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Ridership Plunge: Limited services, declining patronage due to COVID-19 [free access]

April 1, 2020

Cities across Europe and the US have recorded substantial declines in public transit ridership since January 2020. Ridership started to decline with growing awareness about the transmission of COVID-19 and as social distancing and self-isolation as preventive measures began to be increasingly adopted by the public. Given the complete lockdown imposed in most cities across the world, transit services are now only available to critical workers and to other riders who need to pursue “essential” travel. A key factor in the plummeting public transit ridership globally is reduced mobility in most cities across the world. In the past four weeks, the percentage of people in transit has fallen on an average from 65 to 70 per cent to less than 10 percent. Only in a few cities like Stockholm, Hong Kong, Seoul, and Singapore has city mobility increased by up to 50 per cent.

 

Figure 1 represents the effect of COVID-19 on public transit usage around the world.

 

Figure 1: Effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on public transit usage around the world

Source: Data by Moovit

 

Figure 2 represents the city mobility index of New York, Paris, and Seoul.

 

Figure 2: City mobility index

Source: Data from Citymapper

 

Ridership trend in Europe 

 

In most European countries, the decline in ridership was gradual between January and February, but fell steeply thereafter.

 

In Italy, ridership declined by 90 per centas on April 14, 2020. In Rome, buses, trams, and the metro have stopped running at 9.00 p.m. since March 14.

 

In France, ridership in Paris fell by 88 per cent between January and April.

 

In Spain, ridership has similarly shrunk in many cities, led by an 88 per cent drop in trips in Madrid, a major COVID-19 hotspot.

 

In the UK, Transport for London (TfL) has reduced services drastically and is asking key workers to avoid early-morning commutes as much as possible. More than 20 per cent of the TfL staff was reportedly sick or was self-isolating as on March 25, 2020. As on April 14, 2020, the passenger numbers had fallen by 80 per cent, as London observed a significant reduction in the number of visitors and an increase in the work-from-home practice. 

 

Ridership trend in the US 

 

In the US, now the country with the most confirmed cases of COVID-19, ridership started falling steeply in the beginning of March and continues to decline. Major cities have observed a fall in ridership between 55 and75per cent, with the biggest drops occurring in San Jose, Seattle, and New York City. Ridership across New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the nation’s largest public transit system, fell by 60 per cent on subways and by as much as 90 per cent on commuter trains. In San Francisco, rail ridership on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) was down to 7 per cent as on April 6, 2020.  

 

Ridership trend in South America 

 

In South America, ridership in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Peru, and Uruguay has fallen since mid-March. Most cities observed a rise in ridership until mid-March and a rapid fall of up to 70 per cent in the last two weeks of March; ridership has been stagnant since then. Most countries in Latin America have implemented strict bans on shopping and on cultural and sports events. Bogota, Lima, and Santiago have witnessed the sharpest fall in ridership, of approximately 80 per cent. 

 

Ridership trend in Asia 

 

In Hong Kong, ridership fell steeply in January and stabilised at 40 to 45 per cent in February. It improved slightly in March before again dipping in mid-March. Ridership has begun to increase since April 5, 2020. It is currently at 47 per cent as compared to January 15, 2020.

 

In Japan, ridership in Tokyo has fallen by 88 per cent since January.

 

In Korea, Seoul observed a steep fall in ridership in February. Korea is, however, the only country where ridership has started to stabilise since March 10, 2020. Currently, Seoul has a 44 per cent reduction in ridership as compared to January 2020.

 

In Singapore, ridership fell by only 20 per cent in the period from January to March. However, in the past two weeks, ridership has fallen by 68 per cent.  

 

The financial impact ofthe fall in ridership in the US and the UK 

 

Fall in ridership levels in the US and the UK is having a huge financial impact. It is anticipated that the impact on transit agencies in these countries will have ripple effects without intervention and financial support from their respective governments.

 

In the US, fares contribute to an average of 32 percent of transit operations according to the US Department of Transportation. In the case of New York, MTA has estimated USD6.5 billion in fares for the year 2020 from the total allocated budget of USD17 billion. A fall of even 8 per cent in ridership (fares) would lead to a shortfall of USD520 million. This implies that most transit agencies in the US will need substantial financial support to continue the level of service once travel restrictions in US cities are lifted. Without financial support, loss in revenue will lead to large cuts in services, indirectly pushing some riders to use private modes of travel. 

 

The American Public Transportation Association has written to the US Congress, requesting USD16 billion in direct emergency funding for public transit agencies to offset some of the extraordinary direct costs and revenue losses resulting from the COVID-19 crisis in March 2020.Under the recently enacted the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, funding of USD25 billion has been allocated to transit agencies to help them prevent, prepare for, and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

In the UK, TfL in London has suggested, based on government scenarios, that the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic could be as high as GBP500 million. However, TfL had predicted its end-of-year cash balance to be more than GBP2 billion, meaning that it would be able to manage the initial impact of COVID-19. 

 

The future of transit 

 

The effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on transit ridership is likely to have long-term effects. Without proper mitigation efforts by local governments, it is expected that public transportation services will suffer the adverse effects of the novel coronavirus for years to come. Fewer people are anticipated to opt for public transport if fuel prices further decrease, if the auto sector is supported by cheap loans, and if public transport infrastructure continues to deteriorate in the absence of maintenance funds. A positive sign is seen in Seoul where ridership levels have stabilised, suggesting that transit ridership may recover. Nevertheless, transit agencies across the world will require substantial financial aid to overcome the negative impact of COVID-19 on their ridership, sustainability, financial health, and future growth.