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Behind the scenes with MBTA data.

In the last post, we took a broad look at ridership on the MBTA in 2020, and dove into the details on which types of passengers continued to ride the system. In this post, we’ll examine where passengers rode the system and how that changed from the patterns we typically see.

The above map (click to enlarge) shows the MBTA’s bus and rapid transit routes and lines and is colored by the amount of ridership change they saw, comparing Fall 2019 with Fall 2020 data. The ridership is normalized per revenue vehicle hour to account for changes in service levels between the two time periods. While all routes lost some ridership, the amount varied greatly – the least affected routes (colored in the yellow end of the color scale) retained about 60% of their ridership, while the most affected routes (deep red) lost nearly all of their ridership (while some had no service at all in this time period). You can explore this data in this file.

From this map, a few broad types of routes seem to have retained ridership particularly well:

  • Routes in Roxbury / Dorchester / Mattapan, Chelsea / East Boston, and Lynn / Salem
  • Routes that travel a long distance, such as the 70
  • Routes that provide the only service to a particular area, such as the 34E

Each of these categories fits with the ongoing research that transit is currently serving “essential” trips, and these are the types of routes that the MBTA prioritized in its Forging Ahead service changes.

Total Ridership Change by Station

We also took a look at how ridership changed by rapid transit station (excluding the Surface Green Line as detailed data is unavailable). This file shows the % change in average weekday validations from January / February (combined) to each month in 2020. The top and bottom 10 are shown below for October (excluding Lechmere and Science Park which were closed for Green Line Extension construction). October was chosen as the point post-pandemic when ridership was the highest, which would best illustrate the differences between stations.

  Jan./Feb. Avg. Weekday Validations Jan./Feb. Rank Oct. Avg. Weekday Validations Oct. Rank % Change
Revere Beach

2918

54 1680 34 -42%
Suffolk Downs 755 62 376 60 -50%
Beachmont 3266 51 1505 39 -54%
Maverick 11206 13 5046 2 -55%
Andrew 5232 39 2321 21 -56%
Orient Heights 4438 42 1900 29 -57%
Fields Corner 4770 40 2027 25 -57%
Airport 7011 26 2977 17 -58%
Bowdoin 2327 55 967 49 -58%
Charles/MGH 10387 16 4162 3 -60%

Most of the stations that had high levels of retained ridership were on the Blue Line. This is also reflected in the line-level data that we covered in our last post. Other stations on the top ten list likely have a high number of passengers without vehicle access (Andrew and Fields Corner), or are near major medical facilities (Charles / MGH) which of course continued operation throughout the pandemic.

  Jan./Feb. Avg. Weekday Validations Jan./Feb. Rank Oct. Avg. Weekday Validations Oct. Rank % Change
Kendall / MIT 16870 4 2382 20 -86%
South Station 24385 1 3666 7 -85%
Alewife 11295 12 1857 30 -84%
Courthouse 3600 48 647 57 -82%
Arlington 6595 29 1198 44 -82%
Porter 8284 20 1518 37 -82%
Oak Grove 6236 30 1185 45 -81%
Davis 11397 11 2181 24 -81%
Park Street 15544 7 3000 16 -81%
Harvard 16546 5 3313 10 -80%

It seems safe to conclude that the stations that lost the most ridership tended to be a combination of:

  • those with high numbers of usual riders who can work from home, 
  • high concentrations of college students, or 
  • those with high numbers of passengers who drive and park.

It should be noted that these are also some of the busiest stations on the system. This is important for two reasons: First, even with many usual passengers not riding, these stations still served significant numbers of riders. The 3,000+ taps seen daily at Park St, Harvard and South Station (not even counting commuter rail passengers) is comparable to the ridership at stations like Wollaston or Stony Brook during normal times. Even though they were among the stations with the highest portion of ridership lost, Park Street, Harvard, South Station and even Kendall were still in the top 20 busiest stations in October. Second, it confirms that the subway system is largely designed around bringing passengers to work in the usually busy areas in the center of the city, while the bus system tends to serve more radial and outlying trips. While this is not a new observation, rarely is it revealed in such a stark manner. Even starker is the drop in ridership on Commuter Rail, which is even more focused on serving the center of Boston and oriented around peak travel than subway and bus.

In our next post, we’ll look into how ridership patterns changed by time of day and throughout the week.