Public transportation ridership is down sharply in some major cities, with many residents opting to work from home or avoid taking transit to minimize their exposure to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Meanwhile, the public agencies that run subways and buses are mulling service cuts and fare increases to keep finances afloat, which could dampen ridership even more and threaten their financial stability. It’s a worst-case scenario with no obvious solution in sight.
The Verge requested ridership data from most major transit agencies in the US to get a sense of how they were faring in the initial stages of the pandemic. The response from some cities was grim, while others appeared to be holding steady in these early days of the outbreak. In cities where ridership is down, experts predict the loss in revenue could prolong transit’s financial woes well beyond the coronavirus outbreak.
Ridership is “always volatile and heavily driven by factors outside an agency’s control,” writes Jarret Walker, a transit consultant and author of Human Transit. But there is no doubt the outbreak and subsequent slowdown of daily life in the US will lead to steeper drops in ridership, which will affect any transit systems’ financial stability. It happened in China where the coronavirus outbreak originated. Transit use collapsed in the wake of the government’s restrictions on travel.
Ridership on New York City’s subway system, the nation’s largest, was down 18.65 percent on Wednesday, March 11th, compared to the same day last year, a spokesperson said. That’s about 948,000 fewer trips than an average weekday in January — and this only represents the early stages of the pandemic.
Bus ridership in New York City was down 15 percent, while Long Island Rail Road ridership declined 31 percent. Metro North (which connects to suburban communities in Westchester, Rockland, and parts of Connecticut) fell a whopping 48 percent. The city’s major transit hubs, including Penn Station and Grand Central Station, are still bustling, but are nowhere near as busy as they typically are.
Washington state has been called the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the US. Seattle’s Sound Transit, which oversees ST Express regional buses, Link light rail, and Sounder commuter rail, has experienced a 25 percent drop in ridership in February compared to the month before, according to a spokesperson. Ferry ridership in Seattle was down 15 percent on Monday, March 9th, compared to the previous Monday.
In San Francisco, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) is also getting pummeled. BART’s ridership on Wednesday, March 10th, was down 35 percent compared to an average Wednesday last month. That’s 5 percent worse than the previous day, when ridership also fell 30 percent to 292,011, compared to an average Tuesday in February when 415,760 riders usually take BART.
The governors in New York, Washington state, and California have banned large group gatherings, but have excluded mass transit from that mandate. Transit agencies have increased the frequency of cleanings and installed hand sanitizer dispensers at subway and bus hubs, but a growing number of people are opting to avoid public transportation altogether.
Other cities have yet to see precipitous drops in ridership. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which operates Boston’s T train, says it has logged a 2.5 percent drop in riders in the first week of March, as compared to the February weekday average. In particular, the Green Line was down about 7 percent, Orange Line about 3 percent, and the Red and Blue lines were within 1 percent of February.
In Washington, DC, Metro passengers took 100,000 fewer rail trips Wednesday compared with the same day last week, according to The Washington Post. The agency said service reductions would go into effect starting Monday.
Ridership appears to be holding steady for Los Angeles’ Metro based on figures over the last two months. A spokesperson said Metro has actually observed busy trains during peak hour periods. Much like other cities, the agency has instituted a policy of deep cleaning for all of its trains and buses.
Likewise, Dallas said it was not seeing a “significant drop-off in ridership,” a spokesperson for Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) said in an email. “In fact, ridership over the past couple of days are actually higher than what we saw a year ago. We continue to watch for the drop, but it has not happened yet.”
But cities are preparing for the worst, especially as more cases of COVID-19 are reported and elected officials begin to take more drastic measures.
“Transit agencies should be planning for virtually no fare revenue over the coming months,” said Yonah Freemark, a transit expert who writes for The Transport Politic. Freemark said that cities facing short-term financial shortfalls should consider reducing service on their most busy transit routes to account for the steep drop in ridership, as long as the length of time between trains or buses (aka headwinds) doesn’t fall below 10 minutes. “This will also allow agencies to deal with what I can only assume will be higher rates of employee sickness,” he added.
Fare increases, however, should be taken off the table, Freemark said. “The last thing we need is to put more economic stress on residents of a country that is clearly about to enter a major recession,” he said.
Fewer riders will mean less money, and the slowdown in economic activity in cities due to the coronavirus will also mean less tax dollars for transit agencies. The biggest transit agencies will be hit hardest because they are the ones that rely the most on fares paid by passengers to cover their operating expenses, notes visiting fellow at Harvard Kennedy School David Zipper.
Big infrastructure projects like route extensions and subway station improvements will most likely need to be postponed for the time being, said Jarrett Walker. “If infrastructure work continues while service is being cut, you’re driving away current riders for the sake of future riders,” he writes, “and if the goal is ridership, that makes no sense.”
There could be federal money made available, too. Senate Democrats released a plan to provide assistance to struggling public transit systems, according to The New York Times. But getting Republicans and the Trump administration to sign off on a bailout, especially given the hostility many wealthy conservatives feel toward public transportation, may be a tough sell. (Negotiations were still ongoing as this story went to publication.)
Meanwhile, as public transportation struggles, automakers see a silver lining. “Given the current drop in use of public transportation and extensive flight cancellations,” General Motors CEO Mary Barra said in a letter to employees, “our customers are looking to us more than ever to ensure they have the vehicles, parts and services they need.”