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What’s the future of public transit in Chicago?

The city’s transit agencies need federal cash and new ideas to stay afloat in a post-pandemic economy, experts say.

Emma Krupp
Written by
Emma Krupp

Back in March, as mandated lockdowns drove ridership to near-unprecedented lows, transit agencies across the country—from Washington, D.C. to Atlanta—began laying off workers, closing stations and slashing services in a desperate attempt to stave off financial crisis. 

Chicago riders have been lucky so far. Unlike the country’s other metropolitan transportation systems, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) has yet to cut service, even after a reported 80 percent drop in ridership during the early days of the pandemic, thanks to a $817 million flush of funds from the CARES Act. The constancy has been crucial in ensuring that the 500,000 Chicagoans who still use the CTA (mostly essential workers, who comprise the bulk of pandemic-era transit riders) are able to get to work, the grocery store or the doctors' office.

That status quo has hung in the balance over the past few months as additional federal funding—crucial to bolstering financial losses from flagging ridership—has been volleyed back and forth in Congress. There's some good news on this front: Moving into 2021, it seems likely that the CTA will be saved from the brink of massive cuts by the arrival of a second stimulus bill, which promises around $14 billion in aid to mass transit. The number is less than $32 billion in additional funding called for by transit experts, but it will still help address the CTA's estimated $375 million budget gapWithout that money, reps say there's "simply no way" the agency could continue to provide regular service.

Transit advocates are worried that train frequencies will be reduced and whole bus lines will be abandoned and that will push transit to the margins of urban life.

CTA officials have been vague about what kind of changes would come first, but it’s probable a persistent budget gap would lead to some combination of fare increases, service cuts and layoffs. From there, the issue takes on a kind of circular logic: Will former WFH-ers commute on the CTA again if their train only runs every half hour? How will the CTA restore regular service if post-pandemic ridership remains low?

"Transit advocates are worried that train frequencies will be reduced and whole bus lines will be abandoned and that will push transit to the margins of urban life," says Dr. Joseph Schwieterman, a professor at DePaul University’s public policy and sustainable urban development programs. "They worry it will be seen as a last resort option rather than a preferred option for most."

The stimulus money may prove to be enough to save Chicago transit from such an existential fate. Still—even if full funding arrives, service stays regular and riders are slowly coaxed back onboard—the CTA faces years of recovery ahead, which may not result in pre-pandemic ridership numbers as some work-from-home arrangements become permanent. To counteract that effect, experts say transportation agencies like the CTA will have to put in work to woo back wary riders.

If you want people to have trust in transit, you have to give them good information to make them feel safe.

That process starts with the basics. Lynda Lopez, an advocacy manager at the Active Transportation Alliance—which has been pushing for federal transit funding over the past few months—says the CTA’s immediate recovery should focus on key ideas, like improving bus and train frequencies, providing hazard pay for transit workers, creating more bus lanes and clearly communicating safety measures to folks who may be nervous about riding on public transportation. 

"I think it’s often boring ideas that have the most impact," she says. "If you want people to have trust in transit, you have to give them good information to make them feel safe."

Those kinds of incremental changes could also include upping express bus service and off-peak service, a relatively inexpensive way to help serve the needs of essential workers who rely on transit outside of rush hour. Once a COVID-19 vaccine is distributed throughout the general populace and the city moves past the immediate threat of contagion, technology will likely play a role in bolstering ridership in years to come.

"There’s a need for the industry to be nimble now more than ever," says Dr. P.S. Sriraj, the director of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Urban Transportation Center. Moving past 2021, he says transit agencies need to think beyond regular bus and train services and turn an eye toward alternative mobility options—things like rideshare, Divvy bikes and other forms of micro-mobility—to meet transportation needs, similar to Chicago’s nascent e-scooter pilots.

Ideally, Sriraj adds, transit agencies would combine mobility options onto one central hub, making the process of purchasing tickets for multiple types of transit seamless for users. He points to cities like Seoul, South Korea—home to famously efficient public transit—as models for fare integration and other user-friendly advances. There are hints of this on the horizon in Chicago: Already Ventra, the app for CTA, Metra and Pace, has taken steps toward consolidating its interface, incorporating new features this year like an option that shows users nearby Divvy bikes

"Transit can become a mobility aggregator as opposed to just a transit provider," Sriraj says. "Public transportation [agencies] will be well-served if they can can play in that pool, as opposed to just repeating, 'We are a transit agency, we operate only buses and trains, there is nothing else we can do.'"

For now, the completion of that vision remains far down the road for Chicago. In the meantime, Sriraj says, it's vital for transit to remain at the forefront of public life—and that means the public has to understand the importance of accessible and effective mass transportation. Even car owners, he points out, can appreciate the trickle-down effects (e.g. increased traffic) of a weakened public transit system. 

"In order to improve quality of life for society at large and for the traveling public in particular, then we need to have a very robust and resilient transit network," he says. "That needs to be driven home to users."

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