IL: Chicago-area transit may look different this summer, with social distancing and the end of rush hour

May 15, 2020
The daily ritual of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers, silently grousing about backpacks while looking down at your phone and waiting for your stop, may not be repeated until the new coronavirus has been eradicated.

The packed rush hour train and bus were until recently common features of urban life. 

But the daily ritual of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers, silently grousing about backpacks while looking down at your phone and waiting for your stop, may not be repeated until the new coronavirus has been eradicated.

Ridership has dropped precipitously on Metra, CTA and Pace, as it has on public transportation systems around the country. Just at the CTA, ridership is down 80%. When riders do return -- and that process is expected to take much longer than how fast they fled -- the experience is likely to be different.

"The way people commute and the way people use public transit is going to have to dramatically change,” CTA President Dorval Carter said. "Employers are really going to have to rethink how they want employees to come to work, when they want employees to come to work, and how flexible they’re going to have to be.”

Among the possibilities: transit agencies altering schedules to avoid crowded trains, buses running frequently throughout the day instead of being concentrated at rush hour, and employers staggering work hours to ease crowding on public transportation, transit experts say.

It also could mean, at least temporarily, more cars on the roads, and more people using bikes or scooters to get to work. Former commuters may be afraid of getting back on trains and buses, so transit agencies will have to demonstrate the systems are clean and safe, according to transit experts and officials.

The CTA, for instance, is looking at new technologies like ultraviolet light to augment its current cleaning processes.

Posters on the CTAremind riders to stay six feet apart. The state also mandates wearing face masks in crowded areas, like public transit. But during Wednesday’s CTA board meeting, Carter said the agency “can’t police common sense.” Riders are responsible for their own safety, he said, and should not board a bus or rail car if it’s too crowded.

Ridership hasn’t declined in the same way everywhere. Metra, which relies heavily on commuters, has seen ridership drop 97%, compared with CTA’s 80% and 67% at Pace.

Even within the CTA, ridership patterns differ, reflecting demographic differences within Chicago, with many Loop-bound "L" commuters staying home while many essential and lower-income workers still ride transit to work.

CTA officials noted that ridership is down 90% on the Brown Line, and at Loop "L" stations, but hasn’t dropped as much on South Side "L" routes or on buses, particularly major routes coming from the South and West sides. Crowding still happens on buses, and though the CTA has added buses to create more capacity, it isn’t easy to predict when and where it’s going to happen, Carter said.

The CTA is boarding bus passengers from the rear doors in order to protect bus drivers, and Carter sees that continuing “in the foreseeable future.”

One way to encourage riders to use transit outside of rush hour is to charge lower fares during off-peak periods, said Audrey Wennink, transportation director for the Metropolitan Planning Council, a research group.

While transit agencies have not publicly discussed lowering fares for off-peak weekday hours, CTA is not charging fares on buses that lack Ventra card readers at the rear door. Most buses don’t have them, so most bus trips are free.

Wennink said cities need to encourage biking. A new public scooter program, still being planned by the city, also could play a role, she said.

“We don’t want this to be a turning point of more driving, and going backwards in terms of equity and safety and sustainability,” Wennink said.

Transit agencies and governments also need to make it an easy choice for riders to wear masks, said Ben Fried, communications director for TransitCenter, a New York-based research and advocacy foundation. In Seoul, South Korea, for example, where there has been only a 30-40% drop in transit ridership, buses contain hand sanitizer and mask dispensers.

“When the pandemic response is strong and transmission rates are low, the ridership effect is not as severe as we’ve seen in the U.S.,” Fried said.

Transit agencies need to make sure they communicate with riders about service changes and how they’re keeping the system clean, and get input from riders about what they need, said Kyle Whitehead, spokesman for the Active Transportation Alliance, which advocates for transit riders, bicyclists and pedestrians.

While agencies grapple with a path forward, they are dealing with the severe economic consequences of lost ridership. The CTA, Metra and Pace could see almost $1 billion in revenue losses this year, according to the Regional Transportation Authority, the agency that oversees transit budgets.

The $2.2 trillion federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act is providing $1.4 billion to the RTA, but that may not be enough to cover revenue losses, which transit officials believe will extend into 2021.

The American Public Transportation Association sent a letter to Congress last week requesting another $23.8 billion in COVID-19 transit funding to address additional cost and revenue shortfalls.

Stephen Schlickman, a transportation funding and finance consultant, said there are two variables for transit going forward -- a fear of COVID-19, which could keep people off transit, and a lack of financial resources to sustain existing levels of transit.

He said the CARES Act funding will “barely" get transit through the year unless agencies start to reduce service levels.

“If they don’t do that, then existing levels for service, with some haircuts, should continue through the summer, but there will be a cliff that they will fall off toward the end of year or early next year," Schlickman said.

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