Everybody’s late and everything smells like weed: What nearly 2,000 CTA riders told us
In a wholly unscientific WBEZ survey of regular commuters, many expressed concerns that service, safety and cleanliness have eroded since the pandemic began.By Rebecca Holland
The second-largest transit system in the United States spent 2022 trying to bounce back from a slew of challenges: a pandemic that wiped out ridership in systems across the country, shortages of bus and train operators and a massive culture shift toward remote work.
That’s not much solace to John Wilmes, a professor at Roosevelt University who is pursuing a career change so he can work remotely after commuting for 12 years.
“It’s been that bad. I can’t rely on it anymore,” he said. “I’ve always been a defender of the Chicago Transit Authority. I’ve always said, ‘Actually, it’s not that bad. It’s actually one of the good things about living here. It’s pretty reliable.’ That’s no longer true. And the city doesn’t seem to care.”
Ladell Johnson, who works in security for a school near Michigan Avenue, said scheduled buses sometimes do not arrive and, more broadly, the CTA doesn’t fairly serve her South Side neighborhood.
“When you’re downtown and you’re trying to come home, you have a bunch of buses going to the North Side passing by that are empty,” Johnson said, adding that early morning buses are also unreliable and don’t align with the agency’s trackers that count down wait times for riders.
Wilmes and Johnson are among nearly 2,000 people who responded to a WBEZ survey of rider attitudes distributed in November via email, text, social media and other outreach through community groups. As the agency embarks on an improvement plan aimed at tackling wait times, safety issues and plugging chronic staffing gaps, we wanted to hear directly from riders about their recent experiences.
The majority of riders vented about delays, ghost buses and safety, although gratitude and empathy for CTA workers threaded throughout.
Many also extolled the virtues of a strong public transit system as part of the city’s DNA despite their frustrations and wanted more transparency and accountability from agency officials.
WBEZ encouraged riders to submit questions for the agency. Repeated requests to interview President Dorval Carter were denied, but CTA Vice President Brian Steele participated in a wide-ranging interview that covers readers’ questions on everything from inaccurate trackers to safety improvements.
Here’s what we learned.
Long waits, ghost buses, unreliable tracking
Nearly nine in 10 survey takers — 89% — said they experienced a service delay in the past 30 days. Those delays had real-life consequences. One student said she’d been late for school 13 times due to delays on the 82 Kimball-Homan bus. Elderly riders described missed appointments when buses and trains were delayed to the University of Illinois at Chicago medical campus. One manager said his employees were consistently late to work at their hourly job, impacting business.
“I have been riding the CTA trains for most of my adult life, even during the pandemic since I am an essential worker, so it makes me very sad to see the conditions on the train now,” said Mary Ann Schmelzer, who is a nurse and commutes on the Yellow Line a few days a week.
Respondents also said they were spending more money on rideshare apps and a few even cited the CTA as a reason for switching to remote jobs. Some riders were bailing on the CTA entirely.
Many survey takers said they believed service had eroded since the pandemic began.
“I interact with the CTA nearly every day, especially in the winter months. I enjoy riding the bus but I just don’t have faith in it when I’m in a crunch,” said rider Alekzander Sayers.
He, like hundreds of others, is frustrated by “ghost buses” — that is, a bus that shows up on a tracker or schedule but doesn’t actually appear — and even more so by the lack of communication about them.
“I feel like people wouldn’t be mad if the wait times were long but accurate. At least you know and can plan. It gets frustrating when you wait for something that never shows,” Sayers said.
A poorly functioning tracker system came up often in responses. Riders also asked when promised technology upgrades to address the problem — part of the agency’s Meeting the Moment CTA improvement plan — would be deployed.
“I have waited well over an hour for buses that don’t show up. I have been late for work so often and it is impossible to plan on being on time,” said Elise Auerbach. “Of course the bus tracker has no relation to reality whatsoever. I wait for either the 2 or 6 at State and Lake and very often see eight to 10 146 and 148 buses come by, mostly empty, before a 2 or 6 finally arrives. It is so frustrating. Can’t they track the ridership?”
Respondents had several other specific complaints about bus service:
Riders said there don’t appear to be as many buses as pre-pandemic, so when the bus does arrive, it is more crowded. Some also said the agency needs to deploy longer buses for popular routes, such as the Jackson Park Express bus (#6).
Survey takers described multiple situations when crowded buses drove past riders without stopping.
Driver shift changes mid-route left riders stranded on a bus after drivers abruptly stopped the bus and left. “The relief driver isn’t there, and the original driver just leaves,” said Natasha Leyk, who mostly commutes via the 147 bus. “When you have the Clark bus blocking traffic at Foster and Clark because of the narrow road and no driver change over — that gets awkward. Or a bus full of people waiting on a driver that then gets passed by another bus on the route — it ends up being frustrating for riders.”
Bus delays, followed by two or three showing up in a row, a phenomenon dubbed “bus bunching.”
Riders who depend on multiple modes of transit were annoyed with bus-to-train schedules that didn’t line up, causing them to exit one mode of transportation but miss a transfer, prolonging their commute.
Personal safety and fears of harassment
A wave of violent incidents on the Red Line in 2022 rattled riders, and some said they no longer felt safe taking public transportation outside of the more populated commute times in the mornings and evenings.
Slightly under half of riders (45%) who took our survey said they felt “somewhat unsafe” or “very unsafe” riding a bus or train, while a similar percentage (47%) said they felt “fairly safe.” Seven percent of respondents said they felt “very safe” riding a bus or train in the past 30 days.
“As a woman I do not feel safe taking the train or the bus at times,” said Joy Miles, who takes the Red Line from Edgewater to East Lake View. “I’ve been felt up. I’ve had someone try to get into my backpack while I’m holding on to it. I’ve been shoved, I’ve been pushed.”
Another Red Line rider, Sean Macleish, said he was on the way home from work when a woman selling alcohol on the train pulled out a meat cleaver and said she was going to cut him. A man behind her grabbed it out of her hand. In another instance, he saw a woman kick a man in the neck.
“I take the Red Line almost every day for work and there’s always this anxious feeling like, ‘What’s going to happen today?’ ” he said. “I’ve seen people being harassed, assaulted, I’ve seen people doing drugs and defecating on the train. It seems to have only gotten worse since the pandemic.”
The CTA has pledged to boost security, and the number of “security checks” conducted by police and security are an item on the agency’s new tracker. But many survey takers pointed out they see security personnel on the train platforms, but they don’t see them on the trains or buses.
“No one fears any repercussions of smoking, drinking or even defecating on the CTA. And if you say anything you could get assaulted. Someone tried to pickpocket me in the Loop on the Blue Line two months ago,” said Paul Rettig, who rides a few times a week. “This is the face of our city to visitors.”
Cigarettes, weed and general stink
Smoking came up often among survey responses as one of the most common frustrations among train riders, after delays and safety.
Smoking and electronic cigarettes are completely banned by CTA, but riders said they didn’t see any enforcement of the rules and several said they felt uncomfortable saying anything to offenders for fear of harassment. (The agency said police officers had issued more than 1,000 citations for smoking in recent months.)
A young architecture professor shared an anecdote about one of his first days of teaching.
“I’m a younger teacher and I worry about how I’m perceived walking into class drenched in weed smoke,” said Michael, who did not want his last name used.
He’s a daily rider. And while it’s not enough to make him stop taking the train, he said it makes the commute less comfortable. He and others said they would not feel safe asking smokers to stop.
Kristin Lynch, who has severe asthma, switched to driving after she rode the train and someone started smoking. She switched cars, but someone was smoking in the new car as well, so she was surrounded by smoke for about 20 minutes.
It caused her asthma to flare. “I ended up having to go home,” Lynch said. “I used my breathing treatment and was on steroids for 10 days after that.”
Dirty trains and stations
Feces at the Austin station of the Blue Line. A perpetually dirty North/Clybourn stop on the Red Line. Missing garbage cans at station entrances. People peeing on platforms. Dirty bus seats and garbage strewn down aisles.
These were just a few of the specific complaints we heard from riders, who said the CTA has a lot of cleaning up to do. (The agency has said increasing its janitorial staffing is a key milestone in the coming months, in addition to its regular, deep cleanings of buses, trains and stations.)
More than 40 riders specifically mentioned the words “urine,” “feces” or “defecation” in their survey responses.
“It’s gross, it’s dirty, the platform [at the Red Line Grand stop] is just like a bathroom down there. It just stinks,” said Emily Vasiliou, who takes the train to work a couple times a week.
Raunel Urquiza, who takes the CTA daily, agreed.
“There aren’t public restrooms so people use the bathroom in plain sight,” he said.
Urquiza, Vasiliou and others said they’ve taken the CTA for years and have noticed a significant decline in cleanliness and behavior enforcement. Loud music, harassing passengers, selling drugs, smoking cigarettes and marijuana, feces on the trains and general mayhem were brought up again and again.
A perception of a marked increase in the number of homeless riders sleeping on trains also threaded through the survey. Riders acknowledged that is a problem the agency alone cannot contend with; some said they wanted to hear more from the city about an overall approach that would include more wraparound services and social agency involvement.
Elevator breakdowns and accessibility issues
Broken elevators and escalators in rail stations came up among parents, older riders and those with disabilities. On bus lines, riders flagged lack of benches, bus stations without roofs or awnings to hide from bad weather, and heaters that barely work.
“Handicapped accessibility is so frustrating. Sometimes the elevator is down and not every “L” station even has one,” Amanda Zrust, who commutes from Howard to the Loop. “It’s not great that public transportation is only ‘public’ for able-bodied residents.”
“There is nowhere for a disabled person to sit down to wait,” said Leona Lee. “Arthritis makes it very painful for me to stand for long. So I am stuck at home often. I’d take the CTA much more often if I could sit to wait for a bus.”
Several riders expressed concerns about an agency that does not appear, to some riders, accountable to the public.
Riders said they desired more communication from CTA leadership and wondered what concrete plans were in place to fix reliability and cleanliness issues.
Another question that riders surfaced in the survey: Do the people in charge ever take the CTA?
About the survey
WBEZ conducted its informal survey — distributed via email, text, social media and other outreach through community groups — from Nov. 10 - 25, 2022. Of more than 2,000 people who took the survey, we analyzed answers from 1,970 who completed it by deadline.
Based on self-reported information, the demographics of the respondents are:
The respondents came from 113 ZIP codes in the city and suburban Cook County.
Riders between the ages of 25 and 34 were the largest percentage of survey takers (34%), followed by 35- to 44-year-olds (27%), 45- to 54-year-olds (14%) and 55- to 64-year-olds (12%). About 7% of the respondents said they were under age 24 and about 10% said they were 65 or older.
Gender was nearly evenly split between men (45%) and women (47%), followed by 8% of respondents who identified as gender nonconforming or transgender or preferred not to say.
Race of respondents was 75% white, 9% Latino, 6% Black, 5% Asian and 5% who identified in another racial category or said they preferred to not say.
Samantha Callender and Courtney Kueppers contributed reporting.