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CTA to Eject Rush-Hour Riders?

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[Monday, December 8th: browse here for an update to this story.]

According to a WBBM Newsradio report on the ongoing controversy over the Chicago Transit Authority's continuous-rider policy, the agency considers thousands of its paid, daily 'L' riders to be violators of the policy. This holiday season, signs banning the practice of riding a round-trip through an 'L' terminal without getting off the train have gone up around the system.

Homeless advocates (unexpectedly, like me) believe the signs are aimed directly at homeless riders, who take to the CTA's rail systems in droves during frigid Chicago winters in order find overnight warmth. However, yesterday morning on WBBM, a CTA spokesperson labelled as "violators" all rush-hour riders who take 'L' trains back to terminals in order to find seats for their morning trips downtown.

I kid you not. Hands up how many 'L' riders among you ride back to Howard, or Linden, or 95th, or Harlem and Lake to get a seat in the morning? Or how about all those folks who ride Brown and Purple line trains around the Loop from Merchandise Mart in the evening rush?

Why the CTA would want to pick a fight with its regular riders is beyond me. Given that trains end their runs or turn-around at 11 terminals--not to mention on the Loop itself--that sounds like thousands of potential "violators" to me. I say potential because, as the CTA told me in writing, station staff get to choose to whom to apply the policy.

The CTA remains adamant that its continuous-rider policy is not aimed at homeless people. But unless the agency intends to apply the policy equally to all riders--and in my book, that includes putting its manpower where its mouth was yesterday morning and ejecting every single one of the above-mentioned riders from the 'L' system during next rush hour and every rush hour that comes after--the hypocrisy behind the agency's policy is brutally evident.

The agency also announced that 229 homeless riders have accepted rides to shelters--through the third-party Chicago Department of Homeless Services, mind you--in the past year. Let's do the math on that. Given 8 'L' lines, 2 running at all times, 24 hours in a day, 365 days in a year, in a city of 3,000,000 people, if that's all the people the CTA has helped get to shelters in the past 12 months, that's almost no help at all.

Here are the numbers I'd be more interested to hear from the agency: How many homeless ride the 'L' system each night? How many homeless are ejected each night? How many of them are ejected on nights when every available emergency shelter bed is taken? Especially when the weather is below freezing outside?

I'd also like to know exactly what resources and assistance the CTA offers to homeless riders before ejecting them from the system. And I'd like to know why the CTA isn't sharing this information already, unless it simply doesn't care to track it.

There's something more. Every city that has won the right to host an Olympic Games in the past 25 years has cracked down on its homeless population, downtown, near venues, and on the local transit system. Los Angeles did it. Atlanta did it. Beijing just did it. While the continuous-riding ban may not be new, I worry whether the signage--which is new--is part of the City of Chicago's ongoing strategy to prettify this town in advance of a potentially successful Olympic bid.

If that's the case, this policy must be stopped and amended here and now. Homeless people are just that, people, like you and like me. For that matter, like Mayor Daley, like Chicago 2016 Committee Chairman Patrick G. Ryan, and like CTA President Ron Huberman, too. Not a single one of us deserves to be treated as less than human, to be swept under the civic rug in order for others to gain.

And if that's the real reason behind the continuous-riding signage, how poorly do you think our city's homeless will be treated if we really do get the 2016 Olympic Summer Games?

On a more positive note, WBBM also reported that the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless will be riding the rails next week to monitor the CTA's overnight treatment of its least fortunate riders. I bet you can guess which blogger's already been dialing Executive Director Ed Shurna for permission to tag along.