Dashboard Tells the Story of Northeastern Illinois’ Transit Recovery

By Matthew Leger • August 3, 2021

Like many other facets of public life, the pandemic’s impact on public transit has been nothing short of devastating. Business closures, as well as stay-at-home and social distancing orders, coupled with the significant increase of people working remotely, have led to a drastic drop in ridership, and hence sales and tax revenue, for transit systems across the United States. According to a report by the American Public Transportation Association, public transit agencies in the US experienced an 80 percent drop in ridership between 2019 and 2020, and they are now staring down a near $40 billion budget shortfall through the end of 2023 absent any additional federal support.

This has ultimately led transit agencies to make extremely difficult decisions around reducing or completely shutting down services in certain areas. This in turn has had a disproportionate impact on essential workers, low income residents, and people of color who rely heavily on public transit and were not fortunate enough to have the choice to stay home and protect their health. These inequitable impacts have been felt everywhere - from Boston to New York to Washington DC to Los Angeles - and have been in the headlines for much of the pandemic.

This story was no different in Northeastern Illinois.

Dashboards help the RTA of Northeastern Illinois communicate with key stakeholders

The Regional Transit Authority of Northeastern Illinois (RTA) is somewhat unique in its transit oversight role. The RTA is not responsible for transit operations and service delivery in Northeastern Illinois; rather, they serve as a financial and long-range planning agency for metro- Chicago’s three transit providers: The Chicago Transit Authority, Metra, and Pace Suburban Bus. In March 2020, the RTA was tasked with tracking the pandemic’s impact on ridership and communicating those impacts to local and state policymakers, the governor’s office, journalists, researchers, and the public so that the transit providers could focus on maintaining operations for residents that needed it.

Serving as the one-stop-shop for all inquiries about the pandemic’s impact on ridership trends, fare revenues, sales tax, and levels of service for the nation’s second largest public transit system quickly became overwhelming. The RTA’s traditional method of collecting data from the three regional transit providers made this particularly challenging. Prior to COVID, the RTA received ridership data monthly from the three transit providers who outlined their data in Excel spreadsheets just in time for their monthly reports. So, the ridership data reported up to RTA was always at least a month behind and required manual ­– and often cumbersome ­– work to upload to the RTA’s website.

With conditions on the ground changing so rapidly during the pandemic, the RTA needed a more timely, efficient, and streamlined way to gather information, analyze it, and communicate it to their stakeholders. To do so, Hersh Singh, Principal Analyst at the RTA, was tasked with rethinking the agency’s approach to data collection and dissemination. He worked internally with his leadership team to outline what data was needed to understand the impact of lost ridership across the region and to design a dashboard that could display ­– in a user-friendly and digestible way ­– all of the critical data needed to communicate with their key stakeholders.

Once the internal planning staff agreed on data needs and the design of the dashboard, Singh worked closely with the agency’s three transit providers to ensure the data they were collecting in their spreadsheets was formatted in a way that would allow his team to make dynamic updates to the dashboard, which was now publicly available on the agency’s website.

Over time, Singh was able to work with the three transit providers to shift from monthly to weekly updates on ridership and has worked tirelessly with his team to keep the dashboard up to date. “In my 13-14 years [at the RTA], this was the first time we were receiving data at this frequency and level of granularity,” said Singh. “Everybody from the top down understood the importance of keeping this information up to date in a timely fashion and we did what was necessary to make it happen.”

The interactive COVID-19 Transit Dashboard (see below) displays ridership levels over time dating back to 2019 by mode of transit, as well as farebox revenues, sales tax, average weekday ridership, and ridership status compared to March 2020 to communicate the lasting impact of the pandemic.

The dashboard provides a link to a mapping feature (see below) that displays current available services, services that were shut down due to COVID-19, and the levels of ridership by mode of transit along those routes. With this information, users can see geographically how transit ridership is being impacted and which areas within the region are feeling the greatest impact.

Service map of the Chicago area

Publishing and maintaining the dashboard on a public-facing site was important for several key reasons. First and foremost, the dashboard enabled the agency and the service providers to align their messaging by providing a single source of truth for information and data on ridership impacts. This enabled Tina Smith, the RTA’s communications director, to redirect people with questions and inquiries about ridership trends to the same source of data, freeing up the team to focus on more important tasks. “There were a lot of media requests at the peak of the pandemic,” said Smith, “and rather than submit requests to Hersh and his team to do some sort of analysis for every inquiry, the dashboard gave the media a self-service resource to do their own analysis before reaching out with questions. We could never have kept up with the number of inquiries we were receiving had the dashboard never existed.”

The dashboard also provided the team with an effective storytelling tool. “This tool was really built to enable transparency and help us convey a message about the financial impact of COVID on transit,” said Singh. He went on to note that the dashboard is not just being used to communicate about the pandemic’s impact on ridership and transit revenues. Perhaps more importantly, the dashboard is also being used to communicate how the RTA and their service providers are innovating and working to provide new and better services to constituents. “Coming out of the pandemic, transit is not going to look the same. We must be innovative and creative to get people in the region where they need to be. This tool will be important for helping us communicate the why and how behind that.”

Keys to success at the RTA

More than a year after the dashboard’s creation, the RTA team identified three keys to success in their efforts:

  1. Executive level buy-in: “Our leadership understood the importance of having this data available,” said Brad Thompson, manager of data services and analytics at RTA. “Having their support helped to align priorities with our service providers and it really made the process and transition to this new workflow much more smooth.”
  2. Up front process and workflow alignment: “When creating a dashboard like this,” said Singh, “understanding upfront what it takes to keep it up to date in terms of backend processes is important. Understanding tables, schemas, and procedures from the get go will help you structure your data in a way that streamlines the update process and reduces human error.”
  3. Leveraging omni-channel communications: “So often you see really great and innovative tools like this in different agencies, and yet there's not a mechanism used to disseminate it so that your key stakeholders are aware it exists,” said Smith. “Just using simple channels like newsletters and social media, or a good website that can help promote it, can go a long way in ensuring tools like those are not ignored.”

Looking ahead at the future of post-COVID-19 transit

There is no question that the pandemic’s impact will be felt for the foreseeable future. Now, emerging trends in remote work and migration of people out of major cities will continue to put pressure on the RTA and other transit agencies across the country to adapt and innovate. Given the sensitive and often politically charged nature of public transit, it will be vital that transit leaders across the country leverage communication tools like the RTA COVID-19 Transit Dashboard to lead with data, confidence and transparency.

About the Author

Matthew Leger

Matt Leger is a Research Assistant for the Innovations in Government Program at the Ash Center. He has a diversity of experiences in research across the public and private sectors, as well as in academia with a primary focus on understanding how technology can be used to help address some of society’s greatest challenges. Matt has worked with the Smart Cities Strategies team at the International Data Corporation (IDC); the NYCx team in the NYC Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer; and at the research institute CTG-UAlbany. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Public Policy and a Master’s Degree in Public Administration both from the Nelson A. Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the University at Albany in Albany, NY.