Well-known fact about myself: I hate driving. I can do it and I’m perfectly willing to do it; it’s just that I prefer to have other people do it for me. Unfortunately, since I’m not a rich person with a personal limousine, I don’t have ready access to anyone with a car who can drive me anywhere whenever I want to be someplace else. That’s where public transportation comes in. There are whole citywide networks of buses and subways which are conveniently there to ferry me from Point A to Point B in the event that a ride isn’t available.
Cities don’t share public transportation systems, though, and that leads to that interesting phenomenon that some cities run better transit systems than others. I’ve resorted to getting around on public transportation in Buffalo and Chicago, so now it’s time to compare these systems to each other to find out which one is better. Chicago has the Chicago Transit Authority – the CTA – a large system of buses that goes with its legendary rail system, the L. No slouch in taking people across town itself, Buffalo responds with another system of busses and a lightrail – the Niagara Frontier Transit Authority, better known as just the NFTA. So let’s do this! The CTA vs. the NFTA. One day, I’ll learn.
Chicago has about 2.7 million people. Buffalo has around 250,000. Logistically, you’re not going to create a public transit system for Buffalo which is the size of the CTA. So I guess the question here is how far someone would have to walk in order to reach the bus or subway stop. If you were walking through Chicago, even in the parts closer to the edge of the city, bus stops never seem that far away. Usually about four blocks is considered a long walk to a bus stop, and the walk to an L station won’t be so bad either. However, there are a lot of bus routes that force you to transfer just miles before the edge of the city. (42 Western, ahem.) These can be a pain because the connector busses to the city limits don’t come around quite as often. In Buffalo, four blocks is usually considered a close walk, unless you’re downtown, where the busses seemingly have stops on every block the closer they get to City Hall, even though they don’t need to be there. Routes in both cities can take upwards of an hour to get where they’re going, but Chicago’s sensical grid layout means it’s easy to figure out what bus goes where. Buffalo’s busses go in squiggly patterns designed to cover the most space they possibly can, and if you end up in a place you don’t know, it can be hell to orient yourself and find out how to get where you need to be. Also, Buffalo’s subway is a single line – a straight shot up Main Street from Harborcenter to UB South, and there was never any courtesy expansion across the Buffalo River so the people in South Buffalo and the First Ward could get on the lightrail every ten minutes.
The CTA. The NFTA is not only smaller and less convenient in terms of relative size, but they’re going to keep making service cutbacks until they don’t exist anymore and South Buffalo secedes from the rest of the city just so it can function. Also, there are a few spots where the CTA is good about taking people into the suburbs: Oak Park, Cicero, Skokie, and Evanston are all touching L lines. Do NOT expect the NFTA to take you very far into the suburbs, especially if you live in the southtowns.
I’ve read numerous long essays by prominent economists, and let me tell you this: If privatization is supposed to drag prices down, the CTA fucking blew it. They blew it big. The only thing the privatization of the CTA resulted in was jacked-up fares and an inconvenient credit system with which turnstiles are known to frequently refuse to let customers through while still draining their accounts. Maybe it would help if the CTA had some real competition, but competition or not, all that extra convenience and efficiency which is supposed to follow privatization didn’t come about, and now Chicago is stuck paying fares which would disgust people in Manhattan. The prices of the unlimited passes in particular have skyrocketed over the last few years: The one-day pass is $10 now, double what it was when I lived there. The two-day pass was cut entirely. The single-fare rides on the bus and L are different, too. One stop on the L? That’ll be $2.25. A stop on the bus is merely two dollars. The NFTA doesn’t have quite such a finicky system; both bus and subway rides are two dollars for one. The NFTA charges half the CTA’s price for a day pass, three-fourths of the CTA’s price for a monthly pass, and anyone under 17 years old can get a pass for the entire summer for $60. The closest price comparison is with the seven-day passes, which run $28 for the CTA and $25 for the NFTA.
Lesser is better. The NFTA wins this round. You can argue that the CTA charges more because Chicago is a bigger city with a bigger transit system, but with economic inequalities in both cities and the liberal ways they both cut routes, people who regularly ride public transit don’t give a flying shit about bang for the buck as long as they can get where they need to go. So all those economic arguments in favor of the CTA are pretty much meaningless when someone has limited funds.
Punctuality and Frequency
Transport is worthless is you can’t get where you’re going on time. Fortunately, the NFTA is pretty good about showing up when it’s supposed to. That’s something even the most adamant CTA booster admits the CTA royally sucks at. The thing about the CTA’s little punctuality problem, though, is that where it flounders in ETA, it more than makes up for in frequency. CTA busses are schedules to run every 10-15 minutes, so if you end up getting to your stop a little late, all that’s required is for you to stand around waiting for the next bus. The L can be a little bit worse, but not by enough to cause concern if you’re not already running late. As for the NFTA, it’s in the habit of forgetting there are people who have places to go. Busses in the most packed areas of the city get sent around twice an hour, and it only goes down from there. If you’re in a suburb with a bus stop, don’t expect to ever see another bus come after mid-afternoon. The subway is great at running on point, but the problem there is that the points have a habit of firing upward if there’s construction and a track gets shut down. If things are running smoothly, trains come by in ten minutes. On one track, that time doubles.
The CTA by 500 miles. The NFTA has it in for the city, especially if you live anywhere south of the Buffalo River. Anyone who’s lived in Buffalo for awhile has either never been to South Buffalo or is well aware of the weird on/off cultural flip that happens when they get there. South Buffalo is wildly different from the rest of the city – it’s sort of a localized version of Texas in that getting there is like landing on a whole different planet where the people have only a general sense of what happens anywhere else in the city, although they claim to be among Buffalo’s most fervent boosters. Furthermore, the NFTA has taken a beating from intellectual types who blame it for being one of the causes of the nasty racial rift that exists in Buffalo. And although the racial divide is starting to disappear (however slowly, but it’s still progress), no one is giving the NFTA any credit for it.
Let’s face it, public transportation can be a hostile environment. Not violent, mind you; just very unpleasant. There can be any manner of unidentifiable liquids and unseemly substances on public transportation, and there are times when it can smell godawful. The CTA claims that it cleans out its busses and train cars twice a month with high-powered chemicals. Of course, given the volume of people who use the CTA on a daily basis, chances are you don’t know the difference by the time you get on the bus or into the L car. The NFTA busses and train cars are infinitely cleaner; you still wouldn’t eat anything off their floors, but you’ll rarely have to hold your nose and endure an offensive odor. Furthermore, the NFTA is a lot nicer to look at, bad color schematics and general designs aside.
The NFTA. I’ll grant that part of the reason why is because the NFTA goes out of its way to keep people from riding its busses or lightrail line, but clean is clean.
Cool Bands Named After
The CTA ended up inspiring the name of a band called Chicago Transit Authority, which shortened its name to Chicago after the real CTA threatened a lawsuit. Describing themselves as a “rock and roll band with horns,” Chicago proceeded to sell over 40 million units in the United States alone. Their infectious mix of rock, jazz, and rhythm and blues music resulted in earworm singles like “Saturday in the Park,” “25 or 6 to 4,” and “I’m a Man.” The NFTA, according to a Google search, doesn’t have any musicians at all named after it. You could maybe attribute Buffalo Springfield to a band named after a city, but that’s pushing it.
The CTA. After all, Chicago took listeners to the park one Saturday. With the NFTA, you’ll never get to the park.
This contest is decided in favor of the CTA, and since I basically knocked this out in a few days on a loose deadline, I should also mention it would have been far more one-sided had I taken my time. While the NFTA certainly has its fans… Aw, hell, I can’t even finish that sentence with a straight face. The NFTA doesn’t have any fans. Even the Buffalo government hates it. And yes, I complained frequently about the CTA; but I never forgot how much worse it could get, either.