In a potentially ominous warning to area mass transit operators, including those who serve Evanston, a survey by the Regional Transportation Authority says 20% of passengers who stopped riding because of the coronavirus pandemic may never return.

Many people who used to take mass transit and are now working from home are expected to keep doing that.

Ridership has plummeted since March 2020 when the pandemic began. For example, Metra commuter rail traffic now is down 90% from what it was before the pandemic began. Metra serves three stations in Evanston, at Main, Davis and Central streets.

The CTA purple line has seven stops in Evanston. CTA and Pace buses also stop in the city.

For all services (Metra rail, “L” rail, CTA Bus, Pace Bus, Pace Paratransit), RTA says the combined ridership drop from before the pandemic is 71%.

RTA surveyed more than 5,600 current and “lapsed” riders in two stages in November and January.

Current riders were those using transit at least once weekly, lapsed riders used to ride but now use transit less than once a week.

RTA says “essential onsite workers, people who identify as Black and Latino, and riders experiencing low income” were most likely to continue using transit during the pandemic.

RTA also says significant numbers of pre-pandemic riders “had not yet shown signs of returning by January 2021.”

On the positive side, the survey found that 80% of lapsed riders plan on returning if COVID-19 concerns diminish. But an RTA release also says “telecommuting may continue at higher than pre-pandemic levels, with lasting implications for the regional transit system.”

The transit agencies will use these survey results to plan future service and potential changes. For example, many of the respondents wanted more suburb-to-suburb connections as opposed to trips to downtown Chicago.

RTA is the umbrella funding and planning agency for the various mass transit operators in the Chicago region.

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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