The city's transit agency has pledged improvements and is on a listening tour to solicit rider feedback. At a recent event in McKinley Park, commuters expressed concerns about delays, accessibility and safety. Lou Foglia for WBEZ

The CTA is on a campaign to win back riders. Who’s listening?

Ridership is in slow motion recovery from the pandemic, but delays, “mayhem” and safety concerns are still keeping some commuters away.

The city's transit agency has pledged improvements and is on a listening tour to solicit rider feedback. At a recent event in McKinley Park, commuters expressed concerns about delays, accessibility and safety. Lou Foglia for WBEZ
The city's transit agency has pledged improvements and is on a listening tour to solicit rider feedback. At a recent event in McKinley Park, commuters expressed concerns about delays, accessibility and safety. Lou Foglia for WBEZ

The CTA is on a campaign to win back riders. Who’s listening?

Ridership is in slow motion recovery from the pandemic, but delays, “mayhem” and safety concerns are still keeping some commuters away.

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On a recent muggy evening, commuters poured through the gates at Clark/Lake, an interchange in Chicago’s Loop where trains connect from around the city. People were rushing to catch the next train, nodding their heads to music in their earbuds and wrapping up work calls.

Some absentmindedly took job pamphlets from the “Ask CTA” representatives who had set up a table in the station. A handful paused to ask questions. Most people walked right by.

Not Brian Zeid. He takes the bus every day from his house in West Rogers Park to the Red Line Loyola Station, to the Blue Line to Jackson, to work at UIC. He’s loyal — despite recently being attacked on the Jackson platform, which resulted in a trip to Swedish Covenant and a dislocated shoulder.

“I’m a CTA guy,” he said. “Always have been.”

But long delays lately are driving him crazy, and he told a CTA representative as much at the Clark and Lake station one weekday in September.

CTA riders
Esmeralda Apolinar said bus delays consistently made her late for work at O’Hare, so now she rides with a coworker when she can. Lou Foglia for WBEZ

Alex Schriner was there, too. Schriner was not commuting that day, but had come specifically to speak to representatives at the “Ask CTA” event. Reading from a list of complaints written out on his phone, Schriner, who uses a wheelchair, cited elevator outages, vandalism, delays and smoking on trains – complaints dozens of other commuters also expressed to WBEZ over the past month.

Riders are fed up, and the CTA knows it. A new plan unveiled in August called “Meeting the Moment” promises to address everything from wait times to ghost buses – the buses that the electronic trackers show are coming but never arrive. In response to a string of violent incidents on train platforms in recent months, the agency has contracted private security firms and installed new security camera monitors in every ‘L’ station customer service booth. President Dorval Carter Jr. has even launched an “Ask CTA” listening tour, going through October, where bureaucrats sit at stations with a table and record concerns from riders like Zeid and Schriner.

Those strategies, CTA top brass hope, will build back riders’ trust. The number of people who rely solely on CTA service fell dramatically during the pandemic as office workers stayed home — according to new data from the U.S. Census, the percentage of fully remote employees tripled from 2019 to 2021. When people did venture out, the ease of rideshare services like Uber and Lyft provided a low-cost alternative. Or, people purchased cars.

CTA riders
CTA ridership has improved from the pandemic but is still down significantly from pre-COVID levels. Lou Foglia for WBEZ

“With higher gas prices we thought there would be more incentive to use transit,” said Hani Mahmassani, W. A. Patterson Distinguished Chair in Transportation and director of the Transportation Center at Northwestern University. “But once you change patterns you tend to stay with it, especially if you’re not commuting every day.”

Chicago isn’t unique in its ridership decline. In fact, compared to other cities, the CTA’s numbers look more optimistic, transit experts said. During September, system-wide ridership reached 22.3 million rides, up from 14.3 million in January, driven by students going back to school and more people returning to the office.

On an average weekday in 2019 before COVID-19 was a household word, about 1.47 million people took CTA rail or bus. In September 2022, average daily ridership was around 900,000, according to agency reports, a 39% decline.

A long wait for the bus

Talk to exasperated riders across the city and their main issue tends to be delays and ghost buses.

Esmeralda Apolinar takes the 63rd bus from the Midway Orange stop to the 63rd St. and Archer terminal, where a coworker picks her up for their drive to work at Chili’s Grill & Bar at O’Hare.

Apolinar used to take the bus to the terminal, then get on the Orange Line to Jackson, where she would transfer to the Blue Line to O’Hare. “But the bus was always late,” she said, making her consistently tardy for work. Her coworker doesn’t work on weekends, so Apolinar takes public transit all the way to the airport on those days. “But even though they have a schedule, it doesn’t come,” she said.

Madilyn Bell, who works at the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, has been late to work multiple times due to scheduling issues. “There are so many ghost trains lately,” she said. “I look at the transit tracker when I’m leaving my apartment and it says 10 minutes, then I get to the station and it’s like, 23 minutes.”

Michelle Cervantes, a student at Malcom X, takes two buses and a train to reach school, where she is often late for class due to delays on the bus. It’s frustrating, she said, “because delays are something they could fix.”

CTA Riders
Betty Gallegos said she often waits for the 50 Damen bus and it gets delayed. Lou Foglia for WBEZ

The 50 Damen bus is often delayed, said Betty Gallegos, which exacerbates issues for people who already live in underserved transit areas.

“Most of us on the South Side don’t have cars,” she said. “We wait 15-18 minutes, but if a bus is missing, it can be 25 minutes. I’ve seen this a lot. High schoolers going to school or people going to work. And a lot of people take that bus to the Medical District for treatment, so it’s another obstacle for people who are already having a hard time.”

Some riders like Molly Fleck, who lives in Lincoln Park but works in Bronzeville, started altering the daily commute due to delays. Often she waits more than 15 minutes to connect from the Brown Line, which takes her into the Loop, to the Green Line, which takes her to Bronzeville — so she started walking part of the route instead.

“So sometimes I’ll even walk from my house the extra distance to the Red Line because then I don’t have to transfer,” she said.

CTA riders
Commuter Arlene Galvan waits for an Orange line train. The pandemic hurt public transit ridership across the country. Lou Foglia for WBEZ

Overall, Chicago’s rail ridership has taken a bigger hit than its bus service. When comparing the first quarter of 2022 to pre-pandemic ridership in the first quarter of 2019, CTA rail was more depressed than the U.S. overall –– down 58.9% relative to 2019 in Chicago, compared to 45.1% in the U.S. However, CTA lost a smaller share of bus riders compared to the U.S. overall –– down 45.8% in Chicago, compared to 59.7% in the U.S., according to data from the American Public Transportation Association.

“Bus services ridership has really come back pretty well,” said Paula Worthington, senior lecturer and academic director at the University of Chicago’s Harris Policy Labs. “Commuter rail not so much because people often have alternatives such as working from home or going in twice a week. Riders relying on buses often don’t have those sorts of opportunities.”

“It’s a tough job right now to manage a transit company,” said Mahmassani of Northwestern. “It’s quite challenging and there’s no magic bullet. There’s no roadmap out of a pandemic.”

One thing the CTA has pledged to do is recruit and hire more drivers.

CTA riders
Among the pledges in CTA’s five-point improvement plan: addressing an employee shortage and enhancing safety measures for riders. Lou Foglia for WBEZ

“Like the rest of the industry, the CTA is facing a worker shortage — which is contributing to the longer wait times some customers are experiencing. To address that, the CTA is in the process of hiring more bus drivers and transitioning over 300 part-time operators to full-time positions,” the agency said in a statement in response to questions from WBEZ.

More drivers mean more routes.

“Riders have a right to be frustrated, but they need to understand what the problem is,” said Jacky Grimshaw, a transportation advocate and vice president of government affairs at the Center for Neighborhood Technology. “If you don’t have an operator for a bus, you can’t send the bus on the street.”

Grimshaw has been working with organizations such as the American Public Transportation Association on strategies to encourage people to apply for CTA jobs.

“Get people to apply to CTA,” Grimshaw said. “It’s a good job, with good pay and good benefits.”

CTA riders
After riders complained about delays, Chicago’s transit agency said it was revising schedules so that times are more accurate. Lou Foglia for WBEZ

CTA is the second largest transit system in the country, and therefore more complicated than most U.S. cities other than New York City, which is also struggling. The Bay Area, long lauded for its public transit system, has only recovered 55% of riders, one of the lowest ridership downturns in the country. Chicago has recovered about 60% of riders, while New York has recovered 69%.

“Chicago is one of the few places that made a commitment to maintaining service levels from the get go. They weren’t going to cut back the number of routes, time of day, frequency of service, that kind of thing,” said Worthington. “The problems come from, one, they have staffing problems that mean they can’t actually deliver their promised levels of service. And two, outward facing to the public communications platforms — bus trackers and things like that — have often been very misleading in terms of whether a bus or train is coming, and when it’s gonna be there.”

In addition to investing in more employees, CTA’s “Meeting the Moment” plan focuses on four other pillars: delivering reliable and consistent service, enhancing safety and security for riders, improving the customer experience and upgrading digital tools to improve rider communication — for example, the agency plans to pilot a ChatBot feature within the CTA tracker app that provides riders with real-time information and allows them to report issues such as “dirty trains.”

The agency also has lowered fares and is updating its schedules to match available service; is upgrading tracks and signals on the Blue line to improve speed and reliability between the Illinois Medical District and O’Hare Airport; and is partnering with the Chicago Department of Transportation to make accessibility improvements at more than 100 bus stops.

A full-scale listening tour

Delays, however, are not the only issue plaguing the CTA.

Cruz Gonzalez, who works at the Dior counter at Macy’s State Street and used to take the Red Line to work from Pilsen, has started taking the Green Line because the Red Line feels dangerous. “Things started feeling violent, particularly the past year,” he said. “There are a lot more robberies, homeless people, people not in the right state of mind.”

On the weekends, he’s stopped taking CTA completely and uses Lyft or Uber instead. Other commuters told WBEZ they also stopped taking the CTA because of crime and what more than one person described as “mayhem” on the buses. Dozens of daily riders mentioned an uptick in smoking on the trains, and a general lack of rule enforcement.

Some brutal incidents in the past months have prompted particular scrutiny. Violent crimes accounted for more than 26% of the 1,863 crimes reported on the CTA this year, according to an analysis of data through mid-July by the Chicago Sun-Times. The issue has been a prominent one in the race for Chicago mayor: Candidate Willie Wilson and Paul Vallas have each argued for a return of a CTA-specific police force; Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said that crime on the CTA is not a political issue but backed an increase in safety measures.

This year CTA has expanded its partnership with the Chicago Police Department, approved a contract with private security companies, invested in camera networks in an effort to reduce crime and assigned narcotic and gang personnel to patrol rail stations. The agency even says it has started to issue more citations to smokers.

Thousands of people rely on public transit every day and don’t have much in the way of a choice to buy a car or call an Uber. “I don’t have that kind of money,” Matthew Clark, who is a graduate student at UIC and relies on public transit to get to class. “Plus, I believe in mass transit. I want it to work.”

CTA riders
Matthew Clark is a graduate student who relies on the CTA to get to class. Lou Foglia for WBEZ

But some riders do have a choice. And for them, the ongoing “Ask CTA” events are intended to convey that the agency is not just pledging improvements but listening to commuters’ own suggestions for how to win them back.

The number one issue on Alex Schriner’s list: Accessibility in the train stations. “I just want the elevators that exist to work consistently.”

Schriner said sometimes entire neighborhoods are inaccessible to him. If the elevator at Clark/Lake is broken, and the elevator at Jackson is out of service, the next accessible station is Western. When he goes to Cubs games, he has to call and make sure elevators are working.

Describing the issue to “Ask CTA” representatives in September, he was polite, but angry.

“It seems like I’m unhinged, but there’s a lot of pent up emotion that I have about it, because CTA should be usable for everybody,” he said.

Still, Schriner said he liked that CTA was taking the time.

“I appreciate that you’re here, because I always get passed around,” he said to the CTA representative who was typing out his concerns. “If I contact someone at CTA, they say it’s up to the city. I contact the city and they say it’s up to CTA. No one is taking responsibility. I contacted the alderman and they’re useless. Who else do I need to be contacting? Leadership are failing us.”

CTA riders
Compared to the rest of the country, CTA has recovered more bus riders. But rail ridership is behind national trends. Lou Foglia for WBEZ

Zeid wasn’t convinced. “I think it’s feudal. I think they don’t listen,” he said on his way out of the same “Ask CTA” event. “They’re a bureaucracy.”

Moments later, an older man walked by, amused.

“Care to share feedback with CTA?” a representative asked him.

He did, mainly that it took him three hours to home to the North Side from the Loop last week, and that delays during rush hour are too common.

“We appreciate you talking with us,” the representative said.

“You do? I don’t see you taking any notes,” said the man, shaking his head and starting up the escalator, hoping to catch the approaching train.

Rebecca Holland is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. Follow her @_RebeccaHolland.