It was the day he was dropped off by two CTA buses because they couldn’t finish their routes that pushed Micah Fiedler over the edge.
He was trying to get from his home in Ravenswood to a variety show near Wicker Park on a hot weekday afternoon in late spring, Fiedler recalled. Within 30 minutes, two buses arrived. Operators of both said they couldn’t take passengers any further because it was the end of their shift and no relief drivers had arrived, he said.
Fiedler had given himself an hour to get to the show by bus. He never made it.
The experience prompted Fiedler, 28, to team up with a group of other frustrated transit riders, who have waged something of a guerilla campaign to pressure CTA over long wait times and so-called ghost buses and trains. appearing in digital media. trackers but do not reach real life. Calling themselves Commuters Take Action, they put up mock customer alert signs at CTA stations drawing attention to delays and stickers that ask, “Tired of being a CTA ghost?” while collecting reports from passengers who have experienced missed buses and long waits.
The call to action has struggled with irregular service complaints and inaccurate trackers as ridership plummeted during the pandemic. CTA President Dorval Carter promises to address the unreliable service, saying tracker upgrades are imminent and hiring is underway to improve staffing shortages that are behind with schedule challenges.
Weekday CTA ridership is hovering at more than half of pre-pandemic levels. As the CTA looks to continue to attract riders, train and bus reliability has taken on added urgency.
An increasing number of CTA riders choose public transportation, but might also drive or call a rideshare to get around town, said PS Sriraj, director of the Center for Urban Transportation at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Many select passengers have changed their travel patterns and expectations over the course of the pandemic, now colliding head-on with technological and workforce challenges that have led to unpredictable CTA service.
“It will be very easy to alienate that (passenger) base if the problems become very systemic and long-lasting,” he said.
Others continue to rely on public transportation to get to work, school and events. But if significant numbers of passengers with other options move away from the CTA, it’s not clear if enough people will remain on the buses and trains to maintain current fare prices and service levels, without changes to how the CTA gets the funds, Sriraj said.
Fiedler already has trouble taking CTAs on the weekends.
“There is no chance in any universe that I would take a Chicago Transit Authority bus on the weekends,” he said. “Right now the service is so bad that it’s impossible to plan anything unless you have a bike or a car.”
Fiedler hopes the work of Commuters Take Action will put pressure on the CTA to be transparent about how they are addressing delayed and ghost trains and buses and to act quickly to resolve the issue. He said he is fortunate that he no longer has to travel to his office every day because he works from home, but others rely on CTA to get to work and family.
“We don’t want to sit by while people have to wait 20 minutes, an hour or more for people to access something that the city has given us as a right,” he said.
Olivia Gahan recalled using an Uber to get to a work meeting in mid-February when her Blue Line train failed to arrive. She and a co-worker were trying to get from the Belmont Blue Line to the Merchandise Mart for the mid-morning meeting, a trip she estimated should have taken about 30 minutes door-to-door. After waiting 30 minutes for a train to arrive, they called the ride-sharing service.
Gahan, 29, is one of the public transport commuters behind Commuters Take Action, and said the group has collected similar stories. In less than a month, they say they collected more than 250 complaints about waiting times or missing buses and trains from the sniffers, according to a log provided by the group. Some people reported using ride sharing or bike sharing.
The group is working to collect more information from travelers, in an attempt to put personal stories into training statistics and report the information to the CTA board, Gahan said. They hope to meet with community groups. And in the meantime, she, Fiedler and others have taken bikes and trains in their spare time to put up hundreds of stickers with a QR code, and a ghost that took the name “Reprot,” after a typo printed on the stickers. , where travelers can visit the group’s website and report on their experiences.
“There is a lot we can do to improve the CTA,” he said. “This is a small part, but it seems to me the most urgent because we can’t get to everything else until the trains are on time.”
Carter said the main reason the service is unreliable is a shortage of staff. Job vacancies, combined with unexpected absences when people call in sick or take a day off, mean there aren’t always enough operators to handle every train or bus run.
“I’m in a situation where I have people retiring and quitting faster than I can fill,” Carter said. “And that has created a shortage of workers to operate my buses and trains, which directly leads to the reliability issues that we’re experiencing with our service right now.”
In May, the CTA had about 1,000 fewer union seats than in 2019, spokesman Brian Steele said, though recent hiring will reduce the number of openings. Most of the open positions are for bus operators.
Carter said the vacancies are a mix of retirements and hiring challenges similar to those experienced by companies across the country when employees decide they want to do something different. Operating a bus or train is a very stressful job, and it got even more stressful during the pandemic, he said.
Meanwhile, the unreliable service has also caused problems with bus and train trackers, he said. Trackers rely on both scheduled and real-time service, so when the service is not running as scheduled, they become less accurate.
Carter said plans are in the works to address both issues. Updates to the train and bus trackers are expected in the coming weeks with the goal of improving their accuracy and clarity.
CTA is hiring and bringing in larger cohorts for training at the same time, he said. Recent changes in an employment contract have allowed the agency to hire full-time bus operators directly, rather than have new hires start as part-time operators. The agency is also asking retired bus and train operators to return to work part-time.
Still, staffing remains below pre-pandemic levels, and CTA service continues to have long gaps and delays. Carter is working to adjust schedules to reflect ridership trends and provide consistency in time between bus and rail runs so riders have a better idea of what to expect.
“I think our customers are willing to accept that the service may not run as often as it used to over the course of the day,” he said. “As long as they have some idea when that bus or train is coming.”