How to Save the L



How to Save the L

Scott Stantis, a cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune, created a L system map in April of last year with stations labeled "Mugged," "Knifed," "Trash," and "Urine." He was harsh, but he was right: The pandemic has made Chicago's renowned transit system less dependable, safe, and hygienic, making even devoted users avoid it. L use is only half of what it was three years ago, even as people resume their regular habits.

A lack of drivers is contributing to the unreliability. This October, the Chicago Transit Authority changed its train schedules to better match the labor pool, but many runs are still being missed. The proportion of completed Blue Line runs is tweeted daily by the neighborhood rider advocacy group Commuters Take Action; as of late December, it was averaging around 66%.

Also, nobody wants to spend any more time than necessary waiting on the L platforms for trains. Robberies and assaults increased during the pandemic because there were fewer eyes in cars and stations, which led to a feeling of lawlessness. According to a Tribune research, the rate of violent crime on the L is still higher than it was prior to COVID.

Anecdotally, there are reports of uncomfortable and unhygienic conditions on the trains, notably on the 24-hour Red and Blue Lines, where homeless individuals are increasingly seeking shelter. Nowadays, it's common to see numerous people sleeping in a car, spread out across various seats. Other passengers are utilizing the L as a wild party location in the meantime. even though they don't

More motor traffic jams and pollutants result from a weakened L system. Also, it indicates a less egalitarian city because those with lower incomes are more likely to rely on public transportation. Furthermore, the L is a vital component of Chicago's character and a unique gathering spot for the city's various residents. What can be done, then?


The organization is dealing with this. Almost a dozen employment fairs were held last year, and 420 bus drivers and about 70 train drivers were hired. It raised the starting hourly wages for drivers in November from $24 to more over $28, and another hike this year will raise those prices to just under $30. The starting pay for mechanics and rail repairers will increase to over $40 an hour this year as well. Bonuses for hiring and retention were also added by the CTA. Yet, a CTA representative stated that there were 600 open bus operations positions and roughly 100 open rail operations positions at the beginning of the year.

Ted Villaire, director of communications for the Active Transportation Alliance, a regional support organization for public transportation, walking, and biking, believes the government still needs to do more. "CTA employees need more flexibility in their schedules and need pay that keeps up with increased living expenses," he claims. If not, they will search for employment elsewhere, "such driving for haulage and delivery companies."

Commuters Take Action cofounder Fabio Göttlicher asserts that the organization has to streamline its hiring and promotion procedures as a result of his interactions with CTA staff members and managers. Before being promoted to drivers, new workers are required to work in customer service or as flaggers, both of which pay relatively little, he said. "The fact that the hiring pipeline is still dry is not surprising. If no improvements are made, the overworked operators will continue to leave the company. It might descend into a death spiral.


Last year, the city responded to transit crime by increasing police presence. Of course, that comes with its own baggage. No one wants a repeat of the incident three years ago in which police officers, after struggling to detain a man for walking between cars, shot him as he fled up an escalator of the busy Grand Red Line station, seriously injuring him.

Meanwhile, the CTA has beefed up its unarmed security force. Last spring, it signed a three-year, $71 million deal to double that force, to more than 200. But these young, yellow-vested guards often travel inefficiently in packs. Security camera footage tweeted last March showed a group of them running away from a fight. “We’re unsafe on the trains because we’re just kid guards,” one told Block Club Chicago. Last summer, the CTA spent another $31 million for up to 50 K-9 teams, each consisting of two unarmed guards and a German shepherd. According to a K-9 team member, dogs can only be unleashed if a guard’s life is in danger.

A better solution for crime prevention: something along the lines of the “transit ambassadors” deployed by the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. Run by the transit police, the program trains unarmed outreach workers in ­de-escalation and antibias techniques meant to reduce conflicts. According to the San Francisco Examiner, ambassadors are effective at helping people in crisis, and rarely resort to calling in armed help. The public transit agencies in Los Angeles and Boston have similar initiatives. The Active Transportation Alliance and the local disability rights group Access Living have both endorsed this idea.


40th Ward Alderman Andre Vasquez, an outspoken transit advocate, says that “resources to address homelessness, those who suffer from mental health challenges, and those with substance use disorders” should be an integral part of the strategy to improve train conditions.

The CTA’s 2023 budget includes $2 million for nonprofits such as the Night Ministry to connect people sheltering on trains with services. And Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a $3 million tiny homes pilot to take people off the street. The most effective thing she could do is back the proposed Bring Chicago Home Ordinance, to raise the real estate transfer tax on properties sold for $1 million or more. Those funds would go toward affordable housing and support services. She’s currently blocking the ordinance.

Labor problems, crime, and homelessness aren’t just big challenges for the CTA. They’re issues across the city. If we can get the trains back on track, it will be a sign that Chicago is moving in the right direction.

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