The drop in CTA ridership during the pandemic was not citywide, according to a new study.
The Urban Institute found that while downtown ridership decreased, neighborhoods with more Black and Latino residents saw more sustained ridership.
The Pulaski Blue Line stop, the Conservatory Green Line stop and the Central Green Line stop, all on the West Side, saw the smallest decline in ridership. Meanwhile, the Merchandise Mart Brown/Purple Line stop, Addison Red Line stop and Monroe Blue Line stop saw the largest decline in ridership—noting that the Addison stop was closed for part of 2020 due to track upgrades.
The Urban Institute compared ridership from 2019 to 2020 in heavy rail systems: Chicago, San Francisco, New York and the DC region. In Chicago, neighborhoods with higher shares of residents of color retained far more ridership than predominantly white communities—and that trend was similar to those in other cities.
The COVID-19 pandemic shifted millions of Americans into working from home and, in the process, reduced ridership dramatically on the nation’s bus and rail networks. Yet, in every US community, essential workers—largely people of color and people with low incomes—continued to travel to jobs, providing communities access to health care, public services, and groceries, among others.
“The report told us what we already knew—that people in our region who are the most dependent on transit are Black and Brown, low to moderate income, living on the South and West side, and are the people who are most likely what the government considers essential workers,” said Olatunji Oboi Reed, president and CEO of Equiticity, a nonprofit that focuses on transit equity. “Often we’re on the frontlines and have to take transit to get to work.”
The loss in ridership was most seen in job centers, the study found. And stations with at least 30,000 jobs nearby lost about 70% in ridership.
Erin Aleman, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, said what this means is that planners have to think about how transit operates more locally. This could look like making more walkable transit opportunities and making mobility within communities more practical.
“When you’re servicing a downtown office market, where their peak demand trips in the morning and peak trips on the way home — we’re not seeing that like we did prior to the pandemic,” Aleman said. “It’s thinking about well, then what or who needs to move where and how frequent that service needs to be to attract riders.”
And the ridership experience should also improve for those who are most marginalized with regards to transit, Reed said. That could be improved quality in bus stops or speedier service times.
“What COVID showed us is that there are people in our region who will get by with or without it — that’s not true for the people who are experiencing the most significant of the inequities that we face,” Reed said. “Should transit not be an option for some people, their livelihoods are completely cut off.”