Editorial: Sound the alarm: Subways are in crisis

Even for a regular rider, a trip into an urban American subway system long has involved a leap of faith. The systems are, by definition, subterranean. The third rail, a metaphor taken from the ground-level electricity used to power subway cars, implies danger in all fields.

At night, stations can be lonely and feel dystopian. By day, crowds can push against you, causing you to worry about falling onto the tracks or, these days, being pushed. And even when the train comes, we’re all familiar with the moment after the door closes and someone with a hustle bids the car hello. No wonder most passengers in Chicago breathe easier when the Red Line emerges from the earth, south of Roosevelt Road and north of North Avenue.

On the other hand, these oft-ancient systems can be faster than traveling above ground and they free up street space for cars, bikes and pedestrians. They’re better for the environment than automobiles. They don’t clog streets like buses. And in some cities — Paris and, yes, Moscow come to mind — they can even be beautiful. On vacation, emerging from a station in an unknown neighborhood can be a thrill.

Of late, subways have been in favor of transit planners. New York is investing in a costly new line under 2nd Avenue. Chicago is spending a whopping $2.3 billion in public funds on expanding the Red Line on the South Side from 95th Street to 130th Street.

That’s on top of the $2.1 billion Red and Purple Line Modernization Program now well underway, featuring what wags call “Rahm’s roller coaster,” a costly concrete flyover allowing Brown Line trains to move more easily and quickly to the Northwest Side.

These megaprojects suck up massive amounts of taxpayers’ money and they only make sense if the system is used, the network is perceived as an asset to a city, and the trains are busy. No fare at the turnstile ever replaces these capital costs.

Yet consider what has been happening of late in the subways of New York and Chicago.

In New York, an unhinged person disguised as a construction worker allegedly opened fire Tuesday in a crowded Brooklyn station, terrifying passengers who were just beginning to feel safe enough to return to the MTA. Some 23 people were injured, and panic ensued. That morning terror (which could easily have been a lot worse, given the hail of bullets fired) came on top of disturbing instances wherein a passenger was pushed onto the tracks, seemingly at random. And for every such incident, worries about it happening always are compounded.

Many riders now remove their headphones and pay far more attention to their environment down below. As well they should.

In Chicago, CBS 2 reported Monday, the last several days have seen (at minimum) a shooting, a stabbing and another attack on the CTA system. “Officials still have no answers about actions against violent crime,” the station reported on its website, suggesting that little evidence had yet been seen of the increased unarmed security presence promised by Chicago police Superintendent David Brown. According to CTA data and ABC 7 reports, violent crime on trains was up 17% in the first part of this year. Aldermen, including Brendan Reilly, 42nd, also have been sounding the alarm.

It’s true that subway systems cannot be blamed for the spike in violent crime, which is pervasive in many urban areas, including Chicago. It’s also true that crime never can be entirely eradicated from systems used by millions of riders every day. And it’s reasonable to note that the pandemic, and the systemic changes in work habits, reduced the number of people using the system, especially during off-hours, which not only allows more opportunity for criminals but affects the perception of how safe riders feel.

All that said, just the above two projects in Chicago are costing $4.5 billion and counting. City officials, who have had wide discretion in how to spend federal relief dollars, have decided that this is what the city needs most to thrive and prosper, and to reduce the inequities that spiral when neighborhoods are cut off from convenient public transportation.

These funding pots are all different, of course: Chicago cannot easily divert that money into security improvements. But it’s absurd to pour such resources into the system if riders are going to abandon it because they do not feel safe or comfortable on the trains anymore. And every subway system on the planet needs discretionary riders (people who have a choice about whether to take the train or some other means) to be cost-effective.

This, clearly, is a worsening situation that urgently needs attention. Security systems need upgrading: a lesson from the New York incident was the importance of working cameras, an area in which Chicago has done better than New York of late. The stations and trains in both cities need cleaning up and freshening: This requires sensitivity not just to the homeless people who can often be found in the system, but also to avoid the kind of heavy law enforcement presence that makes things actually feel worse. Such simple things as picking up trash and sprucing up the cars helps, too.

And, of course, more frequent trains are vital. The quicker the train arrives, the less time you have to stand around feeling vulnerable and the faster you get where you want to go.

The crisis on the subway, which has many causes and touches many different agencies, now should be occupying the best minds in City Hall. Chicago needs a thriving CTA subway system, worthy of our massive collective investment.

Four and a half billion dollars is a lot of money. Right now, after some years of improvement, the CTA is falling backward, even as it tries to grow in order to better serve its city.

It needs immediate help.

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