Shire Stein stood shoulder-to-shoulder in her train car with some 80 other Metro riders in early 2020. Then, it was a “ghost town” by June 2020 — a few first responders, some homeless people and herself.
Now, after moving to Leesburg, Route 400 on the Loudoun County Transit bus to Washington, D.C., brings 30-50 riders per day, Stein, 31, said.
It’s a constant across public transit in the greater-D.C. area: ridership is increasing again, but it’s likely to plateau below pre-pandemic levels for good, according to James Walkinshaw, vice chair of the Virginia Railway Express (VRE).
“It’s very difficult, impossible to predict how [ridership] will shake out over the next year to 10 years,” Walkinshaw said, “But I think what we know is that it’s never going to be what it was pre-pandemic.”
It’s too early to say where VRE’s ridership numbers will plateau, Walkinshaw said, as it’s dependent on how prevalent remote work remains post-pandemic in federal agencies and corporations. He said most of VRE’s ridership are federal employees.
VRE averaged 18,275 daily riders across January and February 2020, according to an email VRE sent to The Fairfax County Times on June 14. March 2020 saw VRE’s average daily ridership drop to 8,764 people, followed by just 460 in April 2020. Average daily ridership per month in 2020 didn’t get higher than 1,399 from April to December, and not higher than 3,036 in 2021.
May 2022 saw an average of 4,777 daily riders; the week of June 6-10 was the first time VRE’s daily ridership eclipsed 5,000 people (5,245) since the pandemic began, according to a separate email.
A day pass on either VRE’s Manassas or Fredericksburg line ranges from $7-$24.30 depending on the route. To make up for the financial losses lower ridership brought, VRE relied on a combined $274.9 million from three separate government funds doled out between March 2020-21. The funds were intended to “help transit agencies mitigate the increased costs and decreased revenues associated with the COVID-19 pandemic,” VRE said in an email June 10, and 1 percent of each allocation was set aside for safety and security investments.
Coming out of the pandemic with a lower high-water mark of riders, Walkinshaw said he hopes the funding continues.
“I do think that every major transit system - including Metro, including VRE, including the subway in New York and other large systems — are going to be asking the federal government for additional support as we make this transition to a different world of work over the next couple of years,” Walkinshaw said. “We might need additional support to continue to make this transition over the next several years, depending on how [remote work] progresses.”
Fairfax Connector, a bus system that transports people across 91 routes in Northern Virginia, is also experiencing lower ridership on this side of the pandemic. Robin Geiger, head of communications for the Fairfax County Department of Transportation, said in an email that Fairfax Connector weekday ridership is currently 60-65 percent of what it was pre-pandemic; weekend ridership is about 80 percent.
Ridership on the Connector specifically may see a jump July 5, the date most state employees are required to return to the office, due to a new teleworking policy announced by Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) last month. VRE’s federal worker-heavy ridership likely won’t see a bump in riders, Walkinshaw said.
And, with gas prices hovering around $5 per gallon — and still climbing — in Northern Virginia, public transportation is becoming increasingly cost-effective. Stein estimates she’s saving well over $150 a month taking public transit to her job at the Society for Research in Child
Fairfax Connector won’t increase fares amid the gas-price rise, Geiger said in a June 14 email.
Money-saving aside, avoiding rush-hour D.C. drives make public transit appealing for Stein, worth sacrificing the personal freedom cars bring, she said.
“My stress levels go through the roof when I’m driving into D.C. on my own,” Stein said. “It’s just a mess and the drivers are crazy. Just entering (1-495) is overwhelming, and you can never find a parking space in D.C.”
But Stein isn’t coming into the office everyday, which is one of the primary obstacles public transit faces in seeing pre-pandemic ridership levels. Stein said SRCD is operating on a hybrid schedule — employees in the office two days a week, three days telecommuting — for the “foreseeable future.”
To incentivize more ridership, VRE is offering free rides to first-time riders. Additionally, Walkinshaw said, a project called “Transforming Rail” started by former Gov. Ralph Northam is phasing in improvements for VRE and Amtrak over 7-8 years, such as acquiring the right-of-way for tracks in the l-95 corridor and servicing non-rush-hour lines past 7 p.m.
Scheduling flexibility specifically, Walkinshaw said, is needed for VRE coming out of the pandemic as more people work in jobs dissimilar from 9-5s or work part from home and part in office on the same day.
Still, he said, public transit’s outlook is up in the air, no matter the stopgaps or long-term solutions provided.
“I am very pleased by the positive trend that we’ve seen, especially in the last several months, but I am concerned about the future,” Walkinshaw said. “Anyone involved in any transit system recognizes that the future is uncertain. But we also have a tremendous opportunity to provide a VRE experience and level of service to an entirely new group of riders, people who have never been able to experience VRE because the schedule didn’t work for them ... So, I’m concerned and excited about the opportunity to grow VRE’s ridership in new ways.”