The past 18 months, the Chicago area and most of the rest of the world have been immersed in lockdowns, business closures, job layoffs and health precautions. In the midst of the emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, most of us found it hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel, let alone what shape our lives would take when it was finally safe to go out again.
Fortunately, the record-breaking speed with which effective vaccines were ready for the public has made it possible for most of us to return cautiously to some of our previous activities—and emerge into a changed world. Most economic sectors have undergone enormous stress and have been making plans to adapt to new realities to recover. This special report takes a look at four sectors—transportation, hospitality, entertainment and education—and examines how the pandemic affected their operations, what lessons they learned and how they are changing to ensure a bright future.
Part 1: How We Move
The Transportation Outlook
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The clatter of ‘L’ trains wending their way through Chicago neighborhoods is one of the city’s most iconic sounds, but this past year, it seemed to take on a forlorn tone. In normal times, the trains and platforms would be filled with a constant stream of passengers, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, with much of the workforce either working remotely or unemployed, ridership has been sparse, rupturing the established service model of the entire transportation sector. In the process, however, it has hastened innovations that, in many cases, were long overdue.
CTA and RTAThe Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) and the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA), the latter of which encompasses CTA, Metra and PACE bus and rail service, have undergone changes during the pandemic that are likely to become part of the “new normal.” With mass transit ridership, especially on Metra, down as much as 70% during the pandemic, Kirk Dillard (JD ’82), a partner with Locke Lord LLP and chairman of the RTA in Illinois, says, “We are using the pandemic as another reason to be constantly nimble and innovative in the way we provide services.”
Among the innovations the RTA and CTA were looking at even before COVID-19 struck is contracting with rideshare services like Uber and Lyft to close the last mile or so of the transportation loop not covered by other forms of public transit. “ The millennial workforce and Generation Xers are very bullish on the combination of ridesharing and mass transit,” Dillard continues.
In addition, he says, “Through a new state infrastructure bill, Metra is purchasing new railcars for Metra, and CTA is building and testing new cars for the ‘L’ in Chicago.” As part of the RTA’s Green Transit Plan, he says, “we’re going to more electric and compressed natural gas buses. A bus saves probably 50 cars on the road a day. Thee new engines that Metra is buying, as well as the ones they’re refurbishing, pollute and discharge far less than the older engines. We will modify our equipment, especially buses, with respect to the ridership levelsthat will or will not return.”
“Neighborhood bus service was quite resilient during the pandemic, with some routes back to 70% of pre-pandemic ridership levels,” says Professor Joseph Schwieterman, director of DePaul’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development and president of the Chicago Chapter of the Transportation Research Forum. “But we don’t expect the downtown Chicago rail transit market to fully rebound anytime soon. Transit agencies will need to place less emphasis on rush-hour service and more on fast and effective service throughout the day. This situation may mean more express bus service, or revamping or reintroducing the idea of express trains on select routes.”
With fewer business commuters, the RTA and CTA are looking for more opportunities to provide services to tourists. “We’re already planning for the Obama library,” Dillard says. “We’re constantly working on improvements to the Museum Campus and McCormick Place. In fact, one of the very first calls I ever received as chairman of the RTA was from the executive director of McCormick Place, who asked if we could improve its Metra station.”
In terms of rail freight, “it only takes a quick drive through the South Side and south suburbs to see what a massive role Chicago plays,” says Schwieterman, “and great things are happening to unclog our system through the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency (CREATE) Program.” CREATE is a first-of-its-kind partnership among the U.S. Department of Transportation, the State of Illinois, Cook County, the City of Chicago, Metra, Amtrak and the nation’s freight railroads that is designed to modernize the region’s rail network to add capacity, reduce travel times and improve safety.
Coming out of the pandemic, Schwieterman says that “Amtrak remains on a roller coaster, but most people are bullish about Amtrak’s recovery in part because of our growing appetite for pleasure travel. We’re getting new cars for the Midwest system that will enter service soon, giving an image boost to Amtrak service. Speeds are being increased on the St. Louis route, and there’s a push to add more trains on the Milwaukee corridor. Exciting things are also happening on the Chicago-to-Detroit route.”
The airline industry was hit hard by the pandemic. “The airlines faced an existential crisis,” Schwieterman says, “but have rounded the corner and have a mostly favorable prognosis.” Nonetheless, all is not smooth sailing, particularly as businesses conduct more remote conferencing. Air travel may not come back financially for years, which, Schwieterman says, “will force our big airlines, particularly United, to reorient their networks. Without dedicated business travelers, that will likely mean bigger planes and fewer flights, with an emphasis on offering rock bottom fares.”
One potential bright spot is Midway Airport. Midway has made major improvements to its checkpoints, which Schwieterman believes will position it for higher passenger travel for years to come. He says that Southwest Airlines, which has a hub at Midway, “is coming out
of the pandemic with great momentum.” The airline has opened 17 additional stations across the United States in the past year, including highly prized gates at O’Hare Airport.
“The real wild card is whether international travel will be suppressed for years to come due to the lingering effects of the pandemic,” Schwieterman says. “People are quick to avoid international trips when there’s any sign of risk.” Given the threat of COVID-19 variants and diffculties India and developing countries are having obtaining vaccines and controlling the spread of the virus, there is reason for caution, particularly as travel and trade open up in other parts of the world.
Bicycles, streets and sidewalks“What happened during the pandemic is that bike traffic went up,” says Alex Perez, an advocacy manager and data analyst for the Active Transportation Alliance, a Chicago-based nonprofit advocacy organization that works to improve conditions for bicycling, walking and transit.
“Once it started getting warmer and people were trying to find recreational things to do, you saw the sale of bikes explode,” Perez says. “Bike shops were struggling to get affordable bikes into their stores. Trails definitely saw an increase in use, mainly for recreation and fresh air.”
The data on bikeways, trail connections, scooters and Divvy, he says, shows Chicago isn’t keeping up with the amount of bike lane installations needed. “The city could have been doing a lot more work to get more bike lanes—especially protected bike lanes—installed in the network.
“During the pandemic, you started seeing a decrease in drivers on the road, but you also started seeing an increase in the serious injuries for bicyclists and pedestrians. In fact, they almost doubled,” Perez continues. “The data suggests that a lot of that could be from drivers having free range to speed or not paying attention.”
Perez adds, “You saw an increase in Divvy use during the pandemic. Looking at the data, you could see that people were using it as an alternative to public transit. So instead of having to wait for a bus or a train, they would take a Divvy or a scooter to get to their destinations to avoid being in a crowded bus or train. They also used those bikes and scooters to get to a bus stop or a train station.” Divvy’s new pedal-assist, dockless bikes in all 50 wards also seem to be a hit with the public.
Walking also increased during the pandemic as a way to get out, get some exercise and, of course, reach a destination. “Going forward, a lot of the work has to be done to improve sidewalks that are in disrepair or missing, as well as bridges people walk under. A lot of them are in disrepair as well,” says Perez. “That’s going to be important for people who rely on walking, especially in communities where the infrastructure is crumbling.”
So, too, has the pandemic encouraged rethinking about how to use streets more creatively to help communities. Schwieterman says, “Sidewalks have become outdoor cafes and add some ambience to neighborhoods. People enjoy dining in interesting outdoor spaces. I think we’re going to see that as a permanent feature of our cityscape.”