Since the start of the COVID response and stay at home order transit and transportation use has significantly changed. While there is a lot of speculation about what is occurring, we would like to share with you what we have learned so far. This includes data and analysis of movement on our roadways, safety, transit ridership & freight rail movements.
Illinois roadways have experienced lower traffic as a result of the COVID pandemic. The decline is much more pronounced for passenger travel than for trucks, reflecting the continued need to ship goods. The decline also depends on the type of roadway and measure.
During the first two weeks of the stay at home order, Illinois Tollway traffic was 55% lower than forecasted for passenger vehicle traffic and 9 percent for truck traffic. For the same time period, average passenger traffic on IDOT arterials and expressways declined 47 percent and heavy truck (multiunit) traffic declined 10 percent. Travel by single-unit trucks, which typically serve a more local travel market, decreased somewhat more than heavy trucks. But the most recent data suggests that single-unit truck and passenger-vehicle traffic are slowly recovering, though heavy truck traffic has declined to 25 percent below pre-COVID levels. There is still uncertainty, since some other data point to even greater declines in traffic.
Fewer vehicles on the road has meant decreased congestion on the expressway system, to the point that there is now no noticeable decline in average speed during rush hour. This change is most noticeable on IDOT expressways, which are typically more congested, and somewhat less noticeable on the Tollway. However, slowdowns may still occur due to crashes or other incidents, such as the bad weather and major pileup on the Kennedy Expressway the morning of April 15 that slowed speeds across the entire expressway system.
TRIPS AND TRAVELERS
Using a big data tool provided by IDOT that includes information collected from cell phones, it is also evident that trip-making patterns have changed significantly. The number of weekday trips taken by any mode of travel decreased by 41 percent in April compared to February. The average distance of trips also decreased, down to 4.6 miles from February’s average of 5.9 miles. The decrease in trip length is likely due to the decline in commutes as some employees began to work from home and many others were furloughed or let go. More of the region’s residents are staying close to home, with trips under 2.5 miles accounting for 58 percent of all trips in April, up from 43 percent in February.
Unlike the typical morning and afternoon peak pattern, trips in April only peaked in the afternoon. Trips starting during the daytime decreased significantly, yet the number of trips taken between 11:00 pm and 4:00 am remained almost unchanged. Many of the job categories considered essential, such as healthcare, 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 metropolitan Chicago 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 of being able to work from home and shop online for supplies while the stay-at-home order is in effect.
Besides reducing congestion, cutbacks in travel from COVID-19 are also reducing injuries from crashes. In the City of Chicago, the number of serious and fatal traffic injuries from the first week of March to the first week of May has grown more slowly this year than in the two preceding years. Safety has improved for car occupants as well as bicyclists and pedestrians. In fact, the reduction in serious injuries and fatalities has been more pronounced for bicyclists and pedestrians. While the count of serious injuries and fatalities overall has decreased, an analysis from Northwestern University suggests that the proportion of crashes that result in serious injuries and fatalities has increased slightly, potentially because having fewer cars on the road is encouraging speeding.
Transit usage 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. The largest decline was on Metra (97 percent) whose customer base is dominated by downtown commuters who have largely shifted to working remotely. As a result, Metra is running a reduced schedule at about half of typical weekday service on most lines. Service on the North Central and Heritage Corridor has been cut to one inbound and outbound train per day. Pace stopped service on most of its Metra feeder routes and shuttle bugs, which have seen steep ridership drop-offs. Pace is reallocating those buses and personnel to routes retaining higher ridership to avoid crowding. CTA has not reduced service in general but is making some operational changes, such as running buses as express when full, to reduce crowding.
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 time period. For the remainder of April, volumes remained at lower levels. Despite this reduction in volume, the average time it takes cars to move through the Chicago terminal (terminal transit time), which includes yard dwell time, has remained relatively flat.