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CTA bus

Views from CTA bus stops in the Loop area of Downtown Chicago on Chicago on April 10, 2020. Mayoral candidates have promised to clean up the CTA and make it safer, among other promises to improve transit options for residents.

Manuel Martinez

Chicago’s mayoral candidates want to fix the unreliable, unsafe and downright filthy CTA

If trains and buses had feelings, the ones in Chicago would need months of therapy to recover from all the badmouthing during the 2023 election season.

Deemed smelly, unreliable, unsafe and downright filthy, perhaps no other city agency has been dissed more than the Chicago Transit Authority in recent months, as mayoral candidates make their pitch for how they’ll transform the network of 128 bus routes and 8 train lines that see nearly 750,000 rides each day.

Candidates are pushing everything from boosting Chicago police officers at transit stations, to creating an unarmed team of train “ambassadors,” to installing special traffic signals so buses can beat the rush and get to commuters on time.

Mayoral hopefuls are responding to cries from Chicagoans who’ve taken to social media, City Council meetings and even a WBEZ survey to complain about the CTA.

But public transit isn’t the only transportation issue the city’s next mayor will face. Should Chicago lower its speed limits? Install a network of protected bike lanes? Do away with speed cameras? Plow its own sidewalks for winter pedestrians?

Transportation will be a major issue in the next four years in Chicago. Some experts go so far as to say the success of any other policy platform — from education to economic opportunities — starts with a plan for efficient and safe transit.

“You can’t access health care, you can’t access education opportunities, you can’t access jobs, without a vigorous public transportation system, and a safe way of getting around, even by walking and biking,” said W. Robert Schultz III, an organizer with the advocacy group the Active Transportation Alliance.

While no Chicago mayoral candidate has vowed to bring us the flying cars we’ve been promised by classic time-travel movies, several imagine a city with an innovative and forward-looking approach to how residents get around. Meanwhile, some candidates haven’t released a comprehensive transportation policy plan at all.

CTA — reliability, safety and accessibility

Chicagoan Jackie Matthews, who responded to the WBEZ/Chicago Sun-Times People’s Agenda survey, said transportation is her top issue this election. She said her experience on the CTA prompted her to move apartments once she started commuting to work again after the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most days, she said, the train ride to work was too much to stomach.

“There was nudity and people peeing and defecating and smoking,” said Matthews, who moved closer to her office as a result. “And it was just like a horrible experience to have to go through at 8 a.m. in the morning. So it’s not how I wanted to start my day.”

Then there are the buses that don’t show up at all. State Rep. Kam Buckner has perhaps been most outspoken about the issue, as he’s defined himself by the fact that he does not drive, and relies on public transit.

On a recent weekday morning, Buckner was on his way to a WBEZ mayoral forum when his bus didn’t arrive.

“I was waiting for the 60 bus to head to a forum and got ghosted, like many of you have been doing for a while. We’ve got to fix CTA — it’s the only way we can have a world class city,” Buckner said live from the bus stop in a video posted to social media.

Issues that residents have complained about on the CTA can be traced back largely to staffing shortages exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. After pulling from its own reserves of retirees, holding job fairs and boosting incentives, the CTA still needs to hire 600 bus operators this year, according to its big Meeting the Moment Plan.

“We’ve got to hire more people,” Lightfoot said at a forum held by Democrats on the North Side in January. “We have severe staffing shortages.”

CTA train

Commuters wait to catch the Brown Line at the Western CTA train stop during the polar vortex on Jan, 30, 2019. Riders complain the CTA is unsafe and dirty and want candidates for mayor to clean it up.

Manuel Martinez

Under Lightfoot, the CTA started offering hiring and retention bonuses to keep and hire operators. CTA is offering a $1,000 hiring bonus for certain workers, and has significantly increased the starting rate for all jobs.

Part of retaining staff, too, includes ensuring their safety. As bus and train operators have been outspoken about abuse and harassment while doing their jobs, Lightfoot and police Supt. David Brown have touted beefed up police presence and private security on the CTA in an attempt to help riders and drivers feel more safe.

But some candidates say it’s not enough. Throughout his campaign, former CPS CEO Paul Vallas has traced many of the city’s problems back to crime, and has done the same with issues facing the CTA. He argues the perception of safety on the CTA is at an all-time low, and that’s affecting the agency’s staffing issues, and budget — which is currently propped up by COVID-19 relief money.

“When the COVID money is gone, the CTA is going to face a monumental financial crisis, we’ve got to address the issue of public safety,” Vallas said.

Vallas suggested in public debates eliminating the private security that Lightfoot has added to trains and buses, and instead creating a dedicated transit unit within the police department. Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th Ward, agreed the police department should have a dedicated transit unit. And businessman Willie Wilson said he would create a dedicated CTA Police Force.

Violent crime on trains decreased in 2022, but is still far above pre-pandemic levels, according to reporting by the Chicago Tribune.

Some candidates, including Buckner and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, who’ve both released transit plans, said increasing police alone isn’t the right approach.

Johnson, who is against having K-9 units at CTA platforms — a move Lightfoot has made to prevent people from “jumping the fare box” — said he’d instead pass policies meant to address homelessness and mental health issues, which he says end up manifesting on the CTA.

Those policies include a one-time tax on real estate transfers that would then be used to increase affordable housing and other options for those experiencing homelessness, and the so-called Treatment Not Trauma approach, which calls for reopening the city’s shuttered mental health clinics, using 988 as a city-wide 24-hour crisis hotline, and more.

Buckner, who supports those policies, said he’d also create a network of “CTA Transit Ambassadors” trained in de-escalation techniques to respond to crises on trains, as well as a texting hotline to report CTA incidents, and he’d make CTA trains a regular part of the beat for CPD officers.

Several candidates, including activist Ja’Mal Green, said the CTA is in need of social workers to connect unstable riders with wraparound services, like mental healthcare.

“The CTA should be a world class model. And right now it’s not. It’s a mobile homeless shelter,” said Green, who said he would declare a state of emergency in an attempt to funnel state and federal funding to the CTA. He’d also push toward making the CTA free.

Numerous candidates said they’d build on Lightfoot’s move to make permanent a bus-only lane along Chicago Avenue. Johnson and U.S. Congressman Jesús ‘Chuy’ García have both said they’d create bus traffic signals, as well, to accompany bus-only lanes, and expand those lanes throughout the city.

Despite the pandemic-era challenges facing the CTA, Lightfoot touts a major public transit accomplishment: bringing the long-awaited extension of the Red Line closer to fruition than it has perhaps ever been, by creating a new taxing district that will help the city come up with the local funding needed to secure federal dollars for the project.

The Red Line extension is hailed as a major step towards increasing equitable access to transit for Far South Siders who rely on a patchwork of buses to get around the city. While candidates say they’re eager to see the decades-in-the-making project through, few have been able to criticize Lightfoot’s handling of it thus far.

Safer streets via speed limit restrictions

Upon taking office, Lightfoot greenlit a policy that lowered the speeding threshold that triggers automated speed camera tickets for drivers near parks and schools “to deter people from speeding that amount without consequence,” she said. Previously, Chicagoans would only get ticketed after speeding 10 mph over the limit. Now, speeding 6 to 9 mph over can get a driver fined.

It’s a controversial policy change that’s backed by some transit advocates as a way to slow vehicles down, but has raised questions about racial equity. A UIC study showed that most of the speed cameras do improve safety, but critics call it a cash grab balanced on the backs of working class residents, as Black and brown Chicagoans receive a disproportionate number of automated speed camera violations.

“Red Light Lori jacked up traffic fines for Chicagoans to fix her budget, despite campaigning against these penalties. I believe we should make the fine less regressive based on income,” said García, who serves on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

Lightfoot’s administration has said it responded to the racial disparities in ticketing, in part, by creating a program that forgives ticket debt for some low-income Chicagoans.

Still, nearly every mayoral candidate told WBEZ and the Sun-Times they’d repeal the policy. Wilson, Sawyer and Green said they’d do away with speed cameras altogether.

Other candidates, including Buckner, Garcia and Ald. Sophia King said they’d push for lowering speed limits — an effort that will require collaboration with state lawmakers.

“30 miles per hour in neighborhoods is just too fast,” King, 4th Ward, said.

King and Sawyer have also pointed to banning right turns on red lights to prevent cars from hitting cyclists and pedestrians.

Candidates, including Garcia and Johnson, are pushing for infrastructure upgrades that would require drivers to go slower, without penalizing them for speeding, such as raised crosswalks and speed bumps.

Divvy bikes

DIVY bikes sit unclaimed at their pickup stations in downtown Chicago on April 10, 2020. Many Chicagoans want better bike paths in the city.

Manuel Martinez

“Paint is not protection” — Biking infrastructure and other pitches

From 2020 to July 2022, at least 439 cyclists have been hit by drivers in bike lanes, according to Block Club Chicago and the Illinois Answers Project.

Among the deaths last year includes 3-year-old Elizabeth Grace Shambrook, who was riding on the back of her mother’s bicycle when her mother swerved to avoid an illegally parked ComEd truck and the 3-year-old was run over by a semi-truck and died.

Her father, Tim Shambrook, said in response to WBEZ/Sun-Times’ People’s Agenda survey that he wants to see laws on the books for more severe punishment if cyclists are killed.

And he wants to know how the candidates will tackle a continued lack of commitment to create a citywide bike network that addresses safety concerns.

Buckner, Johnson, Green, García and Vallas have all endorsed activists’ calls for a bike grid that would feature a network of 10 mile-per-hour, bike-friendly streets across at least 450 miles.

Lightfoot has touted her administration’s efforts to add new bike lanes, and upgrade the safety of existing protected lanes by the end of 2023.

In June, CDOT announced an expansion of concrete-protected bike lanes. But as of the end of 2022, it was short of its own goals and had added a little over seven miles of concrete curb protections that year, The Daily Line previously reported.

Johnson and Buckner have vowed to expand protective barriers.

“Paint is not protection,” Buckner said last month at a transit-focused mayoral forum.

City Council gave bike lane enforcement more teeth under an ordinance passed in December that allows CDOT — and not just police — to issue violations for drivers blocking bike lanes and increased fines.

Buckner said he would implement a “bike lane integrity unit” within CDOT where residents could alert workers of debris or maintenance issues with lanes. Each time ground is broken on a new bike lane the department would be required to issue a “safety and accessibility” score to improve accessibility.

Last month, Lightfoot introduced an ordinance that would launch a pilot program downtown that would allow the city to install cameras to issue tickets to drivers blocking bicycle lanes, bus lanes and more.

The ordinance has yet to be passed by City Council, but it’s one Garcia said he would expand citywide if elected and allow citizens to enforce by submitting photos to 311.

Read the candidates’ plans

Candidates are listed in the order in which they will appear on the Feb. 28 ballot. Click on their names to learn more about their plans. Those not listed have not released or provided a specific transit plan.

Ja’Mal Green

  • Create an armed “Transit Peace Keepers” agency to protect riders.

  • Install air purifiers on trains and buses.

  • Give CTA workers a free education at City Colleges.

Kam Buckner

  • Implement fare capping so no rider pays more than the cost of a monthly pass.

  • Create dedicated bus lanes for high-ridership corridors.

  • Establish a new Metra line that connects McCormick Place, Union Station, the West Loop and O’Hare.

Willie Wilson

  • Create a website to let customers see where crime is happening on CTA

  • “Strict enforcement” of the law on trains and buses

  • Create a dedicated “CTA Transit Police Force.”

Brandon Johnson

  • Eliminate fares for residents with disabilities, seniors and Chicago Public Schools students and reduce fares for those living below the poverty line.

  • Implement districtwide technical education programs for bike repairs and bike building for students.

  • Advocate for the city to take responsibility for municipal snow removal.

Lori Lightfoot

  • Secured more electric buses, with a goal of a fully-electrified bus fleet by 2040.

  • Plans to upgrade all protected bike lanes to concrete barriers by the end of this year.

  • Secured new transit TIF to extend the Red Line to the Far South Side.

Jesús “Chuy” García

  • Create a “circle line” that would connect all of CTA’s rail lines and all of Metra’s.

  • Advocate for all modes of public transit to have the same price per ride within the city, making transfers between modes of transit.

  • Commit to having a transit worker serve on CTA’s board.

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