I have a strange love for public transportation. Especially public trains. I grew up in a small town where public transportation isn't a thing. Now living in Syracuse, we have a public bus system, which is, well, just okay. But when I lived down in DC for a summer, I took the Metro into work and back every day and absolutely loved it. While a lot of people complain about DC's system and the inconvenience of consistent delays (especially on the red line), I found it to be relatively convenient for me and each ride to be its own interesting experience.
So when I found out we would be taking Chicago's "L" around the city for the week that we were there, I was weirdly excited. There's just something about the shared experience of public transit. I can't have my face shoved in a book or stuck to my phone because I get motion sickness. I'll put my headphones in to listen to my music, but that's about it for social separation. You're forced to interact with people, even if it's only on a minimal level of eye contact, forced smiles, and moving to get out of each others' way. It's a train car filled with a basic level of understanding and empathy; a microcosm of the broad spectrum of humanity.
One unique feature of Chicago's public rail system is the majority of it is above ground. That's of course how it gets its name, as "L" stands for "elevated." I find this rather enjoyable as a rider; being above ground is much more comfortable and welcoming to me than the angst of rolling through dark tunnels. Most of the earliest public rail systems in the U.S. started as elevated railways, including New York City's system prior to becoming the Subway. Cities across the U.S. started to move these systems below ground in the late 1800s and early 1900s, a consistently complicated and expensive process that Chicago decided to forgo.
Maintaining the elevated system comes with it's own set of challenges though, many of which are the reasons that rail systems began to be moved underground to begin with. According to Henry Petroski in his book The Road Taken: The History and Future of America's Infrastructure:
"...the structural columns supporting the tracks, stations, and ancillary equipment were often planted directly in the street and so presented obstructions to the free flow of traffic there. The convenience of els for commuters came at considerable cost in quality of life to those who lived beside the elevated structures, which blocked out light, interfered with fresh airflow, carried deafeningly loud trains right past apartment windows, and reduced property values for the owners of the buildings."
Despite these challenges, the "L" remains the fourth largest public rail system in the U.S. and the second busiest (only behind New York City's Subway), with an average of 752,734 passenger boardings each weekday in 2014. It is often credited with fostering the growth of Chicago's dense core that is one of the city's distinguishing features, and is a key component of recent transit-oriented development in the there.
Overall, Chicagoans certainly seem to like it, as they voted it third out of seven in the Chicago Tribune's "Seven Wonders of Chicago" in 2005, ahead of the Sears Tower and beating out Millennium Park.
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