Archive for CTA

The battle between benches and bucket seats is raging in Chicago. (Graphic via Chicago Tribune)

The MTA’s current rolling stock is quite a mess of seating choices. We have trains that feature bucket seats far too narrow and center-facing seats to maximize standing room. We have trains with forward-facing bucket seats that lead to awkward passenger flow and cramped quarters. And we have all of our bright and shiny new rolling stock with center-facing benches that should, ostensibly, cram more people into the train cars while creating a more comfortable experience.

None of it works entirely properly. No matter which way the seats are oriented, Transit’s bucket seats — like bucket seats around the nation — are too narrow. In the winter, anyone with a warm coats winds up taking up too much space, and even the skinniest of riders will find themselves contained by the dip. Meanwhile, oftentimes, straphangers will either sit on top of each other or leave three quarters of an empty seat just sitting there. The forward-facing bucket seats on the R68s encourage riders to congregate around doorways, and riders on the bench seats — the best of three layouts — tend to take up more room than they should.

For New York City, though, the future is in benches. While a full R68 set has 560 seats and a full R142 set contains around 432 seats, the R142s fit far more standees, and thus, center-facing buckets rule the day. For the foreseeable future, all new rolling stock orders will be equipped with those grey-blue benches, and the forward facing cars, with their views out the window, will become relics.

Around the nation, though, consensus has not be quite as easy to reach. The Metro down in DC still has forward-facing seats, and trains quickly fill up at rush hour as passenger flow crawls to a stop. Now, Chicago is debating its approach to passenger seating. Calling the CTA’s latest iteration of buckets “New York-style seating,” Jon Hilkevitch of The Chicago Tribune opined on the right approach:

The center-facing scoop seat on the CTA’s new 5000 Series rail car, a departure from the forward-facing seats on the CTA’s older railcars, is only 17.5 inches wide. The design assumes 17.5 inches is a comfortable seat width for everyone. But if the “average-sized rider” is bookended by two larger passengers who are spilling over their allotted seat space, the poor commuter in the middle feels like a ham sandwich in a George Foreman Grill.

Benches, on the other hand, allow for some latitude and help each passenger have a little personal space.”We only have a few cars with scoop seating. Our R142 cars (delivered in the early 2000s) are bench-style and the new R179 cars that we ordered this year will have benches,” [New York City Transit Charles] Seaton said…

CTA riders who have ridden on the MTA cars know that the 5000 Series cars are not New York-style, despite the center-facing seat format. “CTA cars are nothing like New York cars,” said CTA rider Colman Buchbinder. He noted that the aisles are wider on the MTA fleet, “allowing a feeling of space,” and the grab poles are located in the middle of the aisle, instead of being wedged between the seat dividers on the CTA cars.

As for the bench design, “Big people take up big spaces and small people take up small spaces. That’s a huge difference from Chicago’s setup of narrow individual bucket seat forms that force people to squeeze or leave an empty seat,” Buchbinder said. “If you think it’s bad now, wait until winter when the coats come on.”

Chicago, it seems, has irked its customers by providing bucket seats too narrow for those who secure a seat, and aisles too narrow for passengers trying to make their ways through the cars. It’s a classic example of how seat and car design can impact subway mobility and rider happiness. While we all want to aspire to a seat, the reality is that most people in a packed subway will not be seating, and then, making sure straphangers can enter and exit quickly and easily becomes a paramount concern.

Ultimately, I think we’ll see center-facing benches become the norm, but it’s a slow adjustment. DC and Chicago aren’t quite there yet, and even international subway systems that can be a bit more progressive with their policies are finding it tough to let go of the forward-facing seats. A subway though isn’t a commuter rail, and I’ll give the last word tonight on benches to a CTA rider. “Smooth benches allow for a seating free-market of sorts, where wide and narrow find their own equilibrium,” James Jenkins added. “The molded forms don’t allow for that nirvana.”

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The MTA has frequently come under fire for its real estate holdings. Politicians and advocates believe that the authority doesn’t make proper use of the space it both rents and owns, and underground, commercial opportunities are decidedly low rent. It is a problem the MTA is trying to solve in order to generate more money.

A few weeks ago, news broke that the authority may try to offload some real estate holdings as part of the overall overhaul of the way the MTA works. Meanwhile, back in November, MTA CEO and Chairman Jay Walder spoke to me about the need to find a more diverse and appealing group of businesses willing to take out space underground. It’s a process.

In Chicago, the CTA is engaged in a similar process, and the Windy City’s Tribune profiled that authority’s real estate overhaul. Jon Hilkevitch reports:

The Chicago Transit Authority, which has its hands full running trains and buses, concedes it has no business managing the retail concessions on its properties. Sixty-six of the 137 concession spaces at CTA rail stations are vacant, according to the transit agency. Commuters aren’t exactly missing their trains to buy the snacks and refreshments available at the open concession stands either.

The grimy appearance of CTA subway tunnels extends up the escalators to many of the vendor stalls, which haven’t been overhauled in decades. A campaign is beginning to upgrade the selection of offerings to commuters and boost CTA rental income by attracting new retail tenants, including national chains that would operate rail station stores in multiple CTA stations, officials said…

Commuters may soon be able to drop off their dry cleaning, conduct other business or just buy a cup of coffee right inside or next door to their “L” stop. The two newest leases are with Maui Wowi Hawaiian, a coffee and smoothie shop that will open at the CTA Belmont station serving the Red, Brown and Purple/Evanston Express lines; and Lupito’s juice bar at the Damen station on the Pink Line, officials said. Both businesses are scheduled to open this spring.

Upscale merchandise could become part of the mix too. Vending machines that feature iPods and digital cameras are deployed at increasing numbers of airports, and they may turn up at CTA rail stations as well. The CTA is considering vending machines that dispense DVDs and electronics at select rail stations, CTA President Richard Rodriguez has said.

There’s more than a little amount of common sense involved in the CTA’s thinking. While many of their stations have a more visible ground-level component than New York’s do, the simple idea of placing vending machines in stations could be one that tips. Why shouldn’t I be able to grab a DVD from a Redbox machine at Grand Army Plaza? If the MTA can maintain its MetroCard Vending Machines and if my local Key Food can keep in better working order than its credit card readers, convenience would demand one in the subway.

Of course, the idea that the subway is for anything other than commuting is tough sell. Other than concession stands, businesses aren’t drawn to the subways because of its negative connotations. It’s dirty; it’s dark; it’s delayed. I prefer my dry cleaners to inhabit a clean building with some modicum of proper venting instead of the dirt- and rat-infested subway system.

Still, money is tight. Transit agencies have to get creative with their rent-seeking efforts, and perhaps Chicago is on to something. As New York searches for a similar solution, they could do far worse than to take a cue from our neighbors to the west.

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As transit economics and funding go, we are not living in a golden age. State and city contributions to their public transit systems are on the decline, and as both operating costs and pension obligations climb, transit agencies have left no stone unturned in their quest for revenue. From service cuts to fare hikes to internal reorganization, if the move saves dollars, it’s on the table.

For many transit agencies, advertising remains one of the last great untapped resources. In New York, the MTA draws in over $125 million annually, up from just $36 million in 1997, and yet, the ads we see in subway cars and on buses are often poor in quality. Considering the captive audience, I have to believe transit agencies could be doing a better job of selling space to companies willing to pay a pretty penny for the eyeballs.

Outside of traditional in-car display advertisements, train car wraps and station treatments, naming rights remain a potential, if controversial, source of revenue, and over the past few years, we’ve seen American transit agencies awkwardly and tentatively embrace station naming deals. The MTA faltered in its first attempts when Citi Bank refused to pony up the dollars to name the 7 stop at Willets Point after Citi Field, but it secured a 20-year, $4-million commitment from Barclays to append the name of the Nets’ new arean to the Atlantic Ave./Pacific St. hub. Other than that one failure and one success, all has been quiet on the naming rights front.

Outside of New York, transit officials have engaged in stop-and-go efforts to secure naming rights. In Philadelphia, the Pattison Ave. station at Broad St. has been renamed the AT&T stop. By removing the geographic identifiers from the station name, SEPTA has made it harder for those unfamiliar with the system to reach their destination, and I have long believed the Philly approach is the wrong one to take for station naming deals.

In Chicago, something new and different is emerging. A few weeks ago, the Chicago Transit Authority reopened the renovated North/Clybourn station, and the ceremony was significant because Apple, the computer giant which was opening a store nearby, had paid for the station renovations. The deal Apple signed with the CTA allowed them right of first refusal for the station name if the authority were to sell the naming rights, and now it appears as though the CTA is prepared to do just that.

As Mary Wisniewski of The Chicago Sun-Times reported yesterday, the CTA board has begun to explore corporate naming rights deals. She writes:

On Wednesday, the CTA board asked for bids from firms that would help seek corporate sponsorships to bring in revenues beyond what the CTA already gets from ads on buses, trains and stations.

The deals could involve naming rights or other ideas, such as sponsorship of the CTA’s planned bus rapid-transit route on the Jeffery corridor or the New Year’s Eve “penny-a-ride” program. “I’m not looking for your traditional commitment to just advertise more on the system,” CTA President Richard Rodriguez said. “I’m looking for creative ideas.”

Rodriguez said he was in London on a speaking engagement earlier in the year and realized that across Europe, transit systems are looking into sponsorship ideas. “I can’t even imagine what the opportunities might be,” Rodriguez said. The firm would be paid a portion of the revenues it generated.

For U.S.-based transit, Chicago’s bidding results could be a harbinger of things to come. If companies are willing to pay money to secure these naming rights, there is absolutely nothing stopping other transit agencies from jumping onto this fiscal bandwagon. Rodriguez, the CTA’s head, doesn’t know what to expect, but at least some prominent companies will bid for high-traffic stations or prominent events.

As transit agencies, then, head into uncharted territories, how best should they structure these naming rights deals? Sports stadiums, for instance, have embraced corporate names but have sacrificed any local identity. Would a casual fan know that the Cincinnati Reds play in Great American Ballpark? Where is the Wells Fargo Center and which teams play there? Few people outside of Philadelphia could answer that question.

So the right approach involves appending instead of replacing. Renaming Times Square, originally a corporate name in its own right, to the Walt Disney Station does no one any favors, but calling it Times Square/Walt Disney, while painful to see, doesn’t remove the key geographical signifier. Since a transit system is in the business of getting people from Point A to Point B, it must ensure that people know where Point B is.

Other than that, all bets are off. Whether any substantial amount of money can be generated from these potential deals though remains to be seen.

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The CTA's North/Clybourn station shown before and after the Apple renovation. (Photos by flickr users Audrey Leon and Kevin Zolkiewicz. Click the image to enlarge.)

The Chicago Transit Authority’s finances aren’t in much better shape than those of our beloved and hated MTA. The Windy City’s own transit system doesn’t have a fully funded capital plan, and the agency recently had to go hat in hand to Springfield for permission to issue bonds that will help balance the budget in the short term. Yet, it recently enjoyed a first of sorts. For a cost of $0 to the CTA, the North/Clybourn station in the city’s Near North Side area received a full overhaul. A private partner picked up the $4 million tab.

That private partner, you see, had an economic interest in sprucing up the neighborhood. To much fanfare, Apple recently opened a new store in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood and hammered out a deal last year with the CTA that mirrored a sponsorship agreement. In exchange for the advertising space inside the station, a right of first refusal should the CTA sell the naming rights and use of a nearby bus depot, Apple paid for the station renovation.

Mary Schmich, news columnist for the Chicago Tribune, went underground on the day of the opening last week and explores what $4 million buys these days. She writes:

Outside, the station has clean new brick, big new windows and a sleek new look, partly 1940s and entirely 2010. The inside isn’t stylish, but it’s improved. Someone has scrubbed the red concrete floors, brushed red paint on the old railings, tried to wipe the grime from the escalator stairs. And the Apple name is everywhere, except out front.

From the moment you push through the turnstile, Apple ads beam at you, as bright as searchlights. Down in the tunnel, all the other ads are gone. Apple expressed interest in calling it the Apple Red Line stop. The CTA, which is exploring the possibility of selling naming rights to its stations, said Apple would get the right of first refusal for this one.

Even if you like Apple products, Apple’s master-of-the-universe attitude can be annoying. And the branding of everything can feel like mind control. But Apple has created a unique space in Chicago: handsome, communal, connected to the city, a space that makes public transportation attractive. The CTA may as well profit from the inevitable. Sell Apple the naming rights, for a big chunk of change. People are going to call it the Apple stop anyway.

As is obvious from the two photos atop this post, the station both needed and benefited from this rehab project. The outside — seen at the bottom of this post — appeared dilapidated with peeling paint and boarded-up windows. It now has a fresh interior, and the exterior has been completely overhauled. This is a subway station that screams for attention.

Now, not everyone is as in love with the station as Schmich is. Kevin O’Neill, a writer with Chicago Now’s CTA Tattler site, bemoans the bright lights that emanate from Apple’s advertising. But by and large, reviews have been favorable, and Chicago-based transit riders are urging the CTA to explore more public-private station-based partnerships.

All of this leads me to the same question I had when the project was first announced almost a year ago: When will the MTA hop on board with these types of partnerships? It’s true that the authority will append the Barclays Center name to the Atlantic/Pacific subway stop when the Nets’ new arena opens, and it’s true that Forest City Ratner is funding some transportation upgrades to that busy Brooklyn hub. But Ratner purchased the Vanderbilt Yards air rights well under market value. The least he could do is fund some transit upgrades.

For New York, a partnership of this magnitude would make sense along Manhattan’s Far West Side. As the 7 line extension inches forward — and crawls past 41st St. and 10th Ave. without a stop — real estate developers are going to benefit. Walking around the area reveals numerous new developments waiting for tenants, and easy transit access will only increase the value of these apartments. If the MTA can work out a deal with developers who stand to benefit from increased transit accessibility, our city’s cash-strapped authority could supply that better service.

As the authority struggles to stay afloat and struggles to realize new revenue streams, these partnerships may just be an integral part of transit development over the next few decades.

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A few months ago, the MTA unveiled the details of its first subway station naming rights contract. For $200,000 a year over 20 years, Barclays will attach its name to the Atlantic Ave./Pacific St. stop. Once — or if — the new Nets arena opens at that location, the station will become Barclays Center/Atlantic Ave./Pacific St. It is geographically accurate, if a bit unwieldy, and we all know that the MTA needs the cash.

Additionally, we’ve often discussed expanding the MTA’s economic horizons by instituting an Adopt-a-Station program. Similar to the Adopt-a-Highway program in place across the nation, local businesses would pay to get their names on the station. These businesses could then be responsible for ensuring the cleanliness of subway stations or the money could go toward renovation and rehabilitation projects at that station. It is an unorthodox call, to be sure, but not out of the realm of the ordinary.

In fact, that is just what the Chicago Transit Authority may do. According to a CTA spokesperson, Apple and the Windy City’s transit authority are in talks to have the computer giant sponsor a station rehab. Lewis Lazare of the Chicago Sun-Times reports:

A CTA spokeswoman confirmed that the transit authority is in talks with the computer and iPhone behemoth about a deal that could net the cash-strapped CTA as much as $4 million in funding from Apple to pay for an upgrade of the run-down subway station at North and Clybourn, which is adjacent to an Apple retail store now under construction and expected to open next year.

In exchange for its millions, Apple would receive first dibs on any and all advertising that eventually goes up at the rehabbed subway stop, which would allow Apple to create what is known as a “station domination” advertising effect at the North and Clybourn station.

According to Lazare’s report, the funding deal would not include naming rights. Chicago is not yet ready to turn over the names of their El stops to private corporations.

For Chicago, a deal of this nature makes perfect sense. The CTA is in worse financial straits than the MTA and has recently proposed massive service cuts and a 30 percent fare hike. They desperately need any money they can get.

So again, though, I propose this idea for New York. At some point, the MTA should seriously considering looking at local business investment in subway stations. The agency’s new modular approach to station rehabilitation and component replacement is a bid step in the right direction and helps alleviate the nearly unattainable State of Good Repair for the system’s stations. With a little bit of creativity, the money though is out there, and we need not look further than Chicago and to Apple for proof.

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Lucky Chicago. They aren’t afraid of change and progress, and now the Windy City is getting what should be ours if it hadn’t been for Sheldon Silver and his crony of cowardly representatives.

When New York decided not to adopt congestion pricing, the City forfeited around $354 million that would have gone toward anti-congestion measures as part of the new National Strategy to Reduce Congestion. Since our wonderful leaders don’t seem too concerned with reducing congestion, the feds instead decided to dole out $153 million to Chicago. That city will implement a bus rapid transit system with dedicated lanes and ramped-up enforcement as well as variable-rate parking meters.

Los Angeles — the king of congestion — will receive over $200 million that will go toward implementing a tolling system designed to encourage car-pooling and other high-occupancy vehicle commuting. I prefer Chicago’s plan, but the one in Los Angeles is not without merit.

Catrin Einhorn of The Times has the story:

In Chicago, officials said Tuesday that they planned to use $153 million for projects like creating the first 10 miles of lanes dedicated to faster buses that make fewer stops and set off sensors that lengthen green traffic lights and shorten red ones. To discourage driving downtown, meters and parking lots there would charge more during peak traffic times.

In Los Angeles, which would receive $213 million, officials said high-occupancy vehicle lanes would be converted to toll lanes. Cars with three or more people would be exempt from paying. The federal money would also finance bus service in the new toll lanes.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, through a spokesman, applauded the efforts of both cities.

“While it’s sad that Washington, which most Americans agree is completely dysfunctional, is more willing to try new approaches to long-standing problems than Albany is,” Mr. Bloomberg’s press secretary, Stu Loeser, said, “we’re glad other places aren’t as allergic to innovation.”

Mayor Bloomberg is clearly still smarting from the defeat of his groundbreaking (in the U.S., at least) congestion pricing plan. He’s not the only one. “We’re disappointed that New York didn’t get it,” Tyler D. Duvall, acting under secretary for policy for the Department of Transportation, said to The Times, “but we’re extremely happy to have the opportunity to work with L.A. and Chicago.”

For New York, the blow stings a bit. Chicago, in particular, is adopting measures that New York really needs and should have. At a time when many are noting that our own BRT system may be delayed a few years, Chicago’s gain is New York’s loss.

We could have had BRT money; we could have had funds for traffic reduction programs and public transit expansion. Instead, we have risk-averse politicians who wouldn’t even put the plan up for a floor vote, and we get to sit back at Chicago enjoys the money that could have been ours. That’s some example to set as a global city in 2008.

Categories : Congestion Fee, CTA
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A glimpse down the ‘L’ tracks in Chicago. (Courtesy of flickr user sftrajan)

Once upon a time, the New York City subways were a mess. Decades of Robert Moses’ iron-fisted rule of the NYC metropolitan area’s transportation policies had left the subways near bankrupt and in a state of disrepair. Old train cars derailed frequently and otherwise crawled around the city. Service problems numbered in the thousands per year, and no one wanted to ride what was once the bets subway system in the world.

In those days, grime and dirt marred the subways. The cars were covered from floor to ceiling, inside and out, with graffiti, and crime underground transcended a problem. It was an epidemic. Looking at popular NYC culture from the time, movies such as The Taking of Pelham One Two Three show New Yorkers resigned to their fates. Submachine guns on the subway? It’s just another day’s commute.

These were dark days for New York City. Emerging from bankruptcy itself largely brought about by Robert Moses’ reckless spending and the need to maintain his automobile-centric infrastructure, the city was known as a seedy den of sin and social disorder. Times Square meant peep shows and prostitutes, not Disney and The Lion King. in 1984, at arguably the low point in the City’s recent history, one man – Bernard Goetz – took personal vigilantism to a whole new level when he shot four young men he believed to be threatening him.

Whether or not Goetz’s incident was the clear turning point or Rudy Giuliani’s crime prevention measures were the real cause of the New York City turnaround doesn’t matter. Twenty-five years ago, the subways had no money, few riders and a grim future. No politician wanted to invest in them; no one in his or her right mind would want to ride on them. How times have changed for a subway system that will soon see its first new line in decades and may witness record ridership numbers by the end of the decade.

But while we enjoy a subway renaissance, our neighbors 800 miles to the west aren’t so lucky. While social conditions in urban cities in the U.S. has improved since the 1980s and riding the subway isn’t nearly as dangerous as it once was, not all subway systems are maintained with the same devotion and dollars that our expansive highway system enjoys, and now, Chicagoans are starting to pay the price. The ‘L,’ Chicago’s 100-year-old rapid transit system, is breaking down. The money isn’t there to modernize the trains, and a boom times in Chicago are stressing the system to what some are calling its breaking point. The Times has more.

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Categories : CTA, MTA Economics
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