Measuring Up Metro Against Chicago's 'L'

By John Kelly
Monday, January 15, 2007

Last month the entire Kelly family -- our dog, Charlie, included -- piled into the minivan so we could drive 12 1/2 hours and spend Christmas in Evanston, Ill., a gem of a town on the banks of one of the finer Great Lakes and home to My Overachieving Sister-in-Law.

There's no better way to experience a neighborhood than to be in possession of a dog. Forced to walk Charlie at least twice a day to empty him, My Lovely Wife and I drooled at the handsome houses on Orrington Avenue and across from Centennial Park.

The real highlight of the trip, though, was riding Chicago's elevated train system -- the "L," I guess they call it. Here was a chance to compare it to Washington's Metro.

Buying a Chicago Transit Authority Transit Card didn't seem any easier than buying a Metro Farecard. Somehow my youngest daughter ended up with a card good only on school days. (That'll teach me to add value to a card I picked up off the ground in the hopes of saving a few pennies.)

When it came to which dollar bills to accept, the machines seemed just as picky as ours. In fact, when all the assorted out-of-towners took a trip en masse, one of our party was stuck, helpless, at the Transit Card machine as the train approached. He contemplated jumping the turnstile -- he's from New York -- when an amazing thing happened: The driver of the train, who could see him fumbling with his money, waited.

No subway trains are as plush as Metro's -- those carpets, that upholstery -- but I did notice that the L trains I rode were cleaner than Washington's in one way: There weren't as many newspapers. Is it possible that Chicagoans, when they carry a newspaper onto a train, actually carry it off, too? What a concept!

Does it sound like I prefer the L to Metro? Not necessarily. Those elevated platforms are cold. On the other hand, you always know where the stations are. They're perched up in the sky, not buried underground, their location marked with subtle brown monoliths.

The names of the stations are refreshingly direct, too, usually reflecting the streets they're on: Randolph, Madison, State. There's none of this New York Avenue-Florida Avenue-Gallaudet University-XM Radio-Bald Guy With a Hotdog Stand stuff.

Then again, the Windy City has two Chicago stations and two Washington stations. Woe to the person who says, "Meet you at the Chicago Station."

Red Line or Brown?

Just like our Metro, L trains echo with recorded announcements outlining prohibited behavior: No eating, no drinking, no gambling.

Did he say gambling? Whatever for?

I called the CTA to find out. Was this a particular problem? A spokeswoman would only tell me that there is an ordinance "to eliminate predatory types of behavior, such as shell games or sleight-of-hand or other games intended to cheat, defraud, or otherwise obtain money or other items."

You know, that's one thing I haven't seen on Washington's subway, even if it does sometimes seem as if the simple act of taking Metro is a gamble.

A Sure Bet

Over the past seven weeks I've shared stories of the kids whose lives have been forever improved by Children's Hospital. These are kids who've beaten the odds. It's my turn to beat the odds now. This is the last week of our campaign for Children's, and we need to raise more than $150,000.

Back when I was just a reader of these words, and not the writer of them, I used to believe that some guardian angel swooped in at the last minute and wrote a big check.

Oh, that it were true.

I don't cook the books in an attempt to create suspense or lure donations. When a gift comes in, we add it to our tally. Every few days we put the total in the paper. What you see is what you get. And what you see now is that we've raised $ 342,174.94 toward our $500,000 goal.

Can we reach it by Friday? With the help of a lot of guardian angels, we can.

To donate, make a check or money order payable to "Children's Hospital" and mail it to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390.

To donate online using a credit card, go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/childrenshospital.

To contribute by phone using Visa or MasterCard, call 202-334-5100.

What are some things that make other subways better than Metro? And what are some things that Metro does better than other subways? Share your thoughts:kellyj@washpost.com.

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