Imagine a public transportation system that is riddled with billions of dollars’ worth of backlogged issues alone. Now imagine that same transit system investing money not into its much needed maintenance and repairs, but into a merch store. Hi, and welcome to the Chicago Transit Authority.
If you’re like me at all, you’d be incredibly surprised to find out that the CTA gift shop is an actual thing that exists, but even more surprising is the store at its core has over 400 different CTA branded products and commodities that you can purchase.
Additionally, the store has a special feature where you can choose from up to 8 select items to be branded with a specific ‘L’ stop of your choosing. With 145 rail stations, that puts the store’s inventory at well over 1500 unique items that you can purchase, and with that kind of selection to choose from, there are bound to be some floozies in there. Trust me, there are some floozies.
“But Tom, what would be the best way to commemorate that one time a passenger was assaulted at the Austin Blue Line station with a sock filled with actual human shit? I’m overwhelmed by all of the options!” I hear you, and I think that a pair of ‘L’ Map Socks would fit perfectly with an Austin (Blue) Tote Bag. “It’s one L of a bag!”
There is no doubt that the CTA has a rich history. At some point, getting something branded by the CTA must have been a genuine thrill, multiple folks even having the thought “Wow, I should definitely not drunkenly take a piss here!” However after decades of neglect, the fact that the CTA sells branded products is laughable and I’m here to absolutely judge the ‘L’ out of them for it.
SO by the request of no one, I have taken it upon myself to narrow it down and provide a review of the 3 best and worst items that the CTA gift shop has to offer. Since it’s not in the budget to purchase every item in the store to determine the actual quality (donate to Scapi here) I’ll be breaking things down using the following 3 criteria:
Cost – Because boy oh boy are a lot of these items overpriced just like their one-month passes.
Functionality – Do the products serve any unique purpose or quirky function? Spoiler alert, overwhelmingly not.
Aesthetic/Style – A lack of functionality can always be made up by a trendy lewk.
Buckle up fam, because we’re about to hit this review like we’re going 55MPH on the Purple line express!*
*Just kidding! The CTA offers no actual safety restraints in any of their vehicles.
Best – Vintage Prints and Posters
A vintage aesthetic is always very on trend, but it’s something that this particular collection of posters and prints do very well.
Perhaps they remind everyone of simpler times (ala the ‘Avoid Street Congestion’ poster), but I can definitely see one of these hanging up in my apartment somewhere.
Worst – In the Loop Collection
Who was responsible for forcing this terribly rendered picture through 5 Photoshop filters, and then deciding to slap it on not one but a whole line of products (including its PRIDE selections which, come on CTA, surely us gays deserve better than this)?
Not only are there objectively better visual perspectives of the ‘L’ in the loop, the photo editing on this print is so terrible that you can’t even get a clear view of Chicago’s great architecture in the background. Plus, at $29.95 there is no way the iPhone case is going to protect your phone from shattering when you throw it off the platform in frustration of yet another express train whizzing by Roosevelt at rush hour.
Now onto the rankings!
Top 3 Best and Worst Products offered by the CTA Gift Shop
Best #3 – CTA Rail Map Automatic Umbrella
Starting this list off strong with an umbrella. Now this is definitely something where I wish I could judge the quality and see whether or not it can withstand rainy, windy city conditions; however, trying to find an umbrella that’s completely impervious to catching the wind and knocking you over in this city is virtually impossible, so I’m going to give this one a pass.
I personally enjoy it when maps are used as a design element, and this is one of the few products CTA offers that utilizes it well (spoiler alert for the 3rd worst product on the list). The layout of the map fits the umbrella shape well, plus it’s visually pleasing to see the map laid out on a black background for once (we love a dark mode option). One critique I have, being a tallboy, is that it could be a bit bigger. Other than that, this is a great buy.
Cost: 3/5 – If it is good quality it’s definitely worth the cost
Functionality: 4/5 – It’s an umbrella, you’re gonna need it
Aesthetic: 4/5 – Maps are cool!
Worst #3 – ‘L’ Rail Map Shower Curtain
Riding anywhere on the Red line is enough to make me want to take a shower immediately, I don’t need my shower curtain to reflect that.
This eyesore is a prime example of thinking one can go slap-a-map on an object and calling it “design.”
The ‘L’ extends primarily north to south, making it great as a vertical design element but awkward when you try to squeeze it into a horizontal space.
Plus, being listed at $59.95 makes this a HARD PASS.
Cost: 1/5 – $59.95 for a shower curtain.
Functionality: 3/5 – It’s a shower curtain, so technically it has function.
Aesthetic: 1/5 – This is the last thing I want to be reminded of when I’m scrubbing the CTA filth off of my human.
Best # 2 – River Crossing Product Line
The only flaw in this design is the obnoxious CTA logo in the corner. Despite that, it’s still an incredibly beautiful print, and 3 out of the 5 products they offer with the design utilize it very well (again with the terrible filters used for the PRIDE products, HELLO??). The colors on the print are vibrant and visually pleasing, and shows off a great part of the city. The train is actually the least prominent part of the picture, which is probably what makes this a great design.
Cost: 3/5 – The towel and the tote bag both are priced at $39.95, which is honestly quite overpriced
Functionality: 4/5 – All of these products have practical uses! Wow!
Aesthetic: 3/5 – Great design, but the score was definitely brought down by the awful editing on the PRIDE products. No, YOU’RE biased.
Worst #2 – CTA Token Cuff Links (Sterling Silver)
Trust me when I say I wanted to throw the whole selection of jewelry into this slot, but there was something about this $170 pair of cufflinks that especially irritated me when I saw it. Cufflinks in general have always screamed “Look at me go I’m a wealthy privileged well-to-do” to me, but who are these marketed towards?
Who is getting ready for the Chicago Rich Folks Gala and is thinking “You know what would pull this look together? If the cuffs of my shirt were bound together by some overpriced pieces of metal that are also branded by a transit system that fails to protect its employees!”?
Get off my lawn with this nonsense CTA.
Cost: 0/5 – absolutely not.
Functionality: 1/5 – have you heard of buttons?
Aesthetic: 1/5 – I hate it I hate it all.
#1 Best product offered by the CTA Gift Shop – Wooden Trains
When I saw that the CTA offered these toy trains, I immediately thought it was really cool. Are they the sleekest looking toy train cars? No. Is the CTA the sleekest designed railway system? Well then…
These toy trains look incredibly fun, and trains and cars always make for great toy marketing no matter how unnecessary it may appear to be (I’m looking at you Pixar’s Cars 1,2, & 3).
These make an especially great gift for all of the train-loving Chicago kids out there, which is why I gave it the #1 slot on this list. I can see it now:
“Come on Jimmy! I have folks at State waiting to transfer!”
“Sorry Sally, my trains are delayed due to police activity ahead. WOMP WOMP.”
Unfortunately, the downside is that these trains and sets are very pricey. It looks like the Evanston kids are going to be the only ones who will be able to afford to build a full scale replica of the entire railway system.
Cost: 2/5 – Everything in this store is too expensive.
Functionality: 4/5 – We love toys.
Aesthetic: 4/5 – WE LOVE TOYS.
#1 Worst product offered by the CTA Gift Shop – ‘L’ Stop T-shirts and Apparel
All of the t-shirt designs are terrible, but these definitely took the cake as being the worst product on the site. Are the ‘L’ stops signs recognizable? Absolutely, and I actually think the station signs products that they offer are really cool; however, the way they slapped these signs on white t-shirts looks objectively awful and cheap, and being listed at $28.95 there is no reason for the design and placement of the signs to be this bad. Sorry not sorry, I have no inclination or desire to have my nipples connected via the Polk Pink line sign.
The one-line description of the t-shirt reads, “This premium fitted short-sleeve will fit in every man’s wardrobe.” As far as the ‘L’ station line of products go, there are no “women’s fit” or any type of gender neutral apparel listed (but your children, toddlers, and babies are covered, thank god), and the only “women’s” shirt listed in the entire store is an athletic tee. Additionally, their largest size t-shirt only covers a 28” width. But hey, were we honestly expecting the CTA to be size inclusive or provide safe options for women and nonbinary folks? Be better CTA.
Cost: 0/5 – overpriced.
Functionality: 0/5 – not for everyone.
Aesthetic: 0/5 – nipple connectors.
But now for a little fun.
Bonus: CTA Branded Items that we definitely need
We are all well-aware now that variety of gifts the CTA has to offer is already way too extensive, but here are a few products that I think could be best-sellers:
Maternity and newborn “Immediate Follower” apparel
Moms, it’s time to amp up those maternity shoots with the Immediate Follower apparel line. We know that CTA merch store lacks options for women, so we knew that this would be a great solution.
How cute would CTA themed maternity and newborn photo shoots be for you and your soon to be commuter? Plus, with some subtle design elements, these shirts are able to highlight that you are in fact incredibly prego, making sure those assholes hogging the priority seating section give up their seats for you.
Apparel not for you? Don’t worry, next we have…
Signal Clearance Bumper Stickers
You have a car in the city? Lucky you! You get to join the trend of putting a sticker on something you paid more than $1,000 for. Now everyone trailing behind you will have a nice chuckle to themselves as you unsuccessfully search for a parking spot in your neighborhood.
And last but not least…
Red Line Piss Stank Cologne
WHY. WHY DOES IT ALWAYS SMELL SO BAD.