James Porter reflects on life as a CTA warrior

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James Porter must be one of Chicago’s foremost authorities on getting around the town without an automobile. As a music journalist, singer, harmonica player, and one half of the DJ duo East of Edens Soul Express, Porter travels from his home in the Mid-South neighborhood of Chatham to every nook and cranny of the city to get to record stores, concerts and gigs, usually by walking, bus and train. James contributed the following essay about his experiences as an expert Chicago Transit Authority rider.

Chicago is a seriously easy town to not own a car and still have a social life. You’re not necessarily trapped on the block where you live.

I realized this when my old Chevy broke down in the middle of Lake Shore Drive during a brutal Chicago winter. Not having the funds to spring for a new automobile right then, I started hoofing it, with a little help from the Chicago Transit Authority. And, believe it or not, the CTA has served me relatively well.

There have been occasions where I needed a car and I made do with the nearest cab. And I’m seriously considering joining Zipcar in the near future for any heavy lifting. But for all the complaints I hear about the local transit system, it has managed to keep long operating hours and get me to my destinations.

Traveling from Chicago’s South Side, both as a driver and a CTA rider, I’ve had the option of both Lake Shore Drive and the Dan Ryan Expressway for the commute to the other side of town. Both have their advantages. The Red Line train on the Dan Ryan is what I take when I’m in a hurry. But if I have a few extra minutes and change to spare, I’ve always preferred to ride the Outer Drive, via the Number 6 Jeffrey Express bus or the Number 28 Stony Island Express bus. It provides great views of Lake Michigan and the South Loop, plus a far more relaxed pace than the expressway.

The CTA is convenient for late-night club hopping since most of the music venues that I go to are in close proximity to a transit line. But possibly the best part about riding the buses, and especially the subways, is the people watching. While the quality of street musicians has gone downhill in the past 20 years (unless people singing “Stand By Me” to a backing track is your cup of meat), there is a sort of visual poetry in Chicago’s melting-pot population sharing vehicular space. Hell, even some noisy-ass Cubs fans can be tolerable if you’re in the right mood.

Obviously, it’s important to pay attention to your surroundings when riding transit. Even though I listen to headphones headphones, I wouldn’t recommend zoning out and ignoring those around you, lest you get pick-pocketed or something equally dubious. But then again, that’s the way you should always behave, even if you’re only two steps away from your front door. Know this, and continue to have your fun.

A number of magazines have done features on Chicago’s Western Avenue, supposedly the longest street in the entire United States. Back when I drove, every now and then I’d avoid the expressway going home and just cruise down a long stretch of street like Halsted or Western, which span both the North Side and the South Side. Why? Just to watch the neighborhoods change. This effect is amplified on the bus. It’s fascinating to watch the people that board and depart at each stop, representing different cultures every few miles or so.

There are moments when using a car is totally necessary. But it’s great to know there are other options…

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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.

8 thoughts on “James Porter reflects on life as a CTA warrior”

    1. Good idea John! I’m sure James has met a lot of other interesting characters in his travels. I’ll try to persuade him to write a sequel…

  1. I miss having a 24-hour transit system. Here in Boston so many things just collapse because everyone has to scurry to get to the T before 12:30. Not having to worry about getting home at 2 or 4:00 am is one of the many things I miss about Chicago.

    South Side Rules.

    1. I miss the longer schedules of many bus routes that were scaled back. Like Halsted, it used to go until 3 or 4 AM in some parts, and now stops at like midnight. I was unlocking my bike and a guy was waiting for the 8/Halsted and asked me if it was running. I checked Bus Tracker for him: nope. What time was it? 12:30 AM. 

      Paris’s metro stops running at 1 AM (they shut the gates right on time, I hear). But Paris also has way more bike lanes than we do, and 20,000 bike sharing bikes (Vélib’). 

      1. The Paris Metro runs the last train starting at about 1 am (2 am on Fri/Sat).  When it’s passed through the station, the subway is over for the night.

        Paris does however have an excellent bus system.  The Noctilien night buses, which cover most of the city, now run about every 15 minutes throughout the night.  

        Remember too, that Paris is physically a *very* small city compared to Chicago–only 34 square miles.  At it’s widest, it’s maybe 6 miles from end to end… that’s a pretty walkable option for a lot of folks.

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