photo by Zargoman

Every time we have a Link ridership report readers like to make predictions for next year. Blog comments are low stakes, so if that’s entertaining for people so be it. In the long term, there’s pretty good reason to think ridership will increase substantially because:

  1. People will naturally sort themselves so that those very interested in living near a train line will displace those not so inclined;
  2. Barring an absolute fiscal or engineering catastrophe, more stations will open and serve more trips, even on the existing segment; and
  3. Barring continued chaos in the finance and real estate markets, all those empty pits on MLK will be developed.

I’m personally confident that all those trends will emerge over the next decade or so. In the short term, however, those secular trends are likely to be totally swamped by variation in employment levels, fuel prices, tourist arrivals, Metro service levels, weather, and Mariners and Sounders attendance. These things are hard to predict and short term variations don’t have much to do with the long-term viability of Link.

In other words, no matter what ridership does in 2011, that’s not substantial confirmation or refutation of your beliefs.  If it comes back strong, it doesn’t mean that 2010 can be dismissed as an isolated blip below expectations. Similarly, if it’s flat or slightly declining, that doesn’t “prove” that Link’s future ridership growth is a mirage.

See also Zach on models.

63 Replies to “Ridership Predictions”

  1. I’m going to go out on a limb and make one cast-iron prediction: no ridership numbers, no matter how good, would prevent our anti-rail trolls from running their mouths and keyboards, denouncing Link as waste and fraud.

      1. I dunno, maybe I looked into the future in my crystal ball and saw all the usual trolls coming out on this thread?

  2. It’s fascinating to watch certain commenters apply a double standard to ridership predictions; when making a positive statement (“Link will achieve X”, the process is derided as meaningless and unreliable. When these same numbers turn out to have overshot the mark, the original predictions are suddenly the reliable standard against which to judge success and failure . It’s a curious bait and switch. Why not just recognize the whole process as profoundly fallible, wait for a couple years worth of empirical data, then restart the argument? To my mind a modeled prediction is completely uninteresting the day after service begins.

    1. And the reverse is true for pro-rail folks. We can’t just say “see, the models were true!” when exceeding expectations and countering with “oh well, they’re just models” when coming in under expectations.

      1. You haven’t seen us say “oh well, they’re just models” – you’ve heard us say “the models are good, but they don’t account for major unemployment and such.”

        You can tell the Link models are good because if you look at similar urban areas’ ridership declines due to recession, and adjust for that, Link projections were accurate. They just didn’t include a factor that they really couldn’t!

      2. Liias is wrong. Not the first time I’ve heard this basic misunderstanding from politicos who, I guess from being out of the private sector for so long fail to realize that unemployed people stop commuting to work.

  3. Yeah, I lost interest in monthly numbers once it became clear sometime late last spring that daily ridership was permanently out of the mid-teens and securely into the low- to mid-twenties.

    To me, the next points of real interest are (1) when unemployment starts to significantly fall, and (2) when all the development that’s been suspended or postponed by the Great Recession starts coming online.

    1. Corollary to Jason’s (1): when that 20% vacancy rate in downtown Seattle falls to its 3 – 5% norm.

      And thanks to one of our commenters about the effect of system expansion — with every added station, there’s another destination riders can get to on the train, thus resulting in increased boardings at every other station. Think of it as compound interest, applied to the transit arena.

      1. In fairness, the norm is more like 10%. That’s equilibrium, sort of like 5% is equilibrium in apartments.

  4. I’m old enought to remember when my grandparents used to pound the table and complain about building I-5 and what a waste of tax dollars that boondoggle was going to be. And for the first few years, it was amazing how few cars used I-5 in Seattle–you could almost stop your car and have a Sunday picnic on I-5 without worrying about getting hit. But as we know, today, we look at the I-5 planners and wonder how they could have been so stupid to have built such limited capacity through downtown. Fifty years from now the light rail system will be an integral part of the Puget Sound transit system. If we show our children and grandchildren the archives and they see the comments of the naysayers and scoffs from 2011, they’ll laugh and wonder “how would we ever get around without Link?”

      1. When Gen. Dwight Eisenhower was admiring the autobahns in the Germany we had conquered, he should’ve noted that they did not cut through the heart of cities. They linked cities at their peripheries. Their purpose was inter-city travel and commerce, not to provide daily commute routes for workers in single-occupant vehicles. Oh how I wish we had followed the German model.

      2. He did notice that and said he’d only approve the Interstate act if the roads didn’t go through cities. The transportation department lied to him and said they wouldn’t even though they were planning to put them through cities.

      1. Some think there will be another million people around the sound in 50 years, if true they will be asking why we made the system with such low capacity / frequency…

      2. Link by then will have 3 minute headways between SODO and Northgate (and possibly beyond) and 9 minute headways elsewhere (possibly 6 minutes in the RV): that’s not London Underground, but that’s gonna move a lot of people. Moreover if the area booms like that, a 2nd Ave tunnel with service to Ballard and West Seattle and beyond is in the cards.

  5. I don’t see why you need a “model” when you have a living breathing experiment with MAX in Portland. So, in Portland(ia), did:

    1: Light rail transit riders displace motorists in near-to-station housing?

    2: Ridership per station go up on average year to year?

    3: Any areas targeted for development due to proximity to light rail, in fact, develop?

    1. John,

      Please research your own questions and not merely throw them out. Do you really want answers? Or is it some game?

      1. O.K., you asked for it:

        Transitory Dreams:
        How New Rail Lines Often Hurt Transit Systems

        Jonathan E.D. Richmond, PhD
        Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

        In the past two decades, many U.S. cities have built new rail-transit systems, and more plan to build or extend such lines in coming years.

        To their supporters, the new services are great successes that merit replication. The managers of Portland, Oregon’s, light-rail line, for example, say their system is contributing daily to “less traffic, cleaner air, and a healthier economy.” Similarly, in St. Louis, officials claim that the Metrolink light-rail line is a “nationally recognized success.”

        A systematic analysis of data on the transit systems shows, however, that in most cases investment in light rail has worsened overall transit-system financial performance while providing little or no gains in public-transport ridership. Why does this analysis appear to contradict transit officials’ views? Because transit managers have tended to both forget the promise of initial forecasts and to provide isolated results on the rail systems without connecting their arrival with the declines in overall system performance that rail projects have often caused.

      2. @Rob It is indeed a game. It’s called “Spam STB with dubious anti-rail hit pieces.”

        I note that this comes out of a think tank opposed to smart growth, urban density and public transit, not a likely source for a dispassionate comparison of transit modes. They claim, for example, that the point of smart growth is to cause traffic congestion and force people on to transit, whereas anyone who’s lived in Phoenix will tell you that awful traffic happens no matter even if your growth is completely brain-dead.

        The linked abstract notes a number of faults with some light rail systems, including fare-free downtown zones that reduce farebox, and large P&Rs that encourage driving to the train station and then taking the bus. Neither of these things are traps that Link has fallen in to, and the fact that some cities have made mistakes in their rail build out does not invalidate the advantages of rail when implemented correctly.

        Moreover, this study mostly limits itself to rail systems begun recently. I note the author does not mention London Underground’s near-100% farebox recovery, or argue that New Yorkers would be better served by busses. But of course, if your anti-urban agenda is to shoehorn everyone into single-family car-dependent homes in the suburbs, you don’t want to let smaller cities to rise to that density by allowing them the necessary infrastructure to be livable at that density.

        Really, the linked piece is most interesting for what it suggests about the agenda of the people who wrote it, rather than the cherry-picked collection of facts it spins together into something that purports to be an objective report.

      3. @Bruce

        You seem to have an Agenda that goes way beyond the mandate of transit.

        Transit is taking people from point A to point B in the quickest, cheapest and most pleasant way possible.

        What you are talking about is Social Engineering in which you want to use transit to uproot people from their chosen way of life, and funnel them into smaller homes with higher costs so that you can get a greater profit from them via costs and taxes.

      4. @JB You are known from your own prior statements to have an agenda that ultimately denies the utility of all mass transit and seeks to use entrenched market distortions to prevent urbanization.

        Your non-response to the substance of my post suggests to me you are incapable or unwilling to back up your intellectually-crippled ideas with any kind of independent factual analysis, continuing a pattern I’ve seen since you started commenting on STB.

      5. Actually, I believe the original social engineering experiment may have been the Interstate Highway system.

    2. 1: Light rail transit riders displace motorists in near-to-station housing?

      2: Ridership per station go up on average year to year?
      Depends on the station.

      3: Any areas targeted for development due to proximity to light rail, in fact, develop?

      “Simple answers to simple questions.” Not all of the stations developed the same way. Some of the areas targeted for development did, in fact, develop, some did not; some of the stations showed consistent increased ridership and some did not; indeed, housing near some stations seems to have filled with light rail riders while housing near others has not. Comparison of the differences between stations may be instructive, as station access designs, preexisting conditions, and zoning are probably all relevant to these results.

  6. I agree with Jason — once they got to the 20s on weekdays, I considered it a success.

    For a line that connects to no other rail lines, goes through low-density areas, and has almost no parking, it’s doing fine. Added density, U-Link, an economic recovery, and more frequent service with longer trains will all contribute to much higher ridership.

    1. Other than Sounder, Amtrak, the monorail, and the SLUT, it doens’t connect to any other rail lines to speak of. ;)

      1. “Other than Sounder, Amtrak, the monorail, and the SLUT, it doens’t connect to any other rail lines to speak of. ;)”

        It’s impressive, in a bad way, that ALL of these are outdoor walking connections which require crossing streets.

      2. Link connects to the monorail under cover. In the Westlake Station mezzanine, exit to the Westlake Center basement, then take the escalators to the top floor.

  7. Interesting that Martin would write a post about ridership predictions without mentioning any ridership predictions.

    Here is Sound Transit’s most-recent projections for Central Link that I am aware of, from the 2011 Proposed Budget, which came out in September, 2010 (I believe that ST probably had some inkling by then that there had been a recession).

    page 45

    Sound Transit is predicting for Central Link for the year 2011:

    Average weekday boardings: 31,759 (actual for 2010 was 20,972, by my math)

    Total boardings for all of 2011: 10,346,169 (actual for 2010 was 6,965,146)

    So, ST is predicting about a 50% increase in average weekday boardings for 2011 over 2010, and about a 50% increase in total boardings for 2011 over 2010.

    Anyone here expect that to happen?

    1. “Interesting that Martin would write a post about ridership predictions without mentioning any ridership predictions.”

      Apparently you missed the point of the post, again.

      1. Apparently Martin misses the point of ridership predictions. Wonder why he thinks ST keeps making ridership predictions. Just for laughs?

      2. Because they have to write a budget, and they apply models to do so.

        And you are indeed missing the point of the post, which is asking why people like you make predictions.

      3. And you feel it is not important whether or not the actual ridership meets the predictions?

        And it’s not just for a budget. It is to get voters to vote massive tax increases to fund these little trains. When ST and its supporters tell people that East Link will average 45,000 – 50,000 boardings per weekday in 2030 to get billions of tax dollars to build it, do you honestly believe it doesn’t matter how many boardings per day East Link actually achieves in 2030? Those predictions are just meaningless to you, and should mean nothing to anybody?

        So, when we get to 2030, and East Link is not averaging anything close to 45,000 boardings per weekday, you will just say, “Well, Sound Transit could not possibly have foreseen everything that happened between 2008 and 2030, so how could you expect them to know how many people would actually use East Link? They just wanted you to vote for the massive tax increase.” lol

      4. Of course actual ridership matters, particularly in the long term.

        If you have specific objections to the assumptions in the ridership models, please share them. If you’re going to work backwards and say that because the projection is off, all future projections will be off in the same way, you’re not going to convince anyone that’s paying attention.

      5. 4 cents on a ten dollar purchase is a massive tax increase? Good one. Gas just went up that much last night. Where’s the outrage over that?

      6. These boardings numbers – projections vs. actual – are irrelevant. The voters have spoken, and nothing can stop the progress of the trains.

      7. “Those predictions are just meaningless to you, and should mean nothing to anybody?”


        As ever, it’s hard to discern whether you’re being obtuse or disingenuous. Estimates are by their nature imprecise. That’s why they’re called…drum roll…estimates, boys and girls!

        It is a ridership estimate, not a ridership guarantee. An estimate is, by any definition of the word, a rough, approximate, and tentative judgment of size or number. You waste countless thousands of words (and I shudder to think how much time and energy) because you willfully ignore or somehow simply misunderstand the “estimate” in “ridership estimate.” You endlessly search for a “gotchya” that can never exist so long as ridership is in the same ballpark as the estimate.

        Voters—who love funding these huge trains—understand the meaning of the word estimate. That’s why ridership has become a non-story in the press (except for a certain site lovingly dedicated to transit geekiness) and that’s why voters will approve more huge trains whenever ST3 pops up their ballots.

      8. Norman – you are forever searching for ROI. You won’t find it here – only in the corporatist enclaves. What the Agency does is move people swiftly and surely. That you can not take from us.

  8. This is a big reason I wish they would have build north link first, all this complaining about numbers probably wouldn’t be there if North opened first, then it would build voter enthusiasm for extension.

    1. A couple of points. North Link first would have almost certainly meant a suit from a BRU-like group because of the second point. Second, transit ridership share in South Seattle was pretty great when the planning process began in the 1990s. Third, North Seattle ridership has benefited from a lot of investment in improving transit connections since the 1990s and the resolution of a bunch of issues between 65th to Northgate that contributed to low ridership. Also the impact of Northgate TC has been kind of a big deal but it took awhile to develop.

    2. “North Link first would have almost certainly meant a suit from a BRU-like group”

      Who’s BRU? The reason North Link wasn’t built first is they were afraid the Ship Canal crossing was too risky (as in cost overruns) and would scuttle the whole thing. So they built the least risky segment first. Later they found a less risky location for the crossing, near the Montlake Bridge rather than the University Bridge, which is what’s being built now.

      “transit ridership share in South Seattle was pretty great when the planning process began in the 1990s”

      I haven’t heard that South Seattle ridership has gone down.

      “North Seattle ridership has benefited from a lot of investment in improving transit connections since the 1990s”

      It has improved, but the ridership for Link was already there in 1990. Northgate Mall was a transit hub before the TC. The biggest improvement was the 41 and 522. Before, the 307 went on I-5 to Northgate, then Lake City, then Bothell, and ran hourly. The vision of truncating the north end express routes at Northgate was what spearheaded the TC and Link line, alongside the existing and potential demand for travel between Northgate – UW – downtown. So the ridership was already there; it’s just that the Ship Canal crossing was too risky.

  9. Why is ridership important?
    IMHO, it’s because Link doesn’t operate in a vacuum, surrounded by gung-ho rail supporters.
    It’s but one of many metrics to determine rails benefit to society (total new riders, riders/hr, cost/rider, subsidy, you get the point).
    From the general publics perspective, who pay for most of the costs of Link, they expect their taxes are being well spent. When that faith is destroyed, so will the willingness for the public to continue supporting it. Right now, Links costs per anything are far higher than the bus service it replaced. Ulink is a long way down the road, will be extremely expensive per mile to build, but should lower operating cost significantly with it’s expected high ridership. Failure to achieve lower than bus rider costs will be a ‘body blow’ for Link, in the publics eye, as the lowest and ripest fruit will have been plucked from the tree.
    Looking beyond our rose colored glasses, Puget Sounders will discover that many other cities started down the path of Light Rail Transit about the same time we did(Dallas, Salt Lake, Charlotte, Phoenix, etc). Those cities are now posting results in higher ridership, more miles built, lower construction costs, or better metrics per rider than ST. If you think Congress and the FTA don’t notice these results, then you truly are living in a dream world.
    Ridership matters! It’s what draws in needed New Starts grants from the feds. It’s what keeps the general public’s support for ST3, 4 and who knows what. It’s what keeps the fresh crop of politicians in the ‘me too’ column, who hold the purse strings.

    1. As you may or may not have noticed, we are doing lots of tunneling, which is vastly more expensive than building at grade or elevated. FTA knew this when they funded U-Link and yet they still scored the project highly, and they will allow for it when they evaluate the results. They will also take into account ridership declines on feeder agencies like Metro.

      We know ridership and cost per rider is important, and it would be hard for Link to NOT be cheaper than busses once we’re built out to Northgate and S 200 St, so there’s no need to keep wittering on about it. Almost every post you make is waffle about how if we just built a few extra freeway ramps we could make do with busses for the foreseeable future, and FUD about whether Link will be an inexplicable flop.

      As for the other cities you mention, I’m personally familiar with Phoenix’s Metro Light Rail. This system is, except for one bridge, entirely at-grade, Ranier Valley-style, and it was a direct replacement for the single biggest bus line in the Phoenix area. Because of this, it’s basically a bus on rails, and even though its initial ridership is good, I doubt it will grow particularly fast, and it has actually declined somewhat due to the economy and Arizona’s anti-Mexican jihad.

      1. When you don’t like the message, just shoot the messenger, eh Bruce? Your statement is about as false as your perception about the future.
        Please cite your references to validate your claim against me, then I’ll listen to what you have to say.
        (“Almost every post you make is waffle about how if we just built a few extra freeway ramps…”)

      2. Another consideration are the values we embraced when designing and constructing our light rail system. If you wanted the highest possible ridership immediately after opening the line for the lowest cost, every link station would have had a large parking garage next to it and the stations would be closer to major freeways. There would also be more stations, and the stations themselves would have shorter platforms (to save money). All of those would have been good for ridership short-term, but would have addressed few of the long-term values embraced. It would have addressed congestion but not fundamentally changed the way the region grows.

        We decided we wanted a reasonably fast, high-capacity system which would encourage development in the immediate vicinity of stations. This allows the regional population to grow in a manner which is environmentally optimal.

        In the long run, I still think we’ll realize what we built was more right than wrong, and I doubt anyone will much care that initial ridership was less than anticipated.

    2. Mike,
      You keep warning ST might not be able to get future FTA grants for LINK due to missing ridership projections for Central LINK. Can you cite one instance where the FTA refused grants to a system in active build-out due to missing ridership projections on it’s initial MOS? True the FTA has denied grants base on agency-wide problems in the past, but only for issues that don’t apply to ST.

      It is far too soon to say if the ridership projections for further link segments are too high. We won’t know for certain until those segments begin revenue service. Furthermore the remaining segments are very different transit markets than the current line. At least for the Seattle to Lynnwood line the numbers are so good that even if ST misses the ridership projections by as much as the did for Central Link the line will still look very good from a cost/benefit standpoint.

      As for the local political situation I don’t see any signs of an erosion of support for ST. If anything actually opening a line has many asking when the can get link in their neighborhood.

      1. I think the best example is the FTA funded Tren Urbano, although it’s closer to a Metro than Link is.
        It’s the most expensive New Start with the worst ridership ratio (bang for the buck). Now look at who is #2 on the list.
        Patty Murray has consistently brought home the ST bacon – down the road, who knows.

      2. Mike, was the Tren Urbano denied FTA money for further expansion based on missing their ridership targets?

        Second the list you link to is simply of the 11 most expensive transit projects in the US and Canada that opened between 2000 and 2009. The list makes no “bang for buck” judgements.

      3. I’m with Mr. Stefan on this. Yes, ridership matters. And Link is right on track, but for the economy. I’ve never seen a valid reason the FTA won’t understand that. And I’ve never seen any evidence of slipping public support for either ST in general or Link in particular.

    3. Why is it that light rail is the only transit mode that has to live up to ridership projections? What about BRT, express buses, HOV lanes, commuter rail? None of these ever invoke scrutiny. Sounder is as big of an investment as Link, and carries far fewer people, but no one goes prattling on about it every time the ridership numbers are released. Sound Transit has invested close to a billion dollars in capital for ST Express, is every route meeting ridership projections? How many people per day are using the new HOV ramps? Taxpayers want to know! Were ridership projections used to “sell” ST Express as Norman always asserts for light rail. It was part of the same package and is paid for from the same taxes.

      If people are going to be critical of light rail’s ridership then they should be critical of transit ridership as a whole. There are a lot of underutilized bus routes out there that suck up a whole lot more money than light rail.

      1. Central Link cost about $160 million per mile.

        U Link is costing about $600 million per mile.

        Does than answer your question for you?

        Are you serious that Sounder cost $160 million per mile? If it makes you feel any better, I will state that Sounder trains are also an enormous waste of money. But, I don’t think Sounder trains cost nearly as much as $160 million per mile. If they did, can you give me a link to the website where I can find that?

      2. Not true Zed. I consistently asked for RapidRide-A ridership data going back to the first month it opened. After being told ridership would be out in November, I question why it was missing.
        I recently gave up asking, noting I didn’t think anyone was even monitoring Metro’s Blog, such that it was, and asked the sham to be shut down.
        My original point was that YES, ridership matters, while withholding specifics on Central Link.
        The Tren Urbano example was cited because they were the most expensive and had only half of the projected ridership. It’s hard to prove the negative, short of FTA saying publicly, “Bad Planning, No more funding”, but note San Juan has not been blessed with more federal dollars.
        I’m just saying Seattle shouldn’t be so smug, in convincing themselves that ridership doesn’t matter, or that the rest of the country will wait for TOD, or $10 gas to make things better.
        I suggested a separate posting for 1/1/11 on “Let’s find ways to help Link get riders”.
        I guess management thinks we have enough, so it never happened.

      3. Mike, my comments weren’t directed at you in particular, just more of a general comment. I have seen you on the RapidRide blog.

        I didn’t say that ridership doesn’t matter – of course it does, but it’s only one metric and we only have one year of data. If ridership was flat this year I’d be worried, but it’s made respectable gains and during the summer came pretty close to projections. If in five to ten years ridership is no more than it is today then I’ll be asking ST for some answers, but I doubt if that will be the case. You also have to keep in mind that Central Link wasn’t conceived as a stand-alone line and the FTA knows that. If we were to build one and only one light rail line in Seattle, Central Link would not be it. And being a frequent user of the 7xX and the 41 I feel pretty confident that Link from downtown to Northgate will eventually be the most productive light rail line in the country on a boardings per mile basis.

        Norman, do you really think that the cost per mile incapsulates everything that needs to be known about the investment? I can probably build a light rail line in Ritzville for $5 million per mile, would that be a good investment?

      4. @Zed +1 on U-Link and North Link. I’ve had to make lots of afternoon and evening trips from downtown to the U-District this week, and the 7xX busses at peak (and sometimes off) are slow and noisy sardine tins on wheels. I invite anyone who thinks throwing busses at that corridor is the solution to anything to take a ride on one.

      5. You’re probably going to be hearing this particular brand of baseless carping until U-Link opens, at which point the anti-Link brigade will stop being convincing to anybody. But I suppose there’s no way to hurry U-Link up.

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