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Transit agencies surveying riders about post-COVID reality

Faced with massive ridership declines, agencies want to learn what would bring riders back, or if they're gone for good.

Are you okay with fewer trains and buses? How would you improve health and safety on transit lines? And will you come back once the COVID-19 pandemic has passed?

Those are among the questions the Regional Transportation Authority is asking riders, in a survey on behalf of Metra, the Chicago Transit Authority, and the Pace bus system.

Commuter train, “L,” and bus ridership and revenue have plummeted since the pandemic began in mid-March. For example, Metra, the rail system which serves Evanston, is only carrying 10% of its pre-pandemic ridership. The CTA Purple line, which also has Evanston stops, is at 15%.

The survey will help planners set service levels while the pandemic continues, and also for whenever there is an effective and widely distributed COVID-19 vaccine.

Some of the questions are about current health and safety procedures. Riders are asked if they are satisfied with what the transit agencies are doing to keep vehicles and stations clean, or if they are more worried about other passengers failing to follow mask and social distancing rules, even if the train cars and buses are clean and properly ventilated.

There are also questions about what more Metra, CTA, and Pace can do now to improve health and safety procedures on board trains and buses.

Riders are also asked travel habits now versus before the pandemic. Other issues address passenger likelihood to come back if there is a vaccine but there are questions about effectiveness and distribution, and if a proven effective and easily obtainable vaccine has been developed.

Transit agencies are facing a painful day of reckoning. Between passenger concern over the virus, and fewer people commuting due to closed offices or tele-working, planning for the future is not easy.

For example, in Boston, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is proposing significant service reductions, including an end to late night and weekend commuter rail service. No decision has been made yet, and the proposals are supposed to be temporary until ridership builds back up, but there are not a lot of easy choices.

Metra has proposed a $700 million budget for 2021, with no fare increase and no additional service cuts beyond those already made. But there’s a catch. Unless Metra gets another $70 million from somewhere, presumably the federal government, some combination of service reductions and more expensive tickets would have to be on the table.

One question on the survey asks passengers to respond to the following: “If provided reliable and timely information about service, I would tolerate reduced transit frequency.”

Riders are also asked what they would like to prioritize, including ways to improve operations by making it possible to transfer seamlessly from train or bus to rideshare services or bike systems such as Divvy. Planners also want to know about demand for suburb to suburb service, as opposed to the traditional suburb to downtown routes.

The bottom line is this. “The COVID-19 pandemic is causing transit providers and customers to rethink the future use of transit,” the survey states. And it asks riders to help rethink what will be next.

keywords » COVID-19

Jeff Hirsh

Jeff Hirsh

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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