Over the past few years, I have been writing about the fall off in public transit ridership that we have seen as a result of the pandemic. Most recently, I mentioned it in my predictions for 2023.
This topic doesn’t seem to get a lot of air time, but it is a problem. Because the standard way to operate a transit system in North America is at a loss.
According to this recent WSJ article, the average fare recovery ratio across the US is somewhere around 1/3, with the remaining 2/3 of operating costs being covered by public money.
(Somehow Japan has figured out a way to make money on rail.)
During the pandemic, federal aid was disbursed in order to maintain service levels. The MTA in New York, for example, received $15.1 billion. But these aid packages will eventually run out, and ridership has yet to fully return:
New York’s subway system has regained about two-thirds of its pre-pandemic ridership with about 91 million trips in November, according to the MTA. But that is about 50 million fewer rides than in November 2019. Officials worry usage has stalled out at that level.
In San Francisco, the Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, recorded 3.7 million trips in November—a little more than one-third of the ridership before Covid.
The obvious answer is likely to be a combination of service cuts and/or more public money. But an even better answer would be to use this opportunity to figure out how to make our transit systems a little more Japanese.
That is, let’s make them more financially sustainable. And yes, that is going to necessarily involve looking at how we build around and on top of transit.