Chicago, let’s get back on the L and do our part to save public transit

Chicago’s got one of the best public transit systems in the nation, but ridership on the CTA, Metra and Pace has plummeted during the pandemic.

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An empty CTA bus on the No. 20-Madison route.

An empty CTA bus on the No. 20-Madison route.

Rich Hein | Sun-Times

Get on the L or a bus. Or both.

This avid CTA rider has been tripping around town on trains and buses throughout the past year and, yes, during the reign of COVID-19.

My elderly mother does her regular shopping via the CTA. My nephew rides the L to his job on the graveyard shift. We are all safe and sound.

When I tell friends, jaws drop. “You take the CTA?”

Then I tell them to get on board. Chicago needs our butts in those seats.

I gave up my driver’s license 25 years ago. Public transportation is infinitely cheaper and wiser than driving.

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I am a proud CTA cheerleader. We have been blessed with one of the best transit systems in the nation. Now, it is in peril.

My fellow public transit riders have abandoned my beloved CTA. The empty seats and aisles tell the tale. The system suffered a 57% decline in ridership last year, as the Chicago Reader reported last month.

I get it. During the pandemic, riders have shunned public transportation. Some fear COVID-19. Others are working from home. Many are jobless.

We all have heard the tales of decline. Stories about filth, vagrancy, harassment and worse on the CTA.

Thankfully, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and transit officials have avoided service cuts and layoffs. An influx of more than $817 million in federal stimulus funds have kept the CTA rolling.

Now as the pandemic eases, riders are beginning to return. But the CTA still posts fewer than 500,000 average daily rides, compared with 1.5 million before the pandemic, according to the Reader.

We are desperate to return to normal. When we do, we must do it via the CTA. If riders don’t return to the CTA, Metra and Pace, look for layoffs, service cuts and hefty fare hikes.

That would be devastating, especially to the essential workers and working-class families who have no other transit options.

One expert suggests that transit agencies consider sharply reducing, or even eliminating, transit fares to bring riders back.

“We ought to do more to support people to make their transit commute easier and help them pay for it,” MarySue Barrett, the longtime president of the Metropolitan Planning Council, told Fran Spielman in a Chicago Sun-Times interview.

She suggests transit authorities fund “a pilot to make transit greatly reduced or even free for some people in 2021,” and deploy technology to promote safety and cleanliness.

I’m skeptical. A transit system that has been bleeding red ink for more than a year desperately needs new revenue, and it needs it now.

One thing is for sure. It’s time for the CTA to crack the whip. Get those train cars and buses sparkling clean, crack down on crime, and roll out the welcome mat.

Chicago will not be Chicago without a vibrant public transit system that can reach every corner of the metropolis. It’s our lifeblood. Chicago will remain an economically, socially and culturally diverse urban center only if we can all get around.

A subpar system would increase car dependency, crush our already-crumbling infrastructure, poison the environment, and deepen racial and class divides.

Do your part. Get back on the bus.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com

Laura S. Washington is a political analyst for ABC-7 Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @mediadervish

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