Passengers rush to a board a Howard-Bound Red Line train at the Lake Street station in January 2020. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — Activists are calling on the city to keep public transportation open during possible post-election protests.

Nine advocacy groups worked together on a petition, released last week, that calls for the CTA, Metra, Pace and Divvy to commit to remaining open during times of protest. The groups said they want to ensure the city avoids shutting down public transportation, like was done amid unrest this summer.

But the city’s released few details on its plans and made no promises to keep public transportation open.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and other officials shut down or limited the CTA multiple times over this summer, often with little notice. Officials said it was done to prevent looting and vandalism, but the shutdowns left many people stranded, including those protesting Downtown, and essential workers were forced to miss work, walk or pay for expensive rideshare trips.

Many have criticized the city’s tactics, with transportation advocates saying it showed no concern for people’s safety or livelihoods. Now, advocates are concerned officials could shut down public transportation again with little to no transparency or communication.

“There is a lot of energy around this upcoming election, and it was important to us to express that we don’t want any more transit shutdowns happening because they marginalize and impact the most vulnerable in our city,” said Lynda Lopez, advocacy manager for the Active Transportation Alliance.

The Mayor’s Office did not directly respond to the petition and would not say if it has plans for an Election Day transit shutdown. But in a statement, the office said the mayor plans to work with city leaders to avoid future shutdowns.

“It is of the utmost importance for us to work together with city officials, community leaders and other stakeholders to achieve a workable balance of these interests and avoid any shutdown of transit options in the future,” Lightfoot’s office said in a statement.

At a press conference last week, the Office of Emergency Management and Communications said city departments have staged drills and held “workshops” to plan for potential unrest stemming from the presidential election. The Police Department also plans to have a large Downtown presence and in neighborhood business corridors.

The petition calls for the city to be more transparent and communicate more, providing at least four hours’ notice of service changes or shutdowns — not an hour’s notice, as was the case at points this summer.

“The decision to stop service the week of Aug. 10 eroded already fragile trust in the CTA from some of the system’s most reliable and dependent riders, most of whom are Black and Brown,” the petition reads. “Restoring that trust will require taking operational decision-making out of the hands of law enforcement, as well as providing greater levels of transparency about how those decisions are made.”

The petition also demands transit employees, buses and facilities not be used by law enforcement. Police used CTA buses to respond to looting and vandalism in June.

Lopez said she’s curious to see what the city has planned for Election Day in terms of transportation. Transportation is a part of Chicago’s identity, and it’s particularly essential now, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic; because of that, the summer shutdowns made it seem as if the city was being torn apart, she said.

‘Marginalized Residents Who Rely On Transit’

The shutdowns had — and, if they happen again, will have — a disproportionate impact on people of color, according to the petition. While CTA use has been down during the coronavirus pandemic, research has shown Black and Latino essential workers on the South and West sides are still relying on buses and trains for getting around.

“The city isn’t really thinking about those marginalized residents who rely on transit,” Lopez said. “Cutting it off, you are essentially saying that their lives and their stories don’t matter … . Why do we even need to have a petition or large movement to not shut down transit?”

Audrey Wennink, who has been leading the petition efforts and is director of transportation at the Metropolitan Planning Council, said summer shutdowns made it harder for folks to get food, go to doctor’s appointments, go to work and go home, especially in the Loop.

“When transit gets shut down with very little notice, people can be stranded and these are the people who we were relying on to keep our society functioning during COVID, so the impact can be that much greater on these communities,” Wennink said.

An essential worker who was caught in the May transit shutdown spoke to Block Club under the condition of anonymity due to job privacy concerns. The worker said the shutdown was a “terrible way to control the people.”

The worker, who usually has an 8-mile commute each way and does not have a car, had to take rideshares that cost $40 one way during the days the CTA shut down. Another day, they had to walk to work from a mile outside of Downtown because their bus wasn’t allowed in.

“It’s wrong to shut down public transit, and it’s an insult to be elected public office and not serve the people who elected you,” they said.

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