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Empty roads, trains, buses and airports: How COVID-19 and staying at home changed how Chicago gets around

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 9/23/2020 By Kori Rumore, Chicago Tribune
a person standing on a train track near a platform: Commuters exit the 5:36 train at the Des Plaines Metra station on Aug. 19, 2020. © Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Commuters exit the 5:36 train at the Des Plaines Metra station on Aug. 19, 2020.

Chicago’s roads and airports were among some of the busiest in the United States before COVID-19 entered our lexicon. Public transportation by bus and rail, too, carried thousands of people between the city and suburbs each weekday.

Yet, after Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a stay-at-home order for the entire state effective at 5 p.m. March 21 — six months ago — movement around the Chicago metro area halted. People stayed home in an effort to socially distance themselves from others and, as work and school have become largely home-based, continued to adjust their travel habits accordingly.

Speeds on local interstates have decreased in recent months, indicating more vehicles are now on the roads. Yet, it could take longer for airlines and public transportation to experience the same demand they experienced pre-pandemic.

Below is the latest available data by type of transportation:

Local interstates

Chicago was named the second most congested city in the country — after Boston — in 2019. INRIX, a global transportation analytics firm, estimated drivers here spent an average of more than six days sitting in traffic over the course of the year. After the stay-at-home order took effect in mid-March, however, weekly traffic volume in Chicago fell to half its normal level.

a person sitting in a chair talking on the phone: David Cedras, 25, rides a Brown Line train in the Loop on June 9, 2020. © Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS David Cedras, 25, rides a Brown Line train in the Loop on June 9, 2020.

“With (far) fewer vehicles on the roads, speeds on major interstates and freeways hit ‘free flow speeds’ in the morning and afternoon commute periods.”","additional_properties":{"comments":1/83/8,"inline_comments":1/83/83/4,"_id":"U7N35NLGO5CTRITPUAEZCVTCOU

Mark Burfeind, INRIX director of global communications

I-290, the Eisenhower Expressway, from I-294 to I-90, was named the eighth most congested U.S. road in the INRIX report. In March, however, the average speed at 7 a.m. on the inbound Eisenhower between Wolf Road and the Jane Byrne Interchange was more than double last year’s average of 25 mph.

a tall building in a city: Unusually light and fast moving early morning rush hour traffic continues on area expressways including the Eisenhower, I-290 at Austin, partially due to the coronavirus and stay at home orders in Chicago, on April 9, 2020. © Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Unusually light and fast moving early morning rush hour traffic continues on area expressways including the Eisenhower, I-290 at Austin, partially due to the coronavirus and stay at home orders in Chicago, on April 9, 2020.

Travel times on I-90, the Kennedy Expressway, heading into the city between the O’Hare airport exit and the Jane Byrne Interchange, also were much faster in March 2020 compared with last year’s average.

Northbound travelers on I-55, the Stevenson Expressway, also experienced much faster speeds in March.

Nonessential businesses outside Chicago opened May 29 — with the city following on June 3 — as Illinois moved into phase three of Gov. Pritzker’s reopening plan. Travel times on these interstates, in response, have begun to slow and the “dips” in speed associated with congestion are beginning to return. Still, delays have not yet reached levels as employees continue to work from home instead of traveling to their workplaces.

“The Chicago metro (area) is still seeing roughly 20% faster speeds than normal.”","additional_properties":{"comments":1/83/8,"inline_comments":1/83/83/4,"_id":"XPNZRUWUXFHENMM7B3BOM5WLVI

Mark Burfeind, INRIX director of global communications

More on the roads:

A Tribune analysis of city parking data found that nearly half of the more than 35,000 parking tickets issued from March 18 to April 30 were given to cars for expired meters in the downtown area — an infraction Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot specifically had singled out as exempted from punishment.

Some Illinois road construction projects scheduled to be completed this year could be delayed until next year because of lower-than-anticipated gas tax revenues during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Illinois Tollway brought in $52 million less in tolls in April than projected due to the state’s stay-at-home order and the resulting reduction in traffic, which dropped to 45% of normal for passenger vehicles and 80% of normal for commercial traffic. But Tollway traffic has been growing.

During the stay-at-home order, state police recorded 29 expressway shootings in the Chicago area. The reason for the spike is unclear, but the coronavirus pandemic could be part of it, according to Beth Hundsdorfer, a spokeswoman for state police. “Traffic on most expressways was sparse, which gave offenders an easy avenue of opportunity to escape,” she said. “This sparse or reduced traffic also limited the number of potential witnesses to assist with creating leads to solving these violent offenses.”

Public transportation

What happens when workers stop commuting to and from “The City that Works?" The trains and buses keep running — at a cost. CTA, Metra and Pace could see almost $1 billion in revenue losses this year.

Chicago Transit Authority

CTA — the second largest public transportation system in the U.S. in ridership — has maintained full service on its eight rapid transit routes and bus system of 140 routes during the pandemic, but overall ridership has been down as much as 80-85% per day. In an effort to provide passengers with social distancing space during the stay-at-home order, CTA ran longer trains and buses on some routes.

On CTA buses, where standing or sitting 6 feet apart from other passengers is difficult, riders were allowed to board buses through their rear entrances and, as a result, avoid paying for their rides. In June, CTA and Pace began to collect bus fares again.

Ridership patterns differ, reflecting demographic differences within Chicago, with many Loop-bound “L” commuters staying home while many essential and lower-income workers still riding transit to work. Some riders simply don’t have the option of staying home, or driving.

With the loosening of some restrictions on businesses, the number of commuters taking the CTA is expected to slowly increase. The transit agency introduced a color-coded ridership tool — green for low ridership, yellow for some seats available and orange for cramped conditions — this summer to help passengers avoid crowded buses and trains.

Some commuters, however, have decided to drive or bike their way to work instead, with Divvy experiencing its largest number of rides ever in August.

Metra

Daily ridership on Metra tumbled about 97% at the start of the pandemic, but it’s starting to slowly come back. Metra was hit worse than CTA or Pace because it is so dependent on commuters going to and from downtown, whereas people are more likely to use CTA and Pace for nonwork travel.

The transit agency, which operates 11 rail lines across six counties, projects more than $682 million in lost revenue through the end of 2021. Though service has experienced reductions, Metra has yet to lay off or furlough any of its 2,300 employees. The rail system is looking to reach 30% of normal ridership levels by the end of the year, but that recovery schedule is in doubt.

“Ridership may never recover to 2019 levels, certainly not soon. We had big hopes that after Labor Day we were going to see kids back in school and we were going to see unemployment down and the workplaces opening up. All three of those are progressing much more slowly than we had hoped for.”","additional_properties":{"comments":1/83/8,"inline_comments":1/83/83/4,"_id":"IENUA42SDJA5HF6ELR3KSICCME

Thomas Farmer, Metra’s chief financial officer

Efforts to attract more riders include extending Metra’s $10 All-Day Pass offer through the end of October and launching a nearly $1 million ad campaign to show the commuter rail system’s daily cleaning regimen.

More on public transit

Six months after the COVID-19 pandemic first shook Chicago, the city’s once-mighty downtown — with its towering skyscrapers, glamorous shops and glittering public spaces — is a humbled giant, taking only tentative steps toward recovery.

Air travel

A Chicago woman in her 60s became the second confirmed coronavirus case in the U.S. after flying home in mid-January from caring for her sick father in Wuhan, China. Her husband became the sixth case in the U.S., marking the first person-to-person transmission reported in the U.S. Both were hospitalized but later recovered. Their illnesses signaled the beginning of a major shift in the number of flights and passengers departing Chicago’s two major airports, O’Hare International Airport and Midway International Airport, due to COVID-19.

O’Hare International Airport

In 2019, Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport was named the nation’s busiest in terms of total flights — more than 903,000 — surpassing Atlanta for the first time since 2014. The airport was also ranked third busiest in the U.S. in total passengers with more than 83 million travelers passing through its four terminals. June and July were singled out as the busiest months of last year.

In June 2020, however, seat capacity — the number of seats available — for flights departing O’Hare was near 1 million, about a 78% decline from June 2019, according to global travel data provider OAG. And July, traditionally a popular month for family travel due to the Fourth of July holiday, had a seat capacity of 1.9 million, down 59% from July 2019.

American Airlines and Chicago-based United Airlines — already forced to cancel flights on troubled Boeing 737 Max aircraft in 2019 — began pulling flights to China from schedules as demand declined swiftly and significantly due to COVID-19. O’Hare is a hub for both carriers, which, together, lease the majority of the airport’s 191 gates.

United continued to cut domestic and international flights as demand plummeted, waived change fees, closed airport lounges and instituted other cost-saving measures. Federal aid requests resulted in billions received, but it might not be enough to keep United’s employees paid through the fall.

Recovery could be slow — especially for business travel. The impact of COVID-19 on O’Hare could delay the completion of its massive terminal modernization project. The European Union continues to ban travelers from the U.S.

For now, United plans to resume service on more than 25 international routes this month, including beach destinations in the Caribbean and Hawaii.

Midway International Airport

Like United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, the major carrier based at Midway, has also been forced to cancel flights scheduled on Boeing 737 Max aircraft and deal with flights canceled due to the coronavirus.

Yet, Southwest entered the pandemic with a stronger foothold than its bigger competitors. In June, Forbes noted the “no frills” airline had a record 47-straight profitable years — which is sure to end in 2020 — and is also the largest U.S. airline in terms of domestic passenger miles flown for almost 20 years. Southwest also has the lowest debt load of any of the major airlines and is burning through less cash than competitors.

Incentives for travelers to board Southwest planes during the pandemic have included promotions blocking middle seats through November and free companion passes for travel early next year for tickets purchased this month. Capacity systemwide has been reduced through October.

“It’s interesting that Midway has been pretty resilient to COVID-19, scheduled capacity is very, very close to January levels which is all about the dominance of Southwest at the airport and the fact that overall throughout the U.S. they have remained the strongest operator.”","additional_properties":{"comments":1/83/8,"inline_comments":1/83/83/4,"_id":"SE6S2B3SQJFJ3PWVELY7JPWNVM

John Grant, OAG chief analyst

Though slower to cut flights than other airlines in response to COVID-19, Southwest is still operating at a fraction of its regular size — and could stay that way, according to CEO Gary Kelly. Furloughs and layoffs are a possibility, if passengers don’t return to the skies.

More on air travel

The millions of travelers in Chicago’s airports are more than tourism dollars and business for airlines. They support an entire network of businesses around Chicago’s airports, from catering companies that prepare in-flight meals to airport shops and restaurants where passengers kill time before boarding to airport hotels and car rental agencies.

Travel during the pandemic is complicated. The Tribune asked medical experts about what precautions and items to take on every step of a journey by airplane, car or train. The Tribune compiled their answers, along with guidance from the CDC, Transportation Security Administration, and other state and federal agencies.

Sources: INRIX; Chicago Transit Authority; Metra; OAG; Chicago Department of Aviation; Flightradar24; Forbes; Chicago Tribune reporting and archives;

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©2020 the Chicago Tribune

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