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Experts, transit leaders elsewhere say a safety app could really help on CTA in Chicago

Experts say a safety app would be a good idea for the CTA
Experts say a safety app would be a good idea for the CTA 05:22

CHICAGO (CBS) -- People who take 'L' trains or ride buses in Chicago have seen buttons on board that they can press to call for help in dangerous situations.

But what if that button was available on phones—a way to call for help privately or report a public transit problem or concern anytime and anywhere?

It is available in other major cities. Why isn't Chicago exploring the same solution?

No one from the Chicago Transit Authority was interviewed for this story—and not for lack of trying. CBS 2 started requesting interviews back in February to discuss safety and the solutions other transit agencies are implementing.

However, experts and transit leaders in other cities did speak to CBS 2 about why a safety app could help in Chicago.

Service problems, crime worries on the CTA

The CTA comprises 127 bus routes and more than 220 miles of train track. It connects Chicago.

But sometimes, there is a break in that connection – a missing bus, a broken-down train, or a theft or violent crime reported on a ride, at a platform, or at a stop. Anything that leads to that uneasy, anarchic, "anything goes here" feeling on the CTA changes the way the city views the system.

That, in turn, is reflected in ridership numbers.

While violent crime on the CTA system is down from its 2022 peak, crime overall is ticking back up this year.

Meanwhile, not as many people are using the system. The number of train trips was down nearly 50% last year compared with the pre-pandemic Chicago of 2019, while the number of bus trips was down more than 30%.

"The decline of public transit ridership ripples through our city," said DePaul University transportation expert Dr. Joe Schwieterman. "Winning people back is going take a sustained commitment to show CTA riding has improved—and I don't think we are close to that yet for a lot of people."

Trust and safety are most important, per Schwieterman.

"CTA really has a tough task to win that trust back," he said.

So, how is the CTA doing that? For years, the agency has been spending millions on the hundreds of security guards and K9 units they say are deployed on the system daily.

But if something happens on a train car or bus, passengers' options are limited to the emergency call button that connects to the train operator. Otherwise, passengers can get off the train and call 911, find an employee, or notify the operator directly, according to the CTA.

Transit Watch app makes a real difference, head of LA Metro Security says

Transit riders in other major cities have transit safety in the palm of their hands at the click of a button. One such city is Los Angeles, which offers the LA Metro Transit Watch app.

"It literally takes, you know, no more than 10, 15 seconds to shoot off an incident - and have someone on the other end respond," said Robert Gummer, the head of LA Metro Security.

Gummer was happy to talk to CBS 2 about the app.

"We feel that Transit Watch allows almost an anonymous way—you can submit the information anonymously—to be able to flag, 'Hey, something's going on that's concerning,' without putting yourself in harm's way," he said. 

This is something that Gummer said makes a real difference.

The LA Metro Transit Watch app was launched in 2020, and LA Metro said app use has gone up more than 4,000%.

Passengers can select a type of incident – anything from elevator/escalator problems to persons in need, as well as different categories of criminal activity. Reports go directly to an operations center, and security personnel respond.

"It kind of evolved from just reporting on safety and security issues to other things that impact the perception of safety," Gummer said. "So that's everything from, you know, bad lighting in certain environments; you know, property damage – so say, graffiti, someone's going to see graffiti; you know, what our law enforcements are seeing; if there's a station with some cleanliness concerns."

The LA Metro Transit Watch app is also used by the agency's 300 transit ambassadors – who are separate from the transit security, police, sheriff's, and homeless outreach workers also monitoring the system.

Last year, Los Angeles responded to more than 12,000 cleanliness and maintenance issues reported by ambassadors, more than 3,000 graffiti sightings, and more than 4,000 elevator and escalator issues.

"The Transit Watch app allows us in sensitive situations, or confined situations, to communicate," said Karen Parks of the LA Metro Ambassador Program.

CBS 2 found similar tech in Miami, where riders have options in their pocket through the MDT Transit Watch app. Spokespeople from the Miami-Dade Transit office said anyone can use the Transit Watch app to report security and safety concerns, submit reports and photos, and chat with security personnel live—all anonymously.

Miami-Dade Transit said the app has played a role in a decrease in transit crime.

CTA touts chatbot; expert says it's not the same

So, what about the CTA?

Last month, the CTA announced a new chatbot that users can only access on the transit agency's website—like the customer service bots found all over the place these days. The first prompts as user clicks are "cleanliness," "maintenance," and "ADA compliance."

Click on "another issue," and "safety and security" is an option.

However, the chatbot does not support emergency response.

Schwieterman said a chatbot is not like the Transit Watch apps in Los Angeles and Miami.

"It's not really designed for an on-the-spot troubleshooting situation. It's on the website. A lot of people don't go to [the CTA website]. They use the Ventra app. It's really not intended to summon security."

It is worth noting that the CTA's website is; belongs to an information technology engineering firm that has nothing to do with the Chicago Transit Authority.

So could something like the Transit Watch apps in Los Angeles and Miami be coming to the CTA?

Gummer said he would "absolutely, 100%" recommend such an app.

But CTA spokespeople would not say if they had considered a transit app like LA's or Miami's.

"The advantage of an app like that—it sends a clear signal it's a new day; that we have people on the spot ready to interact with you in real-time when there are problems; we're trying something different; we're using tech to collect data where these problem spots occur," said Schwieterman, "and that's a much more visible response than a web page feature."

CBS 2 first asked the CTA about safety tech like the Transit Watch apps as a solution back in 2022.

The CTA's response

In February, the CTA suggested contacting police for information about crime on the system. In March, the CTA said it would be making announcements in the spring about the subjects CBS 2 wanted to know about and would be interested in revisiting the possibility of an interview for that time. This month, the CTA said it would check into availability for an interview but would send a statement in writing if unable to accommodate one.

The CTA did go on to issue this statement in writing, which focuses on the chatbot on the CTA website:

In your previous reporting you covered other systems that offer apps for riders to report problems.

In late April, we launched our first-ever "Chat with CTA" chatbot—an automated service that allows riders to report problems, provide feedback and receive answers to their questions in real-time. In addition, it provides us with valuable customer feedback about where improvements are needed and gives us information regarding the things that are working well.

Customer feedback is key for CTA to thrive and improve. In the future—both short- and long-term—we will expand the chatbot's capabilities to fully exploit the technology it offers to our organization, including how it can be applied to the transit industry.

"Chat with CTA" was created through a dynamic partnership with Google Public Sector and this is only the beginning of the new, interesting ways we can do much more with technology to improve our riders' experience.

In the first five days that the chatbot was available:

  • Customers opened the chat window a total of 199,160 times
  • 686 conversations were started in the chatbot alone
  • 111 emails were escalated to CTA managers

The automated chatbot supports simple, non-emergency topics. The variety of topics cover cleanliness, maintenance, ADA accommodations, safety & security, disruptive behavior, employee feedback, service disruptions, and finding the next train/bus. Chat with CTA does not support responding to emergencies. Customers should always call 911, to speak directly with a police dispatcher,  or contact station personnel if someone's safety is at risk.

When you pull up the website, it is the blue and white chat icon in the bottom right corner.

This allows riders to easily access the chatbot, without having to download an app. 

Per your question on security guards, there are several hundred deployed throughout the system throughout the day, everyday, to supplement the Chicago Police officers assigned to patrol the transit system.

If you're interested in covering crime on the CTA, the latest data we have from CPD shows that crimes decreased across the board during the month of April:

  • Overall transit crime is down 6% year to date, as well as a 16% drop compared to April 2023. 
  • Violent crime on the CTA is down 6% compared to April 2023.

Here's the link to the full press release on that.

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