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Courtney Cobbs.

[This piece originally ran in Checkerboard City, John’s column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

Social worker and transit fan Courtney Cobbs moved to our city from Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2013, partly because she wanted to be able to live car-free. She has posted some thought-provoking comments on Streetsblog Chicago in the past about the need for better bus and train access on Chicago’s South and West Sides. I caught up with her by phone to hear more of her take on the equity issue.

John Greenfield: What’s the public transportation system like in Little Rock?

Courtney Cobbs: There really isn’t much of one. I actually had a brief conversation with the people there about, for example, how ridiculous it was that I lived about five or six miles from the community college that I attended and that, in order to get there, I would have to take two buses and it would take me 30 minutes, versus a ten-minute drive. The bus service is very infrequent and doesn’t run very late. It’s like not having a system at all, for the most part.

JG: You wrote a while ago that the transit system is one of the things that brought you to Chicago.

CC: Yes. I wanted to live in a city where I didn’t have to own a car, because I really care about the environment, and public transportation saves you money. I really like big cities, and I felt like Chicago was an affordable option versus New York or L.A., and I could live here without a car relatively well.

JG: Where do you work nowadays?

CC: I work for Thresholds Psychiatric Rehabilitation Centers, at their Ravenswood location. I work with adults with chronic mental illness, helping them with daily living skills and integrating them into the community. For example, I help them navigate the CTA.

JG: You live in Edgewater, near the Bryn Mawr stop. How far a walk do you have to the train station?

CC: Two or three minutes. It really just depends on if I have get walk signal or not. [Laughs.]

JG: So you’re really only about a block away. Is train noise an issue in your apartment?

CC: It isn’t, surprisingly. If it’s late at night and I have my window open, occasionally I can hear “Doors closing,” but that’s about it.

JG: Where did you live when you first came to Chicago?

CC: I lived in Kenwood, at 44th and Drexel. Transit service wasn’t as good. The best part about living there was the #4 Cottage Grove bus. That runs along Cottage Grove between the Illinois Center and Chicago State University.

JG: That was how you got downtown?

CC: Yeah. When I started with Thresholds, I would take the 43rd Street bus to the 47th Street Red Line station. My commute was about an hour, hour and fifteen minutes every day, which was really physically draining. Moving to the North Side has cut down on my commute time considerably.

JG: So what do you like about the CTA?

CC: It’s pretty reliable compared to other systems. I was just in Atlanta this past weekend and I was like, oh gosh, I can’t wait to be back in Chicago because the CTA is so much better. The trains run more frequently here, and there’s more development around the stations. It’s not as if it’s an afterthought like, oh, we’re going to have a system for some people who don’t drive.

JG: You’ve written that you feel there are some equity problems with the CTA. Do you want to tell me more about that?

CC: Certainly. I’m not saying that the CTA’s trying to provide crappier service in some neighborhoods than others. There’s an urban design element at play. Some neighborhoods are better suited for transit. Other neighborhoods are built for cars, and that’s how people get around.

But in some neighborhoods, the service could be more frequent. For example, when I was taking the bus to and from the 47th Red Line stop, once I got back to that station in the evening, I would often have to wait fifteen or twenty minutes for a bus to take me to my apartment. There’s also a lot of crowding on some of the buses. The #4 can be really crowded with strollers and grocery carts. So more buses are needed to get people to the trains, because trains are more popular.

JG: Because they’re faster and don’t get delayed by traffic jams?

CC: Yes, which is why I support bus rapid transit. Ashland, and I think a lot of other streets, could be turned into BRT routes. Giving more buses traffic-signal priority and bus-only lanes is important, because it’s frustrating when buses get stuck in traffic, and you’re delayed by ten or fifteen minutes. There should also be bus-only lanes on Lake Shore Drive, in both directions.

JG: What are some other equity issues with the CTA, besides infrequent service?

CC: The times that buses stop running. For example, the #4 doesn’t go as far as 95th after a certain time of night. That puts a lot of people in jeopardy. I’ve actually had friends call me because they missed the last #4 bus and they needed a ride home.

That’s definitely more of a problem on the South Side and probably on the West Side. I recognize that not every neighborhood has the same transit access I have at my current apartment. The #36 [Broadway] bus, the #151 [Sheridan], the #147 [Outer Drive Express], the #84 [Peterson], the Red Line—they’re all right here.

JG: Any other CTA equity issues that come to mind?

CC: Just the length of the commutes. I think it’s unfortunate that so many people that do commute from the South Side to the North Side have a longer commute. I do realize that the CTA improved it by doing the Red Line South Modernization Project, which shaved a couple of minutes off of people’s commutes. Extending the Red Line further south and maybe even having some bus rapid transit on the South Side would be great.

JG: If you had Forrest Claypool’s job as president of the CTA, what would you do to improve transit access for the South and West Sides?

CC: Ask the people what they want. Have more focus groups. Survey the people who currently take the CTA. Survey people who used to take the CTA and no longer take it. Mail out surveys, email them, call people. Because I think a lot more people would use the service if it were better.

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