When will public transit feel safe to ride again?

Getting from here to there has never been more complicated

 
 
 

Jan Goldberg, a retired teacher from Riverside, normally uses the CTA or Metra to go downtown for volunteer work or social engagements. But in a post-COVID-19 world, she is reluctant to return to mass transit, not knowing whether passengers will be crowded together or socially distanced.

"I would be skittish about going back," she says.

Goldberg and many others are likely to forsake mass transit for the safe bubble of their cars. And that will leave transit in a weakened financial state with renewed pressure on roads that are congested and badly in need of repair.

"I have no doubt that when the economy opens up, people who have a choice are going to drive," says Randy Blankenhorn, the Illinois secretary of transportation under former Gov. Bruce Rauner. "Then we're back to significantly more congestion."

Fallout from the coronavirus has crippled mass transit. Since March, Metra has lost 97 percent of its riders and cut service in half. The Chicago Transit ity has maintained a full schedule of buses and trains even though more than three-quarters of its riders disappeared. Pace, the suburban bus and paratransit service, lost two thirds of ridership.

As the region considers how to reopen, short- and longer-term questions are confounding. How many riders will return to mass transit? Will it be slow and steady or all at once? How will trains and buses allow enough room for social distancing? Will businesses adapt to new commuting patterns? Can technology provide the information commuters need to stay safe?

"Normal before COVID won't come back for years, if ever," says Stephen Schlickman, a transit consultant and former Regional Transportation ity executive director.

The crisis has underscored striking inequality in the region, with many white-collar employees working from AG亚洲国际游戏home, while essential workers in health care, public safety and the food supply chain are vulnerable on the front lines. These workers, many from low-income and minority communities, depend on mass transit to reach jobs. Service cuts or fare hikes would hurt them the most.


COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on CTA ridership
When COVID-19 shut down Illinois in March, CTA ridership plunged as people sheltered in place. Many worked from AG亚洲国际游戏home instead of going to the office, but not everyone had that luxury. Areas on Chicago’s South and West sides saw much smaller declines than in other, richer parts of the city that saw more than a 50% drop. This map shows the percentage decrease at each CTA el stop in March compared to March 2019. Click the buttons to compare ridership declines to household income, commute time and the percentage of people who worked from AG亚洲国际游戏home prior to COVID-19. The CTA reported an overall ridership decline of 40.7%. To explore these trends in greater depth, check out this story

Sources: CTA, U.S. Census Bureau 2018 5-year American Community Survey

The loss of fares and anticipated declines in the sales tax revenues that fund transit operations underscore the need to reassess how transit is funded and recalibrate the priorities of daily operations and capital investments, transit advocates say.

"We can learn from this," says Sharon Feigon, executive director of the nonprofit Shared-Use Mobility Center, which advocates for a multimodal transportation system, services that are shared among users such as mass transit, taxis, ride-sharing and bike-sharing. "In a crisis, people are willing to change."

Practicing social distancing

Even before COVID-19, mass transit use had been declining moderately for several years due, in part, to the rise of telecommuting and the convenience of ride-hailing services such as Uber. Among area transit agencies, Metra was hit hardest because its core of suburban office workers was more able to work remotely.

Ridership at Metra declined 9.3 percent to 74 million passenger trips in 2019 from 81.6 million trips in 2015, with monthly pass sales falling nearly 15 percent and 10-ride ticket sales growing by more than 8 percent—an indication that more commuters are becoming occasional riders rather than regulars. "I don't think you can attribute all that to telecommuting, but it would be a factor," a spokesman for Metra says.

In the face of the pandemic, many employers are now extending work-at-AG亚洲国际游戏home policies through this summer and some through the rest of the year. But even after the immediate threat is over, telecommuting is destined to become more commonplace as formerly resistant employers see that it doesn't impair productivity and saves money on office space.

Remote work likely won't eliminate the need to show up at the office for many employees. But even if they work from AG亚洲国际游戏home one or two days a week, fare revenue will be greatly reduced, experts say.

 
 
 

Even as the economy begins to reopen, but with fewer crowds, the services have to offer enough train cars and buses to enable people to spread out. "Because of social distancing requirements, the provision of service has to be greater," says RTA Executive Director Leanne Redden. "That will be with us for a long time."

Telecommuting turns out to be beneficial if it cuts down the crowds at rush hour, Shared-Use's Feigon says. "People may work from AG亚洲国际游戏home a third of the time," she says. "Now your peak is gone. That's a huge number."

One way to promote social distancing would be to stagger the workday to avoid the morning and evening rush hour peaks. That makes more efficient use of buses, trains and their crews, says Rick Harnish, executive director of the High Speed Rail Association. Not every worker needs to hit their desk or station at 8:30 a.m.—teams could report in at 8 a.m., 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. That's not an issue the transit agencies can solve, but they can influence the business community by working through chambers of commerce and other associations.

Another strategy to help commuters manage social distancing lies in technology. A new generation of mobile apps will be able to help commuters make decisions on avoiding crowded trains and buses, just as the Waze app helps drivers avoid tie-ups on highways. An app simply called Transit offers information for bus, train and shared rides in Chicago and 200 other cities. It's adding functionality to make real-time crowding information available to riders by melding data from transit agencies, supplemented by crowdsourced information, a spokesman for the app developer says. That functionality is available in about two dozen markets but not yet in Chicago.

An app for Chicago transit could suggest not only the fastest or least expensive trip but the safest. If the Green Line is packed, the app could suggest taking a bus, Uber or Divvy bike to work, and even show the most convenient location to unlock a bike or scooter.

John R. Boehm

The Chicago Transit ity has maintained a full schedule of buses and trains even though more than three-quarters of its riders disappeared.

In spite of the city's dismal winters, transit advocates say bikes and scooters could play a bigger role because they offer that measure of solo-riding safety.

Audrey Wennink, transportation planning and policy director at the Metropolitan Planning Council, notes that more than 50 percent of car trips in Chicago are shorter than 3 miles. Cold-weather European cities such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam have strong bike cultures. "You have to have protected, well-lit bike lanes that are plowed in the winter," she says.

The brunt of the crisis

Avoiding crowds has been an everyday challenge for essential workers on the front lines of the pandemic. A big concern is that the financially strapped transit agencies will cut service or raise fares, affecting those workers handling jobs that can't be done remotely: assisting in health care, stocking grocery shelves, or packaging food at a factory. Many are low-income, from black or Hispanic communities and depend on mass transit to get to work. These groups have borne the brunt of the crisis, with death rates far outweighing their share of the population.

"You can envision scenarios where because of declining fare and sales tax revenue, agencies are forced to cut service or increase fares," says Kyle Whitehead, spokesman for Chicago-based transit advocacy group Active Transportation Alliance.

The financial health of CTA, Metra and Pace worries Roberto Requejo, program director at Elevated Chicago, which promotes transit-oriented development with affordable housing and environmental sensibilities. "The people in our neighborhoods, Garfield Park, Washington Park, Little Village and Auburn Gresham, have to get to work," he says. "They don't have cars because they are low-income. The only way they have to move around is transit."

His priorities: make sure emergency funding continues from Washington to keep transit viable and ensure the CTA, Metra and Pace work together rather than compete.

Indeed, experts say the COVID crisis will require a change in the way mass transit is funded, with a greater reliance on federal dollars. Previously, state law required the agencies to capture half of their operating revenue from the farebox, with the balance from the state sales tax and other public and commercial sources.

"The 50 percent recovery ratio is out the window," former Transportation Secretary Blankenhorn says. "There's no way our transit agencies are going to be able to cover 50 percent. It's just not feasible, so why pretend?"

It's a good time to look at how the money comes in and goes out, Blankenhorn adds, referring to the formulas that allocate the sales taxes raised in the city and suburbs to the three agencies. "Is there a smarter way so we're not so siloed in the way we fund transit?" he says.

In the past, federal dollars were to be used only for capital projects. But the $1.4 billion in mass transit aid under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief & Economic Security Act, passed by Congress in March to alleviate economic fallout from the pandemic, marks the first federal dollars used for operations. Those funds more than compensate for a projected loss of $958 million in fares and sales tax revenue this year. But projections are a moving target, and advocates say federal funding likely is needed for 2021 and possibly beyond.

Uncertainty over capital projects

The future of capital projects funded under the $45 billion Rebuild Illinois infrastructure initiative adopted by the Legislature last year is in doubt as of May. Rebuild Illinois, with $25.3 billion allocated for roads, $4.5 billion for mass transit and $1.1 billion for rail, had been a bright spot as the COVID crisis set in. The state was beginning to finally tackle a long punch list of road and mass transit projects, reviving neglected infrastructure. The transportation portion of the package was forecast to create 430,000 jobs over five years, funded by state bond funds, federal funds and revenues from the gas tax, which was increased in 2019 for the first time in almost three decades from 19 cents a gallon to 38 cents.

John R. Boehm

Metra was hit hardest because its core of suburban office workers was more able to work remotely.

RTA says 15 major projects funded by $3.7 billion under Rebuild Illinois are moving ahead. At the CTA, this includes rehabs on the Blue Line O'Hare and Forest Park branches, Green Line improvements, including an overhaul of the Cottage Grove station, and rail car purchases and overhauls. Pace has funds for new buses and garages.

Metra, which endured years of austerity without state funding and has decades-old rolling stock, is able to purchase new rail cars and locomotives and rehab worn-out stations. The agency is analyzing proposals for 200 new cars with an option for up to 300 more and will finalize procurement later this year, a spokesman says.

In rail, work was continuing under the Create program, a coalition of railroads and government agencies to expedite freight and ease congestion with improvements such as flyovers and added track.

At the Illinois Department of Transportation, much of the funding is slated for the long-awaited repair and upgrade of roads and bridges. More than 2,400 of the state's bridges, about 9 percent of the total, are structurally deficient, according to the American Road & Transportation Buildings Association's National Bridge Inventory for 2020.

IDOT reported in April that it had more than 100 active construction projects underway with no plans to curtail work. It went ahead with an April award of $570 million in contracts statewide. Mike Sturino, president and CEO of the Illinois Road & Transportation Builders Association, initially expected a busy summer construction season. Crews were even taking advantage of the empty roads and accelerating some work.

Getty Images

CTA buses are now boarding from the back to protect drivers.

However, road and transit experts worry about the state's fragile financial condition, its ability to float bonds and the loss of gas tax revenue and user fees. Traffic volumes are down 30 to 50 percent, according to IDOT.

Moody's Investors Service in April downgraded the state's credit rating to negative from stable. Budget experts in Gov. J.B. Pritzker's administration have projected at least a $6.5 billion shortfall in expected state revenues through the middle of 2021.

By late May, municipal and township governments were cutting budgets for construction and resurfacing projects, Sturino says. IDOT warned on its website that projects advertised for bid in June are subject to removal or change due to reductions in revenue. An IDOT spokesman says the June bid opening "is proceeding as normally planned at this time." Sturino says it appears increasingly likely that the amount of work to be awarded on future bid openings this year will be less than anticipated due to reduced gas tax funds. "There's a fair amount of uncertainty," he adds.

With less funding available, the transit agencies should re-evaluate their capital spending priorities so it's not the "same old, same old," Wennink says. For example, CTA buses traditionally board from the front but are now boarding from the back to protect drivers. But passengers are required to manually open the door from the outside since drivers can't open the door automatically. The drivers could use a button or switch to accomplish this, Wennink says.

And a modest investment adding and maintaining bike and scooter lanes could go a long way to expand that alternative mode, she says.

Transit advocates worry that the pandemic will set back the movement toward transit-oriented development and sustainable urban living. Will more people revert to the isolation of their cars and living in the suburbs or far exurbs?

That would be unfortunate, they say, because the old model of sprawl fosters air and water pollution, disruption of forests and wetlands and reliance on cars and long commutes.

"Busy urban centers like ours can't function without transit," Wennink says. "If we cut and never replace service, then we're contracting ourselves for the long term, permanently constraining our economy."

 
 
 

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Published on June 5, 2020 | Main image credit: Getty Images

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