There is no typical CTA rider

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Javier Perez, trustee of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 241, speaks while Gregory P. Longhini, Assistant Secretary of the Board, moderates. 

I’m writing this article just two hours after getting home from the Chicago Transit Authority’s (CTA) second budget hearing. It was held from 6 to 8 PM at its headquarters, 567 W Lake Street. The hearing is where you gain a good understanding of how changes in the way the organization charges for or provides service will affect people.

It’s also where you learn that there is no “average” Chicago transit user. Passengers who use CTA have extremely diverse needs, geographic origins and destinations, jobs, incomes, and beliefs about who should run public transit service and how it should be run.

Not a single person disagreed that it is a necessity to have a “good” transit service in Chicagoland – many speakers stressed the importance of having transit in the region. They showed up because they want the CTA to maintain its current service and even expand service. They showed up because the CTA is important to them.

If I don’t answer your questions about the public hearing last night, please ask them in the comments. There’s one more hearing and you can submit your comments without attending a hearing (at the end).

What is a CTA public hearing?

A CTA public hearing is a meeting, mandated by law, where the president and the board listen to and record the comments, thoughts, and opinions, of any person who registers to speak. These comments become part of the “official record” and are published on the CTA’s website and in the budget document that is voted on by the board to pass (probably at the November 15, 2011, meeting). I will update this article when the comments are posted – I’m not going to post my notes because they are extremely incomplete; the CTA has a stenographer transcribe them to create a good record.

The mood can be tense. You can sense and hear the anger some have over the changes. Service cuts, layoffs, fare changes, and fare rules can affect people in drastic ways. Most are respectful during the hearing, some attendees groan, whistle, shout, and clap while those who registered speak. However this meeting was more calm than the last hearing I attended, in 2007, at UIC Student Center East, when Ron Huberman was president. The difference might have been that that was during a doomsday scenario.

Who came to the CTA public hearing?

There were many independent riders of the CTA (they did not identify themselves as representing an organization), CTA bus operators, CTA train operators, other CTA employees, union representatives, leaders of business and neighborhood groups, and directors of non-profit economic development organizations and staff at advocacy groups. One speaker identified herself as both a disabled user, and a senior citizen. She represented herself but spoke of the issues members of both of these groups encounter while riding the CTA.

What did they say?

Over 35 people expressed their opinions, analysis, and feelings (one woman revealed with tears how getting her third layoff notice in six years working as a bus servicer was discomposing). Many conveyed their appreciation that the CTA proposes no fare increases or service cuts. Others told of their distrust that the budget will actually work out that way. A few speakers articulated their concern that if “doomsday” wasn’t coming in 2011, it would rear its ugly head in 2012.

In a scary sense, at least two speakers spoke of their fear of the public’s perception of them, and their disapproval of being portrayed by CTA President Forrest Claypool in the media as being well-paid workers with fancy fringe benefits, like receiving 2.5 times pay if they volunteer to work on their birthday [note 1].

One speaker talked about not being able to get his job on time after bus service on the 81W/West Lawrence was cut by two hours in evening; he was subsequently laid off.

Montgomery S., a CTA employee, pronounced, “I’m tired of politicians appointing people to come over to CTA who know nothing about transportation. I’ve only been here 6.5 years yet I’ve seen 4 presidents come in, do their little dance, and then leave with a pension. We’re first responders, we’re the caretakers, sometimes we’re the police. You want us to make the sacrifices when most of you don’t even use public transportation”. He received a standing ovation for his comments.

Did anyone talk about our elected legislators in Springfield or Washington, D.C.?

Yes, a couple people spoke about the need for legislators to become involved again and that CTA should always be engaging them. (The CTA, and its parent, the Regional Transportation Authority, should also be engaging its own employees and passengers about how transit is funded in Chicagoland.)

Brenna Conway, manager of the Riders for Better Transit campaign, read a prepared statement, saying:

But there should be more than just two players in this conversation [the two being unions and management]. The burden of bringing our transit agencies to a state of financial stability is being tossed back and forth like a hot potato, with the very real possibility that at the end of the day it will still land on riders. Ultimately, this burden is the responsibility of our elected leaders, who should also be sitting here with us today”.

Lora Chamberlain, speaking for the Illinois Coalition to Protect the Public Commons (against privatization of public infrastructure, assets, and property), talked about the need to go back to Springfield to rework the sales tax formula that was modified in 2008.

Jennifer Henry, a transportation policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, added, “We hope that you and everyone here will keep up the message to elected officials:  a greater proportion of our transportation dollars should be spent on transit”.

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Multiple speakers praised the CTA for its use and distribution of transit trackers and were enthusiastic about its various expansions. Photo by Jeff Zoline. 

Did the president or board care about what was being said?

At the public hearing, they are not there to respond, only to listen. After the hearing, when the comments are transcribed, they are categorized and paraphrased in order to gather common themes. The CTA staff then responds, broadly, to these themes.

Since they don’t respond, and they sit behind a table staring at the speakers for two hours, it may seem like they don’t care about the ideas, feelings, and criticisms of those who stand up. It’s hard to know whether or not they’re listening. Most don’t take any notes.

Some speakers waged the criticism that the board members don’t use the CTA, presumably asking the question, “How can one manage what they don’t experience?” And as the CTA is looking for concessions from its union employees, some passengers and those workers feel like the scapegoat, and brought up how they feel like they’re part of the 99% (an identity popularized by the Occupy Wall Street movement) and that CTA management, the board members, and the bondholders (those people and investment groups who buy the CTA’s bonds it sells to fund capital investments and which it must pay interest on), are part of the of 1%.

What ideas did people have?

Alan Mellis had several good ideas that could generate revenue or attract new passengers:

  • Open the concession at the Fullerton Red Line station.
  • Install electronic kiosk with a community map that listed businesses and nearby attractions.
  • Install bike sharing kiosk at Fullerton.
  • Improve wayfinding so that a visitor from a foreign country (“like Schaumburg”) can use it: “Next time you’re at O’Hare airport, watch confused travelers try to get a fare card [there are three unique machines; two of three take credit cards, and a different two of three issue multi-day passes] and then try to get to Water Tower. This experience should be improved”.

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Improving wayfinding makes the CTA easier to use. An easier to use system can attract more riders (so-called “choice riders”). Photo by Jeff Zoline. 

Other ideas from the speakers: make sure the vending machines are constantly filled with product (the speaker noticed that some are empty); install a device on trains that quickly charges cellphones (as seen in some bars); charge passengers to bring aboard strollers, shopping carts, and luggage; create better, more involved, partnerships with university transportation centers to share knowledge and research.

The most pertinent idea came from Mike Pitula of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) and Kevin Peterson of Citizens Taking Action. They both pointed out that CTA has several millions of dollars in federal Job Access and Reverse Commute funding that it hasn’t used. LVEJO has been campaigning to bring back a bus to 31st Street for several years.

Roger Romanelli, executive director of the Randolph/West Fulton Market Association, gave his insight on how to attract new riders to the CTA. He described how his organization has been advocating for the Morgan/Lake Green/Pink Line station for years and they are very excited for it: “Encourage every business to have a public transportation plan; link this plan to bicycling. Many people need to ride the CTA, but we can [promote its energy efficiency as a way to] get more choice riders”.

Who sits on the board?

According to a couple members of the audience, no one who deserves to be there. Four are appointed by the Mayor of Chicago and three are appointed by the Governor of Illinois. The CTA does not provide bios for them on its website. They serve 7 year terms and receive $25,000 compensation annually. Only one of the seven members must reside outside the Chicago city limits. The State of Illinois website has more information, including a list of their names and term dates.

What’s next?

There’s one more public hearing. Then the comments will be organized and published as I described in the first paragraph. The board will vote on whether or not to approve the budget at the December 14th board meeting (there’s a board meeting this Wednesday, November 9, at 10 AM).

Thursday, November 10, 2011
Kennedy-King College
740 W. 63rd Street
6 PM to 8 PM

Written comments should be addressed to

Gregory P. Longhini, Assistant Secretary of the Board
Chicago Transit Authority
P.O. Box 7567
Chicago, Illinois 60680-7567

Comments also can be sent via email to glonghini@transitchicago.com or submitted via the CTA’s website.

14 thoughts on “There is no typical CTA rider”

    1. I can think of a few reasons why they don’t:
      1. Walgreens, CVS, and other stores sell them, which creates foot traffic for those stores. Stations would mean competition. 
      2. It takes a different machine to sell the pass. All of the machines (stored value or pass) are expensive. (Think $20,000 each.)
      3. The CTA gets more revenue when passengers use stored value card instead of a pass. 

      What do you think?
      I don’t believe that passes should be sold at all stations, but they should make an effort to install pass vending machines at stations A) with the highest ridership, B) near tourist attractions, C) near Metra stations. 

      The CTA should also make it easier to buy passes at Midway and O’Hare (as the commenter above mentioned). 

      1. I disagree with (1).  CTA passengers shouldn’t have to patronize other businesses to ride CTA.  Think about it: wouldn’t it be ridiculous for AT&T or Verizon to not only require you to buy service from Walgreens or CVS first before accessing their networks, but also actively prohibit their own stores from selling such service directly?

        1. The convenience store inside the Logan Square Blue Line station sells passes. Do all other c-stores inside stations sell passes? What about the Dunkin Donuts? They should sell passes. CTA could work that into the concession agreement: businesses must sell passes. 

          I doubt this is an actual strategy of CTA (forcing customers to patronize businesses to get fares). I love playing devil’s advocate, though. 

          I believe all of this is a moot discussion thought as CTA is moving towards an open fare system where people use bank cards (and cellphones) to pay fares. As for passes, those can be stored electronically on bank cards, or on the alternative card that the vendor provides (this is all under discussion right now at 567 W. Lake). 

      2.  I think it’s purely a matter of (2) dominating – how to justify an extra $20K per station when the capital budget for CTA is already in deficit? – and a little bit of (3) – why not only sell the most expensive form of fare media in every station, as a person who has already arrived at said station is effectively a captive user at that point?

        1. About idea (2): As vending machines are replaced, the replacing machine should have the ability to vend passes. 

          About idea (3): This strategy would make sense if the CTA was in the business of making money. It’s in the business of moving people (although they are required to make up 50% of their operating budget with fares).

      3. It shouldn’t take a different machine to sell different types of passes.  The fare card machines in NYC can vend either dollar amount or unlimited day/week/month passes.  And they all accept credit cards and have for almost the past decade

        1. It shouldn’t. But CTA has the machines they have. I think CTA has the same vending machine and fare card manufacturer/contractor as MTA in NYC. So perhaps it’s a vending machine upgrade the CTA didn’t buy. 

  1. http://chicago.cbslocal.com/2011/11/11/raucous-crowd-protests-cta-budget-at-final-hearing/

    For my part, I’d like to see more of this, and less bowing and scraping before politicians who will, when push comes to shove, implement austerity measures to reduce funding for transit whether we like it or not. The Occupy Movement has called for a national day of action against austerity for November 17th, and a key demand is that there be no cuts to public transportation. A modest increase of the marginal rate of taxation on the 1% could wipe out all transit deficits while financing comprehensive repair, expansion and modernization project.

    1. The person speaking in that photo is a union trustee, Javier Perez. I have his statement and I’m going to post it soon.
      As I mentioned in the article, several speakers made connections between what CTA is doing and what the Occupy Movement is doing. A speaker talked about how it’s time for the bondholders (most likely wealthy people, but also pension investment programs) to sacrifice.
      Thank you for the link.

  2. The CTA gets a bad rap from people that Just dont know. They have kept up with the stations and technology amazingly well for being the oldest “L” “Subway” Train of it`s size in the country.  They are fully restprong 6 stations at millions of dollars a piece, putting those wonderful Train and bus Trackers online and at the stations, replacing stairs and elevators and adding many new retail merchants. I have lived in Chicago for 50 yrs and because of a Job i used to have i have also lived in LA,NYC,PHILLY and tampa and i can tell you, all in all the CTA is the coolest and the safest Subway “L” there is. Some people in Chicago have been spoiled for so long they take it for granted. we have the Electric Line Train, the “L” and Subway Train, Metra Train, Cabs, Water Taxis, busses, express busses, bike lanes, Bike rentals etc. In other words, any form of Transport on land and water we have. Of Course being the 3rd largest city in the country we need it!

    1. I agree that the CTA gets a bad rap. I try to counter it, quickly, by saying, “It’s not easy running a railroad used by hundreds of thousands of people 1.5 million+ times per day”. I think the CTA legitimately does the best it can with the resources it has. I do think there are ways it can improve, but many of those ways require more funding (which I think the citizens of Chicagoland deserve). 

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