Health Insurance

Transit Usage Dropped 75% Nationwide Amid COVID-19 — and Major Cities Are Just Starting to Recover

COVID-19 has transformed the daily habits of Americans since it arrived in early 2020, and one sector hit especially hard was public transit. Transit ridership decreased 75% in March, and average ridership is just 39% of normal since then.
Wearing a mask on a bus

We looked at transit ridership rates in 10 cities with substantial transit ridership to understand how COVID-19 affected the use of buses, subways and trains. The dropoff in public transit use has been substantial nationwide, but it's especially pronounced in large cities with early spikes in COVID-19 cases. Even as major cities like New York City and Seattle open up, transit usage has recovered more slowly in those cities than in others.

Key takeaways

  • Transit usage plummeted 75% nationwide in March, and only reached 49% of pre-coronavirus usage rates as of July 1.
  • Cities hit with earlier COVID-19 outbreaks have had bigger drops and slower recoveries than those hit later.
  • Transit usage is recovering more slowly than other modes of transport: Walking and driving are both well over 100% of pre-coronavirus levels nationwide, though not all cities are recovering at equal rates.

Transit usage plummeted nationwide in March, and some cities were hit earlier (and harder) than others

America came to a halt in mid-March, and public transit was no exception. While transit ridership nationwide was steady between January 13 and the beginning of March, the number of people riding buses and trains dropped precipitously by the second week of March. Ridership the week of March 3 was at 101% of the baseline; by the week of March 9, it was at 79%.

Seattle, the first major U.S. city to have a COVID-19 outbreak, lost riders even earlier. By the first week of March, Seattle was already seeing far fewer trips than normal. An early decline in transit ridership was mirrored by a big jump in car trips: Seattle residents were taking 40% more car trips compared to the baseline, suggesting people were opting to take their private cars instead of riding the bus.

By the week of April 6, public transit rides were down 77% nationwide compared to what they had been before the coronavirus. In New York City, where 57% of people typically commute using public transit, ridership was down a staggering 87%. The financial losses due to decreased ridership for the MTA alone are expected to be in the range of $7–$8.5 billion.

Overall, three cities with early COVID-19 outbreaks — Seattle, New York City and San Francisco — have had the largest total drop in ridership since the pandemic began. This may in part be attributed to people leaving the city for safety, or simply more space, in other parts of the country.

Conversely, Atlanta has had the smallest drop of any city we looked at, with typical ridership at 54% since March and a low point of just 42%.

Cities ranked by biggest drops in transit ridership post-coronavirus

RankCityAverage drop in ridership since March 2Worst weekly percentage drop
1Seattle-72.5%-83.2%
2New York City-71.7%-87.0%
3San Francisco - Bay Area-68.5%-81.2%
4Washington DC-68.0%-83.0%
5Boston-67.4%-82.7%
6Chicago-62.6%-78.5%
7Los Angeles-61.0%-79.1%
8Philadelphia-58.9%-72.9%
9Denver-53.5%-73.1%
10Atlanta-45.9%-58.2%
The week of lowest transit ridership for all cities was the week following April 6, except for Seattle (March 30), Washington D.C. (April 13), Denver (April 13) and Philadelphia (April 20).

Recovery has been slow, especially in cities with earlier coronavirus outbreaks

Even as cities and states have experimented with reopening businesses, transit usage has remained sluggish overall. Nationwide, transit ridership is currently at 49% of the baseline, though that varies significantly by city. People are most likely to ride transit in cities like Denver and Boston, which did not have spikes as high as in other cities.

As cases continue to decrease in New York City, where less than half of residents have access to a car, transit use has climbed considerably. As of the week of June 22, transit usage had increased by 24% since April.

In Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area, however, relatively few people have returned to buses and trains. Seattle has seen just a 17% recovery, and San Francisco has seen just a 12% improvement.

Cities ranked by transit ridership recovery post-coronavirus

RankCityTotal recovery: worst week-bestCurrent ridership rates
1Denver31.5%58.4%
2Los Angeles26.0%46.9%
3New York City24.4%37.4%
4Boston23.9%41.2%
5Chicago22.6%44.2%
6Philadelphia22.1%49.2%
7Washington DC19.0%36.0%
8Atlanta18.1%60.0%
9Seattle16.9%33.7%
10San Francisco - Bay Area12.4%31.2%
Current ridership rates are based on the last full week (the week of June 22) for which data were available at the time of publication.

Public transit has suffered a bigger blow than driving or walking, and has had a slower recovery amid the coronavirus crisis

While public transit, driving and walking all decreased dramatically in early March, transit ridership came down earlier, fell further and has had the slowest recovery since.

graph showing how ridership has changed since January.
graph showing how ridership has changed since January.

While transit usage has struggled to meet 50% of pre-COVID-19 levels, both walking and driving are well over 100% of the baseline nationwide. Some of this discrepancy may be attributable to seasonal changes, as warmer weather and summer vacation may account for more walking and driving.

Among individual cities, Seattle has the biggest gap between driving and transit use. This suggests that Seattleites are disproportionately choosing to drive rather than take the bus or light rail, when compared to other cities.

People are walking at a rate of 120% compared to pre-COVID-19 rates, but the rate at which people are walking varies surprisingly by city.

For example, Denver residents are taking walking trips at a rate of 143% of what they were in January. However, residents of New York City and San Francisco are still walking significantly less than before COVID-19 — this may be because people are still being cautious about walking travel in these areas or have simply left the city entirely.

Line graph showing how transit and driving have changed in three cities since January
Line graph showing how transit and driving have changed in three cities since January

Methodology

This study is based on Apple Maps data for transit and driving collected between January 13 and June 29, 2020. All data points are in comparison to transit, driving and walking levels of January 13, 2020, one week before the first reported COVID-19 case in the United States.

Mapping data was not available for May 11 and 12.

Matt is a Technical Writer at ValuePenguin who works on distilling the complex details of insurance into accessible advice. He previously created educational content at Grovo Learning and MarketSmiths Content Strategists. Matt's consumer-focused analysis of insurance has appeared in publications like CNBC, Yahoo Finance and the Miami Herald.

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