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 April 2021.

Roadways

Throughout spring 2021, traffic on Illinois roads remained slightly lower than before the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite lower volumes for nearly the past year, 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.

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. Overall statewide traffic volumes now have nearly reached pre-pandemic levels. Truck volumes remain elevated over pre-pandemic levels, especially single-unit trucks that typically serve a more local market. Passenger vehicle volumes are 6 percent below pre-COVID levels. A similar decrease-and-rebound trend has happened with traffic on the Illinois Tollway’s system.

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.

From late March into November 2020, 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 during the summer.

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

Through April 2021, expressway speeds also remained significantly higher during parts of the day 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, 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 March 2020, May 2020, April 2021 chart

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

Trips and travelers

Trip patterns also have changed markedly, based on a data tool provided by IDOT. The number of weekday trips by any travel mode has rebounded significantly since 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 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 April 2021 also show an increasing number of trips starting between 5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.

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

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.

But as trips continue to rebound through early 2021, the gap in travel between income groups has shrunk somewhat compared to the early weeks of Illinois’ stay-at-home order. It still 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

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. Considering that 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 appear to be more serious. This concerning trend also has continued into 2021. Over the past two months, traffic fatalities in Chicago are over 40 percent higher compared to the same two months in 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.

But reduced travel during the pandemic has decreased the number of injuries from crashes, based on data from Chicago. 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.

Overall, the number of serious injuries in Chicago 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 as the regional economy started to reopen in March and April 2021, the number of serious injuries to all travelers did increase. It is now 13 percent higher than the number experienced during March and April of last year, when the pandemic began, and 17 percent higher for cyclists and pedestrians.

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

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

Transit

Transit use has declined to an even greater degree than passenger car travel during the pandemic. 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. Total ridership was 71 percent below normal at the beginning of March 2021.

Of all the transit operators, Metra still is experiencing the largest decline in ridership (91 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.

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 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 last 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 also remained relatively steady through May 2020, despite the decrease in volume being handled. But transit times spiked higher in June than before the pandemic as volumes began increasing.

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 - April 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 April 2021.

Roadways

Throughout spring 2021, traffic on Illinois roads remained slightly lower than before the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite lower volumes for nearly the past year, 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.

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. Overall statewide traffic volumes now have nearly reached pre-pandemic levels. Truck volumes remain elevated over pre-pandemic levels, especially single-unit trucks that typically serve a more local market. Passenger vehicle volumes are 6 percent below pre-COVID levels. A similar decrease-and-rebound trend has happened with traffic on the Illinois Tollway’s system.

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.

From late March into November 2020, 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 during the summer.

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

Through April 2021, expressway speeds also remained significantly higher during parts of the day 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, 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 March 2020, May 2020, April 2021 chart

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

Trips and travelers

Trip patterns also have changed markedly, based on a data tool provided by IDOT. The number of weekday trips by any travel mode has rebounded significantly since 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 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 April 2021 also show an increasing number of trips starting between 5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.

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

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.

But as trips continue to rebound through early 2021, the gap in travel between income groups has shrunk somewhat compared to the early weeks of Illinois’ stay-at-home order. It still 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

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. Considering that 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 appear to be more serious. This concerning trend also has continued into 2021. Over the past two months, traffic fatalities in Chicago are over 40 percent higher compared to the same two months in 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.

But reduced travel during the pandemic has decreased the number of injuries from crashes, based on data from Chicago. 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.

Overall, the number of serious injuries in Chicago 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 as the regional economy started to reopen in March and April 2021, the number of serious injuries to all travelers did increase. It is now 13 percent higher than the number experienced during March and April of last year, when the pandemic began, and 17 percent higher for cyclists and pedestrians.

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

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

Transit

Transit use has declined to an even greater degree than passenger car travel during the pandemic. 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. Total ridership was 71 percent below normal at the beginning of March 2021.

Of all the transit operators, Metra still is experiencing the largest decline in ridership (91 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.

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 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 last 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 also remained relatively steady through May 2020, despite the decrease in volume being handled. But transit times spiked higher in June than before the pandemic as volumes began increasing.

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 - April 2021 chart

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Cars driving on highway