Who’s left riding public transit? Hint: it’s not white people.

Millions continue to ride buses and trains. We surveyed them: of course they’re essential workers. They’re also mostly female, people of colour, and poorly paid.

During a single week in March, our app usage dropped 30%. By week two, it was down 70%. Then it bottomed out: for the past few weeks, our app Transit has been holding steady, with usage down 77% below normal. That’s 77% fewer people taking the bus, the train, bikeshare, scooters — all the modes you rely on when you don’t have your own car. And for us, that’s actually great news! 77% of our regular riders are safe, presumably at home, binge-watching Tiger King, working if they’re able, popping out for the occasional 200-metre egg dash to the grocery store. But who are the 23% left riding?

We surveyed our riders to find out: not just for our own curiosity, but for our transit agency partners. We wanted to show how public transit was being used during COVID-19. The better an agency understands who’s riding its buses and trains, the better the service they can provide.

We expected to see a surge in healthcare workers. What we also saw was a steep drop-off of white (and male) riders. Most of those left riding are women, and people of colour.

First: why are people still using Transit?

The people left using our app Transit are, by and large, essential workers. They’re the folks keeping the lights of society on, but many of them don’t see themselves as heroes at all.

They continue to use Transit to get real-time info for their buses and trains. (This real-time info is critical, since transit agencies are making constant service changes in response to driver shortages and reduced demand.) Millions of these essential workers check Transit so they aren’t left waiting for an out-of-service bus or train. We surveyed 25,000 of them. Here’s what we found.

1. The people still riding public transit are overwhelmingly female.

Pre-crisis, Transit had a 50/50 gender split. Now 56% of our riders are female, while only 40% are male. In some cities like Philadelphia, more than 68% of riders are women. If “essential workers” are indeed the ones taking public transit, women seem to be significantly more essential.

2. More black (women) and Latino (women) are still riding the bus.

The racial makeup of Transit has shifted under quarantine. We’ve seen a remarkable “white flight” from public transit:

  1. Among whites, public transit ridership has dropped by half
  2. Black and Latino riders now make up the majority of Transit’s users

People of colour who use Transit are more likely to be female, too: ~70% of our black riders are female.

But gender and race aren’t the only dividing lines: language is as well. In Los Angeles, you can see that while many English- and Spanish-speakers have stopped riding, the decline among Spanish speakers has been more muted.

3. Where are riders traveling? To healthcare and food jobs.

Among those still riding, very few (10%) take public transit for “leisure” reasons. Even fewer are using transit to get to school (2%), or run errands.

The bulk of people still using public transit — 92% — are using it to commute to work.

Almost 20% of them work in “food prep”: these are your grocery store workers, your bakers, your butchers, your take-out chefs and the folks manning the liquor store libation station.

People identifying as black or Hispanic were most likely to be working these jobs than jobs in other categories.

Another ~20% of remaining riders work in healthcare. In some cities, like New York City, up to 35% of remaining riders work in healthcare. Without adequate transit service, we risk overcrowding —which puts healthcare workers (and everyone else) at greater risk.

4. People riding are largely “essential workers”. But those indispensable workers are not indispensably paid.

Barely 5% of our remaining riders are high-income workers. More than 70% make under $50,000 a year.

High-income “computer workers” like programmers and lawyers were more likely able to work from home, too.

You can see further evidence of income disparity by looking at what kind of phones people are using: while our app has traditionally been more popular among ($$$) iPhone users than ($) Android ones — the majority of our current users are on Android now. That hasn’t been the case before, at any point in our company’s 7+ year history.

5. Do these riders have other options? Not really.

Only 9% of Transit riders have a car, while another 6% have access to one if they need to drive. For the remaining 85%, public transit is their go-to method of transportation.

Unsurprisingly, car access is lowest among low-income workers. The richer you are, the more mobility alternatives you have during the pandemic. No surprises there.

Public transit during the recovery

By better understanding who is riding public transit, we hope we can help agencies and governments make informed choices about transit operations during the pandemic. Things are changing at warp speed — and our team is working tirelessly to make new information available in the app, in real-time.

While many riders have stopped taking public transit, essential workers continue to rely on Transit to get around. Public transit workers have been doing a terrific job, and so has our team at Transit — we’re making sure riders aren’t left waiting at the stop, or missing a shift, or getting on a crowded bus when they don’t have to. That’s what keeps us motivated during this strange and prolonged fever dream: Public transit is what makes “essential work” possible.

However, the questions about equity raised by our rider survey are impossible to ignore. Who society deems “indispensable”, and who is actually getting paid like they’re “indispensable” could not be more divergent. And the amount of “white flight” risks making public transit more marginalized than it already is. When things settle down, and when more people begin to return to public transit, we’re all going to have to ask ourselves some tough questions about how transportation our mobility dollars are allocated. Our society’s dependence on good public transit has never been so obvious.

To watch our webinar where we dig deeper into these stats, click here. Or, if you have a project that our anonymous survey result data could help with, contact us.

If you’re a transit agency and would like access to Transit’s COVID-19 resources — including real-time COVID-19 rider alerts, rider stats, crowding tools, and more — let us know.

Source: @transitapp

Who’s left riding public transit? Hint: it’s not white people.