Like many workers, I all but abandoned transit usage through 2020 and most of 2021, only returning mid-last year as my office reopened. Yet even as a lot of facets of society have returned to normal, transit ridership has struggled to rebound. There is still lingering uncertainty as COVID persists and most company return-to-office plans have either been delayed or scrapped altogether.
Prior to the pandemic, there were certain arbitrary figures that you could say were the high water mark of good ridership. I remember how big a deal it was when Sound Transit hit 100K daily boardings systemwide. These kinds of absolute figures don’t have much functional value, but they served as a common lingo for benchmarking among transit enthusiasts.
With the transition out of the pandemic, there is a pressing question of what the new normal might be. Will Metro ever hit 400K daily boardings again? Do we toss all the ST2 and ST3 ridership estimates down the drain? Or do we focus on other metrics instead? Two years into the pandemic and counting, it’s fairly evident that there has been and will be no “v-shaped” recovery for transit ridership.
The issue is that many of the variables that go into ridership projections are still riddled with near-term uncertainty. It remains to be seen whether inflation stabilizes, and if gas prices will follow suit. Budget-induced service impacts from depleted farebox recovery also loom. More difficult to quantify is if COVID has forever introduced an aversion to public spaces and crowds for some individuals. And the two biggest unknowns, in my mind, are land use forecasts and commute patterns, both of which are predicated on still-fluid remote work policies.
Here’s a crude back-of-the-napkin analysis for calculating potential lost ridership: Roughly half of pre-COVID ridership was commuters, of which we might assume a third will now be fully remote, another third will be hybrid (commuting a few days a week), and the remaining third will go back to the office mostly full-time. Rounding out the math, that gives us a quarter of trips that will disappear forever. According to APTA, nationwide ridership is still hovering about 50-60% of pre-pandemic levels.
The forecasts sound discouraging but I’m not sure it even matters if we get back to pre-COVID ridership. What does matter is that cities and transit agencies immediately adapt to our new housing and land use reality. More remote work probably means less activity in central business districts and a greater dispersion of activity across smaller urban villages and neighborhood centers. It also means more housing diversity and mixed-use development — even in single-family zones — is still badly needed.
As a consequence, I expect transit systems will shift away from being commuter-heavy. This naturally means downsizing peak-only services and building up frequent all-day cross-town connections. We saw signs of this shift early in the pandemic and there isn’t much reason to expect a drastic recalculation.
It’s good to remember that remote work reduces travel demand period, not just for transit. People working (near) where they live can be a good thing, as long as we build the right communities to support it.