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Transit Ridership Was Looking Good in 2020, Then Came COVID

Following COVID-19 related stay-at-home orders, transit ridership across the U.S. fell 40.8 percent in March compared to a year ago, after two months of ridership gains in a number of cities.

A streetcar makes its way through Houston.
A streetcar makes its way through Houston. Ridership across the Harris County service area was down 38 percent in June, compared to a year ago, as transit agencies struggle during the COVID-19 crisis.
Transit ridership was trending favorably in January and February across a number of transit agencies. Then came the crippling effects of the novel coronavirus in March, all but shutting down cities across the nation.

As a result, public transit ridership in March fell 40.8 percent nationwide, according to statistics compiled by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), following stay-at-home orders put in place in mid-March by a number of cities and states.

But things have started to revert a bit. Today, transit demand in the United States is down 57 percent, according to the Transit app, an improvement from being down 72 percent two months ago. During the height of the crisis, the evaporation of transit demand – as well as concerns around maintaining the safety of transit operators and passengers – forced a number of systems to cut service, often dramatically.

And even as the virus pandemic continues to hold a strong grip on regions across the country, hobbling efforts to restart the economy, at least some transit systems are seeing opportunities for somewhat of a return to pre-COVID levels of service.

The Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) of Southern Nevada, which serves Las Vegas, has transitioned its weekday service from Sunday level to Saturday level, running buses slightly more frequently, following an increase in rider demand, say officials.

Overall ridership across RTC was down 4.1 percent in the first quarter of 2020, according to APTA. Demand for transit was down 56 percent on July 23, from pre-COVID levels, according to the Transit app. Actual boardings across the last six weeks on the RTC system were down nearly 52 percent, compared to February statistics, said Zac Prudhomme, a spokesman for RTC.

To safeguard the safety of riders and staff, the RTC has implemented a “14-point safety plan,” while exploring additional options like on-vehicle air filtration systems to kill germs, and real-time bus occupancy information, letting riders know how full a bus is before boarding.

Technology related to bus occupancy data is already being used in systems like the transit network in Miami-Dade County, Fla.

“Technology is helping us get through this pandemic,” remarked Alice Bravo, director of transit in Miami-Dade County, speaking during a panel discussion during the recent CoMotion Miami virtual conference in early July.

“From the office, we can monitor how many people are on each bus,” she said. “We’re getting real-time data. And as the ridership increases, or decreases, we can make adjustments, quickly.”

Overall transit ridership in Miami-Dade County fell 7.9 percent in the first quarter of 2020. Transit demand in the county was down 39 percent on July 23, from pre-COVID levels, according to the Transit app. 

Technology like the ion air filtration system being eyed by RTC in Nevada would involve some retrofitting of the agency’s 364 fixed-route buses and 370 paratransit vehicles. The system would cost about $1.9 million, and it’s anticipated the project could be covered by federal transit stimulus and relieve funding, said Prudhomme.

Big city transit systems like METRO in Houston have also put in place measures to protect workers and riders, ranging from protective barriers to reducing rider occupancy, to stepped-up cleaning schedules.

“A 40-foot bus is now limited to just 16 passengers,” said Monica Russo, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, Texas, where Houston is located. Prior to the pandemic, that bus could have accommodated 46 passengers. To support reduced occupancy levels, METRO is operating more buses. But ridership is also down significantly from 2019 levels, Russo noted.

Ridership across the METRO system was down 7 percent in the first quarter, and 38 percent in June, compared to June 2019. This marked an improvment from a 53 percent drop in April, according to METRO data.  

“For Park & Ride routes, METRO is carrying only 12 percent of July 2019's average daily ridership but is operating the equivalent of 35 percent of July 2019's service levels,” said Russo, signaling the significant drop in ridership as many commuters stay home.

This loss in ridership to work-from-home transitions, loss in funding as revenue streams shrink due to the economic downturn brought on by the crisis, and the added costs associated with new safety protocols are all some of the headwinds faced by transit in the coming months and even years. The TransitCenter, a think tank, estimates U.S. transit agencies will encounter budget shortfalls from $26 billion to $40 billion in the next year, due to the COVID-19 crisis. Fare revenue is also down some 86 percent.

Fare revenue makes up about 80 percent of the operating budget for the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), a largely commuter rail service in the San Francisco region. Ridership fell 90 percent on the system when stay-at-home orders were put in place. 

At a transit system like RTC, rider fares make up about 33 percent of the system's budget. Whereas, fares make only about 10 percent of the operating budget for METRO.  

One possible – and hopeful – perspective offered by transit watchers like Chris van Eyken, a senior program associate at the TransitCenter, is going forward, transit may see a renewed and essential purpose in communities.

“I do think that city leadership across the U.S. understands that public transit is really the backbone of building healthy, sustainable cities. And so we’re going to have to find a way to keep funding levels high to normal from what we saw pre-crisis just to ensure the agencies recover,” said van Eyken, speaking during the Shared Mobility Summit in early May. 

Polling data shows “most of the general public is willing to spend a lot more money on transit than we currently do,” said van Eyken. “So I think that bodes well for a recovery where we see a lot more money going to transit agencies to support sustainability.” 

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.