Brave new world of commuting: Loudspeaker voices telling you to spread out, floor decals, cordoned-off seats

Will it be safe? Transit agencies seek to allay fears as much as possible as the city and state look toward loosening restrictions in the coming days and weeks.

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Metra train.

Sun-Times Media

It’s the million-dollar question in the world of transit: What will commuting look like?

No one is sure. Human behavior is hard to predict. But here’s how it might play out.

Many people will drive as cheap gas, a controlled environment and relatively open roads make this option enticing. Then roads will become jammed and travel times will increase, along with frustration—possibly giving transit more appeal.

Metra is planning a marketing campaign to capture the moment. It will include a series of roadside billboards that show workers sanitizing train cars along with phrases like “Dedicated to disinfecting” and “Committed to cleaning.”

They get to the heart of people’s concerns: Is it safe?

“We want to engender confidence by showing our commitment to cleaning, our seriousness about sanitizing and our absolute, unyielding dedication to disinfecting,” Stan Lewin, an executive with the Chicago-based advertising agency LKH&S, told Metra board members last week.

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For Metra, that will mean shouting from the rooftops about the hand sanitizer stations it’s installing in all rail cars.

Metra rail cars will only be allowed to get about half full — with one passenger on every other seat on upper levels and one passenger per “two seater” on lower levels. The arrange will equate to about 70 people in a rail car that otherwise could accommodate about 140. Train conductors will keep tabs on crowding.

Metra will also resume accepting cash fares in June.

Also, beginning in June, workers at the CTA’s control center will monitor live video feeds of high ridership stations to watch for platform crowding. If crowding occurs, announcements will be made over the public address system asking customers to spread out or wait for the next train if the incoming one is full.

About 90 people fill a jam-packed CTA train car in normal times. Capacity will be down significantly with social distancing, but CTA officials couldn’t immediately provide an estimate.

The CTA will also be placing floor decals at stations and platforms reminding people to spread out.

Pace put signs on seats that have been taken out of service to ensure no one sits next to another passenger.

The CTA is adding “mobile cleaning SWAT teams” — crews of four or five tasked with power-washing stations. And it’s considering whether to invest in technology that uses ultraviolet light to help eliminate any coronavirus from trains and buses.

Ridership is down everywhere. Metra has seen a 97% drop, CTA is down 80%,and Pace is down about 70%. But each agency said ridership increased slightly in recent days.

Because only a fraction of the space will be available due to social distancing, more vehicles will need to be put into service as ridership rebounds, experts said.

Metra, which is running about 50% of its trains at the moment, will add cars as ridership increases. It’s also prepared to add trains to its schedule. And, if needed, add shadow trains — empty trains that would trail another train so if the first train gets too full, it can run express, and the second train can take over.

Pace will “add additional vehicles to strategic locations as needed,” a spokeswoman said.

At the CTA, which has kept service at about the same level as pre-pandemic days to accommodate essential workers, bus passengers are boarding through rear doors and seats near the front of buses have been taken out of service to protect bus drivers. And bus drivers have been under orders to stop picking up passengers if vehicles get crowded, at which point a bus would only do drop-offs.

With social distancing rules in place, the new passenger limit aboard a 40-foot CTA bus is about 15 riders — 28% of its normal filled-to-the-gills load of about 53 riders. The new passenger limit on a 60-foot articulated bus is about 22 riders — about 28% of its normal peak load of about 79 riders.

CTA President Dorval Carter has made it clear the onus is ultimately on the rider to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

“We at CTA are not going to be able to police social distancing, it’s just not a practical solution to the problem,” Carter said at a CTA board meeting earlier this month.

The CTA has been working with Chicago’s business community to help ensure decisions about when and how employees return take into account public transit will not be able to carry nearly as many people at once.

To help avoid everyone heading out the door at the same time, employers could stagger work hours and work-from-home arrangements for part of the week, experts said.

The CTA is encouraging people to walk or bike if possible for nonessential trips.

Transit riders should expect stepped-up efforts to post signs about required masks and regular cleaning efforts. Including granular details about exactly what the cleaning process entails and precisely when the last cleaning took place would be helpful, said Audrey Wennink, transportation director for the Metropolitan Planning Council.

Making real-time information available on smartphones and digital signs at stations about the number of people aboard incoming trains and buses would be a good idea to keep people informed, Wennink said. And lowering fares during off-peak hours could also be a strong incentive to help spread out ridership, she added.

Public transit ridership is expected to rise after the state’s stay-at-home order expires, but there’s a healthy amount of pessimism in the transit community about whether ridership will return to pre-pandemic numbers anytime soon, if ever.

Transit expert and DePaul University professor Joseph Schwieterman takes the optimistic side. He thinks people will settle back into many aspects of city living and suspects a good number of employers will not be as keen about cementing the work-from-home lifestyle.

“It’s just the force of human history, we’ve never had any kind of pivot like that where people suddenly live totally differently because of a crisis that occurred,” he said.

Metra CFO Thomas Farmer summed it up this way during last week’s board meeting.

“There’s a world with a COVID vaccine and there’s a world without a COVID vaccine ... but the fact of the matter is we have no idea if or when there will be a vaccine so in the meantime we really need to understand what kind of service people need and want so we can provide it to them.”

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