Chicago traffic, CTA patterns dramatically affected by COVID pandemic; construction unchanged

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Many things have changed in the past year due to the COVID pandemic, but among the most dramatic have been the shift in traffic patterns on roads and rails in the Chicago area.

The difference was stark and instantly palpable on the Eisenhower Expressway on the first day of the Illinois stay-at-home order on March 21, 2020.

"We started seeing close to a 30% to 40% drop in traffic on the area expressways," said Matthew Daeda, IDOT traffic operations engineer. "It was kind of amazing to see how all the traffic just disappeared and how empty our roadways were."

"Literally overnight our ridership went from about 1.5 million riders on an average weekday to about 250,000 or 300,000," said Brian Steele, CTA spokesman.

As we moved into spring and late summer, there was some recovery on commercial vehicles as supply chains and logistics companies figured it out and made their connections again.

"Then October hit and the pandemic numbers went negative again and we saw ridership completely fall with that," said James Derwinski, METRA CEO and executive director.

And it's been a rollercoaster ride ever since. There is a direct correlation between the number of trips on Chicago expressways to the number of Chicago COVID deaths. From March 2020 to February 2021, as the number of COVID deaths rise, the number of expressway trips decrease.

With less traffic on the expressways, there was a greater tendency to speed.

"We reached out to Illinois State Police to find out, and in 2020 they said they issued over 4,000 speeding tickets for people traveling over 100 miles per hour on our roadways," Daeda said.

One of the biggest changes to come out of the pandemic for traffic is the permanent elimination of cash tolls on the Illinois Tollway. The change began in March as a safety precaution for drivers and employees. Now the only options are IPASS or to pay online.

"This is something we've been moving toward for a long time, when we first instituted IPASS express back in the late 90s, to open road tolling in the early 2000s, so it's really the next generation the industry is looking at as a whole," said Rocco Zuccero, Illinois Tollway.

What the commute will look like moving forward still isn't known, but you can expect changes as patterns settle in.

"We still see pretty big jumps during the a.m. and p.m. rush, but they're not as significant as they used to be," said Steele. "Ridership is spread out during the day, so that may mean you'll see more frequent train and bus service over the off-peak hours."

"Actually what we're looking at, rather than cutting off the rush hour at 9 a.m., it gets cut off at 10 and then we have more midday service levels," Derwinski said.

The one thing that hasn't been affected by the pandemic: construction. Expect a full schedule of projects and repairs on the expressways and tollways this year.
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