2020 Ridership In Review: Part 1

Ridership on the MBTA and public transit in general has dropped dramatically as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. For this series of posts, we wanted to take a longer look at the year to review how ridership changed in three dimensions: by mode, over time, and by location.

Reports on ridership during the early months of the pandemic can be found in recent posts on the blog. We also continue to keep the public folder updated with downloadable datasets from which these charts and descriptions are based.

Notes on the Data

As a reminder, data on ridership is collected differently on different vehicles and therefore has different quirks and levels of reliability. Unless otherwise noted: 

  • Rapid Transit ridership (Blue, Red (including Mattapan), Green, and Orange Lines) is based on validations on MBTA fare equipment. While looking at the following charts, it is important to note that fares were not collected on buses, surface Green Line, and the Mattapan Line from mid-March through mid-July. For this time period, front-door boarding was suspended out of concern for safety of riders and MBTA employees. As a result, AFC (Automated Fare Collection) data for the early pandemic period does not account for riders on the mentioned modes.
  • Bus ridership is based on automated passenger counters (APCs) on-board buses. 
  • Commuter Rail and Ferry ridership are based on manual counts recorded by conductors and other staff. For Commuter Rail, not all trips are counted, so a placeholder is used based on the most recent real observations if there is no observation for a particular trip on a particular day.
  • The RIDE ridership is based on trips booked in the RIDE’s software.
Chart showing weekday ridership on all MBTA modes indexed to February 2020

The above chart (click to enlarge) shows ridership change over the year (weekdays only) compared to the baseline week of February 24-28, just before emergency orders were issued. Indexing every mode to this week hides the difference in volume of ridership between modes, but allows us to compare how much each mode and rapid transit line were affected. Showing just weekdays makes the trends easier to follow while still showing some day-to-day variation.

Some observations from this chart:

  • Bus and the RIDE ridership were affected the least initially, but still dropped to roughly 20% of the baseline ridership. They then recovered to about 40-45% of the baseline by September and have been largely steady since.
  • The Blue Line has retained higher ridership than the other rapid transit lines. The Blue Line initially dropped to about 12-13% of the baseline, but by August was comparable with bus and the RIDE, before dropping a bit below them in October.
  • The other Rapid Transit lines showed similar trends, with the Orange Line retaining the most ridership, then the Red Line, then the Green Line.
  • Finally, the Ferry and Commuter Rail retained the least amount of their original ridership. Ferry data is seasonally adjusted here and each day is compared to the weekday average from the same month in 2019. This was done to provide a better trendline since ferry ridership is very seasonal and the February baseline week would be quite low. 

Passenger Trends

Chart showing Gated station taps in 2020 compared with 2019

The above chart shows total validations at all gated stations, totaled by week (including weekends), compared to the same week in 2019. Weekly gated station validations dropped to their minimum for the year during the week of April 13th. During this week, there were 226,273 validations at gated stations or approximately 8% of the number of validations of the corresponding week in 2019. Gated station validations remained at or below 10% of 2019 levels until the end of May. Unlike 2019 ridership, which sees minor dips and spikes corresponding with significant events (e.g., a dip of about 500,000 validations during the week of July 4th), pandemic period 2020 ridership has grown and declined more steadily.

In absolute numbers, pandemic ridership reached a peak at the end of September, with weekly gated station validations reaching nearly 800,000 during the week of September 21st. Weekly gated station validations reached a maximum of 29% of 2019 levels during the first week of September.

In order to understand the changes that were happening on the system we were interested in finding out whether we gained back rides (individual trips) or riders (distinct people) faster. The below plot shows three different values relative to their 2019 levels. They depict the change in total validations, distinct cards seen, and what we call “frequent riders”: distinct cards that have validations on at least 3 days in a week.

Chart showing ridership patterns among different types of passengers compared to 2019
Chart showing ridership among different types of cards compared with 2019, focusing on August through October 2020

While the patterns over the summer are difficult to interpret because of the lack of bus fare collection, we see an interesting but perhaps not surprising pattern in the last few weeks of data. Relative to their 2019 levels, we see a greater decrease in the “frequent” cards than we do in the distinct cards seen. This indicates that frequent users of the T left the system at a higher rate than more occasional users. This could indicate that changes in the structure of work, with far fewer people going into an office 5 days per week, is impacting ridership patterns. That said, it could also be influenced by changes in the amount of “churn” (people losing their cards, or otherwise switching cards) or changes in who has signed up for Perq (usually frequent riders).

We are also curious about who is using the system during the pandemic months. Like ridership patterns, understanding this is important to structuring service and pass products. For example, throughout the pandemic, reduced fare products were used at a much higher rate than in previous years, likely indicating that the people who are still riding the T are disproportionately low-income.

Chart showing reduced fare validations as a proportion of all validations, comparing 2019 and 2020

This shows that riders who rely on reduced fare products to ride the T have made up a significantly larger proportion of weekly taps than during 2019. While the difference between 2019 and 2020 peaked early in the pandemic, this difference has persisted to the end of October. This is particularly interesting given that many reduced fare riders are students, and many schools were held remotely during this time. 

Other research has noted that these essential trips are the ones remaining on transit, so it should be unsurprising that reduced fare users, passengers on the RIDE and bus riders have continued to ride the system while many have chosen other modes or not made trips at all. In the next post, we will take a look at where and when travelers took the MBTA during the pandemic.