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COVID-19 has been the biggest disruption to our region’s public transit system in its history. In early November 2021, the RTA gathered a panel of experts to reflect on lessons learned during the pandemic and how we might reimagine transit’s future.

Hosted by Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois-Chicago as part of its Fall Seminar Series, “Emerging from Crisis Wiser, Reimagining Regional Transit,” brought together panelists with local and national perspectives to contemplate the challenges and opportunities facing public transit. Watch a recording of the event on Youtube.

“Transit is an irreplaceable piece of our mobility system,” said RTA Executive Director Leanne Redden when opening the event, adding that the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic has been the biggest challenge, but also an opportunity that forced transit agencies to innovate.

The RTA is currently developing its next regional transit strategic plan, which will include a vision for the future of transit in northeastern Illinois coupled with a financial plan to ensure that vision’s viability. The panel discussion was the first public event in Making a Plan, an engagement effort aimed at gathering input from a wide range of voices. A public survey about plan priorities is available at https://bit.ly/rta-strategic-plan-survey.

Following Redden’s opening remarks, RTA Director of Planning and Market Development Jessica Hector-Hsu moderated a panel including Heidy Persaud, Director of Transportation Equity at the, Center for Neighborhood Technology, Bethany Williams, Strategy & Intelligence Director at Lake County Partners, and David Bragdon, Executive Director of TransitCenter.

 

The group discussed how the past 20 months — including COVID-19, social justice movements, and increased attention on the importance of climate change — have changed perspectives on public transit.

“It has sharpened and deepened our views about things that we instinctively knew,” said David Bragdon. He said transit agencies need to focus on frequency and reliability of service, walkability, land use and employment decisions, all of which were important before the pandemic as well.

Similarly, Bethany Williams said that the last two years have highlighted the confluence of policy issues like transit, housing, education, equity, and the economy – and that the solutions will also need to cross policy boundaries. “The pandemic illuminated a lot of cracks and fissure that were there already and exacerbated them. I’m seeing a lot more interest in unraveling these public policy hairballs that seem to reinforce themselves unless you look at intersectional solutions to some of these problems.”

When working toward those solutions, Heidy Persaud highlighted the importance of partnering with and listening to communities who are most affected. She said the pandemic and social justice advocacy of 2020 and 2021 has made it imperative that community groups are at the table and have their voices heard. Persaud works with the Transportation Equity Network, a coalition of community groups, equitable transportation advocates, civic organizations, and other stakeholders in Chicago and suburban Cook County who work with decision-makers to embed racial equity and mobility justice into transportation via community-driven decisions and investments.

The panelists encouraged the RTA and transit agencies not to shy away from innovation and difficult decisions as part of the next regional transit strategic plan.

“It’s not the time to be scared of change,” Persaud said. “Clearly everything is going to change, it already has changed, so we need to keep riding that momentum and think of new and innovative ways to move forward. But we also need to remember that there is already a lot of groundwork that has been laid and people who have been trying to address these issues for years, so we want to make sure we don’t lose any of that as well.”

She also said that planning only goes so far, and the real test will be implementation. “It can’t just be conversations. When does the rubber meet the road, where does the investment come from? Is the political will there to create change in our communities so we see more equitable outcomes directly related to improving the transportation system?”

For example, Bethany Williams highlighted the work that has recently been done to create the first  county-wide paratransit program in Lake County, which will launch in 2022. “That started before the pandemic, but the pandemic made it more important than ever,” she said, encouraging the RTA, nonprofits, employers, and other groups to work together in new and collaborative ways. “I hope this is a moment and I hope we don’t miss it. I’m sad that it has taken all of this, but I hope that we grab it now that it’s here.”

David Bragdon gave examples from other transit agencies around the country who have been agile and pivoted during the pandemic, been transparent about the changes, and shown leadership through the process. “It’s a good time to approach planning with humility and openness,” he said. “Planning culture is a lot of calculations and forecasts, but this is a time to be humble about what we do or don’t know.”

He also said that the RTA needs to prioritize collaborations between transit agencies to create a more seamless transportation experience for riders. “By national standards, the Chicago area tends to have a higher degree of job sprawl and segregation on racial lines than other places. When you overlay that with a transportation governance system where the neighborhoods where people need jobs the most are served by one agency (CTA), and the available jobs are served by Pace or Metra, the ability to connect those trips become really important,”Bragdon said.

He applauded the Fair Transit South Cook program, which is a collaboration between Cook County, Metra, and Pace to enhance transit service and lower costs for residents of the south side of Chicago, south suburban Cook, and north Will Counties. The program includes a 50 percent fare reduction on Metra’s Electric and Rock Island lines as well as improved service and frequency on Pace Route 352 Halsted.

The RTA will continue Making a Plan this winter with its series of guest blogs, speakers at RTA Board of Directors meetings, the public survey, virtual workshops, and other opportunities to engage. Subscribe to the Regional Transit update newsletter

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Read posts about how the RTA collaborates with CTA, Metra and Pace to plan, invest in and move the Chicago region’s transit system.

If you are looking for posts published prior to 2021, please view the Archives.

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