Start with the good news: Ridership on Metra, Chicagoland’s main commuter rail service, has grown almost 14 percent over the last ten years. It remains near the all-time high it reached in 2008, just before the Great Recession. On any given weekday, Metra provides nearly 300,000 rides across its 11 lines, or roughly as many as the CTA’s Brown and Blue lines put together. Some lines have even continued to grow, surpassing their 2008 ridership, notably the North Central Service running northwest to Antioch, and the SouthWest Service through Ashburn and Orland Park to Manhattan. Of Metra’s more-established lines, the best performer since 2008 has been the Union Pacific Northwest line, which runs through towns like Arlington Heights (pictured above) and Des Plaines that have pursued Transit Oriented Development in their downtowns.
But in other ways, the picture isn’t so rosy. Overall, Metra ridership has stagnated for the last six years, even as CTA rail ridership has grown 16 percent over the same period. More alarming, ridership on several lines — including the Metra Electric and Rock Island, which have rapid-transit-like stop spacing every half-mile through large parts of the city that lack “L” access — was falling even before the recession.
Unfortunately, Metra doesn’t provide up-to-date information on ridership by stop, which makes more thorough analysis impossible. (The freshest station-level data available is from 2006.) But the line data is enough to see some patterns. Unsurprisingly, many services lucky enough to go through high-growth neighborhoods and suburbs have the strongest ridership. Conversely, routes that pass mostly through parts of Chicagoland that have lost population are mostly struggling.
That includes Metra Electric and Rock Island, which have the potential to serve as transit backbones through much of the South Side, but currently provide extremely spotty off-peak service. Both lines go through promising territory: Metra Electric’s main line runs from downtown through the South Side’s largest employment hub, Hyde Park, and one branch continues through dense neighborhoods along the south lakefront all the way to 93rd Street. Rock Island stops at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and then makes stops every half-mile at attractive and walkable commercial districts in thriving Beverly and Morgan Park. Read more…