Now, by CTA’s own evaluation: its improvement plan is working. Trains and buses are more reliable; crime is down; a customer base depleted by COVID is returning.
But when WBEZ asked riders in recent weeks if they’ve felt improvements on the ground, a surprising number said, well, no.
Out of more than 460 riders who responded to a WBEZ survey in September and October, the majority said their opinion of CTA has either stayed the same (49.1%) or diminished (25.9%) in the last year. Only 20% of respondents say their opinion has improved. (The riders surveyed were among a larger pool of 2,000 who took an unofficial WBEZ survey about a year ago; we wanted to go back to the same riders and find out if things had improved.)
What WBEZ heard is in contrast, CTA officials say, with their own research that shows increased customer satisfaction. And it comes as the head of the agency, Dorval Carter — who WBEZ made repeated requests to interview for this story — faces increased oversight from the City Council and mounting pressure from transit advocates to resign.
The agency has a new budget proposal that, once enacted, aims to restore service closer to pre-pandemic levels. Workforce issues remain the primary roadblock in achieving a full recovery, officials said.
“Our goal has always been to get back to 2019 service levels,” CTA’s vice president of communications and marketing Brian Steele said. “As we are able to add operators, we will add service.”
How do riders feel and what do they want officials to know now? Here are the three big themes we heard, and how the agency responded.
People don’t think the CTA has improved much
Despite massive efforts to shift public opinion and draw riders back, three-quarters of regular riders surveyed by WBEZ said things weren’t better.
For riders like Marjorie Kersten, the biggest disappointment is the continued unreliability.
Kersten, a 29-year-old Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois Chicago, used to rely on CTA to get her to campus — preferring public transit over the traffic and environmental impact of driving. But lately she’s been fed up. On the first day of classes this fall, Kersten said she left for campus more than an hour early — giving herself “plenty of time,” she thought. But then the train held at each stop for several minutes without explanation. After 30 minutes, the train was still only a handful of stops from her home. Stressed and fearing she would be late, she eventually got off the train and called an Uber.
But by then, it was too late: She arrived after class had begun.
“That was mortifying to me,” said Kersten, who has been driving to campus since. “[CTA is] just so unreliable at this point that it’s more of a headache for me to try to use it.”
Steele argues the agency has made strides on the reliability front and pointed to CTA’s own surveys that he said show increased satisfaction among riders.
“But certainly, I think people’s perceptions are obviously based on their own experience,” Steele said. “So if you have a day where there’s been a service delay, or you’ve waited too long for a train that impacts you personally and that’s the situation that we don’t want to have.”
Nikolas Gamarra, a Lake View resident who commutes to the Loop five days a week, has also switched his main mode of transportation, often opting to bike to work instead of taking public transit. On two wheels, he says he’s more reliably on time.
“In terms of what I would want to see in the CTA going forward, I really want to see increased frequency,” said Gamarra, a 27-year-old software engineer.
While Gamarra said the delays feel just as frequent as ever to him, he thinks CTA has at least been more honest about them.
Ridership has increased as the number of trains has gone down
One of the big problems we heard last year was that service was down and communication was poor. Transit trackers often promised ghost buses and trains that didn’t arrive. Schedules didn’t appear updated to reflect critical staffing shortages, which led to unpredictable wait times.
Riders say communication has gotten better — the schedules, it seems, now align more to what’s actually coming. Yet CTA is running 15% fewer buses and trains than in 2019, recent analysis from the Chicago Tribune shows.
For those who have stuck with CTA, a new problem has emerged: overly crowded trains and buses, packed to the gills with riders who have been called back to offices.
About 55% of riders who responded to our survey said that they regularly or occasionally can’t get on a train or bus because it’s too full.
Alton Lynum, who works in HR, commutes to his office downtown at least three days a week. It didn’t take long for him to notice he’s among a resurgence of commuters. He’s able to dodge packed trains by heading into the office early, usually before 7 a.m. But on the way home, crowded trains seem more inevitable, he said.
As a solution, Lynum sometimes grabs a train in the opposite direction for a stop or two. Then he gets off and is able to hop on a homeward-bound train further down the line, before it’s too full.
“The long delays seem to be better than a year ago; however, the new issue is that it seems like the service levels haven’t kept pace with the increase demand,” Lynum, 36, wrote in the most recent WBEZ survey.
That spike in riders is what CTA has been chasing, but persistent workforce shortages limit the number of buses and trains that can run. That crunch is what is leading to vehicles that are too full to squeeze on.While the agency’s stated goal is to return to pre-pandemic service levels, CTA’s Steele said there’s no timeline on when that will happen. “We’re not where we want to be in terms of service, there’s no question about that,” Steele said.
Even as the agency continues to undertake an aggressive hiring effort, CTA remains short about 200 bus operators and 100 rail operators and continues to lose staff to retirements or the private sector, Steele said.
Evan Scanzera, who lives in Logan Square, thinks packed trains are not just an inconvenience — but can also lead to other unpleasant experiences on board, like riders acting out.
“Tempers can get high when you’re crowded,” he said.
Riders feel like CTA is getting safer, with some caveats
Overall, people told us that they are feeling safer this fall — with about 66% of respondents saying they feel fairly or very safe on the CTA, as compared to 52.5% in the informal WBEZ survey a year ago.
However, how safe a rider feels depends on gender, the time of day and how long the wait time for a train or bus might be. With armed robberies significantly up in pockets of the city, some respondents reported feeling less safe standing outside for a bus or train to arrive. And other riders feel scarred from things that have happened in the past.
Danielle Miles, a long time Hyde Park resident, stopped taking the No. 6 bus earlier this year after she said a man next to her was stabbed in the face and the driver didn’t call the police. Ever since, Miles, who is 52, has taken Metra to get to her job at City Colleges of Chicago.
When she takes CTA on the weekends, she doesn’t go out after dark and she carries a “decoy purse,” in case she were to be robbed.
Ana Amaya is familiar with those kinds of precautions. Even though she said the “wild card” element of unpredictability on the Red Line seems to have decreased in the last year, she still doesn’t take the train after around 7:30 p.m. The bus feels safer.
Amaya, a 25-year-old Gold Coast resident, would like to see train cars that are designated for women and children for safety reasons. Steele said there are no plans for an initiative like this right now — citing difficulty in enforcement. Instead, he touted the agency’s relationship with the Chicago Police Department and the supplemental private security and K-9 units.
Mary Ann Schmelzer, a 57-year-old nurse who lives in Skokie, said she also wants to see increased safety measures on CTA, but overall, she thinks things are getting better.
“I would say, I’m actually happy with how the buses are running on time,” Schmelzer said. “Now, I would say that I feel safer on the buses.”
About the survey
In early September we sent a new survey by email to 1,478 riders who filled out a 2022 questionnaire about frustrations with the CTA. To date, we have received 469 responses.Among those surveyed, 51.2% said they continue to experience the same number of delays as a year ago; 37.7% said they still faced delays, but fewer than a year ago; and 11.2% said they were not experiencing many delays.
We also continued to hear about frustrations around cleanliness and smoking on the CTA. About 40% said the CTA is “only slightly” cleaner than a year ago, 38.4% said they do not think it is cleaner, 15% said they have seen a noticeable improvement and 6.2% said it has gotten worse.
This fall, 43.7% of people surveyed said they see about the same number of people smoking as a year ago, 30.4% said they see fewer people smoking, 15.6% of people say it’s gotten worse and 10.3% said they weren’t sure.
Among the respondents:
There were 72 ZIP codes represented.
43.9% of respondents said they frequent the train, 37.9% take the bus more and 18.2% said they ride both the train and bus regularly.
The majority of riders take CTA almost daily or a few times a week.The largest age group represented was 25-34 year olds (30.3%), followed by 35-44 year olds (26.2%). 45-54 year olds and 55-64 year olds both accounted for 13.2% of the respondents. 13% of survey takers were 65 and older and 3.8% were 18-24.
Nearly 49% of respondents identify as male, 44% female, 3% non-binary, 0.5% transgender and 5% undisclosed.
Race of respondents was: 77% white, 6.2% Black, 8% Latino or Hispanic, 4% Asian, 1% American Indian or Alaskan Native, 1% Middle Eastern or North African. About 8% did not include their race.
Courtney Kueppers is a digital producer/reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @cmkueppers.
Read more Chicago Transit Authority coverage here.