By Sarah Blunt and Hayley Repetti | Special to The OBSERVER

photo of SacRT light rail
According to U.S. Census data, public transportation among African Americans in the Sacramento area has dropped off by about 70%. 

Sacramento Regional Transit (SacRT) ridership has decreased sharply in the past few years, largely plummeting because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 1.7 million people used SacRT in December 2019. During December 2020, the number of riders had fallen to 631,232. By June 2022, the numbers had started to rise again, with 975,887 riders using SacRT to get around.

graph showing SacRT Ridership

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, people of color were three times more likely to take public transportation to work than White residents in 2019. Pre-pandemic in 2019, about 4,400 Black workers in the Sacramento region usually took public transportation to work. In comparison, about 1,300 Black workers usually commuted to work using public transit in 2021, a decline of 70%.

About 7,100 Black households in the Sacramento region do not have access to a vehicle, which is about 12% of Black households, according to the Census Bureau.

Dan Allison, writer of the “Getting Around Sacramento” blog, said the decline in ridership started well before the pandemic.

“There definitely is a long-term decline that predates the pandemic, which is true of almost all transit agencies in the U.S.,” Allison said. “There are exceptions, but in general, transit agencies have declined over the last 20 years.” Allison said the main reason for the decline is the subsidization of driving compared to the lack of money for transit. With all of the roads, highways, and interchanges built in the past 20 years – along with, until recently, the ability to keep gas prices fairly low – driving became more convenient than public transit.

Even so, many people don’t have the funds to obtain and keep a personal motor vehicle. Low-income residents rely on public transportation to get around, especially in big cities.

Sim Wallace, a Sacramento resident and frequent SacRT rider, said SacRT has become less consistent since the pandemic.

“Sac transit is not as reliable as it used to be,” Wallace said. “It has definitely had some downfalls post-COVID, one of the biggest ones being the scheduling. The buses don’t run as often as they used to, and sometimes the trains are off schedule, it’s usually only a couple of minutes but there have been a handful of 15-20 minute delays.”

Tooba Ishaq is a disabled frequent rider of SacRT who utilizes paratransit services. However, she said that they are sometimes “sloppy” and “paratransit doesn’t always look out for its disabled passengers.”

“I had to chase after buses that wouldn’t stop for me when I waited,” Ishaq said. “I have had disrespectful bus drivers.” She cited this as a reason people may not want to ride.

Allison said that since only a fraction of SacRT funding comes from fares, it is highly unlikely that the decline in ridership would cause cutbacks but that if it did, it could be negative, specifically for low-income communities.

“Our system in Sacramento was originally designed around the needs of White commuters, and that’s why the light rail system exists is to bring people from far suburbs to the central city where the jobs are,” Allison said. “That obviously benefitted people of color as well but it was designed for White people and commuters.”

Ridership has seen a recent increase, according to SacRT spokesperson Jessica Gonzalez. “I don’t agree with the decline-in-ridership narrative,” Gonzalez said. “We actually were seeing an increase before the pandemic [at the start of 2019]. Ridership has been recovering month by month since the onset and is now more than double what it was early on in the pandemic.”

She said ridership is recovering “the strongest” on bus services, including the fixed route and SmaRT Ride and SacRT GO Paratransit Services. Fixed-route buses ridership was 70% of pre-COVID rates in September and SmaRT Ride and SacRT GO Paratransit Services were 55% of pre-COVID numbers.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was produced by Sacramento State students led by Phillip Reese, assistant professor of journalism.