In its new campaign aimed at busting grime, the Chicago Transit Authority hopes to reach riders like Adèle-Marie Buis. Buis regularly rides the Chicago “L” and says the difference between the cleanliness of the Brown and Red lines she rides frequently is quite “drastic.”
To Buis, the Brown Line appears consistently clean and its train cars clean, while the Red Line seems perpetually unmaintained. She went to the agency’s website to see if she could find details about the agency’s daily cleaning regimen by stations and its fleet, but she didn’t find the answers she sought.
“I think something like understanding the riders’ cleanliness concerns and addressing them directly would go a long way, given they then adhere consistently to their procedures,” said Buis, who suggested the agency lay out in detail its schedule for cleaning each line.
The CTA earlier this month announced a new “Goodbye, Grime” campaign — complete with digital ads — to highlight $6.5 million in repairs and improvements planned for rail stations. Cleaner transit stations and fleets are part of a bigger effort to boost sagging ridership and public confidence in the agency that has taken a hit this year. In a November WBEZ survey of regular CTA commuters, complaints about cleanliness and sanitation ranked third among rider concerns, after reliability (1) and safety (2).
The “Goodbye, Grime” plan specifically promises to power wash 145 rail stations once a month, upgrade 28 stations and complete a regular exterior wash of the rail fleet.
The agency also says it increased janitorial staffing. In an interview, CTA Vice President of Communications Brian Steele said the agency added 50 new rail janitors in its 2023 budget, bringing the total to 246 janitor positions, with only six left to fill.
Steele said the CTA is doing its best to make sure it provides the cleanest vehicles possible.
“Each janitor is assigned to maintaining two, and in some rare instances three, stations as part of their daily duties. Those with three stations will target smaller, neighborhood stations with lower ridership and some janitors are also assigned to maintain CTA’s bus turnaround areas,” said Steele.
Steele also described a “multi-tiered approach to cleaning rail cars and buses” and that “rail cars and stations have daily cleanings as well as regular deep cleans,” including power washing.Though it’s hard to keep railcars pristine through the day, Steele said 30 janitors are assigned to overnight powerwashing of the stations, which is “an intensive deep-cleaning process. The work takes significant time to complete, and has to be coordinated with train service and weather conditions.” He estimates about five stations are powerwashed each night as long as weather conditions aren’t freezing.
However, CTA did not produce by publication time any response to public records requests seeking scorecards or internal metrics used to assess how effectively the agency is accomplishing its own sanitation objectives.
According to the agency, more than 1,400 rail cars and 1,800 buses service thousands of people daily. Riders are going to come in contact with “debris” — that’s the CTA word for trash — it’s just inevitable, Steele said.
“When you get on a train or bus at the beginning of a trip, you’re getting in a rail car that’s in good shape. During the course of that journey people are bound to get on and leave their debris like a spilled cup of Coke for example,” said Steele. “One of the big challenges is we can’t stop a train in the middle of a trip for cleaning.”
Janitors are scattered among stations where they can hop on quickly during the trains’ 20-25 second stop at a station, a practice the agency calls “berthing.” The goal is to offer a “quick mop up” of spills, otherwise it’s up to the train or bus operator to address the removal of trash and smaller spills at the end of a trip.
“Our operators are expected to do a quick clean up at the end of the route and our fleets are also cleaned at the end of the day,” said Steele. He said staff can alert the janitorial crew to handle more serious issues like biohazardous human waste or people getting “sick.”
The COVID-19 pandemic created an overwhelming public interest in how transit agencies address sanitation and cleanliness. As the virus gripped cities in the spring of 2020, many agencies, including the CTA, rushed to provide dedicated landing pages on websites to assure riders that they had detailed COVID sanitation procedures.
As people slowly restarted their commute to the office and fears of the virus began to recede, some agencies have continued to use sanitation as a way to convince riders to return. In New York, the Metropolitan Transit Authority announced a massive operation to switch from a third-party janitorial contract and move operations in-house. The agency plans to hire 800 full-time employees to clean stations and trains, partially in response to massive public criticism from riders in recent years about the cleanliness of the transit system.
In Chicago, Steele said many of the practices and standards set during the height of the pandemic are happening, even as pandemic restrictions loosen and fade away. For example, CTA still disinfects frequently touched surfaces.
Still, the agency did not produce a scorecard or document that outlines how it tracks when cleanings are done, to what detail and how often. In response to a public records request for documentation specifying a sanitation timeline and outline, the agency provided WBEZ with a copy of an internal document for Rail Station Janitor Sweep/Clean Procedure. The document outlines procedures for handling issues like excess water around elevators and escalators, graffiti removal, pigeon droppings and sanitization of surfaces.
At the CTA, maintenance falls under the cleanliness umbrella, and Steele said the agency devotes an equal amount of time to maintaining stations and vehicles as it does to cleaning them.
“But it’s a similar challenge in that we send vehicles out in good shape and over the course of its journey it may become damaged or defaced,” Steele said. “During our routine inspections our maintenance crew replaces damaged parts and property as soon as they can.”
For some riders, there still seems to be a disconnect between what the agency is saying and what they experience.
“They need more help then,” said Tierra Jones, a regular Green Line CTA rider. “If they clean and inspect everyday, then why are there trains with caked-on dirt and graffiti and just look worn-out and beat-up? I don’t believe they’re consistent at all.”
Nhi Duong, a local college student, took WBEZ’s initial CTA survey in the fall. Contacted again this spring, Duong feels the agency is struggling to meet its own standards and hasn’t noticed improvement around cleanliness efforts.
“I don’t think that there is enough transparency between CTA and the public,” said Duong. “I explore all across Chicago and I am familiar with all of the lines. The cleanliness of different lines is apparent and it can be because of the amount of people who use them. Especially on the Red Line, the cleanliness is not up to par and they have been lax on their own standards.”
Steele said the agency offers riders multiple ways to voice concerns about all facets of operation, including cleanliness and maintenance. Riders are encouraged to voice concerns to CTA operators in person, online using the agency’s feedback form or via email at email@example.com.
“Customers really are helpful eyes and ears in helping us identify things our staff may not immediately be aware of,” Steele said. “Alert your operator to a spill or something that maintenance needs to be taken care of.”
Samantha Callender is a digital reporting fellow for WBEZ. Follow her across socials @OnYourCallender.