Stop Badgering Us! CTA Riders Weigh in on Wisconsin’s Anti-Transit Ad Campaign

A Brown Line car with an ad juxtoposing a depressed CTA rider with a joyful snowboarder with the text "Catch a train or catch air?" Photo: John Greenfield
A Brown Line car with an ad juxtoposing a depressed CTA rider with a joyful snowboarder with the text "Catch a train or catch air?" Photo: John Greenfield

Since Uber and Lyft have been cannibalizing CTA ridership lately, this would be a great time to promote the transit system as a cheap, efficient, green, and interesting way to get around town. But right now there are advertisements displayed on el platforms, and inside and outside of 15 Brown Line cars, showing young people looking miserable on CTA trains, along with text suggesting that rapid transit is a soul-crushing waste of time. What gives?

The ads are part of a $1 million marketing campaign from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation to entice Chicago millennials to move to the Badger State. The public-private agency was formed in 2011 by Republican governor Scott Walker, whose anti-transit policies have included refusing $810 million in federal grants lined up by his predecessor for a new passenger rail line linking Milwaukee and Madison.

Along with ads on social media, in downtown health clubs, and on beer coasters in local bars, the CTA images feature the tagline “Wisconsin: It’s more you,” i.e. a place where a lower cost of living, shorter commutes, and easy access to outdoor recreation means young adults can get more out of life. According to WEDC chief operations officer Tricia Braun, the campaign targets young Chicagoans “who wanted the urban experience but have since become disillusioned with the daily challenges.”

A Brown Line add asks "Catch a train or catch his game?" Photo: John Greenfield
A Brown Line add asks “Catch a train or catch his game?” Photo: John Greenfield

One ad states that “Chicago has the longest commute times in the country compared to only 22 minutes in Wisconsin” and asks the viewer if they’d rather be “Waiting for a train or waiting for kabobs” at a barbecue. Other placards on the CTA juxtapose dejected-looking young straphangers with shiny, happy people drinking beer on a terrace above Madison’s Lake Monona, playing Frisbee golf, or competing in beach volleyball. The accompanying text asks “Rush hour or happy hour?”, “An hour commute or an hour with friends?”, and “Bump elbows or bump on the court?”

The message is clear: The el is a drag, so you should move to Wisconsin, where you can drive everywhere instead. The question is, why is the CTA playing host to this anti-transit sentiment?

According to agency spokesman Jon Kaplan, they don’t have a choice due to First Amendment issues. He said the CTA’s advertising guidelines prohibit ads for illegal goods or services, plus those containing false information, hate speech, overtly political messages, or mature content, but “if ads meet our guidelines, we accept them.”

However, the rules also prohibit advertising that “tends to disparage the quality of service provided by the CTA, or that tends to disparage public transportation generally.” But Kaplan asserted that the WEDC ads “do not disparage CTA or transit, but instead promote Wisconsin.”

A Wisconsin ad on a Brown Line train. Photo: Michelle Stenzel
A Wisconsin ad on a Brown Line train. Photo: Michelle Stenzel

Merriam-Webster defines “disparage” as “to depreciate by indirect means,” so I’d argue that the images showing el riders in a state of existential angst do imply that rapid transit is something to avoid. So perhaps the CTA isn’t actually required to run the WEDC ads, but has opted to do so for financial reasons?

Martin Redish, a Northwestern professor of constitutional law, doesn’t think that’s the case. He even questioned whether the anti-disparagement clause is legal, since the CTA is a governmental agency. “A core notion of the First Amendment is that the government can’t suppress speech that criticizes it.”

If we assume that WEDC made the CTA an offer they couldn’t refuse, that leaves the question of whether the ad campaign’s strategy of comparing Wisconsin’s 22 minute average commute time to Chicago’s, 32.4 minutes, is a fair line of attack. Center for Neighborhood Technology director Scott Bernstein noted that that’s an apples-to-oranges, state-to-city comparison. However, Chicagoans who drive alone to work do have a significantly longer average commute than their Milwaukee counterparts, 32.6 minutes compared 20.6 minutes, according to recent Census data.

CTA rider and ex-Wisconsin resident Adam Stevens. Photo: John Greenfield
CTA rider and ex-Wisconsin resident Adam Stevens. Photo: John Greenfield

But the average length of a transit commute in the two cities is virtually the same, 43.4 minutes in Chicago compared to 42.4 in Milwaukee, Bernstein added. While commute distances are greater in Chicago, the traffic jam-immune el system levels the playing field, since the Milwaukee County Transit System doesn’t include rapid transit.

“It’s not so much that people are choosing to drive in Wisconsin, but rather that the choice of riding a train was taken away from them,” Bernstein said. “I have a really hard time looking at those ads and not being somewhat offended. My guess is that people in Wisconsin might be offended too.”

Indeed, former Madison mayor Dave Cieslewicz recently wrote in that city’s Isthmus free weekly that the ad campaign seems “premised on the notion that millennials would rather spend time stuck in traffic on the Milwaukee freeway system or on the Madison Beltline than riding the el.” He noted that nowadays about a quarter of U.S. 19-year-olds don’t have driver’s licenses. “It apparently never occurred to the WEDC that there are people who actually would rather ride a train than drive a car.”

Marta Grabowski by a Wisconsin ad playing up the lower cost of living in the Badger State, asking "Your ramen or ours." Photo: John Greenfield
Marta Grabowski by a Wisconsin ad playing up the lower cost of living in the Badger State, asking “Your ramen or ours?” Photo: John Greenfield

I recently buttonholed a few such folks on the Brown Line to get their impressions of the campaign. “I love the CTA,” said preschool teacher DeAdra Estelle, 29, on the Armitage platform. “I don’t have a car and my commute is pretty easy.” Estelle added that while she feels the ads portray the el in a negative manner, she found them to be funny.

26-year-old software consultant Adam Stevens moved to Chicago from Whitefish Bay, a Milwaukee suburb. Waiting for a train at Diversey, he said he’s generally had positive experiences with the el. Stevens was skeptical of the WEDC’s strategy. “Being from Wisconsin, there are enough positives to play off of that we don’t need to focus on anything negative to get people to move up there.”

On the Belmont platform, environmental engineer Marta Grabowski told me the el factored into her decision to take her current job instead of one in a city with no rapid transit. “I don’t think [the ads are] going to persuade millennials to leave Chicago. I think young people, especially, like riding the train. It’s sort of a cool city thing.”

At the Irving Park stop, a 31-year-old banking industry employee named Thai told me he previously lived in Brew City, where he drove to work every day. “Milwaukee’s great, but the public transportation isn’t so great,” he said. “I actually prefer riding the el to driving, not having to sit in traffic. The CTA works perfectly for me.”

Judging from these responses, if the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation wants to convince Chicago millennials to move, they should stop portraying the el as a hell ride and focus on promoting the things that America’s Dairyland does best: beer, brats, brie, and bouldering.

  • kastigar

    “…for a new passenger rail line linking Milwaukee and Madison.”

    This passenger rail line existed many years ago, but it was abandoned because very few people were using it. It was replaced by a better alternative that still exists: The Glacial-Drumlin trail that joins the Milwaukee and Madison areas.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    I’ve ridden it! I also took the Badge Bus from Madison to Milwaukee with my bike once when it was too snowy to complete that leg of the mid-winter Bratwurst Triangle version (Chicago-Madison-Milwaukee) of the annual Frozen Snot Century ride:

  • Jared Kachelmeyer

    Theoretically you could probably find housing within walking distance of downtown Milwaukee which would be affordable to the people this ad targets. In Chicago a lot more people are priced out of this opportunity. And from my experience I don’ think Milwaukee is a bad city to bike in.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Here’s one smart thing that Milwaukee does for biking Chicago should emulate. They crunched the numbers and found it was cheaper and more effective to simply repaint all their bike lanes every year with regular reflective paint, rather than wait until after the lines fade away and then restripe them with expensive thermoplastic. But I guess its unlikely this sensible solution could be done in Chicago — campaign donations from the thermoplastic contractors and all that.

  • 1976boy

    I’ve seen the ads and hear them at my gym downtown. They are hardly persuasive. I’d give most people the benefit of the doubt that might fund them laughable; it’s absurd to think Wisconsin has anything to offer someone who loves city life. My first thought upon hearing the “22 minute commute” line was: You get what you pay for.


  • johnaustingreenfield

    Milwaukee and Wisconsin are great cities, and there are many other awesome aspects to Wisconsin (I love taking canoe trips on the eponymous river.) But what Walker and his minions fail to grasp is that that ‘L’ commutes are a feature, not a defect, of live in Chicago.

  • Jacob Wilson

    What’s disturbing to me is how a measly $1 million can purchase so much blight on our senses. El wraps? Radio spots? Plus all the design and copy (though I get labor is cheap in Wis), what gives? Is the CTA selling our public spaces for pennies?

    If I’m going to be assaulted by advertising on my commute it better have some serious benefits

  • what_eva

    I’d much rather be sitting on a train reading for 32 minutes than driving for 22.

  • CIAC

    “Martin Redish, a Northwestern professor of constitutional law, doesn’t think that’s the case. He even questioned whether the anti-disparagement clause is legal, since the CTA is a governmental agency. ‘A core notion of the First Amendment is that the government can’t suppress speech that criticizes it.'”

    Exactly what I said the last time you wrote about this. The CTA doesn’t have a choice. If it accepts advertisements, it can’t discriminate based on viewpoints. That’s pretty settled law. The good news it that this also means that Wisconsin wouldn’t be able to refuse billboards on their roadways that advertise the benefits of living in Chicago. Unfortunately, the city is out of money so it wouldn’t be able to launch a campaign to the extent Wisconsin did. And the various nonprofit groups that might also advertise the city are too busy dealing with the ripple effects of the city’s budget issues to spend resources on an advertising campaign like this.

  • ardecila

    I guess CTA does counter this kind of negative messaging with frequent promotional ads that emphasize the convenience and broad scale of CTA services (Ride the CTA to work, to dinner, to a ballgame!)

    Also don’t forget that most people choose to locate based on job offers or prospects, not lifestyle factors necessarily. So long as Chicago continues to have a strong business community with significant presence in almost every industry, people will keep flowing in.

  • skelter weeks


  • JacobEPeters
  • JacobEPeters

    The fact that you had to take a bus bc the trail was not a viable option during the winter shows the falseness of Bob calling it “a better alternative”. Given the increases in downtown living density in Milwaukee & Madison, and the increase in driving costs since the Marquette (later named Varsity) service was discontinued in 1971, reinstating that service between the two cities would likely have much higher ridership. A rail alternative is still needed.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    In fairness, barely anything was operating that day. IIRC, the bus was delayed a few hours due to the snow. I think we also had to beg the driver to let us put our bikes in the cargo hold.

  • JacobEPeters

    Rails are the most reliable in those conditions in my experience. I just was taking issue w/ comparing a rail & bikes as interchangeable alternatives, when that is simply not true. We’re lucky in Chicago that it sometimes feels like they’re alternatives to one another, but that is very rare across the country. Especially when we get into the distance between Milwaukee and Madison.

  • Anne A

    You mean Milwaukee and Madison?

  • Anne A

    I lived in State College, PA for 2 years (college town – excellent local bus system) and a few different cities in southern NH for 10 years (minimal public transit, not very useful). One of the reasons I moved back here was that I was tired of having to drive nearly everywhere. I wanted to get some reading time back and not be driving all the time.

    Driving was a lot less stressful out there, but I don’t miss it. I really appreciate the flexibility that transit offers. Living away for 12 years made me appreciate our local transit systems and realize that, even with its flaws, what we have is much better than the transit options offered by most U.S. cities.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Whoops, good catch, thanks.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    “I lived in State College, PA for 2 years (college town – excellent local bus system.)” My home town! Not only that, but the Penn State campus recently put in a bike-share system with 17 stations.

  • rohmen

    Judging by the fact that wraps and banners advertising movie very often stay on for months after the movies are out of the theater, and other ads stay up well after an event has passed, I’m betting it’s not a super competitive market. So, yes, the market rate might be pennies.

  • Cameron Puetz

    Given how far the #squirreltruth joke campaign went, I don’t think the ads cost much.

  • Kevin Mulcahy

    Former Chicagoan, now living in Madison… I can ride my bike to work in 15 minutes, and ride out of the city in 25 minutes, basically all on off street paths or in bike lanes.

    Maybe the ad campaign should have focused on statistics like that?

  • Cameron Puetz

    I haven’t heard of anyone talking the ads seriously. As is typical for recruitment ads they seem to have landed with a thud and been widely laughed at. The core problem with campaigns like this is a group of old people who’ve never wanted to live anywhere else, set out to tell a group of young people who’ve chosen to live somewhere else what they should want. The message these groups concoct is predictably tone deaf and ineffective.

    I say if WEDC wants to spend their money getting laughed at, let the CTA have the funding.

    The Wisconsin ads remind me of mailer (picture below) I got from my home town in Iowa telling me to come home where I could be a big fish.

  • Cameron Puetz

    I liked living in Milwaukee. On a student budget I was able to dive walking distance from downtown and the lake. Pretty much anyplace I wanted to go was a comfortable bike ride. The cultural amenities weren’t at the same level has Chicago, but they were better than most places. If Milwaukee’s job market were better I would have considered staying after college.

  • There must be something wrong with me, because I think that I would rather live in Wisconsin than have to ride the L every day.

  • Jacob Wilson

    I wish we’d just stop then. The “L” is one of Chicago’s greatest and most unique features it’s sad that we’re so eager to deface it.

  • Gray

    So, as an academic exercise, would the CTA also have to accept a campaign of “Wisconsin Sucks” ads?

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Good question — should we crowdfund one?

  • rohmen

    I’ve never been on a major mass transit system that didn’t have some advertising, though maybe total outside wraps are a little less common.

    I mean $1 million is still $1 million (and it look like CTA got a lot of that money), and I’d imagine total ad revenue is pretty substantial to the CTA budget. It’s not like other government funds are going to rush in and close the gap.

  • Jacob Wilson

    I’m not blaming the CTA in particular so much as bemoaning an economic system the butchers aesthetics.

    That said, many other large cities have much more garish advertising than Chicago and when Rahm tried to put ads on the bridge houses it was met with pretty universal scorn so I think Chicago has some desire to keep it’s public spaces unmolested.

  • williamsgodfrey

    Former Chicagoan still living in Chicago. I can ride my bike to work in 24 minutes with 97% of the trip being on an off street path. the other 3% in a bike lane. In fact, Chicago has 250 miles plus of protected bike lanes and who knows how many miles of regular painted bike lanes (actually, John probably knows. John?). Chicago is regularly listed as the most bike friendly city in the country (Madison is usually around 20, Milwaukee is an afterthought).

    My guess is that even if we tallied bike centric statistics like the ones you suggest, Chicago still comes out, by a long shot, on top of anywhere in Wisconsin.

  • I’ve tried to find out which if any other advertisers have targeted only heavily white commuter routes via FOIA but so far no response.

  • Kevin Mulcahy

    Well, Chicago may have more total bike lanes than Madison, but I would encourage you to check into the statics a little deeper. Madison is a one of only five cities in the country that are ranked at the Platinum level by the LAB in regards to bike friendliness. In my opinion and experience, it’s just a much nicer place to ride a bike.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    I’m a big Chicago booster, but your numbers are pretty off here. Chicago had installed 19.5 miles of physically protected bike lanes as of October 2015, and the rate of installation has slowed down since then — CDOT only put in 1.3 miles of PBLs last year — so it’s unlikely that we’ve broken 30 miles yet. I’m not finding the latest numbers for buffered and conventional lanes offhand, but it’s somewhere over 100 miles.

    Obviously, it’s an apples-to-oranges situation. Madison has about a tenth the population of Chicago, with lots of college students, who are perhaps the most likely adult demographic to ride bikes. But there’s no argument that Madison is a great cycling town. As you can see from this map, the city is saturated with bikeways, including several on-street paths that are useful for commuting downtown. Several bike businesses are located there (Saris and Planet Bike spring to mind), and there are strong commuting and recreational bike scenes there.

    That said, I think Chicago is doing a pretty good job becoming more bike-friendly, considering the challenges inherent to promoting cycling in a huge, diverse city. As Bicycling magazine wrote years ago, “It’s like teaching an elephant to dance.”

  • Has anyone seen these ads on the red line? CTA said Wisconsin did a buy there too

  • Chicagoan

    I did see an ad on the platform of the Harrison Red Line stop, though the majority of them are on the Brown Line.

    It’s interesting that they don’t have any interest in the millennial populace from the Green Line or the Orange Line, just the Brown Line, which happens to go through mostly white neighborhoods.

  • So what made all those Berwyn Rising ads less offensive? I remember some of them being mildly cheeky.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    The Berwyn ads didn’t say, “You should move to Berwyn because Chicago is awful.” They said, “You should move to Berwyn because Berwyn’s great,” and in many respects it is — relatively affordable, racially and economically diverse, with good restaurants and music venues, decent CTA and Metra access, historic housing stock, and a walkable street grid. And it’s probably the best place in the region to settle down if you’re into rockabilly and are trying to pretend that you live in the postwar era.

  • No question Madison is great. If only there were some way to get there from Chicago, perhaps at high speeds on some sort of rail.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Yeah, it’s pretty nuts that Amtrak’s Empire Builder route goes through Milwaukee and LaCrosse, but skirts around Madison. I usually take the Van Galder bus, which leaves from near Chicago’s Union Station and O’Hare and allows unboxed bikes with a fee (last time I checked.) I’ve also ridden Metra to Harvard and then biked 70 miles.

  • Chicagoan

    Berwyn is the most beautiful Chicago suburb, I think.

  • Allan Marshall

    Speaking of the Amtrak Empire Builder, it’d be nice if there was some sort of timed special shuttle bus one could use for an additional fare, between Madison and Columbus, WI, so that you could get up to Columbus to travel to/from other places on Amtrak. Like how River Valley Metro(the bus transit system, for the Kankakee area) does, between the transit center on the north side of the Kankakee area, up to University Park on Metra Electric.

    I used that special commuter bus on a past Metra weekend pass trip to get down to the Kankakee area in the past, and it worked well for me. Just think if there was something like that, to go between Madison and Columbus, WI!

  • Allan Marshall

    I occasionally see such ads by the RTA encouraging people who drive to try using CTA/Metra/Pace, but to be honest I haven’t seen those ads as often lately. Versus how often I used to see those ads, even a few years back.


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