Once the mainstay of downtown transportation options, Chicago’s water taxi is working to determine a new schedule for the third summer in a row as the number of office workers remains low.
Although the fine weather has arrived, the taxi’s bright yellow boats are not yet operational. Parent company Wendella Tours and Cruises expects to operate the ships once again on weekdays, a departure from the past two years when they operated only on weekends, catering to tourists, but the service start date and the schedule is yet to be seen. said taxi executive Andrew Sargis.
Behind the taxi schedule dilemma is the post-pandemic reality of downtown Chicago: Tourists are back in force, but office workers aren’t, Sargis said. The taxi company has also faced ongoing labor challenges after losing and furloughing employees during the pandemic. While many crew members are in training, it can take years to obtain the necessary certifications to operate a ship, he said.
Chicago office occupancy was about 50% of pre-COVID-19 levels for the last week of May, according to data from Kastle Systems, which measures employee passes in buildings and businesses where it has a presence. the security company. Even on the busiest days in the middle of the week, that means fewer people downtown and fewer potential passengers for the water taxi.
The company also accounts for Metra ridership and has a water taxi stop between Metra hubs at the Ogilvie Transportation Center and Chicago Union Station. In April, the most recent month for which data is available, Metra’s average weekday ridership was about 48% of 2019 levels.
“It has been, for the last few years, a challenge for a private transportation provider,” Sargis said.
In 2019, the Chicago Water Taxi carried approximately 400,000 passengers from March through the end of November. The service was discontinued in 2020. Then, with fewer passengers on weekdays, the water taxi pivoted to focus on tourists in 2021 and 2022, operating for a shorter season and only on weekends.
And in 2022, tourism is back with a bang, according to figures released this month by the city’s tourism division, Choose Chicago. About 49 million visitors came to Chicago, accounting for about 80% of 2019 tourism numbers. They generated about 89% of 2019 spending levels, according to Choose Chicago.
Most recently, during the first weekend in June, Chicago set an all-time record for the most hotel rooms occupied and the most revenue generated by hotels, according to Choose Chicago. Visitors flocked to Chicago for three days of Taylor Swift concerts, the James Beard Foundation Awards and the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, occupying an average of 96.8% of the city’s hotel rooms. city and generating $39 million in hotel revenue on Friday. and Saturday nights.
In addition to Chicago’s yellow water taxi, another company, Shoreline Sightseeing, also provides water taxi service on two routes that serve tourist sites such as Navy Pier and the Museum Campus, as well as the Willis Tower. This year, Shoreline’s cabs are running seven days a week, generally between 10:30 a.m. and late at night, a company representative said.
Operating Chicago’s yellow water taxi only on weekends this summer is once again a possibility, Sargis said. But so is the operational service during the week. That could mean operating Tuesday through Thursday, when office occupancy is highest, or only during peak hours, or at a different time. But service is likely still to be reduced from pre-pandemic levels, he said.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Water Taxi will be operating on June 24 for a dragon boat race in Chinatown. No other regular service has yet been scheduled.
“We want to serve local Chicagoans in some way, if we can,” he said. “We just have to make sure it’s a sustainable service that we can run consistently and reliably in some way.”