Last April, Chicago Tribune cartoonist Scott Stantis drew an L system map with stations named “Mugged,” “Knifed,” “Trash,” and “Urine.” Harsh, but he had a point: The pandemic has left Chicago’s trademark transit feature less reliable, safe, and sanitary, causing even loyal users to shun it. Even as people return to their normal routines, L use is only half of what it was three years ago.
Fueling the unreliability is a shortage of drivers. The Chicago Transit Authority adjusted its train schedules last fall to better align with available labor, but many runs are still getting skipped. Every day, the local rider advocacy group Commuters Take Action tweets the percentage of fulfilled Blue Line runs; in late December, it was hovering around 66 percent.
And no one wants to be hanging out on L platforms waiting for a train any longer than necessary. Fewer eyes in cars and stations has contributed to a lawless feel, so the pandemic saw a spike in robberies and assaults. Even now, a Tribune analysis found the violent crime rate on the L is more than twice what it was before COVID.
Anecdotally, conditions on the trains have become unpleasant and unsanitary, especially on the 24-hour Red and Blue Lines, which unhoused people are increasingly turning to for shelter. It’s not unusual these days to see more than one person in a car stretched out across multiple seats, sleeping. Meanwhile, other riders are using the L as a rowdy party spot. Smoking, though not permitted, is nearly ubiquitous on the Red Line at night. Littering seems to have gotten worse, and elevators and platform warming shelters are often used as toilets.
A degraded L system translates into more auto traffic congestion and pollution. It also means a less equitable city, since lower-income residents are more likely to depend on public transit. Moreover, the L is a crucial part of our city’s identity — a rare place where a cross section of diverse Chicagoans are brought together. So what can be done?
GET THE CTA WORKFORCE BACK TO FULL STRENGTH
The agency has been addressing this. It held more than a dozen job fairs last year, hiring about 70 train and 420 bus drivers. In November, it increased starting hourly rates for drivers from $24 to more than $28, with another bump this year that will take that to just under $30. This year, mechanics and rail repairers will see their starting wages rise, too, to nearly $40 an hour. The CTA also added hiring and retention bonuses. Still, at the start of the year there were about 100 vacant jobs in rail operations and 600 in bus operations, according to a CTA spokesperson.
The agency needs to do even more, says Ted Villaire, communications director for the Active Transportation Alliance, a local advocacy group for public transit, walking, and biking. “CTA employees deserve compensation that keeps up with rising living costs, and they need more flexible schedules,” he says. Otherwise, they will look elsewhere for work, “such as driving for trucking and delivery companies.”
Fabio Göttlicher, cofounder of Commuters Take Action, says it’s clear from his conversations with CTA employees and managers that the agency needs to streamline its hiring and promotion practices. He noted that new hires have to work relatively low-paying jobs in customer service or as flaggers before getting bumped up to drivers. “It’s no surprise that the hiring funnel is still dry. If no changes are made, more and more current operators are going to quit because they are overworked. It could become a death spiral.”
TAP ALTERNATIVE TACTICS FOR CRIME REDUCTION
Last year, the city responded to transit crime by increasing police presence. Of course, that comes with its own baggage. No one wants a repeat of the incident three years ago in which police officers, after struggling to detain a man for walking between cars, shot him as he fled up an escalator of the busy Grand Red Line station, seriously injuring him.
Meanwhile, the CTA has beefed up its unarmed security force. Last spring, it signed a three-year, $71 million deal to double that force, to more than 200. But these young, yellow-vested guards often travel inefficiently in packs. Security camera footage tweeted last March showed a group of them running away from a fight. “We’re unsafe on the trains because we’re just kid guards,” one told Block Club Chicago. Last summer, the CTA spent another $31 million for up to 50 K-9 teams, each consisting of two unarmed guards and a German shepherd. According to a K-9 team member, dogs can only be unleashed if a guard’s life is in danger.
A better solution for crime prevention: something along the lines of the “transit ambassadors” deployed by the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. Run by the transit police, the program trains unarmed outreach workers in de-escalation and antibias techniques meant to reduce conflicts. According to the San Francisco Examiner, ambassadors are effective at helping people in crisis, and rarely resort to calling in armed help. The public transit agencies in Los Angeles and Boston have similar initiatives. The Active Transportation Alliance and the local disability rights group Access Living have both endorsed this idea.
FIND OTHER SHELTER OPTIONS FOR UNHOUSED PEOPLE
40th Ward Alderman Andre Vasquez, an outspoken transit advocate, says that “resources to address homelessness, those who suffer from mental health challenges, and those with substance use disorders” should be an integral part of the strategy to improve train conditions.
The CTA’s 2023 budget includes $2 million for nonprofits such as the Night Ministry to connect people sheltering on trains with services. And Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a $3 million tiny homes pilot to take people off the street. The most effective thing she could do is back the proposed Bring Chicago Home Ordinance, to raise the real estate transfer tax on properties sold for $1 million or more. Those funds would go toward affordable housing and support services. She’s currently blocking the ordinance.
Labor problems, crime, and homelessness aren’t just big challenges for the CTA. They’re issues across the city. If we can get the trains back on track, it will be a sign that Chicago is moving in the right direction.