LA Metro saw an 11.3% increase in total system ridership in November 2023 compared to November 2022, marking the 12th consecutive month of year-over-year ridership growth.  -  Photo: LA Metro/Steve Hymon

LA Metro saw an 11.3% increase in total system ridership in November 2023 compared to November 2022, marking the 12th consecutive month of year-over-year ridership growth.

Photo: LA Metro/Steve Hymon

Some four years later, public transit agencies are still adjusting to new ridership habits caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. After falling to 20% of pre-pandemic levels in April 2020, ridership on U.S. transit agencies is now at about 77% of pre-pandemic levels, according to the American Public Transportation Association’s (APTA) latest ridership update.

While there are factors for transit’s slow ridership growth, including work from home becoming permanent, operator shortages, and equipment issues, there have also been some contributors to transit bouncing back, including people becoming more comfortable after vaccinations were rolled out, late-night bus service for employees in entertainment districts or medical complexes, and a revamping of services to not only make it easier but also more convenient and safer to use.

“There are underlying factors contributing to transit’s slow and steady growth, including people not returning to the office,” explains APTA’s Matt Dickens, sr. director, policy development and research. “But there are also plenty of things agencies are doing to boost ridership, such as redesigning bus routes so they are concentrated in areas where there is more usage, introducing bus lanes to make service faster and more reliable, or keeping their hiring pipelines stocked so they can get enough drivers on board to provide more frequent bus service.”    

Where Ridership is Thriving vs Where It’s Not

Dickens explains APTA’s ongoing ridership reports have found ridership’s return is a “varied picture.”

“Initially, we saw a lot of smaller cities and rural areas recover ridership much faster than other areas, but lately we’re starting to see our biggest cities starting to recover ridership quite a bit,” he says. “We’ve also seen bus services being the main contributors to growth, but there are areas like Boston and San Diego where passenger rail has played a real role.”

Dickens adds present trends show ridership in second-tier mid-sized cities is recovering at a slower rate right now but there is also some exceeding pre-pandemic ridership, including Tucson’s SunTran and Richmond, Va.’s GRTC Transit System.

With that, there have been some consistent factors in transit’s bounce back, including ridership getting a boost beginning in the month of September and weekend and general-purpose trips showing real growth.

“We don’t have a lot of hard data as to why ridership growth has occurred during the month of September, but a theory is that it is when the school year typically begins and people may be making new decisions about how they plan to get around town, with transit being an appealing option,” says Dickens. “We are also seeing general purpose and weekend trips recovering faster than commuter hour trips, which shows people are choosing to use transit in their free time to visit friends, run errands, or get to games and other special events.”

Dickens adds that while the usage of public transit for high-level events like Taylor Swift’s tour last summer showed the power of transit’s ability to efficiently and effectively move large amounts of people, it didn’t impact 2023’s overall ridership numbers, however, probably did boost the image of agencies in the communities they serve.

To make its system more convenient to use, MTS hopes to complete the implementation of new tap-and-pay features for its fare collection system, PRONTO, by April, which will enable customers to use their credit cards or smartphones to pay fares.  -  Photo: San Diego MTS

To make its system more convenient to use, MTS hopes to complete the implementation of new tap-and-pay features for its fare collection system, PRONTO, by April, which will enable customers to use their credit cards or smartphones to pay fares.

Photo: San Diego MTS

Success in The Nation’s Metro Areas

There were plenty of success stories in 2023, especially in the nation’s larger metro areas, including at LA Metro where the agency saw an 11.3% increase in total system ridership in November 2023 compared to November 2022, marking the 12th consecutive month of year-over-year ridership growth.

Additionally, with 261.5 million boardings, Metro’s 2023 ridership through November exceeded the 255.3 million it posted for the entire calendar year of 2022.

Ridership at LA Metro’s system is now at 82% of its 2019 pre-pandemic level, overall, with ridership up to 87% of pre-pandemic boardings on Saturdays and 96% on Sundays.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) reported the entire regions’ fixed-route system finished out the year with a total of 326.6 million rides — marking the first time since the pandemic ridership cracked 300 million — according to Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), Metra, and Pace Suburban Bus data.

In total, the region’s transit agencies added 45 million rides in 2023 compared to the previous year, with ridership showing the largest growth on Sundays.

Overall, the CTA provided 117.4 million rides, an increase of 13%, in 2023 with buses showing a 15% increase, while Pace saw an increase of 10% and the commuter rail system Metra seeing a 37% ridership increase. Metra’s boost comes as the agency is working toward a new regional rail vision, which calls for providing more consistent, predictable service outside of peak work commute times.

As mentioned above, there are also agencies seeing higher ridership than their pre-pandemic numbers overall, like Va.’s GRTC. Meanwhile, there are also other agencies bucking current trends, such as San Diego’s MTS, where passenger rail ridership is both bouncing back and growing at a higher rate than bus ridership.

At both, you will find that while regaining pre-pandemic ridership includes many factors that exist outside of the transit agencies themselves, both are working to reshape the way they deliver their services to the communities they serve.

To continue to make transit accessible, as well as to alleviate the need for face-to-face interactions with drivers, GRTC moved to a fare-free system during COVID-19 and continues to be fare free with some positive results.  -  Photo: GRTC

To continue to make transit accessible, as well as to alleviate the need for face-to-face interactions with drivers, GRTC moved to a fare-free system during COVID-19 and continues to be fare free with some positive results.

Photo: GRTC

Filling Operator Gap, Free Fares Contribute to GRTC’s Success

In 2018, GRTC started reshaping the ways it provided service to the community with the launch of its Pulse BRT system, which also included a re-routing of its entire bus service. During that time, the agency saw a 17% increase in ridership.

Like most of the industry, though, the agency also took a hit during COVID, especially in March and April of 2020, however, ridership never dipped below 500,000 in a month.

Henry Bendon, communications specialist for GRTC, explains the agency’s ridership recouped quickly to just over 7.5 million rides in FY21, 9.3 million in FY23, and is on track to hit 10 million rides this fiscal year.

“While we did see the same dip in ridership other agencies around the nation saw, our system bounced back fairly quickly because we moved a large number of essential workers — our riders needed to stay on the bus,” he says. “We’ve also seen the way our system is funded drastically change over the last few years, which has really been a key factor in allowing us to restore service and in turn restore ridership, as well as begin to look at expanding.”

Bendon adds the agency’s upward ridership trend wasn’t smooth, however. Because of the operator shortage, GRTC wasn’t able to put out as much service as it could have and would have liked.

“We needed about 300 full-time equivalent operators to operate our full service and were at about 230 at the beginning of 2023,” says Bendon.

To help address the issue, the agency approved a 40% increase in the hourly rate for bus operators in April 2023, raising the starting pay from $17.43 to $24.91.

The starting pay increase accompanies a $2,000 bonus for CDL holders and a $3,500 bonus for CDL holders with a “P” endorsement, as well as a full package of benefits.

“We also put out there we were looking for people who were committed to public service and offered to train them from the beginning,” says Bendon. “Through these changes, we’ve been able to pick up the operators we needed and even expand on that 300 number, while at the same time expand our routes and frequencies.”

In January, GRTC restored full service on its bus routes and is introducing new services to surrounding counties, including an eight-mile extension into Chesterfield County, which will be the largest expansion of fixed route service in the region’s history.

The agency also continues to right-size its system, taking such measures as shrinking its express bus lines from 10 to four, while also boosting frequencies on its highly-used local routes.

“What it’s really looking like here right now is we’ve been working hard to restore service, and now by succeeding in that, building regional enthusiasm, and adding more operators we have an opportunity to really show the community what we’ve got, and we are really excited about that,” says Bendon.

To continue to make transit accessible, as well as to alleviate the need for face-to-face interactions with drivers, GRTC moved to a fare-free system during COVID-19 and continues to be fare free with some positive results.

“We are in the fourth calendar year of fare-free service and have seen about a 15 percent uptick in ridership,” explains Bendon. “We have also conducted surveys and found a quarter of our new riders didn’t use our system until we were fare-free and more than half identified they started using it because we were fare free.”

GRTC recently received funding from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation to support the program through June 2025 with assurances that a local match would be made to offset the total cost of the annual $5.6 million program. With its vote, the board committed as a region to support the funding gap of the local match for the fiscal year 2024.

Citing the boost in ridership, public support, and the importance of transit equity, Bendon says the agency is committed to continuing to offer fare-free service and is currently exploring ways to identify funding that will allow GRTC to continue to do so.

Although it is still in its infancy, one way the GRTC hopes to fill that funding gap to keep fare-free service is through the forming of its Transit Access Program (TAP).

“Because we are a company with a nonprofit division, we can accept tax deductible donations,” Bendon explains. “So, we are asking companies and members of our community that benefit from improved transit service and the region’s sustainability goals to donate and invest directly into a fare-free transit system. While it’s still early, TAP is just another way we’re trying to be innovative and creative in how we are able to continue to offer fare-free service.”

Bendon adds GRTC is optimistic about its future and its ability to continue to grow both its services and ridership, thanks to the leadership of its CEO Sheryl Adams.

“She has been with GRTC for 25 years, but is on her second as our CEO,” he explains. “Since she’s been on board, though, we’ve seen our operator issues addressed and our services and ridership begin to soar, as well as our stature in the community, which has been great for us.”

Up next, the GRTC recently approved the locally preferred option for its second BRT line and Bendon says the economic impact of the line is already being felt in the way of transit-oriented development (TOD) along the corridor. The agency is also conducting its first corridor study since 2018 to find ways to make the system even more efficient and is in the process of transitioning its bus fleet from diesel.

“Richmond invented the electric streetcar, so we have a proud history of public transportation here and are rebuilding a network for the 21st century that is both more accessible and efficient,” says Bendon. “We are also working on transitioning our fleet from diesel and continuing to prove that supporting the GRTC is a sound investment. Because as APTA would tell you, every dollar invested in us, returns five to the public.”  

Currently sitting at about 85% of its pre-pandemic ridership, overall, San Diego’s MTS is uncharacteristically re-building through its light rail system, which served as a huge catalyst in moving essential workers during the pandemic.  -  Photo: San Diego MTS

Currently sitting at about 85% of its pre-pandemic ridership, overall, San Diego’s MTS is uncharacteristically re-building through its light rail system, which served as a huge catalyst in moving essential workers during the pandemic.

Photo: San Diego MTS

MTS Sees Rail, Proactive Measures Boost Ridership Growth

Currently sitting at about 85% of its pre-pandemic ridership, overall, San Diego’s MTS is uncharacteristically re-building through its light rail system, which served as a huge catalyst in moving essential workers during the pandemic. A trend that is still continuing today.

“Our baseline ridership on our Trolley light rail system right now is about four percent higher than it was pre-pandemic,” explains Sharon Cooney, CEO of MTS. “One of the reasons we recovered more quickly than other agencies on the rail side is we never cut service because much of our ridership serves the service sector or the military, so we had a lot of people either still continuing to work during the pandemic or returning to their jobs much faster than your traditional office workers. Our Mid-Coast extension of the Blue Line also added ridership because it provided added accessibility to jobs and educational opportunities for our riders.”

The $2.1 billion project, completed in November 2021 and built with funds from TransNet, a half-cent sales tax administered by the San Diego Association Of Governments (SANDAG) to support transportation projects in the San Diego region, and a $1 billion FTA Full Funding Grant Agreement, provides a direct connection from the U.S./Mexico Border to the UC San Diego Community.

While experiencing success on the rail side of operations, MTS’ bus ridership is currently clocking in at 23% lower than pre-pandemic levels. Cooney explains the reasons for bus ridership being down are the Mid-Coast extension itself and, of course, the operator shortage issue.

“Due to driver shortages, we have about eight percent less service on the road,” she says. “Plus, the Blue Line extension did replace a couple of our popular bus routes, but that is just the nature of transit — you go from bus to rail when ridership warrants it.”

The region’s strong service industry, which brings with it less conventional shifts than typical nine-to-five office workers, is also giving a boost to the agency’s weekend ridership numbers.

“Because their shifts are closer to 24/seven-type hours, it does lend itself to having pretty solid weekend ridership recovery,” Cooney explains. “We also have a binational impact, with many people using the Blue Line Trolley to get across the international border on weekends, which has caused ridership in that region to remain strong.”

Cooney adds while special events contribute only a small percentage increase to the agency’s ridership, it does have an impact at MTS beyond just the boon many agencies saw during the “Summer of Taylor Swift.”

“We might take 5,000 riders to a concert, for example, but in the grand scheme of things, when you are looking at 250,000 riders a day, that’s a pretty small percentage,” she says. “What we do so see, though, is a consistent bump over time because there’s almost a major special event in the area two or three days a week —we had 300 in San Diego last year, in fact.”

Those special events include a greater number of tourists coming to town for conventions; Major League Baseball games and concerts at Petco Park where three of MTS’ light rail lines converge; and San Diego State University’s new Snapdragon Stadium, which hosts soccer games and more.

“The great part about special event ridership is those are people who typically don’t use transit, or maybe stopped using transit for their daily commutes, but are now getting back on it and seeing how great it is,” says Cooney. “In the long run, that hopefully will spur more people to choose transit who currently aren’t using it.”

MTS is currently in the process of building back up its operator workforce so that it can continue to slowly bring bus services back up to pre-pandemic levels.

The agency has also held a host of listening sessions with the community, including in disadvantaged areas in the region, and conducted customer surveys to hear what’s important to them, and perhaps more importantly, has been proactive in responding to what they are hearing.

“Our outreach has really impacted some of the decisions we’ve made to make our system more appealing to customers, which has resulted in more consistent cleaning of our system and improved lighting at some of our stops and stations,” says Cooney, who adds that that MTS will also increase its security presence by about 60% this coming year due to customer feedback.

To make its system more convenient to use, MTS hopes to complete the implementation of new tap-and-pay features for its fare collection system, PRONTO, by April, which will enable customers to use their credit cards or smartphones to pay fares. It also instituted a new Youth Opportunity Pass that allows anyone under the age of 19 years old to ride for free.

“By expanding our fare payment capabilities, we feel it will take away another mental barrier for people who want to use our system,” says Cooney. “Also, our youth pass has doubled the number of people in that age bracket who are using MTS now. We’re hoping we can not only maintain that ridership, but also continue to grow it by increasing our marketing efforts with local schools.”

Over the next four years, MTS will also receive an additional $284 million in funding from the State of California, which it hopes will help the agency continue to bump up bus and rail frequencies and increase late-night bus service as ridership continues to return and grow.

The agency also plans to implement an overnight bus service from the international border to downtown San Diego to help cover the two hours rail cannot operate due to sharing the tracks with freight lines and continue to make other enhancements in its state of good repair program on one of its major Trolley lines.

Overall, Cooney says she is bullish MTS ridership will eventually surpass the agency’s pre-COVID numbers because of the changes the agency is implementing to make the system safer and more convenient, as well as some of the TOD occurring around its BRT and Trolley lines.

“We have more than 3,000 housing units in various stages of development on MTS property, and those people are going to be transit riders. In fact, we’re already seeing that happen at some of our TOD sites that have recently opened,” she says. “Therefore, we think the future of transit will very much be dictated by the patterns of land use happening in San Diego County, which will eventually help boost ridership even past our pre-pandemic levels.”  

About the author
Alex Roman

Alex Roman

Executive Editor

Alex Roman is Executive Editor of METRO Magazine — the only magazine serving the public transit and motorcoach industries for more than 100 years.

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