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As mass transit attempts to bounce back, San Francisco's BART lags other systems

Among major U.S. systems, New Jersey Transit has recovered the best from the pandemic, while Bay Area Rapid Transit riders have been the slowest to return.
A person waits on a platform at a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train station in Oakland, Calif., on Oct. 26, 2020.
A person waits on a platform at a Bay Area Rapid Transit train station in Oakland, Calif., on Oct. 26, 2020. David Paul Morris / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Three years after Covid brought U.S. mass transit to a near halt, commuters in the country's urban hubs are slowly coming back — with one notable exception. 

At least seven of the nine largest mass transit systems in the country have bounced back to more than 50% of their pre-pandemic ridership, but Northern California’s Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, lags the others.

Last month’s BART traffic, at 3.9 million rides, was around 40% of the level from May 2019.

That's a slight improvement from the beginning of the year: BART in January serviced almost 36% of its January 2020 total, and February saw around 39% of its ridership from the same month in 2020, when just under 9 million customers used the system.

Compare that to New Jersey Transit, which appears to have recovered the best. The agency, which runs commuter trains and buses into New York City and light rail within New Jersey, carried 18.4 million passengers in May, representing 80% of the corresponding month in 2019, according to its data.

In January and February, NJ Transit's ridership hovered between 71% and 73% of the same months in 2020.

BART's slow revival relative to other transit systems may be due, in part, to Bay Area tech employees continuing to work from home. Some former BART riders also cite concerns about crime and cleanliness, according to a poll from the Bay Area Council.

"I think the main reason is that the Bay Area, and San Francisco in particular, continue to have some of the highest rates of remote and hybrid work among major urban areas in the U.S.," said Sebastian Petty, transportation policy manager for the nonprofit San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association. "Secondarily, there have been issues with public perception of cleanliness and safety."

BART officials concede that it's unlikely people will ever return regularly to offices or ride its trains at the levels they once did.

"I won’t speculate on whether BART will ever get back to 100% pre-pandemic ridership," agency spokesman James Allison said in a statement. "Our ridership is closely tied to office occupancy in downtown San Francisco. We assume the shift to remote work is here to stay."  

BART announced in April that it plans to roll out a new schedule in September that increases evening and weekend service but adds time between trains on certain lines during weekdays.

People ride a New Jersey Transit train in Secaucus, N.J., traveling into Penn Station, New York on April 3, 2023.
People ride a New Jersey Transit train in Secaucus, N.J., traveling to Penn Station in New York on April 3.Ted Shaffrey / AP file

But NJ Transit CEO Kevin Corbett said agencies that cut service run the risk of losing customers for good.

"What's really dangerous — it's what we talk about in the national transit community — is it can be a death spiral," he said. "You start cutting, reducing service to match your ridership, then people go elsewhere. They're not going to wait. They're going to say, 'Screw it, I'm going to take a car.'"

Corbett conceded, though, that resisting cuts is not easy in the face of dwindling revenue.

Short-haul transit is recovering better

Overall, transit agencies designed for local service appear to be faring better than those that primarily serve riders with long work commutes.

For example, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or Metro — which runs buses and trains within county borders but doesn’t venture to Orange County or the Inland Empire — carried 21 million passengers in February, representing 70.5 % of its pre-pandemic ridership in 2020.

San Francisco Municipal Railway, or Muni, which operates buses, trolley buses, trains and the city’s famed cable cars, is doing better than BART: Muni saw around 10.4 million monthly passengers (not counting cable car rides) at the beginning of this year, representing around 61% of ridership in early 2020.

"Someone who is taking a short trip on transit is still using it to fulfill all kinds of daily needs," Petty said. "You’re talking about people who live in cities like San Francisco where it can be quite costly to drive and parking is difficult. I’m one of those people who owns a car but I chose to take transit just because its faster and I don’t have to hunt for parking."

Most agencies are back to at least 50% of prior ridership

Other major transit agencies have had varying degrees of success in luring back riders.

The largest system in the U.S., the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or MTA, in the New York City area, started the year with around 64% of the levels from January and February 2020.

Four other major transit agencies — the Chicago Transit Authority, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority — all saw ridership early this year hover between 54% and 59% of the pre-pandemic months of early 2020.

Looking ahead, Corbett predicted continued growth in transit ridership, though he conceded that post-pandemic improvements may be "spotty," with variations among regions and agencies.

"I wouldn’t write a death knell for the productivity of central business districts," he said. "That urban and suburban development will continue with the population growth of this country."

Petty, meanwhile, suggested that market forces may give rise to new uses for empty office spaces.

"Change will happen — it might happen quickly, it might happen slowly," he said. "America’s big cities are not walking away from their downtowns. They’re going to find a way to revitalize them, to use that built environment, to use that space, and having a functional mass transit will be essential to making that space work."