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Regional Direction

Greater Philadelphia’s Public Transportation and COVID-19 – PART 1

The COVID-19 economic lockdown has had a devastating effect on public transportation in the United States - which was already in a precarious position prior to the pandemic. Between February 2020 and March 2020, public transit ridership across the U.S. dropped by 38 percent [1]. With little confidence that ridership will return to its pre-COVID levels, many transportation authorities are planning to cut services to maintain their budgets. Last month, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) projected a $300 million loss of revenue through the end of 2021 [2]. This loss—combined with a fast-approaching expiration of a funding obligation from the PA Turnpike Commission—has caused SEPTA to plan for future reductions that would cut a substantial portion of its current service. With the region’s largest transit authority on the brink of cutting major services, we set out to learn more about public transit ridership in the region and the city. In this and subsequent editions of the Leading Indicator, we take a closer look at the state of public transit ridership in the region to better understand who is using it the most and what do they stand to lose from the proposed “doomsday” cuts in service. We start with a look at the state of public transit ridership in the U.S. and Greater Philadelphia. 

 

Key Takeaways 

  • Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, roughly 5 percent of U.S. workers primarily commuted via public transportation while 76.4 percent commuted alone in a car, truck, or van. 

  • As of 2018, Greater Philadelphia ranks sixth among major metropolitan areas with roughly 9.5 percent of workers aged 16 years or older using some mode of public transit to commute to work. 

  • Philadelphians account for less than a quarter of Greater Philadelphia’s total population but comprised 37.7 percent of the region’s public transit commuters in 2018. 

  • Approximately 25 percent of Philadelphia's workers aged 16 or older used public transit as their primary commuting mode in 2018. 

  • City commuters favor the bus as their primary mode of public transit while suburban public transit users predominantly use the commuter rail. 

 

Comparing Regional Ridership 

For decades public transportation in the U.S. has taken a proverbial backseat to car-centric commuter infrastructure. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, roughly 5 percent of U.S. workers primarily commuted via public transportation while 76.4 percent commuted alone in a car, truck, or van [3]. According to the American Public Transit Association, public transit ridership in the U.S. grew annually by 0.5 percent from 1990 to 2019 – mirroring some population movement back into urban areas and new investments on part of regional transit authorities [4]. As Figure 1 shows, however, total ridership peaked in 2014 and slowly started to decline – dropping by 1.1 percent annually between 2014 and 2019.  

 

 

 

FIGURE 1

NOTE: Data were obtained from the American Public Transportation Association Quarterly Ridership Report found here

 

 

Most public transit ridership in the U.S. is concentrated within major metropolitan areas where local and regional transit authorities provide and maintain ridership across a variety of modes. Figure 2 shows the share of public transit ridership among workers 16 years or older in U.S. metropolitan areas with the largest regional transit authorities. As of 2018, Greater Philadelphia ranks sixth among these major metropolitan areas with roughly 9.5 percent of workers aged 16 years or older using some form of public transit to commute to work. Larger metro areas like New York City, Chicago, and Washington DC outpace Philadelphia’s public transit ridership – along with the smaller Boston and San Francisco metro areas with populations roughly 20 percent smaller but 1.4 and 1.8 times more likely to commute using public transportation, respectively. With proposed cutbacks in transit funding, Greater Philadelphia’s rank may continue to fall behind these regions. 

 

 

FIGURE 2 

NOTE: Data were obtained from five-year estimates of the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014-2018 American Community Survey.

 

Recent Ridership in Greater Philadelphia and the City 

While only 9.5 percent of Greater Philadelphia’s workers commute via public transit in 2018, over a quarter of the City of Philadelphia’s workers used public transit to get to work. In fact, Philadelphians comprised 37.7 percent of the region’s public transit commuters in 2018 [3]. Figure 3 shows that ridership has remained relatively unchanged for both the metro area and the city between 2008 and 2018. In fact, public transit ridership in Greater Philadelphia only grew by 0.7 percent annually between 2008 and 2018, while the city only saw an average annual growth rate of 0.02 percent. 

 

 

FIGURE 3 

NOTE: Data were obtained from one-year estimates of the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2008 through 2018 American Community Survey.  

 

 

There is also a great divergence in public transit usage by mode among city and suburban residents of Greater Philadelphia. Figure 4 shows the primary commuting mode of public transit riders both in the city and among the surrounding suburban counties of Greater Philadelphia in 2018. Bus ridership dominated in the city and outpaces the suburban counties by 28.7 percent while commuter rail ridership dominated among suburban commuters at 45 percent. Subway/Elevated rail ridership is cited more among city commuters, but suburbanites only trail city commuters in this mode by less than five percent. This may indicate that the U.S. Census Bureau categorizes most of Greater Philadelphia’s trollies as “subway-surface” light rail transit which is grouped in the “subway/elevated rail” category and not in the traditional “trolley/streetcar” category [5]. It could also be indicative of suburban commuters’ usage of the PATCO Speedline from Southern New Jersey Counties or the Norristown High Speed Line just west of the city. Less than two percent of city and suburban commuters reported using trollies, streetcars, or ferries for their commute in 2018.  

 

 

FIGURE 4 

NOTE: Data were obtained from five-year estimates of the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014-2018 American Community Survey. 

 

 

A Focus on Riders 

Public transportation ridership has been on the decline in Greater Philadelphia for some time. In a previous Leading Indicator covering SEPTA’s ridership trends, we showed that SEPTA—the largest public transit system in the region—has reported declines in ridership since fiscal year 2012 – a finding that is corroborated by the census estimates of total public transit ridership used in this analysis. SEPTA’s suburban transit, however, was seeing a steady increase in ridership between fiscal years 2008 and 2019. With SEPTA’s proposed plan to reduce service across most of its regional rail system—if new funding does not become available—will suburban public transit users stand to lose the most from the proposed changes? Or will a greater push to maintain immediate city transit services better serve populations who report greater use and need? These questions will guide our next edition of the Leading Indicator which will explore the demographics and socioeconomic status of public transit users in the region. 

  

Works Cited 

[1] Dickens, Matthew. 2020. Public Transportation Ridership Report – First Quarter 2020. 27 May. Washington, DC: American Public Transportation Association. Retrieved from: (https://www.apta.com/wp-content/uploads/2020-Q1-Ridership-APTA.pdf). 

 

[2] Madej, Patricia. 2020. “SEPTA faces an unprecedented financial challenge. A plunge in Pa. Turnpike traffic may make it tougher.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, 4 May. Retrieved from: (https://www.inquirer.com/transportation/septa-funding-coronavirus-pennsylvania-turnpike-commission-traffic-20200504.html). 

 

[3] U.S. Census Bureau. 2019. 2014-2018 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates. Retrieved from: (https://www.census.gov/data.html). 

 

[4] Bliss, Laura. 2020. “Behind the Gains in U.S. Public Transit Ridership.” CityLab, 13 January. Retrieved from: (https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2020/01/public-transit-ridership-data-bus-subway-metro-train-nyc-dc/604846/). 

 

[5] Waddington, David. 2017. 2017 American Community Survey Research and Evaluation Report Memorandum Series. ACS17-RER-05, 7 September. Washington, DC: United States Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration. Retrieved from: (https://www.census.gov/library/working-papers/2017/acs/2017_McKenzie_01.html).