Riding the T During a Heat Wave Was Awful. CTA Will Also Need to Cope With Climate Change

A Boston Orange Line train. Photo: Adam E. Moreira via Wikipedia
A Boston Orange Line train. Photo: Adam E. Moreira via Wikipedia

One thing to be thankful about as a CTA straphanger is that even when Chicago is experiencing a heat wave, the temperature usually isn’t too awful on ‘L’ platforms, within subway station, and on trains and buses. I recently learned that the same can’t be said for all peer transit systems.

This past week, I was in Boston with the TransitCenter foundation’s Women Changing Transportation Mentorship Program. We were attending the American Public Transportation Association’s Sustainability and Multimodal Planning Workshop.

While there, I took some time to visit different parts of Boston with other mentees in the program. I am always particularly excited about riding transit in other cities. On one day, a fellow mentee and I went to Harvard Square from Back Bay. It’s not particularly far, so we walked to the Park Street T Stop near Boston Common to ride the Red Line.

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During the days we were there, it was extremely hot, which was impacting train speeds. Boston’s mayor even declared a “heat emergency” a few weeks ago. The heat was palpable when we were walking down the street, which was made worse by the fact there was little shade (where were all the street trees?). Once we got to the station, we then had to navigate the facility to find our platform. By this point, we were already heat-exhausted and the humidity in the station was worse. The only cooling came from fans placed haphazardly throughout the station. Luckily, the actual train cars were cool, which offered a much-needed reprieve. As someone who rides the CTA frequently, I seldom encounter stations that mirror the heat outside.

A few days later, another mentee and I were heading to the conference center from the Back Bay Orange Line station. Another heat-stroke-inducing platform awaited us. 20-30 minutes passed before a train arrived that we could board (they were all packed). Within a few stops, a woman collapsed on our rail car. By the time someone came to help her, she had come to. She was drenched with sweat and I’d venture to guess the extreme heat on the platform did not help.

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I’d ridden the T before, but never in peak summer. It was not pleasant. On one of our tours that week, we learned that Boston has the oldest subway in the United States, which explains its aging infrastructure. It’s not the first time people have noted the heat on the Boston T.

When I spoke to other mentees from other cities, they said that the New York subway is no better when it comes to heat. Last time I visited, I mostly rode the 7 above ground, so at least there was some air circulation, just like on Chicago ‘L’ platforms. NYC’s MTA has noted the aging infrastructure and its Subway Action Plan includes a strategy to modernize the system and address its issues with climate control.

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Since I was just a visitor to Boston, I wanted to see what locals had to say about the hot subway, so I scoured Twitter for tweets about the heat on the subway. Unsurprisingly, there were a lot of frustrated tweets.

As our cities experience more heat waves and climate change becomes an everyday reality, I wonder how our transportation systems are preparing for the extreme heat, whether in regards to the heat on the tracks or the safety of customers on a hot platform. These are questions we all need to be asking and working to address.

  • planetshwoop

    I was expecting a Kingston Trio pun ala “e tu Charlie?” in the headline.

    I worry about flooding and extreme temp changes like last winter’s break on LSD too.

  • Anne A

    I was in San Francisco recently on a heat emergency day. Riding BART at rush hour in that kind of heat (even in the morning) was not fun. It was one of several reminders on that trip that the Bay Area is mostly unequipped to deal with severe heat when it happens.

    At least Boston is more used to hot weather in summer. It’s less common in SF.

  • JacobEPeters

    When I was working on the design of the new Government Center MBTA subway station head house we specifically included vents & fans in the triple height glass entry hall in order to create a stack effect & pull air out the top to create a breeze in the summer. It was an opportunity not many other stations had because of their location under city streets. Chicago may have some similar opportunities as part of making subway stations ADA compliant since an elevator shaft is essentially a stack by nature. The Division Blue Line, State/Lake Red Line, & Jackson/Harold Washington come to mind as locations where a well placed elevator for transferring to the subway could include a venting stack for use in the summer. Maybe even at Chicago, but that would be a bit harder since it would probably require an intersection redesign.

  • Lyka

    Weather is not climate.

    Weather is what happens today/this week, climate is what happens over decades and centuries.

    Boston has a long history of heat waves, from the time it was founded. Boston’s hottest day was last century in the year before the bicentennial:

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/weather/2019/07/22/boston-sweltered-through-its-hottest-weekend-ever-recorded-punishing-east-coast-heat-wave-concludes/

    So one hot day/weekend is not climate change, it’s weather.

  • Carter O’Brien

    This actually raises a question wrt to Belmont and other single-entrance subway stations, aren’t these major fire hazards? If a garden apartment can be deemed a problem for this reason surely an underground platform where hundreds of people might be trapped is a serious concern.

  • JacobEPeters

    Subway stations also have emergency exits that are not used by the public & emergency exits that are down the tunnel, so it’s a much more complex issue. Which is why if the Belmont Blue Line renovation had been more extensive it would have triggered a whole bunch of other code updates that were not within the budget.

    In my mind if we were going to renovate Belmont we should have done a complete Belmont/Kimball intersection redesign including a new headhouse, new ADA vertical circulation, new auxiliary entrances/exits, & new prepaid bus boarding areas in all 4 directions. What was built was basically a very expensive bandaid that will eventually need to be replaced with a more holistic solution.

  • rohmen

    I wouldn’t describe them as cool, and maybe I just have a high tolerance, but the CTA L subway stations I’ve used regularly (Division, Washington, and Clark/Lake) have never seemed that bad even during heat waves. At least nothing like the description of Boston. Are they just already designed better that Boston?

  • ev_one
  • JacobEPeters

    Our subways were built later than Boston, the current Red & Blue line subways were opened in 1943 & 1951 respectively, as opposed to most of the downtown Boston stations being built before 1920. Our subways were largely built using the complete reconstruction of a street via cut & cover, so they include ventilation grates in the sidewalk & a more modern by comparison systems.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I certainly agree on the more holistic approach/need – but I have to assume those small emergency exits are really intended for CTA staff working on the trains themselves. Lord knows if there was a serious fire you wouldn’t want average CTA passengers getting on the tracks to walk to one of those tiny doors (plus, a train blocking that passage could actually be what’s smoking and part of the problem).

    The big challenge with Belmont is that it’s now “new” and thus has almost certainly been bumped way back in the queue for further large scale improvements.

  • JacobEPeters

    Those are emergency exits that were explicitly built in case a train breaks down on the tracks & is smoking. That is why there is a ledge to walk along to the next exit door.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Indeed those are better than apparently what was there up into relatively recently: https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2008-12-22-0812210320-story.html. Funny how it always takes a tragedy and follow investigation by a higher authority. Except that it really isn’t funny of course.

    But I trust you have been on the subway when it’s two or three people deep on the platform. If there was a serious emergency down there above and beyond the usual train breakdown it would be a panic-driven disaster, so AFAIC there ought to be a second, fully ADA accessible exit just for that reason alone (above and beyond the accessibility).

  • rwy

    I’ve visted NYC during the summer. On a normal summer day, the subway stations are very hot. And subway stations in New York are large labyrinths and you can get very sweaty making a transfer.

  • JacobEPeters

    Which is why a secondary exit often used as an auxiliary entrance, and elevator access are required in new station construction, or when a station gets improvements that are equal to more than 15% of its replacement costs.

    However, exit widths at Belmont are more than enough to meet emergency egress needs, since every time a train empties it is the equivalent of a fire drill.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I hear what you’re saying, but I’m questioning the assumption that a single train’s capacity is how we should be properly sizing the capacity needs of that second exit. That’s based on a problem with a single train, not something involving the platform or station itself.

    One real world scenario, and why we periodically have the cops with the bomb sniffing dogs and the bag checks, is the loose bag/package(s) that is actually an explosive.

    Imagine a rush hour train *plus* a station platform loaded with people waiting to go both downtown and to O’Hare, as a few bunched Belmont buses have unloaded within a short timeframe.

    This isn’t some kind of weird disaster fantasy, this kind of crowding situation is what we see on the Blue Line all the time, it’s intentional as it was part of the larger TOD plan.

    In our real world I’m sure you’re right and CTA is following the letter of the law. But that doesn’t make it either smart or right. When you said “What was built was basically a very expensive bandaid that will eventually need to be replaced with a more holistic solution,” the only question is what “eventually” means. And the continued TOD-accelerated development suggests it’s going to be a lot sooner than the City planned for. Assuming they did any planning at all.

  • JacobEPeters

    The city & the cta did do planning, which is why the rest of the upgrades as part of the “Your New Blue” include power upgrades so that more trains can run per hour, which will effectively increase the capacity of the blue line by 30% during peak demand. This means that there will be less time between trains, which means less of a build up of passengers on platforms, which means the disaster scenario you are presenting as an inevitability is less likely to occur. It makes sense to rip off the band aid & build fully accessible stations at California, Division, Damen, Belmont, Chicago & Grand as soon as possible, but not because the current stations are death traps (they are not, just take the time to do Life Safety calculations), it’s because they are inequitable &/or inefficient at prioritizing the bus routes that transfer to those lines.

  • Carter O’Brien

    The problem isn’t the number of trains, it’s how they bunch. Longer trains are the answer, but those aren’t coming any time soon. Serious question- do you actually ride the Blue Line during rush hour?

  • BlueFairlane

    Interestingly, the hottest day in Boston’s history is an example of weather, not climate.

    And while you’re correct that one hot day/weekend isn’t indicative of climate change, it’s well accepted that Boston — and pretty much everyplace else — has a lot more hot days/weekends per year than they used to. And that is climate. So it makes sense to talk about the challenge the cities face on hot days/weekends.

  • JacobEPeters

    The problem is literally the number of trains, and the fact that our current signal and power system can’t efficiently handle the number of trains on a given track segment when they bunch.

    Longer trains can be the answer to overcrowding, but California & Damen would need platform extensions which trigger required elevators before 10 car trains. Longer trains also require more power, so the power upgrades to the Blue Line are still a prerequisite.

    Additionally, longer trains would actually exacerbate the issue that you are concerned about regarding platform crowding & worst case scenario emergency egress loads. Longer trains would mean less frequency, because longer trains require more power. Based on current fleet design we can only add trains in 2 car consists and the current trains are 8 car trains, meaning 10 car trains would have 20% longer headways. Which means 20% more time for platform crowds to build up & if something were to happen while a full train was in the station, then there would also be 20% more train passengers. There are many reasons that frequency is preferable to increased train length, but sometimes other constraints make longer trains the only option.

    Yes I do, but it’s faster for me to bike to work (even if I catch a train just as I get to the platform) because I live a 15 minute walk from the train and I work in Greek Town (it’s about a 2 mile detour on the blue line as opposed to on bike). Which means that I only take the train on days like tomorrow and Friday when I am doing something in the Loop for work first thing, or when I am doing something after work where I don’t want to have my bike.

  • Carter O’Brien

    To be clear, I did not say CTA subway stations were deathtraps, nor am I stressed out about riding the train or using the Belmont stop as it is my daily go-to. I simply found it telling that it took a disaster and federal intervention to make safety improvements in 2008 per that article, which is not exactly ancient history. That said, I don’t think it’s an unreasonable position that a second ADA entrance to a subway is common sense and should be fast tracked and prioritized. These kinds of things are not that uncommon, this was shared *today*, right on this fine publication, btw: https://www.nbcchicago.com/news/local/call-of-bomb-threats-shuts-down-cta-trains-at-roosevelt-during-rush-hour-526463251.html

    I would rather be biking quite often, so I envy your commute choices. But I have a very different perspective of the Blue Line as my wife and I are reliant on it during rush hour, and it would not be an overstatement to say we basically built our life around it. It was a smart bet and I’m glad we did it, but it means that the capacity and crowding problems predictably creeping up the line, with the equally predictable impact of TOD zoning bumps exacerbating that, are felt on a daily basis. The frequency of the trains is absolutely not the problem. It’s the inconsistency of the spacing. You’ll have trains 1 or 2 minutes apart (awesomeness) often, and I doubt that can be improved. But then you’ll have trains that are 6 – 10 minutes apart. That’s much less awesome. And then at times they address the spacing problem by running trains mini-express and skipping our stop/others in the general vicinity. Little is as sad as the faces on the California platform watching trains pass them by in January and February (score: warm and toasty subway station).

    If CTA can fix that as part of their process, fantastic. But re: the planning disconnect, do you really think CTA was asked about how they felt they were prepared to handle the additional capacity brought in by all the numerous TOD projects approved on the Blue Line? I think their full statement on the overcrowding says otherwise: https://www.transitchicago.com/betterblueline/. It’s not the worst problem to have, I get it. But it’s still reactive. I’ll close my excessively wordy comment by just saying I’m hopeful and optimistic Lightfoot’s approach to zoning is the long term fix we need here. I’m totally supportive of more density and utilizing the Blue Line and other CTA infrastructure to its fullest potential – but that needs to be done in a coordinated, corruption-proof fashion with land use and zoning planning and development, which is not even remotely how zoning has been done in this city for as long as we’ve had it.

    I do appreciate your engineering details and obvious dedication to the larger system, sorry if that gets lost in the conversation.

  • david vartanoff

    The unspoken issue here is car design. Most subway cars until the “New Technology Trains” in NYC use dynamic braking which reverses the circuits in the motors. The excess electricity is then dumped into resistor grids under the cars. This explains the blast of hot air as a slowing train enters a station. Newer cars sed the electricity back to the third rail where the energy is available for other trains.

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