Where There’s Smoke, There’s Ire: A CTA Rider Rails Against Cigarette Scofflaws

Photo: CTA
Photo: CTA

A Streetsblog reader gave us a heads-up about a complaint he recently sent to the CTA about people illegally smoking on ‘L’ cars. “I ride rush-hour trains as well as non-rush-hour trains,” he wrote. “It has been my observation that passengers are smoking on trains  much more often than I ever saw before. In fact, I think I see this on trains 1-2 times per week nowadays.”

The straphanger said he usually politely asks the passenger to snuff out their cigarette out, and they often do. “But is this really the best solution to this problem?” he asked the CTA. “I’ve observed that most passengers are not willing to speak up to smoking passengers — likely out of fear of a potential violent response (we all read about frequent acts of violence on the CTA.) Should this smoking ban really be enforced by fellow passengers? What happens when the smoking passenger doesn’t respond to a request to put their smoke out?”

The rider said this happened to him on a recent Saturday night on a Red line train, and he ended using the intercom system in the car to call the driver. “At the next station, he parked the train and left his post, delaying the train, and walked to our car,” he wrote. “I told him what I saw happening and he warned the passenger to not smoke again or he would be kicked off the train. But, in reality, I know that this passenger could simply do it again and would probably not get caught, and I think they know that.”

“There has got to be a better solution to this growing smoking issue,” the customer wrote. “Please at least tell me that the CTA is aware of this and is working on a better solution. As things currently stand I, and I think others, feel isolated, helpless, and scared of these situations with frequent smoking passengers, and that isn’t right. We shouldn’t have to put up with smoke in our train car, or have to move to another car every time this happens.”

He added that he rides both during rush hours and other times of day, and most often witnesses smoking on the Forest Park branch of the Blue Line (which runs between the Loop and the western suburbs in the median of the Eisenhower Expressway) when he boards at Racine for his evening commute. “The smoking passengers usually smoke until Jackson, unless I ask them to put it out, then they stop or exit the train as it starts to get more crowded,” he reported. “It is probably more difficult for them to flout the smoking ban around so many people. I’ve seen young and older people smoke in the cars, and both those who might be homeless as well as those who are clearly not. It is clear to me that they know they can get away with it and they do not care about their fellow passengers or any possible repercussions.”

The CTA responded by noting that the agency continues to remind riders that smoking (including e-cigarettes) or carrying  a lighted cigarette, cigar or pipe on system property is prohibited. “In fact, we recently began a customer-awareness campaign to inform riders about our Rules and Regulations, which strictly forbid smoking of any kind.  The CTA has also placed extensive signage throughout its properties designating them as smoke-free areas.” The spokesperson said the rider’s concerns had been forwarded to management.

The rep asked the rider to provide a detailed description of any such incidents to the CTA as soon as possible. They also recommended using the intercom to notify the train operator (as the customer had said he’d done.) “If you feel uncomfortable using the intercom in that car, switch train cars at the next stop and notify the operator.” The spokesperson also suggested reporting the incident to a customer assistant after you arrive at your stop, and noted that you can push a call button at the station if you don’t see any CTA staff. “If you feel immediately threatened, please do not hesitate to call 911.”

It’s worth noting that new Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker has voiced support for legalizing recreational marijuana as a strategy to decriminalize behavior that most Americans believe should be legal, as well as to raise tax revenue. A byproduct of that progressive policy would likely be a higher incidence of Chicagoans “sitting downtown in a railway station, one toke over the line,” as the old song goes. But hopefully these future CTA stoners will comply with the system’s rules of conduct, so we won’t see a corresponding increase in hot-boxed ‘L’ cars.

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  • A. Streetsblog Reader

    The crux of this issue is that cigarettes and, especially, e-cigs, can be put out of flame or power and tucked out of sight in a quick moment–before a train operator or the CTA staff can witness the offense. These staff probably don’t have quick & easy access to the camera footage, so without clear evidence of smoking, they probably don’t have the right (or feel they have the right) to kick someone off the train or issue a ticket. And I believe most offenders probably realize this loophole and are therefore breaking this rule with a feeling of impunity. Its a lousy situation for the rest of the passengers.

  • Guest

    Once marijuana is legalized, every bus and train will reek of pot

  • DoctorTecate

    First off, this is nowhere near as rampant a problem as this person suggests. Secondly, what does it have to do with Pritzker and the legalization of marijuana?

  • johnaustingreenfield

    See comment below. And if you really thought I was going to pass up an opportunity for a terrible pun, you haven’t been reading my writing long enough.

  • Jeremy

    If marijuana is legalized, the market for edibles and tinctures will flourish. The desire to smoke will be decreased.

    In regards to the CTA’s customer awareness campaign: stupid/rude/oblivious people don’t get or care about the message. That is why so many people wear backpacks while standing or put their stuff on a second seat.

  • Until it gets really bad we riders must self police. I’m not noticing an uptick myself either. But yes such an uptick would start and gain momentum outside the times and places I ride. I would think that yes we could expect the CTA to respond proactively when / where / if it does. Likely extra specific to smoking enforcement at those times and places.

    And that’s where self policing is important. Hitting the call button will begin to alert the CTA of a growing problem, again where and when. So even if it seems like they are doing little, collecting the data would be a lot.

    The other important aspect is actively and loudly supporting those braver people who do speak up. I had a case as an older white man where I was anxious to speak to a younger man of color. So when a black woman called him out I immediately sided with her and we were immediately joined by a young white woman who pushed the button. The smoker and his swagger was snuffed out faster than his cigarette an he left the train muttering “you pushed the button, you pushed the button?”

  • planetshwoop

    This happens a lot on the Forest Park line in my limited experience. The trains aren’t crowded and there’s been plenty of smoke/smoking.

  • planetshwoop

    I’m not sure if the desire will change. The market expands and probably other/new customers will use edibles. I have no doubt there will an expansion of the green line, so to speak and plenty of smoke.

  • Deni

    Clark/Division station smells like weed all the time. And pee.

  • Whenever I ride the blue out west I get in the first car because that’s the shortest walk up to Homan. So with the conductor actually in the car I suppose I would never see someone smoking.

    On the trip back east getting on at Homan, I ride the middle to minimize walking to the tunnel at Jackson. More crowded but still no smoking either.

    But that is less than ten times a year so I’m not a good judge.

  • rohmen

    Purely anecdotal (though so is the source for this article), but I ride the Forest Park line almost daily, and I have very rarely seen someone actually smoking IN a train car.

    At least no more than I’ve ever seen on any other line. That said, I have seen people go in between cars and smoke more on that stretch of Blue Line than anywhere else. I’d also agree that many more people smoke at the stations on the Forest Park stretch than I’ve seen anywhere else.

  • Dennis McClendon

    I’m confused. CTA hasn’t had conductors since 1997.

  • kastigar

    Why not just designate one car, perhaps the last car, of each train as a smoking car? Who do so many people want to control the behavior of others?

  • Kelly Pierce

    I take this stretch of the Blue Line every workday. I smell
    cannabis regularly and rarely smell cigarettes. The rich terpenes in cannabis
    significantly magnify its odor compared to cigs. The odor seems like the occasional
    person simply finished his bowl after boarding the train before putting it out.
    The last thing Chicago needs is a ramp
    up in the arrests and stigma of cannabis consumers. They have experienced
    ruined lives and split families over this relatively harmless plant. Instead, people
    should contact their lawmakers and insist that marijuana legalization
    legislation include provisions for public use and the licensing of cannabis
    clubs and cannabis consumption facilities.

  • Anne A

    I think it varies quite a bit by line, section of the line and time of day. That’s been my experience. I’ve never experienced it on brown or purple lines, but I’ve seen it lots of times on the red line as less crowded times of day.

  • rohmen

    Why do so many people think freedom means they should be allowed to act in ways that compromise the health, safety, and freedom of others around them?

    Trains are busy enough that designating even one car as smoking means that people will have to ride in those cars that don’t want to be around smokers. Why does a smoker’s desire to smoke in a confined public space trump another person’s desire to avoid being subjected to secondhand smoke?

  • Logan Square Dad

    I run into this problem regularly, but not frequently, on both the Blue Line and the Green Line. I try to ask smokers nicely, as a neighbor, to stop. Most times they do. But the smoking ON the train is only part of the problem. The smoking on the platforms is as big, if not bigger part of the problem. It does not feel like station attendees are concerned or invested in asking people to stop smoking. I wish that CTA riders felt more comfortable and more empowered to ask others to abide by CTA rules. Whether this is smoking, loud music playing, seat hogging or not stepping in or out to let other riders on. I truly think a small amount of polite, respectful discourse could go a long way toward solving these issues and making the CTA a better experience for everyone.


    What a bunch of lousy uptight snowflakes! Just move to the next car people. Back in my day we had a smoking car with complementary matchbooks.

  • You know what I meant Dennis. I meant the pilot.

  • Kyle Lucas

    I agree with the person in the article, I’ve noticed a significant increase in people smoking both on the train and on platforms, and in my experience it’s tobacco, not cannabis. I usually have to travel pretty early in the morning for work and take both the Blue and Red lines to get there, and I experience it multiple times a week. Sometimes I have to switch cars several times to finally find one that’s smoke free.

    But I’ve even witnessed it during the evening rush hour on the Milwaukee branch of the Blue Line.

    It really is a serious problem, and the CTA needs to act quickly.

  • Smith_90125

    Take photos of the buttheads lighting up. Publicize them, name them and shame them, and demand the city ban them from public transit.

  • Smith_90125

    Buttheads are selfish assholes. They’re dogs, pissing to mark their territory. They wouldn’t ride in a smokers’ car because the only ones breathing it would be other buttheads.


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