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Fears Over Public Transportation Evaporate Even As Return To The Office Stalls

The fear that kept downtown office markets shut down at the start of the coronavirus pandemic is starting to lift.

The spread of vaccinations has been the most important factor in getting life somewhat back to normal, but other factors will also play roles in kicking off a return to the office this fall, including how to get there.

Mass transit systems had been one of the biggest early worries for public health experts. Packing commuters into buses and trains for long trips into the Central Business District seemed like the perfect recipe for new Covid-19 outbreaks, and riders quickly disappeared.

“Ninety-seven and a half percent of our ridership left within a five-day period,” Metra CEO Jim Derwinski said last week during an in-person meeting on public transportation and safety held by BOMA/Chicago.


But experts say much more is now known about how the disease spreads, and as downtown companies put plans in place that will bring back at least a portion of their workforces, they need to get the word out that hopping on buses and trains is safe.

“We’ve not seen any evidence that mass transit poses a risk of new coronavirus outbreaks,” BOMA/Chicago Executive Director Farzin Parang told Bisnow. “It’s a false narrative to frame it as an obstacle to a return to the office.”

Rebuilding confidence in public transportation will be key to getting past the disruption caused by the pandemic, he added. More than 600,000 people commuted to Chicago’s downtown every weekday before Covid-19 hit, an economic force that sustained office, retail and residential buildings.

“You can’t do all that with just cars,” he said.

Transit leaders say the worst fears about trains and buses, that these vehicles would act as super-spreaders, never came true. That’s partly because the risk of catching the disease from touching contaminated surfaces such as train seats or handles is low, according to a study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And opening and closing the vehicles’ doors constantly introduces fresh air, which air filtration systems also frequently replace.

“In our railcars, HVAC systems filter the air more than once per minute, and on buses, air is filtered at least 50 times per hour on a standard 40-foot bus, and 70 times per hour on a 60-foot articulated bus,” Chicago Transit Authority President Dorval Carter said during the BOMA/Chicago event.

Covid-19 is generally transmitted through other people’s respiratory droplets, he added, and few people chat or eat on trains and buses, which lowers the chance of exposure. In addition, the CTA and all other regional transportation agencies follow federal and state guidelines and enforce mask mandates, further reducing risk.

“The good news is that most of our customers follow the rules,” Carter said. “Study after study has determined public transportation is not a significant contributor to the spread of the coronavirus,” he said.

Metra train in west suburban Lisle

CTA and Metra have both been aggressively pushing that message online, he added. And customers have responded. The CTA saw its average weekday use shrink to about 250,000 rides at the height of the pandemic. It’s now up to more than 700,000, roughly half of pre-pandemic levels.

Metra’s daily ridership is now about 75,000 per day, according to Derwinski, up from around 7,200 last spring. That’s roughly 25% of ridership in July 2019, but he’s noticed more riders getting comfortable enough to sit next to one another when they board.

“Society is starting to see we can get through this pandemic,” he said.  

Barbara Lumpkin, founder and principal of Lumpkin Strategies and former interim CEO of the Chicago Urban League, moderated the BOMA/Chicago discussion, and said she worried not enough attention was being paid to commuters who may not have access to the online tools and apps agencies like the CTA and Metra have used to promote mass transit.

“These essential workers are the ones keeping Chicago going while all the rest of us were told to stay home,” she told Bisnow.

But Carter said during the discussion that the CTA was continuing to spread the word through digital signs at bus and train stops.

“We have not abandoned the traditional communication strategies we’ve used for decades,” he said.  

Elevators are the last step in most people’s commutes and early in the pandemic, these enclosed spaces were also considered an obstacle to getting workers back, Parang said. But as it generally takes prolonged exposure to transmit the coronavirus, elevators are also now considered safe as long as riders wear masks, among other precautions.

“No one is on an elevator for more than two minutes,” he said.  

Yet even with fears surrounding travel starting to evaporate, the Chicago metro area’s return to the office stalled this month, according to data from Kastle Systems, a firm that makes touchless access systems and tracks office usage nationwide. In August, office occupancy in the Chicago region shrank from 29.5% to 28.9%, Kastle found, below the 31.3% average of the top 10 metro areas.

“That’s dropped off a little bit due to the uncertainty around the delta variant,” Parang said.

He’s confident it will increase after Labor Day, he added, as more companies unveil detailed plans to bring people back. Vaccinated people have proven willing to go out to bars and restaurants, even with new mask mandates, activities not all that different from working in offices with proper safety precautions.

“Everyone is just more comfortable and people are just getting on with their lives,” he said.