'RapidRide in view' by Atomic Taco

Despite last year’s moderation of 2008’s record transit ridership, newly released American Community Survey estimates for 2009 show a fair increase in transit commuting share for both Seattle and Bellevue, at 19.5% and 14.2% respectively.  For a comparative breakdown, Eric de Place of Sightline has the rankings between other cities in the region for transit, as well as cycling, walking, carpooling, and working at home.  PubliCola’s observations here.

Seattle 19.5% share scored a modest increase of 1.8 points over 2008, generous compared to Portland’s 11.5% considering the ease of driving there.  It’s not really clear whether or not Link had an influence on the numbers.  When considering the other modes, roughly a third of Seattleites now commute outside of SOV driving.

Bellevue’s share is by far the most surprising at 14.2%.  However, its whopping 6.8 point increase over 2008 could prove to be nothing more than an error.  Nonetheless, when extricating that possibility, there are a few explanations: the city’s growing suburban park-and-ride commuter bases, Downtown Seattle and Bellevue remaining the most likely transit destinations where peak service is good (Bellevue won an award in this department after all), and to a lesser extent more commuters using the Microsoft connector service.

When it comes to bicycling, however, Washington cities lag far behind Oregon with a state-wide share of cycling commuters at an abysmal 0.9%, compared to Oregon’s 2.3%.  The estimates for Seattle are virtually unchanged from 2008 at about 3.0%, while Portland sits easily on top at 5.8% in the big city category.  I wonder why.

Bear in mind that the ACS compiles its data from samples and extrapolation unlike the Census’ full-scale survey model, so not until next year will we get a better idea of actual commuting habits.

36 Replies to “Transit Commuting Up in Seattle, Bellevue”

  1. Ranked transit mode share by county:

    County %transit margin of error
    King County 11.7 +/-0.6
    Kitsap County 7.4 +/-1.3
    Snohomish County 5.8 +/-0.7
    Whatcom County 3.9 +/-1.3
    Pierce County 3.2 +/-0.5
    Thurston County 3.0 +/-1.2
    Island County 2.7 +/-1.2
    Clark County 2.6 +/-0.6
    Spokane County 2.4 +/-0.6
    Grays Harbor County 2.4 +/-1.4

    From American Community Survey

      1. I didn’t read the fine print. Maybe it includes ferry travel, which could explain why Island County was as high as it is.

      2. Ferries are indeed included in “public transportation”:

        The category, “Public transportation,” includes workers who used a bus or trolley bus, streetcar or trolley car, subway or elevated, railroad, or ferryboat

  2. Another table that that Sightline article linked to had the stats for percentage of commutes by SOV. Seattle has a 52% SOV modeshare, by far the lowest in the Northwest. Next was Portland at like 62%.

  3. Is the Bellevue ranking people that live in Bellevue? I’m curious if it would count me. I live in Seattle (Capitol Hill) and commute to work in Bellevue on bus everyday. The 271 is often packed and most people get off at the Bellevue Transit Center so that could be why the numbers are higher in tranist commuting.

    1. Nope, the survey is based on place of residence. So you’d be counted as a Seattle transit user.

  4. “unlike the Census’ full-scale survey model, so not until next year will we get a better idea of actual commuting habits.”

    Um, I don’t think so. The census got rid of the long form and PUMS data (on which commuting questions were asked) and so all we’re left with is the ACS.

    1. I didn’t think I was asked any questions about commuting when I filled out the census form this year.

  5. Once again, the stats show that Seattle, with virtually zero light rail in 2009, had a a far higher percentage of commuters using transit than Portland, which has a significant amount of light rail, which they started operating about 25 years ago.

    So, what is the point of spending billions of dollars on light rail, when Seattle has proved that you can get a large percentage of commuters to use transit by spending almost all your transit money on buses? Had the ST area spent the billions of dollars it has spent on light rail the past decade to improve the bus system instead, there would be a lot more people in our area using transit now.

    If the 0.9% sales tax, plus the MVET, that ST is collecting now were all used to improve the bus system in our area, we could likely double the capacity, and halve the headways, on every major bus route in King County, greatly increasing the number of people riding buses, and greatly increasing the percentage of commute trips taken by transit.

    1. Exactly!

      Because Seattle has a much higher percentage of people using transit is exactly the reason we need to spend the money now to build LR. Moving people on LR is far cheaper and more efficient than moving them the way Seattle moves them now.

      We need to build LR now precisely because – as you point out – the demand in Seattle is so much higher than in Portland. The fact that ridership will actually increase over today’s levels is just a bonus.

      And the fact that we can move all these while reducing our O&M costs is just gravy. How can anyone be against more efficient government? I’m certainly not.

      Oh, and diverting the ST tax base to pay for buses would go against the will of the voters. This is a democracy after all, and the voters have spoken.

      1. LOL Link light rail is vastly more expensive to both build and operate than buses. No comparison.

        Why hasn’t Portland’s lihgt rail increased demand for transit in Portland?

        Why hasn’t Portland’s light rail led to lots of Transit-Oriented development, which is supposed to increase transit’s share of commutes?

        Why is Seattle’s bus-oriented transit so much more successful in getting people to use transit than Portland’s investment im light rail?

    2. Norman,

      Correlation is not causation.

      The *state* of New York has a 26.6% transit share of work trips. Boston has a 34.5% share. In DC, it’s 37.1%. (In NYC, which I will freely admit is not really comparable to Seattle, it’s 54.9%.)

      All of these places have massive rail networks, and in DC’s case, it only opened in the 70s.

      Before Link, it was often quoted that Seattle has the largest transit share of any city with a bus-only transit system. The converse of those, of course, is that *no one* has proven that you can get greater transit share than Seattle’s 20% without building trains.

      The only thing Portland “proves” is that you can also do a whole lot worse.

      1. Portland proves that investing in light rail does not get you a higher share of commutes by transit than investing in buses, which are far less expensive than light rail.

        What is your estimate of how much it would cost to build a rail network in Seattle comparable to Boston, or D.C., which both have almost exclusively heavy rail, not light rail?

        But, I bet you knew that the rail systems in Boston and DC are heavy rail and not light rail, didn’t you?

      2. The heaviest used line in Boston is the Green Line, which is light rail. It alone has around 240,000 boardings per day, that’s equal to about 60% of Metro’s total daily boardings. The heavy rail MBTA Red Line only has about 178,000 daily boardings.

      3. Can you give a link here to the document where you find those statistics for every city in the U.S.? Thanks.

        Is any city in the U.S. experiencing a higher transit share of commute trips than Seattle by using primarily light rail?

      4. Portland is an existential proof, not a universal one. Yes, there exists one city which built rail and did not see substantial mode share changes. This does not even come close to proving that building rail will categorically not produce substantially higher transit use. For one, I already gave you a counterexample (DC), and I could give you others (Montreal, Vancouver).

        How much would it cost to build a rail network comparable to Boston or DC in Seattle? Well, I don’t know. But I haven’t made any claims about cost. My only claim is that there is not one city in North America with a bus-only transit system which achieves a higher transit mode share than Seattle. For all we know, if we had spent every penny of the Link money on buses, we would actually have *less* transit usage than we have now. And if we did achieve similar usage, it would probably have been by building grade-separated BRT like the Silver Line in Boston, which — what do you know — cost over a billion dollars.

        In short: There is no evidence that it is possible to achieve a transit usage share of significantly more than 20% without significant capital investments, regardless of the technology used; and there is no evidence that using buses instead of trains would decrease those costs by any significant margin.

        If you disagree with the first claim, please point me at an example of a city which has a transit usage share of significantly more than 20% despite not having trains or grade-separated busways. If you disagree with the second claim, please point me at an example of a city which built grade-separated busways instead of trains and objectively saved a lot of money by doing so. (The MBTA claims that they saved lots of money by building the Silver Line as BRT, but many other groups claim that building rail would have been significantly cheaper. Suffice it to say, that one doesn’t count.)

        Finally, as far as your light rail point goes: Why does this matter? Like Zed points out, Boston’s Green Line has the most ridership of any single line in Boston, and the light rail network in Boston comprises a full third of all rail transit ridership in Boston. But the only real difference between heavy rail and Link is that heavy rail allows for greater capacity, at the cost of requiring grade-separation (and thus costing more money to build). Using heavy rail instead of light rail *would* have increased costs substantially. Could we justify skipping East Link just so that North Link could have greater capacity? I don’t think so.

        Anyway, if/when the corridor demands it, we can always upgrade all/part of Link to heavy rail. When 4-car Link trains are running every 3 minutes, we will have increased capacity by a factor of 20-30. For now, that seems like enough.

    1. Yep, I noticed that too. Somehow it doesn’t look too “Rapid” when it is idling behind a line of SOV’s…..

      But I assume the pic is not representative of the entire line….correct?

    2. hmmm, looks to me like the cars on that street are very well spread-out, indicating they are moving freely. No, that does not appear to be a bus stuck in traffic. Does it look to you like it’s stuck in traffic? lol

      1. That definitely is a bus stuck behind cars at a light. So much for priority lanes and signalization to favor the bus. That’s the big lie about “Rapid” Ride by those who tout it as a better route to go than light rail.

      2. A signal that could be over-ridden or more easily prioritized (rail being a better conductor than radio).

        An intersection that could be closed to cross-traffic or fitted with quad-gate crossing arms.

        The list goes one as to the possible easy improvements that can be made with rail transit.

        But not having to share a ROW with some texting idiot on meth who got their driver’s license out of the gumball machine we call the DOL already puts rail at a huge advantage over a bus.

  6. Here is the transit commuting share for a few more cities to compare to Seattle. Keep in mind that Seattle has 19.5% of commute trips by transit.

    Seattle 19.5%

    Portland 11.5%

    Atlanta 12.8%

    Denver 7.8%

    Houston 3.9%

    Phoenix 3.2%

    Sacramento 4.3%

    San Diego 3.7%

    St. Louis 10.1%

    So, Altanta, which got the rail system that Seattle “should have had” according to many train lovers in our area, has a far lower percentage of commute trips by transit than Seattle, which put its money into buses.

    Denver, which opened its first light rail line in 1994, has a transit commute share of only 7.8% — well under half of Seattle’s.

    Sacramento opened their first light rail line in 1987 and they have a pathetic 4.3% of commute trips by transit.

    Etc. Etc.

    1. It’s all about land use. Seattle has unquestionably the best land use practices in our city out of all those. Seattle is the 7th densest of the 25 biggest cities in the US, and that’s what drives our transit use the most. When we have light rail all around the city, our transit modeshare will skyrocket.

  7. How is transit share calculated? When Metro or ST talk about “ridership” what they are counting is boardings. If you move to a model that encourages transfers (i.e. high capacity like Link served by feeder routes) the number of boardings goes up but that’s not necessarily more riders or more “trips”. It could just be a higher average of transfers per trip. For Bellevue I find it perfectly plausible that transit share increased due to major new hi-rise buildings coming on line.

    1. This particular report was based on the American Community Survey that asks questions about the usual way a person got to work during a certain time period, it wasn’t based on boardings or anything like that.

  8. Seattle, and other WA city the 2010 cycling figures should be available soon, as the state just did the annual count last week.

    Here is the SDOT data for 2007 vs 2009.

    Looks like a general increase over the two year period at nearly every count point. Some places like Second & Broad were down but the general trend is up. (the down points could be places that cyclists are avoiding vs other streets.)

  9. I think one of the biggest thing this article (and the comments) shows me is that we should be investing more in encouraging biking. Other than the initial infrastructure/restructuring there’s basically no cost, is more healthy, and is as green as it gets. It’s a shame that Seattle is so hilly, because that often discourages me from riding my bike to the more distant neighborhoods. I never really appreciated how much of a difference the changes in elevation can make until I visited Chicago last week – utterly flat, it was astonishing to me having grown up in Seattle.

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