How not to be a lemming

15 August 1999
Categories: Transportation

We’ve all experienced it: we wait a long time for our CTA bus or train to arrive, only to find it filled to capacity. Even more annoying, often they are bunched up, with 2 or 3 busses arriving in quick succession. (This also happens with the trains, but because of the signalling system the followers take a few minutes to arrive so it isn’t as noticeable.) Here’s what’s going on, and what you can do about it.

An unavoidable delay—such as traffic or a wheelchair on the busses, a stuck signal on the trains—can easily make a vehicle late on its run. This increases the number of passengers at each stop, since more people have had a chance to arrive during the delay. More passengers take longer to board, thus delaying the already-late vehicle even more: a downward spiral. Meanwhile, a trailing vehicle, running on time, finds fewer passengers than usual (and often, fewer delays, such as no wheelchair or no stuck track signal, having been dealt with by the leader), and continues to run on time. (CTA regulations prohibit vehicles from running “hot,” or ahead of schedule, so you’ll rarely find one arriving early. Likewise, full vehicles are required to stop at all scheduled stops despite an inability to take on more passengers, as they cannot “go express” without approval from a supervisor or central dispatch.) Ultimately this results in bunching: a very late leader with one (or more) followers close on its heels.

Now, I don’t often ride the bus, but I take the Blue line train every day. On average, according to the official schedule, a train should arrive at my stops (both inbound and outbound) every 8 minutes. Before I jump blindly aboard the first train that arrives, I take into account three criteria: 1) I waited more than 10 minutes; 2) the train is already excessively full; 3) the platform is overly crowded with waiting passengers. (“Excessively full” and “overly crowded” are judgment calls; claustrophobes and bromidrophiles will adjust accordingly.) If any of the three is true, I don’t even bother to approach the train, I stand back and wait for the next one. More often than not (much more often) the next arrival comes in less than 5 minutes—and frequently, even during rush hour, this train will never completely fill. Try it yourself some time. I’m always amazed to watch people cram themselves together like sardines… when if they’d only wait a few extra minutes, they would probably find a train with empty seats and room to dance if they wanted to. Sure, the trip takes a little longer, but what price comfort? Besides, I always bring a book to read, or some other diversion, so I don’t mind the extra wait.

Travel in the transportation hub of the nation—whether by car, bus, train, plane, canoe, whatever!—is an exercise in chaos theory. Bunching is one inevitable result. The trip will almost always take longer than you expect, except on those rare and magical occasions where you find yourself driving on an empty expressway with no logical explanation. Don’t try to get there as quickly as possible. Try to get there in one piece and with a minimum of stress. You’ll thank yourself for it.

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