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Always late, everything smells like weed & more: What nearly 2,000 CTA L, bus riders have to say
Matt Moore, Suntimes
Riders wait at a Loop L stop platform at night. Some riders expressed concerns regarding safety and said they no longer feel safe using public transit after dark. | Michael Gerstein/WBEZ
The CTA — the second-largest transit system in the U.S. — spent 2022 trying to bounce back from a slew of challenges: the pandemic wiping out ridership in transit systems across the country, prompting shortages of bus and train operators and boosting a massive culture shift toward remote work.
None of that is much solace to John Wilmes, a professor at Roosevelt University who is pursuing a career change so he can work remotely after commuting for 12 years.
“I can’t rely on it anymore,” Wilmes said of the CTA. “I’ve always been a defender of the Chicago Transit Authority. I’ve always said, ‘Actually, it’s not that bad. It’s actually one of the good things about living here. It’s pretty reliable.’ That’s no longer true. And the city doesn’t seem to care.”
Ladell Johnson, who works in security for a school near Michigan Avenue, said scheduled buses sometimes don’t arrive and that the CTA doesn’t fairly serve her South Side neighborhood. In contrast, Johnson said, “When you’re downtown, and you’re trying to come home, you have a bunch of buses going to the North Side passing by that are empty.” Also, she said, early morning buses are unreliable and don’t align with the agency’s trackers that count down wait times for riders.
Wilmes and Johnson are among nearly 2,000 people who responded to a WBEZ survey of CTA riders distributed in November via email, text, social media and outreach through community groups. The aim — as the agency embarks on an improvement plan regarding wait times and safety issues and chronic staffing gaps — was to gauge riders’ experiences and attitudes.
The majority of those responding vented about delays, “ghost” buses and safety.
A wave of violent incidents on the Red Line last year rattled riders. Some said they no longer feel safe taking public transportation outside of the busiest morning and evening commute periods. Slightly under half of riders (45%) who took the survey said they feel “somewhat unsafe” or “very unsafe” riding a bus or train. About the same number (47%) said they feel “fairly safe.” Seven percent said they have felt “very safe” riding a bus or train in the past 30 days.
The CTA has pledged to boost security, and the number of “security checks” conducted by police and security are an item on the agency’s new tracker. But many riders said they see security personnel on train platforms but not on trains or buses.
But there also was a good degree of gratitude toward and empathy for CTA workers. Many extolled the virtues of a strong public transit system as part of the city’s DNA despite their frustrations. And they wanted more transparency and more accountability from the CTA.