Journalism won’t die if you donate. Support Voice of San Diego today!

The Grantville trolley station / Photo by Sam Hodgson

This post has been updated to reflect information provided by MTS after this post initially published.

The Metropolitan Transit System is contemplating significant service cuts as the coronavirus pandemic causes a crash in ridership.

Ridership on the trolley is down nearly 30 percent, and ridership on bus routes is down as much as 90 percent since governments imposed social distancing restrictions and private companies implemented telecommuting en mass. But those who are still forced to show up to work – like grocery store workers and government employees deemed essential – still rely on the agency’s buses and trolleys to get around.

In the face of those ridership declines, the MTS is considering service cuts, but decided Wednesday morning to maintain current service levels through the end of March. The agency will continue monitoring the situation and could course in the future.

The contemplated service cuts, in the face of declining revenue from passenger fares, could be a precursor to other difficult decisions by local governments, which are watching their revenue streams evaporate as they attempt to not only maintain core services, but also cushion the blow of a collapsing economy.

Paul Jablonski, MTS’s CEO, said in a video posted to Facebook Monday that the agency was monitoring the situation, and could eventually scale back service to its Saturday schedule, modified to add service where necessary based on demand.

“As you can expect, a lot of the things happening by the community to prevent the spread are impacting us, and impacting how much people travel, and the work they go to,” he said. “So far we’re seeing about a 20 percent decline in ridership, and we’re monitoring that very closely, like every other system is across the country. And we might make some changes in terms of service levels. Right now we’re staying right where we are, we’re going to see how things go for the rest of the week, and we might be making changes.”

In New York, the Metropolitan Transit Authority announced it was seeking a $4 billion federal bailout to address its plummeting ridership. In San Francisco, Bay Area Rapid Transit has likewise sounded the alarm over coronavirus ridership losses, calling for emergency state, local and federal funding as it saw a $55 million monthly revenue decline from lost fares and overall economic activity.

Closer to home, the North County Transit District, which operates buses in North County along with the Sprinter and Coaster rail lines, has maintained service levels for now, but the Sprinter commuter line has gone to one car at a time, from its standard two cars.

On Wednesday, MTS spokesman Rob Schupp provided updated information demonstrating ridership had continued to decline since Jablonski’s video. Trolley ridership has fallen 27 percent to 30 percent, and ridership on bus routes has fallen between 23 percent to 90 percent. Routes serving UCSD have seen the steepest declines.

“We decided this morning to keep service levels where they are,” Schupp said in a text message. “Keeps everyone employed, allows lifeline service and adequate social distancing.”

MTS will maintain services through March and continue monitoring the situation in the meantime.

Jablonski stressed that decisions over service cuts have not yet been made. If they are, he said the agency would communicate them to its riders immediately.

Last week, Schupp said the agency did not have publicly available ridership reports beyond February, which would not have captured any declines over the coronavirus. On Monday, he provided weekly data for the first two months of the year, showing ridership by the end of February had increased from both the same week in 2019, and from the final week of January.

He stressed that any short-term declines couldn’t be solely attributed to the novel coronavirus; rain also causes ridership declines. That was Friday, before the city, county and many private businesses took their most significant steps to slow the spread of the virus.

Andrew Keatts

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.