Accessibility prioritized in transit through Chicago Mobility Collaborative 

Chicago Transit Authority bus at a stop.
Chicago Transit Authority bus at a stop.

Image courtesy of David Wilson via Wikimedia Commons.

Related Topics:
Justice, Transportation

Mobility in a widely populated city like Chicago means not only ensuring roads are maintained, but also bike lanes and sidewalks alike. This ensures mobility options are equitable, according to Chicago Department of Transportation, Director of Outreach and Engagement Romina Castillo. The Chicago Mobility Collaborative (CMC), a forum created by the Chicago Department of Transportation, is bringing a space to not only learn about the inner workings of transportation and mobility policy, but to provide feedback that can inform them.

“Mobility as in, we’re thinking citywide mobility, it’s still not as equitable as we would want it to be across the city,” Castillo said. “So we’re still trying to bridge that gap and build the infrastructure that will provide better access and connectivity to people, while at the same time, services.”

The collaborative meets at varying communities around the city, bringing the forum directly to people to increase its accessibility, Castillo said. Apart from representatives from institutions, attendees include researchers, cyclists, people interested in policy, and people with mobility accessible vehicles such as wheelchairs.

Castillo said the creation of the CMC was to meet with the intention to discuss actionable projects. The forum evolved from the mayoral Bicycle Advisory Council and Pedestrian Advisory Council, which met at the City Hall. During the pandemic, as the Chicago Department of Transportation was re-envisioning how to reach the public in one designated space to discuss mobility, the CMC was formed, initially, only meeting virtually.

With the merging of the two councils into this new forum, transit was brought into the mix, allowing people to discuss public transportation at CMC meetings. The Chicago Transit Authority has formed a collaboration with the Chicago Department of Transportation to be present at CMC meetings with a focus on bus accessibility. 

“The reason we’re doing it is to help elevate the role of transit in Chicago mobility and bus in particular and the overlap and the interrelation between street infrastructure and bus performance and bus experience,” Chicago Transit Authority Director of Strategic Planning and Policy Jennifer Henry said. Given that 96% of Chicagoans live near a bus stop, Henry put public understanding of bus priority street infrastructure as high priority.  

The local Transit Authority and Department of Transportation created the plan Better Streets for Busses, focusing on improving infrastructure through bus lanes, signals, and boarding areas to provide bus services that are faster and more reliable. 

The Transit Authority ensures bus stops allow for wheelchair boarding from the sidewalk and that sidewalks are in good enough condition for buses to deploy a ramp. The Better Streets for Buses plan also provides a toolkit for these forms of accessibility and other street designs like adding boarding islands to increase safety while boarding or having overhead shelter on bus stops to improve the bus stop experience. Working with the Chicago Department or Transportation ensures that the Transit Authority is able to meet the annual goal of fixing 50 to 100 bus stops with accessibility issues, Henry said.

The nearly 185 miles of Chicago streets that compose the Better Streets for Buses Network, areas prioritized by the Chicago Transit Authority and Chicago Department of Transportation for analysis and street treatments. (Image courtesy of Better Streets for Buses)

Now that the plan has been finalized, CMC has shifted their collaborative meetings with the Transit Authority to focus on advocacy, according to Castillo. The agency is present to answer residents’ questions and educate them on their operations. Castillo said the direct impact of the forum such as changes to policy and designs in public places will likely be seen by the end of this year, or starting next year. 

Henry said the Transit Authority presents designs and projects in the works at CMC meetings so that residents can respond to them. She said that every project by the Transit Authority is a product of working closely with the Chicago Department of Transportation to make buses more accessible geographically and in terms of their physical designs.  

Chicago resident Rochelle Jackson said public transportation was her main form of transportation for the majority of her life. She considers transportation advocacy a vital priority and is currently the Chair of Transportation and Infrastructure for the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council.

She said if access to transportation is lost, communities are stifled, and residents may be stranded. She said she appreciates spaces like CMC meetings, especially since neighborhoods on various ends of the city differ in their mobility needs and require various accommodations respectively.

“The importance of having those spaces is that everybody gets to voice their opinion, because we’re not just having a meeting in one set place,” she said. “We are not in walking distance of our schools because most of our schools got closed down. We’re not in walking distance of a grocery store because we are (in) a grocery desert.”

Castillo said it is pivotal to have representatives from various departments and at different levels of government involved in the meeting because the Chicago Department of Transportation does not single-handedly have the power to influence policy. 

Castillo said part of bridging the gap is having members of the Committee of Pedestrian and Traffic Safety, which is part of the City Council, present so that suggestions shared in the meeting can actually leave the drawing board. She said one proposal in the works is to reduce the speed limit across the city from 30 miles per hour to 20 miles. 

In the meeting held in March, members of the public were asked about their thoughts on this possible change and representatives from the Chicago Department of Transportation explained the stages of approving a traffic policy.

She said the meetings are always evolving to make them as beneficial for residents as possible and to better bridge the gap between the government and the public.

“We tried different things here and there. We have a little survey to ask people what they want to talk about, how we were doing on engagement,” Castillo said. “So, we just identified a space and I’m not saying it’s perfect right now, but I think we have more of a template that we are continuing replicating.”

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