The Pandemic’s Impact on Public Transit Ridership

The 2019 pandemic has highlighted the crucial role of public transit agencies, albeit their challenging future. Buses, rails, street/cable cars, and on-demand services are among the most common modes connecting people to their daily destinations, like schools, workplaces, hospitals, and recreation centers. Looking across BLS’ four regions of states (Northeast, South, West, Midwest), the Northeast region alone has generated more than half of the unlinked passenger trips (total passenger boarding on a vehicle) in the past five years. However, all regions have seen a sharp decline in total trips during the pandemic. In 2021, as the most recent National Transit Database suggests, the reported total trips by public transit agencies are less than half of the 2016 level.

Source: National Transit Database, 2023

This trend generally aligns with that in the most major public transit agency in each region, where total trips rapidly decline by over 70%. The decline is shocking but not unreasonable. While quarantine and remote working/learning have driven down the demand for public transit, the reasons behind the travel mode shift can be more complicated and specific to each public transit agency. So how can any public transit agency meet the changing ridership demand and stay competitive?

A good step forward is understanding the performance and establishing a way to measure future success. According to a best practices paper by the Florida Department of Transportation (DOT), setting goals and objectives within the agency should be the first step in performance evaluation. Then, a set of performance metrics can follow these goals and objectives. Some of the most common performance metrics include the number of trips, on-time performance, customer and employee injury rates, fare revenues per total operating expense, and more. At ESI, we help public transit clients understand their service performance based on their goals and objectives through carefully identified performance metrics.

Will ridership ever recover to the pre-pandemic level? This is a question about which every public transit activist, operator, and rider cares deeply. Among the four regions, the Metropolitan Transit Agency in New York City has already shown a sign of recovery of 12% compared to 2021 with 2020 total trips.


Joyce Liu | [email protected]

Joyce Liu is a senior analyst at Econsult Solutions, Inc. (ESI).  She graduated from University of California, Los Angeles with a B.S. in Biology in 2018 and completed her M.S. in City Planning from the University of Pennsylvania in 2020. Joyce provides expertise in geospatial analysis regression modeling, data and policy analysis in land use and transportation infrastructure planning.

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