Sound Transit recently released their Second Quarter Ridership Report.  Overall boardings were up over the same quarter last year, as usual, partly due to ever-increasing service levels.

Pierce County and South King buses and trains experienced a general decline in ridership, aside from Tacoma Link.  As these subareas make up the vast majority of Sounder ridership, Sounder boardings overall took a hit.


The final version of the 2009 Service Implementation Plan (SIP) has hit the street.  It details all the planned service changes through next February, as well as provisional changes through 2013.  It’s also the most thorough data source about each route that I’ve seen released by any transit agency.

A cursory glance at the ridership numbers tells you something about the transit market in various corridors.  Specifically, the 545 and 550 together carried 10,112 people a day in 2008.  Not every 545 rider will end up on East Link, but then I’m counting nothing from the 554, 555, or 556, nor all the Bellevue/Redmond traffic on Metro.

The anti-transit Eastside Transportation Association slams East Link and prefers BRT on I-405 instead.  Somewhat less ridiculously, Eastside Rail Now wants to emphasize the BNSF North/South rail corridor.

So let’s add up the riders.  The 532, 535, 560, 564, and 565 feed Bellevue and Redmond from a huge area, Everett all the way down to Federal Way.  Total ridership on these routes? 6,171.*

Dedicated believers, if they’re so inclined, can always dismiss ridership projections as biased by the agency that released them.  But they can’t as easily dismiss the empirical data from Sound Transit’s ongoing experiment of connecting Eastside jobs to both densely packed residents in Seattle and widely dispersed residents to the North and South.  Add in the fact that you have even more traffic passing in the opposite direction — Bellevue and Redmond to transit-optimized locations in DT Seattle — and it becomes a no-brainer.

* There are also a few Metro and CT routes in this corridor.

44 Replies to “Two Sound Transit Reports”

  1. The second quarter ridership report really impressed me. Almost every transit provider in the nation is seeing its ridership drop because of the recession, but we continue to attract new riders.
    And you’re right about the ridership on the eastside. East Link should definitely be the priority over BNSF-corridor rail. And don’t forget that ridership on East Link will be way higher than ridership on the buses along that corridor because, that being a quite rich and much less transit-dependent corridor than Rainier Valley, many people who will not ride a bus will ride a train.

    1. You know, I don’t think I’d ever considered that point. More affluent potential riders, more likely to ride rail over a bus.

      1. Yes, well-managed trains can be much more reliable (Sounder Q1=99.78% on-time, Q2=97.54% on-time)

        But ST Express Buses for Q2 ran at 94% on-time performance, not bad for running in mixed traffic. ST is very well run in that regard. My daily experiences on the 560/550 combo have been quite pleasant.

      2. So I’d argue that anti-bus bias among the affluent has much more to do with the unarguably superior qualitative riding experience that trains offer, e.g. smoothness, reduced noise, better acceleration, fixed routes, A/C, etc…

  2. Well, majority of the ridership loss was from the Sounder commuter rail…the bus ridership is still increasing but slowly and even the Tacoma Link is increasing…tho it’s free to ride it. Looks like we’ll have to wait til the next quarter for ridership report on the Central LINK light rail.

    1. I heard somewhere that Sounder ridership is directly proportional to gas prices. If gas is cheap, people will take the convenience of their car again.

      1. It is. Jodi has already mentioned this at a few board meetings. When oil prices peaked last year in July, those were Sounder’s busiest months. Now that they’ve returned to pre-summer 2008 levels, people are back to driving. It’s not just gas, though. The recession have put a good number of would-be Sounder commuters out of work.

      2. Another recession-related thing: traffic gets a little less congested. So if you still have a job, it’s a little easier to drive to work because there are fewer people driving to jobs in general.

  3. The last southbound Sounder out of Seattle now leaves almost 30 minutes earlier than before. I can’t remember if they totally eliminated one train, or just have it leaving earlier. That certainly has meant that I’m not on the train as much as I wish. Plus, I know some riders that normally board in Kent and Tukwila have switched over to the light rail for the convenience of the extended hours, more frequent trips, etc.

  4. Dedicated believers, if they’re so inclined, can always dismiss ridership projections as biased by the agency that released them. But they can’t as easily dismiss the empirical data from Sound Transit’s ongoing experiment of connecting Eastside jobs to both densely packed residents in Seattle

    I sure hope ridership is more than 16,000. Aren’t projections in the 40-45k range for East Link?

    1. Don’t forget that a large number of commuters also take Metro peak-only routes between Bellevue and Seattle. Plus, a lot of East Link’s riders will be new.

      1. Yeah, for example I’d be interested to see the ridership numbers for Metro’s 212, 217, 225, 229 (Seattle-Eastgate), the 202 (Mercer Island-Seattle) and the 205 (Mercer Island-U District). There are probably a dozen other similar routes, but I’m sure they’re pretty well utilized routes that East Link/ULink would largely capture.

  5. Tacoma Link ridership will see a serious decline once Russell Investments moves its 900 employees from their current downtown Tacoma headquarters to the former WaMu Center, soon to be the Russell Investments Center, in 2010.

    1. I would expect another local area company that is growing will jump at the space. Cheaper than Seattle, for the company and it’s employees.

      1. I think it is unlikely Russell employees will choose the Sounder for commuting. The Russell Investment Center is almost a mile from King Street Station. It is a one hour trip from the Tacoma Dome Station to King Street Station. If you include the sound trip time from your home to the Tacoma Dome station and the time it takes to transfer to another bus or walk a mile your commute is now pushing 1.5 to 2 hours.

        In contrast a 590 will get you from Tacoma Dome Station to 4th and Union in 53 minutes assuming an 8:30 arrival time and no hangups on I-5. You then have a fairly short 3 block walk to your office. Your commute will be closer to 1.25 hours (although less predictable than the Sounder route). The earlier you leave Tacoma the better.

        The Sounder is nice. I like the WiFi and the bathrooms but it takes longer than most people realize if you are coming from Tacoma. Also, the seats are not very comfortable. I commuted from an apartment in downtown Tacoma to an office by the Columbia Tower in Seattle for 2 years. I finally settled on a pattern of 90% bus and 10% Sounder rail. The only time I was certain to take the train was Friday evenings. Traffic is a real crap shoot on Fridays.

      2. The transfer is not bad at all. Walk across the street to the ID Station and take the first train or bus to University Street Station, which is right across the street from the old WaMu Center. I have a friend at Russell who told me that he and his coworkers are planning on taking the Sounder. Even if they do switch to ST Express, that still improves Sound Transit’s ridership, which was my point.

      3. I don’t agree, (other) Andrew. I used to commute from San Francisco to San Jose on Caltrain (an hour trip) with a ton of coworkers. eBay ran a shuttle from the Caltrain station to the office. Other people switched to the light rail from the caltrain station to the office.

        1) What makes you believe RI wouldn’t run a shuttle from King Street to RI?
        2) Why would few people walk the block to the ID station and then the 100 feet from the University Street station to the office?

        I bet more people have 1+ hour commutes than you think.

      4. There is a huge flood of people walking between the ID Station and Sounder platforms during both the morning and evening commutes. I’m sure at least a few of those people are riding all the way from Tacoma Dome station.

        Some Russel employees may choose to take the sometimes faster bus instead but others might go for the predictability and comfort of Sounder.

        Also at least some Russel employees might actually be closer to the Puyallup, Summner, or Auburn stations in which case Sounder probably is the fastest public transit option.

      5. That flood of people is the bane of my existence! The water analogy is apt – the Weller Street crossing from King Street Station to International District Station looks like a floodgate when the crossing signal changes. When the Sounder arrives like 30 seconds early, my 6:45 a.m. 72 from IDS gets packed… oh well, I guess high ridership is still good.

  6. I think trains are fun, but the Sounder is nearly two times more expensive than ST buses and its slower. Maybe that’s why ridership on the north end is so abysmal.

  7. Great post Martin!
    It’s worth noting that there are a good number of metro routes from Seattle to the Eastside as well.

    1. With East Link there will also be network effects. With the full ST2 system how many people who might currently drive would take Link instead. Someone who lives in Shoreline or Federal Way who currently drives to Overlake might instead drive to a park & ride and take Link.

  8. Why is the ST bus fare & monthly pass from Tacoma so much cheaper than Sounder? The fares should be structured to encourage people to ride Sounder since the marginal cost per passenger is so much lower. 200 people can fit in a railcar with no additional employee needed, whereas every 50 riders need another bus with another driver. At least the fares/passes should be equal. It is bad policy that the higher marginal cost service has lower fares.

    1. The subsidies are a little out of whack. Our son just started at WWU in Bellingham. It costs $20 each way to take Amtrack from B’ham to Seattle. Then another couple of bucks to get a bus out to Bellevue Transit Center. He can take a free Whatcom County bus down to Skagit Transit Center. Then it’s $2-3 to get a Skagit Express bus to Everett where he can transfer to another express bus directly to Bellevue Transit Center.

      Depart 3:08PM WWU Shuttle -> Whatcom X80 -> Skagit 90X -> ST 532 Arrive BTC 6:08PM

      Granted the service hours aren’t as good as the train (have to leave B’ham in the evening and return in the AM, actually good for him) and the train is a nicer ride but time wise it’s a wash and the bus is an order of magnitude cheaper.

      Amtrak requires reservations. Maybe they should start offering cheap “stand-by” tickets to fill seats that are empty? Airlines have made this work.

      Interestingly, it doesn’t appear the train is too expensive. Private companies like Airporter run shuttles at Thanksgiving and Christmas break and charge the same as Amtrack. It’s the bus subsidies that are killing the train ridership.

      1. I don’t think the problem with Amtrak between Seattle and Bellingham/Vancouver has been ridership. If anything Amtrak could probably get away with raising the fares on most of the Cascade runs both North and South of Seattle.

        For going to Olympia the train is faster and a much nicer ride though the bus is much cheaper. Still there is no lack of passengers getting on or off in Olympia. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if it is the busiest stop between Seattle and Portland.

      2. Looking at the on-offs (latest data I found was 2006) I come up with only about 85 people average (I’m sure some time slots are way more popular) riding B’ham to Seattle. The train is the same length from B’ham to Seattle as from Seattle to Portland, right? So there must be quiet a bit of unused capacity on the northern leg. In the ridership report they mentioned several reasons ridership had dropped in ’06 from ’05 (floods, maintenance on rolling stock, poor on time performance) but they don’t list competition from buses. The $20 fare seems reasonable but it’s tough to compete with “free” (Whatcom Transit County Connector) or even $2 fares for 60 mile express bus trips. I understand why the county transit agencies are providing the subsidies (commutes from the hinterlands) but, if the train is cheaper and has untapped capacity, it seems like we’re missing out on something?

      3. I wouldn’t be surprised if [Olympia] is the busiest stop between Seattle and Portland.

        Actually from the on-offs data, Tacoma 90,000, Vancouver WA 60,000 and Olympia 40,000. The other stops, Kelso/Longview, Tukwila, Centralia are all 17.5-25 thousand.

      4. Thanks I hadn’t looked at the data so I wasn’t sure. Still Olympia is pretty busy, especially considering the station is out in the middle of nowhere.

      5. Yeah, B’ham at 60,000 is more of a surprise to me. I guess it’s because it’s the “end of the line” in many cases for a lot of folks headed to/from Canada. Oly’s not so much the middle of nowhere anymore. Lacey has mushroomed; the military presence and some major employers in Dupont I would guess driving much of it. It’s also the gateway to the Olympic Peninsula. I’m also surprised Tukwila was only 20,000; same as Kelso/Longview and Everett. Mt Vernon beats them all with 25,000 (outlet malls?). Or maybe it’s just the really cool hand dryers at Skagit Station ;-)

      6. By “middle of nowhere” I was refering to the Olympia Amtrak station itself which is a couple of miles from downtown and bordered by fields on two sides and suburban sprawl on two others. Olympia the metro area is hardly in the middle of nowhere.

      7. The fare between Bellingham and Mount Vernon is $2. But still a great deal from Bellingham to Bellevue (Total for $6.50). The “free” ride is probably because of the Western Washington University bus pass that costs $25 per quarter.

      8. Amtrak charges based on how full the train is. You can get the minimum fare by booking 2-4 weeks in advance or riding on a weekday. The minimum was $20 the last time I rode to Vancouver, but that was several years ago. Amtrak can’t raise the fares much or budget-minded people like me will take Greyhound. I already take Greyhound more than I’d like because the Cascades schedules are so limited.

        I think the $20 fare is pretty impressive compared to Amtrak’s other services, and I assume it’s because of the state subsidy. So take the train and put your tax dollars to a better cause than highways. :)

      9. FYI, you can do Amtrak reservations literally minutes before getting on, even with amtrakguestrewards points. You can also cancel for no reason with no penalty. But, it doesn’t save you any money and you’re playing with fire if you want a seat on busy holidays. Check out amtrakguestrewards though: only 3000 points per coach ticket for Cascades. We take several free trips a year because we have the credit card. Just don’t give the card to your college kid. ;)

  9. Office shuttles to transit stations are more widespread in the Bay Area. Hopefully they will increase here. Boeing could be an example (but so far it hasn’t been).

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