Readers sometimes ask how I get around, and some people even suggest they already know the answer based on perceived tea leaves in my writing.
No, I don't fly to the office in the Tribune helicopter (there isn't one), which is to say that I can be as self-centered and irritable as the next commuter when it comes to delays that affect how long it takes to get to work and back home — preferably in the sitting position — using both buses and trains.
But I have a few personal rules that I couldn't imagine violating: Always give up a seat to elderly, infirm and pregnant riders; never sit in the clearly marked priority seating areas, even if the seats are empty, because they are intended for people with disabilities and senior citizens; and always exit buses through the rear door, to make it easier for riders who are boarding.
I'm not bringing this up only because this week marks the 24th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act. The act, among other things, enables the more than 37 million people with disabilities in the U.S. to have access to bus and rail service.
Sometimes I just like to reflect on how good life is without facing major challenges to complete ordinary tasks like commuting, and to remind my unconscious, selfish id to chill out.
As I arrive downtown on Metra in the morning during the summer, my daily decision over how to most efficiently complete the last 11/2 miles of my trek to work is based on several competing factors: CTA Bus Tracker predictions as I step off the escalator at Union Station, how many minutes until the next water taxi departs the Madison Street dock, and the square root of the ambient temperature multiplied by my caffeination level to determine whether I will jump on a Divvy bicycle.
Here's a snapshot. One day last week, Bus Tracker won, and I lost — until I finally stopped to consider the larger picture.
A CTA No. 151 Sheridan bus was approaching the bus stop at Jackson Boulevard and the Chicago River just as I arrived. Perfect. After two taps of my Ventra card to get the "Go!" signal on the fare reader, I took a seat in the middle of the bus. The driver was making good time. Glancing at my watch, I imagined that one of my alternatives, the water taxi, was just now boarding passengers.
About a half-mile into the trip the bus stopped for an elderly woman using a walker. The driver put the bus into the "kneeling'' position to help the woman board and, observing her wobbling while she grasped a handrail and inserted the other hand inside her purse to retrieve her fare card, the driver did the right thing — he waited at the stop until the woman could sit down.
But it was a deep purse. After what felt like a minute, I looked at my watch again. I marked 2 minutes, as the woman standing at the farebox was still trying to find her fare. Out the window, traffic to our left moved along as the signals went through several red-green cycles. Three minutes passed.
At 4 minutes, another passenger got up from her seat, approached the woman and the driver to say something I couldn't hear, and with a fare card in hand she made a move to pay the older woman's fare. But the older woman covered the reader with her own hand, insisting that she would use her own card.
She never did retrieve the card, and the driver finally asked her to take a seat on the full bus. Passengers who had been sitting in the priority seating area got up and moved back. The woman placed her walker in front of the priority seats on the left side of the bus and gingerly walked to a priority seat on the right side of the bus.
The bus was at a standstill for about 7 minutes now. As it finally made forward progress again, a rider boarding at a few stops north made a comment to the driver about the big gap in service. Meanwhile, a No. 151 bus that was behind our bus leapfrogged ahead of us.
My luck, the woman with the walker (and the unintended free ride) pulled the cord to exit before I reached my stop. I got off too (back door, of course), and walked the rest of the way.
I arrived at work late (long after the river taxi docked near the Wrigley Building). At my desk, still a little wound up, I dug into my lunch bag for a treat. All I found that was a little bit satisfying were carrots.
* * *
A day later, a friend and fellow transit rider, Scott M., shared his own priority-seating story over dinner.
He's on a crowded bus on the Near North Side, where a woman confronts two young, able-bodied riders who are sitting in priority seats, gesturing at them with a shooing motion to vacate their seats for another rider who is standing right in front of them.
"Can't you see this woman is pregnant and she should be sitting down so she doesn't fall?'' she says.
The CTA, through onboard announcements, encourages riders to offer their seats to pregnant women, but it is not a stipulation for priority seating.
The two riders who were told to move look at each other, then do as instructed and squeeze as far away as they can on the packed bus. Meanwhile, the woman for whom the priority seats are being cleared declines to sit down, so another rider takes one of the two priority seats.
This triggers anger from the woman guarding the priority seats, even though one priority seat is still available for the pregnant woman to use if she were to change her mind.
"Get up. Get up. Can't you see we have a pregnant woman on the bus who should be sitting?'' the woman announces loudly so that everybody on the bus can hear.
"It's OK,'' the beneficiary of the gesture says. "I'm fine standing. Really," she says, backing away from the priority seating area.
As she moves down the aisle toward the rear of the bus, she stops at each row of seats, telling her fellow riders: "I'm not pregnant. I'm not pregnant."
Contact Getting Around at firstname.lastname@example.org or c/o the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611; on Twitter @jhilkevitch; and at facebook.com/jhilkevitch. Read recent columns at chicagotribune.com/gettingaround