The pandemic changed the workday, but will transit riders return?

Metro users wear masks while riding the train in Washington.
Metro users wear masks while riding the train in Washington. (Amanda Voisard/for The Washington Post)
Updated May 17 at 9:30 p.m.Originally published April 16, 2021

Public transit demand during the pandemic has shifted to neighborhoods with high numbers of Black, Hispanic and lower-income workers, flattening peak travel periods and forcing transit agencies to respond to new patterns before more workers return to offices this fall, a Washington Post analysis of national transit data shows.

No longer does the 9-to-5 work schedule hold as much sway, with telework on the rise and office workers less bound to rigid daily commutes. Waves of commuters have dwindled to a trickle in the morning and evening hours — the commuting tides that transit schedules were built around.

Transit agencies are watching the emerging trends as they seek to lure riders after Labor Day, when offices are calling back workers who will decide whether to stick with early 2020 commuting habits or find new ways to get to work. Schedules are modified and studies on lower fares are underway — the first steps as agencies brace for years of reduced ridership.

In Washington, the Metro station in the dense Columbia Heights neighborhood — home to the city’s largest Latino population — has emerged as the subway system’s busiest. Passenger trips at Union Station, which typically had Metro’s highest passenger counts, have tumbled as business travelers cancel in-person plans.

Rail travel dropped significantly at large transfer stations in Washington’s core, while Metro stations in D.C.’s predominantly Black neighborhoods and the city’s eastern suburbs carry a larger proportion of passengers than before the pandemic.

[Metro to reduce train frequencies during peak periods as pandemic patterns evolve]

In New York, income was a bigger factor than race, with subway stations in working-class neighborhoods seeing less of a decline than those in and around majority-White Wall Street, according to New York transit officials.

While disparities aren’t expected to be as stark this fall when many companies begin reopening offices, peak demands on public transportation during the Monday-through-Friday rush are likely to be lower. Transit agencies already are shifting service in response to telework while becoming more attuned to the various start times of retail, restaurant, health and service occupations.

“Back when it was built in the 1960s, Metro was about getting federal workers from the suburbs of Virginia and Maryland into the District and back again in time for dinner,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth and a member of MetroNow, a regional group of business and nonprofit leaders pushing to make Metro more accessible. “Today, a lot of those people are working from home, and it’s grocery store workers, nurses, restaurant staff and others who depend on Metro.”

The transit agency took a first step in February to de-emphasize traditional “rush hour” times by decreasing train frequency during peak hours. At the same time, it shortened waits at other times in response to flatter demands for service.

Passenger counts on Metrorail, which averaged 626,000 weekday trips in 2019, nosedived during the pandemic, plummeting as much as 95 percent. Ridership has been slow to recover even as vaccinations become widespread, with counts now about 85 percent lower than pre-pandemic levels.

A shift in who uses transit

The bus has emerged as transit’s workhorse, dutifully carrying mostly people of color and lower-income passengers unable to perform their jobs remotely. Across the nation, the pandemic acted like a sieve, separating riders with transportation alternatives from those with no other options.

In the Washington region, changes in rail ridership correspond with the demographics of the surrounding neighborhood, according to The Post’s analysis.

For stations in neighborhoods where at least two-thirds of the community is Black or Hispanic, trips declined 78 percent, compared with 88 percent for other stations. Thirteen of the 15 Metro stations that saw ridership declines of less than 80 percent during the pandemic were in neighborhoods where more than 8 in 10 residents were Black or Hispanic.

Stations in the city’s core, such as Metro Center, saw the largest drops. The most drastic ridership declines were at tourist and workplace destinations, such Smithsonian and Judiciary Square. Stations that lost the fewest users often were located on the edges of Metro’s system or in predominantly Black neighborhoods, such as Prince George’s Plaza, West Hyattsville, Fort Totten, Deanwood and Benning Road.

[Transit workers are paying a heavy price during the pandemic]

One station bucked the trend: Medical Center in Bethesda. The station primarily serves the National Institutes of Health and the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, major medical facilities in the fight against the pandemic.

In Chicago, stations in neighborhoods that are at least two-thirds Black or Hispanic saw ridership declines of 57 percent, compared with 77 percent for all other stations.

In New York, stations in heavily Black and Hispanic neighborhoods saw ridership decline 60 percent, compared with 64 percent for other stations. The nation’s largest transit system saw a stronger correlation between income and ridership, rather than race. Residents in neighborhoods with lower median incomes used their local station more than those with higher median incomes, according to Metropolitan Transportation Authority data.

In the nation’s capital, Columbia Heights was Metro’s 14th-busiest station, out of 91, over the five years before the pandemic, according to Metro data. As the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the city and the nation, it moved to No. 1.

The station is surrounded by D.C.’s largest Latino population. According to a study by the Urban Institute, Latinos made up about 7 percent of D.C.’s labor force between 2012 and 2016 while 52 percent of them worked in jobs that required a commute, such as maintenance, landscaping, restaurant work and construction.

Columbia Heights also boasts DC USA, an 890,000-square-foot retail complex anchored by Target, Best Buy, Marshalls and Petco. Dozens of small stores, fast-casual restaurants, coffee shops and grocery stores surround it.

The station has been buoyed by workers like Zabrine Ishmell, who has ridden buses and trains throughout the pandemic from her home in Southeast Washington to her job at Target.

Zabrine Ishmell takes the escalator at the Columbia Heights Metro station during her commute to work earlier this month.
Zabrine Ishmell takes the escalator at the Columbia Heights Metro station during her commute to work earlier this month. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades For The Washington Post)

Over the past five years, she has gone from a stockroom worker to cash assistant, counting the results of the day’s sales at the store for a corporation that saw revenue increase nearly 20 percent in 2020. The retail giant and similar businesses thrived with the help of people like Ishmell, whose work required a daily commute during a public health crisis.

Prepared both for rain and the pandemic after a recent workday, Ishmell, 43, wore a Washington Football Team mask over her mouth and pulled the hood of a red sweatshirt over her dreads. Just her brown eyes were exposed.

[Metro’s coronavirus recovery plan shows full service not likely to resume until next spring]

She climbed aboard a Green Line Metro train and carefully selected an empty seat far from other passengers. Strapped to her back was a tan backpack containing extra masks. An umbrella the size of a cane rested by her knees.

“The whole time the pandemic’s been going on, I’ve been working,” Ishmell said as the southbound train left the station. “Some people are saying I’m lucky to be working. I’m like, I’m not lucky, because I can get ill just like anybody else can get ill.”

‘Essential workers ride the bus’

Metrobus ridership tumbled about 80 percent after D.C. implemented citywide restrictions early in the pandemic. Since then, it has inched up as businesses reopened and some residents returned to work. Buses serve about 180,000 passenger trips each weekday compared with more than 300,000 trips pre-pandemic — and now carry about twice as many daily trips as the much larger rail system.

A handful of bus routes have recorded higher ridership during the pandemic, including 23A, which stretches from Crystal City to Tysons Corner in Virginia; and Route Q5, which leads into a commercial area in Derwood from Wheaton in Maryland. The increases, in part, came after Metro cut service on parallel routes when the transit agency drastically reduced service during the pandemic. The busiest routes typically serve bustling commercial centers filled with shoppers and essential workers, while those stretching from downtown to the suburbs have suffered as fewer workers need a ride to the city’s core.

A Metro survey found that 18 percent of its rail customers continued to ride during stay-at-home orders, while nearly half of Metrobus customers kept riding, often for work. The survey found that 82 percent of Black Metro customers continued to ride Metrobus during the pandemic. Of regular Metrobus users, 70 percent of those who earn less than $30,000 a year kept riding during the pandemic.

The survey found that 49 percent of Metrobus riders were Black and 16 percent were Latino.

Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said the agency should make bus routing decisions based on improving service in lower-income communities.

“One important lesson of the pandemic this year is that essential workers ride the bus,” he said. “Rather than continue to make small adjustments to decade-old bus routes, should we identify neighborhoods that are underserved and restructure routes? To what extent should we ensure bus service directly links underserved communities to job centers, even if such service may not be as productive as other services?”

Metrobus driver Katherine Sherrill prepares to put her bus back into service last May in Washington.
Metrobus driver Katherine Sherrill prepares to put her bus back into service last May in Washington. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Smaller regional bus systems — such suburban Maryland’s Ride On service in Montgomery County — saw similar trends. Lower-income residents stuck with buses during the pandemic as more-affluent riders stayed home or found other means of travel.

“We also, within that universe of bus ridership, found that our bus routes that serve our lowest-income neighborhoods experienced even less of a drop,” said Montgomery County Council President Tom Hucker (D-District 5).

In New York, the MTA last year suffered its greatest passenger loss in modern history. The subway lost about 13 percent of its ridership in 1933 during the Great Depression, compared with a low of 95 percent last year, although it has slowly rebounded.

Patrick J. Foye, the MTA’s chief executive, said the transit agency is bracing for a significant and indefinite drop in commuters as companies make permanent telework arrangements.

Service, health and emergency workers who have relied on public transportation during the pandemic remain the system’s most dependable base. The Wall Street station on Lexington Avenue, for instance, lags in use while the Junction Boulevard station in Queens sees a steady flow of customers.

“Other stations in Brooklyn and in Queens, where there are a lot of first responders and essential employees, also are punching above their weight in terms of the usage by customers at their home stations and in terms of getting to work or school, and then returning in the afternoon,” Foye said.

Mirroring a trend in Washington, subway demand is especially weak during traditional peak commuting times, but increasingly spread over more hours of the day, Foye said.

“The rush-hour timing has changed,” he said. “It starts earlier than it used to in the morning and begins earlier in the evening.” Foye attributed it to “changes in our riders.”

Construction workers, first responders and essential employees fill rail cars, including those who labor in grocery stores and pharmacies and others “who don’t have the ability to Zoom into work.”

Purchases of monthly fare packages — a staple for New York office workers — lag so low that the MTA is considering altering its fare packages. In Washington, Metro is considering discounted fares to lure workers back this fall.

[Federal covid relief package could lift Metro through pandemic budget problems]

One segment of steady riders who never left transit are people who live in New York but work outside the city. The MTA has increased service on its Metro North line, which Bronx riders use to get to suburban Westchester County, N.Y., and elsewhere, where they work in service, retail or construction jobs, Foye said.

“On the commuter rails, reverse commutation has held up better than the peak [time trips] coming into New York City from Nassau or Suffolk on Long Island or Westchester or Connecticut on Metro North,” he said. “Certainly a significant portion of those riders now are people who don’t have the ability to Zoom work.”

What the trend portends for the future, Foye said, is unknown. He said he expects more office workers to return in the coming months. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) has indicated he wants city workers back in their offices by May, while the city is negotiating with union leaders to get many workers back into workplaces by Labor Day, Foye said.

Lessons learned for the future

Ishmell said trends have emerged during her daily Washington commute: Weekend trains are more full, while the weekday rush seems less frenzied. Metro officials say the shift in commuting patterns tilts demand away from times that correspond with typical white-collar office schedules and more toward the varying start-and-stop times of the service industry.

Some buses are as full as they had been before the pandemic.

In mid-March, Metro boosted service on 59 Metrobus routes to help alleviate crowding and provide more space for social distancing. On Metrorail, the transit system said it would reduce service during peak commuting periods and increase frequencies at other times.

Before the pandemic, 28 percent of weekday Metrorail rides started during the 8 a.m. or 5 p.m. hour, according to a Post analysis. That number has dropped to 16 percent as a larger share of people ride outside typical commuting hours.

Business advocates in the region say they approve of Metro’s shifting of resources toward service workers and lower-income riders.

“[Metro] can serve the 9-5 commuter, the late-night worker and the daytime traveler,” said Julie Coons, president and chief executive of the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce and also a member of the rider-advocacy coalition MetroNow. “Our regional economy will need to innovate to ensure our recovery, and [Metro] will be central to that innovation.”

Metro’s own projections show rail ridership recovery will take years. The transit agency has based next year’s operating budget on rail ridership growing only to about 35 percent of pre-pandemic levels by June 2022.

“Going forward, the expectation is that folks are going to be working perhaps one or two days in the office and the rest from home,” said Metro Chief Financial Officer Dennis Anosike. “We’re currently seeing that shift.”

[The Washington commute could return by fall for many workers. It won’t be the same as before.]

According to a survey last fall of 2,400 residents by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ Transportation Planning Board, 16 percent of people in the region said they telecommuted at least once a week before the pandemic. That number increased to 60 percent during the pandemic. Thirty-three percent said they expected to telecommute at least once a week after the pandemic.

Nearly 40 percent of residents said they would use public transportation less that before the pandemic.

Among Metro users, about the same percentage of pre-pandemic bus riders indicated they would continue riding. The survey reported 24 percent of residents rode Metrorail before the pandemic — a number the survey indicated will drop to 19 percent after the pandemic.

A hand-sanitizing station at the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro station in Washington.
A hand-sanitizing station at the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro station in Washington. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades For The Washington Post)

“This region has always had a high level of telework even prior to the pandemic,” Anosike said. “What the pandemic has done is highlight the fact that most of our rail ridership — which are folks going to work — those that can, actually work from home.”

While Metro tries to shift service levels to meet lower demand, it’s also having to plan for a service expansion early next year that has been in motion for more than a decade. The nearly 11-mile Silver Line extension to Loudoun County via Dulles International Airport is nearing completion, built to shuttle thousands of workers to new office buildings along a burgeoning Northern Virginia tech corridor.

[Metro board considers lowering fares to lure riders when workers return to offices]

But tech companies have been among the most flexible employers with telework — some granting the option to stay home permanently. Michael Rocks, owner and developer of Innovation South — a 1.67 million-square-foot mixed-use complex at Innovation Station along Phase Two — said developers have faith that commuters will return.

“The growth in Northern Virginia, the growth of Dulles Airport pre-covid — which we expect to return — the impact Metro has had all over the Washington metropolitan area, continues to impress upon us that that same success will be repeated on Phase Two of the Silver Line,” Rocks said.

Ishmell, approaching her stop at Southern Avenue after a long day at work, said her friends who abandoned Metro also will return. She said fear of contracting the coronavirus was a large factor that drove them away.

“I think they’re going to come back once it’s over with,” she said.

She’s just not sure when.

About this story

Editing by Tim Richardson and Lauren Tierney.

Metrorail and bus ridership data was provided by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority through a public records request. To compare rail ridership before and during the pandemic, data from Jan. 1 to March 5, 2020, was compared with the same period in 2021. The comparison period for bus ridership was Oct. 1 to Dec. 1 in 2019 and 2020.

New York City subway ridership analysis used MTA turnstile data prepared by Chicago stations entry data provided by the Chicago Transit Authority. For Chicago ridership, Oct. 1 to Nov. 30, 2020, the most recent data available, was used as the pandemic period.

American Community Survey data was used to calculate demographic data on neighborhoods surrounding stations.

Justin George is a reporter covering national transit and Metro, the D.C.-area public transportation system, for The Washington Post. He previously covered criminal justice for the Marshall Project and the Baltimore Sun.
Kate Rabinowitz is a graphics reporter at The Washington Post. She previously worked at Propublica. She joined The Post in 2018.
Maria del Carmen Aguilar is a graphic reporter in the graphics department at The Washington Post.
John D. Harden is a metro data reporter for The Washington Post. He joined The Post after four years working for the Houston Chronicle as a data and breaking news reporter.