Meet the CTA's Biggest Fans
As a child, Juliet Eldred knew every stop on the train. Friends nicknamed her “Google Maps” as a teen because she knew how to ride the train to get wherever she wanted to go.
By the time she enrolled at the University of Chicago, Eldred’s love for public transit was solidified: she majored in geography and started “New Urbanist Memes for Transit Oriented Teens” (NUMTOT), a Facebook group that now counts more than 173,000 public transit lovers from all over the world as members. Eldred started the group, in part, as a love letter to the CTA – particularly the Red and Green lines.
“The Loop, as a piece of transit infrastructure, has definitely informed so many different things in terms of how the city looks and feels and how people move,” Eldred said. “I think this is definitely a big part of Chicago’s identity.”
To Eldred, the ‘L’ is freedom. Buses are access. Chicago’s public transit systems are the fastest and most visually stunning way to get around the city – even if they do sometimes smell like marijuana or urine. The city’s busy trains and buses are emblematic of the life of the city in a way that the inert Willis Tower could never be. This is a concept that the CTA’s biggest fans like Eldred know, embrace, and, in their own ways, geek out over.
Scott Dogali chose to memorialize his love for the CTA on his left arm. In June, he headed to Deluxe Tattoo in Chicago’s Irving Park neighborhood, where an artist inked a 10-by-5-inch CTA map on his bicep.
“I just grin every time I see it in a mirror. It just makes me laugh a little bit,” Dogali said. “It just reminds me, ‘Oh yeah, I live there, and Chicago is awesome.’”
Growing up in Tampa, Dogali said that what would have been a 10-minute trip by car to the mall took an hour by bus since the ride was so circuitous and infrequent. “Tampa has the country’s worst transit system,” Dogali said. He depended on his parents to give him rides. So when he visited his brother in Chicago in 2014 and glided along the Brown Line through Lincoln Park, Dogali realized Chicago was the place for him.
“It’s that sense of freedom, accessibility of place, I had never really had before,” Dogali said. “I have an oddly romantic view of transit. It’s a nice feeling, being able to sit and do very little and travel somewhere.”
Two years later, after finishing graduate school and becoming an engineer, Dogali moved to Chicago and immediately took advantage of the freedom public transportation offered him. In his free time, he rode the Green Line to its westernmost point in suburban Oak Park, gazing out the window with his headphones plugged in. But the Brown Line remains his favorite.
“I hope that when I am 120-something years old I am still as youthful as the Brown Line is,” said Dogali, 28.
Ravioli, a 3-year-old mutt from Lincoln Park, is a four-legged embodiment of the CTA. Last Halloween, his owner Kayla Michelotti said he won first place dressed as a CTA bus in their apartment building’s Halloween costume contest. His cardboard-and-foam costume earned him a new toy, and Michelotti a discount on rent.
“We figured, ‘What's the scariest thing in the world?’ If you ask Ravioli, it was a bus,” Michelotti said.
Ravioli, who came from a shelter in rural, quiet Kentucky, was so startled when he first heard trains overhead that he would “pancake,” lying flat on the ground and refusing to move. Most walks ended with Michelotti carrying Ravioli home.
But after a few years living next to the Brown Line, Ravioli has come around.
Ravioli even takes the Brown and Green lines with Michelotti every few weeks for trips back to her hometown in suburban Westchester. He sits in a backpack custom built for dog travel.
“He gets plenty of attention because he's obviously the cutest passenger on the train,” she said. “He’s a CTA super-fan in training.”
Nearly three years after founding the Facebook group whose members call themselves “NUMTOTs,” Juliet Eldred spends a few hours each week policing the site. It’s had flare-ups, of course – as when a seemingly benign map meme devolved into a sick rationalization of Mao’s Chinese Revolution – but she said it’s mostly for posting transit humor.
Jokes comparing depressing European highways to gleaming American public transit systems and commenting on how the US has a much better public transit system has remained a perennial delight, since they switch the two locales – much of the US is connected by highways, while trains and buses are more commonly used abroad.
“I've seen like smaller groups sort of fall or falter under much less pressure, so I feel like we've got a pretty good thing going,” Eldred said of the group.
Eldred said she’s met people who have been empowered to run for public office thanks to the Facebook group. She’s messaged members about career experiences — including an internship at the federal Department of Transportation, which a NUMTOT asking her for advice ended up securing – and heard it’s influenced what people have gone on to study.
Now a transit planner in Boston, Eldred, 25, said she plans to keep running the group as long as possible. And when members post pictures of the CTA, particularly as the Brown Line crosses over the Chicago River in the Loop, Eldred said she can’t help remembering all those times she used the CTA to explore new neighborhoods.
She said it helped her take a mental break from the “Hyde Park bubble” that engulfed her college experience.
“The ‘L’ isn’t perfect, there's plenty to be improved, et cetera, et cetera. But I think it just gives you such a sense of potential and opportunity,” Eldred said. “Between New York, Boston, and Chicago, the ‘L’ is definitely the cleanest and most reliable.”