More than a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, RTA needed to understand how daytime population counts were changing, by census tract, throughout the economic recovery. The agency needed data to inform financial and strategic planning, and specifically needed to investigate how changes in commuter habits could affect funding streams via sales taxes and rider fares.
At a time when many people were returning to the office, a significant percentage of workers continued to stay home. The pandemic was still evolving in ways that could have unpredictable effects on commuting behavior long-term. While RTA had its own economic and mode share data, it lacked comprehensive information about commuter habits, especially commuters who weren’t riding with RTA. The agency’s qualitative commuting data, from surveys and other traditional sources, wouldn’t capture trends over time and in near-real time.
Using Replica Trends data, RTA was able to estimate the number of daily commuters into each census tract during different periods throughout the pandemic. Trends provided the number of people in each tract in the daytime hours, allowing RTA to find average daytime population statistics. By subtracting the residential population for each tract, RTA could see how many people had commuted into each tract in a given week. The agency fed this Trends data into its preferred visualization tool to create visuals for a meeting with its board of directors, presenting a clear illustration of the ways commuting habits continued to change over the course of the pandemic.
In a situation where people’s activities are changing by the week, it’s vital to have fresh data and flexible tools so you can see what’s happening and adapt quickly. RTA learned that commuting in Chicago had recovered quite a bit from the early-pandemic lows, especially to areas with greater transit access, but overall commuting numbers remained far below the pre-pandemic baseline. RTA continues to rely on Trends to overcome the limitations of traditional data sources by providing insights that are recent and holistic, allowing the agency to understand the “new normal” as it takes shape.