COVID-19: Transit, airport use tumbles

Transit ridership in WNY is down three-quarters. Airline travel, even more. Looks like essential travel only.

As one might expect, the COVID-19 shutdown has dramatically cut the number of people traveling by air and public transit. Indeed, the numbers are stark.

Just a month ago, 6,000 to 7,000 passengers flew in and out of Buffalo Niagara International Airport each day. Now, it’s fewer than 1,000, according to figures provided by the Niagara Frontier Transit Authority. 

Ridership on NFTA buses and light-rail trains is also down, by around three-quarters. Train ridership has been especially hard hit, as downtown businesses and government buildings have shut down to all but essential employees and officials have discouraged in-person interactions with clients.

Accurate numbers on car and truck traffic are tougher to come by, but Thruway traffic statewide has dropped by more than one-third. Truck, and especially car traffic, on the Peace Bridge connecting Buffalo and Fort Erie is also down.

The numbers are in line with data Investigative Post first reported on last week that showed residents in Erie County had reduced their movements 40 to 55 percent since authorities ordered state residents to minimize their travel. As of Tuesday evening, Unacast, which parses GPS data to track the movement of cellphone users, gave Erie County residents a grade of C. Niagara County earned a D. Residents statewide were graded B plus.

The New York State Thruway Authority has not yet released audited traffic numbers for March. When when made public, those numbers will include breakdowns of traffic volumes at specific toll barriers.

But at a meeting of New York State Thruway commissioners on March 31, Matthew Driscoll, the authority’s executive director, reported that overall Thruway traffic had dropped 33 percent between March 8 and March 28.

Passenger vehicles were down 36 percent, Driscoll reported, and commercial vehicles — trucks, basically — were down 6 percent. Driscoll told his board he expected the decline would continue as New York continues to climb toward the apex of its COVID-19 curve.

“Each week has seen a more significant impact than the last,” Driscoll said. 

That’s true of public transportation ridership, too, according to Helen Tederous, spokeswoman for the NFTA. 

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In the week of March 15, at the beginning of the COVID-19 shutdown, bus travel declined by 56 percent compared to normal volume. Metro Rail travel declined by 57 percent.

The following week, as state edicts compelled more businesses to cease operations or send employees home, public transportation usage dropped further: Bus travel was down 64 percent compared to normal volume, and rail traffic was down 73 percent. 

Last week, according to Tederous, bus and rail traffic were down 76 percent compared to normal. 

“We don’t have school kids, we don’t have workers,” Tederous said. “We only have the essential employees traveling.”

Passenger traffic at Buffalo’s airport offers an even starker indication of the shutdown. 

According to Tederous, the airport had been accustomed to handling 6,000 to 7,000 passengers each day.

On March 15, the airport handled 3,200 passengers.

On March 20, the number fell to 1,400 passengers.

Four days later, on March 24, there were just 788 passengers.

Airlines are canceling some flights, Tederous told Investigative Post, but most are running on schedule — sometimes, she said, “with four or five people on them,” instead of a full manifest. “But they are flying.” 

One reason for the decline is the restriction on non-essential travel over the US-Canada border, which was implemented on March 20. Tederous told Investigative Post last month that, in normal times, 40 percent of the airport’s travelers are Canadians. 

Those travel restrictions have had a profound impact on Peace Bridge traffic, too, according to Ron Rienas, general manager of the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority.

In the first week of April a year ago, Rienas said, 66,639 passenger cars crossed the Peace Bridge. In the past seven days, the number was 4,053 — a decline of almost 94 percent.

A year ago, 302 buses carried passengers over the Peace Bridge. Last week, there were none.

Truck traffic is down, too, from 21,499 crossings a year ago to 16,673 in the past week, a decline of about 22 percent. 

Truck traffic is not affected by the restrictions on border crossings, as commerce is deemed essential travel. There’s just less of it.