Survey indicates dramatic demographic shift among T riders

58% of T riders now minorities, 48% low-income

THE NUMBER of riders taking the MBTA declined significantly during COVID, but their demographic makeup also changed, shifting far more toward minorities and people with lower incomes.

A new passenger study conducted by the MBTA found that minorities, those who self-identify as Hispanic, Latino or Latina, or a race other than white, accounted for 34 percent of T riders in the period from 2015 to 2017. In 2022, however, that percentage had risen to 58 percent.

The shift occurred on every transportation mode, but some more than others. On buses, minorities rose from 48 percent of riders in 2015-2017 to 68 percent in 2022. On the Orange Line, minorities went from 35 percent to 59 percent over the five-year period.

On commuter rail, minority ridership went from nearly 15 percent to 38 percent. Ferry minority ridership went from 1.7 percent to 14.2 percent.

Riders also moved down the income scale over the five-year period. Those with household income below $56,000 accounted for nearly 29 percent of riders in the period from 2015 to 2017, but rose to 48 percent in 2022.

One of the biggest shifts occurred on the Blue Line, where “low-income riders” jumped from 33 percent to nearly 51 percent over the five-year period. On bus, the percentage of low-income riders jumped from 41.5 percent to 57 percent.

“None of these findings are surprising,” said Jen Elise Prescott, director of strategic research, who told the MBTA board that T officials have talked broadly about the demographic shift in the past but now, for the first time, have accurate numbers to go on.

Some transit advocates said the shift in ridership demographics may not be as significant as the numbers suggest, in part because the T today is  gathering the information in a different way than it did five years ago. MBTA officials could not immediately be reached to comment on that.

The MBTA board on Thursday also reviewed ridership projections for fiscal 2024 and appeared to settle on a more pessimistic forecast than it has used in the past.

The T is forecasting $418 million in fare revenue for fiscal 2024, which is below all three of the ridership scenarios the agency has been using for close to a year.

At a March 9 subcommittee meeting both the T’s top budget official and Betsy Taylor, the chair of the agency’s board, said the lower number reflected the “new normal” at the MBTA.

Jim Rooney, the president and CEO of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, at the time criticized the acceptance of a “new normal” of lower ridership and said the agency should be doing everything it can to increase ridership.

At Thursday’s meeting, Jeffrey Gonneville, the interim general manager of the T, addressed the controversy head-on.

“Is this the T stating that we are going to hold or our goal will be to just have this conservative level of ridership for the future?” he asked. “The answer to that is no.”

He said the budget projection is a conservative approach to projecting fare revenue but not an acknowledgment that the T is scaling back its ambitions for the future. In fact, he said, the T is budgeting for a return to pre-COVID levels of service.

Taylor clarified her position. “I, for one, would like to say that I strongly support the recommendation,” she said. “I think it’s important to set reasonable expectations for the revenue that is coming in. If we gain more revenue, that will be a good thing. But to put ourselves in a position where we might have to make cuts in important operations mid-year should we not be successful in [collecting] the revenue would be very harmful.”

She added: “I appreciate this is not a statement of the desired amount of ridership or revenue.”