Five years ago, when I moved to Chicago from Houston, I rode the Brown Line train twenty-four stops from my apartment in Albany Park to the last stop in the heart of downtown, feeling starry-eyed for the L. I would often romanticize the journey, reading and writing poetry as I watched the city fly by though the train car window. Coming from a place with virtually no public transportation system to a major city like Chicago, I saw the train as a symbol for the kind of serendipity that inspires great art and shapes culture.
During my first year in Chicago, I grappled with my decision to bring my car with me when I moved to the far northwest corner of the city. There would be weeks at a time when my car would go unused because the train and bus were sufficient. But the city quickly became insular. While I could access groceries, entertainment, my workspace, and more with relative ease, I found myself mainly connecting with people in a five-mile radius of where I lived because traveling to neighborhoods on other sides of the city was time consuming and difficult. I learned that someone benignly asking what neighborhood I live in was actually a coded way to determine the possibility of us sustaining any kind of relationship. This resulted in the deeply uncomfortable experience of living a life that was mostly void of Black folks.
Iconic South Side writer Lorainne Hansberry once perfectly encapsulated my own complex feelings about the city: “Chicago continues [to] fascinate, frighten, charm, and offend me.”
When I moved to the South Side the year before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, having a car suddenly felt like a necessity. As a current Woodlawn resident whose work and relationships pull me to every corner of the city, I’m constantly shifting modes of transportation, sometimes biking, driving, taking the bus and elevated trains, all in the span of a week.
The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) was created in 1947 and is the same institution that manages the public transportation systems we use today. In the late 1940s, as many cities across the United States were industrializing and modernizing, Chicago’s lack of an interconnected subway system remained a notable barrier to its growth. Renowned American poet Langston Hughes penned an essay for the Chicago Defender in 1949 that critiqued just that. “Paris, London, New York and Buenos Aires have rapid transit subway systems,” Hughes wrote. “Chicago is as large, but it has only street cars, elevated trains, buses, and the I.C. [Illinois Central] railroad. To get anywhere from anywhere, you have to change at least once or twice and it takes a long time.”
When looking at a map of Chicago, it’s clear that the infrastructure of the city was designed to funnel people into its downtown, not to make access between and within neighborhoods easier. As South Side Weekly’s Alma Campos and Chima Ikoro put it in WTTW’s Firsthand: Segregation series, “Chicago’s continued segregation rests not only on policy, but on the physical barriers that enforce dividing lines to this day. The idea to separate people by race or class has persisted and has seeped into this city’s built environment.”
The reality of switching between modes of transportation and experiencing extreme delays not only persists but has increased exponentially since the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly plaguing public transit users on the South Side. A new volunteer-led initiative called Ghost Bus project was created in response to the growing trends of buses appearing on transit apps but never arriving in real life, leaving travelers stranded for extended periods of time. The tracking projoect compares real-time data provided by the CTA to the CTA’s posted schedule.*
Perhaps the most frustrating part of this phenomena is the CTA’s refusal to acknowledge that it doesn’t have enough bus and train operators to provide all its scheduled services.
Influential Black writers like Hughes, Hansberry, and Gwendolyn Brooks speak to the wonderfully rich, but also challenging and restrictive experience of living on the South Side of the city in what were then, and largely still are, majority Black neighborhoods. The city’s longstanding legacy of segregation stands out amongst other more integrated metropolises, such as New York City, whose transportation system has challenges but isn’t as steeped in segregation. Famously, during Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1966 visit to Chicago, he publicly referred to the city as a “closed society.” The disparate and disconnected public transportation system continues to support his assessment.
Some of the most utilized buses, many of which serve South Side residents, are also some of the least reliable and most likely to have ghost buses. Per Ghost Bus data, the 62nd and Archer bus, 63rd street bus, and 9 Ashland Express bus service around 6,000, 7,000, and 10,000 Chicagoans a week, respectively, and one in every five weekday buses on each of these lines ghosts CTA riders. That’s a twenty percent chance on any given day that the bus scheduled to pick you up on one of these lines will not arrive. This kind of neglect and oversight isn’t just inconvenient, it creates unreasonable barriers for folks who may already have to take two or three modes of transportation one way to simply get groceries or take their children to school.
Innovative ideas and interventions around transportation help address the symptoms of the problems Hughes noted nearly eighty years ago, but they don’t quite address the root causes: structural segregation and inequity. We can see this most clearly in the unrealized vision of a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system on Ashland avenue that would have helped connect the North and South Sides, and the long-fought battle to extend the CTA’s Red Line which is only coming to fruition through financial intervention from the federal government and redistributed TIF funds. Both the abandoned BRT plan and the hard won journey to an extended Red Line are indicative of the uphill battle that’s still being fought for truly accessible transportation in Chicago’s most disinvested communities.
While efforts to hold the CTA accountable and advocate for better transportation have continued to hold strong over the decades, many marginalized folks have turned to mutual aid and community care to address many of the city’s oversights. My weeks are often mapped around intentional carpooling, splitting the costs of rideshares and timing evening trips on public transportation so friends, especially those who may be vulnerable to assault and harassment, aren’t riding alone.
For Chicago to transform its legacy of inaccessibility for South Siders, it must start by taking accountability for decades-long racial segregation and the disparate impacts of unreliable and inefficient transportation. Public transportation in its highest form not only allows for efficient, safe commutes but invites cultural cross-pollination and exposure. Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on the bus humanizes us in ways that our city and society urgently need as we move further into the twenty-first century.
Gwendolyn Brooks, a poetic giant who spent virtually her entire life on the South Side, shared in a 1960s interview, “I feel now that it was better for me to have grown up in Chicago because in my writing I am proud to feature people and their concerns—their troubles as well as their joys. The city is the place to observe man en masse and in his infinite variety.” Public transportation has the potential to encourage this encountering of difference; to bridge separation and shrink current disparities. The starry-eyed romanticism I had when first riding the L years ago is a kind warm swell of emotion that should be available to everyone traversing the city. Brooks called Chicago her “forever,” and I believe Chicago can warrant that kind of devotion from all of its citizens if it chooses to devote itself to them in policy and practice.
*Update Nov. 9, 2023: This article previously said the tracking project allows individuals using public transit in Chicago to report instances of delayed and missing buses. It relies on CTA data. We regret the error.
Jasmine is a writer and space maker based in Woodlawn with a deep commitment to relational healing and creative self expression. As a self-identified “disciple of joy,” she brings a deep curiosity to all aspects of her life.