Inside an empty CTA Brown Line car, a sign reminds riders to keep their distance. Credit: Raed Mansour / Flickr / Creative Commons

With ridership plummeting amid the coronavirus pandemic, a Chicago coalition is pushing agencies to reconsider service changes. 

As Chicago’s transit agencies attempt to determine a path forward after the coronavirus pandemic, advocates have begun working to ensure system cuts don’t further exacerbate the city’s racial and disabled population inequities.

Concerns include ensuring essential workers still have access to their jobs and continuing progress on reducing emissions.

On April 1, the Active Transportation Alliance, along with other transportation and equity advocacy organizations, submitted an open letter to the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA), Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), Pace and Metra, the four main transit agencies serving Chicago and its suburbs. 

The letter was read into the record during the public comment at the April 16 RTA Board of Directors meeting, which was held virtually. RTA Chair Kirk Dillard expressed appreciation for the comprehensive content of the letter, according to Kyle Whitehead, managing director of public affairs for the Active Transportation Alliance.

Members of the coalition behind the open letter met on May 5 with RTA Executive Director Leanne Redden. At the meeting, Redden provided additional background on issues discussed in the letter and pledged to remain receptive to input from the coalition and other stakeholders, according to Whitehead.

“We remain in touch with RTA, CTA, Metra and Pace about the recommendations in the letter,” Whitehead said.

The four-page letter calls for transparency and community engagement in shaping routes, funding and other essential aspects of transit, in addition to emphasizing equity and reducing service disparities going forward. Several of the main proposals include: 

  • Categorize transit as an essential public good, which must be maintained, versus a consumer commodity subject to market forces.
  • Increase accessibility for riders with disabilities.
  • Increase coronavirus testing and provide adequate personal protective equipment for front-line transit workers.
  • Focus bailout and other spending toward reducing transit disparities.
  • Reform fare policies, including subsidies for low-income riders.
  • Pursue additional transition from vehicles running on carbon-based fuels to electric and other zero-emission vehicles.
  • Increase transparency and detail in reporting ridership data. 

“One of the challenges described in the letter is a lack of available data,” Whitehead said. “Part of what the coalition is asking of the agencies is to share the data that they do have so that we can better understand who is currently riding, and then use that [data] to impact our advocacy and influence the public and inform communities. Right now we don’t have ridership by route or ridership by stop past December of last year.” 

Other groups signing on to the letter include the Center for Neighborhood Technology, Elevated Chicago, Illinois Environmental Council, Metropolitan Planning Council, Respiratory Health Association, Shared-Use Mobility Center, and Sierra Club Illinois. 

Exacerbated service inequities in transit

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has announced a gradual lifting of a more than two-month statewide lockdown that will begin at the end of May. Nonetheless, transit ridership is not expected to rebound to pre-pandemic levels anytime soon. Revenues from sales and gas taxes are also expected to recover slowly.

Decreased ridership coupled with reduced revenues and little expectation of federal funding to fill the gaps creates circumstances that are ripe for calls for permanent service cuts. These cuts would further exacerbate service inequities between more affluent and less affluent riders, according to Whitehead.

“Even before COVID, communities of color, black and brown people in the Chicago region already were dealing with inequity in terms of transportation access and having safe and reliable and fast public transit in their communities. What we’ve seen once the crisis hit is those inequities are getting exacerbated,” Whitehead said. “People living in black and brown communities are [also] more likely to be essential workers who need to travel and don’t have the privilege to stay home. So many people are relying on public transit get to their essential jobs.”

Rethinking Metra

April year-on-year ridership on Metra has taken a 97% hit according to an April blog post published by Active Transportation Alliance. Metra responded with severe service cuts. This is in contrast to Pace, which imposed modest cuts, and CTA, which has made none — despite both agencies also experiencing significant ridership drops. 

The reduced demand and resulting cuts reflect Metra’s riders, many of whom are affluent suburban workers who can either work from home or who have chosen to drive private vehicles to work to reduce the risk of coronavirus exposure.  

“Service levels have always been built and designed in a way that they’re serving a specific type of rider, a 9-to-5 commuter who lives in the suburbs and works downtown Monday to Friday,” Whitehead said. “Even pre-COVID, more people were teleworking. If not all the time, then part of the time, and that was contributing to the ridership declines that we saw even before the crisis hit. And now all of that is exacerbated extremely, and it’s likely going to be extended even after the stay-at-home order and over the next several months.”

Continued service cuts are only likely to accelerate the loss of ridership, especially given the high cost of a monthly Metra pass. According to a March article in the south suburban Homewood-Floosmoor Chronicle, a monthly pass from Homewood or Floosmoor into the city costs about $200. Paired with the cuts imposed by Metra due to COVID-19, that’s too high, according to Gail Logan, a Homewood resident who works at the University of Chicago. Logan said the proposed cuts would leave her with only a single evening rush hour train option.

“If that is going to happen, I won’t take Metra and will drive instead,” Logan told the Chronicle.

The Metra Electric line has long been viewed by advocates as an opportunity for increased equity in transportation options. The line runs from Millennium Station in the heart of downtown Chicago through the South Side to the southern suburbs. However, despite service that is often faster than CTA rail or  buses, it is more expensive. 

Before the pandemic hit, a program to introduce increased service and reduced fares on the Metra Electric and Rock Island lines had gained the approval of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle along with a three-year offer of funding from the Cook County transportation agency, according to the Coalition for a Modern Metra website. However, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has expressed reservations, citing potential reductions in CTA ridership. 

By contrast, Whitehead views the program as one of many keys to revamping and rethinking Metra.

“For many communities on the south lakefront, many riders were ending up taking a bus to the Red Line, because that trip cost $2.50 plus the transfer, whereas a Metra trip was double that,” Whitehead said. “The pilot was designed to address those problems in terms of lowering the fares and increasing the level of service throughout the day, so that if you’re not a typical 9-to-5 commuter, the train could potentially work well for you. I think the crisis demonstrates that we need to be pursuing and thinking about changes like that.”

Audrey is an independent writer and researcher based in the greater Chicago area with advanced degrees in sociology and law from Northwestern University. She specializes in sustainability in the built environment, culture and arts, policy, and related topics. Her work has been featured in Wallpaper magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Architect magazine, Next City, Transitions Abroad, Belt Magazine and other consumer and trade publications. Her coverage focuses on environmental justice and equity.