As a Chicagoan and now daily commuter on the CTA’s buses and trains, I typically spend my morning trek downtown like most of my seatmates–reading the news and editorial musings of the Chicago Tribune’s Red Eye. An article in the Tuesday (March 13) edition of the paper, about the City’s plans to clean up (aka remove the graffiti from) the CTA rail stations, particularly caught my attention for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I was sitting on a less than glamorous CTA bus–a close cousin of the train–at the time. For another, the clean-up efforts described seemed to me to be only a small step in what the City could do to improve Chicago’s public transportation and residents’ perceptions of it.

In her article–“CTA cars as canvas?” –Tracy Swartz describes how graffiti on the CTA trains have helped Chicago win graffiti tracker acclaim as one of the top cities for “street art.” The CTA is right to launch its station renewal program and rid our trains of perpetual grime. However, CTA authorities have the opportunity to make renewal efforts more noteworthy, going beyond basic clean-up efforts to give the graffiti trackers and commuters a more accurate representation of street art–and Chicago.

What role can art play in making public transportation improvements?

CTA stations are no strangers to real art. Paintings, mosaics, and sculptures are displayed in various stations across Chicago. So, why not take this same idea to the streets, and transform post-cleanup CTA vehicles into mobile canvases for art about Chicago? In its trend, Make it Mine, Mintel’s Inspire describes how Americans are increasingly multi-faceted, straying from a one-size-fits all approach to life to instead show the world who they are with personalized commodities. CTA authorities can follow suit, and start taking public transportation improvements to the next level by personalizing buses like the one on which I commute. They can make them Chicago’s. With the help of local artists or even art students, these mobile canvases can replace graffiti or blank nothingness with creative displays of all the things– from museums, to the lake, to the architecture and foods–that set Chicago apart from other cities and metro areas.

Chicago is a primary home to Transumers–according to Mintel’s Inspire, the increasing number of public commuters who are prime candidates for exposure to en-route advertising. Buses adorned with paintings or drawings of the streets and sights of Chicago would have a built in audience in their daily users who could develop sudden inspiration to visit–and spend money at–Chicago attractions like Millennium Park, the Art Institute, Wrigley and Soldier Fields, and the slew of other locales that make the city what it is. Exposure to mobile art should give public commuters an added sense of pride, and encourage them to do more to keep the vehicles clean. Chicagoans and tourists who aren’t reaping the benefits of public transportation could also be more inclined to use it just to get an “art fix,” further contributing to the City’s economy–and the environment–by keeping their cars off the roads.

Cleaning up the graffiti doesn’t mean that Chicago has to lose its street art, and given the possible economic and social benefits of art done “right,” we shouldn’t want it to. Let’s just give it a new definition.