June 6, 2023

Data: CTA Ridership Struggling to Recover to Pre-Pandemic Numbers

By Jon Salter

Long after the masks have come off and the lockdown orders lifted,  low CTA ridership persists

In late March 2020, as most states issued stay-at-home-orders in response to the emerging COVID-19 crisis, Chicago was one of many cities seemingly desolated overnight. Workers not deemed essential stayed home, whether because they had the option of working remotely, or because their job had become a casualty of the pandemic.

Retailers, whether due to health concerns or anticipation of low demand, temporarily closed many locations, with some closures becoming permanent. Even parks and the lakefront were restricted to further discourage the public from breaking social distancing guidelines.

With nowhere to go, commuters acted accordingly. In a change widely hailed as a silver lining of the pandemic, traffic evaporated from many of America’s roadways. As shown in the chart below, public transit demand in Chicago took a similarly large hit after the pandemic began.

Summarizing weekly totals of CTA ridership based on data provided by the Chicago Data Portal, the chart above illustrates just one dimension of the profound effect that the COVID-19 pandemic had on Chicago’s public transit system. By the end of March 2020, total weekly demand dropped by over 75% from 8.8 million for the week ending March 7, 2020, to 2 million for the week ending March 28, 2020.

For those still commuting by CTA, though, reduced ridership also reduced safety, as violent crime reportedly doubled on the CTA rail system by the end of 2020. To make matters worse, the CTA experienced drastic service cuts as well, further degrading the experience of its commuters.

Three years after the first stay-at-home orders were issued,  only half of Chicago’s office workers had returned to the office, and the CTA continues to frustrate commuters with unreliable and unsafe transit options. The effect of these conditions is abundantly evident in the CTA’s low ridership, which by March of 2023 inspires little hope of recovery to pre-pandemic volume.

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