The recovery of Washington DC’s transportation during the Covid era

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Since the pandemic began, Americans and residents of the Washington area have transformed the way they travel and commute. But even after most of the coronavirus restrictions have been lifted, ridership for many transit systems has not returned to pre-pandemic levels given the shift to remote working.

For roads, airports, and bike-sharing programs, usage is now approaching normal.

This is how different modes of transportation have evolved since before the pandemic.

The charts below compare monthly ridership as a percentage of monthly 2019 numbers (e.g. March 2020 numbers are a percentage of March 2019, April 2020 is a percentage of April 2019, June 2022 is a percentage of June 2019). Percentages greater than 100 percent mean ridership was higher that month than the same month in 2019.

Metrobus is back while the train struggles

Metrorail was at about 38 percent of pre-pandemic levels in June, the lowest of any mode of transport included in this analysis.

Rider numbers fell to 5 percent year-on-year in April 2020 before slowly recovering in the wake of a broader return to office this spring. In addition to increased teleworking, many passengers have cited train shortages – and the resulting long waits for trains – for not using the system after a federal safety investigation resulted in 60 percent of railcars being removed.

Metrobus ridership has consistently remained higher than Metrorail’s during the pandemic, despite historically serving about half of Metrorail’s ridership. The bus system is nearing 90 percent of pre-pandemic ridership.

With the advent of telecommuting, many commuters have given up their daily commute to work from home—or come to the office less often. The decline is also due to federal employees, Metro’s largest customer base, being offered more flexibility to work from home.

Metro is struggling with the financial consequences of the loss of passengers. Federal pandemic aid is expected to expire next summer, meaning the Metro will have to significantly increase ridership or face cuts in service. Metro has proposed fare cuts to focus more on tourists and leisure passengers to bring passengers back.

Capital Bikeshare returns to normal

Capital Bikeshare surpassed its pre-pandemic levels in November 2021. The week of June 13, the service reported with more than 94,000 rides, the highest weekly ridership since 2018. Ridership had fallen to about 20 percent of pre-pandemic levels as of April 2020, but bounced back quickly.

The bikeshare system has served as an alternative mode of transportation as other systems have struggled during the pandemic.

Bike-sharing schemes across the country are also reporting increased ridership.

Air travel is experiencing a revival

The Washington area’s three major airports — Dulles International, Baltimore-Washington International Marshall, and Reagan National — have largely recovered, with all three returning to at least 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

Monthly passenger numbers fell to just 4 percent of pre-pandemic levels in April 2020. Travel volumes remained steady at between about 20 and 40 percent of pre-pandemic levels between June 2020 and February 2021, before escalating sharply in March 2021 as the roll-out of vaccines reduced the risk of air travel. Passenger numbers also approached pre-pandemic levels during holidays like July 4 and Thanksgiving.

Reagan National, with its heavy reliance on domestic travelers, has recovered the fastest. Dulles, which relies more on international travel, was the slowest to return among the region’s airports.

Passenger numbers in suburban traffic are increasing

The Washington-area public transit systems, like Fairfax Connector, Alexandria’s DASH, Arlington Transit (ART) and Montgomery County’s Ride On, are struggling to get back to pre-pandemic levels, but they’ve been gaining ground since late last year.

DASH ridership skyrocketed after the system announced it would become toll-free in August 2021, reaching about 64 percent of its pre-pandemic ridership by September this year — up from about 40 percent a month earlier. Since then the system has recovered to a higher level than Fairfax Connector or ART. Officials from TheBus in Prince George’s County did not provide ridership numbers as of Thursday afternoon.

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