The ways people and goods move through northeastern Illinois has changed significantly in the years since the COVID-19 pandemic started. The region’s roads are more congested while transit ridership has steadily increased from early pandemic lows. Crashes involving bicyclists, pedestrians, and other vulnerable users have also become more dangerous and deadly.
The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) updated its ongoing analysis of northeastern Illinois’ transportation system — roads, transit, freight rail, and safety. CMAP is a data powerhouse, providing the region and its many communities with detailed analysis and data-driven projects, often the result of years of research and collaboration.
CMAP started this point-in-time analysis to help the region and our partners better understand the pandemic’s effect on transportation. The latest update provides a snapshot of how travel has changed in northeastern Illinois since the pandemic began in early 2020 through fall 2022.
Traffic volumes for all vehicles in northeastern Illinois has rebounded, remaining at pre-pandemic levels for most of 2022. Passenger vehicle volumes also returned in 2022 despite a major snowstorm in February that caused a dip throughout most of the state.
Commercial truck traffic, again, exceeded pre-pandemic levels for most of 2022, a trend that has remained relatively constant since the pandemic began. Volumes for single-unit trucks — local delivery trucks like FedEx or UPS — are 20 percent above pre-pandemic levels. Volumes for longer and bigger tractor-trailer trucks are 10 percent above pre-pandemic levels.
Overall, traffic has returned to northeastern Illinois’ roads with commercial truck activity remaining a significant contributor.
Speeds on the region’s expressways are returning to pre-pandemic patterns with the change most noticeable on expressways managed by the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT). IDOT expressways typically are more congested, but in 2022, average vehicle speeds throughout the day remained at or above pre-pandemic levels, even during peak travel periods. IDOT expressway speeds in 2022 still were below 2020 levels, when roads generally were emptier and less congested due to pandemic-related closures and shutdowns.
Speeds on interstates managed by the Illinois Tollway Authority remained elevated in 2022, even above 2020 levels during certain non-peak times. Slowdowns still may happen in spots because of weather, crashes, or other incidents. But traditional morning and afternoon travel peaks are returning. Tollway speeds are slower during the morning and evening rush hours than in 2020. But the drop-off in speeds during those times aren’t as steep as they were pre-pandemic.
Traffic fatalities and serious injuries have spiked throughout the country since the pandemic began. In northeastern Illinois, fatal crashes in 2022 remained elevated, even though 2021 and 2020 saw higher totals.
Travel in the region still was dangerous. Fatalities in 2022 — including crashes involving bicyclists and pedestrians — are higher than lows reached in 2019 for Chicago. Traffic fatalities in the city totaled more than 120, with fatalities involving bicyclists and pedestrians accounting for more than 30 percent of the share.
The traffic safety trend that has developed since the pandemic may be the result of increased speeding and less congestion, among other factors. Fatalities also have a greater degree of randomness than serious injuries, which may explain some of the difference in trends.
The number of people using transit in northeastern Illinois steadily has increased since the beginning of 2022, as more workers returned to offices and hybrid arrangements. But ridership for Metra, Pace, and the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) still remains well below pre-pandemic levels.
Metra continues to experience the most significant drop in ridership. The rail agency relies heavily on servicing downtown commuters who still are working remotely in some capacity at high levels. Pace and CTA’s rail system has seen more modest declines with ridership 41 percent below pre-pandemic levels. CTA bus ridership is down 33 percent.
In 2022, freight-rail volumes have remained higher than the lows reached during the beginning of the pandemic. Freight-rail transit times through the Chicago Terminal remain elevated. Volumes were more congested in the winter and spring of 2022, but transit times did not spike as much in 2022 compared to winter 2021.
Freight-rail volumes, along with commercial traffic on the region’s roads, continue to reflect the region’s value as a continental freight hub. Goods have continued to move through the region throughout the pandemic.