Since the start of the COVID response and Illinois’ stay-at-home order, transit and transportation use has changed significantly. While there is a lot of speculation about what is happening, we would like to share with you the latest information we’ve learned about the region’s transit and transportation systems during the pandemic. This includes data and analysis of movement on our roads, safety, transit ridership, and freight rail network.
Illinois roads have experienced lower traffic as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, although significant rebound has occurred. The decline has been more pronounced for passenger travel than for trucks, reflecting the continued need to ship goods. The decline also depends on the type of road and measure.
During the first two weeks of the stay-at-home order, average passenger traffic on IDOT arterials and expressways declined by almost one-half and heavy truck (multiunit) traffic declined 10 percent. Travel by single-unit trucks, which typically serve a more local travel market, initially decreased somewhat more than heavy trucks. But since late March passenger car and single-unit truck traffic have recovered steadily, with single-unit truck volume stabilized at 10 percentage points higher than its pre-COVID level. After running approximately 10 percent lower than pre-crisis levels for most of the time since March, heavy truck traffic now has returned to pre-crisis levels. A similar decrease and rebound trend has happened with traffic on the Illinois Tollway.
Despite increasing traffic volumes, expressway speeds remain significantly higher than they were before Illinois’ stay-at-home order. This change is most apparent on IDOT expressways, which typically are more congested and less noticeable on the Tollway. Corresponding to the findings on trips and travelers (featured below), speeds remained steady in the traditional morning rush hour with travel only peaking in the afternoon. Slowdowns still may happen in spots due to crashes or other incidents.
Trips and travelers
Using a big data tool provided by IDOT that includes information collected from cell phones, it is also apparent that trip-making patterns have changed markedly. The number of weekday trips taken by any mode of travel decreased by approximately 40 percent in April and May compared to February, but the number has rebounded significantly since then. The average distance of trips also decreased, down to 4.6 miles in April from February’s average of 5.9 miles. The decrease in trip length likely was due to the decline in commutes as some employees began to work from home, and many others were furloughed or let go. Average distance has since increased back to 5.35 miles. More of the region’s residents have stayed close to home during the shutdown. Trips under 2.5 miles covered 43 percent of all trips in February but increased to 58 percent in April. As of August, this figure is now 48 percent.
Unlike the typical morning and afternoon peak pattern, trips in April and May only peaked in the afternoon. Trips starting during the daytime decreased significantly, yet the number of trips taken between 11:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. remained almost unchanged. Many of the job categories considered essential, such as health care, food manufacturing, and transportation, rely on shift workers. The steady number of overnight trips likely reflects this identifying characteristic of essential work, capturing late night commutes for essential workers.
Previous CMAP analysis looked at 12 broad occupations classified as essential workers in northeastern Illinois and found that these workers disproportionately live in low-income communities with high concentrations of people of color. Trip data mirrors these findings. The number of trips starting in census tracts where the median household income is 30 percent below that of the region have not declined as much as higher-income tracts. These trends reflect the options many higher-income residents have during the stay-at-home order, from being able to work from home to being able to shop online for supplies. As travel rebounds, the gap in travel between income groups has shrunk somewhat but has not fully reverted to pre-crisis conditions.
Besides reducing congestion, cutbacks in travel from COVID-19 also are reducing injuries from crashes. In Chicago, the number of serious traffic injuries from the first week of March to the end of August hasn’t grown as fast as the two preceding years. Conditions have improved for car occupants as well as bicyclists and pedestrians. In fact, the reduction in serious injuries in Chicago has been more pronounced for bicyclists and pedestrians.
Fatalities, yet, have not decreased. For the state as a whole, fatalities as of the end of August were almost exactly the same as they were at the same time in 2019, although they were still well below 2018 levels. For Chicago, fatalities were up about one-third relative to 2019 at the end of August and slightly higher than they were in 2018. Given that total mileage driven this year is much lower than last year, the risk of dying in a car crash has increased significantly over the spring and summer. Injuries this year simply appear to be more serious, which may be due to increased speeding among other factors. Fatalities have a greater degree of randomness than serious injuries as a whole, which may account for some of the difference in trends.
Transit use has declined to an even greater degree than passenger car traffic as social distancing continues. Transit ridership had declined by more than 80 percent across the RTA system by the end of April but since has slowly recovered to now just shy of 70 percent. Metra saw the largest decline (97 percent) — a transit agency whose customer base is dominated by downtown commuters who have largely shifted to working remotely. Transit agencies in general have increased cleaning of vehicles and stations, and have implemented a number of measures to increase safety, such as encouraging the use of face coverings, social distancing on board, and rear-door boarding on buses. While CTA kept its overall service levels, Metra and Pace made several service adjustments in response to changes in ridership. As Illinois has entered Phase 4 of its COVID-19 recovery plan, Metra has restored some service.
Freight rail activity has declined somewhat, but as with trucking, shipments of goods have continued. The number of rail cars en route to Chicago were down 22 percent from the first week of March to the second week of April, and rail cars processed in the Chicago terminal were down 22 percent over the same period. Volumes remained low through May but saw a large rebound during June which continued through the summer. While freight-rail transit times through the Chicago region remained relatively steady through May, despite the decrease in volume being handled, transit times spiked higher than before the pandemic as volumes began increasing in June. Transit times have since begun to decline again.