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Even With Record-High Gas Prices, Transit’s Recovery Has Stalled

Staffing shortages and the lasting shifts to commuter patterns has pumped the brakes on the recovery of transit ridership. Even as gas prices reach record highs across the country, ridership hasn’t seen a large uptick.

A public bus without passengers.
Staffing shortages, and lasting shifts to commuter travel patterns, have prevented transit ridership from returning to pre-COVID-19 levels.

Ridership remains down across nearly all segments of transit mobility, and across a majority of cities, according to a review of ridership data compiled by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

Despite record-high gas prices during the last several months, ridership remained at about 55 percent to 60 percent of pre-pandemic levels from mid-April to mid-June. In the period from June 25 to July 2 ridership ticked up several points, a sign the stagnation may be breaking, according to ridership data collected by the Transit App, made available by a partnership between the Transit App and APTA.

In previous years, when gas prices have taken a climb — like the summer of 2008 when average U.S. gas prices topped $4 a gallon — commuters and others often parked their cars and took transit. U.S. transit ridership in the third quarter of 2008 was up 6.5 percent compared to the same quarter the year before; and up 5 percent since the beginning of the year, according to APTA statistics.
But for some reason, this phenomenon has not been realized during the current season that has gas prices surpassing $5 a gallon across much of the country.

“This is the million-dollar question for public transit right now,” remarked Stephen Miller, communications lead for Transit App. “There are a lot of factors at play, but it’s clear that transit agencies can no longer rely on riders naturally returning to old commuting habits after the pandemic’s low point to drive a ridership recovery.”

It’s no secret that COVID-19 has had a lasting impact on commuting habits and patterns, with temporary home offices in 2020 becoming permanent workspaces for millions of office workers no longer part of the morning and afternoon commute. The shift is most visible in cities with large populations of white-collar workers, said Hayley Richardson, director of communications for the TransitCenter, a transit research think tank.

“When talking about recovery, it’s important to draw some distinction between smaller, bus-only systems, and big city train and bus systems,” said Richardson, calling attention to systems like Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) in California or the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) in New York City.

Some smaller bus-only systems are seeing near 100 percent ridership recovery, said Richardson, while recovery in systems serving large cities has stalled out at 50 percent to 60 percent of pre-COVID levels.

“This is likely due to the fact that riders on the smaller, bus-only systems are largely lower-income, many of whom never actually stopped performing in-person work — think retail, health-care, and janitorial work,” she noted. “Big city systems that rely on a lot of white-collar workers for ridership are seeing slower recovery because many of those riders have not returned to offices.”

And indeed, a review of the ridership data shows that recovery has been strongest among transit systems serving regions of fewer than 500,000 residents. By July 2, ridership was up to 56 percent of pre-COVID levels, up from 46 percent on July 4, 2021.
Staffing shortages are also playing a role by preventing agencies from returning to pre-2020 staffing levels, or expanding service from that period.

“The operator shortfall is currently having a huge impact on agencies’ ability to deliver good service,” said Richardson, who referenced a March 2022 APTA report where the association surveyed 117 agencies of all sizes, and 71 percent reported either cuts to service or delaying service increases because of shortfalls.

“It’s important to remember that during the past couple years we’ve had a sudden, seismic shift in travel patterns unlike anything we’ve seen since World War II,” said Miller from Transit App. “One of the major challenges facing transit agencies in this ‘new normal’ is that many systems have been unable to run a full schedule due to a shortage of operators. So even if there is funding to purchase and fuel up buses, there simply aren’t enough operators to drive them.”

All of these issues underscore the need by transit agencies to explore new approaches to serving the public in a quickly changing environment.

“Our leaders need to make transit useful not only to office commuters but also competitive for many more types of commutes and non-work trips,” said Danny Pearlstein, director of policy and communications for Riders Alliance, a New York City-based transit advocacy group. “Growing ridership by boosting service will not only revivify our transit systems, it will also make our cities and regions more climate-resilient and equitable.”

Richardson, from the TransitCenter, agreed, saying now is the time for transit agencies to rethink funding streams and overall design to serve today’s transportation needs.

“The high price of gas is a good opportunity for agencies to present themselves as a good alternative to driving,” said Richardson.

“Agencies should be running the best service they possibly can with the resources they currently have, and adjust service to meet changing travel patterns,” she added, calling attention to improvements like better all-day service and expanded weekend service. “Large agencies in particular need to demonstrate that they can be a good, reliable travel option for non-work trips.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.
Andrew Adams is a data reporter for <i>Government Technology</i>. He holds a bachelor’s degree in communication from the Illinois Institute of Technology and a master’s degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield.