Tackling CTA service could play a role in Chicago’s climate efforts

In 2018, regional planners affirmed an aspirational goal for Chicago transit: doubling ridership on buses and trains.

Expanding transit was seen as critical to meeting the region’s goals to limit greenhouse gas emissions. And later the city of Chicago reiterated the idea in its own climate plan, calling to increase CTA ridership 20% over 2019 levels by the end of this decade.

But the pandemic decimated ridership, dealing a blow to what advocates describe as one of the quickest ways to reduce emissions. Drawing people back will mean running frequent, reliable service that matches changing demand for where people want to go and when, they said.

Running frequent and reliable service since the pandemic has been a challenge for the CTA, the largest of the region’s transit agencies. Adding to the difficulties facing the transit agencies is a fiscal cliff looming when federal pandemic aid runs out.

The repercussions of these challenges for climate efforts are one more example of what’s at stake for Chicago as the transit agencies work to draw back riders.

“Right now, (transit is) our best bet for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the near term,” said Erin Aleman, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

The Regional Transportation Authority doesn’t project the region’s ridership will come back this decade. In 2022, the agency estimated ridership could hit 74% of pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2031 if current circumstances persist, though RTA staff said the figures are likely conservative. In May, the CTA carried 69% of the passengers it transported in 2019.

Planners acknowledge the goals to boost ridership were ambitious even when they were set. And they are just one of many strategies to address climate change outlined in separate reports from CMAP and the city of Chicago. Those goals also call for making buildings more energy efficient, shifting to electric transportation and renewable energy sources and encouraging more walking and cycling.

Without action, climate-related weather events like extreme cold, extreme heat and flooding will continue to wreak havoc on Chicago neighborhoods, the brunt of which is often borne by low-income communities of color, which may have fewer resources to handle extreme weather, said Nina Idemudia, CEO of the Center for Neighborhood Technology.

“The things that we already are experiencing will just be exacerbated,” she said.

Encouraging bus, train use

Some of the drop in transit ridership comes from former white-collar commuters spending fewer days commuting to their offices, which doesn’t contribute to the region’s emissions, environmental experts said. But the number of miles driven in Cook County has still ticked up since 2020, reaching nearly 94% of 2019 levels last year, according to figures from the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Commuters prepare to board a CTA Yellow Line train at Howard Station on May 15, 2024. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)
Commuters prepare to board a CTA Yellow Line train at the Howard Station on May 15, 2024. (Antonio Pérez/Chicago Tribune)

Transportation made up about 23% of the Chicago region’s emissions in 2020, second only to industrial emissions and on par with commercial building emissions, according to a plan released in March from the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus and CMAP. Most of the transportation emissions come from cars, SUVs, small trucks and other smaller vehicles on the road.

The best way to address transportation emissions is to get people out of cars and onto buses and trains, said Kevin Brubaker, deputy director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center. Public transit is already running, so eliminating a trip by car can immediately lower emissions, he said.

More transit ridership also makes living in dense areas possible, which can limit emissions even more, he said. Drugstores and grocery stores can be within walking distance, homes can be smaller and any heat leaking out of a condo can go to a neighbor’s unit in the same building instead of dissipating outside a single family home. Living in that type of downtown environment is most feasible when transit is available to make ends meet for the trips that aren’t walkable, or for those unable to bike, he said.

Even though most of the region’s buses are still powered by diesel fuel, which contributes to emissions, taking a diesel bus generally means fewer emissions than driving in a car, Brubaker said. And as more of the city’s buses become powered by electricity — the CTA plans to convert its fleet to electric by 2040 — the effects of taking a bus will be even greater, he said.

“What’s bad for the climate is the people who have given up on public transit and are driving to work instead,” he said.

Taking more cars off the road also has another added benefit for the trucks that will remain, said Dany Robles, legislative relations director for the Illinois Environmental Council. Fewer cars means less congestion, so delivery trucks, industrial vehicles and other cars left on the road will spend less time idling and move more efficiently, reducing their emissions, too, he said.

But getting more people on transit could require boosting transit service. In one example, long wait times on the CTA have been enough to drive Dixon Galvez-Searle to change his morning commute.

Dixon Galvez-Searle arrives on his bike at the Pulaski CTA Orange Line train station for a train ride to his job on June 11, 2024. Searle used to take a bus to the Orange Line but now bikes instead. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)
Dixon Galvez-Searle arrives on his bike at the Pulaski CTA Orange Line train station for a ride to his job on June 11, 2024. He used to take a bus to the Orange Line but now bikes instead. (Antonio Pérez/Chicago Tribune)

Galvez-Searle, a transit advocate with The Southwest Collective, used to regularly take a bus to the Pulaski Orange Line train stop on his way to work in the morning from his Southwest Side neighborhood. He knew if he left the house by 7:50 a.m., the bus would arrive within a minute or two of when he reached the stop.

One summer day several years ago, when temperatures were already hot early in the morning, he recalled waiting for a bus that didn’t arrive. A bus tracker indicated he’d have to wait 20 more minutes, so he gave up and walked about a mile to the train stop.

Galvez-Searle now rarely takes the bus as part of his commute, preferring to walk or bike even in bad weather.

“I want to feel like I have some measure of control over my commute,” he said. “I know when I’m getting on my bike I don’t have to wait.”

Because he’s now walking or biking, Galvez-Searle’s change to his morning commute is not adding to or reducing emissions, though it’s a hit to CTA ridership. But even for other short trips around the neighborhood, Galvez-Searle said he now rarely relies on transit. He describes his neighborhood as “car-centric” with wide, busy streets like Pulaski Road and Cicero Avenue. Neighborhood residents routinely drive a handful of blocks to go to the store or eat at a restaurant, he said.

“Better transit just makes for an improved quality of life in the neighborhood,” he said.

Restoring transit service

The CTA cut back on the number of buses and trains it was running as it struggled in recent years to hire and retain enough staff to operate service. Embattled CTA President Dorval Carter has vowed to restore service to pre-pandemic levels this year, and the CTA said it is running more bus and train service than it was at the start of the year.

The agency recently acknowledged the link between service and bringing back riders, saying more riders came back to bus routes where service was added while gains on other bus routes were smaller.

In a statement, CTA officials said the agency was “well aware of its critical role for the City of Chicago and the surrounding metropolitan area to achieve future goals as it relates to climate, as well (as) the economy and livability of the region.” Along with touting its hiring and training efforts, the agency called for addressing “a decades-long lack of sufficient funding,” as the region debates the future of transit. The CTA gets 49% of the region’s public transportation funding, the agency said, but provides more than 80% of rides.

“The current funding formula must be corrected to better serve those who are most dependent on public transit services, and to also meet any goal of surpassing pre-pandemic levels of ridership,” the agency said in the statement.

The city’s Department of Environment, in a statement, acknowledged “various factors that determine progress in meeting our (climate plan) targets,” and said that was why the effort included a variety of strategies.

Still, transportation was “a priority” for the city, department officials said. They highlighted city efforts like adding protected bike lanes and expanding options like scooters and bike-share, and also electrifying city vehicles.

Focusing on electric vehicles is another attempt to address climate problems. Replacing fuel-powered cars with electric vehicles helps reduce emissions, but there will still be a need for public transit in Chicago, said Aymeric Rousseau, who leads the vehicle and mobility systems department at Argonne National Laboratory and its center for decarbonization solutions deployment. And electric vehicles can still produce other pollutants, like particulate matter that can be inhaled and cause health problems, he said.

“Even if all the vehicles were pure electric in the city, we would still have a significant increase in congestion,” he said. “We would still have issues in travel time. You put cars and trucks on the road, they create traffic.”

Rather, boosting transit can keep people from having to buy a car, he said. That keeps the cost of living down and leads to economic and environmental benefits, he said.

Rousseau is part of a team examining transportation and decarbonization in the region. While he doesn’t have an answer yet, he said ideas like bus rapid transit, which uses dedicated lanes and other methods to move buses quickly throughout the city, could play a role in boosting transit. So could making driving more expensive through congestion pricing.

Efforts are already underway to rethink service and boost ridership at some of the region’s transit agencies, Aleman, with CMAP, said. Pace has put in place a handful of Pulse rapid transit bus lines, which have limited stops, faster service and enhanced stations. And Metra is looking to run more service throughout the day, rather than focusing on peak commuting times.

Idemudia, with the Center for Neighborhood Technology, also called for focusing on the people who continue to rely on transit for their jobs and daily needs. And, she said, communities have clamored for more bus service on the Southwest Side since long before the pandemic, and Divvy bike-share stations within easy walking distance of stops.

After a state law went into effect this year requiring certain employers to offer pretax transit benefits, 72 companies signed up with an RTA-administered version of the program that allows commuters to use pretax money to pay transit fares, the agency said.

That can help convince those coming in a few days a week to use transit, rather than paying for parking, said Maulik Vaishnav, senior deputy executive director of planning and capital programming at the RTA. Also likely to help with ridership are investments in purchasing new vehicles and construction projects like expanding the CTA Red Line and overhauling a section of the north end of the Red Line, he said.

Advocates said increasing funding for transit and plugging a $730 million budget gap expected when federal COVID-19 relief funds run out is crucial, as they push for new public transportation money.

And increased CTA service, especially on the “L,” will also help, Vaishnav said.

“The faster we get more rail service on the ground, the more ridership will rebound,” he said.

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