What the Gov: How Is Coronavirus Affecting Public Transportation?

COVID-19 is touching nearly every aspect of our daily lives — including where we go and how we get there. What are the public transit agencies doing to respond?

Justin German/BGA

This article is part of a series called What the Gov?, where the BGA takes reader questions and tracks down the answers. We are devoting resources to covering how local and state governments are responding to the coronavirus outbreak. We are committed to reporting on what you want to know. Ask your questions here.

With Illinois residents under orders by Gov. J.B. Pritzker to stay at home as much as possible to slow the spread of COVID-19, trains and buses in the Chicago area are running with far fewer passengers. In some cases, they’re almost entirely empty.

Public transit was already starting to take a ridership hit before Pritzker’s March 20 executive order, which requires everyone in the state to stay in their homes unless they must leave for “essential” activities.

But while some public transit systems have pivoted, the biggest — the Chicago Transit Authority — has not.

That got one Better Government Association reader to ask, “Why is CTA still running what appears to be a full weekday schedule when trains and buses are mostly empty?”

The question came as part of a new effort by the BGA to take questions from readers and answer them as Illinois and Chicago-area elected officials grapple with the coronavirus threat. The BGA wants to shed more light on how cities, counties and the Illinois government are handling the pandemic.

Officials with the CTA, which serves a massive and diverse ridership, have announced they are keeping on a normal schedule because “we realize some people have very few travel options.”

“Public transit is an essential service, and it’s important to keep trains and buses running for all Chicagoans who rely on the service,” a CTA spokesperson told us Thursday, adding that no service changes are currently planned.

The CTA’s decision differs from those made by Metra and Pace, which serve more suburban commuters. At the start of this week, Metra reduced its weekday train schedule by cutting roughly in half the number of runs they were making to “adjust for the reduced number of riders due to school closures, work-from-home mandates and other consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.”

The suburban Pace bus system also has altered schedules for several kinds of routes, including those connecting with Metra and South Shore Line trains.

The federal $2.2 trillion federal coronavirus relief bill that the Senate and House passed this week includes $1.6 billion in federal transit funding for Illinois transit agencies. That includes $800 million for the CTA, over $400 million for Metra and $100 million for Pace.

The is expected to be signed into law by President Donald Trump.