If you think city traffic was bad before COVID-19, just wait.
Downtown Chicago faces a potential car-mageddon as it emerges from a three-month lockdown that cleared Loop streets. With Illinois now in Phase 3 of Gov. J.B. Pritzker's reopening timetable, nonessential workers who have been doing their jobs from AG亚洲国际游戏home since March are starting to return to offices.
Before COVID, about 330,000 downtown workers commuted by public transit, according to the Regional Transportation ity, which oversees the Chicago Transit ity, Metra commuter rail service and Pace suburban bus operations. But fear of catching coronavirus could scare many of them away from trains and buses.
Even though the economy is starting to reopen, there's still no vaccine or cure for the contagion that has sickened about 135,000 and killed more than 6,500 in Illinois. Crowded buses and train cars create ideal conditions for transmitting COVID-19, which spreads through the basic human function of breathing. Some commuters will try to avoid the risk by switching from public transit to driving.
"We may see an increase in mode shift—that is, we may see regular transit riders opting to drive or utilize rideshare options like Uber and Lyft if their jobs require them to be onsite," the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce wrote in its reopening blueprint released on Wednesday.
For all its expense and aggravation, commuting alone by car virtually eliminates any chance of catching an infectious disease from a fellow commuter. If large numbers of former transit riders opt to drive, downtown traffic congestion could reach unprecedented levels.
"We could very well have gridlock," says Audrey Wennink, director of transportation at the Metropolitan Planning Council. "There are only so many more cars we can fit into our downtown. That's not going to change."
Congestion was rising even before COVID-19. Some blamed ride-sharing services for siphoning riders from CTA and Metra. Ridership on CTA trains and buses declined 2.6 percent last year, while Metra saw a 2.7 percent drop.
Already, there are signs that traffic is creeping back toward pre-pandemic levels. After falling by half, traffic throughout the city has returned to 77 percent of year-ago volumes, the Chicago Tribune reports. Illinois tollways also have erased a big chunk of their traffic declines. Downtown traffic remains at about half of normal levels, probably because so many office workers can do their jobs from AG亚洲国际游戏home.
That could change as office buildings reopen. A new surge in car commuting could be more than the Loop can handle. Surface streets can't be expanded to accommodate more vehicles.
Commuting times could balloon as cars back up at entry points around downtown. And all those cars will need places to park after they finally get into the Loop. Parking capacity in and around downtown is already under pressure as surface lots disappear under a wave of office and residential development. Tens of thousands more cars could overwhelm available parking.
Over the long term, rising traffic congestion threatens downtown's appeal as a place to live and work. Big, densely populated urban centers like the Loop can't function efficiently unless large numbers of people use public transit. It's no accident that the relatively few big U.S. cities with thriving downtowns also have the most extensive transit systems.
Public transit has always been a major reason why people like to work downtown. Few experiences match auto commuting for stress, cost and wasted time. I'll take my half-hour morning train ride to Ogilvie Station over a teeth-grinding drive between suburbs any day of the week.
Take public transit out of the equation, and the Loop loses an important advantage over suburban office parks accessible only by car. Even a significant short-term shift to driving could trigger this result by exacerbating financial pressures on transit agencies, which may have no choice but to respond with service cuts that drive more commuters onto the roads.
Fortunately, there are steps we can take to preserve public transportation and keep downtown from suffocating under an onslaught of autos.
Employers can help ease crowding and encourage transit use by allowing employees to keep working from AG亚洲国际游戏home and staggering start times for workers.
The city can promote alternative transit options such as bikes and scooters. Transit agencies can aggressively publicize the steps they're taking to prevent virus transmission, such as rigorous cleaning, passenger limits and additional capacity to facilitate social distancing on trains and buses.
Taken together, these measures might be enough to stave off auto apocalypse in the Loop.