"Almost Out of Service," photo from Flickr user Atomic Taco.

According to the bean counters at Sound Transit, Link ridership was up in March. 18,094 boardings occurred on the average weekday in March, an 8% leap from 16,741 in February. March 2010 has had Link’s highest weekday ridership so far.

The jump could reflect Metro’s February bus service changes that included ending the 194 route to the airport, and could also reflect a less gloomy economic picture.

We caution readers not to extrapolate too much from a one-month gain in ridership as the data set is too small to make strong conclusions in one direction or the other. Link wasn’t built for its first year of ridership, it was built to serve the region for decades to come. The raw data is accessible here (pdf).

The 2010 Service Implementation Plan (pdf) from Sound Transit predicted that ridership would average 26,600 across the year, a figure that is unlikely to be met. Sources at Sound Transit have told us those estimates do not reflect the lower-than-planned train frequencies and the fact that fares are charged in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, and do not account for the deep recession. It’s unknown if the 2011 Service Implementation Plan will continue to use unreliable estimates.

62 Replies to “Link Ridership up 8% in March”

  1. Another trend, downtown office vacancy rates have leveled off:

    If you read the article, it’s actually even better than it sounds since so much new space opened during that time period. In other words, it’s the same percentage of empty space but in raw numbers a lot more square feet are now occupied.

    This has an effect on Link ridership, check out this quote:
    “Seattle is a better address for us, plus there is way better transportation — we can put more of our employees on public transit”

    I again wonder why the article doesn’t mention vacancy rates outside of downtown. I know the Oregonian has reported suburban office park vacancy rates as high as 28% in Portland:

  2. Wow so we had several 20k+ days! This is good news. I know everyone says that it doesn’t mean anything, but we’ve seen a steady increase each month so I think it’s a real trend. Maybe in the low 20,000s by the end of the year?

    1. Been seeing packed LINK trains on my way to and home from work. In fact, standing room only a few times.

      1. I know this is good news if you want Link to make its projections, but if you’re trying to find a seat, well, huge bummer!

    2. The 2010 budgeted Central Link boarding count is 8.1 million, or 675,000 per month across the entire year. March saw 514,000 boardings, but the trend is upward. With strong monthly growth, 8.1 million could be reached on this one train line, the only light rail Seattle will see until another six years have passed.

      I’ll let pass that ST published an earlier estimate of 9 million for 2010, which I document at http://www.bettertransport.info/pitf/Linkpassengercount.htm .

      If light rail ridership grows to meet ST’s latest published budget, the 2010 public subsidy per rider is forecast to be $4.33, made up of $5.63 cost per boarding minus $1.30 average fare. This does not count billions in construction cost for which bonded debt is being repaid.

      But on a busy King County Metro bus route, the boardings per revenue hour are often 70 or more. Metro’s cost per bus revenue hour is today around $135, to yield cost per boarding numbers under $2 on the high volume routes most comparable to light rail. Fare collection then knocks down the subsidy to below a dollar.

      CETA advocates a de-emphasis of high cost, limited coverage rail transit and more deployment of bus transit with higher productivity (ridership per dollar) and more geographic coverage of the region than rail can affordably provide.

      Interestingly, the PSRC’s 2040 Transportation Plan (http://www.psrc.org) deploys a lot more premium bus service throughout the region by 2020, building up to a 2040 bus boarding forecast that is four times the rail boarding forecast. The PSRC 2040 rail forecast does not even reach the ST2 (aka Mass Transit Now) forecast for 2030.

      Deploying fast-loading, clean fuel buses across more busy streets region-wide yields more service and more transit ridership per dollar than building tracks and operating trains. The capital costs to give buses more priority and reliability on urban streets is far less than the cost of new right-of-way and stations for passenger trains. Car and truck traffic can be tamed sufficiently to let buses get through reliably.

      By the way, I’m reviewing the 1931 edition of Electric Railway Journal (online now at http://www.archive.org), which documents that cost and productivity were the main reasons street railways were replaced with buses steadily as the 1920s passed into the 1930s.

      1. “CETA advocates a de-emphasis of high cost, limited coverage rail transit and more deployment of bus transit with higher productivity (ridership per dollar) and more geographic coverage of the region than rail can affordably provide.”

        De-emphasize something we don’t have? How does that work? We already have a wide-ranging bus network, and very few of the routes are high productivity. Quite a few routes have a higher per-boarding cost than our fledgling light rail line, even with it’s modest initial ridership.

        I think that so far Central Link is a great example of how light rail attracts riders that buses never will. It didn’t directly replace any bus routes, and yet has higher ridership than even the busiest bus routes in the city. The #7, which runs in a parallel corridor to Link, and at a similar service frequency, only averages 11,000 daily boardings. The 48, which covers twice as much territory as Link, and travels through heavily transit-dependent areas, averages just under 14,000.

      2. Rail and buses are not conflicting systems, but rather compliment each other. The existence of a light rail system allows buses to be run more simply and more cheaply, and vice-versa.

        You could make the same arguments you make against Link against I-5. I doubt the freeway had massive ridership in it’s first year of operations, and there is no doubt that the cost of maintaining a local street is far less than maintaining I-5, nor are there Freeways going everywhere, even after 60 years on investment into them.

        As for the capitol cost argument, the entire light rail line cost 1/2 that of the Alaskan way viaduct, despite light rail being 15 times a long, and having three times the capacity per mile.

        Also, the issue isn’t simply transit ridership per dollar. The bus service you are talking about is far slower and less convenient than Link. If you want to compare cost, compare cost of equal quality of service.

        Anti transit folks love to pit one technology against another. That mentality is what go Seattle in the transportation mess it is in today. Each type of transit technology has it’s place, and should be used accordingly.

  3. It’s good to see that the ridership has finally taken-off. I think it has a lot to do with the bus route revision, but we can expect the trend to continue throughout the spring and summer due to (1) economic recovery, (2) advertising campaign by ST, (3) completion of several TOD projects in Rainer Valley, and (4) beginning of the Mariners season. Also, does anybody know how much we can expect from the RapidRide in Federal Way (is this still on schedule by the way)? Maybe by a thousand at best?

    1. Which TOD projects in Rainier Valley will be finished this year? Surely not the complex at Othello that’s just barely started.

      Do I dare hope any of them will be under $1000 a month? Probably not.

      I will be looking for a 1 BR in June, and possibly a condo in a year or two. Still deciding between Capitol Hill, Rainier, and Beacon.

  4. It sounds like the service is very popular for sporting events. I’m sure the return of the Sounders and Mariners can only help boost ridership further.

    1. It is really popular for the sporting events because wehn you take the train you are actually out of the traffic which on the street is awful.

  5. Slightly off topic, but has anyone else noticed the new artsy-looking Link station-indicator sign thingies appearing on downtown sidewalks outside DSTT stations? They are made of long metal poles sort of twisted around each other with 3 light rail symbol/icons (but not the one for “bus”) around the top. They appear to be taking the place of some of the DSTT three sided station signs, which actually had some useful info on them regarding which bus routes run in the tunnel, but I guess ST is looking ahead to the day when there won’t be any more buses down there.

    1. Hmm, haven’t seen those in person but I’m a bit mixed. I’m glad they are emphasizing the LRT part of the tunnel and attempting to get ride of the “bus tunnel” way of thinking. On the other hand, it seems that these are a lot more artsy and abstract than the signs currently used, and may actually be less straightforward. We shall see.

    2. They look the same as the signs next to Link Station on MLK that appeared late last fall. Cute when it is windy!

    3. I really like them because they give a distinct brand to the system. In NYC you have the same-looking recognizable signs at each station entrance, and all over Europe the systems have distinct logos, usually a variation on an M, which are clearly visible from anywhere around a station.

    1. exactly. that is the problem with all the transit haters and especially LINK haters. They expect immediate results but you cannot build a successful transit system in a day … [off-topic]

      1. In the Link-haters’ defense (I can’t believe I just wrote that), ST should not have so prominently promoted ridership estimates it knew it probably couldn’t meet for all the reasons mentioned (bum economy, reduced headways, fares in the tunnel). It’s not like the economy wasn’t in the dumps last July or ST didn’t know what the headways and fare policies were going to be last July. At the very least they could have asterisked/qualified the estimates the way they do now.

  6. Fantastic! I am so glad that there is an increasing ridership!

    So… am I really going to have to wait 6 more years for a 3-mile or so extensions to UW?

    HURRY UP! I’m SICK of these pathetic buses

      1. oh i disagree. I think buses have a bad rap and aren’t blue collar. they cover so much area! when in europe i still had to get off the metro or u-bann and take a bus sometimes. I like light rail and do think it’s more “fancy” but i am still happy to have the freedom of popping off the train and taking a bus anywhere.

        On topic i am happy to see ridership is up! I notice more people in the tunnel then 2 years ago for sure.

      2. Totally – buses are a key component and will be for a long time! I just hope they keep the ETBs (wire buses) around. Like so many good things, people won’t miss them until they’re gone!

      3. yeah the electric buses are used a lot in my neighborhood and are so quite and not smelly. when I’m at montlake i sure notice the buses that aren’t electric.

        I think with the increased ridership people are more used to the train and also maybe more comfortable with the airport connection. I know of business meetings with attendees from all over the US that were held in downtown Seattle so people could take the train and not have to rent cars. That kind of planning take awhile to get in motion once something like the airport connection opens.

      4. Oh no, sorry. I didn’t mean it that way. I think buses have an important role for TAKING COMMUTERS TO AND FROM THE STATION FROM THEIR NEARBY NEIGHBORHOODS.
        I’m only saying, that since Seattle’s buses travel long distance, they are terrible ineffective and daily stuck in traffic; only rail has the efficiency to transport commuters swiftly across the city due to their dedicated track and the capacity similar to 10-articulated-buses.

        The largest problem I think with Seattleites, and Seattle’s suburbanites is that very few of them have experienced an underground, worldclass subway system such as: the London Tube, Paris Metropolitain, and Tokyo and NY Subway.

      5. I have lived in London and loved the Underground. But that system has evolved over the last century! In the 1890s, it consisted merely of the Metropolitan Line from Paddington to Aldgate. It did not even go through inner London! The Link Light Rail is a good start from which to add onto in future decades.

        Another thing that hampers fuller utilization of public transportation is the reluctance of many Americans to walk any distance. I grew up in England and do not see a 15min walk to a bus or train as a problem. I live in a part of West Seattle not so well served by Metro, but I manage to live without a car because I am willing to walk.

      6. I’ve noticed that Satellite’s tolerance towards walking has been increasing. Possibly from a combination of the mainstreaming of a transit lifestyle, and more walkable neighborhoods.

      7. I have heard several Europeans say that walking 15 or 30 minutes, or even an hour or more, is not uncommon or annoying to them. And certainly, their obesity levels have lagged behind because of this (although now they’ve caught up according to an article I read last week).

        I don’t mind walking occasionally. It’s just when you have to go back and forth to a distant train station or bus stop more than twice a day that the time really adds up.

      8. Big, broad sidewalks and walkways are also important. Walking along streets shared with high-speed cars is miserable, and generally avoided. I’ve never been in a European city, even a fairly small town, without a comprehensive walkway or sidewalk system; only in *truly* rural areas did I have to walk on the road, and on those roads the cars were both very rare, and only going 30 mph. In contrast, I’ve seen busy suburbs with no sidewalks in the US, and our rural roads have *very high* speed limits (from a pedestrian’s POV) and often quite a lot of traffic.

      9. Driving speeds in the UK and Russia seem to be higher than the US, so much that I’m nervous crossing the street there. They do stop quickly enough to avoid an accident, but the speed still unnerves me. I always use underpasses or traffic lights there if I possibly can.

        We shouldn’t make too much of the lack of sidewalks here. Parts of north Seattle don’t have them because they didn’t want them: they thought no sidewalks gave it more of a country atmosphere. Recently they have wanted them, but there have always been other priorities for limited road dollars.

        I think it’s due to the anti-urban sentiment in American culture. People don’t want their towns and suburbs to look like cities even if they’ve obviously become cities.

      10. We shouldn’t make too much of the lack of sidewalks here. Parts of north Seattle don’t have them because they didn’t want them: they thought no sidewalks gave it more of a country atmosphere. Recently they have wanted them, but there have always been other priorities for limited road dollars.

        Actually that isn’t quite the case. Many neighborhoods North of 85th were promised sidewalks back in the 50’s if they agreed to be annexed into Seattle.

        Now there may be a few neighborhoods where sidewalks weren’t wanted but I’m pretty sure those are the exception and not the rule.

  7. This is certainly good news, although I agree that we shouldn’t get overly excited about it. As others have said, I think we’ll continue to get incremental improvements in ridership in most months this year but I doubt we’ll sustainably hit 26k in 2010. Hopefully I’m wrong!

    Now that some bus routes have been tweaked to take advantage of this new “artery”, SoundTransit/Metro need to focus on smoothing out operational issues such as slow speeds entering/leaving DSTT, unplanned stops along MLK, and getting some improved next train system put in place.

    1. I’ve noticed that it seems like trains are going a lot faster between Int’l Dist and Stadium lately. Anyone know anything about this?

      1. I think it’s because they took down the scaffolding/wooden supports for the overpass they were building over stadium station. I heard that speeds were limited while that stuff was up.

  8. Point of clarification? I thought the 26,600 pass/wk value was an average weekly value to be reached by the end of the year (or was it mid-year?), not an average weekly value across the entire year.

    Attaining a weekly average of 26,600 per week by the end of the year is probably within striking distance, but attaining a weekly average of 26,600 for the entire year is certainly unrealistic.

    That said, these are good numbers. Add with the Mariners and Sounder just getting started again we should see more gains in the coming months.

    Good news indeed.

    1. In the press releases surrounding the opening, ST said it estimated 26K within a year, which I always took to mean July. Don’t see it happening, but as you said, good news nonetheless.

      1. I think they did say mid-2010, I either heard June mentioned specifically or I assumed that by that they meant June.

    2. The SIP says, “By mid-2010, this is expected to increase to about 26,600 weekday boardings following the completion of Airport Link and the full implementation of connecting bus service.” It’s on page 17.

  9. Important or not in the big picture, I’m sure everyone is happier with this trend than they would be with a trend in the other direction. Also, it might have been more gradual than he expected, but Ben’s prediction of 194-related growth would seem to be getting more and more accurate.

    Does anyone know when and why ST changed course regarding fares in the tunnel? I ride Westlake to ID and back all the time (Uwajimaya) on pretty much whatever comes first (unless I’m not in a rush and happen to hear the “2 minutes” announcement), and imagine many other would-be riders do as well.

    1. I’m not sure what you mean by, “changed course regarding fares in the tunnel.” As far as I know Link has never been free in the tunnel, and fares have not been changed (yet).

      There really ought to be ORCA readers on the platform at each station for exactly the scenario you described.

      1. David,

        Sound Transit has a few different reasons for why ridership has been a little below their estimates. Lately they’ve been mentioning that they weren’t expecting to charge fares in the tunnel when they devised their ridership estimates, and so aren’t seeing the tunnel trips they expected to see.

        …So I was just asking if anyone knows when/why ST changed its mind on charging fares in the tunnel.

      2. It was kind of a community decision. Sound Transit had two fare structures that they presented at community meetings, the one that included free rides on Link downtown was $0.25 more outside of downtown to make up the lost revenue. People in the community along the line were against subsidizing free rides downtown, so Sound Transit decided to charge fares in the tunnel.

      3. Yes, you don’t want your daily commute rising 50c per day round trip so that other people can get a free ride in the tunnel. They can take a bus or walk, or pay for a train ride.

    1. Dude, I have an awful camera phone but it’s got a lot better resolution than that!

    1. If they can average 8% it’ll be 26,000 by October. Likely see some summer drop off with vacations and all but 26,000 by year end is doable.

  10. Connect the 132 to TIBS, and connect the 122 to Airport Station. Faster service for all, at less cost.

    Are there are reasons not to? — other than Newton’s First Law of Motion?

  11. A night-owl Link shadow route would help airport-related employees be able to use Link. It shouldn’t cost that much. If transit isn’t available both ways, expect people to drive both ways.

    I hope ST follows through with plans to significantly increase frequency on the 574 as well. They promised to replace the 194. That should mean replacing the frequency of 194+574.

    1. There was supposed to be an early morning route to replace the 194. I guess it got dropped in the budget squeeze.

  12. Probably a premature question, but is Link able to add a third car? I ask because a quote from an ST manager in a recent times piece stated that a third car could not be added to the trains for Sounders games because there is not enough room to turn around a 3-car train in the tunnel. I was under the impression that the tunnel could handle 3-car turnarounds, especially since they were testing them last summer.

      1. To clarify…we’ve moved up the bumping post in the stub tunnel since we opened last July to make room for the coming U-Link work. Now we can only turn a two-car train around in there.


      2. I presume once the tunnel under the Interstate is finished it will be possible to turn three-car trains again (even if the rest of U-Link isn’t done yet)?

    1. Isn’t there a pocket track at Stadium Station? Could you park a three or four car train and then send it south to help clear out stadium crowds that board there?

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