Riders continued to return to Metro Transit buses and trains last year, but ridership remains stubbornly below pre-pandemic levels. And rush hour is no longer peak transit: more passengers are taking trips in the middle of the day and weekends.
Metro Transit officials said they were pleased with the 16% gain made last year over 2022.
"The key message is that ridership is increasing, and we're solidifying fast, frequent transit service throughout the system," said John Harper, Metropolitan Council's manager of Contracted Service, at a Transportation Committee meeting Monday.
Nearly 49 million people took Metro Transit trains and buses, Northstar commuter rail, and Metro Mobility and other kinds of transportation last year. That's about 60% of pre-COVID levels.
The pandemic decimated transit ridership here and across the country, largely due to the rise of remote work. As people return to the office, transit ridership has steadily crept back, although it's unclear whether it will ever reach the 78 million rides provided by Metro Transit in 2019.
Nationally, most transit systems are operating at about 77% of pre-pandemic levels, according to a policy brief released by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) in December.
The APTA report notes that medium-sized cities like the Twin Cities have struggled more than more-populated metro areas because the return of office workers has lagged and many employees have access to other ways of getting to work.
Joey Reid, Metro Transit's principal data scientist, said ridership trends in the Twin Cities are similar to those experienced in Seattle and Boston.
Local bus service remains the workhorse of the Metro Transit system, accounting for nearly half of all the rides provided, with light rail following at about a third of the service provided.
The biggest percentage increases in ridership came from relatively small pieces of the transit pie. Shared-ride Transit Link service and a microtransit pilot program in north Minneapolis surged 47% to 186,493 rides. Northstar Commuter Rail, which connects downtown Minneapolis to Big Lake, increased 26% to 92,265 rides.
Service aboard the Green and Blue light rail lines increased 19% to 14.8 million rides, despite highly publicized safety and nuisance issues on both. Bus service wasn't far behind with a 15% annual increase.
Within the bus ridership category, bus-rapid transit (BRT) service surged 120% last year, a figure that includes the first full year of the D Line's operations between Brooklyn Center and the Mall of America, a heavily used route. BRT service involves people paying before they board from stations spaced farther apart. In some cases, such as the Orange and Red lines, they often operate in dedicated lanes along highways.
Ridership numbers show new passenger behaviors have emerged since the pandemic – Metro Transit officials call it the "new normal." Traditional morning and evening commuter ridership has morphed into middays and afternoons being the busiest part of the day. In addition, traditionally sluggish weekend traffic is growing faster than weekdays.