At the beginning of 2021, we took a broad look at ridership throughout 2020 to identify some of the changing trends we were seeing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We wanted to do this at the end of 2021 as well, but just as things seemed to be reaching a steady state, the rise of the Omicron variant caused another drastic change in ridership trends. These trends steadied out through June 2022, then became greatly impacted by various service disruptions. Therefore, we decided to take a look at ridership again up to June 2022 to explain some of the data and give some thoughts about what we might expect going forward.
These two charts show total monthly ridership (all days) since July 2018 and average weekday ridership (aggregated by month) for the same period. Each of the lines represents a mode, or for the heavy and light rail system, represents the total unlinked passenger trips (UPT) on each line. These graphs illustrate a picture of ridership over the past few tumultuous years as well as a comparison of the differences in volume between modes: clearly a big drop in March 2020, then some gain throughout 2020 and 2021, followed by our highest ridership period after the COVID-19 pandemic in Fall 2021 as vaccines were widely available and many passengers resumed normal activities. Finally, an additional drop in January 2022 is seen as Omicron hit, and then a subsequent rebound to levels similar to Fall 2021.
The graphs also show the relative resiliency of the bus system and the Blue Line, as these modes retained the highest amount of ridership throughout the pandemic. Beginning in September 2021, you can also see commuter rail begin to make a noticeable comeback as many people resumed in-person work and other activities. After March, with the Omicron wave lessened and gas prices increasing, Commuter Rail reached its highest levels since pre-pandemic.
Finally, it’s good to take a step back and see the number of trips served by the system, particularly since mid-2021. While ridership is still below pre-COVID levels, the MBTA provides hundreds of thousands of trips per day, and in June 2022 served about 18.5 million unlinked trips on all modes. That is more than all but 8 agencies (including the T) served pre-2019. While much of the industry is seeing challenges from many usual passengers now working remotely, and issues like funding and how to design service are very important, we try to keep in perspective how important the MBTA remains to the Boston region as shown by these volumes.
Ridership compared to 2019
As we can see from the above charts (and as is discussed in earlier posts), ridership did not drop uniformly in 2020. As the overall volumes come closer to pre-pandemic “normal”, many of these differences remain. The following charts show ridership as a % of the same month in 2019. To better compare apples to apples, we focused on the weekday and weekend averages (both weekend days are combined to get a better sample size):
Data Note: Because of weekend repair work on the Orange Line in Fall 2019, weekend ridership was abnormally low. For a more realistic comparison, September and October Orange Line weekend ridership is compared with September and October of 2018. All other data are compared with the same month in 2019.
Looking at these charts, we see a continued picture of more even ridership throughout the week as fewer trips from the traditional workweek were retained. For weekdays, we see a gradual increase through 2021, a dip in January as Omicron kept people at home, and then an increase this Spring (one exception being the Blue Line which was lower in April 2022 because of service disruptions). The general pattern between the lines continues, but compared with the first two charts, we can see more easily which lines have retained the most ridership – the bus system, then the Blue Line and the RIDE. The Red Line actually retained the lowest % of its pre-COVID ridership during many months.
On weekends, the picture is somewhat different. While ridership is generally lower than it was in 2019, the drop is not as large, and during some months it approaches or exceeds 80% of the pre-COVID totals on the bus and subway system. On Commuter Rail, weekend ridership exceeded 100% of pre-COVID in several months. There are a few important reasons for this:
- First, the pre-COVID baseline ridership counts are not highly accurate. While they are in the ballpark, they relied on conductors counting the ridership on each train, which often did not occur before COVID. When there was no count, a baseline “placeholder” number was used. While this method produced reasonable results on weekdays where ridership was largely steady day-to-day, this would have the effect of undercounting any days where ridership was unusually high. That unfortunately describes much of the ridership on the Commuter Rail pre-COVID, particularly during events such as Haunted Happenings in Salem. (Since June of 2020, Commuter Rail conductors have been retrained and are counting the majority of trains, so we believe ridership estimates since then to be much more accurate. So, while we believe that weekend ridership is relatively high, and is likely higher than pre-COVID at sometimes, we do not believe it is twice as high particularly during October.)
- We have added more service to the commuter rail system on weekends
,and changed the schedules to make them more consistent.
- We introduced the $10 weekend pass in summer of 2018. While this fare was in place for the baseline period, it was not yet an official fare product, and there may have been some delay in awareness among the public.
Ridership by Day of the Week
As a reminder, here is the typical pattern of ridership by time of day in 2019, with each line representing a day of the week. We see a very peaky pattern on weekdays and a gradual “hump” on weekends with a peak at about 3 PM. Fridays have lower ridership at peaks and higher ridership in the mid-day, though there is not a huge difference.
This second chart shows validations by day of the week from January – August of 2021. Essentially, ridership seems to be “compressed” as the peaks are much lower and flatter on weekdays. Saturdays are busier than most weekdays during mid-day, except Fridays.
Finally, this chart shows ridership from March to May in 2022. This is as close to the pre-COVID pattern as we have seen so far, but there are a few notable differences:
- The volume is lower – at the busiest 15-minute period, we averaged under 7,000 validations, while pre-covid the busiest period averaged over 15,000.
- Tuesdays through Thursdays have a noticeably higher volume than Mondays, and Fridays are lower during peaks but higher mid-day and during the evenings. This suggests that people who are commuting to a 9-5 job on a hybrid basis are likely to choose the mid-week to go into the office, and that many people are taking “recreational” trips in the mid-day on Friday (don’t worry, we won’t tell).
- In the mid-day, ridership levels on weekends are comparable to those on any weekday, though Fridays have the highest levels.
As we move towards the “New Normal,” ridership continues to look different than it did before the pandemic. We continue to see fewer passengers on the system overall, and it seems clear that the largest group of “missing” passengers are those who are now frequently working from home. Ridership on weekends, meanwhile, has rebounded to a significant level compared to pre-COVID, even considering additional service disruptions that are occurring currently and may be depressing ridership.
In upcoming posts, we will dig a little deeper into the data to look at ridership in different areas of the region, as well as explaining how we are using surveys and location-based services data to better follow and analyze trends going forward.