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Are CTA Buses Disgusting and Dangerous, or Just Slow?

Detail from an anti-littering ad from the CTA’s Courtesy Campaign. Image: CTA

During recent budget hearings at City Hall, Chicago Department of Transportation commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld discussed why Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to add a 15-cent surcharge to ride-hailing trips next year, 20 cents by 2019, to help fund the CTA makes sense. Scheinfeld talked the need to reverse the trend of falling CTA bus ridership, exacerbated by the growth of service like Uber and Lyft by improving bus service to make the travel mode more appealing to customers, and she used colorful language to do so.

“We want [the CTA] to be the mode of choice so people don’t feel like they have to … be that single occupancy vehicle stuck in that traffic,” Scheinfeld said, according to a report from the Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman. “So, how do we make buses sexy? How do we make it something people can rely on to get to work on time, to get to school on time, to get to that doctor’s appointment.”

Scheinfeld cited the $41 million Loop Link bus rapid corridor, with its (theoretically) car-free lanes, raised boarding platforms, and limited stops as an example of efforts to improve bus speed and reliability. The system seems to be resulting in modest improvements in travel times.

“We’re learned a lot from Loop Link. It was a pretty bold move. It continues to show improvements in bus speeds,” Scheinfeld said. “But we’re also looking at other corridors, and there’s a whole spectrum of things we can do. It doesn’t have to be something of such a magnitude.”

While a few years ago the city proposed building a more robust, center-running BRT system on Ashland Avenue from 95th to Irving Park, projecting that it would nearly double bus speeds, that plan was shelved after stiff opposition from some residents and merchants. Instead, CDOT has recently been implementing transit signal prioritization on Ashland and Western, with “smart” stoplights that shorten reds and extend greens to help buses run more efficiently.

Mary Mitchell
Mary Mitchell
Mary Mitchell

In response to Scheinfeld’s comments, Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell scoffed at the idea that bus service could ever be “sexy,” and portrayed riding the bus as a repellant and risky business. “How about this,” Mitchell wrote. “Try making sure buses are safe, clean, dependable and able to transport passengers with some degree of dignity.”

Although buses frequently pass by the building where Mitchell lives, she said she rarely rides them because “CTA can be, well, repugnant.” Having strangers’ bodies inadvertently touching hers while she sits is “repulsive.” Hanging onto a strap while standing on a crowded bus, as well as having someone stand in front of you when you’re seated, is “gross.”

Mitchell also argued that rules and laws are rarely enforced on buses, forcing passengers to put up with everything from loud phone conversations to solicitation to indecent exposure. She also noted that able-bodied riders don’t always give up their seats to seniors and people with disabilities.

“But the biggest challenge CTA faces is the perception that public transportation is just not safe,” Mitchell wrote. She added that the number of serious crimes on the CTA rose by 16 percent between 2015 and 2016, with most of the cases involving thefts of items like cell phones.

“CTA is still the transport of last resort for many because we can’t take all the drama,” Mitchell concluded. “Scheinfeld should forget about ‘sexy’ — safety would do.”

“While crime does occasionally occur on CTA buses and trains—as it does anywhere else in the city—overall CTA is a very safe environment,” responded spokesman Brian Steele. “Crimes [of all types] in 2016 were actually lowest of any year since 2008, with about one serious crime on CTA per every quarter-million passenger trips.”

An ad from the CTA's Courtesy Campaign. Image: CTA
An ad from the CTA's Courtesy Campaign. Image: CTA
An ad from the CTA's Courtesy Campaign. Image: CTA

As for issues with passengers failing to follow CTA rules, Steele pointed to the agency’s Courtesy Campaign, launched in 2105, featuring clever ads reminding customers to refrain from rude behavior like talking loudly on phones, placing bags on seats, playing loud music, and not yielding seats to those who need them. “Also, in fall 2016, CTA launched a ‘Rules of Conduct’ campaign to highlight basic rules such as no soliciting, no littering, keeping feet off seats, etc.,” he said. “We also work with police and our K-9 security teams to enforce these rules.”

One has to accept the basic reality of big city transit – sharing sometimes-crowded public spaces with strangers – to be happy using the CTA. But Mitchell is correct that there’s room for improvement on the system when in comes to safety, cleanliness, and courtesy. And it's true the perception and reality of how safe riding CTA buses is may vary depending on what route you're on.

However, it’s likely that the biggest factors in falling CTA bus ridership are declining bus speeds due to increasing traffic congestion, and competition from new forms of transportation, especially ride-hailing, as detailed in the Active Transportation Alliance’s new report on strategies to reverse the trend. As the study outlines, it is possible to make the bus a more attractive option via relatively inexpensive strategies to shorten travel times and improve reliability, including building many more miles of dedicated lanes with photo enforcement, adding more more transit signal prioritization, and implementing prepaid, all-door boarding.

So far Chicago has only piloted these features. But if the city implements them in a bold manner, all across the city, the bus will finally become a speedy travel option, if not a sexy one.

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