CTA’s Holiday Homeless Harassment


(Photo: The Chicago Transit Authority wants you to believe that this sign is not aimed directly at the homeless. Really.)

(DECEMBER 2, 2008: For the latest updates on this story, please also see today’s post here or browse my Homeless archive.)

During the past few weeks of waning daylight, waxing chill, and growing holiday spirit, the Chicago Transit Authority has been busy installing new signage at rail terminals on the CTA ‘L’. The message on the signs–an example of which appears above–is clear, and a bit ominous: they demand an additional fare from any rider who wants to depart the terminal in the opposite direction from which they arrived.

The reason for the signs is a lot murkier. A rider arriving at a rail terminal and immediately departing again without exiting obviously hasn’t made a constructive trip. However, it’s hard to see who they’d be harming by such “continuous riding”, as the CTA calls the practice.

Unless, of course, that rider is a homeless person. Any regular ‘L’ rider can attest to the wave of homeless Chicagoans who take to the warm interiors of CTA rail cars during the city’s brutal winter months. Although generally a benign presence in the system, their downtrodden visual appearance–and in many cases odor–earns them the ire of many fellow, more fortunate passengers.

With that in mind, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why the CTA would hurry to install the aforementioned signage at the start of another Windy City winter.  Of course, it isn’t necessarily legal to single out homeless people and deny them service.  (Just ask the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless about the numerous cases they’ve won against housing-status discrimination).  Especially a public service like transit.

So last week, I contacted the CTA’s public affairs department and asked them several specific questions regarding the new signs. I think the CTA’s bureaucratically spin-meistered answers speak for themselves–and not in a good way.  I present them below for your consideration, together with my own far more straightforward reactions upon reading them.

MIKE DOYLE: Why were the signs installed?
CTA: “The signs were installed to remind CTA customers of the policy which prohibits customers from continuously riding the same line without payment of another fare, and as an aid to law enforcement in dealing with violators of this rule.”

Really? When did this alleged crime wave of continuous riders crop up to the level that law enforcement needs an aid to keep the problem at bay? If such a problem actually exists, where’s the harm in a customer not exiting at a given station?  And for that matter, when exactly did the CTA ever tell riders about this policy in the first place?

Who directed the signs to be installed?
“CTA management made the decision to post the reminder for customers as a customer service.”

So CTA management thinks that threatening riders with expulsion from the ‘L’ system for violating an obscure policy that is rarely mentioned and even more rarely enforced is good customer service? Not that I’d be surprised–it’s not like it would be the first, or second, or third, or even fourth time the agency’s taken a similarly customer-unfriendly stance in recent memory.

Where have they been installed and where are they planned to be installed in the future?
“The signs are currently installed at Howard, 95th, O’Hare and Forest Park (the terminals of 24-hour lines) and Midway. They eventually will be installed at all rail terminals.”

Since CTA installed these signs first at 24-hour terminals, it would seem to me the agency thinks the problem is worse during late-night hours.  Hmm, I wonder what type of rider would attempt to continuously ride during these hours…

Who chose these locations and why?
“CTA chose to post the signs at the 24-hour terminals first because the agency believes those are the locations that have the biggest number of continuous riding violators. As mentioned above, the signs will eventually be installed at all CTA rail terminals.”

Didn’t mean to steal your thunder there, CTA.  So now you’ve got me wondering even more, just who are these late-night “violators” you’re targeting here?

What is the legal basis for the signs?  i.e. Is this rule officially codified in CTA’s existing rules and regulations and if so, where? If you can cite and quote the codified rule in your answer that would be a great help.) If there is not legally codified rule, what is the basis for these signs and the rule posted on them?
“Payment of fares for CTA service is governed by State statute.The Metropolitan Transit Authority Act, 70 ILCS 3605/31 gives CTA the statutory power to make all rules that are proper and necessary to regulate the use, operation and maintenance of all property owned, operated or maintained by CTA which also includes the right to impose fines and penalties for violation of those rules. Non-payment of the appropriate fare is considered theft of service.”

Careful readers will note the CTA did not answer my question. I asked to learn what is the specific rule justifying the new signs. I was told that CTA has the authority to make its own rules. What I wasn’t told was whether the CTA actually as a specific, codified rule barring continuous riding. Is it written into the agency’s regulations that such riding constitutes “theft of service”? After a week of deliberation on my questions by the CTA, that one is still unanswered. And even if it was–what exactly are riders stealing if they take a trip to nowhere by not exiting at a terminal?

The sign says that riders must leave and re-enter the station and must pay another fare.  However, riders with transfers left on their Transit or Chicago cards would not be paying an additional fare to enter.  Also, riders missing their stop and ending up at terminals would seem to be affected as well.
“The sign states customers must pay ‘an additional fare.’ If a customer still has a transfer eligible on their farecard it would constitute payment of another fare as CTA’s current fare schedule allows for the use of transfers for return trips. However, instances of customers missing their stops and having to ride back don’t occur very often.Most people do exit at their destinations so when a trains arrives at the end of the line, everyone should be exiting the train.

“Theoretically customers missing their stop and having to back-ride to their missed station would also be included in the group this policy affects, although it is at the discretion of CTA personnel and the Chicago Police Department (CPD) to make an on-the-spot decision based on the circumstances of each customer.”

Theoretically? You mean actually, don’t you? Your rules and regulations are applied to all riders equally, aren’t they? And for that to happen, to make this rule work and not apply it in a discriminatory manner, you’d have to toss off those “legitimate”, transfer-bearing, stop-missing riders along with everyone else, right?

Wait…discretionary on-the-spot decisions? Now I’m confused. So you’re saying CTA personnel may actually apply this rule in an unequal manner based on subjective decision about the “circumstances” of each rider? Exactly what “circumstances” are you referring to? And how is an inequitably applied rule not a discriminatory one?

As these signs are specifically written, riders with transfers would seem to be asked to pay additional fares that they have already paid and riders who have missed their stop would not be allowed to correct their mistake without paying another fare.  How does the CTA intend to deal with those situations?
“Employees are trained to use discretion before contacting the control center to report a continuous rider and have been alerted to the possibility that a customer may have missed his/her stop and is just attempting to reverse back.

“Staff is advised to make sure they differentiate between such customers, and those who are continuously riding our transit system. However customers are required to pay an additional fare whenever they reach the end of a route and want to continue their travel. Customers with 30-Day, 7-Day or Visitor/Fun Passes must also re-insert (or touch to touchpad if a Chicago Card) their farecard into the farecard machine if continuing their travel or reversing their ride.”

Wow.  Just wow. You are actually telling me that the CTA has a standing policy for station employees to single classes of customers out to apply agency rules and regulations. You’re saying that in practice, the universal “continuous riding” ban is not applied universally. So I’m led right back to ponder, who is it you’re trying to single out here?

Homeless advocates may worry that the signage is aimed specifically at homeless riders (many of whom will have paid their fare to enter the system).  Is that so?
“No, it is not. The signs were posted as a customer service reminder to all CTA customers that the payment of fares only entitles them to a one-way ride and/or transfer and all customers must exit the bus or train at the end of the line.  CTA does not make a distinction between homeless and any other fare paying customers.  All individuals who pay fares are afforded the same rights on public transit as long as they are not violating any CTA ordinances or breaking any laws.

“CTA partners with the City of Chicago’s Department of Human Services (DHS) on a cooperative program to provide assistance to the homeless. DHS provides outreach services to homeless individuals 23 hours a day.”

You know, I used to be a grammar teacher, so I assure you that the word I’m about to use fits the CTA’s answer perfectly: bullshit. Given the agency’s above answers, they’ve simply lost me here. I’m supposed to believe that with a Chicago winter of high homeless ridership approaching, they casually decided to post these signs as a “customer service”? A “simple reminder”? I don’t believe it. Not one word. I’m wracking my brain to try and figure out what reason on earth could these signs serve other than to give the CTA cover for kicking out homeless riders. Can anyone help me here?

How does the CTA intend to discern which riders are “continuously riding”?  For example, a person appearing homeless may exit a train and attempt to board a train in the other direction at a terminal. How will the CTA, Securitas, or CPD determine whether the rider is a legitimate passenger?

It would seem to me that unless the CTA is intending to selectively target riders with this signage for expulsion from the system, which would obviously raise legal concerns, how can the CTA enforce this rule at all without forcing all riders–including those with legitimate reasons to be riding (missed stop, transfer on card, simply changed mind, etc.) to leave the system?
“CTA personnel check trains and buses at the end of each trip.  These checks are for spot cleaning and to ensure that no one remains on the vehicle planning to continue their ride without paying the appropriate fare.  If an individual does not exit the vehicle at the end of its route and does not need or refuses assistance, CTA personnel will inform the customer that riding the train or bus continuously is not permitted and will ask them to exit the vehicle.

“If the individual refuses to do so, personnel will notify the CTA Control Center which in turn will inform the Chicago Police Department (CPD) that someone refuses to exit and asks for assistance. CPD will escort the individual from the train or bus.  If the individual refuses to leave the train or bus, the person can be arrested per the discretion of the police.”

Hands up, CTA riders, any one of you who in your entire life has ever seen a CTA customer–who wasn’t homeless–asked to leave a train at a terminal? Anyone?  Is that crickets chirping that I hear?

No matter the CTA’s double-speak here, it’s pretty clear who these new “continuous riding” signs are aimed at. I can’t imagine a reasonable Chicagoan believing that homeless people are not the obvious and only target here.

What I can imagine is a reasonable person asking themselves why the CTA would implement such a policy in the first place. Not only why, but who–who is being harmed from continuous riding and, most importantly, who is committing the alleged harm? And I can also easily imagine any reasonable person coming up with the same answers I did.

In summary and in my opinion, the CTA has made a deliberate decision to target homeless customers for ejection from the system because they know they probably won’t have the money to get back in, and is attempting to hide its discriminatory policy behind a universally applicable rule that the agency has no intention of applying universally.  And that stinks.

The holidays are coming, and so is our annual two months of zero-degree January and February weather. At this time of year, a better use for CTA money and manpower would have been for the agency to create its own homeless outreach division (much like NYC Transit’s longtime successful initiative) to help get those continuously riding customers into appropriate shelters instead of pawning the effort off on DHS. For a public agency in Chicago to instead threaten to throw homeless people out onto freezing streets in far-flung corners of the city without as much as caring wether they have the means to get to a shelter is unnecessary and cruel in equal measure.

If a heartless policy like that is the best the CTA can muster five weeks before Christmas, then I hope agency head Ron Huberman doesn’t believe in Santa Claus. Because if the fat guy in the red suit does exist, if I were Huberman I’d expect to find nothing more than a fat lump of coal in my stocking come December 25th.

And deservedly so.

(Get notified about new posts: Facebook Updates | Email Updates | RSS Updates)


What do you think?