MBTA subway ridership takes hit with slow zones

The bottom fell out of the public transit industry at the start of COVID, and it’s been a slow slog back for every agency – not just the MBTA. 

According to national subway data gathered by Chris Friend of the transit advocacy group TransitMatters, the MBTA for most of 2020, 2021, and the first half of 2022 built back subway ridership at roughly the same pace as some of its peers in the industry. 

The MBTA tracked slightly off of the pace set by the Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York City but ahead of subway systems in Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington, DC, according to the data. (Those subway systems were selected because data was available.)

But since mid-year 2022, the T’s ridership recovery slowed and then more recently lost ground. The loss of riders coincided with the safety-related scale-back of service that began in June 2022, the shutdown of the Orange Line for a month starting August 19, 2022, and the more recent imposition of slow zones as a safety response to the discovery of a breakdown in maintenance efforts.

According to the weekday subway ridership data compiled by Friend, the MBTA hit 57.5 percent of pre-pandemic, February 2020 passenger levels on June 22 last year. The Orange Line shutdown dropped ridership into the mid-30s, but it bounced back to 58 percent in November. 

After a decline over the Christmas holidays, ridership returned but not to the same level. It hovered around 50 percent of February 2020 levels before slipping to 45 percent on March 17 as speeds were significantly reduced for safety reasons on more than a quarter of the subway system.

By contrast, New York City hit 68 percent of February 2020 passenger levels before the Christmas holiday downturn and then bounced back to 67 percent on March 23. 

Washington’s recovery trailed well behind the T’s rebound until mid-March, when it moved ahead by reaching 49 percent.

Data from Chicago only went through October 2022, while San Francisco reached only the mid-30s in late February.

None of the subway systems are expected to return to pre-COVID levels anytime soon because of how the workplace and commuting patterns have changed. Yet Friend said the available data suggests the MBTA has the potential to build back its ridership if only it could fix its service quality and quantity issues.

“There’s a lot of upside potential,” he said.




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