Jeff Phillips: Departure from an Impatient Daydream

What really makes us cringe when waiting for a delayed train is that we can feel the dying of time, we can feel our day and its ambitions dissolve and perhaps leave a mental to-do list waterlogged and heavy.

My memories of public transit from my first year living in Chicago resemble a fluid people mover from a state of the art airport. I lived in the Loop that year, my first year at Columbia College, and only used the L from time-to-time; to go to a party, to see a play, to explore on weekend leisure. It seemed I had the beginner’s luck, I would arrive at the train stop and seconds later a train would arrive and carry me onward without delay.

The next year I lived off campus and recall frequent delays on the Red line, cars stalled due to an equipment problem, crews working on the track ahead. I’d boil a bit inside, resist the urge to scratch C-T fucking A on the window rim. I sensed a crumbling infrastructure, but savored hope for the future, when high speed trains may reset the standard 10 years later.

I like the CTA in my night dreams much better. My dreamscape sometimes reflects a carnivalesque maze of alleys and wood porches, with a rail system weaving between brick and cinderblock castles. The trains are swift and ever ready to move me about. I get around this Chicago with the ease and light-footed wander of one in an amusement park. The CTA is itself sort of ride here, making the vast neighborhood pockets instantly accessible.

Then I wake up and think I’m getting out the door with good timing. I pull up a bus tracker app and find that 5 minutes will 5 minutes later become 11 minutes starting the countdown again this 11 minutes later. The bus eventually gets me to the Blue Line but it takes a few minutes to leave the station because the doors keep opening and closing. The doors keep opening and closing. The doors keep opening and closing.

Underground, we stop again. There’s a delay due to a train ahead. Once I get off the train and exit the station on street level, I hustle. By the time I get to work and step on the elevator, beads of sweat formulate on my brow. I make a mental note to allow 15 more minutes the next morning for my commute. And I commit to it. The loop repeats the next morning and it doesn’t have the soft cushion haze of the dreamy.

I do feel obliged to mention gratitude that we have public transit. And that my overcrowded Blue Line rides are not cargo trips of human cattle to death camps. I am lucky. I am spoiled. And there are other problems that society is faced with that may be more urgent. But I can’t help but think we could be ushering in a golden era if only getting around were a seamless process. The economic ramification, I think, would boast bounty. Going around and doing would be less a drain on culture.

A better infrastructure is not an overnight thing. Investments are needed, plans, designs, a grunt work of a precise skill. But I do wonder, as 10 years ago I thought that given time, Public Transit in Chicago would continue to shape up into an iconic marvel, flexing an electric blood flow of a world class city. If no conversations are poised for ambitious improvement in the near future, then in 10 years, the transit authority will still be juggling the same basic technology, and the adventurous spirit of city dwellers to hop around and visit old friends may continue on a slope towards discouragement.

There’s the great cost to be argued about. Who will foot the bill? In a recent budget proposal, our new Illinois governor Bruce Rauner shrugs it off the state’s shoulders. But upping the fares on the lower income and middle class workers reliant on public transit would be another deep scrunch on the economy. There will be less at their disposal to throw into a meal at a local establishment, and if a man’s feathers are rustled just getting home one day, he may not trek across town to support an arts event. And maybe those are luxuries. Some may have to choose between the costs of getting to work and keeping their homes warm in the winter, or the water running. Some tax payers may grumble because they don’t take public transit, why should it be on their dime, they ask? But if the velocity of money is choked in the slightest, will they not feel the result? Consider the return on investment, even if not plainly visible.

For a city so large, a clog in the delivery system of its participants has the potential to scale back the emergence of cultural activity. It promotes disconnection. The issues of transit should be at the heart of any municipality.

But maybe this can be call to action. A request that conversations about transit occur and lawmakers consider how vital getting from place-to-place is to everything we do. The politicians that obsess over a stalled economy never mention this. Do trains represent some unconscious symbol of communism, and is the red scare still in our American blood? Since a train ride is a shared, communal experience, and driving in a car by one’s self keeps the window breeze of independence flowing, is even speaking of mass transit enough to make one seem like a socialist?

I think of my dreams, of the ride-like joy of snaking through the city on a train, and wish I could inject them into the nighttime images of those involved in deciding on the policies that affect such systems as mass transit. Ten years from now, will I continue to grumble, grumble harder, or will I get to gush over the steps taken to connect a city of the future?


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