Bus ridership still far below pre-COVID levels


Summary: Mass transit use in the Pittsburgh area and across the United States in 2022 remained far below 2019 levels. This Policy Brief examines Pittsburgh Regional Transit (PRT, formerly the Port Authority of Allegheny County) bus passenger count, operation measures and light-rail usage.  The Brief also reviews bus passenger numbers in 14 other transit systems across the country.


Not all systems have light-rail, and some have heavy rail, so only bus passengers are reviewed for those systems. The 14 comparison systems include: Philadelphia; Baltimore; Atlanta; Orlando; Tampa; Miami; Nashville; Cleveland; Milwaukee; Minneapolis-St Paul; Dallas; San Antonio; Austin; and Portland, (Ore.).  Except for Philadelphia, no other very large systems such as New York City or Chicago were reviewed.  All data were taken from the National Transit Database including data through December 2022.

Bus passengers

For the 15 systems overall, the 2022 annual bus passenger count was 36 percent below the 2019 annual count.

Individually, the systems’ percentage declines in yearly bus passenger totals from 2019 to 2022 are as follows: Pittsburgh (42.6); Philadelphia (36.2); Baltimore (33.9); Atlanta (45.8); Orlando (29.5); Tampa (16.0); Miami (15.0); Nashville (23.1); Cleveland (48.7); Milwaukee (36.1); Minneapolis-St Paul (49.2); Dallas (42.0); San Antonio (42.6); Austin (32.3) and Portland (43.5).

Geographically there is little correlation between locations of the systems and the degree of 2022 passenger count recovery from 2019 levels, except for the Florida bus systems. The three Florida systems in 2022 averaged 20.2 percent below the 2019 reading.  The next best was Nashville at 23.1 percent. All other systems were still trailing 2019 by over 30 percent.  Indeed, seven systems were over 40 percent behind 2019 with the worst performances at Minneapolis-St Paul at 49.2 percent, Cleveland at 48.7 percent and Atlanta at 45.8 percent.

Jobs growth and passenger count recovery

Pittsburgh was joined by Dallas, San Antonio and Portland at nearly 43 percent lower passenger counts than in 2019. The slow recovery in the two large Texas cities is perhaps a little surprising given the relatively strong economy in that state.  It suggests that factors besides the recovery of employment are at work.

Consider that Dallas experienced a massive 10.4 percent increase in private-sector jobs from December 2019 to December 2022.  But passengers were still down 42 percent.  Similarly, Austin employment had an even larger 13.7 percent gain in employment over the same period.  But passengers were down 32.3 percent.

However, Tampa, with passengers down 16 percent, and Miami, with passengers down 15 percent from 2019 to 2022, bus passenger recovery in those regions seems to reflect to some extent faster job recovery—Tampa with an 8 percent gain over the three-year period and Miami at 4 percent.  Similarly, Nashville has seen a strong jobs recovery and has surpassed the pre-pandemic totals by 7.5 percent and has recovered all but 23 percent of pre-COVID passengers, much better than most of the transit systems surveyed.

At the same time and surprisingly, Minneapolis-St Paul had the weakest recovery of bus passengers, a loss of 49.2 percent.  That’s even though the metro area has almost fully recovered the pandemic job losses with the December 2022 employment count down only 0.7 percent from December 2019. Meanwhile, in the Pittsburgh Metro Area, December 2022 jobs were still 3.2 percent below December 2019 and the bus passenger count was down 42.6 percent.

In short, the recovery and growth of employment does not necessarily coincide with bus passenger recovery in these cities.  In some cities it does and in others is does not. But having said that, it is clearly better to have strong job growth than bus ridership gains.

Longer term passenger counts 

It is also interesting to note that many of the transit agencies in this group of 15 had substantially higher passenger counts in 21st century years prior to the 2019 performance.  As examples: Atlanta ridership peaked in 2008 at 72.1 million, well above the 2019 reading of 51.9 million; Baltimore reached 85 million riders in 2010, compared to 64.4 million in 2019; Philadelphia had 187.6 million in 2004, well above the 152.1 million in 2019; Pittsburgh bus riders totaled 63.2 million in 2002 compared to 55 million in 2019.

Transit agencies serving Cleveland; Minneapolis-St Paul; Portland and Dallas also had far more bus passengers 10 or more years before 2019.  The reasons for the declines in so many of the transit agencies are likely to be complicated and perhaps different from metro to metro.  But, in any case, it presents serious questions about the factors that are driving demand for bus travel in urban areas and points to a possible longer-term drop in bus usage.

PRT COVID relief

The 15-metro sample illustrates some stark differences in the recovery of bus passengers.  Despite the large shortfalls in recovery for many systems, there is apparently no urgency to cut costs or trim service because of the COVID relief funds that will continue to be available to use.

For example, PRT reports in its 2023 Operating Budget document that it has received a total of $502 million in federal stimulus to support operating expenses, including employee costs. Of that total PRT has $338 million remaining to fill gaps in operations funding for a couple more years.  This has enabled the system to operate with no layoffs, although there have been some slight reductions in staff through retirement and resignations. Other systems presumably have received substantial COVID related federal stimulus funds in order to prevent large service and employee reductions.

PRT operations employment and costs

PRT has made small reductions in service through 2022 and staff reductions have been very minimal with no layoffs. However, in bus service, the passenger count (unlinked passenger trips) is down by 42.6 percent from 2019 to 2022 after a drop of 56 percent from 2019 to 2021.  At the same time, vehicle revenue miles (VRM) were down just 13.1 percent while the employees involved in providing bus and light-rail service fell from 2,187 in 2020 to 2,145 in 2022 and are budgeted to rise to 2,418 in FY 2023 (figures from the FY 2023 budget). The all-in cost of providing bus service was $348,434,000 in FY 2022 with 31,556,000 passengers (calendar year) producing a per rider expense of $11.04, an increase of 86 percent from the FY 2019 per passenger expense of $5.92.

Meanwhile, the situation with light-rail service is far worse than the disastrous bus passenger decline.  Light-rail passengers plunged 68 percent from 2019 to 2022 with the count dropping from 7,423,997 to 2,323,520. Meanwhile, light-rail VRM fell from 2.16 million in 2019 to 1.36 million in 2022—a decline of 36.5 percent. This decline was three times the 13.1 percent decline in bus VRM during the period.  Per rider cost on the light-rail system based on FY 2019 expense and calendar year 2019 riders ($70,910,000 expense and 7,423,997 passengers) was $9.55.  But by 2022, the cost per rider had climbed to $31.46, owing to the 68 percent drop in riders and a 3 percent rise in light-rail operations expenditures.

In short, PRT’s long history of being an extremely high cost per passenger transit agency has been greatly exacerbated by the COVID pandemic and the very slow recovery of passenger demand leading to a massive increase in per rider cost. Only large infusions of supplemental funds from the federal government and the state have allowed the transit system to avoid layoffs and massive service cuts.

All this has happened despite the failure of ridership to return to anywhere close to pre-COVID levels. The waste of funds is deplorable but as with the other COVID relief it is seriously overdone.  Unused or unbudgeted COVID funds should be withdrawn and returned to the government.  All this does is enable inefficiency and waste throughout the country at the expense of taxpayers.


Based on the review of 15 transit systems, bus ridership nationally remains well below the pre-pandemic level. The continued use of COVID relief stimulus funds to support unneeded capacity in systems operating at more than a 30 percent loss in ridership is an enormous waste of tax dollars.

The federal government should ask for a part or all the unused or unbudgeted funds to be returned based on the extent of failure to recover to pre-pandemic levels of ridership.  This situation is setting a very bad precedent.

PRT-ATU contract is a missed opportunity

Summary: Pittsburgh Regional Transit (PRT) and the Amalgamated Transit Union have agreed to a generous four-year labor contract, twice the length of the previous contract and likely to cover the time period when remaining federal COVID aid is expended. Apparently, the contract does not provide for employment cuts despite passenger counts remaining far below pre-pandemic levels.

Based on a PRT news release, the contract includes pay raises totaling 12.75 percent and bonuses for employees based on the hours they worked from March 2020 through June 2021, up to a maximum $4,000.  The starting wage for a new operator will be around $25 an hour and the top rate over $38 an hour, “keeping PRT employees among the highest paid transit workers in the nation.”

According to PRT, as of Dec. 8 there were 1,044 active bus and light-rail operators (excluding student operators) making an average wage of $30.78 per hour.      

PRT’s CEO has said the ridership level of March 2020 is not coming back.  As of October 2022, average bus and light-rail ridership are 34 percent and 52 percent, respectively, below where they stood in pre-pandemic October 2019.

Institute research has shown how operator pay drives the high operating costs at PRT. 

Policy Brief Vol. 19, No. 43 measured operator compensation on a per revenue mile basis.  Utilizing 2017 data from the National Transit Database (NTD), with $60.1 million in bus operator wages and salaries, $70.6 million in fringe benefits and 21 million bus vehicle revenue miles driven, PRT bus operator wages and salaries per revenue mile were $2.86 and fringe benefits per revenue mile were $3.35. 

Those were at the top among a 10-city sample that included transit agencies in Cleveland, San Antonio, St. Louis, Charlotte and Milwaukee.  Wages and salaries per revenue mile in the sample averaged $2.42 and fringe benefits per revenue mile averaged $1.96. 

Examining NTD’s data for the years 2018 through 2021, PRT bus operator wages and salaries grew, fringe benefits grew until 2021 and vehicle revenue miles decreased.  As a result, wages and salaries and fringe benefits per revenue mile rose each year. 

In 2021, bus operator wages and salaries per revenue mile were $3.57 and fringe benefits per revenue mile were $3.82.  In percentage terms on a per revenue mile basis, wages and salaries were 25 percent higher and fringe benefits 14 percent higher than in 2017. NTD data on operating expense per passenger mile shows PRT’s expense rose 207 percent from 2017 to 2021.  Policy Brief Vol. 22, No. 39 estimated costs per passenger based on August ridership.

PRT and seven of the nine agencies included in the 2019 Brief reported bus operator wages and salaries and fringe benefits for 2021.  Again, by no surprise, PRT topped the list.  On wages and salaries per revenue mile, the sample average was $2.90, putting PRT $0.67 (23 percent) above the average.  Cleveland, Columbus and Kansas City were the only other agencies with wages and salaries per revenue mile above $3.00. 

PRT Bus Operator Compensation per Vehicle Revenue Mile, 2017 to 2021

On fringe benefits per revenue mile, the sample average was $2.27 and PRT was $1.55 above the average.  Four agencies—Cleveland, Columbus, Kansas City and St. Louis—topped $2 per revenue mile in fringe benefits. Agencies exceeded PRT’s growth rate in wages and salaries and fringe benefits from 2017 to 2021 but none ended up with per vehicle mile values greater than PRT. 

As noted in Policy Brief Vol. 22, No. 19, NTD’s “Transit Profiles: 2019 Top 50 Reporters” (ranked by the number of unlinked trips on all transit modes offered by an agency), PRT was fifth highest of the 19 agencies that operated light-rail when measuring operating expense per vehicle revenue hour. 

According to the same NTD report, 43 agencies operated buses.  PRT ranked sixth highest at $199.09 operating expense per vehicle revenue hour.  Three agencies in the New York City metropolitan area and two in the San Francisco and Oakland metropolitan area were the only agencies to report a higher expense level than PRT. The five higher cost agencies all operate in areas with a much higher cost of living than Pittsburgh.   

PRT’s annual service reports note the extremely high costs, how they compare to peer agencies and cite legacy costs and the strength of the labor union among the reasons. This is certain to be repeated as new reports are published. 

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation will be carrying out a subsequent performance review as required by Act 44 of 2007. That review examines operating expenses on per-hour and per-passenger basis and compares them to peer agencies.

The new labor contract contains language, in a renewal of language dating to 1997, that limits the use of small transit vehicles (24 or fewer seats) on fixed route service to 3 percent of the large buses in use.  For an authority that should be significantly reducing service in response to the huge drop in passengers (some bus routes remain 50 percent below pre-pandemic levels), the limitation on the use of smaller vehicles is a provision that should never have been agreed to.

State law creating the authority allows strikes when there is a bargaining impasse and fact-finding recommendations and mutual binding interest arbitration are not agreed to.  Pennsylvania is virtually unique in allowing public transit workers to strike. It creates enormous bargaining power that, over time, has allowed the union to receive wages and benefits that are far above peer agencies around the country.

Policymakers at the state and county level should use the time between now and the contract’s expiration to make the changes needed to lower the high costs of the agency for the benefit of state and county taxpayers that subsidize the system.  The opportunities for change are there and the evidence is overwhelming.

PRT should right-size weak performing routes; governing bodies should insist on it  

Summary: Bus and light-rail ridership on Pittsburgh Regional Transit (PRT) vehicles remains far below pre-pandemic levels.  This Brief examines route data for August 2022 compared to the pre-pandemic month of August 2019 and recommends corrective actions.

Policy Brief Vol. 22, No.33, utilized PRT’s performance metrics and system data tool which shows average monthly ridership for buses and light-rail on weekdays and weekends.

Ridership and costs

Compared with pre-pandemic August 2019, average August 2022 bus ridership was 37 percent lower and average light-rail ridership 52 percent lower. Low ridership exacerbates PRT’s already high operating costs.  Using the same methodology described in the Brief noted earlier to determine cost per passenger, bus trips in August cost $9.87 per rider and light-rail trips were $25.92.  PRT’s current fiscal year (FY) budget is higher than last year’s budget and there were no employee layoffs.  And the bus rider cost is an average over all routes.  Owing to the large variation in usage levels across the routes, there is a similar variation in costs per rider among the routes.  

The PRT data tool shows ridership by route.  In August 2022, PRT operated 95 bus routes and three light-rail routes.  Routes operated on one of three schedules: seven days a week, weekdays only or on weekdays and one weekend day. PRT’s annual service reports classify operations as “rapid,” (fixed guideway for at least 75 percent of the route); “commuter,” (connect major job centers); “local,” (no fixed guideway and average weekday ridership of 1,000 or more), or “coverage,” (same as “local” but average weekday ridership of less than 1,000).

Of the 95 bus routes, 64 operated seven days a week (62 of those were “local” or “coverage”); 29 operated on weekdays only (25 of those were “commuter” or “rapid”); two operated on weekdays and one weekend day (one was “local” and one was “commuter”).  The three light-rail routes operated seven days a week and were classified as “rapid.”

In terms of the percentage difference in average daily ridership in August 2019 compared to August 2022 (Saturday and/or Sunday service was added on 11 bus routes in this time frame, but comparisons were made only on common days of operation), the routes ranged from 11.4 to 86.9 percent below the three-year-earlier level.  Four routes having the smallest three-year shortfalls—less than 20 percent below August 2019—ranged from 11.4 to 14.3 percent lower.  All four were “local” or “coverage” routes.  There were two routes for which August 2022 ridership exceeded August 2019; both occurred on a weekend day of operation.  

Three years ago, nine routes had average daily ridership of 10,000 or more.  In August 2022 there were only four such routes.  The bus route with the highest average ridership this August was the 51 route, which had average ridership of 11,493. There were 34 routes with ridership 50 percent or more below ridership three years ago.  Meanwhile the light-rail Red Line had average ridership of 10,601, a drop of almost half from August 2019.

The table below shows the 10 routes with the largest percentage declines in ridership from 2019 levels.   All 10 routes terminate in downtown Pittsburgh.  All were bus mode, all operated weekdays only and all but one was “rapid” or “commuter.”  This is likely due, in large measure, to the continuing shift to remote work occurring in office settings in the City of Pittsburgh and other commercial centers in the county.  Bear in mind, too, that 24 additional routes not shown had ridership declines of 50 percent or more.  On bus routes, the average $9.87 cost per bus trip could double for routes with ridership 80 percent or more below the August 2019 level and depending on the length of the average passenger trip.

PRT August Route Performance, 2019 to 2022

Remedial and cost-cutting recommendations

As was argued in the previous PRT Brief, if ridership does not increase dramatically by year’s end, PRT needs to look at bus routes with extremely low levels of ridership and either cut trips or begin shifting service to much smaller vehicles that consume much less fuel and have, overall, drastically lower operation costs. Note that currently, of the 725 buses PRT operates, 30 are 35 feet in length, which is the smallest size bus PRT operates. On light-rail the options to lower operating costs are limited to fewer trips and running single-unit trains.

Although PRT adjusts service on a quarterly basis, with the next adjustment scheduled to go into effect in November, the very low-performing routes should be candidates for changes along the lines suggested above. 

PRT is utilizing federal COVID aid to fill shortfalls and how long that money will last depends on how ridership recovers.  The entities that provide recurring taxpayer subsidies to PRT—Pennsylvania, Allegheny County and the Regional Asset District (RAD)—should re-evaluate support if significant service changes don’t happen.  To date, there has been no indication of a change in their funding levels.

The state’s FY2022-23 budget shifted sales and use-tax money to replace Turnpike dollars (as was directed by Act 89 of 2013) in the public transportation trust fund that subsidize PRT and other transit agencies in Pennsylvania. PRT has received $68.3 million in state operating assistance through September, the first three months of the current fiscal year.  Legislators need to look at ridership at all systems across the state and consider cutting funding if ridership remains dramatically below pre-pandemic levels.

Allegheny County’s alcoholic beverage and vehicle-rental taxes and a RAD grant match the state dollars that come to PRT.  Both the county’s and RAD’s budgets have to be approved by the end of the year. The county is budgeting $49.5 million and RAD’s preliminary budget includes $3 million.  That latter amount has been requested and approved each year since 2013 even though RAD board members urged state and local leaders to find other sources of money when the initial grant was made. RAD now has even stronger grounds for refusing to contribute.

It is past time for these governing bodies to be much better stewards of the tax dollars sent to PRT and to go further and demand remedial steps to reduce PRT operational costs that were far out of line with other transit agencies before the pandemic.

New PRT faces same Port Authority issues

Summary: In October 2021 the Port Authority’s CEO stated “the ridership world we had on March 13, 2020, is not coming back. Ridership may continue to grow somewhat, but it will look different. We don’t know what that might look like yet.”  Can anything be discerned from May 2022 ridership numbers for the newly renamed Pittsburgh Regional Transit (PRT)?

PRT’s performance metrics and system data tool shows average monthly ridership for buses and light-rail on weekdays and weekends.  This allows for a comparison between the pre-pandemic month of May 2019 and May 2022.

The May 2022 average weekday bus ridership was down 46 percent from the May 2019 level.  This was an improvement over May 2021 when ridership was down 62 percent from May 2019. Saturday and Sunday ridership was down 36 percent and 30 percent, respectively. Average bus ridership for all days was 41 percent lower in May 2022 compared to May 2019.

Average weekday light-rail ridership was down 76 percent from pre-pandemic.  That was only a minor improvement from May 2021 when it was down 79 percent compared to May 2019.  Saturday ridership remained 65 percent lower than pre-pandemic. Sunday was the only day with light-rail ridership close to half of May 2019. Overall, average light-rail ridership on all days in May 2022 was 69 percent below May 2019.

Note that weekday bus ridership represents close to half of total bus and light-rail ridership. In May 2019 the ratio of bus ridership to light-rail ridership was 7-to-1.  In May 2022 the ratio was 14-to-1.

PRT May Bus and Light-Rail Ridership, 2019 to 2022

Given the uncertainty—but having to make fiscal decisions such as approving operating and capital budgets—might make one think that spending would be held flat or even reduced.  However, the operating budget for Fiscal Year (FY) 2022-23 totals $519 million, which represents a 5.1 percent increase over the $493.7 million for FY2021-22.  

There are no employee layoffs due to the drop in ridership (2,587 employees were reported in March 2022, which was 45 more than in March 2019).  The budget utilizes $96 million in federal COVID aid to achieve balance. Based on what has been spent, that would leave over $200 million in COVID aid.   

The capital budget is $233 million, up from $228.9 million, or 1.8 percent.  Capital spending includes debt service, new bus purchases and construction costs for the Bus Rapid Transit Project, which now has a price tag above the $249.9 million when the project was last rated by the Federal Transit Administration.

Rebranding the authority as PRT will also involve an expense, estimated at $772,000.  At the June board meeting the CEO stated the name “reflects who we want to be as an agency and where we’re going as a community.”  That involves changing “vehicles, signage at stations and stops, uniforms for employees, website and more.”  Based on last year’s budget, there are 808 vehicles, 44 stations and 6,826 stops between the modes of bus, light-rail and incline. The legal name and the statute that created the authority will not change.

The budgets and the rebranding were approved unanimously by the board.  Next year will mark a decade since the board’s makeup was reformed to add state appointees since the state contributes a significant share of funding.  One hefty share changed this year and for the foreseeable future. Mandatory payments from the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the state’s public transit trust fund under Act 89 were reduced from $420 million to $50 million.  That has been replaced by sales tax revenue on the sale of motor vehicles and trailers. 

PRT has received $84 million from the federal infrastructure bill.  Allegheny County matches state subsidies by taxing alcoholic beverages and vehicle rentals.  Thus far in 2022 those have come close to the levels collected through May 2019.  Regional Asset District matching funding of $3 million was secured.

Regardless of the funding situation, costs need to be addressed.  PRT’s annual service reports show cost per passenger for bus and light-rail and compares those to a peer group of nine transit agencies, including St. Louis, Seattle and Baltimore. 

In FY2018-19, with a cost per passenger of $5.90 for bus and $9.93 for light-rail, PRT ranked fifth and second, respectively.  In FY2019-20, bus cost per passenger rose to $7.39 (25 percent) and light rail to $12.48 per passenger (25 percent).  PRT’s bus comparison ranking was sixth while light-rail did not change.  PRT’s FY2020-21 cost per passenger on buses was $16.96 and for light-rail it was $48.74, increases of 129 percent and 291 percent, respectively.  How these compare to PRT’s peer group will be known when data becomes available through the National Transit Database (NTD).

Returning to May 2022’s ridership, how much did it cost per passenger to provide those trips?  As a way of producing an estimate based on reasonable assumptions and available data, the expense amount for bus and light-rail in pre-pandemic FY2018-19 from the NTD and PRT’s monthly expense total for May 2022 are used along with ridership.

The NTD data show operating expenses for bus ($324 million) and light-rail ($71 million). Combined that accounts for 91 percent of total operating expense and equates to bus mode accounting for 82 percent and light-rail 18 percent of the total of those two modes.  After converting average weekday bus and light-rail ridership to totals for May—2,498,013 and 167,130, respectively, and then making an adjustment for May 2022’s actual operating expense along the lines of the NTD breakout—the result is a cost of $11.21 per bus trip (nearly double pre-pandemic) and $36.79 per light-rail trip (over 3.5 times pre-pandemic).

The annual service reports cite topography, location of bus garages and light-rail stops, legacy costs and the strength of the labor union among reasons for PRT’s relatively high costs. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s 2016 performance review stated that “to some extent, costs should be managed through good governance, proactive management and effective cost containment.” 

So, what are the boards and administrations of agencies with lower costs doing differently that PRT could learn from?  Certainly, extraordinarily high labor costs should be addressed.

The renamed PRT must focus intently on the factors it can control to address costs for taxpayers that heavily fund the system. In light of the outrageous per rider costs on buses and light-rail, if ridership does not increase dramatically by yearend, PRT needs to look at bus routes with extremely low levels of ridership and either cut trips or begin shifting service to much smaller vehicles that consume much less fuel and have, overall, drastically lower operation costs. On light-rail the options are limited to fewer trips and running single trains.

If that does not happen, it is incumbent upon the General Assembly to review the financial support it provides the transit agency.  With the recent state Auditor General’s performance audit of the Turnpike’s finances, perhaps alleviating that entity from the $50 million obligation and forcing transit agencies to look for efficiencies is a good place to start.