20 May 2022
Passengers are steadily returning to public transportation in the Twin Cities, but ridership patterns remain highly dependent on the wiles of COVID-19.
Metro Transit officials reported that ridership increased 20% in the first quarter of 2022, with some 9.1 million passengers taking trains, buses and other services, compared with 7.6 million riders during the same period last year.
That leaves Metro Transit’s overall ridership at just over half of what it was in 2019, before the pandemic decimated transit ridership in the Twin Cities and across the United States.
However, according to Eric Lind, Metro Transit’s manager of research and analytics, “We’re seeing growth in every type of service and route class.”
In addition, passenger activity on Metro Transit buses and trains in downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul picked up earlier this year, indicating that more people may be returning to the office.
Between January and March, bus service increased by 22%; light rail by 20%; Northstar commuter rail by 113%; Metro Mobility by 3%, Transit Link by 11%; and vanpool service by 6%, according to Metro Transit.
Of the different types of bus service, ridership on local buses increased by 21%; bus rapid transit (BRT) by 23% and express service by 70%.
Northstar’s increase occurred even though the commuter rail service between downtown Minneapolis and Big Lake offers just four daily trips during the week and no weekend service. The Metropolitan Council is currently studying options for Northstar, which some Republican legislators have said they want shut down permanently.
The Orange Line, a $150 million BRT line that debuted in December, showed steady ridership gains. The line links downtown Minneapolis and Burnsville through Richfield and Bloomington, almost entirely along Interstate 35W.
“We’ve really been pleased with how it’s started, gaining month over month,” Lind said. “The exciting thing is that it’s both weekend and weekday growth.”
Given the uncertainty of COVID variants, it’s hard for officials to predict when transit service may reach 2019 levels. Lind said ridership will likely stabilize in 2023, though it also depends on return-to-work patterns and Metro Transit having enough operators to continue service. Metro Transit has been struggling to find enough bus drivers and light-rail operators to keep up with demand.
“It might be at a level that’s different than pre-COVID,” Lind said.