Transit: A Fare to Remember | Essay | Chicago Reader

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Transit: A Fare to Remember

The CTA used to have one of the country's best fare structures. Then the fouled it up.


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Time passes, you know. Scandals are reported, buses wear out, budgets are patched together. Lots of news and not much change. But in 1986, we had a change that's going to be with us for a while.

Well, it wasn't the only thing that happened in transit in the past year. There was an annual increment of progress on the southwest line. The CTA got a new director (an academician instead of a politician), a new chairman, and several hundred new buses. We had the war against the magic marker crowd and the ominous news that a bus driver may not be your best friend in case of onboard heart failure.

There was also the convoluted arrangement for getting through the Loop during construction on the north-south line, and the weird things they're putting up on the tunnel walls in the subway, which make going to work seem like a high-speed escape through a remarkably well signposted ventilator shaft. Remember all that talk of "station beautification" in 1981 and 1982? And then all that happened was they put fresh paint on the columns--in a scene where the overwhelming visual element was the diseased-looking tunnel walls. But now, here it is--beautification. Except it's now called "noise reduction."

Even the transit map went the way of basic services such as Time and Weather and is now brought to us, as they say, by the combined efforts of six Chicago radio stations. Unfold the '86-87 edition of the route map--assuming you can get your hands on one--and the first thing you see is a reminder to turn up your headphones.

But I just can't get this one image out of my mind: It was a filthy wet day about a year ago. They got on behind me at the stop in front of Limits Garage, and they sat in a group at the back worrying about their test tomorrow. There was, as there always is, not enough time to study and this was their hardest subject. Student bus drivers--their hardest subject was transfers.

It was the sort of conversation that a lot of us are not old enough to have ever heard before. The overhaul of transfer regulations that went into effect together with the $1 el fare on February 9 was also the first time since 1948 that the CTA had not had a flat base fare. Before the Chicago Motor Coach takeover that year, a ride on the surface system was 17 cents, the el was 18 cents, and transfers were free.

In more recent history, a transfer has cost 10 cents since 1970 and was good for an hour of unlimited rides in any direction since 1974. The new transfer, as people have been finding out all year, is good for two hours, to the nearest 20 minutes; and for a maximum of three rides; and is not usable on the same route. Together with the differential fares, this can turn a previously unremarkable shopping trip into a whole table of possible outcomes.

So it was not only trainees for bluish-gray-collar jobs who were confused. Crain's editorialized on the "chaos that greeted the CTA's Byzantine fare schedule" and a neighborhood paper called it a fare schedule "so elaborate it should come with a user's manual."

Which is too bad, because for all its horrors real and imagined, one way the CTA has always been superior to America's transit backwaters was the profound simplicity of its fare structure. People may be tired of my harping on the CTA's inherent superiority--it's a bit like some nerd extolling the virtues of lunch at the school cafeteria. Of course, if the nerd barely survived a diet of mom's noxious, inedible slime, maybe he just couldn't believe his good fortune.

Close your eyes and imagine . . . Baltimore, where everyone on the bus is reading a schedule. Even regular riders, because they know there'll be no second chance. Baltimore has "scheduled service," which means that buses run infrequently enough to have official arrival times for key intersections. Miss the one you need to transfer to and there'll be another one along--let's see here--Tuesday.

You know what else they have in Baltimore? Transfer points. Specific stops where drivers will accept transfers--go up a block and you might as well try using your grocery list. And you can be sure that by the time you've lugged your packages and your squalling child back and stood in the right place waiting for the next one, your transfer will have expired and won't be any good there either.

Things like this are the result of the food-stamps school of transit planning. It's not that they're trying to punish people who use the system, but they might as well be. The focus on preventing abuse is a sort of occupational hazard in planning services for those who have no choice. You know, what if some rich guy stands in line to get a free Christmas dinner, right? What if someone shops on the way downtown, or goes north, then west? Start making sure that doesn't happen, the rest just follows along: no one will ride a system that makes it this difficult unless they absolutely have to. If then.

In theory, transit planners all know that a simple fare structure is highly desirable. It takes less bureaucracy to administer it. Buses run faster when drivers don't spend all their time performing ancillary tasks like counting and arguing. And people are more likely to take the bus if what they have to know about it is less complex than maritime law. For years now, transit systems planning fare increases have been haunted by the image of millions of New Yorkers spontaneously refusing to pay the fare that the authority had raised, in a misguided attempt at moderation, to 32 cents.

Fare increases, unfortunately, are something you can't really do away with as long as there's inflation and most people work during the day. There are only two other ways of reducing deficits, short of diversifying into other products (and this too has been tried by, for example, starving major phone companies who would rather sell typewriters and personal computers). There's cutting service, which is unpopular and also results in cutting whatever revenue that service used to generate and generally eroding the system so fewer people can get from A to B on it. And there's "eliminating waste." This is very popular, but the problem with it is--as everyone with a calculator learned in the 70s--that a nickel fare increase will give you millions and millions more dollars than everyone's waste-cutting ideas combined.

Caught between the 1983 state law requiring the system to generate half its own revenue and several million riders who could remember 1981 like it was yesterday, CTA officials turned to an old ploy: instead of raising the price of a Big Mac, you can use less beef. The beef side of the transit equation means tinkering with the fare system.

In 1985, there were all sorts of proposals in the air.

First there was the single fare, where transfers would be eliminated and people would just pay 50 cents (or more) every time they got on a bus or train, period. This one got a lot of momentum for a while because it was supposed to solve the dollar bill crisis, but it sank like a stone after studies showed that it would hurt poor people and minorities and generate an annual revenue loss of $30 million.

With the peak fare, people would pay more if they rode during rush hour. Almost everyone agreed that this would result in the higher fares being borne by those best able to pay, and would shift part of the rush-hour load to the off-peak--both highly desirable goals, to say the least. But planners were afraid that it would cause a lot of fights about the time of day.

And the zone fare, where the amount people paid would depend on how far they rode (how many "zones" they crossed). All sorts of commonsensical people said that this would be more fair, because people "should" pay more for a longer ride. One has to assume they did not visualize very clearly what "longer rides" on the CTA can be like, or how many fights there would be if people had to check with the driver and pay again before getting off, while other people were trying to get on. Remarkably enough, there was a rash of news stories pushing the zone fare because Baltimore had it (yes, folks, Baltimore is transit hell: it's got everything).

And there was what we got.

As fare increases go, it could have been a lot worse. Our urban poor, survivors of trial-by-fire fare hikes and trial-by-ice service, well, let's face it, these people can't afford the fare, much less an increase, but in the age of Reagan they have far more horrible things to worry about. While to inflation-jaded commuters who don't realize that small change is still legal tender, it's not so much an attack on their pocketbooks as a perverse nuisance.

A lot of the Byzantine element in it came from the indefatigable fans of waste-cutting. Taking a break from looking for dirt in the CTA's vast, marshlike budget, they took up the cause of eliminating transfer abuse.This means kids out in the neighborhoods passing or peddling slips with time left on them to people on the street. At some point the key people decided that this practice was seriously out of control.

Now, everyone knows that a lot of this goes on. Whether it was actually on the rise, or whether it was one of those issue-of-the-year things like missing children, is sort of hard to know. Things don't get to be issues of the year by having been carefully accounted for all along.

But how much is it worth--which is to say, how much more money would the CTA take in if it stopped? Excitable Mr. Howard Medley of the CTA board spent months insisting that "as much as $25 million" could be saved through a crackdown on cheaters. Phlegmatic number crunchers at the CTA estimated abuse to cost between $.3 million and $2.5 million. But even these modest numbers assumed, in contravention of every known principle of marketing, thievery, and price elasticity, that all the cheaters would pay full fare if the regulations were tightened. Now think about that: if you offer someone a couple of free tickets to the game and then take them back, do they go anyway? Do shoplifters take only the stuff they could've paid for?

It is, in any case, unlikely that the new regs will altogether eliminate the small-fry transfer discounters. Granted, their customers will have less luck getting on the same bus. But systems generate their own abuse. Whether your game is running a record store, Soviet missile surveillance, or roll call voting at City Hall, there's going to be someone trying to get one past you. Not to mention the economics of it--transit fares of a dollar or more leave a lot of room for the middleman. Brats with enough entrepreneurial spirit to risk their lives painting the subway tunnels are probably equal to crossing the street and peddling their wares on a connecting route.

The better grade of transit planners know in their hearts that if tightening the rules makes a little extra cash for the CTA, it will be because normal people can now do less with a transfer than before. You can't do an errand and hop back on, you can't shop and come home again. Working parents dropping off their kids at day care, or moonlighters delivering assignments on the way to their other job, just have get used to paying two fares--they do in other cities. And that, spread out over the CTA's oceanic ridership base, will begin to add up, like the old nickel fare increase.

Of course, when the cost of doing errands has just doubled, some shoppers may decide they can go another day without milk and kitty litter. So the revenue impact will probably be mixed, which is to say modest. Rather like the revenue impact of the new fare boxes, which stopped about 25 percent as much fare cheating as anticipated.

And a "modest revenue impact" is perhaps better than they deserve for such a doggedly government-minded sales scheme. Here we have a city overflowing with yuppies, where you can charge anything from groceries and dry cleaning to kinky sex, but you still have to practically stand in a soup line somewhere to buy a bus pass. Meanwhile, the CTA is out trying to deepen its market penetration into the juvenile delinquent market.

But another half-baked public sector concoction is not in itself big news. What makes it noteworthy is that the new transfer regs, and the "Byzantine fare schedule" that went with them, changed the city by altering in subtle ways how people move around in it and how they think about moving around in it. It's a change that any cut-rate semiotician could read right off the printed transfer.

The transfers we had since who knows when were representational--the driver punched the clock face and tiny map printed on them. They showed transportation as something connected and continuous. On any given day the 500,000 slips, as identical as unforged dollar bills, had x million rides figuratively creeping across them like microscopic snails; many of them not going as far, in time or in space, as the width of the driver's hole punch. The new transfers are discrete, in the mathematical sense of the word: there is no incremental movement from one value to another. Instead, they have numbers in boxes for routes, for the hours of the day, for the number of rides taken. One-punch-three and you're out. So you don't even have to board a bus or read the regs to see what the difference is.

With the old transfer, with its map at a scale of 1:526,000, you had the city in the palm of your hand.

And now you don't.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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