CHICAGO – For more than a year, the usually busy road of Chicago Transit Authority bus driver James Clemons has been a ghost town.
Clemons’ drive through Chicago’s North Side neighborhood takes him past a Mariano’s grocery store. Normally, the nearby bus stop is full of customers pulling carts of grocery bags onto the bus to take them home. But that hasn’t been the case since Covid-19 arrived in the United States early last year.
“No one was taking the train. Nothing was open. No one was going to work, so there were no passengers,” Clemons said during a break near the store. The normally busy bus stop was empty.
Ridership began to increase in the weeks following Chicago’s full reopening of its economy. But we’re a long way from pre-pandemic levels, and Clemons doesn’t know when the road will be busy again.
“You can’t look at it in three weeks and say, ‘OK, yeah, they’re going to get back to normal,'” Clemons said, “because they might, they might not.”
Chicago is one of many cities where public transit faces an uncertain recovery. While some aspects are starting to return to normal, new data suggests that public transport is still struggling to get back on track.
In June, nationwide ridership of some bus, metro and commuter train systems was still down almost two-thirds from 2019 levels, according to a three-year NBC News analysis of Data from the Transit transit planning app, which estimates ridership based on app usage and transit agency information. And transportation experts say the numbers may not rebound until the end of the year.
Ridership plummeted early last year, when cities issued stay-at-home orders and businesses began to allow remote working. Essential workers and those reliant on public transportation commuted in nearly empty trains and suffered service cuts and mask warrants.
The number of people using public transport has increased since then, but it is still far from where it used to be. It is estimated that commuters made 358 million trips in June, up 200 million from April 2020, the first full month after stay-at-home orders were implemented to prevent the spread of Covid-19. But this is still well below the 918 million trips made by commuters recorded in June 2019.
Changes in work, life and travel habits have called into question the future of public transport. The past year has shaken up industries and shaken up standards, with some companies allowing permanent remote working. Many urban workers have swapped cramped apartments for houses in the suburbs.
Some people have completely changed their commuting habits, taking advantage of new options like e-bikes and electric scooters. Others bought cars, sending used car prices to new heights. Apple mobility data shows that since last year, car travel has overtaken public transport during the pandemic.
“The impact has been truly unprecedented in terms of the lost ridership and lost revenue that we have seen in the industry,” said Paul Skoutelas, President and CEO of the American Public Transportation Association, a non-profit organization that campaigns for the funding of public transit. , which has partnered with the Transit app to provide its members with traffic analysis.
Skoutelas said every transit agency has been affected, but that he expects ridership to return eventually.
“Once we get through the summer, into September, when the kids go back to school and businesses bring their workforce back, we expect that number to continue to rise,” did he declare.
The Transit app allows users to check real-time bus and train information and plan rideshare, bike-share and scooter rides. The company used the data from these interactions to estimate actual ridership usage.
Transit spokesperson Stephen Miller said in an email that the company statistically modeled traffic based on how often users opened the app across the country.
The models provide a glimpse of what’s going on with around 130 transit systems, some of which bounce back faster than others.
According to Transit data, trips on the Los Angeles subway fell by nearly three-quarters in March 2020, from 7.5 million trips to 2.2 million in the week of March 22, when a stay order at home was issued statewide.
California lifted most Covid restrictions in June. During this month, Transit data estimated 21.3 million trips on the Los Angeles subway, up from 10.3 million in April 2020. The numbers are still down from June 2019, when we estimates that there were 30.2 million trips.
In New York City, estimated bus and train ridership for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority jumped to 131 million trips last month, more than triple the 37 million trips in April of last year. Although this is a substantial increase, the number is still around half of what it was in June 2019.
“We brought 48% of our customers back on the train and about 57% of our customers on the buses,” said Sarah Meyer, customer manager for MTA. “So we’re getting there slowly but surely. “
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s ridership plummeted after Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a public health emergency on March 11 last year. Ridership reached a record level the following month, estimated at 700,000 trips by metro and bus. Ridership has rebounded since then – nearly 2 million trips were recorded in the week of June 27, the highest number since the start of the pandemic.
Chicago completely reopened its economy last month, and trip estimates on the CTA are up almost 87% from April 2020. Last month’s trips are still down by more than half since 2019, when 36 million trips had been estimated during the same period.
CTA spokesperson Brian Steele said the numbers are far lower than ridership before the pandemic, but signs point to workers returning to their offices in downtown Loop.
“One of the biggest increases we’ve seen is the number of riders to and from the loop,” Steele said. “Since May 1, ridership has increased by 53% on the rail lines serving the Boucle and 41% on the bus lines serving the Boucle.
The picture is not entirely rosy, as local government revenues and fares plummeted during the pandemic, putting several transit systems in financial jeopardy.
CTA attributed this year’s $ 375 million budget deficit to the pandemic and relied on federal funding to support the services.
Congress tried to make up some of the shortfall, providing transit agencies with $ 25 billion through the CARES Act in March 2020 and a follow-up of $ 14 billion in December.
Despite the two waves of relief funding, transit authorities still face a projected deficit of $ 39.3 billion through the end of 2023, according to a report by the American Public Transportation Association.
Skoutelas, the group’s chairman, said usage patterns are changing and public transport systems are adapting by rethinking routes and adjusting prices.
“People might not come [the office] five days a week, ”he said. “They are looking for prices that will be attractive to those who come in two or three days. “
In May, Chicago reduced prices for one and multi-day summer passes to increase ridership. On Tuesday, the New York MTA announced it would suspend fare increases this year to attract passengers.
“We are in this huge period of transition [for] agencies and as an industry, ”Skoutelas said.
“We are really faced with a lot of innovation happening in order to position the systems that serve our cities and communities, [to] position them for success in the future, ”he said.
CORRECTION (July 21, 2021, 6:45 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the name of the New York public transportation agency. This is the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, not the Metropolitan Transit Agency.