By Madeline Makoul
Just after 5:15 p.m. on Sunday, May 31, after a weekend of protests and looting, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) made a sweeping announcement to the City of Chicago via Twitter.
The tweet read, “Service Suspended. At 6:30 p.m., service will be suspended on all bus and rail lines at the request of public safety officials. Service is expected to resume tomorrow morning.”
One hour later, an emergency alert rang on the smartphones of residents in Chicago, warning of the public transportation shutdowns. Fifteen minutes later, bus routes and train lines stopped in their tracks as City personnel raised bridges to the Loop.
The response to the social unrest that has swept across Chicago and the country this past summer did not end the last weekend of May. In fact, the transportation shutdowns continued, occurring again months later in August as protests and looting saw a resurgence.
W. Robert Schultz III, a campaign organizer for Active Transportation Alliance, a non-profit organization focused on making walking, biking, and public transit safe, said the City provided little notice of the shutdowns beforehand, and with crowds of protesters in the city for George Floyd demonstrations, the City did not give people time to leave before transportation options closed.
“Getting around the city is hard enough on the CTA, and we have been working as an organization to speed up the frequency and speed of buses,” Schultz said. “So, to just totally shut down a system that people are reliant on and have no alternative means—and there has been no planning of any alternatives whatsoever—is just an inconsideration of the most vulnerable people that rely on it.”
Schultz went on to say that transportation is a human right, and in a city in which many people do not have cars, shutting down transportation left protesters and essential workers alike with few alternate means to get to where they needed to go, leaving expensive ride shares as one of the few options.
While representatives from the CTA declined to comment, they did provide the following statement regarding the first round of public transportation shutdowns at the end of May.
“The changes made to CTA service were part of a larger, citywide effort led by public safety officials in response to the protests. CTA made the changes at the request of those officials, to help ensure the safety of CTA customers and employees, as well as CTA property. With many of the bridges leading to/from the downtown area lifted, and with street closures occurring throughout the day, CTA was unable to continue providing service along a number of our rail lines and bus routes.”
Implications of transportation shutdowns
In the aftermath of the initial transit shutdowns in May and June, Active Transportation Alliance conducted a survey through social media for people to share their stories, revealing the range of impact for those who depend on transit.
Schultz said it is “unconscionable” to shut down an entire transportation system, as the survey showed it affected those who need it most. People taking care of family members, those with disabilities who rely on public transportation to be independent, and many essential workers provided a range of responses.
“The whole system shouldn’t be shut down without alternatives, especially overnight when it’s already a challenge to move about the city if you’re an essential worker, in the health field, or any number of activities,” Schultz said. “This is a global city that functions 24/7.”
Schultz noted that Divvy, too, was unavailable during the initial public transportation shutdowns, further limiting transportation options for those dependent on transit.
Kate Lowe, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies at the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at University of Illinois Chicago, said that, in a large city such as Chicago, public transportation users are diverse across incomes, races, and geographies as many opt to go car-free.
Lowe added that low and moderate income households own cars at a lower rate, making them more reliant on public transportation as their sole means of transportation. Especially with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, when those who can work from home can avoid transit, those affected by closures were disproportionately black and brown and essential workers, Lowe explained.
“Who has the choice to not move right now?” Lowe asked. “Freedom of mobility is really important, as is the freedom not to move during a pandemic, and essential workers are who will be most burdened by these shutdowns. Universal policies have inequitable effects.”
Based on her research on social equity in transportation, Lowe said she is “deeply troubled” by the transportation closures.
“We already know from our research that black and brown individuals face a whole host of intersecting barriers to accessing destinations—from jobs, to healthcare, and parks,” Lowe explained. “There are cost burdens, with South and West Siders that have to travel far outside of their home communities to get to work. It’s already a huge burden.”
In the communities most affected by protests and looting, however, the shutdowns came as a bit of relief. Jim Wales, president of South Loop Neighbors, said the first weekend of protests at the end of May caused massive damage, something shutting down transportation helped alleviate.
“I think it’s a catch-22 position for the mayor and the City,” Wales said. “Clearly, shutting down the transportation has an impact on people leaving, but it also did prevent some people from coming into the Loop to continue damaging property.”
Wales added transportation closures helped make the community feel safer, noting that destruction in the South Loop because of the looting was “tremendous” and something South Loop residents and businesses grappled with for weeks after.
Wales believes the City could have been better prepared for the protests that resulted in the shutdowns.
“Knowing what was going on around the nation, we can’t be making knee-jerk decisions,” Wales said. “There has to be some proactive decision-making, looking at the potential problem places and setting up so you’re ready to deal with that. I understand it’s easier to look at that in hindsight, but there needs to be some proactive planning done instead of just reactive.”
As Chicago prepares for the possibility of continued protests in months to come, both City officials and residents weigh options for handling transportation moving forward.
While several City of Chicago agencies declined to comment, the Office of Emergency Management and Communications provided a statement explaining the “public safety drills” conducted in the aftermath.
“These drills are strictly part of ongoing precautionary efforts and are not in response to any planned event but has been in the works for the last several weeks and will focus on the safety and well-being of residents, workers, businesses, and peaceful gatherings within heavily trafficked pedestrian areas. The City will continue to conduct similar public safety drills along Chicago’s neighborhood corridors and communities over the coming weeks and months,” the statement read.
Schultz said Active Transportation Alliance’s work to document those who were affected will go on, especially as shutdowns continue. He believes it’s the “bare minimum” to institute an alternate plan so those doing essential activities can use transportation.
“This is an administration that has built its calling card on seeking equitability in Chicago,” Schultz said. “It would seem to me that if this is something they are considering, they need to have an alternative plan in place, so people are not stranded.”
Lowe, on the other hand, said she does not believe these shutdowns are the best response based on the unjust effect they can have on the diverse residents who make up the city’s fabric.
“I’m hesitant to talk about how to do the shutdown better because the shutdown simply shouldn’t have happened,” Lowe said. “That was not an appropriate response, and it was a response that most burdened black and brown essential workers. And not only were the burdens inequitable, the lack of information and suddenness exacerbated it.”
Learn more about Active Transportation Alliance at https://activetrans.org/. For more on Kate Lowe and her work, visit https://cuppa.uic.edu/profiles/lowe-kate/. Visit www.southloopneighbors.org/ for more on South Loop Neighbors.