In addition to buying candy bars and chips, you may soon be able to purchase personal protective equipment, masks, from vending machines at Chicago Transit Authority “L” stations.

That is just one of the pandemic-related changes the CTA is studying or making, according to the agency’s president, Dorval Carter. Carter was among three transit experts who took part in a virtual roundtable this afternoon entitled “The Vital Role of Public Transportation in Reopening Our Cities.” The online event was sponsored by the Northwestern University Transportation Center.

Carter described both the human and financial blows the CTA has faced since mid-March, when the coronavirus changed everyone’s lives. More than 300 CTA employees came down with COVD-19. Seven of them died.

CTA ridership plunged by 80 per cent. The agency was losing one million dollars a day because of that.

While ridership has started to creep back up now that more Illinois businesses are reopening, a possible second wave of the virus later this year could force ridership down again. There’s no playbook. “The pandemic,” Carter said, is unlike a hurricane or an earthquake. “No one can predict the length right now.”

The COVID storm has forced thousands of people to work from home. And for transit, that’s a problem. Carter said tele-working will likely continue “to some degree.” He does expect ridership to build again over time, “but it won’t be the same.” People, he said, need to feel confident in riding the bus or train.

Carter stated that flexibility and innovation are critical. UV light might be used to sanitize train cars and buses. Apps may be developed to provide real time information on crowd size on a bus or train. Right now, due to social distancing rules, buses are limited to 15 passengers, and train cars are limited to 20.  Another new development: You will soon be able to use your Ventra card to rent a Divvy bike.

Longer term, Carter expects more businesses to have satellite offices in neighborhoods or the suburbs, rather than downtown. That could mean changes in bus routes, away from the “hub and spoke” model of most buses feeding into downtown.

CTA has received $800 million rom the federal CARES act, absolutely critical funding, he said, to keep the transit authority going. CTA, he stated, was probably the only transit authority in the country which did not cut service during the height of the pandemic. Even through business was down, Carter said CTA still carried 250,000 riders a day, many of them essential workers.

More federal dollars are needed next year, he said, and he’s optimistic the money will flow from Washington to Chicago.

But what about the long-term future of mass transportation? Between a frightening pandemic, and people getting used to working at home, will people return in big enough numbers to justify such a large bus and rail system?

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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