Behind the scenes with MBTA data.

In the past two posts, we’ve given an overview of how ridership changed during the pandemic, both over the course of the year and spatially throughout the system. In this post, we’ll take a look at how patterns of ridership changed temporally on a weekly and daily level.

Ridership by Time of Day

Chart showing validations at MBTA faregates by time of day for Fall 2019

Validations by time of day, Weekdays 9/1/2019 - 12/31/2019

Chart showing validations at MBTA faregates by time of day for Fall 2020

Validations by time of day, Weekdays 9/1/2020 - 12/31/2020

Early on in the pandemic we showed these charts that show taps over the course of the day. We have updated them here, showing total validations per half-hour both for weekdays in Fall 2019 (9/1/19-12/31/19) and Fall 2020 (9/1/20-12/31/20). The updated charts look pretty similar – the pattern of ridership over the day did not change a lot from the beginning of the pandemic to the end of 2020. This suggests that those “essential” workers who were still riding in March continue to drive the patterns of ridership, while some other riders have returned but not concentrated in particular times.

The most interesting thing about these charts is the broad spread of the peaks. While passengers in normal times are highly concentrated in the peaks (and really, in the peak-of-the-peak) at 8 AM and 5 PM, we see in Fall 2020 that the number of boardings at 3 PM is almost exactly the same on average as the number at 5 PM. Additionally, the midday ridership is up to about 50% of the peak, while in Fall 2019 it was less than a third of the peak level. While we do not expect these patterns to continue in precisely the same way once we reach the “new normal”, even small changes in the concentration of passengers during the peak would have big implications for service provision, as often the extreme crowding at the peak-of-the-peak slows trains, increases dwell times, and reduces overall capacity.

Ridership by Day of the Week

We also saw different distributions of ridership throughout the week than we usually do. The following table shows the total validations at all gated stations on the average day of the week, for the same Fall 2019 and Fall 2020 periods as above. Holidays where the MBTA ran different levels of service than a weekday schedule are excluded.

Year Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
Fall 2019 Validations 155,783 454,830 473,372 505,383 503,383 474,962 210,193

(% of the week)

5.6% 16.4% 17.0% 18.2% 18.1% 17.1% 7.6%
Fall 2020 Validations 64,150 110,633 116,405 115,734 110,999 123,988 87,863
(% of the week) 8.8% 15.2% 16.0% 15.9% 15.2% 17.0% 12.0%

We have also made a chart showing validations by time of day over each day of the week. These are similar to the charts at the beginning of the post, but all lines are added together. We’ve highlighted Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays as they show the biggest changes (click to enlarge):

Chart showing ridership by day of the week, comparing Fall 2019 and 2020

Usually, Wednesdays and Thursdays have the highest ridership levels, which makes sense since people tend to take days off either at the beginning or the end of the week. All weekdays in Fall 2019 ranged between 16.4% and 18.2% of the total validations for the week. In Fall 2020, however, weekdays were a smaller proportion of weekly ridership, ranging from 15.2% to 17% of the total, which makes sense given the lack of 9-5 commuters. Interestingly, Fridays were the busiest weekday in 2020 by a significant margin. In the time of day charts, it appears the Friday morning peak is similar to the other weekdays, but ridership increases in the afternoon and evening. It is possible these additional passengers are working from home most of the week, but then ride the system on Fridays as they end their week.

Weekend days provided a higher proportion of ridership than usual in Fall 2020. While Saturdays in Fall 2019 were 44% of the average weekday, in Fall 2020 they had 76% of the average weekday’s ridership. Sundays showed a similar pattern, increasing from 32% of the average weekday (in 2019) to 56%. Again, this suggests that passengers who rely on transit for travel continue to ride each day or have different schedules than the usual peak patterns, while those who tend to mostly ride during the week are no longer traveling or have changed their modes.

While research continues, the characteristics of ridership continue to show that transit provides an essential service for those who don’t or can’t drive cars and who are unable to work from home. The MBTA continues to keep a close watch on ridership and monitor passenger behavior in multiple dimensions: volumes over time, volumes by route and location, and behavior over the course of the day. While we expect 9-5 commuters to return to the system, the pandemic has emphasized that hundreds of thousands of passengers rely on the MBTA who cannot work from home, and those passengers tend to more often travel at times outside the traditional peak. To best serve those essential trips well on into the future, we will need to carefully examine travel behavior using all available tools, and plan carefully, thinking beyond the usual emphasis on peak travel.

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


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.

Ridership on the MBTA and public transit in general has dropped dramatically as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. For this series of posts, we wanted to take a longer look at the year to review how ridership changed in three dimensions: by mode, over time, and by location.

Reports on ridership during the early months of the pandemic can be found in recent posts on the blog. We also continue to keep the public folder updated with downloadable datasets from which these charts and descriptions are based.

Notes on the Data

As a reminder, data on ridership is collected differently on different vehicles and therefore has different quirks and levels of reliability. Unless otherwise noted: 

  • Rapid Transit ridership (Blue, Red (including Mattapan), Green, and Orange Lines) is based on validations on MBTA fare equipment. While looking at the following charts, it is important to note that fares were not collected on buses, surface Green Line, and the Mattapan Line from mid-March through mid-July. For this time period, front-door boarding was suspended out of concern for safety of riders and MBTA employees. As a result, AFC (Automated Fare Collection) data for the early pandemic period does not account for riders on the mentioned modes.
  • Bus ridership is based on automated passenger counters (APCs) on-board buses. 
  • Commuter Rail and Ferry ridership are based on manual counts recorded by conductors and other staff. For Commuter Rail, not all trips are counted, so a placeholder is used based on the most recent real observations if there is no observation for a particular trip on a particular day.
  • The RIDE ridership is based on trips booked in the RIDE’s software.

Chart showing weekday ridership on all MBTA modes indexed to February 2020

The above chart (click to enlarge) shows ridership change over the year (weekdays only) compared to the baseline week of February 24-28, just before emergency orders were issued. Indexing every mode to this week hides the difference in volume of ridership between modes, but allows us to compare how much each mode and rapid transit line were affected. Showing just weekdays makes the trends easier to follow while still showing some day-to-day variation.

Some observations from this chart:

  • Bus and the RIDE ridership were affected the least initially, but still dropped to roughly 20% of the baseline ridership. They then recovered to about 40-45% of the baseline by September and have been largely steady since.
  • The Blue Line has retained higher ridership than the other rapid transit lines. The Blue Line initially dropped to about 12-13% of the baseline, but by August was comparable with bus and the RIDE, before dropping a bit below them in October.
  • The other Rapid Transit lines showed similar trends, with the Orange Line retaining the most ridership, then the Red Line, then the Green Line.
  • Finally, the Ferry and Commuter Rail retained the least amount of their original ridership. Ferry data is seasonally adjusted here and each day is compared to the weekday average from the same month in 2019. This was done to provide a better trendline since ferry ridership is very seasonal and the February baseline week would be quite low. 

Passenger Trends

Chart showing Gated station taps in 2020 compared with 2019

The above chart shows total validations at all gated stations, totaled by week (including weekends), compared to the same week in 2019. Weekly gated station validations dropped to their minimum for the year during the week of April 13th. During this week, there were 226,273 validations at gated stations or approximately 8% of the number of validations of the corresponding week in 2019. Gated station validations remained at or below 10% of 2019 levels until the end of May. Unlike 2019 ridership, which sees minor dips and spikes corresponding with significant events (e.g., a dip of about 500,000 validations during the week of July 4th), pandemic period 2020 ridership has grown and declined more steadily.

In absolute numbers, pandemic ridership reached a peak at the end of September, with weekly gated station validations reaching nearly 800,000 during the week of September 21st. Weekly gated station validations reached a maximum of 29% of 2019 levels during the first week of September.

In order to understand the changes that were happening on the system we were interested in finding out whether we gained back rides (individual trips) or riders (distinct people) faster. The below plot shows three different values relative to their 2019 levels. They depict the change in total validations, distinct cards seen, and what we call “frequent riders”: distinct cards that have validations on at least 3 days in a week.

Chart showing ridership patterns among different types of passengers compared to 2019

Chart showing ridership among different types of cards compared with 2019, focusing on August through October 2020

While the patterns over the summer are difficult to interpret because of the lack of bus fare collection, we see an interesting but perhaps not surprising pattern in the last few weeks of data. Relative to their 2019 levels, we see a greater decrease in the “frequent” cards than we do in the distinct cards seen. This indicates that frequent users of the T left the system at a higher rate than more occasional users. This could indicate that changes in the structure of work, with far fewer people going into an office 5 days per week, is impacting ridership patterns. That said, it could also be influenced by changes in the amount of “churn” (people losing their cards, or otherwise switching cards) or changes in who has signed up for Perq (usually frequent riders).

We are also curious about who is using the system during the pandemic months. Like ridership patterns, understanding this is important to structuring service and pass products. For example, throughout the pandemic, reduced fare products were used at a much higher rate than in previous years, likely indicating that the people who are still riding the T are disproportionately low-income.

Chart showing reduced fare validations as a proportion of all validations, comparing 2019 and 2020

This shows that riders who rely on reduced fare products to ride the T have made up a significantly larger proportion of weekly taps than during 2019. While the difference between 2019 and 2020 peaked early in the pandemic, this difference has persisted to the end of October. This is particularly interesting given that many reduced fare riders are students, and many schools were held remotely during this time. 

Other research has noted that these essential trips are the ones remaining on transit, so it should be unsurprising that reduced fare users, passengers on the RIDE and bus riders have continued to ride the system while many have chosen other modes or not made trips at all. In the next post, we will take a look at where and when travelers took the MBTA during the pandemic.