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How to welcome riders back to trains and buses in Chicago

This Letter to the Editor first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times

If ever there was a time to roll out the welcome mat for public transit, it’s now. Recovery from the pandemic will be a long game; it could take years. And we agree with Laura Washington, who wrote in an April 3 column that we, the residents of the Chicago area, need to “do our part to save public transit.”

But that alone won’t fix declining ridership. We need transit agencies to make the option of transit very attractive. Substantial federal COVID-19 relief funding has given us the resources to juice the process. We need Chicagoans to regain their transit muscle memory quickly.

First, Chicago should stand up a program of Transit Ambassadors, modeled after programs in other cities. This would be a new team of roving staff who help create a friendly, welcoming presence on Chicago’s transit system.

Transit ambassadors wear uniforms but have no weapons, just a radio to call for support when needed. But the goal is for things not to get to that point. They are the eyes and ears on platforms and trains, identifying and resolving issues quickly, and providing a safe presence. They’ve done this in San Francisco and Boston and people love it. Now is the time to stand up such a program to encourage Chicago’s transition back to frequent transit rides.

In addition, a “Welcome Back” campaign could include a temporary program of sharply discounted monthly, weekly or even daily passes over the next few months — that’s what COVID relief funds are for. The theory of transit passes is that once they are in your pocket, each ride feels free and creates an incentive to ride a lot. Remember how much fun it is to whiz through Chicago on the train? We need short-term incentives that entice riders to resume their transit lifestyles.

The campaign should also include continuous communications on social media and everywhere. Riders want to hear how much transit agencies love them and about everything that’s being done to lure them back. Let’s ride!