For public transit to be viable, riders must feel they’re safe on trains and buses

The city has taken steps in the right direction to enhance public transit safety but should consider bringing back conductors to its L trains.

SHARE For public transit to be viable, riders must feel they’re safe on trains and buses
Chicago police at the scene of a shooting on a Red Line train in August 2021. Two Red Line shootings have happened recently in barely a week’s time.

Chicago police at the scene of a shooting on a Red Line train in August 2021. Two Red Line shootings have happened recently in barely a week’s time.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

A Chicago Transit Authority union leader argued last week that it is time the agency brought back conductors and re-established its own police unit to combat a surge in violent crime that endangers the safety of commuters and the transit agency’s employees.

Violent crime on public transit — and everywhere else, it goes without saying — is completely unacceptable. Riders have begun to return to public transit now that the pandemic is easing, but fears of being caught in the crossfire of a shooting, like the one that took place March 8 on a Red Line train in Englewood, could easily stymie that.

That shooting, which left a 25-year-old man critically wounded, happened barely a week after a 16-year-old young man was killed Feb. 28 right outside a Red Line station on the Near North Side. Hours later, there was gunfire inside the station.

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Clearly, the city had to take swift action. Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Police Supt. David Brown and CTA President Dorval Carter Jr. last week announced public safety measures that include adding more unarmed private security guards and dedicated teams from CPD that will patrol rail lines.

Those are welcome steps. But the city, in its next contract negotiations with the CTA union, ought to consider bringing back conductors and re-establishing its police unit. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, or BART, which operates in the San Francisco Bay area.

In 2019, BART launched a community ambassadors pilot program as an unarmed alternative to law enforcement on its trains. The ambassadors were envisioned as both a crime deterrent and as a service to riders — when the pandemic hit, one of their tasks was handing out masks — and they were trained in de-escalating conflict. They also carried radios to call for backup from a BART police officer if needed.

Since then, the ambassadors have been well-received by riders, BART officials say. More details about their impact on crime are needed.

Adding more security guards and CPD officers is a step in the right direction. But long term, there’s merit to the idea of having a dedicated unit of CTA employees looking out for the well-being of riders. If properly trained and deployed, that could go a long way toward making the city’s transit system not only safer but more welcoming overall.

More crime, fewer riders

In January 2020, Chicago was already struggling to control a three-year, 24% spike in crime that triggered 458 criminal incidents on buses and trains between Thanksgiving and Christmas 2019 alone.

Lightfoot planned to increase police patrols and add more surveillance cameras. Interim Supt. Charlie Beck put SWAT team officers on CTA trains and launched a more extensive crackdown on mass transit crime. He had a broader plan to address the problem as well.

But then, COVID-19 struck. Daily ridership plummeted and has yet to fully recover. Now, high-profile shootings threaten to endanger that.

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Multiple conductors were assigned to trains until 1997, when the CTA decided to shift to a system in which a single operator took over the conductors’ responsibilities. Besides safety checks, the conductors provided customer service such as opening and closing doors, making announcements and answering riders’ questions.

“I’ve been around for 35 years. You had guys undercover in the subways,” Amalgamated Transit Workers Union Local 308 President Eric Dixon said last week about the transit policing program canceled by then-Mayor Jane Byrne.

“As a conductor, I would see them get on the trains,” Dixon said. “If something happened, I’d say, ‘In the fourth car, we’ve got a situation.’ They would go to that car. They’d stop things from happening.”

As the pandemic eases, city officials must continue thinking outside the box on public safety, economic development, education and everything else that makes for a thriving city.

Sometimes that means taking lessons from elsewhere — or from the past.

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