CTA Ridership Remains Strong After 120 Years

Chicago’s transformational public transit system celebrated its 120th anniversary this past June, and the city’s system of trains and buses continues to grow in popularity.  According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA),  ridership on Chicago’s heavy rail systems (defined as subway and elevated train lines) has increased by 8.9 percent during the first quarter of 2012; if this trend continues, ridership could reach levels not seen since 1957, a sign that car-centric lifestyles are becoming a fad of the past.

While commuting via car had become commonplace by the end of the 20th century, rising fuel costs, a poor economy, and concerns about the environment have contributed to a 21st century resurgence of public transportation usage.  Numbers taken from CTA records show a clear correlation between increased transit ridership and the recession.

Chart showing CTA ridership, created using data from the CTA ridership reports.  http://www.transitchicago.com/news_initiatives/ridershipreports.aspx

Chart showing CTA ridership, created using data from the CTA ridership reports, http://www.transitchicago.com/news_initiatives/ridershipreports.aspx

Between 2008 and 2011, 11.3 percent more residents chose to ride a train or bus on an average weekday, while 33.2 percent more chose to ride on an average Saturday, and 39.6 on an average Sunday.  High gas prices and the increasingly high costs of car ownership make car-centric lifestyles seem frivolous and untenable. Public transportation provides a viable solution to Chicago’s congestion, access, and mobility problems and the newest generation of urbanites is making it clear that they choose transit over cars.

This recent CTA data also reveals something deeper about the consciousness of people choosing sustainable transportation. The automobile age is in a slow decline and the way we view and invest in transportation networks needs to adapt.  The heyday of the exurbs is over, and lifestyles are no longer arranged around a car.  Our neighbor to the southwest, Kendall County, is proving this point: between 2000 and 2010, Kendall County was the fastest growing county in the entire nation, but in 2011 growth came to a standstill, and Kendall’s standing plummeted to 236.

Investments in car-centric, expansive residential neighborhoods like the ones in Kendall are becoming rare as we move out of the recession. Chicagoans are supporting walkable communities, transit-oriented developments, and reduced traffic and air pollution.  As the CTA numbers reveal, our city is becoming a national model during this turning point for American attitudes toward public transit.

Chart showing reduced Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT), from IDOT's 2011 report on travel statistics, http://www.dot.state.il.us/travelstats/2011_ITS.pdf

Chart showing reduced Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT), from IDOT's 2011 report on travel statistics, http://www.dot.state.il.us/travelstats/2011_ITS.pdf

Additional supporting evidence for this shift away from cars can be seen in data from the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) for vehicle miles traveled (VMT) within Cook County between 2007 and 2011.The IDOT data shows that VMT declined by over one billion in Cook County between 2007 and 2011, a clear indication that when transit ridership goes up, car ridership goes down. I think these trends are a positive sign for Chicago’s transportation goals.

As the newest generation of urban residents chooses public transit over private cars, Chicago will lead the way in transitioning American cities toward more sustainable systems of transportation.  I am confident that Chicago will continue to provide a good example for other metropolitan areas and, as always, I am excited to see how growing demand for efficiency and sustainability will cause transit systems to evolve.