Tackling Train Crowding from the Inside

October 29, 2012 at 6:51 pm

Crowded CTA Train

Crowded CTA Train. Credit: flickrhivemind.net

This sight is not uncommon during rush hour on any urban transportation system. I’ve traveled on many public transportation systems in the world, but the Chicago L exhibits a pretty unique phenomenon during periods of high demand – door crowding.

I really can’t think of a better way to put it. Only on Chicago’s trains have I seen the scenario where so many people on the train crowd near the doors. It’s actually not difficult to see why, though. The seats are laid out pretty badly, with four rows of four seats arranged between the doors that only permit one person to stand in the aisle. Standing here is pretty difficult too, since there are no poles that go from the seat to the ceiling to hold on to (just waist-high bars on the seats themselves). The double seats parallel to each set of doors (see photo above of the woman sitting under the Amstel beer ad for a better idea) don’t make the situation any better, especially because they’re protected from the door by panels which offer people the opportunity to stand next to the doors.

Often the scenario during periods of high demand is that 4-6 people actually make it into the aisle while about 20 crowd around the doors – where people exit and enter. This is most likely because there is too much incentive to stand near the doors and to not move more toward the interior of the car, mainly because of bad seat layout. The new 5000-series rail cars, which are currently only running on the Pink and Green lines, are a slight improvement because there is wheelchair space near one set of doors in each car and hand straps along the aisle to hold on to. Some cars on the Brown line are an improvement over the normal design as well, which have eliminated about 9 seats per car for standing room and have more poles to hold on to.

What I’m surprised about is that the CTA has not gotten rid of the walls perpendicular to each set of doors, which is where people often stand, crowding the doors and making exiting/entering more difficult and slow. I’m sure I don’t need to go into detail about how slow boarding and alighting can clog traffic, especially during periods of high demand when trains need to run on schedule to maintain optimal traffic flow and headway. The CTA could get rid of these “walls” and install a pole directly between the set of doors (in the image below you can see this pole in the center of the floor). The existing seats parallel to each set of doors would be fold-down seats, only to be used as seats during off-peak service:

Strapontin ("fold down seat")

A “strapontin” (folding seat) on Paris Métro Line 7. Credit: flickriver.com

This woman is sitting in a fold-down seat on the Paris Métro. A sign near the seats informs passengers in several languages that the seats are not to be used in periods of high demand. There’s been a campaign by the RATP (the agency in charge of the Métro, some trams, and some regional trains in Paris) to be mindful of the strapontins and when to use them:

Strapontin ad Paris

“He who relaxes during rush hour risks 2 or 3 groans” (it rhymes in French), part of the “Restons Civils” (“Let’s be Civil”) campaign on the Paris transportation system. Credit: Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens. Click for more ads (in French).

This rule was widely enforced by social norm when I was in France (the ad campaign started while I was living there): You would be reprimanded by a stranger for sitting in one of these seats when the train became crowded (unless it was an elderly or handicapped person).

The new 5000-series rail cars on the CTA do have wheelchair-accessible seating near a set of doors, but the seats are heavy and are not spring-loaded into an upright position, whereas folding seats for normal use would be folded up by default (like in a movie theatre), and must be weighed down by a person. On the 5000-series cars (and CTA buses), these seats are heavy and in the “down” position by default. By making these seats spring-loaded and informing passengers that they are to be used only during off-peak times, there could be more room and space for passengers to exit/enter the train. In tandem with a center-mounted pole and a removal of the walls near the doors, there could be more room to move about the train:

Siemens Inspiro interior

The interior of a new Siemens Inspiro metro car, to be introduced in Warsaw. Credit: Motor Trend.

This is the new Siemens Insprio metro car, which features a center-mounted pole that branches above to offer more grabbing room. There are still protective “walls” next to the doors, but the doors are wider than a CTA train’s, allowing easier movement. There are no fold-down seats. You can also walk between cars, which is a feature of many rail systems around the world (I wrote about it once) and would surely free up more room on trains.

I haven’t had the opportunity to experience the new 5000-series rail cars during rush hour. Hopefully I will have this opportunity soon when they move to the Red line, which I take daily. From what I see, however, people still crowd around the doors and sparsely populate the (now wider) aisles. The doors aren’t wider, meaning people can’t move in and out as freely, and the walls next to the doors are still there. It seems that some small steps have been made, but not enough for an entire new series of rail cars. Some are hung up on the new aisle-facing seats, which arguably free up more space in the aisle. But the crowding near the doors is still pervasive.

If the CTA can’t increase capacity in terms of service offered (perhaps due to budget issues but also because the loop is probably at peak capacity during rush hours, moving 5 train lines), it can at least try to make more of what it already has. And with the new trains costing nearly $1bn, there should have been more thought and testing into what works. But if the members of the Board don’t even ride daily, how can we expect a train design that actually alleviates congestion from the inside?