In early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic severely reduced the number of miles Americans drove their cars, as we described in a previous blog post. The pandemic also decreased public transit ridership in a similar way: Many people started working from home, and others took the safety precaution of avoiding travel that would put them in close proximity to others.
However, the use of public transit has not rebounded from the pandemic as quickly as the number of vehicle miles traveled has. In fact, public transit ridership appears to be leveling off at 30% below pre-pandemic levels.
The reasons for the quick rebound in total vehicle miles driven can explain some of the lag in public transit ridership: A study by the Cleveland Fed showed that large numbers of residents in large metro areas migrated to small and midsize metro areas. These residents must now drive farther to reach those large metro areas, which has boosted vehicle miles driven.
But large metro areas also include well-established public transit systems—think, New York City, Chicago, and Washington D.C. Fewer residents in these large metro areas means fewer riders that could use those public transit systems. (Many midsize and small metro areas are less densely populated and have less-extensive public transit systems, so their populations rely more on motor vehicles.)
Fewer people available to use public transit also means less money for it, since there are fewer paying customers. A decline in public transit revenue can reduce hours and available routes, which can further reduce the opportunities for ridership.
There also has been an increase in remote work, which further reduces demand for daily trips. This movement of people and where they can work helps explain why, as of December 2023, public transit ridership numbers have not recovered to levels seen before the pandemic as total vehicle miles has.
How this graph was created: In FRED, search for and select the seasonally adjusted “public transit ridership” series. Select the timeline of 2010 to the latest data for 2023 to focus on the decline of ridership below 2019 levels.