Study: Despite the Gloomy Headlines, BART Ridership is Actually Up 28% This Year

If you read the headlines about San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, it’s all doom and gloom. Safety and reliability are certainly ongoing issues that BART needs to address, and the pandemic hit the system hard.

Still, looking at the actual data on BART ridership reveals a much more positive long-term picture than many gloomy headlines would have you believe.

To get the true picture, here at the Bay Area Telegraph we analyzed 10+ years worth of BART ridership data provided directly from the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District. In total, we crunched 9,300+ days’ worth of data on several hundred million BART rides.

Here are some of our key takeaways about BART ridership statistics:

  • The pandemic hit BART hard; ridership year to date in 2023 is down 62.08% versus the same period in 2019.
  • Still, ridership is increasing consistently. Ridership is up 28.03% in 2023 versus 2022.
  • BART ridership has increased steadily since the pandemic, with BART adding an average of 84,156 riders per month since March of 2020.

Our full analysis shares detailed BART ridership statistics based on our findings. Overall, it points to a system that has ongoing challenges, but is on the road to eventual recovery.

First, the Bad News: Ridership is Down 60%+ Since 2019

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. Like many public transit systems, BART was hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic. A chart of BART ridership (measured by station exits) since 2019 shows a precipitous drop that happened nearly overnight in March of 2020.

Throughout the early pandemic, ridership remained severely decreased. That trend still continues today.

From January to April:

  • In 2019, the total BART ridership was approximately 38.59 million.
  • In 2023, the total BART ridership was approximately 14.63 million.
  • This is a decrease of approximately 23.95 million riders, which represents a decrease of around 62.08% in ridership from the same period in 2019.

The ridership in the early months of 2023 is still significantly lower compared to the pre-pandemic levels in the same period in 2019.

Ridership is Looking Strong in 2023

That said, even though ridership is down significantly since the pandemic, 2023 has shown a strong start for the BART system. Ridership is up substantially so far this year.

From January to April:

  • In 2022, the total BART ridership was approximately 11.43 million.
  • In 2023, the total BART ridership increased to approximately 14.63 million.

This is an increase of approximately 3.20 million riders, which represents a 28.03% increase in ridership from the same period in 2022.

This suggests a significant recovery in BART usage during the early months of 2023 compared to the same period in the previous year. In short, ridership is looking strong so far in 2023.

It’s Part of a Longer Term Recovery

In fact, even though there have been ups and downs, this recovery has been in the works since the day that lockdowns pummeled BART’s ridership.

We analyzed the data by adding a trendline to see how much BART ridership has increased, on average, each month since the pandemic began.

The line chart represents the total BART ridership from March 2020 to April 2023, grouped by month. The red line represents the trend line fitted to this data.

From the chart, we can observe the following:

  1. It’s Been a Bumpy Ride: The trend line suggests a general increase in ridership over this period. However, the increase is not linear, as the actual ridership data shows significant fluctuations and a more complex pattern than the trend line indicates. Covid-19 waves, lockdowns and other fluctuations
  2. Increases Over Time: The slope of the trend line is approximately 84,156. This means that, on average, the ridership increased by around 84,156 riders per month over this period.
  3. Looking Strong: The trend line clearly shows the drastic drop in ridership in early 2020 due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, followed by a period of low ridership. Starting from late 2021, the ridership shows signs of recovery, with an increasing trend continuing into 2023.

Again, that’s encouraging news. Though it’s been a bumpy ride, BART’s ridership has recovered by about 85,000 riders per month since the pandemic.

Downtown Stations Have Seen the Strongest Recovery in 2023

Overall, downtown stations in San Francisco and Oakland have seen the strongest recovery. Total ridership (measured in station exits) increased by over 415,000 at the Embarcedro Station from January 2023-April 2023 versus the same period in 2022.

Here are the stations with the biggest increases during that period.

Station NameIncrease in Exits
Montgomery Street337014
Powell Street265541
Civic Center175559
12th Street / Oakland City Center105639
19th Street Oakland103625
16th Street Mission94729
Daly City87184
24th Street Mission84745

This suggests that a recovery in downtown Oakland and San Francisco is driving increases in ridership. More workers are returning to the office, downtowns are coming back, and thus ridership is up.

Both airport stations saw increases, too:

  1. San Francisco International Airport (SO): An increase of 61,537 exits
  2. Oakland International Airport (OA): An increase of 11,759 exits

The Future of BART

The future of BART, like that of many public transit systems, will depend largely on the post-pandemic trajectory of urban life and work. If remote work continues to be prevalent, it could have a lasting impact on ridership. On the other hand, if urban centers continue to recover and more workers return to offices, ridership could continue to climb.

In the short term, BART, like other transit systems, will likely have to continue grappling with the pandemic’s impacts, including changing work patterns, safety concerns, and budgetary challenges. However, the system has shown resilience and has demonstrated a steady recovery over the last few years.

Based on our findings, BART ridership has recovered at a rate of around 85,000 riders per month. This rate could increase, now that pandemic restrictions are lifted and lockdowns are no longer occurring. Indeed, ridership is already up substantially in 2023, and this accelerating trend may well continue.

Further, the trend appear to be driven by increased strength of downtown areas, since much of the increase in ridership was driven by downtown stations. As San Francisco and Oakland recover from the pandemic, BART ridership will likely recover as well.

BART has some challenging years ahead. Even with current trends, it will take several years for ridership to return to 2019 levels. Still, our analysis suggests a positive future for the system. If BART can continue to increase safety and reliability–and the economic recovery in downtown areas continues–we expect ridership to continue increasing, and even to increase more quickly in the years ahead.

Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith is a food and travel photographer and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His photographic work routinely appears in publications including Food and Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, and the New York Times and his writing appears in IEEE Spectrum, SFGate, the Bold Italic and more. Smith holds a degree in Cognitive Science (Neuroscience) and Anthropology from the Johns Hopkins University.

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