How has Chicago transit ridership recovered from the pandemic?

The number of riders on the CTA is rebounding slower than public transportation systems in other major cities.

CTA Red Line train
CTA ridership is steadily climbing back to pre-pandemic levels, but public transit ridership in other major cities is rebounding faster. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
CTA Red Line train
CTA ridership is steadily climbing back to pre-pandemic levels, but public transit ridership in other major cities is rebounding faster. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

How has Chicago transit ridership recovered from the pandemic?

The number of riders on the CTA is rebounding slower than public transportation systems in other major cities.

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

Chicago-area public transit agencies could soon face an existential crisis.

When ridership plummeted at the onset of the pandemic and fare revenue was gutted, $3.5 billion in COVID-19 relief funding from the federal government kept the system afloat.

Now, transit advocates and state legislators are raising the alarm about what happens when those dollars expire: a looming $730 million budget shortfall. In April, state lawmakers introduced a bill that would merge the region’s public transit agencies — the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra and Pace — into one agency and shore up an additional $1.5 billion in funding annually.

“Without bold action, we face a 20% cut in funding. That would equate to a devastating 40% cut in transit service,” said state Rep. Eva-Dina Delgado, D-Chicago, one of the sponsors of the bill.

Overall ridership has been sluggish to return to pre-pandemic levels, sitting at just 60% of 2019 ridership in 2023. This loss in ridership — and the resulting loss in fare revenue — is also the largest source of the anticipated funding gap, according to an analysis from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

But there’s more to the story. A WBEZ analysis digs deeper into how ridership now compares to pre-pandemic levels by mode of transit, by community and by city to show how Chicago’s public transit ridership stacks up against comparable cities.

Pandemic impact on ridership differs by agency and mode of transit

During the first year of the pandemic, rail ridership was hit hardest, with CTA trains posting one-third and Metra trains just a quarter of their 2019 ridership levels. CTA and suburban Pace buses retained a higher share of their passengers — ridership in 2020 was halved on both systems — because they served a greater share of essential workers and low-income riders who needed to commute to in-person service jobs that were less likely to be located downtown.

In 2023, ridership on CTA buses recovered to 68% of 2019 ridership. On CTA trains, recovery was 54%, on Metra trains it was 43%, for Pace buses it was 56% and for Pace paratransit buses it was 73%.

How Chicago’s transit recovery compares to other cities

The Chicago Transit Authority makes up more than 80% of all public transit trips in the Chicago region. Ridership at the CTA has been slower to recover than ridership in other cities, according to a WBEZ analysis of passenger trip data collected by the Federal Transit Administration in four comparable major metro public transit agencies. The analysis does not include agencies comparable to the Metra commuter rail and suburban Pace bus systems in the Chicago region.

Washington, D.C.’s Metro — the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) — has a similar annual ridership to the CTA and saw a steeper decline in ridership the first year of the pandemic.

But the WMATA has had a faster recovery. D.C. Metro ridership grew from 29% of 2019 levels in 2020 to 61% of its 2019 levels in 2023, whereas CTA ridership grew from 35% in 2020 to 54% in 2023.

“Every transit agency’s recovery is influenced by a number of different factors such as, return-to-work policies by companies in each agency’s service area, third-party rideshare transit share, along with service reliability, service levels and fare policies to name a few,” CTA spokesperson Maddie Kilgannon wrote in a statement.

“Comparing data of each agency doesn’t give the full story about the factors affecting each. For example, in New York City, residents are much more likely to be reliant on public transit than owning a car,” Kilgannon wrote. “Another example would be LA Metro and WMATA, which in the last few years have added new rail services. Another variable is changes to fare policies, with some transit agencies offering free or reduced fare programs, like Denver and New York.”

Varied return to pre-pandemic service levels

In 2023, CTA and Pace were operating below pre-pandemic service levels while Metra service was operating near pre-pandemic levels, according to a WBEZ analysis of vehicle revenue miles (VRM). The Federal Transit Administration reports transit agency service levels by their VRM, a metric that counts the actual number of miles a passenger-carrying bus or train has run in a given period of time.

“Ridership in Chicago has not recovered the way it has in, for example, Washington, D.C., and a big factor in that is that our service levels aren’t up to what they were pre-pandemic,” said Kate Lowe, a professor of urban planning at the University of Illinois Chicago.

Last summer, the D.C. Metro announced it would run more train service than it has ever run in its 47-year history and bring back buses to their pre-pandemic service levels.

While Metra, Pace and most other comparable agencies have expanded service from 2021 to 2023, the total number of vehicle revenue miles CTA ran during that period decreased by 13% on trains and 3% on buses.

“Right now, we don’t have enough operators, and that’s reinforcing a negative cycle. If you don’t have good frequency, people will opt out. The more people opt out, the less fare revenue there is and the less people feel safe using the system if there’s long waits and stations are desolate,” Lowe said.

There were 166 fewer CTA bus operators and 157 fewer train operators than in 2019, according to data reported as of this March on CTA’s performance dashboard. The operator shortage is due in part to employee attrition, as they quit or transferred because of inconsistent schedules, limited vacation and operator safety concerns, as reported by Block Club Chicago.

In a statement, CTA spokesperson Kilgannon said the agency is taking steps to reach 2019 service levels by the end of 2024. They returned 29 bus routes to their pre-pandemic service levels this spring and introduced a “dynamic rail schedule” that would “allow us to add scheduled service to align with the growing rail operator workforce throughout the spring and summer.”

Weekend recovery shows a shift away from 9-5 office commuter trips

While weekday ridership still makes up the lion’s share of public transit ridership, the weekend has reached a higher share of its pre-pandemic levels compared to weekdays.

On Metra, weekend ridership is nearly back to 2019 levels, Metra spokesperson Michael Gillis said in a statement. Weekend ridership in March of 2024 was over 90% of what it was in March 2019. Similarly, suburban Pace bus weekend ridership in March was a higher share of its pre-pandemic totals than weekday ridership, according to data published by the Regional Transportation Authority.

Historically, public transit has been built for 9-to-5 work trips, but there’s a lot of potential to offer more frequent off-peak, reverse-commute and round-the-clock service to accommodate our life schedules outside of work, said Audrey Wennink, a senior director at the Metropolitan Planning Council. She leads the organization’s transportation policy efforts.

“The majority of the trips we make are other things, like shopping and going to medical appointments and visiting friends and family, and so we want a transit system that works for all trips and not just tailored around only work trips,” Wennink said.

Continued reliance on transit for essential workers

CTA train stations that retained the highest ridership relative to their pre-pandemic levels were predominantly on the Green and Red lines in majority-Black communities on the South and West sides, where many of the city’s essential workers live. Conversely, some of the stations where ridership grew the most were North Side and downtown stations and stations located near prominent commercial corridors — such as the Red Line’s Addison and Cermak-Chinatown stations and the Green Line’s Ashland station — according to a WBEZ analysis of ridership by the station of entry.

This trend reflects across the country. An Urban Institute analysis, of train ridership in the country’s four largest metros, found that stations located in communities with large Black populations, low median household incomes and small college-educated populations lost fewer riders during the pandemic, on average, than stations in other communities.

Wennink said it’s hard to tell whether ridership in and around Chicago will rebound to pre-pandemic levels. She said the region has a great foundation for a robust transit system, but it’s a matter of finding sustainable and more diversified sources of revenue to fund and improve it.

“[Ridership] is really related to the quality of the service that is put on the street,” Wennink said. “So I’m hopeful that, if we continue to improve our service delivery, reliability and the frequency, ridership will come back.”

Amy Qin is WBEZ’s data reporter. WBEZ’s Mawa Iqbal contributed.