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Interview: Talking Transit with the Tattler

By Jocelyn Geboy in Miscellaneous on Sep 9, 2005 12:07AM

As anyone who as spent any time with Chicagoist knows, we are slightly obsessed with all things CTA. The rumbling of the el as it goes by is just one of the many things that reminds Chicagoist of how lucky we are to call Chicago home. A 24 hour train and bus system that can get you all around the city for two bucks. Yes, it has its failings, but more often than not, it is a pretty reliable form of transit.

Kevin O'Neil rides the CTA and blogs about things "seen and heard on the Chicago Transit Authority." His blog is CTA Tattler, and has gotten a bit of notice lately. Readers and commenters on the blog (including Kevin's brother, Dan) came up with an ingenious idea to let other riders know what is going on when we're all stuck on the el, trapped by the hellish series of robotic "beep beep beep" announcements, but no real information. Or worse yet, the attempt by a human to tell us what is going on, but delivering nothing but the equivalent of the "wah wah wah" noise of the Charlie Brown cartoons. Wireless alerts on our cell phones. About time we used them for good on the el.

2005_09_KevinONeilsmall.jpgChicagoist interviewed Kevin about the wireless alerts, stories of suicide and the mysterious CTA "insiders" the other day....

How long have you lived in Chicago?

I have lived here 28 years. Grew up in Pittsburgh taking public transit there every day to work and school.

What was your impetus for starting the blog? Were you writing before?
I am a professional journalist (BA in Journalism from Penn State) who spent most of my career as an editor. I see the blog as a way for me to put my journalistic skills to work -- both as a reporter and writer.

Your blog says that your whole family rides? How many people are in the fam? What's the age range?
My daughter rides the Red Line to high school five days a week, and my wife rides to work part-time.

How many different forms of transportation on the CTA do you ride? What lines? How often?
I ride the Red Line almost exclusively. Occasionally I ride the Purple Line and some buses on the Far North Side.

What's your favorite time to ride? Favorite line?
I like riding after 9 pm. And of course the Red Line rocks -- particularly after 9 pm.

Is the CTA your only form of transportation?
I do own a car that I bought new in 2001; it has just 13,000 miles on it.

Have you ever had the opportunity to take other cities' public transit? How do you think we fare in comparison?
I think all-in-all we have a very good system. I've ridden transit in Boston, New York and Pittsburgh. I do think we need the Circle Line so you don't have to go downtown to go out to another part of the city.

Your blog and the comments from it have spawned a text message/wireless alert system. The CTA is talking about implementing a system similiar to this. You actually spoke in front of a public board meeitng regarding this. How did the meeting go?
Testifying before the board was awesome, because they listened and were genuinely interested in participating in our own rider-to-rider wireless alert system. And they are! They actually joined our network the next day as a user and have been contributing good information since.

Do you regularly go to the public hearings?
I've only gone to two CTA hearings, but I may go more often as important issues are discussed.

What would be your suggestions for avoiding what seems to be another inevitable budget crisis with its attendant promises of cutbacks and fare hikes?

This is a tough one. I have no magic wand. I do think the funding formula is outdated, so that needs to be addressed.

You've gotten a bit of press...what's that been like?
It's interesting to be on the other side of the reporter's notebook. It's nice to get the notoriety just so more people can read my stories and share their own.

There's also been some stories in the Chicago media lately that seem to have taken cues from your site... talking about CTA annoyances, etc.. are you flattered at their imitation?

Absolutely. As a journalist, I know how the game works... You read something and want to do your own take on the subject. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

You have or have had people who say they are "CTA insiders" who contribute to your blog. Can you talk about that some? Have you verified their credentials/claims in any way? What were their reasons for wanting to talk/share stories with the CTA tattler?? Are they still regularly emailing you?

Two people approached me. One was disgruntled, another said he was a manager trying to correct what he called misinformation from the first Insider. I have never been able to verify their credentials, and I haven't heard from either of them in couple of months. So much for the CTA Insider!

You encourage your readers to submit stories. Do you have a favorite? A favorite type/style? What's the most bizarre thing you've ever seen?
There are so many great stories out there, it's too hard to name one. It does seem that stories from bus rides are often the most bizarre, including this one that my own daughter experienced.

Because of the large amount of people who read your site and are able to contribute first hand experiences, the reader is often able to get behind the scenes information that doesn't normally make the mainstream media -- details about suicides, for instance. I was surprised to see how often this really happens from reading your site. Was that shocking to you? Have you ever considered not posting that information?

That's a good observation. No, I didn't really expect to see that knid of detail here. But people do crave it, and like sharing it. But no, I never considered not posting it. It's life. Life happens, and so does death, and a suicide affects riders in many ways.

One other thing I want to mention is that -- for the most part -- I really to try to leave race / country of origin out of my posts, unless it's absolutely germaine to the topic. I think people have too many preconceived notions about race in particular, so I prefer to leave it out and just tell what happened without saying a white guy did it or a black gal did that.

What are your top 5 CTA annnoyances??
1. Loud cell phone yakkers.
2. Eating on the train, which begets..
3. Litter
4. Lack of communication from motormen about delays, etc., though they are getting better.
5. Ignorant, thoughtless, impolite riders.

It's time for the Chicagoist local snapshot:

Your favorite place to eat in Chicago:
Pasteur Restaurant, Edgewater

Your favorite tourist spot:
I truly am enthralled by Millennium Park (as much as I hate to say it) -- especially hearing a concert at the new Pritzker Pavilion. There's nothing like feeling that lake breeze, hearing the lilting music, and watching the sun set over the city buildings.

The most underrated thing about Chicago:
The neighborhoods -- especially as seen from the Elevated tracks. They are things of beauty.

Image via Pearl Wu