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Why I loved, and now fear, the CTA – Chicago Tribune

I am a CTA devotee. I have spent a lifetime riding the buses and trains of Chicago, with sentimental memories of the all-day “Super Transfer” and those old green CTA buses of the 1960s and ’70s. They were dubbed “the green limousines.”

The CTA shepherded my family downtown to peruse the iconic Christmas windows of Marshall Field’s. The CTA escorted us on visits with aunts and uncles all over the South Side.

To get to high school, I took two buses and a train across town, from my South Shore apartment to Washington Heights. In college, it was the Evanston Express to Northwestern University in Evanston.

Later, it was de rigueur to jump on the old “A” and “B” trains, late into the night, to and from parties and the clubs. I was careful but fearless. (Don’t tell my mother.)

Taking public transportation keeps me close to the ground. As a reporter, I rely on the CTA to find stories in the nooks and crannies of Chicago neighborhoods.

Now, for the first time in my life, I fear the CTA.

Violent crime on our trains and buses has risen to a level not seen in more than a decade, a recent Sun-Times analysis of data shows.

“Through July 19, 488 attacks had been reported on the transit system — the most since 533 during the same period in 2011,” the Sun-Times reported. “The number of passengers has remained relatively low since the COVID-19 pandemic hit. That means riders are more likely to fall victim to a violent crime today than they were a few years ago.”

As of mid-July, the paper reported, violent crimes accounted for more than 26% of the 1,863 crimes reported on the CTA this year. “In 2018 and 2019, when there were far more riders, violent crimes amounted to 13% of the crimes.”

Just after midnight on Aug. 27, a 30-year-old woman was shot at the Red Line stop at State and Lake streets. Two days later, a woman and two companions were attacked and robbed by a mob on a Monday afternoon, near another Red Line stop, WLS-Ch. 7 reported.

As Lura Irvine’s group left the 95th Street stop, “They were beaten and robbed by as many as 10 people,” according to the report.

That all leaves me spooked by the rule-breaking offenders taking over our trains and buses.

After spending a recent Sunday afternoon at the Chicago Jazz Festival, my husband and I boarded an “L” train at State and Lake. Two hulking young people, straddling Divvy bicycles and talking smack, were blocking the door. They glared and refused to move. The heavy smell of marijuana wafted through the air.

I held my breath until our train blessedly came.

Another time, I steered clear of another man in the train, sporting a nasty disposition and openly smoking a cigarette.

Once, I was proud to claim the CTA as one of the best public transportation systems in the nation.

The COVID-19 pandemic decimated the agency and its ridership. When commuters disappeared to work from home, others took command of our buses and trains, including those struggling with homelessness and mental illness and gang members.

CTA usage is up from its lows, and riders — workers, tourists and leisure travelers — are returning. But the key to the revival of a post-pandemic system is safety.

For many, the CTA is not just a convenience. Public transportation is a singular transportation lifeline for low-income and working-class families, those with no other options to get to the job, school and the grocery store.

For months, agency officials have repeatedly assured riders they are on it. The agency recently signed a new $30.9 million contract that will deploy up to 100 unarmed guards and 50 canine dogs per day on CTA rail lines for the next 18 months. They will supplement a cadre of 300 unarmed security guards the CTA has rolled out.

“Both the unarmed guards and the K-9 teams will be strategically deployed across the CTA’s rail system, including conducting missions at stations along the heavily traveled Red and Blue lines, which operate 24/7 and have seen a recent uptick in crimes and unruly behavior,” the CTA announced Sept. 2 in a news release.

In early August, CTA President Dorval Carter Jr. told WTTW-Ch. 11 that his agency is working closely with the Chicago Police Department to boost security.

“Crime on CTA is relatively low,” he said, adding that “one crime is one too many, but as a statistical matter, you’re relatively safe on CTA.”

That is unconvincing and cold comfort.

Most of the violent crime is occurring in the late night and early morning hours. Those are times when I can — and do — avoid the CTA.

Others cannot avoid the CTA, such as my nephew who must take the Red Line downtown to his overnight shift at UPS.

Just one more thing to fear.

About that mob attack at 95th Street: “Lura Irvine said she will never ride the CTA again after the incident,” Ch. 7 reported.

I hear her. Does the CTA?

Laura Washington is a political commentator and longtime Chicago journalist. Her columns appear in the Tribune each Monday. Write to her at [email protected]

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