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Chicago transit ridership is dropping, but that’s actually a good thing

During the pandemic, we need to avoid crowding trains and buses. Photo: John Greenfield

Hello Streetsblog Chicago readers. I hope you are all holding up well during this challenging period in our city's history. Be sure to practice self-care during this time, and take advantage of all the productive and pleasant things you can still safely do in your home or in outdoor public space. If you can, go for a walk or take a bike ride to enjoy today's great weather.

With so many people working from home or temporarily laid off, restaurants and bars now closed for on-site dining and drinking (here's how you can support service industry workers during this time), and events like the Saint Patrick's Day parade canceled, it's no surprise that transit ridership numbers have been falling. But, as long as the trains and buses keep rolling for people who absolutely need to ride them, the ridership drop is a good thing for public health.

According to a CTA spokesperson, the system's ridership drop began last Wednesday and continued to grow through the weekend. Preliminary numbers show that during Wednesday through Friday, 'L' ridership was down 19 percent and bus use dropped 6 percent, for a total decrease of 12 percent.

It's not surprising that the decline in rail use has been more than three times higher than that of buses, since many 'L' riders are relatively affluent "riders of choice," who are more likely to work white-collar jobs and be able to telecommute. In contrast, residents of lower-income communities of color on the South and West sides are more likely to live far from a CTA station and therefore be bus-dependent, and more likely to work blue-collar and service positions that require showing up in person.

Comments from East Garfield Park resident and cosmetics salesperson Dusty Pilger, who commutes via the Green and Red lines, made to Block Club Chicago seem to reflect that reality. “The demographic of the train was very different," she said, commenting on a recent commute. "It’s almost completely working-class Black and Brown people. Like me, they have jobs that we can’t do from home."

As of yesterday afternoon, CTA service continued as usual, with no service cuts planned, according to the spokesperson. "It is too soon to know what impacts the coronavirus may have on future CTA service levels. CTA will not speculate at this point, but continues to monitor ridership levels."

However, assisted living aide and union organizer David Mihalyfy claimed on Twitter that Red Line trains were running less frequently than usual.

Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot has vowed to keep the CTA running during the pandemic. “We have to keep the public transit system going," she said yesterday afternoon. "I’m not aware of any public transit system in the United States, and I think only one in the world is actually shut down during the course of this pandemic. People need to be able to get to work. Lots of folks depend on public transportation to get to and from."

While it's more difficult for Metra to get precise ridership numbers because the commuter railroad doesn't use turnstiles or fare card readers, spokesman Michael Gillis said that ridership Friday was about 50 percent lower than usual.

Pace is seeing a ridership drop as well, with an estimated 6 percent decline in use compared to this time last year, according to spokesperson Maggie Daly-Sokggsbakken. "We anticipate that number growing as more people telecommute, businesses close and schools move to e-learning."

She added that the suburban bus system is moving to “non-school service” on routes that are boosted during the school year, since Illinois schools are closed. Obviously, special service for large events like concerts and sports events is not happening, since all those happenings are cancelled.

Regional Transit Authority customer service offices are closed as of yesterday, until further notice, so don't show up at these locations for assistance. The RTA staff will work remotely and help is available by phone for the programs described below.

    • To apply for the Reduced Fare of Ride Free programs, visit the RTA website and download an application. For help applying, to renew a permit that expires soon, or to replace a lost or stolen permit, call (312) 913-3110.
    • The RTA Travel Training program is temporarily canceling all scheduled sessions with customers. Travel Trainers will reach out to cancel individual appointments and provide rescheduling information. For questions, call the RTA’s Mobility Services Helpline at (312) 663-HELP (4357).
    • The ADA Paratransit Certification Program is suspending all interviews and assessments for ADA paratransit eligibility until further notice, as the RTA’s South and Northwest Chicago Mobility Assessment Centers are closed. A representative will be contacting all customers who have currently scheduled appointments. For more information or to ask any additional questions, call the RTA’s Mobility Services Helpline at 312-663-HELP (4357).

While the drop in fare box revenue is obviously not good for the future of regional transit, our first priority should be putting the brakes on the pandemic, so avoiding normal crowding on trains and buses is a good thing, as it greatly reduces the chances for transmission. The agencies will likely need financial support from the local and/or federal governments in the future to make up for the revenue losses, ideally by shifting money away from car-centric projects.

Daly-Skoggsbakken's advice to straphangers was nearly identical to what Streetsblog Chicago suggested yesterday. "We are asking people to limit their travel to essential trips," she said. "This is for the health and well-being of everyone. Those who must use public transit benefit from limited exposure to others. Our priorities are keeping our passengers and employees safe and maintaining access to transit as best we can."

So again, if you don't need to ride transit, then please walk, bike or, if necessary, drive where you need to go. You'll be keeping yourself and the people you live with safer, and you'll be doing a solid for Chicagoans who have no choice but to ride CTA, Metra, and Pace during the pandemic.

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