Federal data makes clear: Transit has work to do to ease COVID-19 fears
Even after vaccines, public transit struggles to recapture riders
The COVID-19 vaccines have allowed people to safely eat dinner at a restaurant, go to a ballgame, and take the bus or train. Data from the Federal Transit Administration's National Transit Database suggests riders remain wary of public transit, even after vaccinations began.
Even after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines for emergency use, public transit ridership remains well below pre-COVID-19 levels. And the pace of ridership recovery is painfully slow. This according to data from the U.S. Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database, which shows that while ridership remains at a fraction of the levels observed in February 2020, just as the novel coronavirus made its way into the United States.
For the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA),operator of what is by far the largest rail transit system in the United States, rail transit ridership dropped 91 percent during the first two months of the pandemic. Ridership slowly rebounded after statewide stay-at-home orders were relaxed, and since health professionals began administering the COVID-19 vaccines, MTA ridership is up 39 percent.
Yet that remains well below pre-COVID-19 levels:
The next five largest rail transit systems in the United States that reported ridership data in May – the Chicago Transit Authority, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Agency – have similarly struggled to recapture ridership.
(Note that the Bay Area Transit System did not report data in May. MTA data is also excluded in the graph below for clarity; MTA serves several times more passengers than any other transit agency in the United States, and including MTA in the graph would conceal trends evident seen with the other agencies.)
Take the Chicago Transit Authority. The good news is that ridership is up 58% since Jan. 1, just as the COVID-19 vaccines began going into arms. The bad news: CTA still has a long, long way to go to get back to normal. As of June 2021, the Chicago Transit Authority is serving just a third (35%) the number of riders it served before COVID-19.
Nine U.S. rail transit systems provided at least three million trips a month before COVID-19; all lost at least three-fourths of their riders during the initial two months of the pandemic, and none of the seven have been able to recapture more than half of their riders since the outbreak.
Public bus systems have fared only marginally better in bringing back riders. The National Transit Database collected data from 405 bus systems across the United States in May 2021; those 405 bus systems, collectively, serve 52 percent of the ridership they served in February of 2020. That compares favorably to the 37 percent of pre-COVID ridership served by the 15 major heavy rail systems across the United States, according to the latest data on all 15 systems.
Perhaps more worrisome is that other gathering places do not appear to be experiencing as much difficulty bringing back customers as public transit systems are experiencing. Take the food service industry. OpenTable.com has compiled data on seated reservations booked on their platform, comparing the number of reservations completed in a given week during the COVID-19 pandemic against that same week in 2019 – for example, reservations completed the first week of March in 2021 against the first week of March 2019 – to remove demand fluctuations that may simply reflect seasonal effects and not COVID-19 fears.
The OpenTable data makes clear that food service is coming back. Indeed before the July increase in COVID-19 cases, several cities appeared to be approaching pre-COVID-19 levels of food service demand, with the increase in demand plainly produced by the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines:
Yet transit does not appear to be enjoying the same increase in demand. Applying the OpenTable methodology – comparing demand against the same time in 2019 – supporters of public transit can find cause for concern. In isolating Chicago again, we see demand for CTA’s rail service remain relatively stagnant, comparing more recent demand levels against demand in 2019. This as demand for seated reservations at Chicago restaurants clearly increased after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted approval for the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines.
City governments, one after the other, are mandating their transit agencies phase out diesel and compressed natural gas (CNG) buses in favor of zero-emission electric buses. The federal government may soon dramatically increase support to accelerate that transformation. But critical questions remain: Can city planners effectively manage the transformation? And can transit agencies build the infrastructure to support zero-emission buses?