How the Regional Transportation Authority of Chicago Uses GIS as a Foundation
Geographic information system (GIS) technology provides the foundation for an array of information products that the Regional Transportation Authority of Chicago uses to conduct and monitor operations and keep the public informed.
Transit agencies generate and process large amounts of data daily. Much of this data is routine and necessary for day-to-day operations. But when expertly integrated and repurposed, this data can become essential for monitoring service performance and communicating effectively. Diverse audiences—whether elected officials, decision-makers, or residents—need to rely on easy-to-understand data content, and in the case of RTA, GIS provides the perfect foundation for disseminating this information.
RTA has assembled much of this information into a portal designed to maximize public transparency, engage the authority's riders, and build better relationships across different communities.
Bringing GIS to the Masses
The Regional Transportation Authority (RTA), based in Chicago, is the financial, budgetary, planning and oversight agency for the three transit service operators in northeastern Illinois: the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), which operates a rapid transit and bus system serving the city of Chicago and 35 surrounding suburbs; Metra, which operates the region's commuter rail system that includes 11 routes; and Pace, which operates the suburban bus system and regional Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-compliant paratransit services. Collectively, before the COVID-19 pandemic, the service boards provided nearly two million rides each weekday in six counties, traveling 7,200 transit route miles.
In January 2022, the RTA launched a public-facing GIS portal—a central online repository and single point of access to many of the RTA's GIS-based information products. A majority of these were created by and for the RTA, but the portal provides public access to interactive mapping apps, dashboards, downloadable datasets, and other information resources.
The portal currently hosts more than 20 applications, grouped into four different categories. These include RTA Mapping and Statistics (RTAMS) applications, which provide an overview of RTA projects such as the authority's Transit Oriented Development program and Transit Signal Priority systems; dashboards used for tracking ridership and other strategic performance measures; Strategic Planning applications, which describe the authority's strategic initiatives (such as RTA's innovative mobility pilot programs as well as its transit equity initiatives, called Transit Critical Need areas); and Community Planning applications, which capture the RTA's various local and community planning efforts. In addition, there are a wealth of other maps and datasets, including the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) datasets for each of the three service providers.
Having ArcGIS Online applications scattered throughout the organization, stored in silos or buried in email chains, drove the decision to develop the portal, says Hersh Singh, principal analyst at RTA.
"I wanted something that was simple," says Singh, "just something that could showcase content. The home page was super easy to build. It was all constructed within the GIS framework, which makes it very easy to achieve a consistent, clean, impressive look.
"It's now pretty much self-sustaining and requires very little maintenance," Singh continues. "That's good because if, say, the community planning team creates a new [interactive] map, all it has to do is give it a thumbnail; add it to its group; and boom, it pops up on the site."
Singh adds, "The GIS portal came about not so much because we wanted an external product, but because we were creating so much external content and needed a centralized location for all of it." Simplicity, he notes, does not mean a lack of functionality, citing as examples the home page's hosting of feature layers and the downloadable shapefiles for all of the RTA's six-county region.
Dashboards are a key tool for disseminating the trends and metrics of transportation. "We can show, for example, how the pandemic has impacted transit ridership. Regional movements on all modes are up 2 percent, but transit is still down 50 percent. We can show why, [as well as] the impacts on revenues and taxes, on a series of easy-to-understand graphs," explains Singh.
GIS and dashboards have also significantly enhanced visibility. "For example," Singh says, "community planning works specifically with multiple municipalities on transit-oriented development projects, aiming to make transit more accessible, attractive, and sustainable. A lot goes on behind the scenes, and the team was struggling to show how it does a lot of detailed work across the region. An interactive [mapping app] with nice images is a far more attractive, accessible way to showcase the work and make people take notice than a 120-page PDF."
Singh notes, "Before we started using dashboards, I don't know where the public would have gone to get data like this. They'd really have to dig for it or make numerous requests and then postprocess it. Perhaps a policy person may have been able to do that, but certainly not the average citizen. Now anyone can see our performance and a number of our metrics.
"We're still disseminating this at this stage as this is still a relatively new resource. We'll expand based on the feedback from the public as to what it wants to see. Right now, on the data side, what we have is the bare bones—buses, train lines, railway stations, and data downloads. At some point we may add a network dataset for users to run their own network analyses. We may make census data shapefiles available that have been aggregated at some level."
Providing information about services during the pandemic was the RTA's first foray into public-facing dashboards. Like so many other authorities, the RTA not only had to carry on providing mobility to transit-dependent riders and essential workers, it also saw a massive falloff in ridership. As of June 2020, the RTA system had experienced a 76 percent decline in ridership relative to 2019, with Metra ridership down 95 percent, Pace down 63 percent, CTA rail down 85 percent, and CTA bus down 64 percent.
Singh created a dashboard to show sales taxes, fare revenues, ridership, and service levels during the pandemic. The dashboard's success led many departments within the RTA to ask for something similar. He has since added a dashboard to illustrate strategic performance, using various metrics to show performance over time, and is recently introduced.
"[Dashboards are] a very easy, clean, always-live way to show data in tabular or chart form," he states. "In terms of strategic planning, showing how we're doing requires very specific information on vehicle revenue miles, capital expenditures, operating costs, fare revenues, and so on. In temporal and tabular forms, we can present a lot of specific metrics and show year-on-year trends. A dashboard does the same job as a GIS map, essentially—it shows tabular data, trends, interesting patterns, and spatial analytics.
"Before the Strategic Measures dashboard, the relevant information was only maintained in Excel by one person. A dashboard takes the data out of one person's Excel [spreadsheet] and opens it out for the world to see. That's kind of cool."
The dashboards are used to report at monthly RTA board meetings. Previously, only year-to-date data was being presented, but now serial monthly data will be able to be shown. Accessing a particular statistic will no longer mean burrowing into a PowerPoint presentation to find a specific slide or figure.
The newest tool implemented on the RTA's dashboards is a category switcher. This enables users to easily access data for all three operating agencies. Using Excel, Singh notes, would have been cumbersome.
Using Data for Public Outreach
All of the information in the portal can be accessed directly or via the RTAMS website, which includes a collection of apps for accessing extensive data resources about the greater Chicago metropolitan area’s transit system.
The site has built a large following over a lengthy period, and an associated newsletter goes out regularly to a wide-ranging community of around 200 interested individuals. A site revamp in 2021 set out to improve transparency and add functionalities, such as the ability to easily download data. The arrival of the GIS portal is therefore very timely, according to Brad Thompson, manager of data services.
Furthermore, data forms a huge part of the relationships with both the media and the public, says communications specialist Jessica Cabe. "During the pandemic, for example, our [COVID-19] dashboard was very popular," Cabe says. "People were scrambling to find information and trying to find out what the damage was. It was really valuable to be able to share that data and say, 'Factually, this is what's happening.'"
Cabe continues, "We've been working to communicate more with the public about RTAMS and what's available. In addition to a blog which explains the portal and how to use it, we also have Transport Tuesdays, a webinar series which will offer demonstrations.
"We regularly check in to see if there's anything new or interesting. We use the data in lots of communications about projects and planning work. It's really helpful to the communications team to have this resource at our fingertips.
"A goal of ours is to start telling the stories that would be interesting to the general public and to find ways to tell those stories using the data that we have. In principle, that can be applied to just about anything—data validates and shapes the story," Cabe says.
In terms of the media picking up the new data resources, it is still early days, but Cabe notes that easily consumable data always improves relationships with journalists. "There's a lot of potential for journalistic outreach. Once you start doing that, they start coming to you with questions," she says. "A goal this year is to position the RTA as a thought leader in transportation. The communications team is currently expanding and that's the reason."
Determining Next Steps
Thompson sees Transportation Tuesdays—a webinar series that includes demos of the portal—as important in helping define who is using the portal and thus determine future portal content. A near-term addition will be some password-protected areas for RTA employees.
Thompson looks forward to what he calls the "clustering and bloom effects" of overlaying numerous projects on top of each other.
"We're also looking to show the spatial distribution of ridership activity across the region and on all modes," he says. "That's going to help us to see where routes are compared to [where they were before the pandemic] and to make informed decisions on future demand."
It is often said that storytelling forges connections between people and helps build trust. It is clear that, through its portal and the myriad of interactive maps it contains, RTA is attempting to take public transparency and engagement to a whole new level. And clearly that is part of its strategy to successfully emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.