CHICAGO — The CTA is facing a fiscal cliff exacerbated by fewer train and bus riders, and a new analysis points to some ways the city could bring back more transit customers — and which stations might be keeping the most.
The analysis, from researchers at the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute, found “L” stations located near offices lost the most riders compared to 2019, as fewer white-collar workers commute to work five days each week. But stations surrounded by industrial uses and open space, such as parks, brought back a far higher share of riders. Stations surrounded by a variety of destinations fared better than those dominated by only housing or commercial space.
The analysis offers insight into how and where rider habits have changed. That can hold clues to how the agency can draw back more riders, and the fare revenue they bring with them.
Ridership and revenue have become increasingly important as the CTA braces for federal pandemic aid to run out in 2025, leaving transit agencies in the region with a collective $730 million budget gap and regional planners debating the future of public transit and how it should be funded. They have made recommendations about service, floated changes to sales taxes and suggested consolidating the Chicago area’s three transportation agencies into one. It will ultimately be up to lawmakers to decide how to move forward.
But P.S. Sriraj, director of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, urged caution in predicting what the future of transit might look like based on only a short time during and since the pandemic, when many factors affecting transit and commuting remain in flux. It can also be difficult to determine what types of destinations people are heading to when they get off at a train stop, he said.
The idea that diverse development near bus and train stops can help transit has been time-tested, he said, but there might be more to getting riders back.
“Transit has to reinvent itself,” he said.
The Urban Institute researchers looked at the number of riders in March 2019 and March 2023, and found that among the stations with the highest rider retention was Morgan on the Green and Pink lines in the West Loop, where ridership was 96% of 2019 levels.
Other stations that had drawn back a large share of riders were Argyle on the north section of the Red Line, where a temporary station has been in place during construction and which in March had 83% of 2019 rider levels. Conservatory, on the Green line near Garfield Park, drew 82% of pre-pandemic riders and the Damen Pink Line station near Pilsen drew 79%.
In the analysis, the Addison Red Line station had the highest ridership retention, drawing more riders than in 2019. But the station offered limited service for much of March 2019 and was closed several weekends that month during construction.
Stations that had the fewest returning riders in March included Logan Square, which saw 32% of 2019 riders. The Oak Park and Harlem Blue Line station in Oak Park and Forest Park both saw 36% of riders return, and the California Blue Line station in Logan Square had 37% of its pre-pandemic riders.
Two Red Line stations on the North Side, Berwyn and Lawrence, were not included in the analysis because they have been closed since 2021 for construction.
Overall, the analysis found stations surrounded largely by offices had brought back 55% of pre-pandemic riders, while stations surrounded by open space, including parks, had brought back 82%.
CTA officials said in a statement more riders seem to be taking recreational trips, and rides have spiked during sporting events or large-scale gatherings such as Lollapalooza, the Chicago Marathon and Riot Fest. Riders attending those events are likely to be using stations with a variety of activities nearby.
As weekend ridership is closer to pre-pandemic levels, more riders are still taking the CTA to downtown stations during weekdays, they said. Even as some of the Loop stations have lost many of their pre-pandemic riders, they’re still among the busiest in the system, the CTA said.
The findings suggest a mix of uses near transit stations can help bring back riders, said Lindiwe Rennert, one of the authors, and that means more money for the CTA. That can include converting downtown offices where vacancy rates remain high to housing, the authors suggested, similar to city efforts underway to revamp LaSalle Street in the Loop.
A new city ordinance focused on spurring development near transit could also help, Rennert said. The CTA said it is also encouraging a variety of types of development near construction projects, including a large rebuild of sections of the Red and Purple lines on the North Side, and plans to do the same during anticipated work to extend the Red Line south to 130th Street.
The city could also invest in parks and libraries or encourage pop-up retail near train stations, said another of the study’s authors, Yonah Freemark.
“We are living in a different world than the one we came into before the pandemic,” he said. “The idea of having purely office districts as the foundation for our transit system no longer makes sense.”
Offices are failing to bring back transit riders in many large cities, Rennert said. But the authors chose to focus on Chicago partly because the city has already taken steps to begin converting LaSalle Street offices, and partly because the CTA is struggling more than agencies in some other big cities to retain riders.
“It’s kind of this, act now or potentially doom yourself to back-to-back (funding) shortfalls,” Rennert said.
Adding a variety of destinations near transit is bound to help bring riders, Sriraj said. But he questioned whether converting downtown space to housing would help, especially when residential neighborhoods outside downtown haven’t always brought back more riders.
“Just because you have people living there, does not mean they will use the CTA that much more,” he said.
Sriraj called instead for broader change for public transit. One way to bring back riders is to add services that can compete with the comfort, ease and convenience of ride-share, he said, such as testing a partnership with the companies for specific short trips.
“People really don’t have the patience to wait for a bus or a train unless they are tied to it,” he said.
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