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On the first page of the Chicago Tribune on August 27 was a story about aisle-facing seating on the new Chicago Transit Authority’s 5000-series cars and how many people were unhappy with the setup. It was a case of inventing a story.

Then in the Sunday paper, on the “Chicago Week” page where the newspaper recaps a variety of stories it published since the previous Sunday, it summarized the story with the following:

Hey, can you move over a bit?

Not everyone’s happy with the CTA’s new rail cars and their aisle-facing seats, but the cars are likely here to stay. The transit agency spent $1.14 billion on the cars and reconfiguring the seats would require a major and expensive redesign. Riders have complained about having to ride with fellow commuters squeezed in on both sides and other passengers standing directly in front of them.

The photo included with the summary, embedded at the top, shows a majority of people (who are sitting) preoccupied with books and phones. One person sitting is giving the foreground standee the stink eye. This is hardly the photo to use to communicate the dislike that passengers have for the setup. 

Hmm. I seem to recall that such a situation has been the norm for at least 100 years, ever since subways became crowded. It’s typical around the world, too, to have “passengers standing directly in front of them”. CTA has had aisle-facing seating since its inception, and even before. It’s present on all trains now. Additionally, the CTA tested the aisle-facing setup (also called longitudinal seating) in 2004 ago to garner customer reactions (it also collected feedback during prototype testing in 2010). The new train cars retain some seats that aren’t aisle-facing.

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Passengers in 2010 again seem occupied with their own activities and not with their “across the aisle partner”. Photo by John Iwanski. 

Kevin O’Neill, primary author of CTA Tattler, supports the seating, but would prefer bench seats (like on the New York City subway) instead of the single-person, molded seating. Bench seats “adapt” to the different widths of passengers and can theoretically provide more seats. O’Neill expressed his concern as far back as 2005.

That’s not all. The Chicago Tribune posted a letter to the editor in the same Sunday paper; the letter was representative of the comments on the Trib’s website, and on Vocalo:

Left standing

This is in response to “‘L’ to get less elbow room; CTA’s new train cars cramp riders’ style – and shoulders, feet” (Page 1, Aug. 27).

I find the front-page position on the new CTA rail-car layout to be frustratingly one-sided.

Essentially the writer elevates the concerns of a few lucky individuals who are able to get seats – nearly impossible if you don’t board at one of the first train stops – above all the people stuck standing.

The current configuration, while perhaps more comfortable for sitters, is nearly impossible for standees, as we are left without almost anything to hold on to, and even less room to stand.

The new configuration makes a lot of sense and I’m grateful for it.

Also human bodies are human bodies; it is stilly to bring a Chicago-versus-New-York [sic] debate into the mix. N.Y.-style train cars work better, plain and simple; no need to get regional about it.

-Caryn Trombino, Chicago

I can see it now: Seated Passengers Coalition versus the Transit Standees Alliance. Regardless of the manufactured controversy, the new train design provides clear benefits over the previous design: one additional wheelchair (or bicycle) space, more standing room (making it easier to maneuver around other people and luggage), and more bars to hold. It seats one fewer person than the previous generation (3200-series), but far fewer than the three prior generations that are still in service (2200, 2400, 2600 series cars).

John says: “I dislike aisle seating. If you want to look out the window you have to pretend not to see the person across from you. I think it also makes it less comfortable to bring a bike on board.”

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  • http://twitter.com/aka60643 AKA60643

    NYC style bench seats would have made much more sense than molded seats. Also, the 2-seat spacing on vertical bars sucks – too narrow a space for many people to share, especially when wearing winter coats. I know that complaint’s been made before. It still stands. Not being able to look out the window sucks, too.

    • nonya

      aren’t NYC cars wider too? they certainly feel wider

      • Anne A

        NYC cars are significantly wider and longer, because they don’t have to navigate the tight turns of the Loop.

      • Kevin M

        Yes, I think they are wider and longer, and this is because they do not make as sharp of turns as the CTA cars do (in the Loop).

      • untitledreality

        Only the Letter trains are wider …the numeric lines are about the same width .

        • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

          I wonder what the advantages and disadvantages are for the CTA to operate two trains: short and narrow ones that run on the Loop elevated, and long and wider cars that run everywhere else.

          • untitledreality

            But even the blue and red encounter sharp turns of their own prohibiting longer cars…while the system as a whole cannot support wider cars because of track spacing, tunnel clearances and station platform clearances. The single 9’4″ car system is here to stay folks.

          • AdamHerstein

            I would certainly appreciate wider cars on the Blue and Orange lines, as there would be more room for luggage. Or even install a luggage rack. I believe the line of the London Underground that goes to the airport has them.

  • C L

    I don’t like the aisle-facing seats. I’ve noticed I’m more likely to get car sick when facing the aisle (this is a much bigger problem on busses than trains though) and I don’t feel as comfortable for the reasons stated in the Trib article. But if they allow more people to fit on the train, I can live with it — not a big deal.

    I do prefer the new design when I’m stuck standing. I have a hard time managing my bags, purse, and computer in a narrow aisle. I remember one time someone sitting viciously yelled at me that my bag was touching her, while I was clearly struggling to even stay upright. I imagine opinion on this varies depending on whether your route and commute time means you’re always standing.

    I also think, though, that if they needed to redesign train cars because the previous ones couldn’t fit enough people, they aren’t running enough trains.

  • AdamHerstein

    I like the aisle-facing seats because there is more room for standing passengers.

  • http://www.UrbanCincy.com/ Randy A. Simes

    Longitudinal seating is normal throughout the rest of the world, especially Asia. It allows for greater overall capacity, and no one ever seemed bothered by it Seoul, Hong Kong, Shanghai or Taipei.

    In fact, I find it odd that CTA ordered vehicles with any of the other facing seats in them. It only reduces the overall capacity of the vehicle and messes up the movement of passengers within the train. Furthermore, it reinforces the idea that the longitudinal seats are not the new standard that is here to stay.

    • Anne A

      Unfortunately, I’ve had way too much experience with riding trains while recovering from foot, ankle and knee injuries. Sideways facing seats are miserable in these situations, because it’s extremely difficult to protect yourself from further injury when the train gets crowded. Even though fitting into a forward or backward facing seat can be uncomfortable in such circumstances, it’s less painful than getting the injured body part stepped on, kicked or bashed by someone’s bag while sitting in a sideways facing seat. Buses are even worse in this respect.

  • http://twitter.com/theclaus Matthew Claus

    Is it really so terrible to face another human being? I don’t get what the real problem is, usually everyone has their faces stuffed into a phone, tablet, or book anyway. Its crazy how people can be so uncomfortable standing close to one another. I’ve made it a habit to NOT sit in an empty seat when the train is busy and one opens up. Its often times comical how people will race or shove for an empty seat (unless its an elderly, disabled, or generally in need person, those people deserve the seat.) There also seem to be “dead zones” where people seem to refuse to stand in unless forced to move. I always have to laugh when I stand next to someone sitting down and they look at me like I was just let out of the insane asylum, is that really the worst thing people have to deal with in their life, people standing in front of them on the train? Come on…..