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“Ask CTA” lets customers bend the ears of managers at stations, with some hiccups

CTA managers at Tuesday’s Ask CTA outreach event at the Cermak-Chinatown station. Photo: Sharon Hoyer

Over the last three weeks, the CTA has held a series of "Ask CTA" events at various 'L' stations as part of its “Meeting the Moment: Transforming CTA’s Post Pandemic Future” action plan. Senior transit agency managers set up a table, distribute information, and hear feedback from riders for two-hour sessions at various times of day. The goal of the events is threefold: collect feedback, inform customers of improvements, and recruit for open jobs at the agency. Event times and locations are announced – usually the day of – on the CTA’s Twitter feed.

Earlier this month, Ask CTA events took place at the California Blue Line station, the Central Green Line stop, and the 95th/Dan Ryan Red terminal, although the CTA tweeted that the Red Line session would take place during the morning rush, when it was actually scheduled for the PM rush, leading CBS 2 reporters to show up when no managers were present.

On Tuesday of this week, I checked out an Ask CTA session at the Cermak-Chinatown Red Line station. The event happened as advertised. A banner and info table with flyers and career brochures were set up inside the station house, outside the turnstiles. It was evening rush hour and the 'L' stop was bustling. Managers stood near the doors, handing flyers to riders coming and going, pointing out QR codes to a feedback survey and job listings. Almost everyone took a flier, but most folks were in a rush to catch their train or exit the station and didn’t stop to talk.

Chief safety and security officer Nancy Ellen Zusman said it was her first Ask CTA event and, while most of her customer engagement had been simply passing out handbills, she had a few longer conversations. While I was speaking with Zusman's colleague, a man stopped to let her know he was happy with the CTA overall.

CTA spokesperson Kathleen Woodruff said the feedback she had received so far was “positive overall,” and that riders had reported seeing changes over the past several months, including cleaner trains. She added she had spoken with customers who were pleased with seeing more police officers in stations and had heard requests for more officers to ride the trains. Of course, in light of the Chicago Police Department's well-documented issues with misconduct by officers, as well as a February incident in which police critically wounded a man after trying to detain him for illegally walking between rail cars, not all CTA customers would share this sentiment.

Asked whether CTA managers have heard any complaints about bus and train service gaps during the outreach sessions, Woodruff shook her head and said, “Service? No. But we are at the rail stations.” At the 'L' stops there are periodic audio announcements about service delays due to pandemic-related staffing shortages. The same message rotates on the platforms’ digital screens. Ghost buses and trains, runs that appear on the Transit Tracker but disappear from the screens before they show up, continue to haunt commutes.

Wednesday's I'm Late protest in front of CTA headquarters. Photo: John Greenfield
Wednesday's I'm Late protest in front of CTA headquarters. Photo: John Greenfield
Wednesday's I'm Late protest in front of CTA headquarters. Photo: John Greenfield

As a regular Blue Line rider, I often wait more than twenty minutes for a train. Last Wednesday, the day after my visit to the Cermak-Chinatown station event, about 60 activists held an “I’m Late” protest in front of the agency’s headquarters. Woodruff said she had been at a couple Ask CTA sessions before this one, so it's hard to believe she hasn't heard any feedback about long waits between trains.

About five minutes later I overheard what apparently was the first service complaint of the day. One of the managers offered a flyer to a woman entering the station, asking if she’d like to give some feedback. She stopped in her tracks, raised her hands and said, “It’s not been great.” The customer takes the Blue Line to the Red Line on her commute and described transferring at Jackson as "a nightmare." She said she's been riding for ten years and used to be able to rely on Transit Tracker information, but now “maybe it’s coming, maybe it’s not. It's not been reliable. That’s my number one thing.” The managers gathered to hear her comments and offered to take her information and follow up with her. 

When I got home, I scanned the QR codes on the flyer. The job listing code linked to the CTA’s careers page, but the code for a feedback form linked to the general customer service page, with email, phone and Ventra contact info, but no feedback form that I could find. [After publication of this piece, a CTA spokesperson contacted Streetsblog to point that when you click the “send us an email” button on the customer service page, that takes you to the feedback form.]

Another "Ask CTA" took place Wednesday during the evening rush at the Belmont Red, Brown, and Purple line station in Lakeview. Events will be held systemwide through October. I applaud CTA’s intention to speak directly with customers, solicit their input, and do some aggressive recruiting. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for a feedback form and hope the agency takes the critiques to heart.

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