CTA accessibility promises fall short for people with disabilities

Bus stops like these that lack enclosures are considered inaccessible to some individuals with low vision. The lack of enclosures makes it hard to find and see stops, especially during the winter months. (Raphael Hipos/Medill)

By Raphael Hipos
Medill Reports

The CTA advertises that 100% of its vehicles are accessible — buses have lifts, and most rapid transit stations have elevators and other features that make traveling more convenient for people living with disabilities.

In practice, however, this is not always the case. Many people in the city who are living with disabilities continue to face challenges when commuting on the CTA, according to Access Living, a Chicago advocacy group for people living with disabilities.

In 2019, CTA buses and trains had a combined ridership of almost half a billion people. If 11% of those rides were from people with disabilities, matching the percentage of the city’s overall population of disabled people, that would mean individuals with disabilities used the CTA approximately 5 million times.

Justin Cooper, 39, has muscular dystrophy, a genetic disorder that gradually makes his body’s muscles shrink and weaken. He was born with this condition, and he uses a power wheelchair to move around in his daily life. When taking the train, Cooper said he has to take several considerations into account before leaving his house.

“One, I have to make sure that that station is accessible for me” with an elevator available, he said. “And two, I have to make sure that the elevators are working. There are instances where I have like wanted to take the train. And when I get to that particular stop, the elevator’s out of service. So that really forces me to kind of like think of other alternatives.”

As someone who uses a wheelchair, Cooper sometimes needs assistance from CTA staff to get on and off the trains. A CTA employee will deploy a ramp to help him board the train, and another employee will be waiting for him at his destination to deploy another ramp to help him get off. However, there were times when no employee was waiting for him at his destination.

“I kind of just ended up staying on the train,” he said. “I was like I didn’t want to risk damaging my chair trying to get off the train, so I just got off at the end of the line.” Once there, Cooper said employees sweeping the trains helped him get off.

While 100% of the CTA’s trains are accessible, the same does not apply to all stations. Of the CTA’s 145 “L” stations, 103 have elevators and are accessible. This leaves 42 stations that lack elevators and remain out of reach for commuters like Cooper. This is in addition to the fact that existing elevators break down at times, forcing wheelchair-bound commuters to find another station with a functioning elevator.

The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against people living with disabilities and requires all newly constructed buildings to be fully accessible. However, buildings – including “L” stations — that predated the passage of this law in 1990 were exempted and are not required to be improved unless they undergo substantial renovations.

“I’m always hesitant whenever someone says anything is 100% accessible,” said Laura Saltzman, a transportation analyst at Access Living. She added that people with non-apparent disabilities can have trouble using the CTA’s buses and trains as well.

Jae Jin Pak, 53, has low vision and is legally blind without his glasses. His spectacles don’t do much aside from clearing some of the blurriness and, even then, he still has a very narrow field of vision.

Pak, who works at the University of Illinois at Chicago, usually commutes to work. He often takes the No. 147 Express bus from his home before transferring to the No. 157 bus. CTA buses usually have brightly lit digital signs at the front that show what route the bus is traveling, as well as audio announcements that alert riders to the coming stop.

Occasionally, CTA buses will not announce what stops are coming up, and this has caused Pak to miss his stop, he said. Other times, the digital signs on buses won’t be lit, leading Pak to miss his buses completely. At times he has spent 30 to 40 minutes waiting for a bus with a working sign. He says he experiences this roughly every two weeks, he said.

Another accessibility issue Pak faces when he takes the bus is that many bus stops in the city don’t have enclosures — only a bench and a nearby sign. As someone with low vision, Pak said it can be hard to find a stop with an enclosure. Additionally, the blue color scheme of the signs can make them difficult to read in certain weather conditions.

People with non-apparent disabilities often have to contend with judgmental looks and treatment from other passengers when they attempt to sit in spaces reserved for individuals with disabilities. Pak, though legally blind without his glasses, doesn’t use a cane to navigate routes he is already familiar with. To an outsider, it is not always apparent he has low vision.

“Every once in a while, I’ve had other passengers who don’t confront me directly but, you know, give me dirty looks or are clearly thinking like well, ‘You don’t look disabled. Why are you taking up that seat?’” he said.

Individuals with cognitive disabilities face challenges when taking the CTA too. T.J. Gordon, 34, has autism, anxiety and depression. He also has runner’s knee, which causes him pain if he stands for too long.

Gordon, along with Pak, is one of the co-founders of the Chicagoland Disabled People of Color Coalition. He and his colleagues founded the organization in 2018 so that people of color with disabilities could have their own space to discuss issues such a public transportation that specifically affect their communities.

The gaps between the train car and the platform sometimes require wheelchair users to request assistance from CTA employees in order to get on and off. (Raphael Hipos/Medill)

For Gordon, it becomes very hard for his mental health when the buses and trains become overcrowded.

“The more crowded it gets, the more anxious I get,” Gordon said. “I’m disappointed that they discontinued the crowd capacity that they previously had. It helped from a mental health and from a safety perspective. I don’t like the overcrowding.”

Gordon added he often sees people smoking on the buses, and this behavior can trigger his seasonal allergies. He also regularly observed people not wearing masks, despite CTA rules. Gordon said this behavior can be potentially dangerous for immunocompromised individuals.

Crime is another safety concern. On March 9, the CTA announced new measures aimed at improving public safety for commuters. Police officers and unarmed security guards will now begin patrolling the Blue and Red lines to help prevent crimes and enforce the CTA’s rules.

Other factors not directly related to the CTA’s buses and trains can also affect accessibility. Chicago’s harsh winters, and uncleared ice and snow accumulating on sidewalks, are a perennial problem.

Megan Klein, 32, takes the CTA every day to bring her son to school, and she said it has been very difficult in recent months due to all the ice on the sidewalks.

“If people don’t shovel the sidewalks, it prevents me from actually boarding a bus,” Klein said. “And if people don’t shovel the ADA ramps outside of CTA stops of trains, then I cannot cross the street and I cannot safely navigate onto a train.”

Aside from the inconvenience they cause, icy sidewalks can injure people who have to pass through them. Last month, Klein suffered a nasty fall due to ice outside the Brown Line’s Irving Park station. The fall left a large bruise on her back and left her bedridden for two days.

In an email for this story, a CTA spokesman said the agency works very hard during the winter season to make sure all its bus stops and train stations remain accessible to all individuals.

“However, there are nearly 11,000 bus stops served by CTA buses, and the vast majority are located along public ways,” the CTA email stated. “Unless the bus stop is part of a CTA station or transit center, it is the responsibility of local municipalities and/or adjacent property owners to clear the snow from that bus stop.”

A sign that instructs commuters how to call for assistance has instructions printed in Braille. (Raphael Hipos/Medill)

Saltzman said she believes the CTA truly does consider accessibility as a priority for the agency. However, she said that doesn’t always translate into things being accessible for people.

“Even if the vehicles are accessible, it doesn’t mean that people can use them,” she said. “If you know, the sidewalk is covered in snow, or the sidewalk is broken, then people can’t get to the buses or trains.

“The CTA isn’t perfect, but I think they work in good faith,” Saltzman said. “I don’t say that lightly.” She added that the main obstacle to making all stations 100% accessible is funding.

This was a sentiment echoed by P.S. Sriraj, the head of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He said one reason why some stations have gone so long without renovations is because the CTA is not expected to renovate it and improve the facilities if they do not meet a certain ridership number. He also added a station location could play a role in why it’s not being renovated.

“Let us say a station has been built in a very tight urban space,” Sriraj said. “They cannot expand the station footprint to put in an elevator bank if it is an elevated station. They may have to come up with ways in which they can enlarge the footprint of the station so that they can put an elevator. Those are design details, and those are engineering issues. I wouldn’t say that they cannot be overcome, but they may play a factor in escalating the cost involved.”

In response to requests by members of the disabled community that the CTA reinstate crowd capacity limits onboard buses and trains, Sriraj said this is not a feasible request. He pointed out there is a state mandate that transit agencies need at least 50% of their operating expenditures to be covered by the fares people pay.

Saltzman pointed out that this expectation for the CTA to make enough money from fares puts pressure on the agency. She said this prevents the CTA from installing crowd capacity limits, and results in trains and buses that are occasionally crowded.

“No one expects the fire department to make money, right?” she said. “But they’ll talk about the CTA and expect them to make money”

This isn’t to say the CTA isn’t taking steps to make things more accessible to people living with disabilities. Joe Albritton, who serves as the chair of the CTA’s ADA advisory committee, says commuting has become drastically more convenient for him now compared with how things were 30 years ago.

“I’ve lived in Chicago for around 30 years, and I’m very reliant on public transportation,” said Albritton, who has low vision. “I was very afraid to take a bus because I thought I’d miss my stop, and the audible announcements have really fixed that.”

He added that in his time on the advisory committee, the CTA has always been very receptive to their suggestions and recommendations.

The CTA is planning to convert the fleet of buses to all-electric models. As these vehicles are silent, the advisory committee has proposed they have a device that produces an audible sound when pulling up to bus stops, to let people with visual impairments know the vehicles are arriving. This is just one example of a recommendation forwarded by the committee that Albritton said the CTA has responded warmly to.

“The fact that the CTA has formed this advisory committee to get feedback from the public, I think that’s very important,” Albritton said. He added the committee has regular quarterly meetings with the agency, and that individuals who want to submit comments can do so by sending the CTA an email. The next meeting between the committee and the CTA will be April 11.

In an email for this story, the CTA emphasized accessibility remains one of the agency’s top priorities. It said adding elevators to the 42 stations that lack them pose logistical and financial challenges.

“Those stations are an average of 79 years old and some were never designed to hold an elevator or other accessibility structure. Others are located on either small pieces of land or in the median of expressways,” the email said.

In 2018, the CTA unveiled the All Stations Accessibility Program (ASAP) Strategic Plan, which aims to make all of the rail stations fully accessible by 2038. The first project – the Austin Green Line Station – is set to begin construction this year. The agency says it remains on target to complete the ASAP Plan by 2038, pending funding sources.

Cooper said he believes that when making decisions about accessibility, the CTA has to consult more with people who live with disabilities.

“Our voices oftentimes are not heard,” he said. “And so, I feel like it’s important that if you’re going to be building these new stations, and building all of this brand-new stuff, that it is important that you have the voice of the people with disabilities.”

Raphael Hipos is a graduate student at Medill, where he specializes in social justice. You can follow him at @RLHipos