Chicago’s water taxi, once a major downtown transportation option, is working on its schedule for the third summer in a row as office worker numbers remain low.
Although the weather is warm, the bright yellow taxi boats haven’t started yet. The parent company, Wendella Tours and Cruises, hopes to operate the boats again on weekdays – unlike the past two years, when they ran only on weekends, serving tourists – but service dates will begin and the schedule remains to be seen. said taxi manager Andrew Sargis.
Behind the taxi scheduling dilemma is the post-pandemic reality of downtown Chicago: Tourists are back in force, but office workers are not, Sargis said. The taxi company has also faced prolonged labor problems after losing and laying off employees during the pandemic. Although many crew members receive training, it can take years to obtain the certifications needed to operate a boat, he said.
Office occupancy in Chicago was about 50% of pre-Covid-19 levels during the last week of May, according to data from Kastle Systems, which measures the number of employees in buildings and businesses with a security company presence. Even on the busiest midweek days, this means fewer people downtown and fewer potential water taxi riders.
The company also follows Metra passengers and has a water taxi stop between Metra’s hubs at the Ogilvy Transit Center and Chicago Union Station. In April, the most recent month for which data is available, Metra’s weekday average ridership was about 48% of 2019 levels.
“It’s been a challenge for a private transportation service provider for the past few years,” Sargis said.
In 2019, the Chicago Water Taxi transported approximately 400,000 passengers between March and the end of November. Services were suspended in 2020. Then, due to lower weekday ridership, the water taxi focused on tourists in 2021 and 2022, operating for a shorter season and only on weekends.
And in 2022, tourism is back strong, according to figures released this month by the city’s tourism division, Choose Chicago. Nearly 49 million visitors came to Chicago, which accounted for about 80% of the total number of tourists in 2019. According to Choose Chicago, they accounted for about 89% of spending in 2019.
Most recently, during the first weekend of June, Chicago set an all-time record for the most occupied hotel rooms and highest hotel revenue, 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 and generating $39 million in hotel revenue Friday and Saturday night.
In addition to the Yellow Chicago Water Taxi, another company, Shoreline Sightseeing, also provides water taxi service on two routes that serve tourist-friendly locations such as Navy Pier and the Museum Campus, as well as the Willis Tower. This year, Shoreline Taxis is open seven days a week, typically from 10:30 a.m. to night, a company representative said.
Sargis said the Yellow Chicago Water Taxi will be open again this summer only on weekends. But there is also a service on weekdays. This may mean working Tuesday through Thursday when the office is busiest, or only during peak hours, or on a different schedule. But services will likely still be reduced from pre-pandemic levels, he said.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Water Taxi will be running the Chinatown Dragon Boat Races on June 24. No other regular services are scheduled yet.
“We want to somehow serve the local people of Chicago if we can,” he said. “We just have to make sure it’s a sustainable service that we can somehow run consistently and reliably.”