For various stretches over the past decade+ I’ve been an MTA, a Caltrain, and a BART commuter. With each of those systems, I thoroughly appreciated the ability to get work done/read/text while getting to my destination. While drivers convince themselves of their ability to multitask in the car, it seems probable that doing so threatens the safety and lives of everyone else: other drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians, even if the evidence is “scant”.

As a now exclusively bike commuter, my contact with mass transit is more of a special occasion relationship, no longer a daily ritual, and so I don’t have any reliable firsthand evidence for the exact toll that COVID has had on ridership. It’s been abundantly clear that since the start of COVID, a widespread pattern of commuters detaching from public transit has emerged as a common theme throughout the US (and abroad) as people shifted to work from home, exited urban areas and public transit all together, or insulated themselves from other’s saliva and droplets in retreating to private vehicles.

Since zeroing out transportation emissions is critical in averting catastrophic climate change, it’s essential that public transit systems survive this post-COVID ridership fallout, but how deep is the ridership abandonment problem?

The situation is bleak. Not a single heavy rail system in the US has returned to February 2020 pre-COVID daily ridership levels. \

Using the latest Federal Transit Administration data (November 2022) monthly adjusted ridership, I find that no heavy rail system is even at 75% of its average daily ridership of February 2020. The MTA leads the pack and passed 70% pre-COVID levels in both October and November, and then only a handful of systems are even at 60% of earlier ridership. BART and the Maryland Transit Administration, which serves the Baltimore-DC area, are at the bottom of the list, respectively at 40% and 19% for November 2022.

Rebound growth has been relatively stable for all systems. Aside from occasional dips (e.g., Chicago, Jan 2022) and spikes (e.g., LA, March 2022) a linear fit from March 2020 through present wouldn’t be a poor approximation. Baltimore has definitely flat-lined

One one light rail system has been north of 100% of pre-COVID ridership: San Diego in October 2022. \

Overall, the rebound in light rail ridership appears more promising.

Transit systems throughout the US have been hurting with the prolonged, pandemic-induced drop in ridership due to:

personal health concerns

  • fewer people commuting
  • cutbacks in service frequency which have discouraged would-be riders
  • Using Federal Transit Administration data I find that only one rail system whose data is tracked by the FTA’s BLAH has returned to pre-pandemic levels: San Diego’s

Local news have made similar observations, with a recent La Jolla Light article noting that ridership is still down from last decade.

As per the La Jolla Light, stimulus support for San Diego’s MTS can

likely can stave off any major service cuts at least through 2027.