CTA buses (Chicago Tribune file )
It's been real, y'all.
No, seriously, it doesn't get more real than this. Since April 2009, I've been riding one CTA bus a week, end to end, in an attempt to travel every CTA bus route. I finally finished last month—after 139 bus trips.
I started this project when I took over as RedEye's CTA columnist as a way to get to know the transit system. In the end, I got to know Chicago and its residents—some in embarassingly intimate ways.
I've been spit on and hit on. I've sat in urine and sunflower seeds. I've traveled through marsh and wooded areas just to get to bus stops—only to wait 20 minutes for the next bus.
I've run into traffic to catch a bus. I've gotten lost in the suburbs. I've gotten lost in the city.
I've perfected the move-to-the-back dance on a crowded bus. I've learned how to pretend it's warm at a bus stop. I've learned how to make extra space when there doesn't seem to be any.
I've witnessed arguments. I've been yelled at. I've been in an accident.
I've thought of Union Station, Jefferson Park and 95th Street as second homes. I've seen the early morning gleam of Lake Michigan from an express bus. I've toured Northwestern and the University of Chicago without having to enroll.
In short, I've learned the importance of buses in this city. There were 306 million bus boardings in 2010—compared with 210 million rail boardings. Yet the bus system, which covers nearly 2,000 miles and more than 11,000 stops, is not as efficient as the train system.
The CTA faces obstacles with construction, overcrowding, traffic and service cuts based on its budget.
There are few bus-only lanes in the city, so buses jockey with cars for space on overly crowded streets. Traffic is unavoidable. So is construction. Detours for construction, especially in the summer, mean longer trips and more confusion for riders. Sometimes even the bus drivers are confused by the new routes.
CTA riders also face challenges.
Unlike at train stations, there are no heat lamps at bus stops. And a schedule can change at any minute whether it's the CTA's fault (poor scheduling leading to bus bunching) or not (a driver waiting at a green light as riders fumble for fare).
The future is unclear as well. Since I started this project, the CTA has cut bus service by 18 percent while rail service was reduced by 9 percent. Express bus routes have been shuttered. In response, bus riders have become rail riders.
On the upside, the CTA and the city have devised plans to start express service along busy corridors such as Western Avenue. These plans include bus-only lanes and traffic signal priorities. Express buses could shave minutes off travel time, the CTA says.
I look forward to this becoming reality. Because for more than 2 1/2 years, my reality could be a show called "My Slow-Called Life."
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