The recent spate of climate-focused legislation in Springfield and Washington provides hope.
Before 2050 Illinois could operate with 100 percent clean energy and emit net zero carbon emissions, an outcome of the clean energy bill recently signed by Gov. JB Pritzker. Millions in federal subsidies will flow into Chicago to upgrade and expand public transportation, if the bipartisan infrastructure bill that includes an additional $39 billion for public transit finds its way to President Joe Biden’s desk.
Clean energy and supporting public transit are popular; considerally less so is changing our relationship with cars. Yet absent any effort to break Chicagoans from our dependence on privately-owned cars, the failure of recent climate-focused legislation will be measured in empty buses and a carbon-emission trendline that continues to climb.
I drive to the grocery store and to drop my kid off at daycare, rather than take public transit, because driving is more convenient. That is unlikely to change without making driving less convenient.
If Congress approves new federal infrastructure support, new subsidies could allow CTA to open up new bus and bus-rapid transit lines, purchase new buses, and dramatically enhance service. But it is unlikely to fundementally change Chicago’s relationship with cars. That can only come with transforming urban life, expanding pedestrian walkways, embracing congestion pricing, and making a host of seemingly unpopular decisions in City Hall and Springfield.
Already a car-centered city, Chicago has become even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps inalterably if we don’t act quickly and boldly. Recent data from the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database suggests that Chicagoans are still not comfortable riding public transit, even after the majority of eligible city residents received their COVID-19 vaccines (accomplished in May, according to City data).
Not suprisingly, federal data shows that CTA ridership remained depressed through 2020, as COVID-19 transmission fears left residents wary of any enclosed spaces. Passenger trips on the CTA rail and bus service dropped 86 percent and 69 percent, respectively, from February 2020 levels in the two months that followed, when city residents remained under state-imposed stay-at-home orders.
It is tempting to view this fall in ridership as a short-term trend, quickly reversed as city residents received the vaccine and transmission rates declined.
Federal data reported in July 2021 suggests that is did not happen, and that CTA ridership remains at about half the levels measured in February 2020. Even in June, before the outbreak of the Delta variant when only a few dozen daily COVID-19 cases were recorded in the city, CTA ridership less than half of pre-COVID levels and only marginally increased from ridership levels recorded before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued its emergency approval of COVID-19 vaccines.
What is more worrisome for CTA is that Chicagoans do not appear to be as hesitant to step into other public venues. After Mayor Lightfoot allowed for full capacity at games in June, both the White Sox and Cubs have, on average, attracted about 30,000 fans a game. The White Sox are a few thousand ahead of their 2019 ticket sales, and the Cubs a few thousand behind, an almost-certain reflection of on-the-field performance and not COVID-19 fears.
Then there are Chicago restaurants. In July, OpenTable reservations in Chicago were down 24.3 percent, relative to July 2019. That is no doubt an upsetting figure to Chicago’s food service industry professionals, but it is a far more favorable drop in patronage relative to the deeper and more persistent decline in Chicago’s transit ridership. CTA train ridership was down 58 percent from July 2019 to July 2021, according to federal data.
To recharge transit ridership, Chicago needs a redesign. It will no doubt ask city and state lawmakers to show some creativity and lots of courage, but others have embraced the politics of inconvenience and come out the other end just fine.
In Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo has closed vast swaths of Paris to vehicular traffic, and even implemented an annual “day without cars,” where for one day Parisians face a 135-euro fine for driving a privately-owned autombile. She was easily reelected last year and last week announced she is running for president.
In New York, advocates have laid out a vision of closing all 23 square miles of Manhattan to privately-owned vehicles. Championed by Vishaan Chakrabarti, a former New York planning official, the plan would allow only bikes, scooters, taxis, delivery trucks, emergency vehicles, and public transit vehicles to traverse Manhattan city streets. Sound far fetched? Might be, for now. But Mayor Bill de Blasio closed nearly 100 miles of city streets to daytime traffic last year, including a 1.3 mile stretch of 34th Avenue in Queens. A petition to keep 34th Avenue closed to traffic earned one notable signatory: Eric Adams, likely the city’s next mayor.
We need a similar movement in Chicago. The alternative is wasting an historic opportunity, produced by recent climate and infrastructure legislation.
Thomas Day is a consultant with Intueor Consulting and a lecturer at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.
Meetings & Agendas