While transit agencies across the country have struggled with getting riders back since the pandemic, prompting doomsday scenarios that include service cuts and fare hikes, the Valley Transportation Authority asserts its ridership recovery is among the best in the nation — although it has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels.
VTA transportation planning manager Jay Tyree said that bus ridership was 43 percent higher in 2022 than it was in 2021 — the second best in the nation after Washington D.C., which came in at 49 percent — according to data he analyzed from the American Public Transportation Association. Alameda County bus ridership came in third at 32 percent and San Francisco came in at eight with 29 percent.
Because VTA shut down light rail service for some of 2021 following the deadliest mass shooting in Bay Area history at its rail yard, Tyree said in an email that its light rail comparisons between 2021 and 2022 are “meaningless.”
The transportation planner credited the agency’s “system redesign” in 2019, called the Next Network, for helping VTA be a leader in the nation for ridership recovery. Tyree said the plan “features transit service principles that are keys to success across the industry in a post-pandemic world.”
“Most importantly, a focus on all-day high-frequency service on the core network and less focus on the peak-hour commute periods,” he said. “In other words, our transit system is designed to be attractive for all trip types, not just commutes, at all times of day. Secondly, we also were able to restore temporarily-suspended service relatively more quickly than many of our peers.”
But while VTA may have more riders coming back to transit than other agencies, it still lags in comparison to pre-COVID numbers.
In June 2023, for both bus and light rail, VTA had 2,033,652 riders in comparison to June 2019 when it had 2,774,462 riders — meaning the agency had about 73 percent of the number of riders in June 2023 than it did four years prior. Tyree said that light rail — despite the giant boost it received from Taylor Swift fans who broke a single-day ridership record last month — has not been able to recover at the same rate as buses, mirroring national trends. Comparing June 2023 with June 2019, Tyree said the ridership recovery for buses was 81 percent while light rail was 50 percent.
Palo Alto Councilmember Pat Burt, who chairs the VTA Board of Directors, said that light rail has struggled more to rebound because it’s used more by office workers, many of who work in tech and have now shifted to remote or hybrid work. Bus riders on the other hand, he said, are often essential workers who rely on the bus to get to work every day.
He said that VTA has fared better than agencies like Caltrain — where he also sits on the board of directors — because they have more “discretionary riders.”
In order to increase light rail ridership, the councilmember said VTA needs to continue focusing on making it a safe space for riders.
“We have seen that in agencies like BART, this is a real issue holding back folks from returning to ridership,” Burt said of safety. “VTA has a strong initiative to continue to improve the safety of riders and our workforce.”
The inability to return to pre-pandemic ridership numbers is a problem that has plagued transit agencies across California — so much so that in June, lawmakers reached a $3 billion deal to bail out agencies like BART, AC Transit and Caltrain. Without the money, BART said it would have to cut service on weekends and after 9 p.m. on weeknights and only run trains once an hour. AC Transit had similar issues, saying that it would have to reduce service or discontinue bus lines.