Checking In on Ridership and Service

Jul 27, 2021

One sign that life is slowly returning to its previous rhythms can be seen in our ridership numbers. For the first time since March 2020, the number of people riding has increased over four consecutive months. Last month — June 2021 — ridership was the highest it’s been since the start of the pandemic.

While the number of trips is still down over 50% compared to where it was pre-COVID, there are signs that we’re entering a new phase of gradual recovery. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics reports that more people are getting out, traveling to stores in person and returning to transit across the country. And that’s what we’re seeing here, as businesses reopen and passenger limits on buses and trains have been removed.

Prior to the pandemic, ridership was increasing as we were going through the largest continuous expansion of bus service in TriMet’s history. We know it will take time to get back to where we were. Projections show it might take years to get back to our pre-pandemic ridership levels. But much is still uncertain, and how commuting patterns evolve will play an important role.

Ridership trends

Looking back on the past year and a half, a clear picture emerges: people were (and are) still relying on transit. The number of people commuting to work dropped sharply in March and April 2020, as people followed the stay home order and began working remotely. 

Still, many riders continued to rely on TriMet to get to stores, appointments and jobs when working from home wasn’t possible. Throughout the pandemic, bus lines serving lower-income neighborhoods have lost the fewest number of trips overall. These areas include East Portland, East Multnomah County, Tualatin Valley Highway, Forest Grove/Cornelius and Rivergate.

Some places have seen an increase in ridership, like the Rivergate area – home to the Bybee Lakes Hope Center – and Troutdale, which has an Amazon warehouse.

Off-peak times — especially weekends — have seen less of a drop in ridership than weekday commuting hours. As you would expect, bus lines serving downtown Portland during the a.m. and p.m. rush hours have seen the biggest drops in ridership.

We’ve adjusted our service to account for the changes in ridership. In April 2020, we temporarily cut service across the board by about 20%.  At the end of August 2020, we were able to add back some bus trips, bringing our overall service to about 90% of where it had been before the pandemic.  That’s where we remain today. As more riders join us on board, we’ll be looking at ways to return more service.

How we’re making decisions about the future

The pandemic ridership drop has given us the opportunity to reimagine where and how we provide service in the future. We project that ridership will continue to grow as people feel more comfortable going out and more destinations fully reopen. We also expect some people will continue working from home, at least part-time. We will closely watch how commuting and recreation trends evolve as the pandemic fades away—where people are riding and when. And we will continue to consider equity and the needs of those in transit-dependent areas as we continue to restore and hopefully grow service in the months and years ahead. 


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