I’ve been riding CTA all my life. It’s time for a reckoning on public transit’s problems.

“I’ve been riding the CTA since my mother was pregnant with me,” Natalie Moore writes. “I don’t mind the peddling, whether it’s music, socks or incense sticks. ... But when safety and cleanliness become problems, change must be afoot.”

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The CTA has no shortage of characters and talent, but a public awareness campaign is needed to scrub the transit agency’s image, columnist Natalie Moore writes. In this photo from May 2021, My Block My Hood My City founder Jahmal Cole speaks on a Red Line train during a fashion show staged on two cars.

The CTA has no shortage of characters and talent, but a reckoning is needed about cleanliness and other problems, columnist Natalie Moore writes. In this photo from May 2021, My Block My Hood My City founder Jahmal Cole speaks on a Red Line train during a fashion show staged on two cars.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Before the Chicago Transit Authority adopted a color-coded rail system, I routinely rode the Dan Ryan line. One day in the early 1990s, a man who appeared to be houseless laid on the floor like a crumpled bag of potato chips.

A teenager boarded the ‘L’ with a boombox — remember, it’s the 1990s — and loudly played music. Then he started rapping about his absent father. The irritable man on the floor yelled for him to stop. The teenager ignored him and carried on with his performance. Again, the man interrupted.

As the train creaked above Chinatown, passengers exchanged worried glances. We did not want to be in the middle of a confrontation. The rapper did not care and continued his lyrics. The man jumped up and got in the teen’s face. A fight didn’t break out because the man started to rap — as the absentee father.

After the gasps, riders enjoyed the musical skit and clapped when the duo finished. Impressed by the creativity, most people donated to the street performers. The nation’s second-largest transit system is never short of characters or talent.

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I’ve been riding the CTA since my mother was pregnant with me. Family lore says she almost went into labor on the ‘L’ with my younger brother. I still ride buses and trains today and don’t mind the peddling, whether it’s music, socks or incense sticks. Public transportation is for all, the commuters and hustlers in the big city. A colleague and I exchange stories about the most outlandish shenanigans we see on the ‘L.’ A guy selling a full bar out of his cooler ranks pretty high.

But when the CTA experience compromises safety and cleanliness, change must be afoot.

Scrub away the CTA dirt, literally and figuratively

The CTA has been in crisis mode since the pandemic. At ‘L’ stations and platforms, you can step over or run into: Caked-up dirt. Puddles of cigarette water. Frozen vomit. Filth. Smoking inside train cars — weed and cigarettes. Earlier this year, WBEZ conducted an informal survey of 2,000 riders. A majority of riders complained about safety, delays and ghost buses. But they did show sympathy toward CTA employees — who, by the way, have their own frustrations. CTA employees are leaving and the agency is struggling to plug workforce gaps, which leads to reductions in rail and bus service.

Accountability from CTA’s top brass feels paltry and there hasn’t been a reckoning — much less a buffet of innovative solutions — about the problems. Unhoused people — who have the right to use public transportation — are using ‘L’ cars as de facto shelters or mental health clinics. Yet policing can’t be the cure-all.

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Given high gas prices, the opportunity exists for CTA to promote ridership. It’s upped my usage. More electric buses are coming. After decades of advocacy from organizers, the Red Line is finally going to be extended.

I get the sense that riders don’t take pride in CTA because the dirt makes them feel CTA doesn’t have pride. A public awareness campaign is sorely needed to scrub away the literal and figurative dirt.

Recently, I traveled the Red Line and a man boarded playing The J.B.’s — the name of James Brown’s band — on a small speaker. (Gone are the days of boom boxes.) With a toothless grin, he lamented how the young folk “don’t know nothin’ about this music.” None of the passengers objected to the early morning jamming. Then he lit a cigarette. Sigh. The man didn’t appear threatening, so I politely asked him if he would stop smoking. A woman on her cell phone across from him chimed in, too.

The man obliged.

Natalie Y. Moore is a reporter on race, class and communities for WBEZ and writes a monthly column for the Sun-Times.

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