How Chicago Regional Transportation Authority Used GIS to Make Better Decisions
In northeastern Illinois, geographic information system tools are helping redefine transit services in the post pandemic era.
The global coronavirus 2016 (COVID-19) pandemic is widely viewed as the cause of many of the changes currently seen in the public transit sector. In truth, it was less the initial igniting point and more of an accelerant. Telecommuting was already increasing in many industries, and in absolute terms, public transit utilization was already declining.
The lockdowns that occurred during the early stages of the pandemic certainly caused explosive growth in telecommuting as well as the resultant near-total collapse of ridership in some locations. The situation also brought into sharp focus the absolute need of some for access to transit and exposed the glaring racial and socioeconomic disparities in transportation accessibility.
The pandemic also brought to the fore a new category of public transit rider, referred to as "essential workers"—those employed in emergency response and health care, food production and food service, manufacturing and transportation, and even the public transit sector itself. Added to essential workers are those for whom mobility, in the form of transit, fulfills essential nonprofessional needs—access to dependent relatives as well as food, medical care, and other services.
A common denominator of many of these individuals and groups is that they were from some of the most economically disadvantaged communities.
As COVID-19 recedes, previous travel habits will return, but likely not to the degree of the past. People will go back to the office, but perhaps not every day; ridership for nonessential social reasons will increase as people regain their confidence in public spaces—but, for many, the habits of interaction learned over the last few years will persist.
Society is at a watershed, and work and social commuting patterns are likely to be permanently changed. And building back will require fresh perspectives and approaches to better match common mobility requirements. Perhaps the biggest single shift will be away from concentrating on traditional commuter patterns.
This drives much of the Regional Transportation Authority's (RTA) research into future service provision. Its studies have introduced the concept of Critical Need Areas (CNAs)—geographies for which regular, dependable transit services are a must. CNAs are defined by having greater-than-average densities of residents who are most likely to use transit services for commuting, need transit services in general, and work in industries that require a physical presence.
The RTA, the Pandemic's Effects, and Emergency Funding
The RTA, based in Chicago, is the financial, budgetary, and planning oversight agency for the three service boards—transit providers—in northeastern Illinois. The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) operates a rapid transit and bus system serving the city of Chicago and 35 surrounding suburbs, Metra operates the region's 11 commuter rail routes, and Pace operates the suburban bus system and regional Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-compliant paratransit services.
Before COVID-19, each weekday—across six counties with 7,200 transit route miles—the service boards provided nearly two million rides. Throughout the pandemic, the Chicago region's transit system continued to provide an average of 500,000 trips per day to transit-dependent people and essential workers. However, by January 2021, excluding ADA-compliant paratransit services, weekday ridership was down 74 percent compared to 2019, with associated, catastrophic effects on fare revenues.
Under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the RTA received and expedited distribution of more than $1.4 billion of funding to cover regional operating costs to maintain service and offset lost revenues. These funds were added to under the subsequent Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021 (CRRSAA), when an additional $486.2 million was allocated to the greater Chicago urbanized area.
Steps toward Defining the Future
Throughout the summer of 2020, the RTA increased information sharing with stakeholders and the public, developed recovery scenarios, sought stakeholder input on recovery strategies, and continually worked with elected bodies and officials. In fall 2020, as the second wave of the pandemic hit, the RTA shifted to preparing to sustain transit in 2021 and beyond.
A three-step strategy was developed. This involved adopting a 2021 budget that reflected the realities of the October–December 2020 period; executing that budget across the January–June 2021 period (while making adjustments as necessary); and considering—from around May 2021—how to reinvent regional transit for the post-2023 time frame.
Policy priorities were also developed to help identify funding solutions and ways to sustain critical transit services. An increasingly transparent approach was adopted for communicating with stakeholders and the public about projected budget shortfalls, impending cuts, and other potential disruptions to service.
"A Moment in Time"
Peter Kersten, principal planner at RTA, says that the geographic information system (GIS)-supported work to define future services has served to affirm decisions that were already in progress, rather than charting a wholly new direction. What is different now, he continues, is how the future decision-making processes are informed and influenced.
"The project analysis and what it led to are very much a product of the pandemic and a moment in time," Kersten says. "The CARES Act sustained things, but as time went on, we could see that ridership really wasn't coming back. There were going to be significant impacts on funding—the CRRSAA funding would cover us for a portion of time but there was no guaranteed funding beyond."
Kersten makes clear distinctions about the RTA's role, which is primarily financial and planning oversight, while each of the three service boards is responsible for the actual service planning.
"From a 40,000-foot level, we were prioritizing federal relief money in ways that would maximize investment around sustaining critical services. This meant, first, defining the CNAs and, second, prioritizing funding services that operated in these areas," Kersten says.
"To define the CNAs," he continues, "we started with people and their home location and, for the most part, publicly available datasets. From there, we identified above-average densities in three different areas: transit propensity, which focuses on workers most likely to use transit for their commute; equity, which focuses on people who are more likely to need transit to access their essential needs; and high-mobility industries or, more specifically, jobs that require people to [show up] in person and on-site. The first two built upon existing market analysis, while the high-mobility industries [involved a COVID-19]-specific approach where we used NAICS [North American Industry Classification System] codes and other census data to expand the 'essential worker' definition to include jobs that needed to be done in person."
Five criteria helped define areas of equity: nonwhite populations, low-income households, limited English-language proficiency households, individuals' age groups, and people with handicaps.
"The service boards were on the front lines, operating critical transit service to keep the region moving throughout the worst of the pandemic," Kersten says. "We used the phrase 'heroes moving heroes' to describe that time. Each of the three operators took different approaches to service modifications. Pace and Metra, which both operate across the RTA's entire six-county region, enacted service reductions. Pace concentrated on maintaining decent headways and frequencies on core trunk routes. Metra, which is downtown-commuter focused, reduced service overall while exploring new service patterns on specific lines. CTA, which is more urban, maintained full service throughout the pandemic—arguing that fewer people may have been riding but that frequency and reliability are key to connecting people with opportunity.
"The analysis supported the different approaches. It showed that the CNAs fall largely within the city of Chicago and suburban Cook County and thus prioritized funding services operating in these areas," Kersten continues.
As the region takes a more front-and-center stance on equity, the analysis, says Kersten, has "come to be seen as reading the winds" in terms of how the transit system may need to adjust after the pandemic.
"A lot of these trends are going to be durable," he states. "Telecommuting is here to stay, and a downtown commuter-focused system may not serve our region as well tomorrow as it has in the past. The RTA is in the process of developing the region's next transit strategic plan, which is guided by the principles of equity, stewardship, and a commitment to change. And the service boards are adapting and innovating to meet changing and unmet needs of the diverse communities we serve."
A more data-driven strategy coincides with the federal government's placing greater emphasis on equity.
GIS and Data Presentation
Throughout the pandemic, the RTA has made significant use of GIS with dashboards and ArcGIS StoryMaps stories that allow the agency to not only conduct careful analyses, but also more effectively communicate with board members, the service agencies, and the public.
A main advantage over other solutions is the ease with which information can be presented and intuitively navigated, even by those with limited technical knowledge. This has meant that complex narratives about service changes and why they were happening could be presented to a wide audience in ways that were easily accessible and made sense. Particularly useful, given the pace at which events unfolded, was the speed at which dashboards and mapping apps could be updated—in essence, the public and other stakeholders were being informed in real time.
The same holds true when communicating the results of the CNA analysis, says Hersh Singh, principal analyst.
"A multifaceted analysis with three components and numerous other subcomponents really needed an interactive [mapping application], Singh says. "From the outset, we were all agreed that it needed far more than a static PDF document—especially as the information was going to be map heavy with a lot of descriptive text. The ability to zoom in and out made StoryMaps perfect for the job." (Go to https://bit.ly/3KBkRWb.)
Reception was positive, according to Kersten. That included support from advocacy groups, which were enthusiastic about both the results themselves and how the analysis could be used to guide decision-making.
"Looking forward, equity is a component of change," Kersten concludes. "This analysis was, again, a moment in time and does not represent a new funding model. We need to continue to develop our understanding of equity in a region of our size and population diversity, but identification of the CNAs informs how we can begin to adapt to changing and unmet needs. That's something we can now focus on."