Diverging Approach: Now What

Illinois’s Stay at Home order is now confirmed to stretch well into May as we struggle to contain COVID-19. While today’s announcement is hardly unexpected, it does drive the point home that the inevitable recovery will not be easy or quick, but painful and protracted no matter what steps we take now.

It’s also abundantly clear that we’ll never go back to where we were two months ago, even when the coronavirus wanes and we get “back to normal”. So let’s take a quick look into the almost-guaranteed-to-be-wrong crystal ball on three predictions and more positive possibilities, and what this could mean for suburban transportation.

Prediction: CTA and Pace will struggle, but Metra will absolutely get their teeth kicked in

I take no joy in writing that, but that’s the way I’m reading the tea leaves. A large majority of service-sector workers, some of whom we’ve (finally) established as “essential”, will continue to work in-person jobs doing tasks that need to be done in-person. We can’t stock shelves via Skype, bank tellers can’t telework, and bartenders can’t pour new pints through a Zoom meeting. However, most white collar workers will likely never spend five straight days working from an office again.

While this new normal will require some dramatic changes for city dwellers on the CTA and blue-collar workers who rely on Pace’s arterial services in inner-ring suburbs, it will absolutely decimate Metra’s entire model of shuttling 9-to-5 upper-middle-class white collar workers from the burbs to the Loop five days a week. All three service boards are undoubtedly in for a world of pain in regards to fare revenue, but Metra is uniquely positioned to get utterly blown out as the remaining monthly pass market – which already needed 15 commuting days each calendar month to justify a high-upfront-cost ticket – vaporizes overnight.

Possibility: A dramatic reinventing of the commuter rail model as a whole (or at least trying something new every once in awhile)

Metra’s held onto operational models, fare models, funding models, and literal equipment from the 1950s for far too long, and the day of reckoning is here. (Has anyone ever tried bringing that up before?) A bold reimagining of literally everything is warranted, but there are a few pieces of low-hanging fruit to pluck right away with fare policy and operations.

With the monthly ticket market functionally wiped out, now is the time to implement some form of fare capping that gives riders more flexibility with ticket options while also lowering barriers to entry for new potential riders. As social distancing becomes part of the new normal, fare parity with the CTA in areas served by both providers will take on a new urgency as a way to better balance passenger loads, and likewise new integrated fare products for CTA and Pace transfers are required as the monthly-dependent Link-Up/PlusBus market also dries up.

Metra will also need to acknowledge that they will likely never again need all of the peak-period capacity that they previously ran. However, this can be an opportunity: they will be able to save on operation costs over time and should then be able to expand off-peak services to attract new ridership markets. Additionally, instead of simply reverting back to the old schedules, Metra should consider a phased quarterly approach to adding peak service back into the current “temporary” schedules through the recovery. Doing so would also create a new corporate culture of regular internal ridership analyses and subsequent schedule updates based on recent and projected ridership demand.

There’s also the good news that Metra currently has a unique opportunity to field-test new ideas or operational changes with minimal impact to riders. So try something new. Try anything new.

Prediction: We’ll each drive less, which means we’ll all drive more

As Illinois stays all-in, car traffic on our highways is a fraction of what it used to be, and for good reason: demand for lane space is in the toilet right now because no one is leaving home. But that won’t last, because once we do start going places again, we’ll get right back on the roads since gas will continue to be absurdly cheap and traffic is light. As transit riders shift away from monthly passes for commutes, the old monthly riders will have even less incentive to take transit when traffic is light (since the marginal cost of using off-peak transit went from $0 with a monthly pass to the full fare price without).

Traffic congestion is not an issue that needs solving by engineers, but rather a natural condition of a market reaching an equilibrium: when cost (time and money) is less than benefit (whatever value a driver assigns to wherever they’re going), a trip is made; when costs are too high relative to benefits, the trip either doesn’t happen or gets otherwise altered such that benefit > cost some other way and the modified trip gets completed. (That’s also a crash course in induced demand.)

In other words, just because some people will go out less frequently after quarantine lifts or some people will work from home more often, over time other drivers will inevitably appear to fill those gaps.

Possibility: Claw back road capacity now before the market finds a new equilibrium

Bus lanes, buffered bike lanes, woonerfs, traffic calming… for any ped-, bike-, or transit-oriented plan that was already on the books, do it all now and let post-pandemic traffic react to the new road designs instead of the vice-versa status quo of the last 60 years. (Infrastructure spending will hopefully be part of future Congressional recovery bills.)

Most importantly, do it for good (in an equitable manner with as much local buy-in as possible) and do it for good (run a few pilot programs if needed, but every new implementation should have a realistic chance of becoming a permanent change instead of an “emergency use only” application that disappears when we’re no longer in crisis mode).

Prediction: An already-hostile image of transit will get ramped up on steroids

Transit has been “othered” for decades, but now stereotypes about transit as a last-resort are going to go into overdrive in the age of social distancing. As the job market falters with homeless shelters already at capacity, complaints about “unsafe” and “unclean” riders on the CTA will (and have already started to) skyrocket, further depressing any demand for rapid transit. Additionally, Metra physically cannot social distance so long as they continue to rely on a conductor-based method of fare collection that relies on a face-to-face transaction with each and every rider.

After years and years of stripping transit funding down to the bone, riders and non-riders alike are accustomed to cramped, full buses and trains. This becomes a lose-lose situation for post-pandemic transit: any crowding means transit agencies can’t adequately social distance and thus are mismanaged to a fault, but empty buses and trains must mean our agencies are already supplying plenty of transit capacity so the only reason why they would want more operating funds is because they are mismanaged to a fault.

Possibility: Manage expectations, but be proactive

Transit will be in a dark place for the foreseeable future. Even when COVID-19 is behind us, the money we aren’t spending now in fares and sales taxes will manifest in the budgets of upcoming years. Homelessness in Chicago and on the CTA has been an issue for quite some time already, with no easy solutions then and even fewer now. These times will not be easy and there will be some very tough decisions that will need to be made, but it’s crucially important to remember – and hammer home the point with messaging – that public transit is essential to everyone in a functioning modern metropolis: it was essential before the pandemic, it’s essential during the pandemic, and it will be absolutely essential to an equitable, successful recovery.

The one thing we all can do right now – and this “we” involves the agencies themselves and the rest of us who care enough to fight for better transportation solutions – is to be good communicators and advocates for public transit. The CTA, Metra, and Pace are all expending plenty of manpower and financial resources to keep buses and trains safe, clean, and reliable for transit-dependent essential workers right now, and those efforts will need to continue (and need to continue to be highlighted) through the recovery. While the need to maintain social distancing efforts remains crucial to fighting the pandemic, there are ways to effectively communicate that without declaring that “public transit is unsafe for the foreseeable future”, which only serves to stigmatize those who depend on transit while tainting the well for transit’s potential market share post-pandemic. To that end, Star:Line Chicago and The Yard Social Club will be launching our #CommitToTheCommute campaign as the recovery begins, a multi-pronged campaign to do the following:

  • Share and promote what our agencies are doing to keep riders safe and get people back on transit, both locally and nationally
  • Highlight the benefits of commuting on transit at least a few times a week rather than driving or shifting to full-time work-from-home
  • Hosting frequent transit-based social events to help new or infrequent users feel comfortable using transit again (while supporting local bars and restaurants as well)

While we all have a new normal to get used to, and while there are most certainly challenges ahead of all of us, now is the time to look forward (and to have something to look forward to). Stay safe, stay well, and stay at home. We’ll get through this together.