Jan 9, 2024 - News

Austin public transit trips still below pre-pandemic levels

Data: American Public Transportation Association; Note: Includes bus, rail, ferry and other modes; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: American Public Transportation Association; Note: Includes bus, rail, ferry and other modes; Chart: Axios Visuals

Public transit ridership in Austin remains slightly higher than the national average but has yet to rebound to pre-pandemic levels.

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

The big picture: Austin metro area ridership is at 81% of pre-pandemic levels, according to American Public Transportation Association (APTA) data.

  • That's based on September 2023 ridership as compared to September 2019.

Zoom in: Ridership in Austin isn't quite what it once was before the pandemic, but CapMetro boardings remain slightly higher than the national average.

  • Roughly 24.3 million passengers boarded CapMetro bus and rail services in 2023, according to CapMetro's performance dashboard, an 18.4% increase from the previous year.
  • Nationally, ridership stood at 77% of pre-pandemic levels in November 2023, per APTA's latest big-picture data.

What they're saying: "Our ridership is strong and we are a little ahead of our peers across the industry," Sharmila Mukherjee, CapMetro's chief strategic planning and development officer, told Axios.

  • But riders' "habits are not quite the same" as they were before the pandemic, she added.

Reality check: While CapMetro has seen some promising signs for ridership, commuter services remain down in our remote work landscape.

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

  • CapMetro is leaning into the city's changing travel patterns, according to the agency's chief operating officer Andrew Skabowski.
  • Skabowski said CapMetro is preparing to launch another zone for Pickup, an on-demand shared ride shuttle service. The agency also remains on track to open the new McKalla rail station before the start of the Austin FC season.

What's next: CapMetro is working to increase hiring this month with a 3-day hiring event on Jan. 16, 17 and 19 to fill open positions.

  • "We can't do any of this without our frontline workforce, without operators and mechanics," Skabowski said.

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.

Dig deeper: CapMetro CEO Dottie Watkins' best Austin day

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