CHICAGO — Whether you are a Monday through Friday 9 to 5 employee, or love to live-up the nightlife, you’ve likely experienced a change in traffic patterns on the city’s expressways and local streets.
The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) tracks a wide range of data points related to travel within its designated seven-county region. When WGN asked about comparisons between today’s commutes and those before the pandemic, the organization provided a bit of their analysis.
As travel restrictions disappeared and the region re-opened, roadway congestion has continued towards pre-pandemic levels with some isolated areas even surpassing marks from about three years ago, according to CMAP. While specifics were still being ironed out, they stated with certainty that “when” and “how” people travel are very different today.
“We’ve been working to better understand the regional impact of changes on things like congestion, emissions, and system finances,” CMAP Executive Director Erin Aleman said.
More people working from home means less people on the roads, right? Not so fast
About 20% of workers across the region now work from home fulltime or as a part of a hybrid position. That is quadruple the 5% who did so in December 2019. What’s more, the agency’s latest estimate shows up to 23% of all workers in the region could work from home within the next decade on a more permanent basis. That’s way up from the agency’s pre-pandemic estimate of up to 8%.
Seemingly as a result of this work-at-home shift, CMAP has found a number of trips by car are now happening on different days, different times and often closer to the driver’s home. Their analysis shows fewer trips are being made during the traditional “rush hour.” Instead, they are more spread-out, making travel and congestion unpredictable.
And then there’s those trucks
Also adding into the unpredictability is the rise of truck traffic on Chicago’s expressways. As the below data table from CMAP shows, single-unit truck traffic (such as your average FedEx or UPS delivery truck) is up more than 20% as compared to the first week of March 2020, while combination truck traffic is up almost 10%. They believe these increases are directly related to an increase in e-commerce as consumers’ spending habits have shifted to more online ordering.
What about public transit?
Average ridership on major mass transit systems, however, remains well below its first week of March 2020 levels. CTA bus rides are down 34%, Pace rides are down 38%, CTA rail rides are down 37%, and Metra rides are down 49%, according to data collected by CMAP.
“The other point I wanted to call attention to is that data shows that if just 25% of those who took transit pre-COVID were to use a car instead, drivers throughout the region would sit in gridlock and spend an extra 193,000 hours on the road each weekday,” Aleman said. “That could mean a loss of over $1 billion annually in productivity costs.”
In summary, you’re not imagining it
Traffic around your home has likely increased while average travel times to downtown on the region’s interstates are back to pre-pandemic levels. And, as Aleman noted, if those commuters who used to be mass transit riders don’t return to the trains and buses, congestion on the roadways will only get worse.
The agency does more than collect data. They analyze the information in an effort to find solutions to transportation challenges and guide high-level, big picture decision making.
“How can we reimagine our system so that it better serves everyone? A system that gets people where they need to go faster, reliably, safely and affordably; one that provides access to opportunity, education, jobs and other necessities; a system that keeps racial equity, climate change, and economic development top of mind,” Aleman said. “As the region’s transportation planning agency, CMAP is working closely with our partners on big, bold solutions to these challenges. To meet a legislative mandate, we are developing a proposed plan that focuses on the system we want, how to pay for it and how to implement it.”
That plan is called ON TO 2050. It is the agency’s long-range proposal for Northeastern Illinois and includes numerous recommendations aimed at growing the economy, preparing the region for rapid changes, and targeting areas and projects to maximize benefit to commuters. In other words, their focus includes tackling traffic on Chicago’s roads.