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  • Writer's pictureJacqueline Oiga

CTA vs TFL

Coming to London from Chicago, I figured I was pretty prepared for public transportation. I’ve been taking Chicago’s public transport since I was fourteen; I took public busses to and from high school every day for three and a half years, and, going to university in the heart of the city, I take the CTA all over the place.


Even our transports card system – Ventra – is essentially identical to the Oyster system. It’s an RFID tap card, app and all, where you can also use any contactless credit or debit card. In fact, upon receiving my Oyster, I took my Ventra out of the cardholder on my keys and replaced it with the Oyster. It feels exactly the same.


We even do the whole “stand on the right, walk on the left” thing back home, so seriously: Nothing new.


I figured that the only big differences would be the wholes Zones thing (which, is actually an excellent idea because there’s nothing worse than a $2.50 L ride for like, three stops) and consequentially, tapping out.


Man, was I wrong.


Look, I’ve definitely been on Chicago’s public transport at the worst times. The Red Line? Bane of my existence. One time it was so packed that we took a Red Line train in the other direction two stops so we could get on the correct train before it filled.


But the Tube at peak hours? You can’t even imagine how incredibly awful it is.


Let me just start by saying the CTA has completely spoiled me, and that’s a sentence I never thought I would say. In the past few years, subway service has been outfitted with cell service, so you can use your phone, even if you’re stuck underground on the Blue Line. For another thing, all CTA vehicles, train or bus, are air-conditioned.


I have a lot to say about Europe and aircon but I’ll save that for another day.


So it’s bad enough that you’re on a train where you can’t use your phone and you’re sweating buckets because it’s hot and muggy and humid and awful. But oh ho, does it get worse.


Every. Single. Car. Is. Packed.


I’m talking sardines, I’m talking about “can’t even lift your arms” packed. You can’t be shy, not on the Peak Hours Tube, because there’s a 90% chance your face will be an inch away from some old business man’s armpit.


And everyone’s sweaty and disgusting and it’s terrible.


I survived Peak Hour Tube for about four days, and then I was done.


I just want to preface this by establishing that I’ve never been a bus person. Back home, I would gladly take the train and walk twenty minutes rather than take a bus door to door. Busses are unpredictable and gross and are more likely to give me motion sickness. Plus I don’t know where every bus goes and I’m terrified of ending up in the wrong part of town.


London has changed me. I am enlightened. I am a Changed. Woman.


If I can avoid the Tube, I will avoid the Tube. Now even if off-peak. I also hate having multiple transfers so that’s probably a big reason why. The 381 takes me a block away from my house, and I can usually find a way to transfer to the 381 from anywhere in Central London. It’s usually just one transfer, as opposed to the two or three from taking the Tube.


Bus-only routes usually takes about twenty minutes longer, and I’ve ended up having to wake up earlier to make it to work on time, but I think the extra twenty is totally worth it.


I’m always able to find an open seat, and when I take the 17 Bus in the morning, at eight in the morning, the most peak of Peak Hours, I am sometimes the only person on that bus. It’s peaceful, I can use my phone service (and therefore get a lot more done), feel the breeze from the cracked windows, and most importantly: take in the gorgeous city that is London.


I honestly think that you’re missing out if you don’t commute by bus, at least sometimes.


My flat is still in Zone 2, but it has a very suburban feel. The nearest shop is a twenty minute bus ride. So I’ve gotten used to running errands in Central London after work, just before returning home. Oftentimes this leaves me in places far from my usual bus route, so I’ve gotten used to taking different busses and different routes home.


I usually sit up top (if it’s a double decker – it usually is) and I get the most beautiful views, just from cruising through the city on my way home. I get to see London, I get to cover so much more ground. Every morning I take the 17 from London Bridge and it goes through City of London and passes St Paul’s Cathedral, which is one of the prettiest buildings I’ve ever seen. I wouldn’t trade that view for anything in the world.


Perhaps if I were a native Londoner it’d be different, perhaps I would prefer the Tube just for the extra twenty minutes. But I’m not, I’m here as a half-tourist, and explorer, so I’m going to make the most of every minute that I’m here. Why waste it in a dark, underground tunnel?


Even though my commute is terribly long and kind of annoying, I’m very thankful for it. The new wave of interns in my program live right in Central London; the new intern at my office lives a fifteen minute walk away. But that’s okay because if it weren’t for my commute, I wouldn’t have seen half of the beautiful things I’ve seen. I wouldn’t have gotten lost and explored with my friends. I wouldn’t have half the memories I’m going to remember forever.


I’m not new to public transport, but experiencing TFL has shed a new light on it. I’ve come to appreciate it just that little bit more.


Anyway, back to the CTA comparison, public transport is public transport no matter where you go. The other significant differences between CTA and TFL are mostly cleanliness and structure. TFL is generally much cleaner, but it’s still not perfect.


TFL has riverboats and separates its subways and above-ground train systems, but they’re basically the same thing, just with different names.


One small thing about CTA that I’ve come to be extremely grateful for, in a “you don’t miss it until it’s gone” way, is how the station names are repeated at the end of the full station announcement. EG, “This is UIC Halsted. This is a Blue Line train headed to Forest Park. This is UIC Halsted.” Because if you miss it the first time (which I usually do), you’ll hear it again.


Otherwise, each system is different and has its own pros and cons. Even though CTA can be disgusting, especially compare to TFL, I think I truly do prefer it, just because I've come to hate the Tube so much. Whoops!


But these days, I do quite often say that I have a love-hate relationship with TFL.


And I’m certain that I’ll miss it when I’m gone.


xoxo, j.


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