David Zipper, City Lab
No form of public transportation has lost more riders in the coronavirus crisis than the trains that carry suburban workers to urban jobs. Will they ever recover?
Last year, the fiscal management control board of MBTA, Boston’s regional transit agency, faced a critical decision. With area commuters enduring the worst car traffic in the United States, would the board greenlight a multi-billion-dollar revamp of its traditional commuter rail network, expanding it to offer bi-directional “regional rail” service every 15 minutes? Doing so would be a paradigm shift for a network that was designed to fulfill the more modest goal of bringing suburban commuters into the city in the morning and back out again in the evening.
The answer was yes. In November 2019, the MBTA’s board approved the commuter rail transformation project. Speaking after the vote, the board’s chair said that it was time to “provid[e] more aggressive service for the region … in order to decongest the roadway systems.” MBTA would still have to find upwards of $10 billion, but transit advocates were thrilled to envision a network that could accommodate Bostonians ill served by traditional commuter rail, such as workers traveling to suburban job centers, or parents scrambling to get to a midday doctor’s appointment.
But then the coronavirus lockdowns arrived, and MBTA ridership crashed more than 90%. Across the United States, passenger counts on commuter rail have fallen even more sharply than those for bus, subway and light rail systems. In Maryland, ridership on MARC’s commuter rail service, which collects D.C.-bound workers from points all across the state (and into West Virginia), plummeted 94% since lockdowns kept much of the federal workforce at home; in Baltimore, by contrast, subway and bus ridership fell 75% and 51%, respectively. In Chicago, the Metra commuter rail system anticipates a 97% dropoff in April, while trips on CTA’s bus and rail networks have dropped “only” 80%.
Will these commuters ever come back? With gas prices at record lows, traffic light and teleworking being normalized, transit experts fear that rail riders may be slow to return when the pandemic ebbs. But there is a path forward for these systems—if their leaders embrace the kind of visionary transformation that MBTA’s board did a few months ago.
It feels like ancient history now, but until very recently commuter rail was riding a wave of ridership growth. Passenger trips nationwide rose almost 4% between 2017 through 2019, more than double the rate of heavy rail, the transit mode with the next-highest gain. Many individual commuter rail networks did even better; those in Long Island, Orlando and Denver attracted at least 10 percent more riders than in 2019 than they had the year before.