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Disability rights group Access Living and others call for transit ambassadors on CTA

7:28 PM CDT on September 28, 2021

Transit ambassadors on Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART). Photo: BART

In the past Streetsblog Chicago has advocated for holistic solutions to violence on Chicagoland transit such as investments in mental health care, housing, and unarmed transit ambassadors

Now a coalition of forty community groups and civic organizations in Chicago and suburban Cook County working on embedding racial equity and mobility justice into transportation, the Transportation Equity Network (TEN), have given their support for the creation of a transit ambassador program for the CTA. On September 15th, Laura Saltzmam, transportation policy analyst for Access Living, a Chicago disability rights organization, spoke on behalf of TEN at the most recent CTA board meeting.

Saltzman stated that there has been an increased perception of safety issues on transit and widespread news coverage of public safety incidents. The notion that buses and trains are unsafe discourages people from using them, which can decrease ridership. “However, an increase in law enforcement or other armed guard presence is no cure-all. Transit riders are disproportionately likely to have had negative interactions with law enforcement and fear an escalated response if their behavior is seen as threatening or abnormal.

Saltzman cites a recent report from the TransitCenter foundation titled Safety for All which provides insights into the potential of reimagining safety on transit. From the report Saltzman states, “since simply increasing police presence can generate additional risk for many riders, transit agencies need to shift resources toward public safety programs that acknowledge that a safe system can mean different things to different people. More holistic approaches that make use of unarmed  customer service and social welfare personnel should be used to reduce interactions between riders and the police while building better support for vulnerable riders.”

The cover of TransitCenter's "Safety for All" report.
The cover of TransitCenter's Safety for All report.

Saltzman expressed a desire for everyone to feel welcome on transit, rather than over-policed or fearful. Access Living and other coalition members want to see transit ambassadors who are trained on how to interact with and assist people with a range of disabilities, with a special focus on de-escalation for people with mental health issues or those who seem to be on the verge of causing disruptions. 

According to Saltzman, we can learn from other cities who have taken steps to create a non-law enforcement response to public safety issues on transit. San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) System has seen success with unarmed personnel explicitly trained on de-escalation measures. In the spring of 2020, the Los Angeles Metro Board of directors unanimously approved a motion investing $40 million towards the creation of a transit ambassador program.

Access Living and their allies were able to lobby state legislators into passing legislation mandating a non-law enforcement response to people experiencing crisis. You can learn more about the Community Emergency Services and Supports Act, or CESSA on AcessLiving’s blog.

TEN coalition members are currently pushing to include funding for CTA transit ambassadors in Chicago's 2021 budget.

I couldn’t agree more with Access Living and other Transportation Equity Network members that using COVID relief funds to create a transit ambassador program makes sense.

Read the AccessLiving blog post that inspired this article here.

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