Ridership on suburban bus line still half of pre-pandemic levels

It’s common knowledge that Metro Transit ridership has tanked since the pandemic, still down roughly 50 percent this year versus 2019. To be sure, a lifestyle shift that’s led far more employees to work virtually, rather than downtown, contributed to the decline. Nor does it help that the Twin Cities light rail system ranks as the most dangerous in the country, as American Experiment’s Peter Nelson recently revealed.

Less well-known is that the severe decline in ridership also extends to regional transportation bus lines operated in the suburbs. The Minnesota Valley Transit Authority in the south metro continues to report drastically lower ridership levels than before COVID, according to Southwest Publishing.

Before the pandemic, 213,590 rode the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority bus in September 2019. This September, ridership was at 48% of that mark at 103,243 people riding the bus. October did not fare better, with ridership at 46% of 2019 levels.

But officials say that MVTA isn’t the only ones facing a post-pandemic decline in ridership, and there are signs of improvement.

“MVTA isn’t alone in having ridership numbers that remain below pre-pandemic levels,” MVTA communications director Patrick Chilton said. “On balance, MVTA monthly ridership has been at or below 50% pre-pandemic ridership. We have seen continued growth in ridership since the early days of the pandemic; in fact, we were just under 2,000 riders from breaking our pre-pandemic State Fair ridership record.”

At the same time, MTVA officials make the case for maintaining service at current levels despite the current low ridership numbers.

Chilton explained that while ridership is an important metric to measure success, it’s not the only thing looked at.

“We need to have a real conversation about the point of a bus network and what our service means to the communities we serve,” Chilton said. “Even if a bus is only carrying a handful of people, that bus and the route it serves is a fundamental and affordable lifeline for them to live their lives. It is a critical link for them to get to work, a grocery store, their pharmacy and their education.”

MVTA officials express optimism that passengers will continue to return to public transportation the further the pandemic gets in the rearview mirror. But like Metro Transit, the suburban system has a long way to go. And what if the shift to the remote workplace is here to stay for many of their former customers?

Chilton said it is expected that ridership will be back near normal levels in the near future.

“There are several factors, nearly all which stem from the drastic measures put in place at the beginning of the pandemic, that has made growth slow, but we expect that pace to pick up as we get further from the pandemic,” Chilton said. “It is also our expectation that previous riders will continue to come back to public transit, and many of those who don’t currently use MVTA will become riders as they learn more about the convenience and reliability of our service.”

The assumption that passengers will slowly but surely return to public transportation will be put to the test over the next year. Officials should face tough questions and choices if they turn out to be wrong.