Bus travel is back post-COVID, but trains are running behind

Data: American Public Transportation Association; Chart: Madison Dong/Axios Visuals

Bus ridership is up, but trains are still half-empty as public transit systems across the U.S. try to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Why it matters: The unevenness of the recovery reflects the socioeconomic inequities of public transportation and the vagaries of hybrid work.

  • Many essential workers and lower-income people — groups that tend to be less able to work remotely — rely on the bus for basic transportation, which helps explain why bus ridership has bounced back faster.
  • Office workers, many of whom used to commute by rail from the suburbs, now have more flexibility to work from home at least some of the time.

Where it stands: After falling to 20% of pre-pandemic levels in April 2020, total nationwide public transit ridership has recovered to more than 70% as of September, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

  • That’s up from the summer months, when ridership had been hovering around 64% of pre-pandemic levels.
  • APTA says more people returning to school and the office could account for the increase in ridership in September.

“I think it’s society getting back to more of their daily living,” says APTA CEO Paul Skoutelas. “But we still have a long way to go to get to pre-pandemic levels.”

  • That’s not likely to happen until 2024, he says. “It’s slowly coming back. It’s a bit of a slog, but it’s happening.”

By the numbers: Bus ridership has seen a relatively steady increase since February 2021.

  • After falling to 28% of pre-pandemic levels in April 2020, it has recovered to about 66% (which means it’s still down by a third).
  • Rail transit, which includes everything from subways and street cars to light rail and commuter trains, plummeted to just 10% of pre-pandemic levels in April 2020. Now it stands at around 60%.
  • Contrary to expectations, sharply higher gas prices last spring and summer did not drive more people to the bus or train, APTA noted.

Between the lines: Smaller cities’ transit networks have recovered better than those in large urban areas, with ridership back to about 83% of normal levels in cities of 500,000 people or less compared to 66% in cities with over 2 million people.

  • That’s partly because there are fewer teleworking alternatives in smaller cities.

  • In big cities such as Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Seattle and New York, on the other hand, more than half of employed people 16 and older are working mostly from home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2021 American Community Survey, Bloomberg reports.

Some transit agencies have tried to recapture riders — and boost access for underserved communities — by eliminating fares.

  • Kansas City was the first major U.S. city to offer free bus fare starting in 2020, according to NPR, but ridership is still lower than it had been before the pandemic.
  • Richmond, Virginia, is also offering free bus fare, while Los Angeles and Seattle let students under 18 ride for free.
  • Many cities and states are using pandemic relief funds to offset lost revenue.

What they’re saying: TransitCenter, a think tank, urges cities to provide targeted subsidies to riders in need, and says employers should cover workers’ commuting costs, rather than officials eliminating fares across the board.

  • It also warns that free transit programs can backfire if the service is poor.

The bottom line: No one will ride the bus — whether it’s free or not — if it doesn’t come often enough.

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