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Sun-Times’ Laura Washington is right: We all need to start riding transit again

Thanks to widespread mask use and decent ventilation, studies show transit use has been fairly safe during COVID. Photo: John Greenfield

Back in fall 2019 when the city of Chicago proposed fairly taxing Uber and Lyft to help level the playing field for transit, including raising an estimated $2 million a year in new revenue for CTA improvements, Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington was on the wrong side of the issue.

But Washington hit the nail on the head with a recent op-ed titled "Chicago, let's get back on the 'L' and do our part to save transit," noting that if we want local public transportation to survive the COVID-19 pandemic intact, we've got to be the change we want to see. The columnist, who describes herself as a non-driver for the past quarter-century and "avid CTA rider," says she's been taking buses and trains throughout the pandemic, and her elderly mother and younger nephew are riding the CTA as well.

Laura Washington
Laura Washington
Laura Washington

Washington writes that her friends are incredulous, but "I tell them to get on board. Chicago needs our butts in those seats." She notes that the CTA saw ridership plummet by 57 percent in 2020, due to people working from home, avoiding transit out of fear of transmission (studies show riding public transportation during COVID has actually been fairly safe); or being unemployed during the recession.

The columnist acknowledges reports that conditions on transit have gotten worse during this period of low ridership. On the bright side, she notes, the CTA is the only major transit agency that hasn't cut rapid transit service or laid off workers during coronavirus, and federal stimulus money has helped keep keep the system afloat.

Now that vaccination is becoming more widespread and there's a light at the end of the tunnel, Washington writes, "We are desperate to return to normal. When we do, we must do it via the CTA. If riders don’t return to the CTA, Metra and Pace, look for layoffs, service cuts and hefty fare hikes." In other words, a transit death spiral, which would hurt transit-dependent Chicagoans the most.

Washington says she's skeptical of Metropolitan Planning Council president MarySue Barrett's proposal to offer reduced fares to coax people back onto transit, arguing that would further hurt the CTA's bottom line. The columnist instead suggests stepping up cleaning and doing more to prevent crime in order to make the system more attractive to riders of choice.

"A subpar system would increase car dependency, crush our already-crumbling infrastructure, poison the environment, and deepen racial and class divides," the columnist writes. Bingo.

"Do your part. Get back on the bus," Washington concludes, and she's exactly right. If you've been avoiding transit during COVID and feel comfortable riding again, you should definitely make a point of doing so, especially if you would otherwise drive or take ride-hail. And after you've been vaccinated (it's getting easier to qualify and find appointments in Chicago this month) you should be able to do so with newfound confidence.

Read Washington's piece here.

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