How COVID-19 affects transportation in northeastern Illinois

Transit and transportation use has changed significantly since the pandemic began in March 2020. We've updated our analysis of northeastern Illinois' transportation system — covering roads, trips, safety, transit, and freight rail — with the latest data through January 2021.

Roadways

Traffic on Illinois roads still is lower as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, although a significant rebound has happened since the public health crisis began. The decline in traffic has been more pronounced for passenger travel than trucks, a trend that reflects the continued need to ship goods. The decline also depends on the type of road and measure. 

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, which typically serve a more local market, initially decreased somewhat more than heavy trucks.

But from late March into November, traffic volumes steadily recovered. Volumes for single-unit and multi-unit trucks surpassed pre-COVID levels. During the past summer, 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 in the summer.

Volumes across vehicle classes have declined in the past couple of months as additional mitigation measures were put in place to address a surge in COVID-19 cases. A similar decrease-and-rebound trend has happened with traffic on the Illinois Tollway’s system.

Estimated percentage change in statewide traffic volumes by vehicle class, March-January 2021 chart

Expressway speeds also remain significantly higher than before Illinois’ stay-at-home order. This change is most apparent on IDOT expressways, which typically are more congested, and less noticeable 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. Since late spring, speeds remained steady in the morning rush period and only declined during the afternoon peak.

Average speed on IDOT interstate facilities for selected Wednesdays in March 2020, May 2020, Jan 2021 chart

Average speed on Tollway facilities for selected Wednesday, March, May and January 2021 chart

Trips and travelers

Trip-making patterns also have changed markedly, based on a data tool provided by IDOT that includes information collected from cell phones. The number of weekday trips by any mode of travel decreased by about 40 percent in April and May compared to February. The number has rebounded significantly since then.

The average distance of trips also decreased, down to 4.6 miles in April from an average of 5.9 miles in February. The decrease in trip length likely was the result of decline in commutes. Some employees began to work from home by April, and many others were furloughed or let go. More residents in northeastern Illinois also stayed close to home during the beginning of pandemic. The share of trips under 2.5 miles went from 43 percent in March to almost 60 percent in May.

Throughout the pandemic, the number of trips taken between 11:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. has remained almost unchanged. Many employers 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.

Average number of weekday trips by start hour, January 2020, May 2020, and January 2021 chart

Previous CMAP analysis looked at 12 broad occupations of essential workers in northeastern Illinois. We found essential workers disproportionately live in communities with low incomes and 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 residents with higher incomes have during the pandemic, from being able to work remotely to shopping online for supplies.

As trips continue to rebound, the gap in travel between income groups has shrunk somewhat compared to the early weeks of Illinois’ stay-at-home order. But it has not fully reverted to pre-crisis conditions. These data show the effect of increased mitigation measures enacted to address a surge in COVID-19 cases at the end of 2020.

Change in trips compared to February 2020 weekly average chart

Safety

Besides reducing congestion, cutbacks in travel during the pandemic are decreasing the number of injuries from crashes, based on data from the city of Chicago. The number of serious traffic injuries in Chicago from the first week of March 2020 through most of January 2021 hasn’t grown as fast as the two preceding years.

Overall, the number of serious injuries in the city is down more than 10 percent from each of the past two years. Conditions have improved even more for bicyclists and pedestrians. In fact, serious injuries to cyclists and pedestrians in Chicago declined around 30 percent.

But fatalities, which have not decreased, rose faster in 2020 than each of the past two years. The entire state is seeing a similar trend. Illinois experienced more traffic fatalities in 2020 than in 2018 or 2019. Through mid-January of 2021, traffic fatalities in Chicago were up nearly 40 percent relative to 2018 and up more than 60 percent relative to 2019. Considering that total mileage driven in 2020 was much lower than 2019, the risk of dying in a car crash has increased significantly. Injuries in 2020 simply appeared to be more serious, which 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 may account for some of the difference in trends, as well.

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

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

Transit

Transit use has declined to an even greater degree than passenger car travel since the pandemic began. Transit ridership declined by more than 80 percent across the Regional Transportation Authority’s (RTA) system by the end of April. Ridership started slowly recovering before experiencing another small downturn at the end of 2020. Total ridership  was 74 percent below normal through January 2021. This decline likely was because of increased business restrictions that were put in place during the holidays to combat increased hospitalization rates.

Of all the transit operators, Metra still is experiencing the largest decline in ridership (92 percent). The transit agency’s customer base is dominated by downtown commuters who still are largely working remotely. 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. While CTA maintained its overall service levels, Metra and Pace made several service adjustments in response to changes in ridership. Since Illinois entered Phase 4 of its COVID-19 recovery plan, Metra has restored some service.

Year over year ridership percent change by service chart

Freight rail

As with trucking, freight rail activity declined somewhat during the early months of the pandemic. The number of rail cars that was en route to Chicago was down 22 percent from the first week of March to the second week of April. 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. The rebound continued through the summer. Aside from a couple of brief dips, the number of rail cars on the way to Chicago has remained at pre-pandemic levels since late November. Freight-rail transit times through northeastern Illinois remained relatively steady through May, despite the decrease in volume being handled. But transit times spiked higher in June than before the pandemic as volumes began increasing. Transit time has remained elevated through January 2021.

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

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How COVID-19 affects transportation in northeastern Illinois

Transit and transportation use has changed significantly since the pandemic began in March 2020. We've updated our analysis of northeastern Illinois' transportation system — covering roads, trips, safety, transit, and freight rail — with the latest data through January 2021.

Roadways

Traffic on Illinois roads still is lower as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, although a significant rebound has happened since the public health crisis began. The decline in traffic has been more pronounced for passenger travel than trucks, a trend that reflects the continued need to ship goods. The decline also depends on the type of road and measure. 

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, which typically serve a more local market, initially decreased somewhat more than heavy trucks.

But from late March into November, traffic volumes steadily recovered. Volumes for single-unit and multi-unit trucks surpassed pre-COVID levels. During the past summer, 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 in the summer.

Volumes across vehicle classes have declined in the past couple of months as additional mitigation measures were put in place to address a surge in COVID-19 cases. A similar decrease-and-rebound trend has happened with traffic on the Illinois Tollway’s system.

Estimated percentage change in statewide traffic volumes by vehicle class, March-January 2021 chart

Expressway speeds also remain significantly higher than before Illinois’ stay-at-home order. This change is most apparent on IDOT expressways, which typically are more congested, and less noticeable 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. Since late spring, speeds remained steady in the morning rush period and only declined during the afternoon peak.

Average speed on IDOT interstate facilities for selected Wednesdays in March 2020, May 2020, Jan 2021 chart

Average speed on Tollway facilities for selected Wednesday, March, May and January 2021 chart

Trips and travelers

Trip-making patterns also have changed markedly, based on a data tool provided by IDOT that includes information collected from cell phones. The number of weekday trips by any mode of travel decreased by about 40 percent in April and May compared to February. The number has rebounded significantly since then.

The average distance of trips also decreased, down to 4.6 miles in April from an average of 5.9 miles in February. The decrease in trip length likely was the result of decline in commutes. Some employees began to work from home by April, and many others were furloughed or let go. More residents in northeastern Illinois also stayed close to home during the beginning of pandemic. The share of trips under 2.5 miles went from 43 percent in March to almost 60 percent in May.

Throughout the pandemic, the number of trips taken between 11:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. has remained almost unchanged. Many employers 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.

Average number of weekday trips by start hour, January 2020, May 2020, and January 2021 chart

Previous CMAP analysis looked at 12 broad occupations of essential workers in northeastern Illinois. We found essential workers disproportionately live in communities with low incomes and 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 residents with higher incomes have during the pandemic, from being able to work remotely to shopping online for supplies.

As trips continue to rebound, the gap in travel between income groups has shrunk somewhat compared to the early weeks of Illinois’ stay-at-home order. But it has not fully reverted to pre-crisis conditions. These data show the effect of increased mitigation measures enacted to address a surge in COVID-19 cases at the end of 2020.

Change in trips compared to February 2020 weekly average chart

Safety

Besides reducing congestion, cutbacks in travel during the pandemic are decreasing the number of injuries from crashes, based on data from the city of Chicago. The number of serious traffic injuries in Chicago from the first week of March 2020 through most of January 2021 hasn’t grown as fast as the two preceding years.

Overall, the number of serious injuries in the city is down more than 10 percent from each of the past two years. Conditions have improved even more for bicyclists and pedestrians. In fact, serious injuries to cyclists and pedestrians in Chicago declined around 30 percent.

But fatalities, which have not decreased, rose faster in 2020 than each of the past two years. The entire state is seeing a similar trend. Illinois experienced more traffic fatalities in 2020 than in 2018 or 2019. Through mid-January of 2021, traffic fatalities in Chicago were up nearly 40 percent relative to 2018 and up more than 60 percent relative to 2019. Considering that total mileage driven in 2020 was much lower than 2019, the risk of dying in a car crash has increased significantly. Injuries in 2020 simply appeared to be more serious, which 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 may account for some of the difference in trends, as well.

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

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

Transit

Transit use has declined to an even greater degree than passenger car travel since the pandemic began. Transit ridership declined by more than 80 percent across the Regional Transportation Authority’s (RTA) system by the end of April. Ridership started slowly recovering before experiencing another small downturn at the end of 2020. Total ridership  was 74 percent below normal through January 2021. This decline likely was because of increased business restrictions that were put in place during the holidays to combat increased hospitalization rates.

Of all the transit operators, Metra still is experiencing the largest decline in ridership (92 percent). The transit agency’s customer base is dominated by downtown commuters who still are largely working remotely. 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. While CTA maintained its overall service levels, Metra and Pace made several service adjustments in response to changes in ridership. Since Illinois entered Phase 4 of its COVID-19 recovery plan, Metra has restored some service.

Year over year ridership percent change by service chart

Freight rail

As with trucking, freight rail activity declined somewhat during the early months of the pandemic. The number of rail cars that was en route to Chicago was down 22 percent from the first week of March to the second week of April. 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. The rebound continued through the summer. Aside from a couple of brief dips, the number of rail cars on the way to Chicago has remained at pre-pandemic levels since late November. Freight-rail transit times through northeastern Illinois remained relatively steady through May, despite the decrease in volume being handled. But transit times spiked higher in June than before the pandemic as volumes began increasing. Transit time has remained elevated through January 2021.

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

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