• Chicago media made a big to-do last fall when the CTA rolled out its newest cars on the Green and Pink Lines—cars that will be introduced this month on the far more heavily traveled Red Line. The controversy turned on the cars' longitudinal seating—a configuration new to Chicago—and the contoured design of those seats, which arguably constrain and vex the ampler haunches nestled upon them. Reporting in October on a survey of passengers by the Active Transportation Alliance, the Tribune's John Hilkevitch wrote that "forty-nine percent said they would prefer New York-style benches with no defined separation between passengers instead of the individual 'scoop' seats that are on the CTA's new 5000 Series rail cars."
The Active Transportation Alliance poll measured consternation that Hilkevitch had been instrumental in stirring up. A month earlier he'd laid out the case against the contoured seats, paying close attention to the New York alternative.
The [CTA] design assumes 17.5 inches is a comfortable seat width for everyone. But if the "average-sized rider'' is bookended by two larger passengers who are spilling over their allotted seat space, the poor commuter in the middle feels like a ham sandwich in a George Foreman Grill.
Benches, on the other hand, allow for some latitude and help each passenger have a little personal space...
CTA riders who have ridden on [New York's] MTA cars know that the 5000 Series cars are not New York-style, despite the center-facing seat format.
"CTA cars are nothing like New York cars,'' said CTA rider Colman Buchbinder.
Yes, but as I've just observed, the new CTA cars are quite a bit like the cars of the London Tube, whose seats also face the aisle and are contoured. I don't know the width of the Tube's seats, but I'd estimate them as about the same as the CTA's. And we have it on the authority of the Times of London that "Britain is the second fattest nation in the world." Yet the passengers on London's often-crowded Tube cars were neither squirming with discomfort nor simmering with rage.
All I'm saying here is that when the press drags in New York City to flog Chicago with it also needs to look beyond New York. It's a big world—there's more than one other place to compare us to.
• An excellent way to tap the pulse of a distant people is to take a taxi somewhere, one cabbie serving the busy fact finder as roughly the equal of two cocktail waitresses or three members of clandestine political movements organized to cadge free drinks and meals from visiting reporters. Our cabbie was excellent. He made it clear that England stole the Elgin Marbles fair and square, and if Greece actually values its cultural heritage it should pack up the rest of the Acropolis and ship it all to the British Museum. Another excellent source of insight is a big crowd. I found mine at Piccadilly Circus on New Year's Eve. The crowd counted down the last few seconds of 2012 in unison, then shouted "Happy New Year!" and began to disperse. It was a telling revelation if one accepts the principle of The Dog That Didn't Bark. Were I preparing a long thumb-sucker instead of a quick tax dodge, these two experiences would give me all the material I need to reveal that England has turned its back on its struggling European neighbors, and that the English say "good riddance" to Scotland's coming plebiscite on independence. I mean, why else did they not sing "Auld Lang Syne"?
• When I got home, one of the first things I did was unwrap the Tribunes that had piled up in my absence and read through them. This is worth mentioning only because of the pile. I'd suspended my Tribune subscription for the week, just as I suspended delivery of the Sun-Times and New York Times, but as it usually does, the Tribune kept coming anyway. When I called to ask why, the circulation department laid the blame on my delivery man—the same fellow competent enough to stop dropping off the Sun-Times and Times.
Did you ever wonder if there's any way to rid your front lawn of Red Plum or Local Values—whatever it is the Trib calls that ad throwaway in the pink wrap that always seems to wind up a soggy mess in your tulip bed? The flagship paper's just as relentless.
• And finally: The British still drive on the left side of the street, but there's increasing evidence Londoners' hearts are no longer in it. Occasional signs in Tube stations advising commuters to move left going up and down stairs are ignored. And to the extent they don't simply barrel straight ahead, scattering oncoming pedestrians like geese, Londoners choose the right side of sidewalks. The time is right, I think, for a few determined foreigners to set an example by driving on the right regardless of custom. I predict grateful Londoners would quickly follow suit.
And that's not idle speculation. I was in London a full week!