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'The picture has not been good': Pandemic still significantly impacting Metro Transit ridership

Transit officials said there are signs ridership is slowly rebounding.

Ridership on Metro Transit is down more than 50% in the first part of this year compared to 2020, but it is slowly rebounding. 

That's according to first-quarter ridership figures released Monday during a Metropolitan Council Transportation Committee meeting. 

Between January and March of this year, people took 7.6 million rides on all of Metro Transit's services (light rail, Northstar, buses, Metro Mobility, Transit Link and vanpool). In the first quarter of 2020 — just before the COVID-19 pandemic locked things down — people took 17.3 million rides. 

"The picture has not been good," John Harper of Metro Transit commented during his presentation Monday, noting local ridership has been faring better than the express service. 

The two most popular services so far this year have been light rail and buses, but ridership was still well below what it was in 2020. Light rail rides were down 55% compared to the same time in 2020, while bus ridership was down 58%, Metro Transit said. 

When looking at bus ridership, local bus service and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) fared better than the Express bus service, which Harper said isn't a surprise. Local bus service was down 53%, BRT was down 43% and Express bus service was down 93%. 

The hardest-hit service has been Northstar, where ridership is down 95% as people continue to work from home and don't rely on the commuter train to get to downtown Minneapolis. 

Metro Mobility ridership has been the least impacted, but ridership was still down 19% compared to the first quarter of 2020. Transit Link and Vanpool services were each down 43%. 

Metro Transit ridership in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the fourth quarter of 2020, which were both during the COVID-19 pandemic, shows people are starting to take more trips on public transit. 

Overall, ridership is up 1% from January-March compared to October-December of 2020. 

"We are starting to see some rebounds in service," Harper said, noting Metro Transit is seeing a return to ridership, particularly with the Metro Mobility service, which is up 12% compared to the end of 2020. 

Light rail ridership is up 8% and Transit Link is up 10%. The only services that saw a decrease in ridership have been buses and Northstar, declining 4% and 3%, respectively.

Harper noted he's taking the 27% increase in vanpool ridership with a grain of salt because it's such a small service. 

Eric Lind of Meto Transit said during Monday's meeting that they're expecting ridership to continue to increase in the second quarter of 2021, but questions remain on how fast ridership will return to pre-pandemic levels. 

Lind noted two things that impact ridership are Metro Transit's self-imposed passenger limits, which were in place for most of the pandemic to allow for social distancing but were lifted on May 28, and the federal mask mandate for public transit, which is in effect through Sept. 13. 

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