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, safety, transit, and freight rail — with the latest data through September 2021.

Roadways

Through the first half of 2021, traffic on Illinois roads continued to climb, reaching levels northeastern Illinois normally experienced before the COVID-19 pandemic started. But increasing COVID-19 cases due to the Delta variant and resulting government restrictions since then again curbed travel in the region. Starting in mid-summer 2021, volumes for passenger vehicles declined somewhat and fell below pre-pandemic levels. Volumes for single-unit trucks, however, has followed an opposite pattern. Volumes for single-unit trucks, which typically serve a local market, are 15 percent above pre-pandemic levels.

Traffic volumes in 2021 still generally have increased substantially from winter lows, based on current statewide traffic data. By late June 2021, volumes for passenger vehicles and commercial tractor-trailer trucks reached pre-pandemic levels. Volumes for single-unit trucks consistently have remained above pre-pandemic levels since March 2021.

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-September 15, 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 September 2021, expressway speeds were at or near pre-pandemic levels. But travel in the early morning hours hasn’t been as congested on IDOT expressways. Reductions in travel speed during the early morning have not, yet, returned to normal 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 September 2019, 2020, and 2021 chart

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

Safety

Traffic fatalities throughout Illinois, including the city of Chicago, increased more in 2020 than each of the past two years — a concerning trend that has continued through September 2021. At the beginning of September, the number of people who died in Chicago traffic crashes was up 20 percent compared to the same month in 2020.

Earlier in 2021, fatalities in Chicago through February were up 35 percent relative to 2018 and nearly 50 percent relative to 2019. One bright spot is the number of cyclist and pedestrian who have died in traffic crashes in Chicago is lower through the beginning of September 2021 than in the previous three years.

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 during 2021. Serious injuries from traffic crashes now are slightly above the trajectory from 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.

Through September 2021, a higher number of bicyclists and pedestrians also were seriously injured 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-September 2021 chart

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

Transit

Transit use declined to an even greater degree than passenger car travel during the beginning of pandemic, but ridership has recovered significantly since then. Across the Regional Transportation Authority’s (RTA) system, ridership reached its highest total at the beginning of August 2021 (50 percent below normal) since the pandemic started in March 2020.

Total ridership did decline slightly to 55 percent below normal by mid-August as the number of COVID cases in the region increased again. But the decline isn’t as severe compared to 2020 figures. For example, by the end of April 2020, the number of passengers using transit declined by more than 80 percent across RTA’s system. Ridership started slowly recovering before experiencing another small downturn at the end of 2020. Increased business restrictions put in place during the holidays last winter to combat increased hospitalization rates likely contributed to this decline.

Of all the transit operators, Metra still is experiencing the largest decline in ridership (72 percent) through August 2021. Even though Metra has increased service in 2021, 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. 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 generally has remained above pre-pandemic levels into September 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. Since mid-July 2021 freight transit times generally have been declining and are near pre-pandemic levels.

Data not on the chart show lower numbers of railcars processed during the storms in February 2021. The region then saw 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 - September 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, safety, transit, and freight rail — with the latest data through September 2021.

Roadways

Through the first half of 2021, traffic on Illinois roads continued to climb, reaching levels northeastern Illinois normally experienced before the COVID-19 pandemic started. But increasing COVID-19 cases due to the Delta variant and resulting government restrictions since then again curbed travel in the region. Starting in mid-summer 2021, volumes for passenger vehicles declined somewhat and fell below pre-pandemic levels. Volumes for single-unit trucks, however, has followed an opposite pattern. Volumes for single-unit trucks, which typically serve a local market, are 15 percent above pre-pandemic levels.

Traffic volumes in 2021 still generally have increased substantially from winter lows, based on current statewide traffic data. By late June 2021, volumes for passenger vehicles and commercial tractor-trailer trucks reached pre-pandemic levels. Volumes for single-unit trucks consistently have remained above pre-pandemic levels since March 2021.

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-September 15, 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 September 2021, expressway speeds were at or near pre-pandemic levels. But travel in the early morning hours hasn’t been as congested on IDOT expressways. Reductions in travel speed during the early morning have not, yet, returned to normal 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 September 2019, 2020, and 2021 chart

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

Safety

Traffic fatalities throughout Illinois, including the city of Chicago, increased more in 2020 than each of the past two years — a concerning trend that has continued through September 2021. At the beginning of September, the number of people who died in Chicago traffic crashes was up 20 percent compared to the same month in 2020.

Earlier in 2021, fatalities in Chicago through February were up 35 percent relative to 2018 and nearly 50 percent relative to 2019. One bright spot is the number of cyclist and pedestrian who have died in traffic crashes in Chicago is lower through the beginning of September 2021 than in the previous three years.

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 during 2021. Serious injuries from traffic crashes now are slightly above the trajectory from 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.

Through September 2021, a higher number of bicyclists and pedestrians also were seriously injured 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-September 2021 chart

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

Transit

Transit use declined to an even greater degree than passenger car travel during the beginning of pandemic, but ridership has recovered significantly since then. Across the Regional Transportation Authority’s (RTA) system, ridership reached its highest total at the beginning of August 2021 (50 percent below normal) since the pandemic started in March 2020.

Total ridership did decline slightly to 55 percent below normal by mid-August as the number of COVID cases in the region increased again. But the decline isn’t as severe compared to 2020 figures. For example, by the end of April 2020, the number of passengers using transit declined by more than 80 percent across RTA’s system. Ridership started slowly recovering before experiencing another small downturn at the end of 2020. Increased business restrictions put in place during the holidays last winter to combat increased hospitalization rates likely contributed to this decline.

Of all the transit operators, Metra still is experiencing the largest decline in ridership (72 percent) through August 2021. Even though Metra has increased service in 2021, 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. 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 generally has remained above pre-pandemic levels into September 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. Since mid-July 2021 freight transit times generally have been declining and are near pre-pandemic levels.

Data not on the chart show lower numbers of railcars processed during the storms in February 2021. The region then saw 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 - September 2021 chart

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Cars driving on highway