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Taylor Swift Fans Give Public Transit a Well-Timed Boost

They are increasing transit ridership numbers all along the stops on Taylor Swift’s Eras tour. It’ll take more work to make them into regular riders.

Taylor Swift performs on the opening night of "The Eras Tour" at State Farm Stadium on March 17, 2023, in Glendale, Ariz.
(John Medina/Getty Images/TNS)
Public transit is in its Taylor Swift era.

Last month, after the mega pop star played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, a TikTok user with the handle Dapharoni posted a video of dozens of Swifties boarding onto a train. It was a spectacle that had all the ingredients of virality: sequined dresses, cowboy boots, an anonymous voice declaring, “This is the worst experience of my life.”

The video was later included in a segment on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and inspired comments on Twitter about how the fans were going to single-handedly rescue the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), which, like every other big-city transit agency, is struggling to attract riders and stay afloat financially.

As it turned out, MARTA did in fact move nearly 140,000 riders from the four stations surrounding the concert venue that weekend — triple the ridership of a typical weekend, according to an agency spokeswoman — with peak demand on Friday night when Janet Jackson was also performing. The previous weekend, the Houston Metro carried 136,000 riders, with about a quarter of them going directly to NRG Stadium to see Taylor Swift, according to a spokeswoman.

When Swift played Philadelphia in May, SEPTA, the city's transit system, added late-night trains in its regional rail network, and counted a combined 27,000 fans entering the subway station next to Lincoln Financial Field in the hour after the shows ended. This coming weekend, Swift takes her Eras Tour to Boston, where the MBTA has already sold out of train tickets once, before giving into Swiftie demand and adding more trains.

For struggling big-city transit agencies, the Eras Tour would appear to be a well-timed ridership boost, and a chance to showcase the centrality of public transit to regional transportation networks. But do big events like these really benefit transit systems?

There are short-term costs as well as short-term gains. In Atlanta, MARTA probably benefits less from the additional fares and more from a boost in sales tax revenue that often accompanies big events, a spokesperson said. The system is funded partly by a 1 percent sales tax in counties surrounding Atlanta and a 1.5 percent tax in the city itself.

In Philadelphia, SEPTA budgets money each year for extra staffing related to big scheduled events, including bus and train operators, police, maintenance personnel and customer service staff who help inexperienced riders navigate the system, says Andrew Busch, an agency spokesman. Special events are a chance to show first-time riders or occasional riders the value of transit, and an opportunity to attract more regular riders, Busch says. Like many agencies, SEPTA is hoping to invest in better service on nights and weekends after the pandemic altered the typical commuting patterns that structured much of its schedules.

“To rebuild ridership post-pandemic, we know that we have to make the system more attractive for these discretionary types of trips with better frequencies during what have historically been off-peak travel times,” Busch says.

There are ways to run better transit service for special events, says Tejas Santanam, a research engineer at the tech startup Beep Inc. and lecturer at Georgia Tech’s H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering. Santanam co-authored a paper two years ago called Public Transit for Special Events: Ridership Prediction and Train Optimization. While the methodology is sophisticated, the conclusions were pretty straightforward, Santanam says. Transit agencies could use a wealth of available data to run the right number of trains at the right times and the right stations, reducing wait times and minimizing how many people are abandoned on a platform when a full train pulls away.
A Taylor Swift concert in London in 2018. Her venues draw enormous numbers of fans, many of which are turning to transit, often for the first time. That has give agencies a golden opportunity to gain some potential, long-term riders.
(Christian Bertrand/Shutterstock)
In reality, transit service to special events is often crowded and chaotic. People going to see big acts like Taylor Swift might prefer to drive their own cars or take an Uber, but opt for transit because they don’t want to deal with the hassle and cost of parking or finding a spot to get picked up amid a sea of other concertgoers, Santanam says. But thousands of people still choose those modes.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to go from transit being an option to transit being the best option,” Santanam says.

What would convert a special-occasion rider into a regular one? “Having a great experience,” says Busch, the SEPTA spokesman. That incorporates everything from frequency, reliability and navigability to cleanliness, good lighting and security presence. Those things aren’t guaranteed — particularly not in combination — at this stage in the transit recovery. But the Swifties seem to be having a good time anyway.

In Boston, subways and buses are going through a particularly rough patch, with a series of safety crises and service issues resulting in “excruciating slow zones” in the urban transit network, says Jarred Johnson, executive director of the local advocacy group TransitMatters. The commuter rail service, which is what will carry fans to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., this weekend, is faring a bit better, Johnson says. And it’s also becoming more useful, with more frequent midday service and less emphasis on peak commuting times. Those kinds of changes have made the ridership on the trains more diverse, racially and economically, Johnson says. But more changes are needed to make transit in Boston, and everywhere else, more relevant to everyone’s needs.

“Because of reduced daily commuting, many cities are working to expand midday and evening service in order to capture more ridership and provide service that is useful for a different mix of trips," says Matthew Dickens, director of policy development and research at the American Public Transportation Association.

He says that big events are a chance to introduce new people to the transit system, and that research shows that people who first use transit when they're young are more likely to ride regularly when they're older. But it's a challenge to run regular service for every occasion. Johnson notes that Bostonians who go to see much smaller musical acts than Taylor Swift can take a train to Roadrunner, a new venue that opened last year. But service ends before most shows let out, so they have to find another way home. For this weekend’s concerts, MBTA sold special round-trip tickets to the stadium, so Swifties who take the train to the show will have a way back to Boston. Once they’re there, though, their transit options may be limited.

“Agencies should not be totally re-orienting service for special events,” Johnson says. “If you do that, you’re a city that has mediocre transit for your everyday riders.”
Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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