CTA does something right. Very, very right.

12 January 2011
Categories: Chicago, Transportation

I have complained a lot about the Chicago Transit Authority in the past. Mainly my complaints have not been with CTA service itself—because the service, while less than exemplary, has been consistently mediocre, and therefore predictable and usable. My complaints have been about CTA’s public image: in particular, its continual threats about service cuts and how they create a self-fulfilling death spiral. These actions only serve to feed the frustration and anger of Chicago riders, and cannot possibly do the agency any good.

CTA Train Tracker mobile beta. Image ©2011 Chicago Transit Authority.But now CTA has come out with what might prove to be its greatest public-image boon in decades: Train Tracker, a website that tells riders exactly how long they’ll need to wait until their next train arrives. It’s still in beta, meaning that bugs are still lurking and a full feature set is yet to be deployed. But even in my first few uses of the site, it’s clear they have a winner here.

A lot of thought went into the site. The interface is pure and simple: pick a train line, then pick a stop on that line. The estimator then displays all the trains arriving at that stop, in all directions, within the next 15 minutes or so. The list auto-updates once a minute. Only a tiny selection of display options are available—sorting by route, time to arrival, or platform side; and number of results to show—but the CTA has pledged more features to come out as the beta testing progresses.

However, it’s the layout of the site that really gets me going. It all feels so immediately familiar, because it closely adheres to CTA’s current graphic design standards for the system as a whole. Station names are displayed in white Helvetica on a dark grey background. All the colors of the train lines are spot-on likenesses of their printed versions, not just web-standard blue, green, orange, etc. The O’Hare and Midway terminus names include the little airport graphic. I especially like the little detail of how the “Back” and “Next” buttons include an arrow-in-circle image that matches the directional signs in the stations.

CTA Train Tracker mobile betaThe mobile version of the site is a clean, stripped-down version of the same, and fits nicely onto a first-generation iPhone screen. It’s so neatly arranged, in fact, that I doubt an actual iPhone app could improve on its appearance. It’s quick to load, and doesn’t bother with any fancy interface tweaks that would complicate the layout.

I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the data as yet, not having tested it thoroughly. I will, of course. But I think it suffices that the site tells me that my train is coming soon even though I can’t see it yet, and if it arrives in, say, 6 minutes instead of the estimated 4, that’s still close enough for my needs—and far better than knowing nothing. Plus, the tracker enables me to see if the train has a follower which, as I’ve said before, is the train I almost always prefer to take instead.

Of course, now that they’ve ironed out most of the kinks in the estimator system, CTA needs to start displaying these same data on the LED signboards they mounted in many stations years ago and which have shown little more than warnings to “watch out for unattended packages” ever since. All riders, not just those with web-enabled cell phones, deserve to have this information. But for those of us living in the 21st Century, this will do just fine.

Kudos to the CTA developers who put together this excellent site. CTA riders have been waiting a long time for this, and I have been among those to complain about its seemingly never-ending development. Train Tracker is, I am pleasantly chagrined to say, well worth the wait.

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