Skip to main content

Take the Long View, Chicago, and Make Sure Public Transit Survives and Thrives Post-COVID-19

Image courtesy Chicago Sun-Times

This opinion piece first appeared on September 25, 2020 in the Chicago Sun-Times

COVID-19 has transformed the country and places the Chicago region at a transportation crossroads.

Will we take the long view and sustain public transit until ridership rebounds, while also expanding the network of resilient streets with extra space for walking, bicycling and buses?

Or, will we emerge from the pandemic even more dependent on cars as hundreds of thousands of former transit riders try to squeeze onto roads that already were congested before COVID-19?

The answer may depend on whether Congress steps up to support local governments working to promote more safe, healthy and sustainable transportation options during and after the pandemic.

Our roads cannot handle the “carpocalypse” that will result if public transit becomes unreliable just as travel increases to pre-COVID levels, not to mention the additional noise, air pollution, and traffic injuries.

Each year, about 7,000 people in the Chicago region are injured or killed in traffic crashes. Black Chicagoans are more than twice as likely to be killed in a traffic crash than white Chicagoans, and almost half of all fatal crash victims are Black.

The region’s persistent car dependency isolates our most vulnerable residents and makes it more difficult for people to access economic opportunity. The pandemic worsened inequities in our transportation network as many Black and Brown residents lack access to reliable transit and safe places to walk and bike. These same residents are less likely to have the privilege to work from home and more likely to rely on transit, walking and biking to get where they need to go.

With COVID crippling the budgets of local governments, federal and state funding is needed to help communities emerge from this crisis on a path toward a healthier transportation system. Congress must provide emergency assistance for transit agencies and state and local governments to support innovative transportation responses to the pandemic.

Walking, cycling and riding transit instead of driving also boosts community health through physical activity and promotes cleaner air. Indeed, people with underlying conditions (some of which are caused or exacerbated by pollution) are more susceptible to COVID-19. And those who live in more polluted areas are more likely to die from COVID-19.

To avoid a post-COVID carpocalypse, Chicago must expand its network of resilient streets that make walking, biking and transit safe, easy and fast.

For example, a recent analysis by Sam Schwartz Engineering found that up to 7,000 morning transit commuters on the Division Street corridor may be looking for another option as Chicago reopens. If no action is taken and streets remain as they are today, only 19% of displaced transit riders (1,700 people) are estimated to shift to walking or biking, potentially adding thousands of single-occupancy vehicle trips to the streets.

To help avoid this, Chicago can prioritize infrastructure improvements like protected bike lanes and pedestrian facilities that will enable more people to move efficiently and safely by walking and biking. Sam Schwartz Engineering estimates that additional bicycle and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure and designs on the Division Street corridor could accommodate 14,000 walking and cycling trips per day, helping save 38,000 vehicle miles traveled daily.

Adaptable, resilient streets accommodate all travel modes and make social distancing possible for people walking and riding buses and bikes. They also enable safe activities in public spaces, including dining outdoors. Walking and bicycling have surged during the pandemic, and building resilient streets can help continue that healthy trend.

Chicago, for example, continues to add bus and bike lanes while also creating “slow streets” and expanded sidewalks for restaurants and retail to better accommodate walking, cycling, and outdoor eating and shopping during COVID. Expanding these strategies in all neighborhoods during and after COVID is needed to create a diverse portfolio of transportation options that puts people first and isn’t overly dependent on owning and driving cars.

Local governments can’t do this on their own, especially with budgets decimated by the economic slow-down. In addition to emergency transit funding and relief for state and local governments, Congress should increase long-term funding for walking, cycling and transit as part of a new multi-year transportation bill currently being negotiated.

Moreover, last year the State of Illinois expanded local grant funding for walking and cycling that should make it easier to choose soles and spokes instead of a car.

With support at all levels of government, the Chicago area can enter the post-COVID era with a more resilient, equitable and sustainable transportation system.

Amy Rynell is executive director of the Action Transportation Alliance. MarySue Barrett is president of the Metropolitan Planning Council. Ron Burke is senior manager at Lyft Bikes and Scooters.