Mass Transit’s Summer of Discontent

Timothy Little
6 min readJul 25, 2022

There’s a line from Shakespeare’s Richard III, “Now is the Winter of our discontent,” meaning a time of unhappiness or sorrow will soon end. But if winter is replaced with summer, it could forewarn this period is just beginning or peaking. As we enter the last week of July, this could apply to what’s happening with mass transit ridership after increasing summer tourism and more defined return to office mandates haven’t brought a more robust rebound.

Recent ridership increases on Washington, DC’s transit system (Metro) are a cause for optimism — passengers on the Metro rail and bus systems combined is 40% higher than expectations set more than a year ago. But while Metro riders are returning, it has been on the less-lucrative bus system, and not enough to alter their financial projections.

Photo by Vlad Chețan on Pexels

A recent survey from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) found public transit ridership in May was down 60–65% when compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2019. Public transportation systems across the U.S. have been struggling to rebound since the pandemic began more than two years ago. While some riders have returned, many are still staying home, working remotely or utilizing other modes of transportation (like their car). The result has been challenging for transit agencies that rely on fare revenue to fund operations.

The bottom line is that while public transit ridership is slowly recovering, it is still far below pre-pandemic levels and many agencies are still trying to adapt to this new normal.

High Gas Prices Are Not Having a Big Effect

There was some hope that rising gas prices might lure riders back to mass transit:

Daily ridership on New York City subways increased 3% from March 1 to March 8, a gain of 101,595 trips. On Washington, D.C.’s Metrorail, ridership rose roughly 4% between the same dates, while trips on San Francisco Bay Area’s BART system climbed 7%.

But these gains seemed short lived or, at least, were not the panacea they might have been. In an NPR interview discussing commuters’ sluggish return to mass transit, there was a poignant remark when a driver was asked “Have you considered public transportation as an option?” — “No. That’s the reason why I got the car.” Outside of major urban areas, if you own a car or — at worst — became a new car owner during the height of the pandemic, you are unlikely to return to mass transit like you once did.

“Protection from the coronavirus” was a big reason for car buying in 2020 and 2021. According to statistics from IHS Markit, the New York metro region saw over 890,000 new automobiles registered in all of 2020. In the region there were another 437,548 cars registered in May 2021, nearly 7.5% of the nation’s total new vehicle registrations. The question for New York and other metros is, will people keep their cars?

Transit still poses the best option to get somewhere in a hurry in Manhattan, but for other cities car driving is much more accepted … and easier. Looking at car ownership and commuting in 2019, other metro areas relied more heavily on cars than public transportation.

Three Days in the Office is the New Norm, At Most

The consistent, once-predictable commuter patterns that gave rise to transit systems has changed. As a result, people are slowly returning to mass transit and normalizing a work week away from their office. If people are in the office three (instead of five) days a week that equates to a 40% decline in weekday ridership compared to pre-pandemic. This means getting ridership back above 65% of pre-pandemic levels on a consistent basis will be extremely challenging. Three days in the office is the work schedule that Bay Area Council documents note has become the new normal.

In New York City, ridership across the transit system (subways, buses and commuter trains) is around 60%, which is below even the worst case scenario for summer 2022 estimated by McKinsey and Co. in 2020. Updated projections from New York MTA are expected this week. But New York is not alone, mass transit agencies across the country are reporting a sluggish return of riders.

Many transit agencies are relying on Federal aid to keep them afloat without major service cuts, but that will only last for so long. An excellent two-part series in Governing, “For Mass Transit Agencies, a Fiscal Cliff Looms,” takes a look at this issue (Part I and Part II). Some highlights:

  • WMATA (Washington, DC metro area) has been receiving over $700 million in aid from the federal government.
  • The Boston area’s MBTA recently showed projections of a $236 million deficit in fiscal year 2024 followed by a $406 million deficit the next year
  • SEPTA (Philadelphia metro area) had to make large expenditures on social services and cleaning, as ridership was only at 49% of pre-pandemic ridership in April and 52% in May.
Source: Office of the New York State Comptroller

Mass Transit Needs a Make Over

Remote work is the largest culprit for why mass transit ridership has not recovered. But other problems like health and safety, fear of crime and disorder, and homelessness have raised concerns. In New York City, the Mayor made a push earlier this year to provide shelter for those camping overnight in subway cars and stations.

A rash of incidences on Boston’s transit system has dismayed riders. Just last week a Boston commuter train erupted in flames sending some passengers fleeing through windows to escape. Extreme heat can also a cause problems as steel rails are at greater risk of experiencing a thermal buckle, resulting in reduced travel speeds to mitigate risk.

Transit agencies are also dealing with the broader issue of public sector labor shortages. A new Transit Center report, “Bus Operators in Crisis,” details the challenges agencies face:

An increased rate of retirement coupled with struggles to recruit and retain new operators have played a key role in creating operator shortfalls. Even in the absence of a pandemic, transit agencies would be challenged by a lack of workers

In February the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) reported “More than nine in ten public transit agencies (92 percent) stated that they are having difficulty hiring new employees. Bus operations positions are the most difficult to fill.”

What’s Next for Mass Transit?

The future of mass transit is uncertain. But there are a few things that we do know:

  • Ridership will continue to be below pre-pandemic levels for the foreseeable future.
  • Federal aid will eventually run out.
  • There is a need for significant reforms and investment.

What’s not clear is how transit agencies will adapt in the post-pandemic world — but they will survive. Transit will continue to be an important part of the urban experience and efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Solutions proposed to help transit is to build more housing near stations — and make it equitable.

In 2013, Chicago adopted a Transit-oriented development (TOD) policy to encourage development near transit stops. But 90% of projects took place on the North Side of the city and were disproportionately high-rise rental apartment buildings and luxury condos. The City’s new Connected Communities Ordinance focuses on Equitable Transit Oriented Development.

The departing head of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) noted that COG modeled various things to improve transportation and congestion: one solution was to build more housing closer to jobs. He said the region has not created enough housing for the increasing population and that there’s not enough housing within a half-hour commute, whether that’s by car or by transit.

No one knows what the future of mass transit will look like, but we do know that something needs to change. We need to build more housing near transit, we need to invest in public transportation, and we need to make sure that everyone has access to a reliable and affordable transportation option.

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Timothy Little

State and Local Government Finance | Cities, Transit, Infrastructure, Economics, Demographic Change | backofthebudget.com | Opinions are my own.