Although ridership on the Chicago region’s transit system has dramatically declined during the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 500,000 riders are still taking CTA, Metra, and Pace each weekday according to the RTA COVID Transit Dashboard.
Survey results released in April 2021 provide new data and insights into who was most reliant on transit during the pandemic — essential on-site workers, people who identify as Black and Latino, and riders experiencing low incomes. The survey revealed attitudes about transit, including whether or not riders feel the health precautions taken are enough for them to feel safe. It also confirms research the RTA conducted research in early 2021 to identify likely Transit Critical Need Areas for the year based on census data and other historic sources. See more about how the RTA determined Transit Critical Need Areas in an interactive map.
The survey, which recorded responses from 5,637 current and lapsed riders during two stages, in November 2020 and January 2021, helps the agency understand travel behavior, attitudes, and preferences while planning for the system’s future. Findings show that a significant majority of lapsed riders expect to resume their pre-COVID level of transit use, but increased telecommuting is likely to persist. Read more about the survey in a news release.
Transit is essential for riders experiencing low incomes
Survey results show that those who are still riding transit are more likely to report lower household incomes. Among current Pace riders, 80 percent reported a household income below $50,000. Similarly, 75 percent of current CTA riders and 54 percent of current Metra riders reported income below $50,000, while riders with higher incomes were more likely to have paused transit use during the pandemic. These survey results underscore the importance of transit for the region’s most economically vulnerable residents and support RTA’s inclusion of low-income residents in the Transit Critical Need Area assessment.
Black and Latino riders continue to use transit during pandemic
Transit is essential for the entire region’s recovery, but during the pandemic it has also continued to be a lifeline for riders who identify as Black as Hispanic across all three modes. Survey results show that among current CTA riders, 38 percent are Black and 15 percent are Hispanic or Latino.
Among current Metra riders, 27 percent are Black and 9 percent are Latino, and among current Pace riders, 44 percent are Black and 12 percent are Latino.
Transit connects essential workers to jobs
The ridership survey, the first of its kind in the region, also confirms prior research that riders who relied most on transit during the pandemic were essential workers who were not able to work from home. For the Chicago transit system that meant it was truly a case of heroes moving heroes.
The survey showed that among current Metra riders, 79 percent work “on-site” jobs such as retail, education, and healthcare. Among current Pace riders, 80 percent work on-site jobs while 70 percent of current CTA riders work in those essential industries.
RTA’s Transit Critical Need Area analysis also identified demographic groups that fall into these demographic and work sector categories. An analysis published by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) in 2020 found that often the groups described above intersect and overlap, for example essential workers are disproportionately more likely to be low income or people of color.
Current riders feel transit is safe
The survey also found that current riders are pleased with how CTA, Metra, and Pace have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. Sixty percent of current CTA riders said they are satisfied with the health precautions in place and feel comfortable riding transit while 71 percent of current Pace riders and 76 percent of current Metra riders said they agree with that statement.
Next steps: Federal funds help sustain critical transit service, RTA planning for transit’s future
Thanks to federal relief funds such as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSAA) Act, the RTA has been able to support CTA, Metra, and Pace efforts to sustain critical transit service for those who rely on it the most. An interactive map shows how the RTA defined Critical Need Areas as part of its analysis to distribute the most recent federal funds.
The survey provided valuable insights about who has continued to ride transit during the pandemic and how people are thinking about their future. These lessons will be critical to planning for the region’s transit system as the COVID-19 crisis lessens. Read more about the RTA’s three-step regional strategy for COVID recovery at www.rtachicago.org/recovery.