Traffic is rebounding in northeastern Illinois

Transit and transportation use has changed significantly since the pandemic began in March 2020. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) updated its analysis of northeastern Illinois’ transportation system — covering roads, trips, safety, transit, and freight rail — with the latest data through June 2021.

Roadways

Throughout spring 2021, traffic on Illinois roads continued to climb, reaching levels northeastern Illinois normally experienced before the COVID-19 pandemic started. By late June 2021, volumes for passenger vehicles and commercial tractor-trailer trucks reached pre-pandemic levels. Volumes for single-unit trucks, which typically serve a local market, consistently have remained above pre-pandemic levels since March 2021. 

Traffic volumes in 2021 have increased substantially from winter lows, based on current statewide traffic data. The winter lows were associated first with an increase in COVID-19 infections and the resulting restrictions on activity, but significant snowstorms this past February also constrained travel. A similar decrease-and-rebound trend has happened with traffic on the Illinois Tollway’s system. 

Before this past winter, traffic volumes in 2020 steadily recovered from the early days of the pandemic. During the first two weeks of Illinois’ stay-at-home order in March 2020, average passenger traffic on arterials and expressways overseen by the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) declined by almost 50 percent. Heavy truck (multiunit) traffic declined by 10 percent. Travel by single-unit trucks initially decreased somewhat more than heavy trucks. 

But volumes for all trucks surpassed pre-COVID levels from late March into November 2020. During the summer last year, passenger vehicle volumes remained around 10 percent below normal levels before declining somewhat in the fall. The decline is consistent with past years since travel typically peaks during the summer. 

Estimated percentage change in statewide traffic volumes by vehicle class, March 4 2020-June 30, 2021

Expressway speeds also are continuing to return to normal levels. This change is most apparent on IDOT expressways, which typically are more congested. During large portions of the day in June 2021, expressway speeds were at or near pre-pandemic levels. Travel speeds still remain somewhat elevated on the Illinois Tollway’s system. Slowdowns still may happen in spots because of weather, crashes, or other incidents. But traditional morning and afternoon travel peaks slowly are returning, with the largest reductions in travel speed experienced during the late afternoon and early evening. 

Average speed on IDOT interstate facilities for selected Wednesdays in June 2019, June 2020, June 2021 chart

Average speed on Tollway facilities for Wednesdays in June 2019, June 2020, June 2021

Trips and travelers

Trip patterns also have changed markedly since the pandemic began, based on a data tool provided by IDOT. In particular, the number of weekday trips by any travel mode has rebounded significantly. When the pandemic began, trips decreased by about 40 percent in April and May 2020 compared to February 2020. 

The average distance of trips also decreased, going from an average of 5.9 miles in February 2020 to 4.6 miles in April 2020. Fewer commuters because of the pandemic likely caused trip lengths to decrease. Some employees began to work from home by April, and many others were furloughed or let go. As a result, more residents in northeastern Illinois stayed close to home. The share of trips under 2.5 miles went from 43 percent in March 2020 to almost 60 percent in May 2020. 

Throughout the pandemic, the number of trips taken between 11:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. has remained relatively stable. Many employers who are considered essential, such as health care, food manufacturing, and transportation, rely on shift workers. The steady number of overnight trips likely reflects an identifying characteristic of essential workers — the late-night commute. Data through June 2021 also show the number of trips during the middle of the day have surpassed pre-pandemic levels, while the number of trips taken during the afternoon peak have nearly returned to normal levels. 

Average number of weekday trips by start hour, January 16, 2020, through June 28, 2021

Trip data also mirrors findings from a previous CMAP analysis that looked at essential workers in northeastern Illinois. Based on CMAP’s findings, essential workers disproportionately live in communities with low incomes and high concentrations of people of color. Since CMAP started tracking changes to transportation during the pandemic, the data has shown residents who live in areas with lower incomes take more trips than higher-income areas. 

The data show the number of trips starting in census tracts where the median household income is 30 percent below the regional average has not declined as much as higher-income areas. These trends reflect the options many residents with higher incomes have during the pandemic, from being able to work remotely to shopping online for supplies. 

As trips continued to rebound through early 2021, the gap in travel between income groups began to shrink. Through the spring and summer, trips taken by all of the income groups surged, with the top three income categories growing the most. By the end of June, trips taken by all income groups returned to pre-pandemic levels. 

Change in trips compared to February 2020 weekly average chart

Safety

Traffic fatalities throughout Illinois, including the city of Chicago, increased more in 2020 than each of the past two years. Through February 2021, fatalities in Chicago were up 35 percent relative to 2018 and nearly 50 percent relative to 2019. This concerning trend has continued through June 2021. 

At the end of June, the number of people who died in Chicago traffic crashes was up more than 30 percent compared to the same month in 2020. The number also was significantly higher than in 2018 and 2019. Considering the total miles driven in 2020 was much lower than 2019, the risk of dying in a car crash has increased significantly during the pandemic. 

Traffic-related injuries in the region also now appear to be more serious even after data from Chicago earlier in 2021 had shown a decrease in the number of injuries from crashes due to people traveling less during the pandemic. The number of serious traffic injuries in Chicago from the first week of March 2020 through most of January 2021 didn’t grow as fast as the two preceding years. 

But the trend has reversed over the past four months. Serious injuries from traffic crashes now are following the same trajectory as in 2018, which saw a higher number than 2019 and 2020. This trend may be the result of reduced congestion and increased speeding, among other factors. Fatalities also have a greater degree of randomness than serious injuries as a whole. That also may account for some of the difference in trends. 

A higher number of bicyclists and pedestrians also were seriously injured during the past four months compared to the same period in 2020 — a more than 25 percent increase. So far in 2021, this number is still below the number of serious injuries for the same periods in 2018 and 2019.   

City of Chicago fatalities in traffic crashes March 2020-June 2021 chart

City of Chicago serious injuries in traffic crashes - all crashes, pedestrian and bicyclist Mar 2020-July 2021 graphic

Transit

Transit use declined to an even greater degree than passenger car travel during the beginning of pandemic but has recovered significantly since then. Transit ridership declined by more than 80 percent across the Regional Transportation Authority’s (RTA) system by the end of April 2020. Ridership started slowly recovering before experiencing another small downturn at the end of 2020. 

Increased business restrictions put in place during the holidays to combat increased hospitalization rates likely contributed to this decline. But as of mid-June 2021, total ridership was 59 percent below normal, marking the highest ridership since the pandemic began. 

Of all the transit operators, Metra still is experiencing the largest decline in ridership (79 percent). The transit agency’s customer base is dominated by downtown commuters who still are largely working remotely, although the agency has increased service in 2021. Transit agencies, in general, have increased cleaning of vehicles and stations, and have implemented a number of measures to increase safety. Agencies are encouraging the use of face coverings, social distancing on board, and rear-door boarding on buses. Ridership for all of the region’s transit agencies is continuing its upward trend this summer. 

Year over year ridership percent change by service chart

Freight rail

Freight rail activity in northeastern Illinois continues to rebound following a lull during the first few months of the pandemic. While dipping somewhat since a high in February 2021, the number of rail cars en route to Chicago has remained above pre-pandemic levels into July 2021. 

As with trucking, freight rail activity had declined somewhat when the pandemic began. The number of rail cars en route to Chicago was down 22 percent from the first week of March 2020 to the second week of April 2020. Rail cars processed in the Chicago terminal were down 22 percent over the same period. 

Volumes remained low through May 2020 but saw a large rebound the following month in June that continued through the summer last year. Aside from a couple of brief dips, the number of rail cars on the way to Chicago had remained at pre-pandemic levels through late November 2020. Freight-rail transit times in northeastern Illinois also remained relatively steady through the first few months of the pandemic, despite the decrease in volume being handled. But transit times spiked higher in June 2020 than before the pandemic as volumes began increasing and remained at elevated levels through the end of the year. 

To some extent, the snowfall in February 2021 was more substantial and detrimental to transit times than the impacts of COVID-19. The snowy weather led to much higher transit times through the Chicago terminal, higher numbers of railcars sitting in congested classification yards, and higher numbers of railcars making their way to Chicago. 

Data not on the chart show lower numbers of railcars processed during the storms, followed by higher-than-average numbers after the storms as the yardmasters worked through the backlogs of cars to be processed. This process took the entire month of March and part of April. 

Rail: Chicago terminal area carload volumes and transit times, Feb 2020 - July 2021 chart

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Traffic is rebounding in northeastern Illinois

Transit and transportation use has changed significantly since the pandemic began in March 2020. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) updated its analysis of northeastern Illinois’ transportation system — covering roads, trips, safety, transit, and freight rail — with the latest data through June 2021.

Roadways

Throughout spring 2021, traffic on Illinois roads continued to climb, reaching levels northeastern Illinois normally experienced before the COVID-19 pandemic started. By late June 2021, volumes for passenger vehicles and commercial tractor-trailer trucks reached pre-pandemic levels. Volumes for single-unit trucks, which typically serve a local market, consistently have remained above pre-pandemic levels since March 2021. 

Traffic volumes in 2021 have increased substantially from winter lows, based on current statewide traffic data. The winter lows were associated first with an increase in COVID-19 infections and the resulting restrictions on activity, but significant snowstorms this past February also constrained travel. A similar decrease-and-rebound trend has happened with traffic on the Illinois Tollway’s system. 

Before this past winter, traffic volumes in 2020 steadily recovered from the early days of the pandemic. During the first two weeks of Illinois’ stay-at-home order in March 2020, average passenger traffic on arterials and expressways overseen by the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) declined by almost 50 percent. Heavy truck (multiunit) traffic declined by 10 percent. Travel by single-unit trucks initially decreased somewhat more than heavy trucks. 

But volumes for all trucks surpassed pre-COVID levels from late March into November 2020. During the summer last year, passenger vehicle volumes remained around 10 percent below normal levels before declining somewhat in the fall. The decline is consistent with past years since travel typically peaks during the summer. 

Estimated percentage change in statewide traffic volumes by vehicle class, March 4 2020-June 30, 2021

Expressway speeds also are continuing to return to normal levels. This change is most apparent on IDOT expressways, which typically are more congested. During large portions of the day in June 2021, expressway speeds were at or near pre-pandemic levels. Travel speeds still remain somewhat elevated on the Illinois Tollway’s system. Slowdowns still may happen in spots because of weather, crashes, or other incidents. But traditional morning and afternoon travel peaks slowly are returning, with the largest reductions in travel speed experienced during the late afternoon and early evening. 

Average speed on IDOT interstate facilities for selected Wednesdays in June 2019, June 2020, June 2021 chart

Average speed on Tollway facilities for Wednesdays in June 2019, June 2020, June 2021

Trips and travelers

Trip patterns also have changed markedly since the pandemic began, based on a data tool provided by IDOT. In particular, the number of weekday trips by any travel mode has rebounded significantly. When the pandemic began, trips decreased by about 40 percent in April and May 2020 compared to February 2020. 

The average distance of trips also decreased, going from an average of 5.9 miles in February 2020 to 4.6 miles in April 2020. Fewer commuters because of the pandemic likely caused trip lengths to decrease. Some employees began to work from home by April, and many others were furloughed or let go. As a result, more residents in northeastern Illinois stayed close to home. The share of trips under 2.5 miles went from 43 percent in March 2020 to almost 60 percent in May 2020. 

Throughout the pandemic, the number of trips taken between 11:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. has remained relatively stable. Many employers who are considered essential, such as health care, food manufacturing, and transportation, rely on shift workers. The steady number of overnight trips likely reflects an identifying characteristic of essential workers — the late-night commute. Data through June 2021 also show the number of trips during the middle of the day have surpassed pre-pandemic levels, while the number of trips taken during the afternoon peak have nearly returned to normal levels. 

Average number of weekday trips by start hour, January 16, 2020, through June 28, 2021

Trip data also mirrors findings from a previous CMAP analysis that looked at essential workers in northeastern Illinois. Based on CMAP’s findings, essential workers disproportionately live in communities with low incomes and high concentrations of people of color. Since CMAP started tracking changes to transportation during the pandemic, the data has shown residents who live in areas with lower incomes take more trips than higher-income areas. 

The data show the number of trips starting in census tracts where the median household income is 30 percent below the regional average has not declined as much as higher-income areas. These trends reflect the options many residents with higher incomes have during the pandemic, from being able to work remotely to shopping online for supplies. 

As trips continued to rebound through early 2021, the gap in travel between income groups began to shrink. Through the spring and summer, trips taken by all of the income groups surged, with the top three income categories growing the most. By the end of June, trips taken by all income groups returned to pre-pandemic levels. 

Change in trips compared to February 2020 weekly average chart

Safety

Traffic fatalities throughout Illinois, including the city of Chicago, increased more in 2020 than each of the past two years. Through February 2021, fatalities in Chicago were up 35 percent relative to 2018 and nearly 50 percent relative to 2019. This concerning trend has continued through June 2021. 

At the end of June, the number of people who died in Chicago traffic crashes was up more than 30 percent compared to the same month in 2020. The number also was significantly higher than in 2018 and 2019. Considering the total miles driven in 2020 was much lower than 2019, the risk of dying in a car crash has increased significantly during the pandemic. 

Traffic-related injuries in the region also now appear to be more serious even after data from Chicago earlier in 2021 had shown a decrease in the number of injuries from crashes due to people traveling less during the pandemic. The number of serious traffic injuries in Chicago from the first week of March 2020 through most of January 2021 didn’t grow as fast as the two preceding years. 

But the trend has reversed over the past four months. Serious injuries from traffic crashes now are following the same trajectory as in 2018, which saw a higher number than 2019 and 2020. This trend may be the result of reduced congestion and increased speeding, among other factors. Fatalities also have a greater degree of randomness than serious injuries as a whole. That also may account for some of the difference in trends. 

A higher number of bicyclists and pedestrians also were seriously injured during the past four months compared to the same period in 2020 — a more than 25 percent increase. So far in 2021, this number is still below the number of serious injuries for the same periods in 2018 and 2019.   

City of Chicago fatalities in traffic crashes March 2020-June 2021 chart

City of Chicago serious injuries in traffic crashes - all crashes, pedestrian and bicyclist Mar 2020-July 2021 graphic

Transit

Transit use declined to an even greater degree than passenger car travel during the beginning of pandemic but has recovered significantly since then. Transit ridership declined by more than 80 percent across the Regional Transportation Authority’s (RTA) system by the end of April 2020. Ridership started slowly recovering before experiencing another small downturn at the end of 2020. 

Increased business restrictions put in place during the holidays to combat increased hospitalization rates likely contributed to this decline. But as of mid-June 2021, total ridership was 59 percent below normal, marking the highest ridership since the pandemic began. 

Of all the transit operators, Metra still is experiencing the largest decline in ridership (79 percent). The transit agency’s customer base is dominated by downtown commuters who still are largely working remotely, although the agency has increased service in 2021. Transit agencies, in general, have increased cleaning of vehicles and stations, and have implemented a number of measures to increase safety. Agencies are encouraging the use of face coverings, social distancing on board, and rear-door boarding on buses. Ridership for all of the region’s transit agencies is continuing its upward trend this summer. 

Year over year ridership percent change by service chart

Freight rail

Freight rail activity in northeastern Illinois continues to rebound following a lull during the first few months of the pandemic. While dipping somewhat since a high in February 2021, the number of rail cars en route to Chicago has remained above pre-pandemic levels into July 2021. 

As with trucking, freight rail activity had declined somewhat when the pandemic began. The number of rail cars en route to Chicago was down 22 percent from the first week of March 2020 to the second week of April 2020. Rail cars processed in the Chicago terminal were down 22 percent over the same period. 

Volumes remained low through May 2020 but saw a large rebound the following month in June that continued through the summer last year. Aside from a couple of brief dips, the number of rail cars on the way to Chicago had remained at pre-pandemic levels through late November 2020. Freight-rail transit times in northeastern Illinois also remained relatively steady through the first few months of the pandemic, despite the decrease in volume being handled. But transit times spiked higher in June 2020 than before the pandemic as volumes began increasing and remained at elevated levels through the end of the year. 

To some extent, the snowfall in February 2021 was more substantial and detrimental to transit times than the impacts of COVID-19. The snowy weather led to much higher transit times through the Chicago terminal, higher numbers of railcars sitting in congested classification yards, and higher numbers of railcars making their way to Chicago. 

Data not on the chart show lower numbers of railcars processed during the storms, followed by higher-than-average numbers after the storms as the yardmasters worked through the backlogs of cars to be processed. This process took the entire month of March and part of April. 

Rail: Chicago terminal area carload volumes and transit times, Feb 2020 - July 2021 chart

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Cars driving on highway