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Women’s March drew record ridership for public transit around the country

But it’s not easy to measure the impact of one-time transit events

D.C.’s Metro on Saturday, January 21
D.C.’s Metro on Saturday, January 21
Ted Eytan

On the same day that the Women’s March brought hundreds of thousands to Washington D.C., over 500 “sister marches” were held in cities across the country.

Among the strikingly universal photos of pink-hatted attendees filling downtown streets and waving protest signs coast to coast, there are just as many images featuring Women’s Marchers packing buses and swarming subway stations.

After Washington, D.C.’s Metro rail system reported its second-highest one-day ridership in the system’s history, transit agencies across the country also touted their own exceptional ridership figures. Some preliminary estimates show at least 3.3 million people attended the U.S. marches nationwide.

“Even using a conservative estimate, it was the single largest day for a demonstration in the U.S.,” said Erica Chenoweth, a civil resistance expert from the University of Denver who is still tabulating attendance. Was it a record-setting day for transit as well?

While the science of crowd counting can be politicized, transit boarding can provide a somewhat reliable estimate of special event attendees—especially on a Saturday, in a system that’s not being taxed by commuters. Compare the 570,557 boardings on D.C.’s Metro on Friday, January 20—the same day as the inauguration (which was actually below the average weekday boardings of 630,000)—and Saturday, January 21, which saw 1,001,616 rides. Only Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration saw higher ridership on the rail system over a single day.

In D.C., local public transit agency WMATA was prepared for large crowds on Saturday, opening the subway two hours early at 5:00 a.m., canceling construction work for the day, reducing the time between arrivals, and adding two dozen extra trains. But soon after the Women’s March’s 10:00 a.m. start, WMATA began reporting real-time ridership updates that made it clear this was going to be an exceptionally big day.

As reports started to come in from other march cities, it also became clear that it wasn’t only places with big transit systems experiencing higher-than-usual volume.

As Steven White, who works at the transit tech company Syncromatics, eloquently noted in a series of tweets, riders were noticing an uptick in passengers on nearly every public transit system in the U.S. “The experience is the same today in cities big and small, known for transit or not,” he said. “In every city across the U.S., rail transit is running at capacity and above today.”

In Los Angeles, crowds swamped the city’s rail lines, quickly overwhelming the system. Lines to board trains to downtown were so long that riders began taking the trains in the opposite direction, all the way to the end of the line, to ensure they’d have a spot when the train turned around.

Although the LA Metro had planned for 75,000 attendees, it counted 592,000 boardings, with ridership more than double an average Saturday. “We did add trains as the day went on, but at a certain point we could have had trains every two minutes like Tokyo and it still would not have been enough,” said Metro’s Public Communications Officer Anna Chen.

Rail ridership for Women’s March

City Low crowd estimate High crowd estimate Rail system Saturday average boardings Boardings 1/21/17 Percent increase
City Low crowd estimate High crowd estimate Rail system Saturday average boardings Boardings 1/21/17 Percent increase
Washington DC 500,000 1,000,000 Metro 300,000 1,001,616 234%
Los Angeles 200,000 750,000 Metro 231,897 592,000 155%
Portland 70,000 100,000 MAX 54,600 135,300 148%
Minneapolis 90,000 100,000 Metro Transit 35,809 80,347 124%
San Francisco/Oakland 200,000 250,000 Muni 61,274 137,075 124%
Seattle 100,000 175,000 Link 39,000 80,000 105%
San Francisco/Oakland 200,000 250,000 BART 188,109 347,322 85%
Chicago 250,000 250,000 CTA 417,000 582,000 40%
New York City 400,000 500,000 New Jersey Transit 76,000 96,000 26%
Phoenix 20,000 25,000 Valley Metro 36,295 41,829 15%
New York City 400,000 500,000 MTA 3,117,000 3,350,000 7%
Ridership data provided by WMATA, Metro Transit, Metro Los Angeles, TriMet, Muni, Sound Transit, BART, CTA, NJ Transit, Valley Metro, and MTA; Crowd estimates provided by Erica Chenoweth at the University of Denver and Jeremy Pressman at the University of Connecticut; San Francisco and Oakland march estimates have been combined

A few other cities reported the highest ridership for a weekend or holiday. Seattle broke its Saturday ridership record on its Link light rail. Although it did not report specific data, Boston came “very close” to beating holiday ridership records for July 4 and New Year’s Eve, according to Boston’s MBTA, which gave NBC Boston a very Bostonian description of the transportation ridership: “the equivalent of having a Red Sox game and a Boston College football game at the exact same time.”

Other cities reported that it was probably the highest number of riders they had served at once. “The Women’s March on Portland was historic and impressive and likely the biggest crowds we have ever experienced in a short period of time,” said Mary Fetch, Chief Public Information Officer of Portland’s TriMet. “Ridership for both trains and buses were 46 percent higher than an average Saturday.”

As someone who attended Los Angeles’ march, and experienced the system running at capacity—including the first time I’ve ever had to wait for another train to arrive because the first one was too full—it certainly felt like the biggest day in Metro’s history. But there were too many disclaimers.

Metro didn’t have specific data on its buses, which many transit agencies also told me was more difficult to provide a one-day number for. Plus, LA’s system has grown so much in the past few years—like many rail systems nationwide—that it’s impossible to compare historical ridership data. And many stations were so overwhelmed that riders were being waved through the turnstiles for free.

But as I started to understand more about the way transit agencies measure ridership trends, I realized how difficult it actually is to estimate how many people are riding buses and trains on a specific day, particularly, how many more people are riding. For answers, I turned to Sam Schwartz, the legendary former New York City traffic commissioner known as Gridlock Sam.

“Generally transit companies are not doing a terrific job of monitoring unusual events that don’t reoccur,” he told me, although he notes cities often plan well for annual events like marathons, parades, sporting events, and holidays. “For something that’s an unknown, like a potentially large demonstration, they’re not very nimble. They think that a Saturday can handle it because they usually handle larger crowds during the week.”

That’s an important thing to note as well: We can really only compare Saturdays to Saturdays since the Women’s March ridership for many cities didn’t come close to the typical workday ridership that many agencies support. However, in the case of the D.C. Women's March, the fact that the numbers were so high without weekday commuters makes it even more notable.

So why did trains and buses feel more crowded than a weekday? Even if systems added extra train cars and increased frequency, they were still operating on an already reduced Saturday schedule, says Schwartz. The length of the marches themselves also changed the dynamic of who was on transit and when. “The business day spreads over 12 hours, a demonstration might be over five hours, so there’s a greater concentration of passengers.”

There were two exceptions to the Women’s March transit phenomenon: Both New York City and Chicago hosted large marches but their rail lines seemed to accommodate their crowds with minimal disruption. Riders in both cities reported it was crowded at times but mostly felt like any other Saturday.

Chicago’s rail ridership was 582,000 rides, about 40 percent higher than an average Saturday. Looking at New York’s figures, subway ridership was slightly above the Saturday average, but not record-setting. Ridership was approximately 3,350,000 on Saturday, January 21, and the average January Saturday ridership is 3,117,000.

Although it’s not something that cities track specifically, Schwartz guessed that Saturday’s marches might have set at least one nationwide record: The number of first-time riders. This is something that was anecdotally noted in cities where there were long lines to buy reusable fare cards, and lots of riders who needed to be taught how to use the system. Los Angeles reported that 40,000 TAP cards were sold within a short amount of time, an astounding one-day number for its fare system.

So could this political mobilization translate into a boon for mobility?

“It’s a catalyst for change,” said Darnell Grisby, Director of Policy Development and Research for the American Public Transit Association (APTA). “Every special event is an opportunity for new customers to discover a new habit and a new way of life.” A forthcoming APTA study authored by Grisby will look at some of these ways that special events—including spikes in gas prices—serve as a “gateway drug” for people who want to take transit more often. The newly minted riders from Saturday’s march would really only need to start taking transit once a week, or even once a month, to make a difference in ridership trends nationwide, he said.

As far as the theory that all-time nationwide transit records were broken by Saturday’s march, we still have a ways to go. According to the APTA’s most recent nationwide ridership report, U.S. transit systems see about 35 million boardings every weekday. But because U.S. public transit ridership was higher a half-century ago, these figures aren’t anywhere close to the U.S.’s pre-highway numbers: The highest weekday U.S. public transit ridership in history was 75 million trips—in 1946. Back then, about half the country’s population was using public transit on any given weekday.

But the U.S. is changing quickly. “That peak was 1946, but we’ve been on an uptick,” said Grisby, who notes changing development trends and growing populations are dramatically changing transit habits in U.S. cities big and small. Already there are several more marches being planned that will once again rely heavily on those cities’ public transit systems. Maybe the country’s resurgence of political activism will help bolster one of its most important tools for providing liberty and justice for all.

I reached out to many transit agencies asking for 1/21/17 ridership as well as data for an average Saturday. Some cities did not have the data available yet so I will continue to update the chart. If you have transit data for your city, please send it my way and I’ll add it! alissa at curbed dot com