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Good news: Regional transit ridership reaches new high as CTA, Metra, and Pace increase service, offer new fare products

June 28, 2024

A crowd of people waits on the Cermak-Chinatown Red Line CTA platform as a train approaches.

Ridership across Chicago’s transit system has continued to increase, with May 2024 seeing the highest ridership levels since 2019 for CTA, Metra, and Pace. The figures represent nearly 14 percent year-over-year growth for all fixed routes on three Service Boards combined. The three operators provided more than 32 million rides in May, bringing the system to 64 percent recovery compared to 2019 levels. Since January, more than 144 million rides have been taken, an increase of 18 million rides compared to 2023.

According to CTA, active Ventra accounts are at 97 percent of pre-pandemic levels, showing that the number of people who ride transit have largely returned, but they are riding less due to flexible work arrangements and other travel pattern changes since the pandemic. All three transit operators continue to work to adapt their services to meet the changing needs of riders, one of the action items from the RTA’s regional transit strategic plan, Transit is the Answer.

CTA

CTA has returned 48 bus routes to near pre-COVID-19 scheduled service levels through June of this year, and the improvement is seeing results. CTA bus recovery in May crossed 77 percent of 2019 levels, making it the fixed-route service with the highest recovery rate in the system. Added bus service has boosted ridership; routes that have seen improved schedules have had a 21 percent increase in ridership, compared to a 14 percent rise on routes without added buses.

CTA rail recovery in May was 59 percent of 2019 levels. In April, CTA announced new spring rail service timetables and plans for increasing rail service throughout summer as new rail operators complete training and are added into service. The agency is on track to train up to 200 new operators, double the number trained in 2023, and plans to return rail service to pre-pandemic levels this year.

CTA’s 2024 budget set a ridership recovery goal of 64 percent of 2019 levels for the year. At 67 percent overall year-to-date ridership recovery, this goal is expected to be surpassed at year’s end.

Metra

Metra weekday ridership recovery in May crossed 58 percent of 2019 levels. May 21 set a record for post‐pandemic Metra ridership with 197,520 riders, surpassing even the previous high set August 2, 2023, for Lollapalooza. Metra also carried more than 31,000 bicycles in May, nearly twice as many as in May 2019. In April, Metra sold more than 50,000 monthly passes, breaking its own post-pandemic record for the second month in a row.

Metra added service to the Union Pacific North Line and opened the new Peterson/Ridge Station in May, and added late evening service on the Milwaukee District North Line in June. The agency also added weekend service to the BNSF line in April. In February, Metra unveiled a new, simpler fare structure, reducing 10 fare zones to four and setting cost at or below pre-pandemic levels.

Pace

Pace ridership recovery in May crossed 62 percent of 2019 levels. This growth is largely being driven by Pace Pulse, the agency’s rapid transit service. Pace launched the Pulse Milwaukee Line in 2019 and the Pulse Dempster Line in August 2023, bringing fast, frequent service between Evanston and O’Hare. Three additional Pulse corridors are currently in project development including Halsted, 95th Street, and Cermak—all of which are likely to drive even greater ridership gains when service begins.

In addition to Pace Pulse, the agency rolled out lower fares and additional integrated unlimited-ride passes to make the rider experience more seamless and affordable in 2023. Pace also deployed more real-time bus tracker signs throughout its service area and launched a new user-friendly trip planning platform last year. Construction projects like the Harvey Transportation Center and South Campus project in Markham offer an improved experience for riders waiting for their bus. Pace has also begun offering free fares on Pace fixed-route services for all ADA Paratransit customers.

Pace’s budget assumed ridership at 55 percent of pre-pandemic levels for the year. At 64 percent year-to-date ridership recovery, this goal is expected to be surpassed at year’s end.

Regional transit’s fiscal cliff: Join the Transit is the Answer Coalition

Public transit plays an essential role in the lives of millions of riders across the Chicago region and has the potential to reach even more people. But the rise of remote and hybrid work and its staying power post-COVID have resulted in significant losses in fare revenue and exacerbated the issue that most systems nationally have been experiencing for decades: drastic underfunding of public transportation. Increasing investment in transit is key to advancing equity, growing our economy, and combating climate change.

The RTA system is facing a $730 million annual operating shortfall starting in 2026, which is expected to grow with the cost of providing service in future years. Increasing funding to fill this gap would prevent severe service cuts and fare increases and help the region’s transit operators improve service, grow ridership, and create a more equitable system.

Ridership gains and enhanced service have only been possible because of flexible COVID relief funding. And while these gains are good news, this alone will not fill the gap. The region cannot afford to have this momentum interrupted by service cuts that will come if a funding solution to the coming fiscal cliff is not found.

No single revenue source will solve the fiscal cliff on its own. RTA is working with partners and local, state and federal officials to explore a range of options for new revenue while implementing a strategic plan focused on building a safer, more reliable, and more accessible system. Join the Transit is the Answer Coalition to advocate for sustainable funding for public transportation.

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Tagged in: Transit is the Answer | RTAMS | CTA | Metra | Pace | Fiscal cliff

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