More than 31 million passengers took Metro Transit buses and trains during the first eight months of 2023, a healthy 17% increase over the same period last year.

Though demand typically slows during summer months, Metro Transit officials were heartened to report strong ridership between January and August, particularly on bus-rapid transit (BRT) and the light-rail lines, during a meeting Monday of the Metropolitan Council's Transportation Committee.

BRT service performed well, with ridership aboard the popular D Line arterial bus route, connecting Brooklyn Center with the Mall of America, surging by 86% during the period.

Light-rail ridership rose by 20% to 9 million rides, and overall bus service increased by 15%, totaling 20 million rides. All told, local bus service comprises nearly half the service provided by Metro Transit, followed by light rail at 30%.

"This is the heart and soul and bones of our system," said Met Council Member Deb Barber, who chairs the Transportation Committee.

But ridership was still just 57% of what it was before the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, which decimated the use of public transportation in the Twin Cities and across the United States, partly due to the rise of remote work in response to the pandemic.

"The five-day workweek is not existing anymore in most cases," said John Harper, contracted transit services manager for the Met Council.

One of the three current arterial BRT lines, the D Line, began service in December. BRT buses operate in traffic, and passengers pay before boarding — saving time — at stations that are heated in cooler weather and feature real-time scheduling information. Metro Transit has big plans to expand the arterial system.

The A Line, the region's first arterial BRT line, saw an uptick in ridership from fairgoers in August. The line, which links the Blue Line's 46th Street light-rail station in south Minneapolis to the Rosedale Transit Center, includes a stop at the State Fairgrounds in Falcon Heights, and ridership of 32,111 during the fair's 12 days was more than double that of last year.

The biggest gain in ridership came from Transit Link, Metro Transit's shared-ride public transportation used where regular transit service is infrequent or unavailable, and micro-transit service; together they saw 120,585 rides, a 47% increase. Micro-transit service is an app-based on-demand pilot project offering multipassenger public transit in parts of north Minneapolis.

Metro Transit officials pointed to another positive trend: the growth in ridership on express and peak-commuter buses, a mode that was decimated during the pandemic as more people worked remotely and fewer traveled downtown. Ridership in that category rose 8%, with 714,718 rides provided.

Northstar Commuter Rail, which experienced the greatest decline during the pandemic, saw ridership of 57,966, an 18% increase. Service on Northstar, which connects downtown Minneapolis with Big Lake, recently increased from four to eight weekday trips.

Preliminary indications show an uptick in demand for Northstar service, said Brian Funk, Metro Transit's chief operating officer. "It's very encouraging," he said.

Funk said sports and special events have helped bolster ridership this fall, including the Twins, Vikings and Minnesota United, as well as the University of Minnesota's Golden Gophers — games played at stadiums that are easily accessible using public transit.