The Chicago Transit Authority and Current Ridership Numbers
With a 2022 population of 9.4 million, the Chicago metropolitan area is one of the world’s largest economic hubs, serving as home to hundreds of major corporate headquarters including many Fortune 500 companies. Needless to say, that in such a region, the accessibility and quality of public transportation is of paramount importance.
Mass transit in the Chicago metro area is the responsibility of the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) which offers services via its three lower agencies: the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), Metra and Pace. Metra and Pace are responsible for providing regional transit services while the CTA handles the City of Chicago and 35 adjacent suburbs.
The CTA is an independent governmental agency that began operating in 1948 after acquiring the Chicago Rapid Transit Company and Chicago Surface Lines. It generates revenue via farebox collections and funding received from the RTA. Presently, the CTA operates one of the country’s largest (second only to New York City) rail/bus systems, with an average weekday ridership of 0.9 million. As of October 2023, monthly system ridership totaled 26.8 million. The system, known as the “L” consists of heavy rail, rapid transit with 8 distinct routes, 145 stations and about 224 miles of rail track. (Fun Fact: The “L” is a short form for “elevated” which references the early periods of the system where the train lines were raised above ground. However, today, parts of the “L” run through subway tunnels and tubes.)
Mixed Reactions to Chicago Public Transit
It is interesting to note that the Chicago public transit system is highly ranked on a global scale. Time Out surveyed over 20,000 city residents from 50 cities around the world. Their inquiries revolved around gauging the ease in which residents can get around. Chicago ranked 17th overall, while the only other U.S. city that made the list was New York at 15th place. However, one can hardly deny the fact that post-pandemic, the CTA has been experiencing some difficult challenges the same as many agencies have been experiencing. The agency has been struggling to overcome workforce gaps which leads to inconsistent and delayed services. Additionally, customers have complained of extended wait times and issues with safety and cleanliness. This isn’t surprising given that CTA-reported KPI data notes that in November 2023, there were approximately 200 total rail delays of 10 minutes or more and each was a result of issues ranging from maintenance, passenger disturbance, track and signal complications, to name a few. Moreover, in October 2023, riders lodged 1700+ systemwide complaints regarding on-rail smoking, irate passengers, lack of ADA compliance and janitorial issues.
Nevertheless, it is heartening to see that CTA authorities are trying to “meet the moment” by implementing new rules that allow them to directly hire full time operators as opposed to part-timers and offering workforce benefits such as bonuses and increased starting salaries. CTA leadership is also focused on developing new means of targeting fare theft, preventing fare evasion, and expanding security deployments and officer patrols at stations.
The Way Forward
As the new year unfolds, the CTA has proposed a $1.99 billion (a 9.2 percent increase over 2023) operating budget that maintains the fare as it currently stands, but aims to add additional services to accommodate increasing ridership while remaining open to investment regarding system upgrades and modernization. The proposal includes the upkeep of ongoing initiatives such as new hiring and personnel retention plans, but also introduces various new measures to enhance customer experience. This includes improved security, a new chatbot for improved customer service as well as the provision of pre-loaded Ventra cards to victims of domestic violence.
This proposal comes as an addition to the existing CTA initiative called “All Stations Accessibility Program” (ASAP), which was introduced in July 2018. The initiative is currently striving to develop a design for making non-accessible rail stations vertically accessible by 2038 and has secured funding to replace 14 stations. ASAP goes beyond federal requirements and includes plans for the replacement of over 160 station elevators, as well as improvements to system signage to assist the visually impaired.
Given the size and significance of Chicago as a social, economic, and tourist hub, these enhancements to the region’s public transit system are surely a welcome and prudent investment.
Uswa Mutaal is an analyst at ESI. She graduated from Drexel University with a Bachelor of Science in Economics and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science, with a minor in legal studies. Her work at the firm focuses on ESI’s Transportation & Infrastructure practice.