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Always use protection: PPE vending machines are coming to Chicago ‘L’ stations

A Canteen PPE vending machine in the MTA. Photo Taidgh Barron, New York Post

Update 10/21/20, 6:00 PM: Active Transportation Alliance advocacy manager Julia Gerisamenko provided the following statement:

"This is a step towards making wearing masks on transit the easy choice for riders, but doesn’t go far enough. The majority of transit trips being taken continue to be on the bus. The vending machine model doesn’t work for bus riders unless you are transferring from one of the six stations where there will be vending machines.

$3.75-$10 still aren’t accessible prices for those most in need, those who rely on transit the most. If debating whether someone can afford to buy a mask or pay for a return trip home, I think we know what choice that rider will make. I would also bet that you could find a mask for cheaper than $3.75 at a local corner store.

Transit agencies need to do more to ensure universal mask wearing to keep riders and operators safe and that means providing free masks and sanitizer on every bus and train."

This summer the Active Transportation Alliance suggested that the CTA install mask dispensers on buses and trains as a way to help get everyone wearing masks on transit during the time of coronavirus. The agency had already been giving away some masks and sanitizer via its Travel Healthy kit giveaway program, which include a reusable cloth mask, hand sanitizer and healthy travel tips, but ATA said in August that the reach of the program had been very limited. "Making masks readily available on all buses and trains is the best way to ensure universal mask compliance," the group stated in a blog post.

Today the CTA announced that ATA is getting its wish -- sort of. Later this fall the CTA will roll out new vending machines stocked with personal protective equipment at six of the busiest 'L' stations across the city.

“We understand the need for our customers to have a safe experience during their commutes,” said CTA President Dorval R. Carter, Jr. in a statement. “The addition of these new vending machines is a reflection of our unwavering commitment to seek out tools and resources to help reassure our customers that we are doing everything we can to keep customers healthy during this ongoing pandemic.”

The machines, which were approved at today’s Chicago Transit Board meeting, will contain hand sanitizer, disposable face masks, sanitizing wipes, and disposable gloves, on sale for $3.75 to $10. While the first few items are definitely helpful for straphangers, medical professionals say that such gloves aren't actually useful for preventing  COVID infection, unless they serve as a deterrent to touching your face.

For starters, six vending machines will be installed at the Belmont, Roosevelt and 79th stations on the Red Line, the Midway station on the Orange Line, the Jefferson Park station on the Blue Line, and the Kedzie station on the Green Line.

The CTA also said today that it continues giveaways of Travel Healthy kits, and more than 14,000 kits have been distributed across the system so far, with further distribution events are planned later this year.

The PPE vendor, Canteen, will install and operate the machines. Canteen is the largest vending operator in the Chicagoland area and the current vendor for food vending machines at all CTA employee locations. The company currently has PPE vending machines in Metropolitan Transportation Authority stations in New York. 

While my assumption is that the Active Transportation Alliance envisioned that these supplies would be available for free (ATA didn't immediately respond to a request for comment), the vending machine scheme is strictly a for-profit operation. Therefore the initiative won't be helpful for people who lack masks -- which are for sale just about everywhere nowadays -- because they can't afford to buy them.

But, hey, if it encourages a few people who accidentally left their mask to purchase a replacement rather than riding the train bare-faced, that's certainly a good thing.

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