The Chicago Transit Authority says buses and trains are more reliable, cleaner and have lower crime rates than at this time last year. But staffing shortages continue to be a challenge and the agency is still running fewer buses and trains compared to before the COVID-19 pandemic.
The news comes on the one-year anniversary of CTA President Dorval Carter’s “Meeting the Moment” plan to improve a transit system that was heavily criticized by riders after the city lifted COVID-19 restrictions.
“Where I would like it to be is when we get to a point that we’re able to ultimately start restoring all the services that we had to optimize,” Carter said about the reduced service schedules.
One major improvement has been a decrease in crime. Since the start of 2023, crime on the CTA is down 9% compared to the same time last year, according to Chicago Police data.
Carter said that since the beginning of January the CTA has devoted “a whole lot more resources from the Police Department on the CTA, and I think that has helped a lot.”
In addition to relying on sworn officers, the CTA has been using private security, including 50 two-person K-9 teams. The agency has also increased the number of cameras across the system.
Carter said the agency has become “much more aggressive” in working with the state’s attorney’s office to ensure people who have been charged with serious crimes are kept off buses and trains as part of their bond.
The CTA also plans to utilize a new state law that allows transit agencies to suspend fare cards and riding privileges of people who attack or threaten the safety of operators or passengers, according to Carter, who said CTA lawyers are working with Metra and Pace to have a “consistent approach.” Any new policies to this effect would require approval of the CTA Board of Directors.
When it comes to reliability, a major complaint from riders, Carter said progress has been made to reduce so-called ghost buses and trains, which appear on tracking apps as arriving soon but ultimately never show up at the stop.
“As we have addressed our schedule reliability problems, we have also seen a significant reduction in ghost trains and ghost buses on the CTA,” said Carter, who touted a software update to the tracking system and a decline in customer complaints on this issue.
Carter, who was appointed by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, said the agency received more than 252 complaints for ghost buses and trains last August, compared to just 75 complaints this past July. Current Mayor Brandon Johnson repeatedly called out unreliable CTA service on the campaign trail and has said he’ll be evaluating leadership during his first three months.
The CTA says ridership on weekends and during sporting events have exceeded pre-pandemic levels, but weekday ridership has yet to return to normal. Carter said those numbers suggest a post-pandemic shift in how people are using public transit and the agency will continue to monitor trends to help determine future bus and rail schedules.
Moving forward, the CTA plans to increase customer surveys about service issues. At next week’s board meeting, the agency plans to unveil a new chatbot technology that will allow customers to provide real-time feedback to the CTA on issues that may be occurring on the system.
A November 2022 WBEZ survey of more than 2,000 regular CTA commuters, riders expressed concerns about delays, ghost buses/trains and safety.
In that survey, nearly 9 in 10 respondents said they had experienced a service delay in the 30 days prior. Respondents told WBEZ they were spending more money on rideshare apps and a few even cited the CTA as a reason for switching to remote jobs.
In response to the survey and riders’ complaints, an agency spokesperson, Brian Steele, said in January that staffing shortages were at the crux of many issues. Steele said at the time that the agency had hired nearly 450 bus operators in 2022, but undercutting progress were staff retirements and resignations — a pattern that has continued into 2023.
The hiring target for 2023 was 700 bus drivers, the agency said. As of the end of July 2023, CTA had hired 558; however, according to its monthly “Meeting the Moment” scorecard, it also parted ways with between 40 and 50 drivers each month due to retirements and resignations.
Still, Carter remains confident the transit agency can continue to make gains and provide more reliable service: “The good news is that our ridership is growing. The reality is that we’re going to have to continue to work hard to continue to keep that number growing going forward.
“We obviously have to deal with the reality of what the rider trends may be in the future, compared to what they may have been in a pre-pandemic environment,” he said.
Claudia Morell is a metro reporter covering government and transit issues for WBEZ.