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Behind the scenes with MBTA data.

Update 3/19:

The MBTA is actively monitoring rider volume and feedback, and making service adjustments accordingly to meet the needs of our community. As this situation evolves, we will continue to focus on providing workforce access to hospitals & food distribution locations. 

“As we continue monitoring the situation, we are making adjustments to ensure we can provide service for essential trips in the safest manner possible,” said MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak. “We recognize that some employees in key industries, including those in the medical community, rely on the MBTA to get to their places of work and we’re committed to providing service to those folks who rely on the T. That said, service continues to operate at reduced levels in an effort to maintain a responsible balance between protecting our workforce and operating safe service.”

In order to make service adjustments and to inform future scenario planning, we are analyzing ridership data at the subway line and bus route level. The beginning of this post has been updated to include ridership data from the week of 3/16. The remainder of the post has been left as originally written with data through 3/13/20.

Gated Stations

Ridership continued to drop on Monday 3/16 and Tuesday, 3/17, before settling somewhat on Wednesday 3/18. Overall, at gated stations on Monday, we recorded 68% fewer validations than we did in the comparison week of 2/24/20, and on Tuesday, 78% fewer. Wednesday recorded 80% fewer than our comparison week.

You may download the daily total validations at the following links. Please note that these are gated stations only, with no adjustment for anyone who may have transferred behind the gate or entered a gate without tapping a card or validating a ticket. The most recent data is preliminary and may be adjusted as additional data comes in. 

Validations at Gated Stations by Station (csv)

Validations at Gated Stations by Line (csv)

Bus

Bus ridership has dropped by roughly 50% overall from the baseline week of 2/24 to Monday, 3/16. Similar to gated stations, we saw an additional drop on Tuesday 3/17 and then a similar number of riders on Wednesday 3/18. You can see the estimated daily total in the following chart. We have also provided a chart showing estimated ridership on 3/16 on the top 20 routes, again compared to the baseline week.

These estimates are also preliminary and will be adjusted as time goes on, but represent our best estimates at the time of publication.

Original Post Below

COVID-19 and Massachusetts’ response to it will have far-reaching impacts throughout our society, and the MBTA is no exception. Here at OPMI, we are working hard to analyze its impacts on ridership, performance, and other aspects of the T and the transportation system. In particular, many people have requested information on how the pandemic is impacting ridership. This post will examine the preliminary data that we have to answer this question.

Before we go further, we should note that the MBTA has been increasing its cleaning efforts since the first outbreak of the virus in MA, and that while experts believe that buses and subways are safe to ride, passengers should take precautions such as avoiding crowded cars and buses, not touching their face, and using hand sanitizer (which the T has made available in stations) and washing their hands after riding the T. More information is available at the continuously-updated page here: www.mbta.com/covid-19

The Data

As we have discussed before, gathering and reporting accurate data on ridership is not as easy as it might seem, especially when a quick turnaround is required. Our usual ridership reporting includes factors to account for passengers who we do not observe through our automated equipment, and we usually wait at least a few weeks before reporting anything due to the delay in transferring data from our vehicles. We also conduct in-person counts to verify automated data and improve accuracy for our end of year reporting. 

With everything changing so quickly, we obviously had to shrink the timeline in order to provide useful data for leadership and the public. So we focused on three data sources for this post: Counts of validations at gated stations from the fare collection system, bus ridership estimates from automated passenger counters, and parking lot utilization to get an idea of ridership on commuter rail. Because all of these sources usually have extra processing and QA/QC done as noted in the previous paragraph, all ridership estimates in this post should be considered very preliminary and subject to change.

Gated Stations

To examine ridership on the rapid transit system, we used validations (taps or ticket insertions) at the 64 gated stations in the MBTA system. This data came from the fare collection system and is not adjusted to account for passengers who enter the gates without interacting with the equipment (this can be children, fare evaders, or people who enter when the gates aren’t functioning). 

We pulled the total validations by day, and then grouped them by station and by line. For stations where passengers can board multiple lines, we use a rough “split” factor to assign riders to each line (For example, at Park St, we estimate that 54% of people entering the gates are then going to board the Red Line, and 46% go on to board the Green Line).

The below chart shows the total taps by line since February 1:

Chart showing taps by line since Fe 1

The drop in validations is clear from the above. The week of 3/2 had slightly lower ridership, but only a few percent lower than usual. Last week, ridership really started to drop beginning Wednesday as people began working from home and events got canceled. 

To show these data a different way, see the below table. We’ve chosen the week of 2/24-2/28 as a “normal” comparison week and calculated the percentage change last week from that point. You can also download these data as CSV files at the end of this section.

   Average Validations Week of 2/24 Change 3/10  Change 3/11 Change 3/12 Change 3/13
Blue Line 47,344 -6% -9% -17% -28%
Green Line 75,007 -19% -22% -39% -52%
Orange Line 155,749 -10% -21% -31% -47%
Red Line 199,146 -13% -20% -35% -51%
Silver Line 4,990 -33% -37% -48% -68%
Total 482,235 -12% -20 -32% -48%

You can see the drop increase throughout the week, until by Friday we had 48% fewer taps than the comparison week. Usually Fridays are of course lighter ridership, but not nearly this much.

Importantly, though, the change in ridership was not uniform. You can see from the above that the Blue Line was just 28% less busy than usual. There were other differences when you break ridership down by station:

Stations with the largest and smallest changes are listed below:

Largest change:

Station Change from week of 2/24 to Friday, 3/13
Community College -71%
World Trade Center -70%
Kendall/MIT -69%
Arlington -69%
Courthouse -68%
JFK/UMass -64%
Alewife -64%

 Smallest change:

Station Change from week of 2/24 to Friday, 3/13
Suffolk Downs -18%
Revere Beach -20%
Wollaston -21%
Wood Island -22%
Andrew -23%
Maverick -23%
Airport -23%

As you can see, stations where much of the ridership comes from a nearby college, or tends to be more white-collar, had a larger drop, while much of the Blue Line had a much smaller drop. 

Bus Ridership

The above chart shows total ridership by day as estimated from the APCs on board buses. The more recent dates here have less precision than the earlier dates, but we are fairly confident in these totals. You can see that the overall drop in bus ridership was more modest – roughly a 32% drop from the week of 2/24. You can see the differences by route in the below chart of key bus routes:

As with the gated stations, you can see a fairly wide range in the level of change depending on the route. Without doing a detailed analysis, it seems plausible that as you might expect, routes where more riders are able to take time off and self-isolate saw a larger drop in ridership. We will keep an eye on these trends as the response to COVID-19 continues.

Commuter Rail

While we don’t have detailed ridership from commuter rail on a daily basis, we took a look at the utilization of MBTA-owned parking lots as a proxy for ridership. We saw that on Thursday, parking lots were 42% less-utlilized than during the week of 2/24, while on Friday, utilization had dropped by 69%.

The RIDE

For the RIDE, we have very detailed data as each completed trips is recorded in the RIDE’s software. We compared the trips taken last week to the average daily trips taken the week of 2/24 and found the following:

Date Trips taken  Change from Week of 2/24 average
3/9/2020 4,881 -7%
3/10/2020 5,248 0%
3/11/2020 5,059 -4%
3/12/2020 4,584 -13%

Conclusion

Understanding that a significant number of people continue to rely on the MBTA, we will keep a close eye on ridership levels and as always, learn what we can from them to continue making data-driven decisions that best address our customers’ needs.  Safety is, and always will be, our top priority.