Diverging Approach: Existential Crisis

Tomorrow is Metra’s August 2020 board meeting, their fifth since the first COVID-related shutdowns of Illinois began in the middle of March. As you may know, transit ridership across the board nationwide remains in the toilet, with Metra in particular getting their teeth kicked in (who could’ve seen that coming?) with ridership around 10% of pre-pandemic levels. What’s worse for Metra is that their ridership seems to be stabilizing at that level rather than rebounding like some other transit networks have seen.

Metra is, of course, well aware that this is a bad situation, with ridership bottoming out rather than rebounding. Each board meeting since March has had a similar call to action during the financial reporting segment of the meeting:

  • April: “We need to actively innovate to meet the changing public needs”
  • May: “We need to actively innovate to meet the changing public needs”
  • June: “We must innovate and transform to meet the new reality”
  • July: “We must innovate and transform to meet the new reality, and then let the riding public know we have innovated and transformed”
  • August: “We must innovate and transform to meet people’s needs where we can, then let people know what we have done to meet their needs”

You can feel the backsliding beginning already (“meet people’s needs where we can”), given that thus far “innovating and transforming” has only resulted in service cuts and a Weekend Pass you can use on a weekday.

In August’s presentation though, they lobbed this grenade:

Under the heading “who is a potential Metra rider”, they give the game up as succinctly as I’ve ever seen: “If their business has not returned to the workplace, they are not a potential customer”. In the midst of what should be an existential crisis for the commuter rail model as a whole, the commuter railroad that serves the nation’s third-largest market cannot fathom anyone using their service for anything other than commuting. This is a blind spot big enough to park a freight train, and for all the talk of “innovating” and “transforming”, it is downright concerning that the sole transit provider in dozens of suburban communities remains all-in on the Loop white-collar 9-5 Monday-Friday commuter market that – by the most optimistic outlook – is months or years away from returning to pre-pandemic levels: Metra’s projecting only 31% of their “normal” daily ridership will be back by the end of the year.

This is not just a crisis for Metra’s bottom line: if Metra goes belly up or rolls out doomsday cuts that kills most or all off-peak operations, our region as a whole suffers. My spouse and I live in the suburbs, and having convenient access to Metra outside the typical commute is a big reason why we chose to become a one-car household earlier this year. (A lack of existing off-peak service on Metra was also a critical reason of why we moved to a more CTA-friendly community.)

Metra is essential to the livelihood and mobility of suburbanites and city-dwellers alike. Since Illinois has entered Phase 4 of COVID recovery, I’ve personally used Metra dozens of times already, and Metra’s staff deserves a lot of credit for operations so far: trains are spotless, conductors have and use adequate PPE, and mask usage among riders is quite good. I’ve recommended using Metra during the recovery to just about everyone I’ve talked with since, and I’ll continue riding trains regularly.

And yet, no matter how many $10 Weekend or Day Passes I buy, I am apparently not a potential customer since I’m unemployed. If anyone else out there is a frequent-but-not-potential Metra customer, you have until 5pm today to get a comment into Metra’s board meeting to let them know that yes, you exist and yes, you rely on Metra outside of commute hours.