Kambium “Kam” Buckner thought he was prepared that February morning.
The mayoral candidate and state representative showed up early to his Chicago Transit Authority bus stop in the Loop, wearing a pressed suit under his coat as he planned to head to a debate. Then he waited. And waited. And waited.
After several minutes, he told his campaign staff to start recording.
“It is Wednesday morning at 10:20 (a.m.), and I was waiting for the 60 bus to head to a forum and got ghosted, like many of you have been,” Buckner said in the video he quickly posted on Twitter. “We got to fix CTA.”
Buckner, who touts his frequent CTA ridership, has sought to position himself as the most pro-public transit and cycling candidate. It’s a key concern, reflected in varying degrees among the nine candidates in the Feb. 28 election: Reliability and safety on the city’s trains and buses.
But the problems facing Chicago residents go far beyond long wait times for public transit and sometimes dirty train cars. Whoever becomes the city’s next mayor will contend with a CTA that is facing steep staffing shortages and a looming financial shortfall, and is struggling to address complaints about violent crime and nuisance behavior such as smokers on the “L.” There are also increasingly vocal concerns about pedestrian and cyclist safety and a steep decline in ridership.
Chicago has long prided itself as the city that works, and that ethos is underscored by what has historically been a robust transit system. But that, along with increasing changes in the ways people live and commute, threaten the future of transit in Chicago.
The next four years will be crucial in reinventing public transit and the way it’s funded, said P.S. Sriraj, director of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Also hanging in the balance are the jobs CTA and other transit agencies provide.
“The future of public transportation as we know it is at stake,” he said.
Ridership, and rider fare revenue, remain well below pre-pandemic levels, meaning CTA and other transit agencies have been relying on federal COVID-19 relief money to get by. But the funding is expected to run out in 2025, leaving the transit agencies scrambling to find new sources of cash or face the prospect of steep service cuts and fare hikes. All the mayoral candidates have vowed to increase local funding to the CTA when that day comes.
The next mayor will also oversee the ongoing major overhaul of O’Hare International Airport, as travel at the city’s two airports approaches pre-pandemic levels. Chicago recently celebrated the completion of Terminal 5 expansion at O’Hare, and other plans include replacing Terminal 2 with a new Global Terminal and two satellite concourses. The project’s price tag is now $12.1 billion, up from $8.5 billion in 2018.
A CTA bus idled next to Willie Wilson early one August morning on Madison Street and Austin Boulevard on the West Side. The mayoral candidate and entrepreneur circled the vehicle, hopping from window to window to inspect the interior.
Wilson’s mission that morning was to ride the bus downtown, where he would give a speech on what he thinks ails the public transit system and proposed solutions.
“This is kind of my side of the town — West Side,” Wilson said before boarding. He recalled moving from Louisiana and taking the Metra and CTA from Hazel Crest to get to his McDonald’s franchise at Madison and Karlov Avenue.
As the bus drifted through that same intersection, the rags-to-riches businessman noted how different the West Side was in the ‘80s. He played basketball and ate hot dogs with other CTA riders, feeling like he had a stake in the community through the church memberships and businesses nearby.
“This bus used to be packed with people,” Wilson remarked. “It used to be you couldn’t even get in.”
Now, the mood has shifted, he said.
“They got to clean up this problem in Chicago,” he said. “People are afraid to come on (the CTA) and it gives Chicago a bad name.”
As the ride progressed, the vacant lots and corner stores with gated doors melted into the horizon, giving way to high-rises, boutique groceries and fitness centers. Riders continued to board, some sharing fist bumps and requesting selfies with Wilson. Many recognized him as the “gas man,” in a nod to his free giveaways at the gas pumps.
During the hourlong ride, highlighting safety issues on the system was the top focus of one of Wilson’s campaign surrogates, Pastor Shando Valdez, who attempted to engage riders on the issue as they boarded.
“Has anyone witnessed violence on the CTA?” Valdez surveyed.
“I saw on the news this morning about a young lady stabbed on the Red Line,” one man piped up.
Valdez eagerly leaned over and asked, “So you would go as far as to say that it’s dangerous to ride the bus?” The man concurred. Other riders simply said “no” when asked if they had concerns.
As Wilson stepped off the bus downtown, where he called for more police details and conductors on the trains, he remarked, “Chicago. My town. My town.”
Wilson’s CTA ride highlights a central concern on the campaign trail, where the candidates are frequently asked about crime and decreased service levels.
At a recent forum, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said her administration heard from CTA worker unions that they want more uniformed police and increased security, which her team has worked to provide.
“One of the things the CTA found, a lot of the problems that manifest itself lately on the rails starts with fare-jumping, so they added more canine patrols at the fare box,” Lightfoot said. “The other thing we’ve done is make sure we are dealing with the homeless challenge that we find on the CTA. During the pandemic, when ridership was substantially down, the homeless have been on the rails for quite some time and didn’t leave because they didn’t have the morning rush and didn’t have the afternoon rush.”
Lightfoot and police Superintendent David Brown have repeatedly announced increased police presence and security on the system, but the results of their efforts are mixed.
In 2022, the rate of violent crime on trains began to drop for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it remained near the highest levels seen in the past decade, and more than twice as high as the years before the pandemic.
Reports of violent crime on the “L” were rising in the years before Lightfoot took office in 2019. They dropped as the pandemic emptied the trains of many riders, but not nearly as much as ridership dropped, meaning the odds of becoming the victim of a violent crime, like a robbery, homicide, or more aggressive assault or battery, spiked in 2020 and 2021.
In 2019, there were 2.54 violent crimes reported per million train rides. In 2020 that rose to 5.97 and in 2021 to 6.83, before dropping back to 6.17 per million rides through November 2022.
Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas has made CTA safety a focus of his remarks about public transit, accusing the agency of being “mismanaged” and saying he would “clean house” if elected.
“They can talk about COVID all they want, but (ridership) is down because of the perception that the CTA is unsafe,” he said, highlighting its looming financial challenges.
He called for a dedicated public transit unit of the Chicago Police Department with officers specially trained and suggested repurposing the money CTA is using on private security dogs toward expanding the transit unit so officers could be on platforms and riding trains throughout the system.
Affiliated social service ambassadors could also be called upon by police, he said.
Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson described public transit as a “public accommodation.” He called for reduced fares for working-class riders, free rides for public school students and priority for CTA buses at traffic signals to help improve service. He is against the K-9 units patrolling the rails and wants to create a citywide bus lane network.
Activist Ja’Mal Green has called for the CTA to be free and said its workers deserve expanded benefits such as home down payment assistance and free community college to help improve morale. CTA should also hire more social workers and create a jobs program for formerly incarcerated residents and a pipeline from schools to work, he said.
“We must move forward toward making public transportation free,” Green said at a progressive candidates forum last fall. “I know it’s pretty radical. I know many other candidates may not say it, but it is important and if we are real serious about public transportation and making sure that people can get to and from work and throughout the city of Chicago, we must make it affordable. And folks say affordable; I say free.”
Lightfoot has drawn criticism from other candidates for not paying enough attention to the CTA. The mayor disputes that, but this past week flubbed a debate answer about the agency’s financial problems.
“Well, the fact of the matter is, there’s not going to be a fiscal cliff for the CTA because the CTA — understanding that this infusion of federal dollars is short-term — has budgeted in the out years to make sure that there are sufficient funds. But let’s be honest, public transportation, mass transportation all across our country for years, has been underfunded,” Lightfoot said, adding that Congress should provide more money to sustain the system.
In fact, the CTA is facing a steep fiscal cliff. Federal funding for regional transit agencies are slated to run out in 2025 and Chicago-area agencies are staring down a $730 million budget hole, a gap the regional transit agency says is too big to fill with service cuts and fare hikes alone.
Lightfoot’s administration has made attempts to address public transit and transit-oriented development.
She championed an ordinance intended to promote development near transit, which advocates hope could also help convince more people to turn to walking, cycling and public transit over personal cars. She lowered the minimum speed limit that could lead to a camera ticket — a move that was unpopular and raised concerns about racial equity, but that was also championed by many traffic safety advocates.
Though they’re fewer than initially planned, Lightfoot touts having implemented new traffic safety measures, including more than 100 miles of new bike lanes during her term, some concrete-protected.
In January, Lightfoot proposed a pilot program that would use cameras to ticket vehicle owners who park in bike or bus lanes, crosswalks, bus stops and no-parking zones. The month before, the City Council passed an ordinance raising fines for parking in bike lanes.
Her transportation department began construction on a new Green Line station at Damen Avenue after years of delays, and she backed the creation of a key source of funding for the long-discussed extension of the CTA Red Line south to 130th Street.
If all goes according to plan, the next mayor will oversee the start of construction of the Red Line project, which many say has the potential to be a major investment in the city’s Far South Side, even as it means acquiring dozens of residents’ homes.
Under Lightfoot, the city’s first fully-fledged scooter program got up and running, after weeks of delays while two of the companies that were not selected to operate scooters appealed the denial.
Among the city’s scooter operators is the Divvy bike-share system, operated by Lyft, which is also responsible for managing the classic and e-bike rental system. Divvy struggled during several warm-weather riding months this year to get enough scooters onto the street, and changed prices in a move that sparked a resolution from a handful of aldermen calling for more information about Divvy prices and ridership.
At the same time, the city brought in less money in 2022 from Divvy than at any point since Lyft took over operation of the system in 2019, largely because of a credit the city gave to Lyft for the scooter program and fare promotions. The city has said the contract with Lyft is expected to bring in nearly $77 million from the Divvy program through 2027, and Lyft is investing $50 million in expanding the Divvy system.
Still, Lightfoot has faced criticism for not doing enough on the subject of transit. Every candidate except the mayor attended a forum specifically devoted to the issue last month.
U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García highlighted the need to move away from dependency on cars. He emphasized his years in transportation-focused committees and caucuses in Congress, and the need to educate people about bike lanes and car dependency.
“People think that driving a car equates with freedom and it doesn’t,” he said. “It’s dumb, it’s hurting our environment, it’s hurting our children.”
Transit-oriented development, and including affordable housing in the development, is a key way to get more people out of their cars, García said.
He also said he supports creating safe bike lanes but added that “painting bike lanes on streets” is not a full solution. Rather, bike lanes need to be paired with infrastructure such as signs and education for residents about the importance of bike lanes for climate and accessibility issues.
Johnson’s budget plan initially proposed a “city surcharge” on suburban Metra riders with the aim of raising $40 million. That initial plan did not include details on the rate or how it would be charged. He has since backed off of the proposal and removed mention of it from his platform after feedback from transit advocates, his campaign said.
Buckner sometimes criticizes Lightfoot for saying Chicago is a “car city.”
“For Chicago to be a city that grows and flourishes, we have to have transit justice at the center of every single thing we do,” Buckner said at a recent forum.
He called for protected bike lanes, faster electrification of buses, and new efforts to speed up bus service, like more dedicated bus lanes. He also said a plan is needed to remake DuSable Lake Shore Drive.
“We cannot continue to treat an iconic shoreline and leisure road like it is a feeder ramp to a suburban Ikea,” he said.
Key to the success of CTA and city neighborhoods is boosting development around stations, said mayoral candidate, Ald. Roderick Sawyer.
The agency should have employees riding trains and buses and helping to connect people in need, like those living on the system, to social services, Sawyer said. When it comes to cyclists’ safety, Sawyer said he initially opposed eliminating right turn lanes but changed his mind after seeing unsafe driving habits that put bikers in danger. He also proposed asking the federal government to police O’Hare and Midway international airports and allow those Chicago police officers to patrol the CTA instead.
Sawyer has also called for more access to shared bikes, such as Divvy, on the South and West sides.
Candidate Sophia King, also a City Council member, said she would use federal opportunity zones to incentivize development in underserved areas on the South and West sides, and then make sure those new developments have connected transportation. Transit-oriented development doesn’t offer enough incentives to draw developers, she said.
She urged a more regional focus to transit, saying it would help draw additional federal money for things, including buying electric buses.
King supports a network of connected bike lanes, but acknowledged there is tension among residents surrounding them. And, she has said, she would push to make it illegal to turn on red in Chicago.
“We have to look at real equity in the city and not just talk about it. And redistributing wealth, in terms of public transit, is something that we look at,” King said at a recent forum. “In order to do that, we have to have a regional approach to transportation so that we can have more resources.”