Most people in Chicagoland can access COVID vaccination sites via transit

The vaccination village at the United Center
The "vaccination village" at the United Center drastically increases the number of appointments accessible to people via transit within 60 minutes, but it doesn't increase the number of people who can reach a COVID vaccination site via transit. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

Finding a COVID-19 vaccine appointment is very difficult for many people. New vaccination sites dedicated to people who live in specific Chicago ZIP codes, which were opened in part to ensure residents of communities hard-hit by the coronavirus were getting access and not having to compete for appointments with people driving from far away, have made it easier for some Chicagoans to get immunized. However, the most convenient vaccination sites to your home still may not be the ones where you’re able to get an appointment, especially when you factor in eligibility phases.

As of this writing, 1,563,294 Illinoisans are fully vaccinated, meaning 11,177,786 other Illinoisans need both shots, a second shot, or a “one-and-done” (in the case of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine.) Needless to say, not everyone has the same level of transportation access to the vaccination sites where they can get appointments.

To measure Chicagoans’ ability to ride transit to access the most important vaccine in a generation, I enlisted the help of Anson Stewart, lead for analysis and research at Conveyal, a transportation software company. Smith used the Conveyal platform to quickly calculate “isochrones”, or transit coverage areas, between all vaccination sites in Illinois and all people who live within a ten-minute walk of a bus stop or train station. (There were 824 vaccination sites at the time of analysis on February 24, and there are 925, give or take, now, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health’s map.)

I found that the majority of people in the Chicago metropolitan area can reach multiple COVID vaccination sites within 60 minutes on transit, door to door, including walking and waiting times. This analysis could be improved by determining where the greatest need exists to get residents vaccinated.

I limited my analysis to the seven-county region that is also covered by the metropolitan planning organization, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning: Cook, DuPage, Lake, Kane, Kendall, McHenry, and Will counties. If you’re reading this article from outside of Chicagoland, be aware that our region has a population of 8,483,267 and is served by three transit agencies. The Chicago Transit Authority operates buses and rapid transit trains within within the city of Chicago and parts of suburban Cook County; Pace operates buses in all seven counties; and Metra runs commuter rail service on most days of the week to municipalities in all seven counties.

Map of transit access to COVID vaccination sites in Will County
This map of Will County shows the gaps in transit access to COVID vaccination sites. Created by Steven Vance, with assistance from Conveyal.

What I found is that all Chicagoans can access at least four COVID-19 vaccination sites via transit within 60 minutes of their home, door to door. Additionally, 4.42 million people, out of the 8.48 million people in the seven-county region – that’s 57 percent – can access at least four vaccination sites by transit within 60 minutes.

I also broke down the numbers by race and ethnicity. Eighty percent of Black people in the region can access at least four vaccination sites via transit within 60 minutes, 71 percent of Hispanic people can do so, and 44 percent of white people can. Those numbers aren’t surprising, since 85 percent of the region’s Black residents and 67 percent of the region’s Hispanics live in Cook County, where the highest density of transit service exists.

How could we make it easier for the rest of the population in the seven-county region to access to vaccination sites without driving? Three potential strategies stand out.

  • Provide more transit service across the region. That wouldn’t happen fast enough.
  • Open walk-up vaccination sites in the densest parts of the suburbs located within transit coverage gaps. My analysis also counted people who lived within 10 minutes walking distance of a vaccination site and therefore didn’t need to take transit to access one.
  • Use on-demand buses, shuttles, paratransit, and at-home visits to serve residents in high-risk communities located within transit deserts.

To be clear, adding new vaccination sites will not necessarily improve transit access to vaccinations, because if there is no transit within a 10 minute walk of a person’s home, no amount of new sites (unless they’re walkable from that person’s house or apartment) will be easily accessible by transit. For example, FEMA, Cook County, and the city of Chicago converting a United Center parking lot into a mass vaccination site was a good strategy to make more appointments available, as well as to make it easier for people who live near transit to get vaccinated, because the stadium is accessible via four bus routes (Ashland, Damen, Madison, and Jackson) and three ‘L’ lines (Green, Pink, and Blue.) However, it didn’t actually make it any easier for people who don’t live near transit to access vaccinations without a car.

Let’s say the State of Illinois wanted to resolve inherent transportation access issues in the Chicago metropolitan area, or anywhere else. Conveyal’s software can be modified to consider additional factors like whether transit routes are accessible, and even the capacity constraints with appointment-based destinations. My own analysis could have considered another angle, looking at areas where there is a high density of households that don’t own cars.

One major gap I found was a relatively high-density area in the southwest-suburban city of Aurora. The area has bus routes on major roads bordering the area but the majority of residents do not live within walking distance of those routes. It turned out, though, that Pace has a solution called Southeast Aurora On Demand that allows people to book trips to and from this area using Pace’s website. Only fixed route service mapped in each transit agency’s schedule files were included in my analysis.

Map of population density and transit access to vaccination sites in Aurora
Aurora, Illinois: Red areas show where residents have transit access to COVID vaccination sites (darker red = more sites accessible via transit within 60 minutes door to door). Blue areas show population density (darker blue = denser population). This analysis showed gaps in transit (bus and train stops are shown with black diamonds) like this across the seven-county region. This particular gap happens to be served by Pace’s on demand bus network.

Putting COVID vaccination sites within transit reach of everyone in a vast metropolitan area, let alone an entire state is obviously a challenging task. However, Illinois has a responsibility to ensure that the vaccine is available to everyone, everywhere.

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