San Diego trolley and bus ridership nears pre-pandemic levels but still lags from last decade

A train on the Blue Line trolley extension rolls past UC San Diego in La Jolla.
A train on the Blue Line trolley extension rolls past UC San Diego in La Jolla.
(UC San Diego)

The Blue Line trolley extension that serves La Jolla appears to be drawing new riders, but not enough to offset an overall decline.


San Diegans have been hopping on buses and trolleys in increasingly larger numbers over the past several months, though ridership is still down sharply from last decade.

The San Diego Metropolitan Transit System logged more than 6.5 million trips in October, its highest monthly tally since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in March 2020.

MTS had been seeing ridership as high as 8 million trips a month before the coronavirus shut down the economy. Then it bottomed out at about 2.2 million in April 2020 before rebounding to more than 5 million trips a month two years later.

Transit officials have said last year’s opening of the Blue Line trolley extension linking Old Town with La Jolla and University City has helped. Before the pandemic, bus ridership far outpaced the trolley. Now they’re largely on par, with the trolley recently drawing slightly more people.

However, those modest gains are overshadowed by sharp reductions in ridership over the past decade. For example, MTS recorded nearly 9.2 million trips in October 2014.

The trend is being seen across California and the nation. Experts have pointed to a rapid rise in car ownership, especially among low-income households.

Emergency federal funding has kept transit afloat since the start of the pandemic, but many agencies, such as Bay Area Rapid Transit, are now looking at the need for potentially deep service cuts.

MTS received about $360 million in federal stimulus funding and has spent about $160 million so far. Officials said the agency — with a roughly $300 million annual budget — likely can stave off any major service cuts at least through 2027.

“Ridership growth is near pre-COVID levels and that has helped stretch out the stimulus funds,” spokesman Mark Olsen recently told The San Diego Union-Tribune. “Right now, MTS is focused on strategies for ridership recovery.”

Nationwide transit ridership last year was less than half what it was at its peak in 2014, according to the American Public Transportation Association. ◆