RTA, IDOT drive transit past COVID-19 pandemic

11/16/2021 9:40:13 AM

Provided by Regional Transportation Authority. A transit rider following COVID-19 safety precautions on a Pace bus. Pace Suburban Bus is one of Regional Transportation Authority’s three transit service operators — including Metra commuter rail and the Chicago Transit Authority — in northeastern Illinois.
Provided by Regional Transportation Authority. A transit rider following COVID-19 safety precautions on a Pace bus. Pace Suburban Bus is one of Regional Transportation Authority’s three transit service operators — including Metra commuter rail and the Chicago Transit Authority — in northeastern Illinois.

By McCall Macomber, Illinois Center for Transportation

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected many areas of our lives — including our public transit systems.

But how long will it continue to do so?

That’s the question Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) and Chicago’s Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) seek to answer in the joint Illinois Center for Transportation and IDOT project, “R27-SP45: Quantifying Impacts of Prolonged Events on Transit System Ridership.”

Yanfeng Ouyang, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s George Krambles Endowed Professor in Rail and Public Transit, leads the effort with Jessica Hector-Hsu, RTA’s director of planning and market development, and Chuck Abraham, IDOT’s manager of program support (planning).

“We noticed a huge ridership drop right from the start of the pandemic,” Abraham said. “As soon as the (work-from-home and shelter-in-place) mandates were in place, then we knew we had a problem to address.”

For Hector-Hsu’s RTA team, the effort is about trying to stay “two steps ahead” of the pandemic’s effects.

They seek to gauge when riders will come back and to determine how the pandemic might shape riders’ perspectives moving forward.

To explore this question, researchers first examine historical events around the globe to try to shed light on public transportation’s future in northeastern Illinois.

“We asked researchers to look at other cases of pandemics or disruptions from terrorist attacks and to tell us how people perceived transit during that event, immediately after that event and coming out of that event to help us understand what we might expect going forward,” Hector-Hsu said.

The team look at past epidemics such as SARS, MERS and H1N1 as well as terrorist attacks.

Yanfeng Ouyang
Yanfeng Ouyang

“By looking into the history, we were hoping to help answer questions about the future: How would COVID-19 potentially affect future public transit ridership, how would that level of ridership affect the service we should provide and what could transit agencies do to facilitate ridership recovery?” Ouyang said.

The researchers also perform a series of statistical analyses of Chicago Transit Authority’s rail ridership during the first year of the pandemic and compare it to previous years’ ridership.

They analyze factors such as government orders, riders’ psychological fear and their socioeconomic background to explain public transit ridership drops.

Their models point to governmental stay-at-home orders and work-from-home polices as the likely major causes of the ridership drops.

According to the models, after those restrictions are lifted and schools return to normal, the ridership recovery pattern will likely be consistent with those observed after other epidemics in the past 30 years.

“Once the governments’ restrictive policies and regulations go away, the models predict a relatively sharp bounce back in ridership and then there will be a gradual recovery of ridership in smaller amounts due to dissipation of people’s fear,” Ouyang said.

One thing is for certain, however: the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented.

There is little data available for the 1918 influenza pandemic — the outbreak most similar to the COVID-19 pandemic — so the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are not totally clear.

Ouyang’s findings also support a 2021 survey that RTA conducted on lapsed riders’ attitudes on returning to transit — about 80 percent of respondents expect to return fully to using transit after the pandemic.

As for the future of Chicago’s transit systems?

Ouyang cautions decision-makers against cutting back on services, despite ridership drops caused by the pandemic.

“What we feel is that if demand is going to bounce back, transit shouldn’t be too sensitive and overreact to the current reduction of ridership, as service reduction will discourage ridership as well,” Ouyang said.

“I think that’s something our research hopefully, even at a very early stage, would be helpful to decision-makers regarding how they provide service in, during and past the COVID-19 pandemic,” he added.

RTA seeks to apply the results of the ICT-IDOT project to the development of their next strategic plan, which kicked off in August.

The plan’s key focus will be deciding the future direction for transit in northeastern Illinois, particularly in light of funding challenges caused by the pandemic and from an increased number of people working from home.

RTA will also continue to focus on serving those who need transit most: essential workers.

“We had about a half a million trips every day that were still being taken on transit on our systems,” Hector-Hsu said. “That’s a lot of people who needed the transit system during the scariest time for anybody to ride the transit system.”

“We want to make sure that it stays in place for them while we’re still adapting to the needs of the office workforce that we used to carry as well,” she added.

Ouyang, Hector-Hsu and Abraham credit the project’s success to guidance from the Technical Review Panel and their hardworking teams, including Peter Fahrenwald, RTA’s manager of strategic planning, and Yining Liu and Jesus Osorio, UIUC graduate students.

“I appreciate IDOT and RTA having the insight, forward-looking motivation and tremendous guidance and support for this project,” Ouyang said. “I can’t commend them enough, because the topic is really timely and important, and they took the initiative to get it started and supported us throughout the project.”

“I also would like to thank Yining and Jesus for their work on the project,” he added. “They were extremely motivated and completed a lot of work in a short amount of time.”