lively debate going on here! Anyone else want to weigh in: do you prefer “L” or “El”?

          3. I always thought The “T” referred (vaguely) to the shape of the system, but I could be wrong. BTW, I think “Alewife” is a really cool name for a transit stop.

          4. Wonderland is my favorite T stop. And the T doesn’t not really look like its namesake letter. It’s pretty much a traditional spoke-hub system centered on downtown Boston. I believe that the T stands for Transit and came from the MBTA’s own use of the T as their symbol.

          5. About the T, yes it does stand for Transit.  Adam’s got it right.  Speaking as a former T rider (when I lived within daytrip distance of Boston)…  The red line stops in Cambridge are my faves.  

            About “L” vs. “El,” I think there’s room for both.  Both versions are in wide colloquial use. I prefer “El” myself.

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