However, with the District, Maryland and Northern Virginia lifting some business and social restrictions over the past two weeks, riders have begun to return. During the first week of June, Metrobus recorded 140,000 passenger trips — equivalent to riders — every weekday but one, agency data shows. Passenger trips had been in the 110,000 to 130,000 range since mid-March.
During that same time frame, June 1-5, Metrorail recorded between 43,000 and 48,000 passenger trips daily. It was the first time passenger levels consistently topped 40,000 since the pandemic began.
Metrobus ridership has consistently outpaced the reduced capacity over the past two months, so the transit agency has added 136 bus trips to 12 of its lines. All are in the District and Prince George’s County, including Routes 70 and 92, two of its busiest lines, running north-south through the District.
On Thursday, the Metro board will review the transit agency’s recovery plan, as well as ridership statistics to see if any more adjustments are necessary.
Board members will also hear the results of new customer surveys that have helped guide the transit agency’s decisions.
According to the surveys, Metro riders doubled their trips to see friends or family in May vs. April. Those trips jumped from 9 percent of all trips taken to 23 percent, according to survey results.
On Saturday, when tens of thousands of people flooded the District in the largest protest to date over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, rail passenger trips more than doubled the previous weekend.
The subway recorded 60,556 passenger trips, up more than 150 percent over the previous Saturday’s ridership of 23,927. Even so, that was still 82 percent lower than a prepandemic Saturday in June. For example, Metro had 327,425 passenger trips on the same day last year, data shows.
There was no corresponding increase in bus ridership Saturday, Metro said, and bus ridership remains down about 74 percent from prepandemic levels.
Still, some District officials and transit advocates have complained that Metro hasn’t provided enough buses to help those who rely on them to get to work or make other essential trips, hurting a population that a recent Metro survey has shown to be typically lower-income and with the fewest transportation options. The lack of buses has also created overcrowding on some routes, which increases the risk of transmitting the coronavirus.
The stabilization phase of recovery, which is basically the same reduced service Metro has been running since mid-March, calls for 85,000 Metrobus passenger trips a day. Last month, the transit agency was consistently seeing ridership numbers of about 130,000 daily.
Metro board member Stephanie Gidigbi, who represents the District, said the transit agency needs to be more responsive and make Metrobus more accessible in the region. Bus service should also be a priority for Metro in its recovery and beyond, she said.
“We recognize the importance of Metrobus for the system and also for our essential workers and to make sure our essential services’ needs are being met,” she said. “I think covid has made what has seemed to be invisible visible.”
Metro officials anticipated a ridership surge Saturday and opened the first and last cars on trains to alleviate crowding. The cars had been closed as an added precaution of keeping operators from having to make any contact with passengers because of the coronavirus. Opening the cars added 33 percent to the rail system’s capacity, officials said. The cars will continue to remain open, Metro said.
The transit agency also ran double the number of cars for the protest, but officials said it was a one-time increase.
“We saw additional ridership on Saturday, but it was still down more than 80 percent from last year,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said. “Some trains were more crowded than recommended under social distancing guidelines, and it’s important to note that Metro cannot guarantee social distancing space will be available because there’s no way to know how many people are coming, from where and when.
“We will continue to take prudent steps to meet the moment, as we did Saturday by more than doubling the system’s capacity, but it’s important to understand that the system’s theoretical capacity will be 20 percent or less of pre-covid levels for as long as we’re social distancing,” Stessel said.
If demand increases, Metro said it could reopen some of the nearly 30 stations it has closed because of the pandemic or construction projects, but Saturday’s surge alone doesn’t warrant that consideration, he said.
Just 15 percent of SmarTrip card holders are traveling to work — the same as in April. Of those who do commute to work, 3 out of 5 drive and 1 takes Metro.
Only 1 out of 5 customers have been told by their employer when they might return to working in their offices. The vast majority who have been told have been given dates no sooner than August.
Of Metrobus customers, 2 out of 3 ride the bus three or more times a week. Nearly 90 percent say their trips are to food stores while 56 percent say they use the bus to get to pharmacies. More than half say they use the bus to go to work, and 49 percent say they ride Metrobus to medical appointments.
Metro has taken steps to try to keep riders safe from the coronavirus by requiring masks or face coverings onboard and requiring all riders to board through the rear door, where they don’t have to touch a farebox or be near the driver.
The agency’s pandemic task force had considered other ways to enforce social distancing such as markers on buses, rail cars and platforms guiding people where to stand to keep social distances. But in the end, many ideas were tossed out.
“After conducting research and looking at the experience of other transit systems around the world, we have moved away from suggestions that would ‘enforce’ social distancing,” Stessel said. “The fact of the matter is, in the transit space — especially on a system of this scale — we haven’t seen an effective way to do it, and attempting to do so only creates the potential for conflict.
“I think by now, we all understand that leaving your front door involves a certain level of risk, and we are all managing that risk to our individual level of comfort. Until there is a cure or a vaccine, that’s the way we all have to approach this.”