Credit: Lee Edwards/Block Club Chicago

PILSEN  — Toni Preckwinkle rides the bus from time to time — much to her security detail’s dismay. 

Susana Mendoza says she rides the bus and “L” for fun — along with her her train and bus-obsessed toddler. 

Amara Enyia lives off the Green Line, John Kozlar is a frequent rider and Willie Wilson sometimes hops on board to “get a feel for the community.”

Nine of 15 mayoral candidates — Dorothy Brown, Enyia, La Shawn Ford, Kozlar, Garry McCarthy, Mendoza, Preckwinkle, Paul Vallas and Wilson — discussed their transit habits Tuesday night during a forum on transportation issues facing Chicago. 

Moderator Mary Wisniewski, the transportation reporter for the Chicago Tribune, sat down with each candidate at Pilsen’s Lozano Library, 1805 S. Loomis St., where they weighed in on everything from plummeting bus ridership to whether ride share services like Uber and Lyft are to blame for the city’s worsening traffic situation.

And most importantly: what they would do if elected to combat these issues. 

Toni Preckwinkle being interviewed by Mary Wisniewski. Credit: Taylor Moore / Block Club Chicago

Should Uber and Lyft pay more to operate in Chicago?

Ride-sharing services came to Chicago in 2011, and since then, they’ve been blamed for worsening traffic congestion. The CTA attributes the increasing reliance on Uber and Lyft as one of the primary reasons why residents are spending less time and money on buses. The city’s taxi cab industry has also felt the devastating effects of this trend. There are now more than 67,000 active ride-share drivers in the city, which is 17 times the number of 3,558 active taxis with medallions.

To increase ridership, Cook County Board President Preckwinkle came out in favor of raising taxes on Uber and Lyft rides to help fund the CTA. Currently, the city taxes each ride at $0.72, of which $0.20 is set aside for the transportation agency. The CTA-specific tax became effective in 2018 and increased by a nickel at the beginning of 2019.

Comptroller Mendoza and attorney Kozlar opposed a tax increase on ride-shares, with Kozlar saying that the city “can’t tax their way out of the problem.”

Both Mendoza and community organizer Enyia wanted to implement a full audit of CTA finances before they would recommend a tax increase. Enyia said that her administration would also look for new revenue sources to fund bus infrastructure. She proposed reinvesting ticket revenue from cycling and red light camera offenses directly into the CTA —which she said would offer relief to communities of color —instead of funneling the money into the “general fund,” which is the largest and most flexible category in the city budget.

North Side cabbie Khalid Rashid. Credit: Tanveer Ali / DNAinfo Chicago

Free rides for seniors? Again?

Five of the candidates— Brown, Enyia, Kozlar, Preckwinkle and Wilson—fielded questions about the costs of riding public transit. All but Preckwinkle were in favor of maintaining or expanding discounted fare for seniors, students and low-income riders.

Enyia said that subsidized fares were “absolutely critical” to keeping public transit affordable, while Preckwinkle called them a “tremendous economic problem for the CTA” and didn’t believe that segments of the population, including seniors, should be prioritized over others.

Businessman Wilson said he wants to make rides free for seniors. Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich tried this in 2008, but it was rolled back in 2011 after costing the CTA $20 million in losses. When asked how he would pay for this initiative, Wilson declined to share specific revenue sources, saying that lowering overall fares would increase ridership.

Kozlar proposed making the CTA cheaper for city residents, leaning on tourists and suburbanites who commute into the city for work to pay a bit more. 

Brown, who serves as Clerk of Cook County Circuit Court, had the opposite theory, saying tourists visiting the shopping corridors of State Street and Michigan Avenue should pay less to ride the CTA. 

Susana Mendoza talks transit policy. Credit: Taylor Moore / Block Club Chicago

Remember the Ashland Express Bus (RIP)?

Brown, Preckwinkle, Kozlar and Mendoza said more bus lanes could encourage ridership — and speed things up for folks who choose the bus over an Uber. 

But plans to add such lanes in recent years have fallen flat.

Brown fielded a question specifically on the Ashland Avenue and Western Avenue Bus Rapid Transit project, which would have converted two center lanes of the four-lane Ashland Avenue for bus-use only, had it not been paused indefinitely in 2015 due to backlash from residents and business owners.

Brown suggested a designated bus lane on Lake Shore Drive that would connect Hollywood Avenue on the North Side to Jeffery Avenue on the South Side.  

Preckwinkle cited Bus Rapid Transit, unprompted, as a way to improve bus service but did not call out any particular streets on which it could be implemented. She also mentioned universal fare cards as a long-term project she’d prioritize in office.

“If we were starting from scratch, we would never set up a system which had three different transit entities. We’d have one transportation network,” Preckwinkle said.

A universal fare card, which exists in Japan and Hong Kong, would allow people to pay for CTA, Pace and Metra rides using one single system. An early iteration of this was tested in 2009, but proved to be too much work. Combining all three transportation bodies would likely be an uphill battle for anyone who becomes mayor, as the CTA and Metra are notoriously competitive with each other. In 2013, when Ventra cards were introduced to Chicago, Metra was invited to join CTA and Pace but declined.

Innovative transit technologies, like traffic signal priority for buses or adding an extra lane in intersections that would allow buses to go first, also came up during the forum. When asked about his thoughts on these tactics, former CPS CEO Vallas called them “good ideas” but hedged his support with undefined concerns over the “impact [they would] have on the community at large.”

Plans for an express bus on Ashland were scrapped after community outcry. Credit: CTA

Crime prevention

According to a 2017 investigation by the Sun-Times, more than 90 percent of serious crimes committed on CTA buses, trains, and stations were not solved.

Former Chicago Police Supt. McCarthy said crime was one of the main reasons that people were opting out of public transit. To combat this, McCarthy spoke in favor of adding more cameras to the CTA — a tactic he admits doesn’t reduce crime, but helps capture criminals.

McCarthy also wants to tackle fare evasion as a preventative measure, which is in line with the controversial “broken windows”-style of policing.

“Individuals who are going to commit crimes on the trains generally are not going to pay to get on the train. So if you stopped them at the gates for fare evasion and they don’t get on the system, you’re preventing crime by making that happen,” McCarthy said.

Enyia said she was in favor of adding safety measures — such as better lighting — to prevent crime on the CTA, but said larger issues like declining populations on the South and West Sides are at play when it comes to crime. 

“If you’re the only one standing on a platform, just by the very nature of being the only person there, you’re at a higher risk,” she said, adding that this sort of crime can’t be solved without addressing larger questions about what is causing people to leave Chicago en masse.  

State Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-8th) aligned with Enyia on her perspective of crime in the city, saying the city should invest in education over “punitive” punishments for crimes committed on the CTA.

Rep. La Shawn Ford talks crime on the CTA. Credit: Taylor Moore / Block Club Chicago

Transit Inequity

Multiple candidates spoke about unequal transit access and the varied experiences that people have on the CTA, depending on where they live.

Asked about balancing transit-oriented development with displacement pressures, Mendoza said that gentrification is a result of inequitable distribution of resources.

“There’s only a handful of neighborhoods that, number one, are safe and where people have access to those things that really make a neighborhood a neighborhood, like grocery stores, cool shopping districts, access to public transportation and the ability to walk or hop on your bike and not feel like something bad is going to happen to you,” Mendoza said. “So we really have to double down on investing in areas that have been disenfranchised.”

Kozlar said that if he were in office, he would focus on increasing public transit options for people with disabilities. He also mentioned the disparities he’s seen when riding the train.

“I live in Bridgeport and I don’t know what it is, but there seems to be three trains going north for everyone going to 95th Street,” he said. “And that needs a change too. We need to treat the riders fairly in the sense of where they’re going in Chicago, whether it’s the South Side or the West Side.”

Enyia, who is Director of the Austin Chamber of Commerce, has seen firsthand evidence of this injustice. “You can see all of the issues in Chicago if you ride the train,” she said. She described examples of poverty, mental health issues and homelessness she’s seen on the CTA.

“As you approach Cermak and Downtown, heading north, you start to see some differences. The ridership looks different, so you can see how segregated Chicago is when you ride the train. As you head further north, fewer people are selling things—maybe here and there—but not as much. Affluence—it’s different if you ride the train.”

The forum was hosted by Active Transportation Now, a transit advocacy group affiliated with Active Transportation Alliance, and Pilsen Alliance, a grassroots activist organization.

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