On February 3, transportation columnist John Greenfield wrote an article for Streetsblog Chicago titled, “Caveat to Lightfoot: Over-police the CTA and you may face NYC-style subway protests.” Greenfield’s article was a response to Mayor Lightfoot’s announcement that she was in talks with the CTA and CPD to address a recent spate of violent crime on the CTA. In the article, Greenfield predicted protests in Chicago like those in New York City against increased police presence on the the city’s subways, writing that “if the additional policing leads to many more people of color and low-income residents being criminalized, let alone brutalized, don’t be surprised if the response is hundreds of angry Chicagoans storming the turnstiles.” His prediction for Chicago came true less than a month later. On February 28, the same day that Mayor Lightfoot formally announced that a new fifty-officer detail would be assigned to CTA trains and platforms, an officer shot thirty-three-year-old Ariel Roman after stopping him for passing between train cars, which is forbidden by city ordinance (but widely practiced, and rarely enforced). One week later, the anti-gun violence organization GoodKids MadCity held a protest at the Lake Red Line station demanding, “No cops, no fares.”
The typical media response to such protests usually looks something like this article from the New York Post, with the opening line that labelled the protesters as “Cop-hating radicals” who “wreaked havoc on New York City’s subways on Friday.”
But instead of listening to this kind of scaremongering about a nonexistent “war on police,” or to those who argue for the sanctity of the illogical idea of “blue life,” however, Chicago policymakers need to listen to residents who are actually impacted by police and gun violence. Chicago policymakers should make public transit free, and they should not flood that transit with heavily armed police, which is an expensive and inefficient attempt to solve the CTA’s problems that also threatens the lives of people of color and the poor. We should not repeat New York’s failed policy.
The similarities between New York and Chicago would not just stop at the protests. In 2019, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo decided to assign 500 additional officers to patrol the subways as part of an effort to crack down on fare evasion. This was estimated to cost the Metropolitan Transit Agency nearly $250 million per year, and many New Yorkers were quick to point out that it would cost more than the estimated $200 million in savings from reduced fare evasion. But Cuomo went forward with the plan, and the result was numerous reported instances of police violence and disproportionate criminalization and arrests of people of color, prompting the state attorney general to open an investigation into the transit agency and police department’s fare evasion enforcement.
Fortunately, many cities throughout the country have gone in the opposite direction: decriminalizing fare evasion or, even better, making public transit free. This kind of approach has numerous benefits. For instance, allowing for prepaid cards and rear-door bus boarding (which the CTA just implemented, but on an unfortunately temporary basis) can shorten trip times and attract more riders—a pressing need for many cities, who have witnessed nationwide bus ridership fall by eleven percent since 2007. In Chicago specifically, bus ridership has gone down by twenty-two percent since 2010. Nationwide, ridership has plummeted further in 2020—especially in the wake of the social distancing requirements of the coronavirus pandemic—even though many people still rely on public transit to commute to essential jobs and services such as grocery stores, medical facilities, and pharmacies. Public transit agencies are also struggling financially, due to the wider economic crisis catalyzed by the coronavirus and the associated increase in sanitation and other operational costs. Fortunately, Congress’s stimulus package included $25 billion to transit agencies for emergency operating assistance, but a lot more still needs to be done. While initial legislative negotiations did not include any money for public transit, grassroots pressure and advocacy from groups like Transit For America ensured that the final legislation contained this essential funding.
Furthermore, environmental scholars and activists have been organizing and calling on Congress to better address the climate crisis in future stimulus legislation, with many excellent transit-oriented policy demands. One proposal, “A Green Stimulus to Rebuild Our Economy,” suggests “Creat[ing] thousands of new jobs by offering grants and no-interest, no-match loans to local transit agencies and municipal governments to complete their backlog of shovel-ready ADA-compliance and Complete Streets projects,” and “Provid[ing] grants and loans to local transit agencies and school boards to fund the purchase of electric railcars and engines and electric buses and electric school buses, with the goal of ending all diesel bus purchases by 2025.”
Another holistic solution to the issues facing our nation’s public transit systems lies in Transit for America’s plan for The Green New Deal for Transportation. The organization recently published a report detailing this vision, co-authored with TransitCenter, Data for Progress, and the University of Pennsylvania’s McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology. The plan aims to build a carbon-free public transportation system by changing government policy and designing cities to be more accommodating to public transit. One of the report’s principle policy recommendations involves infrastructure spending priorities. The latest stimulus package provided $25 billion to state governments for infrastructure spending, but, as the Green New Deal for Transportation report points out, local governments usually prioritize roadway expansion, which increases carbon emissions. Further, the federal government currently covers eighty percent of the cost of highway and road projects, but only fifty percent of transit projects. Instead of continuing these unsustainable practices, the Green New Deal for Transportation suggests prioritizing transit spending, and focusing on roadway maintenance instead of expansion. However, the report does not explicitly name the goal of making public transit free, which is a major shortcoming.
Fortunately, there have been many different visions of what a Green New Deal could look like since it was popularized in America by U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and several plans do call for free green transit. In their book A Planet To Win: Why We Need A Green New Deal, authors Alyssa Battistoni, Kate Aronoff, Daniel Aldana Cohen, and Thea Riofrancos call for free, carbon-free public transit that is located in dense, mixed-income and working-class communities, anchored by fully-funded social housing and public schools. They do not explicitly call for police-free transit, but we should be combining these demands. The beauty of the Green New Deal is that it does not artificially separate issues like racial justice and environmentalism—its calls for “environmental justice” for frontline communities absolutely can include policy changes which recognize that, just as people of color are disproportionately impacted by climate change, they are put at increased risk when we flood public transit systems with police. Ultimately, public transit should be seen as a “common good,” similar to other public services like healthcare, utilities, education, the postal service, libraries, and parks; and providing these services to all Chicagoans would help to address the city’s unconscionable levels of inequality. Therefore, Chicago must guarantee free, carbon-free, police-free transit—as a matter of racial and economic justice, as well as environmental and fiscal necessity.
Correction 4/15/20: Due to an editing error, this article originally misstated the number of new officers assigned to patrol the CTA.
Bobby Vanecko is a second-year law student at Loyola University Chicago. He is interested in criminal law and interns at First Defense Legal Aid and the Westside Justice Center. He last wrote for the Weekly in March about the need to uproot Chicago’s police “torture tree.”