By James Rubin, Ph.D.
For the first time in our customer satisfaction work for multiple clients, we are seeing the fare price jump to one of the top factors for customer satisfaction. We wondered why.
It turns out the average household income of a fixed route transit customer has plummeted by 14% from pre-Covid to post-Covid. Newly released data from the 2022 American Community Survey indicates that although the median income of US workers who commute by transit increased from 2021 to 2022, it is still substantially below the pre-COVID median.
From 2019 to 2021, median annual income for US workers who used transit to commute decreased by 21% from $48K to $38K. New data shows the median income increased to $41K in 2022 but was still 14% lower than the pre-COVID level. Median annual income for transit commuters remained substantially lower in metro areas like San Francisco-Oakland, CA (-17%); Seattle-Tacoma, WA (-32%); and Washington-Arlington, DC-VA-MD (-24%).
Many operators have seen off-peak ridership recover faster than peak. Often, the industry has concluded that customers are using transit more often now for discretionary trips like recreation and shopping. However, low-income workers are both less likely to work from home and more likely to work during non-traditional hours, which can also explain some of the shift in ridership proportion toward off-peak hours. If, as the data shows, transit customers are increasingly lower income than before COVID, we must consider the unique needs of these customers and ensure they are not secondary to attracting more discretionary higher income customers. Low-income transit customers are more likely to be:
- transit-dependent without access to an alternative means of travel.
- employed during non-traditional work hours.
- traveling to work locations that are less accessible by transit.
- concerned about gentrification, forcing them to relocate, live further from transit, with worse accessibility.
- sensitive to on-time performance as they typically have jobs that do not allow for arrival time flexibility.
- sensitive to the cost of a ride.
Given that transit ridership is now lower income than it was before COVID, it is not surprising that over the past year, several of our transit customer experience survey clients have seen their customers indicate that fare price is one the most important service attributes. We must keep monitoring this, adapt to meet the changing needs of our customers, and continue to explore innovative fare policies.