Ridership on Metro Transit's buses and trains last year plunged by more than half, as many passengers avoided public transportation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

All told, Metro Transit provided 38.4 million rides in the Twin Cities in 2020, compared with 82.5 million in 2019 — a decline of 53%, according to figures released Monday by the Metropolitan Council.

Metro Transit isn't the only public transportation agency to see such a steep decline, as more people telecommute to avoid the risk of contracting COVID.

Transit ridership nationally dropped 79% last year when compared with 2019, according to the American Public Transportation Association, a Washington, D.C.-based industry association.

"The pace of the vaccine may determine the pace of ridership in 2021," said Eric Lind, Metro Transit's manager of research and analytics, at a Met Council Transportation Committee meeting Monday.

The biggest losses last year came on the Northstar commuter rail line, which links downtown Minneapolis with Big Lake. Ridership on Northstar dropped by 80% to 152,455, while ridership on express and commuter buses was down 76%.

Bus-rapid transit, including the A and C lines, fared better than other types of transportation within the Metro Transit system. Ridership on those lines last year totaled about 2.4 million, a decline of 24% from the previous year.

The rapid buses, which feature expanded stations and faster service, are a big part of the transit agency's future plans, with more routes in the works.

Local bus service was down 48%, but with ridership of about 22 million in 2020 it remained the workhorse of the Twin Cities transit system. Light-rail ridership on the Blue and Green lines was down by 59%, to 10.3 million.

Ridership in the first quarter of last year was actually trending higher than 2019, before the full effect of the pandemic hit around April 1.

Since the outbreak, Metro Transit has limited ridership on buses and trains to essential trips, such as forays to the grocery store, work and medical appointments. Masks are now required by federal law on buses and trains.

It's unclear when transit ridership will be restored to 2019 levels.

"There is a big question mark out there about the role of telecommuting into the future," Lind said. The changing nature of commuting "does pose a challenge, but it's a challenge we're understanding more and more."

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752