It probably comes as no surprise to regular car commuters that traffic volumes have rebounded since the COVID lockdown of March 2020 temporarily shuttered most businesses. Indeed, traffic on most Bay Area bridges has been at least 80% of January 2019 levels for most months since July 2020.  

The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, part of Interstate 80, spans San Francisco Bay in Northern Calif. in January 2014. (Photo courtesy of John Chacon/California Department of Water Resources)

Unfortunately for MUNI and BART, however, public transit ridership has recovered much more slowly. MUNI did not return to half of its January 2019 ridership until September 2021, and BART didn’t reach 1/3 of its January 2019 ridership until May 2022. 

Reasons for public transit’s decline and slow recovery 

One possible explanation for the continued depression in public transit ridership is that the reduction in service by both BART and MUNI made public transit less reliable and forced former riders to turn to other options. Other riders, like San Leandro resident Dick Rogers, were disappointed by filthy BART stations and concerned about catching COVID from other passengers. Rogers said that even before the pandemic, he wasn’t using BART as much because he didn’t need to commute. However, he was recently so unhappy with BART that he wrote to a BART representative that “banishing filth would attract more riders.” According to Rogers, the BART representative never responded.  

Rogers also said that “AC Transit used to have regular and not infrequent service from a block or two from my house to San Leandro BART. That was many years ago. Now BART patrons in my part of town mostly have to drive to BART.” Lack of accessibility of BART to non-drivers could certainly make it more difficult for BART to recover fully. 

A survey of BART riders done January of this year, summarized in the image below, confirms that increased working from home and fear of COVID were leading causes of BART’s continued low ridership.  Concerns about cleanliness and crime remained largely unchanged from June 2021, while concerns about crowding were slightly lower. About 30% of BART riders who were riding BART less than pre-pandemic said they expected to continue riding less even when things return to “normal”, indicating that BART has a rough road ahead. A ridership projection shared by BART spokesperson James Allison predicts BART to only have 59% as many riders in July 2024 as pre-pandemic, approximately 60% more riders than there are now. 

The Daly City BART station in Daly City Calif., on November 23, 2009. (Ananda Paulas/Bay City News)

Meanwhile, San Francisco’s MUNI has seen a better rebound, in part because of thorough coverage of the city. SFMTA claims in its “MUNI Moves You” campaign that 98% of all San Franciscans are less than three blocks from a MUNI stop. Indeed, Megan Farley lives within two blocks of the 44 O’Shaughnessy bus.  

“MUNI greatly enhances my mobility”, she said, because the 44 can take her to work in one direction and to Golden Gate Park, Glen Canyon, and Glen Park BART in the other direction. At the same time, she said that she frequently drives even to places served by the bus, because it has been somewhat unreliable in the past. In one memorable instance, she waited 45 minutes in the rain for a 44 bus to arrive. “If I knew I could rely on them coming on time and more frequently”, Megan said, she would ride the 44 more regularly. 

How have public transit ridership patterns shifted since the pandemic? 

By considering which BART stations people entered and exited from before and after the pandemic, we can get a clearer sense of which stations serve greater and smaller proportions of the remaining riders following the pandemic, and whether the pandemic changed station usage patterns. From February 2018 to March 2020 (“pre-pandemic”), for example, 21.8% of BART riders got off at Embarcadero and Montgomery stations combined. Since the pandemic, however, only 15.2% of riders got off at those two financial district stops, possibly because many of the people commuting to downtown San Francisco are now working remotely. 

Meanwhile, 16th and 24th Street Mission stations have seen their share of riders rise from 6.3% to 7.1%, perhaps because the Mission is a largely residential neighborhood and would therefore be expected to have fewer remote jobs. Interestingly, Powell Station’s share of BART riders increased from 6.9% pre-pandemic to 7.6% post-pandemic. Since Powell Station is near the major shopping hub of Union Square, this may be evidence that shopping-related commuting fell off less than work-related commuting. 

MUNI has apparently seen a similar shift away from downtown commuting. According to a statement from MUNI’s spokesperson Erica Kato, “Our ridership has made a strong recovery on weekends and for trips not necessarily going downtown, but between community neighborhoods. Some lines are seeing the same ridership as what they had pre-COVID.” She elaborated that “Trip patterns have changed over the last two years with a noticeable shift in San Francisco residents traveling neighborhood to neighborhood instead of the peak period downtown-centric travel pattern that was prevalent pre-pandemic.” Interested readers can consult MUNI’s proposed changes to routes on their website

Since the pandemic, only 41% of BART passengers got out in San Francisco County, compared to 45% before the pandemic. This is attributable in part to the opening of BART stations in Milpitas and Berryessa/North San Jose in June 2020, which account for 1.1% of BART riders since the pandemic and thus decrease the percent share of riders in all other counties. The share of riders getting off in all other counties increased, but especially Contra Costa, where 11.1% of riders exited pre-pandemic and 12.2% exited post-pandemic. 

The impacts of COVID-19 continue to affect commuter patterns

Undoubtedly remote work and the exodus of over 50,000 people from San Francisco April 2020 to April 2021 both played key roles in reducing San Francisco’s share of BART riders. BART began as a system which largely served suburbanites who commuted to downtown San Francisco. But its expansion, and the post-pandemic shift to remote work, have made ridership patterns more complex. Finally, given that many past riders of public transit were already concerned about issues like cleanliness and crime before the pandemic, it may be difficult for BART and MUNI to woo them back now that they have found workable alternatives. 

Will San Francisco regain population and will the more traditional ridership patterns and usage of public transit return? Those are key questions on which transit agency coffers and, to some extent, the region’s ability to combat climate change through reducing car driving will depend.