Two weeks ago, Metro announced the decision to temporarily suspend twenty peak-only routes as part of its service cuts. The focus on peak-hour reductions aligns with Metro’s current operational challenges, like fielding the high number of operators required for lots of peak-time service. But some riders are disappointed that their peak routes will be shut down. Is Metro right to suspend peak-only routes versus other areas that could be cut? Here, we will explore Metro’s choice by getting into route-level productivity data on the suspended routes.
To define what we are talking about, peak-only routes run only during the morning and evening rush hour, contrasting with other routes that run throughout the day. Almost all of these routes run one-way only, and many serve limited stops. The rationale for peak routes is to connect areas that are specially associated with trips at peak hours, like downtown business areas and suburban residential neighborhoods. By designing a route to serve this specific travel pattern, transit agencies can serve a large volume of trips quite efficiently.
That was the way things were before the pandemic, for the most part. In 2019, peak-only routes held the top six spots in passenger miles per platform mile. This measure, which tells us the average loading of these buses was very high, means those routes were popular and effective at transporting people long distances. As you can imagine, the commuting pattern of people needing to go to city centers in the morning and return to their homes in the evening created this immense demand that the peak routes served.
Then, of course, the pandemic changed everything. Metro axed most of the peak routes during the early days of the pandemic, inferring that stay-at-home policies would eliminate most peak commuting. Many of those routes never returned, and the ones that survived have not been the same.
Take a look at the scatter plots below, which have the same axes to enable comparison. In 2019 (fig. 1), the peak routes (blue and orange; orange refers to the peak routes chosen for suspension) were doing better and routinely outclassing all-day routes (grey) in the passenger mile measure (y-axis), and many were competitive in the ridership measure (x-axis). You could see the buses’ separate niches in the chart: the peak routes served long hauls from commuter zones, which granted them high passenger mile metrics; while the all-day routes served many shorter hops throughout the day, giving them higher rides per hour. Some peak routes were lower performers, but at least there were others that were superlatively good at what they did.
The situation was harsher in 2022 (fig. 2). The charts clearly show Metro’s ridership problems since the pandemic, with all routes drifting left and down from 2019. But the peak routes were particularly hard-hit, mostly joining the lowest performers in the bottom left of the chart. Routes that had done well in passenger mile metrics were now also-rans: route 268 went from 20.0 passenger miles per bus mile to 2.5 and got slated for suspension in the process. Whether it was due to riders switching to other routes during COVID suspensions or less work commuting overall, the peak routes’ niche seemed to have mostly vanished by 2022.
While transit ridership continues to recover overall, we do not have public data to show us how peak routes have changed since then. Total Metro ridership rose 17% in the year preceding December 2022, but we do not know which routes are responsible for this increase. In comments against the route suspensions, riders speak anecdotally of crowded buses. But Metro general manager Michelle Allison referred to the suspended routes as “lower-ridership,” implying that those routes continue to lag behind.
For peak routes to again compare to all-day routes in their metrics, some factor would have to increase the productivity of peak routes in particular. Return-to-work policies could be such a factor; for example, Amazon is requiring employees to return to the office three days per week. However, these policies are contested by their employees who have made long-term plans incompatible with frequent commuting, like moving farther from the office. For the time being, the effect of return-to-work is unclear.
Generally, data from nationwide sources does affirm an enduring shift away from travel demand at peak hours, a trend that others have suggested could be a long-term boon to transit agencies. That is because peak-hour service is expensive to operate and often requires extensive “deadheading,” or the movement of empty buses, to serve one-way travel demand. Less peak-hour demand might mean a net increase in the total amount of service which transit agencies can provide, which is good for riders.
This change in travel demand is also good for the environment. The reason that the peak routes were better in passenger miles while having generally lower numbers of riders is because their average passenger had a much longer ride. In a shift away from peak-hour commuting, spurred by work-from-home, the number of miles each person needs to travel daily is lessened, and the average trip length reduced. Not surprisingly, not driving or riding tens of miles to work every day is an environmentally friendly development.
While the larger trends may be positive, the suspensions of the peak-only routes will affect people negatively. Riders will lose the routes they depend on, costing them time in the morning and evening. It is possible people will need to switch jobs or otherwise change their lifestyle significantly as a result of these changes. Such is the importance that transportation has for people. Hopefully this change sets Metro up to better serve people in the future.