To address the CTA operator shortage, we need to keep transit workers safe

Saturday's rally for bus driver safety. Image: ABC Chicago
Saturday's rally for bus driver safety. Image: ABC Chicago

On December 3, in the wake of multiple attacks on CTA employees, I wrote about the need to do a better job of preventing violence against bus and train operators, customer assistants, and maintenance workers, as well as passengers.

The current practice of stationing police at locations and times where and when violence has been a recurring issue, such as the Jackson stations on the Red and Blue lines late at night, makes sense. However, adding additional armed personnel to the system, as the transit unions have called for, would increase the potential for enforcement of minor offenses to escalate to bloodshed.

So Streetsblog Chicago has called for launching an unarmed Transit Ambassador program, similar to the one that has proved successful on the Bay Area’s BART system. The ambassadors appear to be effective at deterring crime and encouraging compliance with important rules, such as the smoking ban. When Transit Ambassadors encounter crises where an armed response is warranted, they radio for police backup. I’ve asked the CTA whether there are any plans to pilot such a program, but the agency hasn’t responded yet. Recent headlines have really hammered home what an urgent issue this is:

  • On Saturday, December 4, two people randomly beat a CTA bus driver in the 100 block of North Michigan in the Loop.
  • On Wednesday, December 8, a man pulled a gun on a CTA bus driver near the 2000 block of West Marquette Road, and demanded that she take him to an off-route location.
  • On Saturday, December 11, someone shot at an empty CTA bus on I-57 between 111th and 115th Streets as the driver was returning to a bus garage.

As you would expect, in response to these unacceptable levels of violence, CTA workers are standing up to demand better protection. Last Saturday afternoon during a rally organized by the transit unions, dozens of bus drivers marched from City Hall to Millennium Park, holding up traffic for about 20 minutes at Washington Street and Michigan Avenue, where the recent beating took place, ABC Chicago reported. “We’re tired,” said Eric Dixon, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308, which represents rail workers. “Our members are tired of coming to work and not feeling like they are safe.”

The unions say their records show about 400 assaults on CTA operators this year, more than twice as many as in 2021. According to CBS Chicago, there have been a total of 576 violent crimes on the system this year.

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 241, which represents bus operators, previously announced a plan to have a local activist provide security guards along bus routes where crime has been an issue, the Sun-Times reported. If the guards are unarmed, that could be a helpful strategy. The unions also want stiffer penalties for people who attack CTA employees, the ability to offenders from CTA property, and an in-house CTA police force, similar to Metra police.

Union leaders say the spike in violence against transit workers has contributed to exponentially higher retirement rates this year, and the CTA hasn’t been recruiting new operators fast enough to replace them. A recent Chicago Tribune analysis found that, despite the city’s claim that the CTA has been operating at full strength during COVID, on some ‘L’ lines there have recently been about a third fewer train runs than scheduled, and bus service has also been disrupted. Many Streetsblog readers have told us they’ve experienced unusual delays and gaps in service in recent months.

As transit consultant Jarrett Walker wrote in a guest op-ed published yesterday on Streetsblog USA, there’s a nationwide shortage of transit operators right now. He attributes that to increased health risks during COVID and a spike in bad behavior towards operators during a time when more people are experiencing mental health issues, including upticks in violence in cities like Chicago. The boom in delivery work is also leading some transit workers to leave the industry for a field where they don’t have to deal with the public. Walker notes that this trend could lead to permanent service reductions, so it constitutes an emergency.

As such, it’s clear that Chicago officials need to get serious about tackling the problem of violence against CTA workers and customers. Whether the answer is Transit Ambassadors, or other solutions that don’t involve adding more guns to the system, something needs to be done.

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