Fun at Conferences: Chicago Public Transport Edition

Almost every year that I’ve made the pilgrimage to the annual Association of American Geographers (AAG) meeting, I’ve used public transportation to get around – Chicago is no exception. The exception, this time, was that I managed to get turned around upon arrival, as opposed to a few days in (really? Who puts the north AND southbound buses at the SAME STOP. Facing the SAME DIRECTION. With the same text on their display. At night. In the rain? That’s just asking for it).

So 20 minutes in to going the wrong way on the bus, I use my handy-dandy Google Maps app to see how much farther until I need to request a stop (the app had said ~27 minutes to my destination when I got on). That’s when I discovered I was going southbound (thank you Google, I would never have known otherwise). So yes, I can honestly say I’ve been to the South-side of Chicago — at night. Several attempts at requesting a stop later (Chicago bus drivers operate on a different set of rules than buses I’ve used in other cities. Still trying to figure it out), I got off (thank you other passengers who needed to get off the bus and knew the secret to actually getting the driver to STOP!), switched sides of the street, and 20 minutes later was north bound again. Another 20 minutes, and “look kids, it’s Big Ben!” — I mean, the airport.

(Side note: bus drivers in Chicago wait for you to get on. That’s about it. Quickly learn the ability to walk on a moving bus lurching forward without warning. Also, you can’t hear what street the system is announcing, even with a quiet bus and bionic ears. It’s not like a NY subway where you’d swear it’s Charlie Brown’s teacher – here it’s is just a ding and a whispered street name. Clearly, a system designed for locals.)

Having learned the lesson of paying attention to where I’m going *sigh*,  careful eyes were kept on Google Maps (have I mentioned how much I love my Android smartphone?). Just outside the stop, pulled the request rope, heard the faint ding, and made sure to stand up and walk forward and crack jokes with the bus driver (this might be the magic trick, needs more experimentation). Hopped off, jaywalked across the street, and now safely ensconced in the hostel.

So what’s the lesson here? Don’t be afraid of public transportation. So I got on the wrong bus – big deal. I got to see a part of Chicago at night I wouldn’t have seen otherwise (the wrong part for sure, but still a part). Got to experience the real Chicago and its citizens a little bit more. Got to stand in the rain, laughing, waiting for a bus, and wondering how exactly the system here works. Got to wave at the driver of the wrong bus (why not?), have him slow down perplexed, and then drive right on past when he realized this wasn’t his stop. In short, I got to be a Geographer, and what’s more fun than that?

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