Monday, May 20, 2024

Riders at the Central Square T stop on March 2, a rainy day in Cambridge. (Photo: Marc Levy)

If trains and buses seem a little more crowded on trips into and around Boston, it’s not just because service is less frequent. Slowly, riders are returning.

“Ridership continues to increase week over week on all modes, including the subway,” MBTA deputy press secretary Lisa Battiston said.

Subway gates averaged 244,000 validations per weekday in the last week of February – 9 percent higher than the previous week – and 3 percent higher than the average weekday in March 2022, Battiston said.

The T counts ridership in a number of ways: weekday and weekend averages, systemwide totals and those split by mode. Ridership is counted each time someone boards a T vehicle such as a train, bus or ferry, meaning if someone transfers from a bus to the green line and then to another line on their way to work, that’s three total “unlinked” rides. Automated Passenger Counters use infrared beams to see how many people enter vehicles, and more numbers come from an Automated Fare Collection system, the boxes where riders swipe CharlieCards and tap tickets. The T estimates some AFC figures for riders who do not interact with either system and does occasional manual counts. Commuter rails use conductor counts and manual counts from terminal stations.

  • How we crunched the data: Reporter Stacy Kess used open source available data from the MBTA transit records to total the numbers of all modes of transit for years 2019 through 2022, and for weekday average ridership; third party sources to verify, and to find and very total ridership 2013-2018; and from the State of New York, the MTA and the Office of the New York State Comptroller and third party sources to verify total ridership for 2019-2021.

And here’s what the data has to say about weekly average ridership: In 2016, it was 1,279,019. That decreased the following year to 1,238,819 and again in 2018 to 1,206,399. Weekday average ridership saw a slight increase in 2019 to 1,215,432.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, January and February were fairly normal, but ridership plummeted afterward. The year’s weekday average fell to 479,734. In 2021, the weekday average rose to 517,674. Last year, the weekday average rose again to 681,105.

The MBTA has released the weekday averages for January and February 2023 and is already showing an increase again. January hit 697,398. and February rose again to 698,544. March’s weekday average will be released at the end of April.

Small seasonal variations occur, with September and October increases as universities see students return and some K-12 students ride more. Just as Covid depressed ridership after 2020, seasonal respiratory illnesses bring down ridership every winter. Ridership rises again in January.

The media narrative in Boston has been that ridership has remained flat. It seemed in line with what TransitMatters Labs co-chair Ian Reynolds was seeing.

“TM keeps an eye on ridership stats using our Covid Recovery Dashboard,” Reynolds said. “Our ridership totals are lower than the T’s because we’re missing commuter rail and green line surface-station boardings, but the trends align. My personal view of the data is that ridership has basically flatlined since September 2021, and it’s been hovering between 55 percent to 65 percent of February 2020 levels since then.”

Graphic: Tod Tyslan

Yes, T ridership is down since the beginning of the pandemic – last year saw only 58.5 percent of the total ridership of 2019. But total unlinked ridership also was lower in 2015-2019 than its record high in 2014 of 400.8 million rides, and was losing riders each year through 2018: There were 382.2 million in 2015; 372.8 million in 2016; 365.9 million in 2017; 361.3 million in 2018; and a slight bump in 2019 with 363.3 million unlinked rides.

Some of that variation had to do with gasoline prices, TransitMatters’ executive director Jarred Johnson suggested. From 2014 through 2018, gas prices were falling or low, but in 2019 gas prices began to rise again and more people chose mass transit again.

Then the pandemic hit, and the T recorded only 144.7 million unlinked rides. But ridership has climbed each year since: 163.2 million rides in 2021 and 212.6 million in 2022. That’s 18.5 million riders who returned between 2019 and 2021, and 49.4 million more riders in 2022 than in 2021.

Comparing New York

Essentially, the data shows a slow, steady recovery – numbers are creeping up. Average weekday ridership remains under 60 percent of pre-pandemic levels, and 2022 total ridership was only 58.5 percent of 2019’s total ridership count.

“MBTA is in some sense a Rorschach test,” Johnson said. “Whatever you want to see in there, even though numbers are cold and hard: The T is not having record days, the ridership is slowly increasing … I think the narrative [of flat ridership] is coming from the service is pretty poor and other agencies are recording record days.”

New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced a record day on March 16, with 3.94 million subway riders – the highest single-day number that portion of the MTA system has seen since the average 4.1 million of March 2020.

Ridership, including city subways and buses, the Long Island Rail Road, Staten Island Railway, Access-A-Ride and the Metro-North Railroad, took a significant blow from the pandemic. The MTA had 2.5 billion annual riders among all modes in 2019, but only 960 million in 2020; it increased ridership to 1.2 billion in 2021 and 1.5 billion in 2022. The Office of the New York State Comptroller released a report March 16 that said February subway ridership was 65 percent of pre-pandemic levels, up from 56 percent in February 2022. It noted bus ridership is not growing as fast – up to 65 percent of pre-pandemic levels this February from 60 percent last February – but had not dropped nearly as far in the first place. Likewise, the Comptroller’s office notes that growth is uneven for the subway system, with more ridership on the weekends and some neighborhoods, such as the outer boroughs, seeing faster recovery.

Presented with the data, Johnson had a measured response.

“Once we see the full March and April data and see how that compares, we’ll see if it continues going up from there,” he said, calling it a “good beginning.”

Adding service to draw riders

The T has recognized the need to recover more riders, and that to do so it needs to improve service, Battiston said. It also recognizes that as riders return, buses and trains are more crowded. The answer to both is more: more drivers, more trains and more buses.

“Adding service is largely connected to the T’s hiring efforts,” Battiston said. “The MBTA continues to make progress, but is doing everything it can to ramp up hiring in order to provide the levels of service that riders expect and deserve.”

On Monday, the T announced $7,500 sign-on bonuses for bus operators, rail repairers, track laborers, streetcar operators, subway train operators, service technicians and fuelers in what it called an “aggressive hiring campaign.” The agency also released a list of mobile hiring events and said it is making progress on staffing: In the first half of 2023, it made 676 hires – nearly double the year before.

During Gov. Maura Healey’s inauguration, she said she would support the T by hiring a general manager and finding new funds for staffing. She’s made good on both: Phillip Eng takes the helm of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority on Monday, replacing interim general manager Jeff Gonneville, and Healy requested $20 million in a March supplemental budget for T resources, including recruitment and retainment of employees.

“The MBTA strongly believes that safe, consistent, reliable service is the key component to increasing ridership and bringing riders back,” Battiston said, noting recent track work to reduce speed restrictions.

Safety improvement plan

The T, which has been under scrutiny for accidents and safety events, released a Three-Year Safety Improvement Plan this week.

It includes a long list of goals, including having track inspections three times a week and reaching staffing goals by January that would add trains and buses to the system, but also allow flexibility in cases of driver emergency or illness.

“I think implementation is the name of the game,” Johnson said. “We’ve been here before, after the 2019 derailment … The T overall is safe, but of course we need to make it safer. But the overall experience of riding the train is not great.”

Johnson said between the data and the improvement plan, he’s hopeful, but “the proof is in the pudding.”