Ridership for Maryland Transit Administration bus and rail lines, hard hit by the onset of COVID-19 in early 2020, has yet to rebound to pre-pandemic levels.
In February 2020, bus ridership was just above 5 million. Two years later, in February 2022, bus ridership did not reach 3 million. This decrease is seen across all of the MTA’s services, with Metro Subway ridership standing at 612,000 in February 2020, compared to 122,000 in February 2022.
The light rail system has grown the most percentage-wise since its lowest point during the pandemic. In April 2020, light rail saw 46,000 riders, and that number has more than quadrupled, up to 188,000 as of February 2022.
For the MTA, which recently imposed a previously approved fare increase, the challenge will be to maintain its equipment, recruit operators and improve service – all at a time when ridership levels are down.
Pierre Filion, professor emeritus at Waterloo University’s School of Planning and a mass transit expert, said transit systems face another challenge because of the trend of businesses to allow employees to work remotely or from home.
“The pandemic has unlocked the potential of using digital technology to replace on-site work, and that will remain, to some extent, in the future,” Filion said.
While ridership remains down, the MTA’s budget increased by $25.5 million for the 2023 fiscal year.
Filion said that while ridership numbers might not recover to what they were before the pandemic hit, transit systems must continue to invest in maintenance and improvements to attract riders.
“If you don’t invest that money in the transit system even when transit use is declining, it will go down even more,” Filion said.
Along with a lowered demand for MTA services, there is also a shortage of operators, a problem faced by transit systems nationally. The MTA temporarily changed light rail schedules due to the shortage and has increased efforts to fill vacant positions, according to a statement from Veronica Battisti, senior director of communications and marketing at the MTA.
The transit agency also must grapple with concerns that their largest base of users – low-income people of color – often don’t live close to a light rail or Metro Subway station, making it hard to access health care and food, according to a report from Johns Hopkins University.
MTA ridership has mainly followed the path of COVID-19. For example, both the Metro Subway and light rail were gradually increasing in ridership during the third quarter of 2021, but once the omicron variant began to surge, ridership once again fell. Filion expects this trend to continue.
“What I expect is going to happen is that transit ridership will follow the cycle of the waves,” Filion said. “It’s going to be a nightmare for transit managers.”
The MTA has seen increased ridership since the beginning of the year, and officials hope that trend will continue.
“Ridership across MDOT MTA is currently at 63% of pre-pandemic ridership and is steadily improving,” the statement said. “Between January 2022 and May 2022, Core Service (Local Bus, Light Rail, Metro Subway) monthly boardings have increased 23.63%.”