Regional bus ridership down 52 percent from pre-pandemic levels

Loss in riders not spread evenly across the 15 regional systems

LIKE MANY TRANSIT systems nationwide, ridership on the state’s regional bus systems cratered during the early days of the pandemic. Ridership has rebounded at Regional Transit Authorities, according to a new report, but ridership still remains well below normal and is spread unevenly throughout the system.  

The ridership loss has also affected fare collections, though RTAs have been able to recoup the financial loss through federal recovery money. 

Jeannette Orsino, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Regional Transit Authorities, said the fact that some level of ridership persisted throughout the pandemic showed how vital bus service is to the passengers who use it. “You know that service was essential,” Orsino said. “They were on the bus to get to work, to essential medical services, to get to food, to visit their parent or whoever they needed to take care of.” 

Three of Massachusetts’ Regional Transit Authorities – Worcester, the Southeastern Region, and Cape Ann – were ranked among the top 50 transit agencies nationally for ridership recovery in regions of their size. 

While the MBTA, which serves the Boston area, has offered regular updates on ridership throughout the pandemic, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s recently released report on Regional Transit Authorities for fiscal 2021 provides the first comprehensive look into how RTAs – the 15 regional bus systems that serve areas outside greater Boston – have handled changed traveling patterns during the COVID pandemic. 

Unsurprisingly, no RTA met its ridership targets this year. The transit authorities with more durable ridership were those that served more essential workers, who continued working in person throughout the pandemic. 

When the pandemic began, fixed bus routes across the system saw a ridership drop of 77 percent, with around 570,000 trips taken in April 2020 compared to 2.5 million in April 2019. But riders did gradually return and by the end of the 2021 fiscal year, in June 2021, ridership was around 1.25 million, a drop of 52 percent from pre-pandemic levels. 

The report finds that people who continued using the RTAs during the pandemic were primarily low-income essential workers, who rely on the bus as their primary mode of transportation and need it to get to medical, retail, or other critical jobs. The authorities reported a “flattening” of ridership in the morning and evening periods, which used to be peak commute times for office workers. Some routes serving higher education systems recovered riders as colleges returned to in-person learning this fall.  

The ridership rebound varied by agency. Four RTAs had at least 60 percent of ridership compared to their pre-COVID targets: Cape Ann, Worcester, the Southeastern region, and the Berkshires. In contrast, authorities in Franklin County, the MetroWest, the Pioneer Valley, and Lowell attracted between 30 and 36 percent of their target ridership. 

Erik Rousseau, administrator of the Southeastern Regional Transit Authority, which covers the New Bedford and Fall River areas, said the authority worked hard to maintain existing levels of service, despite fewer riders. With transit authorities generally running buses every half hour, or even less frequently, “there’s not a lot of room for us to reduce service and still produce what customers need,” Rousseau said. 

The agency started running a new express bus service from Fall River to New Bedford, its most crowded route, reducing a one-hour trip to a 20-minute trip.  

A 2019 survey found that 87 percent of Southeastern Region bus passengers had family incomes below $40,000 a year. So during the pandemic, the agency cut fares from $1.50 to $1 and made the service free for seniors and people with disabilities who have a CharlieCard through a state program that offers reduced fares to these populations. 

Rousseau said the agency was able to recoup fare losses using federal aid money, and in the long term, building back ridership will be more important than charging higher fares to a dwindling customer base. “We’re being strategic in ensuring as much service is out there to allow for people to come back in their own time as they need to and are comfortable riding again as things evolve to the next phase,” Rousseau said. 

Worcester, another area with strong ridership, created a fare-free pilot program during the pandemic. It also made efforts to restore service to pre-pandemic levels, after an initial drop, while increasing service on more popular routes. 

Whether riders have returned often depends on the population of riders.  In the Brockton region, administrator Michael Lambert said service to Bridgewater State University “went to zero overnight” when the school shut down in-person learning.  

Lambert said the authority’s city bus routes have been regaining riders and are now at about 60 percent of normal. He said the authority’s busiest route, which connects Brockton to the MBTA’s Red Line at Ashmont, has been slower to pick up because Boston commuters have not returned to the office. “Downtown Boston is still quiet, whereas the rest of the Commonwealth is starting to pick up again,” Lambert said.  

Pre-pandemic, the Brockton RTA would have seen between 8,000 to 9,000 trips a day. At the height of the lockdown, that dropped to 1,000 to 2,000 trips – primarily transit-dependent, essential workers. According to the MassDOT report, Brockton is now in the middle of the pack, reaching 45 percent of its ridership target last year. Lambert said there is still some reduced service, with trains running every 30 minutes instead of every 20 minutes. 

The Pioneer Valley region has a more student-heavy ridership. While the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority serves many essential workers, the region includes several colleges and universities, and about 25 percent of the PVTA’s riders take the bus for educational reasons. The PVTA reduced routes to some higher education institutions until this fall since those schools were not meeting in person.  “While campuses were shut down, there was no in-person learning, the ridership really went down,” said PVTA administrator Sandra Sheehan.  

As ridership drops, so does the amount of money the authorities collect from fares. Of 10 RTAs that reported how much of their operating expenses they recovered from the farebox throughout their systems, only one – Cape Cod – met its revenue targets. Currently, the average fixed route covers 7.4 percent of its costs through fares, compared to 16 percent pre-pandemic. 

Orsino said fare recovery is a bigger deal for the MBTA than the RTAs, since the RTAs get a large portion of their funding from assessments paid by local municipalities. Like the MBTA, the RTAs have been able to cover the fare losses and other COVID-19 expenses with federal aid. According to the MassDOT report, there is $415 million available for regional transit authorities from federal COVID relief funds. 

Looking ahead, the report says RTAs will face a range of challenges, from an aging workforce to increased telework, e-shopping, and telehealth that are changing transit needs. The report suggests looking at new types of service, like on-demand rides using small vehicles, and investing in key routes that serve the most essential workers. 

In the Brockton area, Lambert said he is exploring changing a “flex” route, where a bus has a fixed route but can veer off by half a mile to pick someone up, into a “microtransit” route where someone can summon a ride through an app. Lambert said the agency is also thinking about how to get new customers, given people’s changed work habits. “If people aren’t commuting into Boston anymore, presumably they’re working from home or looking for work in the Brockton area,” Lambert said. “We’d love to convert them to local transit users and have them, when they go out for lunch, hop on a bus.” 

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

In the Pioneer Valley, Sheehan said her authority is experimenting with microtransit in Palmer and Ware, and could expand that to other rural communities.  

Sheehan said a big wild card remains whether people return to work in person. If not, she said, the agency might cut back in areas with fewer in-person workers, while adding services that customers have requested in Gateway Cities – like Sunday morning buses that can take people to church. “There’s a sector of our population that will always be working on site, and those are the individuals we’re currently transporting,” Sheehan said. “If we as a society make the decision that some jobs can be done remotely, there’s going to be some changes also in the way we’ll deliver service.”