Dec 14, 2023 - Economy

Where public transit is recovering — and where it's not

Public transit ridership recovery
Data: American Public Transportation Association; Note: Among metro areas with at least 500,000 people; Map: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

Public transit ridership remains stubbornly below pre-pandemic levels in most major U.S. metro areas, per American Public Transportation Association (APTA) data.

Why it matters: Public transit — whether in the form of subway systems, buses, light rail or even cable cars — is key to cities' broader health and vibrancy.

  • It makes for cleaner, greener cities, opens up possibilities for those who can't afford a car, and frees up parking lots to be turned into housing, green space and more.

By the numbers: Of around 100 U.S. metro areas with more than 500,000 people, September 2023 public transit ridership was at or above 100% of September 2019 levels in just nine.

  • Poughkeepsie, New York (150.3%); Worcester, Massachusetts (141%) and Youngstown, Ohio (130%) had the highest ridership rates this past September compared to four years earlier.
  • Raleigh, North Carolina (36%); Scranton, Pennsylvania (38%) and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (45%) had the lowest.

Zoom out: Nationally, "ridership recovered throughout 2022 and 2023 to stand at 77% of pre-pandemic levels in November 2023," per APTA's latest big-picture data.

Between the lines: Some of the country's biggest public transit systems have been showing signs of life recently — likely in part a reflection of employers dragging workers back into the office.

  • New York City subway ridership, for instance, is up about 16% so far this year through September. Ridership on the Long Island Rail Road — the country's busiest commuter rail system — is up about 11%. (Those numbers may climb further if Manhattan congestion pricing for drivers becomes a reality, as appears likely.)
  • Chicago's L has seen almost a 14% increase, while the Windy City's bus ridership is up over 15%.
  • Shifting out west, ridership on San Francisco's Muni Metro light rail network is up an impressive 43%.

What's happening: Cities have been experimenting with a variety of tactics to boost transit ridership after rates plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bottom line: In many cities, it may take years for public transit ridership to reach pre-pandemic levels, if it ever does. But many leaders nationwide are investing regardless, given the potential benefits.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Poughkeepsie, Worcester and Youngstown had the highest ridership rates in September as compared to the same month in 2019 (not Poughkeepsie, Harrisburg and Worcester), while Raleigh, Scranton and Philadelphia had the lowest (not Knoxville, Omaha, and Cape Coral). Also, only nine major metro areas had ridership at or above September 2019 levels, not 12.

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