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What would happen if the 'L' completely shut down for a day?

Picture this: A 24-hour shutdown of the CTA rail system, and you get only a day's notice before it happens. I don't know about you, but I think that's a scary thing to think about.

Well, the entire Washington Metro rail system shut down Wednesday for an emergency safety inspection that caused disruption and inconvenience for hundreds of thousands of commuters who rely on the trains to get around.  

The closure increased traffic, packed buses and forced many people to work from home, walk, bike or take cabs to their jobs in the downtown D.C. area.

It's important to mention that the CTA has never completely shut down the system. Ever. The trains have kept running through historic blizzards, polar vortexes and other extreme circumstances.

But just for context, more than 720,000 weekday rides were taken on CTA trains in 2015, CTA spokesman Jeff Tolman said. That means a hell of a lot of people would be affected if the rail service were to stop.

What would happen if the CTA shut down the 'L' for a day? Would it be a total mess?

Among commuters who have lived in both cities, there was a contrast in what people thought of the two transit systems. Some thought D.C. handled its shutdown like a champ; others think Chicago could do it with ease.

I do think, however, the consensus is the "L" is better liked than the Metro. #Winning

"I think Chicago would be better prepared to handle a shutdown because of its robust bus system," said Sam Healy, a 30-year-old Ukranian Village resident. "I lived in D.C. for seven years and took a bus no more than 10 times. Chicagoans ride buses a lot more, and the system is more convenient to use."

Marcus Glassman is a 28-year-old Lincoln Square resident who lived in D.C. for five years prior to moving to Chicago. He said although he prefers the CTA to the Metro, he believes Washington would be more prepared for a transit shutdown.

"The Metro doesn't really work well to begin with, so commuters have had to find alternative ways to get around," he said. "The whole district is much smaller than Chicago, so when push comes to shove, many people could walk to work."

Tanvi Misra is a 27-year-old journalist who lives in the northwest quadrant of D.C. She lived in Chicago while attending grad school at Northwestern University and used the "L" to get around the city. She said although she walked to work Wednesday, many of her colleagues had to work from home because of the Metro shutdown.

"The key thing is that D.C. is smaller, more compact and it's easier to walk to places," Misra said. "We have the Capital Bikeshare service, which was really useful during the shutdown. I didn't see as much of a biking culture in Chicago, so don't think it would be as big of an option as it is here."

"The CTA makes an effort to update its stations, tracks and equipment," said 24-year-old Josh Walfish, who lived in the D.C. area for 16 years and in Evanston for four years. "It can be inconvenient at times, but they're always making an effort to be proactive. D.C.'s Metro is more reactive. Our system [in Washington] has been broken for a long time, so I feel like they really needed to take a day to inspect everything." 

P.S. Sriraj, interim executive director of the Urban Transportation Center at UIC, said Chicago would be hard-pressed to meet the demands of passengers shut out of the train system in the event of a closure.

"It would virtually shut down access to the airports and the Loop area, which would greatly affect business and make it more inconvenient to get around," he said. "With the city being designed in a grid network and bus routes available on nearly every road segment, it will offset some of the problems, but lack of access to the "L" would have debilitating effects."

Even though the Metro and CTA differ in many ways, both rail systems serve as a lifeline for commuters. And other modes of transportation, such as buses, bikes, rideshare services, cabs, driving and walking, are essential in the event of a large-scale transit shutdown. Chicagoans are resourceful creatures, and I'm certain in the event of a transit crisis, we'd find a way to get around.

@riannecoale | rcoale@redeyechicago.com

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