Chicago Water Taxi to return to daily service for the first time since pandemic

The Chicago Water Taxi’s bright yellow boats will return to the city’s waterways every day of the week this summer, a vote of confidence in downtown Chicago’s ability to draw office workers and tourists.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the yellow water taxi service, once a harbinger of summer to the city’s downtown commuters, has been either suspended, run only on weekends or run on a limited schedule. Parent company Wendella Tours and Cruises has grappled with post-pandemic dynamics like lingering labor challenges and the return of tourists in force to downtown, but not office commuters.

Beginning Saturday, the taxi service will once again run every day of the week for the first time since 2019. The boats will, for now, make only three stops, focusing on major commuter train stations, Streeterville and Chinatown, with no scheduled service to stops that existed before the pandemic at Chicago Avenue and Goose Island, taxi executive Andrew Sargis said.

His aim is to serve both commuters and tourists this summer, after previous years of catering to tourists and struggling with low numbers of office commuters. Sargis hopes the return to daily schedules will further boost service, and in turn encourage more commuters to go into their offices, he said. Wendella is also looking at major events this summer that have the potential to boost ridership, like the return of the NASCAR Chicago Street Race and the Democratic National Convention.

The move is “a significant milestone in the industry’s journey toward revitalization and reconnection post-COVID,” the company said in a statement.

In early March, Chicago-area office occupancy was about 56% of pre-pandemic levels, according to data from Kastle Systems, which measures employee swipes into the buildings and businesses where the security company is present. That was above the average of 10 large metro areas — 51% in mid-March — as schools began to let out for spring break in some cities.

Metra ridership, one sign of commuting patterns from the suburbs into the city, also affects the water taxi, which connects two Metra hubs to other parts of downtown. In 2023, average weekday Metra ridership was 51% of 2019 levels, and about 44% above 2022 levels, according to Metra data.

Tourism, meanwhile, has by many measures come back strong, with demand for hotel rooms last year reaching nearly 91% of 2019, according to Choose Chicago.

“We had a good amount of commuters, and on the weekend we had a good amount of tourists,” Sargis said. “Enough that it signaled to us that the market for ferry transportation had kind of recovered.”

In addition to the yellow Chicago Water Taxi, another company, Shoreline Sightseeing, also provides water taxi service on two routes that serve tourism-friendly sites like Navy Pier and the Museum Campus as well as Willis Tower. Shoreline planned to operate daily last summer.

In 2019, the Chicago Water Taxi carried some 400,000 passengers from March through the end of November. Service was suspended in 2020. Then, with fewer weekday commuters, the water taxi pivoted to focus on tourists in 2021 and 2022, operating for a shorter season and only on weekends.

Last year, the Chicago Water Taxi didn’t begin service until late September, and a lone boat operated only Tuesday through Thursday — the busiest commuting days — and only during rush hour. The company provided about 15,000 rides during the season, Sargis said.

The taxi company had faced labor challenges in prior years after losing and furloughing employees during the pandemic. Getting certified to operate the boats can take years, but training efforts are now coming to fruition, labor challenges are easing and the company is able to offer more frequent schedules, Sargis said.

This year, Wendella has already begun providing weekend service with one boat. The company plans to run more boats during the summer, increasing the frequency of service.

Rush-hour service will focus primarily on the stop that serves two Metra hubs, Ogilvie Transportation Center and Union Station, and in between peak periods service will run to Chinatown, Sargis said.

The water taxi is also offering commuter passes, and partnerships with downtown office buildings to subsidize tickets for tenants. Sargis said the program is a win-win, encouraging more commuters to take the water taxi and more employees to head into offices.

The taxi service has no plans for now to return to its Chicago Avenue and Goose Island stops, but could in the future, he said. The company has kept its leases on the docks and maintains equipment there, and can run special service to the area if requested, such as corporate trips to the Salt Shed.

Regularly scheduled service is expected to run at least through the end of November.

“We think this year will be certainly a big success,” Sargis said. “We’re really excited to get back out there.”