With Travel Behavior Still in Flux, Transit Ridership Projections are Harder to Make

Transit agencies use complex models to predict future ridership, but these have not yet caught up with the still-changing post-pandemic travel needs of transit users.

2 minute read

March 9, 2023, 10:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Chicago Transit Authority

Sorbis / Shutterstock

With post-pandemic travel patterns still in flux, predicting transit ridership is becoming more challenging than ever, writes Jared Brey in Governing.

Despite the growth of sophisticated modeling methods in recent years, the most that many transit agencies can say at this point is that “The future is either going to be very bleak, surprisingly OK, or, in all likelihood, an unpredictable mixture of the two.” Brey explains that “Transit agencies try to predict future ridership for all types of scenarios — not just when making their yearly budgets but also when considering the impact of service changes or fare increases, and when applying for funding to build out new bus and train lines.” Now, agencies must collect new data to understand how the needs of transit users are changing.

Brey points out that even though ridership projections are used in federal grantmaking, “projections made in decades past have often proven to be wildly off-base.” More recently, agencies receiving New Starts federal grants are required to provide before-and-after studies to assess the accuracy of their projections. 

Carole Turley Voulgaris, an assistant professor of urban planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, notes that “In some ways, the roughly sketched scenarios that many transit agencies are projecting in their budget documents have an advantage over highly complex processes that are used to generate a single prediction of the most likely future scenario.” With so much uncertainty still looming, understanding the range of possible scenarios can help agencies plan more effectively for a variety of future situations.

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