Jan 11, 2024 - News

Metro Phoenix transit use still lags pre-pandemic levels

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

Public transit ridership in the Phoenix metro area is at 56% of pre-pandemic levels, according to data from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

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

Why it matters: Public transit — whether it's buses, light rail or shuttle circulators — can improve a city's broader health and vibrancy.

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

What's happening: Ridership took a nosedive at the start of the pandemic amid stay-at-home orders and calls for social distancing. When things returned to normal, many former riders did not resume their old routines.

  • This isn't just a Phoenix issue. Of around 100 U.S. metro areas with more than 500,000 people, just nine hit or exceeded 2019 ridership in 2023, per APTA.

Zoom in: Valley Metro CEO Jessica Mefford-Miller tells Axios Phoenix the Valley's continued high rate of work-from-home has had a negative impact on ridership.

  • She said the region's commuter services — like the Express and RAPID buses that deliver riders to and from employment centers and suburban drop-off points in the mornings and evenings — have especially struggled.

By the numbers: The dip in ridership forced Valley Metro to cover more of the system's operating budget with tax revenue since fare collection was down.

  • Only 8% of Valley Metro's operating budget was covered by fare revenue as of January, compared with about 14% before the pandemic, per Valley Metro.
  • Mefford-Miller says growth in regional and local sales tax revenue allowed the transit authority to cover the funding gap without issue.

Yes, but: Ridership is increasing every month, and Valley Metro's goal is for fares to cover 20% of the system's operating budget in the next five or six years, Mefford-Miller says.

  • Bus ridership is seeing a 5% to 10% year-over-year increase monthly, and light rail is up 12% to 20%, she says.

The intrigue: Post-pandemic ridership looks different, she tells us.

  • While morning and evening commute periods are still the busiest transit times, Valley Metro is seeing more activity midday, in the late evening and on weekends.
  • Mefford-Miller says the system is seeing the most growth in "non-commute trips" by riders taking the light rail to concerts, school or other non-work appointments or activities.

What we're watching: Valley Metro will review its bus service this year and potentially change routes and schedules to meet new ridership patterns.

  • Additionally, the organization is modernizing its fare system and will soon offer more convenient avenues for conventions or other events to purchase bulk tickets for attendees and allow apartment complexes to offer annual Valley Metro passes to their tenants.

What's next: Valley Metro is expanding the light rail and exploring microtransit options, which Mefford-Miller says she believes will also drive new ridership.

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