Latest Argonne National Laboratory study reveals implications if public transit was eliminated in Chicago, Ill., region

June 11, 2024
The research, in collaboration with MIT, was presented at a CTA Board meeting in May and identifies major consequences in the event the system was eliminated, including increased vehicle congestion, reduced economic activity and a disproportionate impact on underserved communities and minorities.

A recent study led by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, in collaboration with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), reveals that the Chicago, Ill., region would face severe consequences if its public transportation system was eliminated. The research, presented at a Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) Board meeting in May, identifies major consequences, including increased vehicle congestion, reduced economic activity and a disproportionate impact on underserved communities and minorities. 

“Everyone agrees transit is important, but exactly how much and to whom remains open questions,” said Omer Verbas, transportation system engineer at Argonne and technical lead of the study. “This study is one of the first to our knowledge to quantify transit value across multiple metrics.” 

Using Argonne’s POLARIS transportation simulation tool, researchers modeled a day in Chicago without public transit. The study assumed that households who did not currently own a car, as well as those who owned only one would need to purchase additional vehicles, leading to a 30 percent increase in vehicle car ownership and causing an economic burden on those households.  

“Our results indicated that travel times would increase from around 25 to 34 minutes and speeds would decrease from 16 mph to 11 mph within the city,” Verbas said. “Regionally, travel speeds would decrease by 16 percent and travel times would increase by 14 percent, impacting both urban and suburban areas.” 

Public transit in the Chicago area plays a crucial role in supporting care trips such as daycare or school drop offs and pickups, grocery shopping and medical appointments. The study found that more care trips are made than trips to work. 

“The point of any transit system is to offer people access to opportunities,” said Jim Aloisi, director of the MIT Transit Research Consortium. “In Chicago, transit provides access to people across the city, but especially to those living in the south and west sides. Without that access, many people simply cancel their activities. The analysis highlighted the disproportional impact on women and low-income groups, as women account for slightly over 50 percent of activity cancellations while the lowest 20 percent income group accounts for over a quarter of activity cancellations.” 

The study estimated that without public transit, more than two million activities would be canceled daily, resulting in an estimated $35 billion annual loss in direct economic activity. The estimate includes lost jobs, closed businesses and increased living costs. 

“Transit spending has a substantial positive impact in the Chicago area economy,” said Aymeric Rousseau, director of the vehicle and mobility systems department and director of the Center for Decarbonization Solutions Deployment at Argonne. “Every $1 invested in transit generates $13 in economic activity, in addition to creating savings in travel time.” 

The study also reveals the removal of public transit would have public health repercussions. Increased vehicle traffic would lead to higher emissions of a type of particulate matter demonstrated to increase respiratory disease, heart attacks and strokes. The results of the study indicate that prioritizing and investing in sustainable transit systems is essential for the community’s well-being and economic vitality. 

The project was funded through DOE’s Vehicle Technologies Office in the Office on Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. The analysis support from MIT was funded by CTA.