Chart of Ridership Patterns on Central Link
Ridership Patterns on Central Link

Update: Two clarifications: This data is per-train, and based only on weekday ridership.

I’ve had a number of requests to “do one of your charts for Link”, and so I’ve worked with the folks at Sound Transit to assemble the required data, and here’s the result. STB has presented similar data before, but this is more recent and more detailed. What I see in the data, after the jump.

  • Central Link is a very commuter-oriented service. This isn’t surprising given the mostly-residential land-use patterns that prevail in Mid-Beacon Hill, on MLK in the Rainier Valley, and in Tukwila and Seatac.
  • Lots of people ride the line from end to end, although, of course, from this data we can’t separate out airport workers, travelers, and people who transfer to or from RapidRide (who will switch to S 200th St once that’s built).
  • The only station which bucks the commuter pattern is Mount Baker — there’s some commercial land there, along with transfers to the 8, 9X and 48 — and the all-day averages show a balance of ons and offs in both directions.
  • SODO and Stadium are pretty lightly-used.

I was secretly hoping that this visualization would reveal some previously-hidden facet of Link’s ridership patterns, but it’s basically what I expected from riding Link and knowing the areas of the city that it serves.

81 Replies to “Ridership Patterns on Central Link”

  1. Most any line ending in a CBD is going to be somewhat commuter-oriented.

    What I find most interesting in the data is how important the Seatac Airport station is to ridership. Often a line like this would peter out in the burbs. Clearly Seatac is a very important destination. Although you can’t see it in the chart, it’s likely also one that is uncorrelated with the commuter peaks, which makes it more economical.

    Given the importance of Seatac as a Link destination, and given Seatac’s operating hours, ST should really look at extending Sunday’s service hours to match Saturday, and also lengthening the service day, even if it’s only at 20 or 30 minute frequencies.

    1. Yes. The pre-6am ties for the highest ridership on the To SeaTac chart, and Seatac has over half the rides for the 9-15 timeframe. In fact it looks like there’s more than 20 people on board arriving and leaving SeaTac no matter what time of day.

    2. It also shows that ST really needs to add some baggage racks to their trains.

      Not all those riders to Sea-Tac are Airport/Airline/Airport-area-businesses employees going to/from work

      1. I ride Link often for the fun of it. I also ride Sounder for the fun of it. I love trains. I can’t use them to commute. I live in Ballard, so no light rail, no Sounder [station].

    1. I don’t think you can quite infer that. The chart also never accumulates total riders per trip as it subtracts riders who alight and adds those who board.

      It looks to me like the number alighting at Seatac is roughly have as many as the average of maximum loading, some of them might have boarded south of downtown, replacing some who got off along the route.

      1. In the Downtown to Seatac direction, I see hardly anybody getting on after downtown and about half of the total riders getting off at Seatac. What do you think?

      2. It depends on the trip. Sometimes a fair number of people get on and off between Beacon Hill and Rainier Beach; other times it’s only one or two at each station. The trend seems to be that there are always a significant number of people going from Westlake to SeatTac, while traffic at the Rainier/Beacon stations and TIB is much more variable throughout the day.

      3. If a significant number of people get on at one terminal station and get off at the other terminal, it may be an indication that the line is not long enough. I’m sure Sea-Tac will always be a big traffic generator, but I wonder if the preponderance of Westlake riders is just due to it being the end of the line. It will be interesting to see how these stats change when the line is extended. Will UW Station and S 200th then be the highest use stations?

      4. It will be interesting to see how these stats change when the line is extended. Will UW Station and S 200th then be the highest use stations?

        Doubtful, for two reasons. In the south, the airport is still a huge demand generator. In the north, Westlake is still a major transfer point. If you’re going to Northgate or the U-District, or anywhere in the west part of Seattle (e.g. Belltown/Queen Anne/Fremont/Ballard), then Westlake is still the place to transfer.

        Once North Link opens, then I’d expect that Northgate will become one of the busiest stations, for exactly the reason you mention — it’s the end of the line for everyone coming from points north. But until we have some sort of rapid transit in the west part of the city, Westlake will still be one of the biggest stations.

  2. Is the X-axis riders per trip or per vehicle? Two car trains v. one car make a difference.
    Great charts, Bruce

    1. That is an excellent question. My contact at ST was out today when I called, but I will get back to you on that, and put in the post.

      1. If I scale the white portion of the bars (avg. daily ONs), both NB and SB total about 180.
        There are about 122 round trips per day, x 180 (both NB + SB each trip),
        totals about 21,960 per day, which sounds close to average weekday ridership. So I deduce it’s per trip, regardless of the number of cars in the consist.
        As most trains are 2 cars long, if I was curious about vehicle loading, then divide the X – axis by 2 to see how many are on a car during each time period.
        I think I got that right??

      2. You are correct, at least during the day time and early evening, when the vast majority of the rides happen. I can’t remember offhand if there are any one-car trips on Link (late at night, maybe) during the week in this service change. I will check.

  3. I’m one of the few who switch northbound to Link at SODO. I’m usually coming from the 590 series and have used Link as a bridge to get to a northbound Tunnel bus (like the U District services or the 41). When I’m at SODO, I’m usually one of the only passengers there, as the chart above reflects

    1. Surprising. I always thought the transition at 4th & Jackson was the easiest, and then you only suffer through one transfer and not two.

    2. SoDo will probably be mostly empty until/unless we rezone the area or if my gondola-to-W-Seattle idea every flies. It’s nice to provide a station for industrial workers, but the area has such low density it’s unlikely to have much ridership.

    3. I pick up Link northbound from SODO station several times a week with the explicit idea of making my commute home to West Seattle as multimodal as possible. My ORCA card transaction history looks good with Metro, Link and King County Water Taxi on such a routine basis – yet still I’m not taken seriously as a transit nerd!

  4. The airport station ridership is ahead of projections. Before Link opened, there was some dispute about this, because the #194 bus scheduled running time was a couple minutes quicker, and some residents complained that a 1/4 mile walk from the station to the terminal would discourage its use. What seems to be happening, anecdotally, is that healthy young adults and tourists are choosing Link instead of a drive or cab, creating a new niche transit market.

    1. Rail generates ridership that Bus can never hope to capture.

      KCM 194 ran at half-hourly headways. ST Link is what, a 10 minute wait at most?

      And about that “1/4 mile walk”…did you ever have to walk from the KCM194 stop to the north-end of the check-in level?

      All this plus the fact that Link has more space for bags (needs more tho’), does not stink of Diseasel, and does not pitch and yaw around curves so much that it feels like it is going to tip over.

      Oh, and no “Pay as you Exit” BS upon arrival at Sea-Tac when you are already running late for your flight because some SUV driver forgot how to drive on I-5 in the rain.

      1. And the biggest advantage, from someone who routinely runs through airports, is that it doesn’t have to deal with traffic at all. I once was stuck on I-5 on that 194 for-freaking-ever. I gave myself an entire hour of buffer for my plane trip, and used most of it (not all was th 194’s fault, but a big chunk was).

        The importance of reliability can’t be understated when trying to catch a plane.

      2. Bags are bad on buses. With the train I just roll it on and away we go. I do wish the link station was a big more central though. It takes me about 13 minutes to get from my A gate to the Link. Sometimes at night I’m pushing it a bit to use transit all the way home.

    2. A side to this… I have friends who actually take Sounder to Link to SeaTac. These people schedule their trips around the Sounder schedule. For instance, I have a friend who lives near the Puyallup station and takes Sounder to King Street and then transfers to Link to SeaTac and makes the reverse trip coming home. He refuses to take a bus.

      I told this to a friend of mine who lives near the Mukilteo Station. She flies for business a lot, so she is now riding the Sounder down to King Street and then transfer to Link to SeaTac as well.

      People are getting very creative with their transfers and planning trips and places they are going via train transit now.

      1. In case he changes his mind about buses someday, he can take Sounder to Kent and transfer to the 180.

      2. Somebody should be smacking their head and doing a Homer Simpson DOH! concerning the South Sounder/Link connection. I know there were issues but let’s imagine for just a second the Link crossing over I5, having a Southcenter Mall stop, a Tukwilla/Amtrak/Sounder stop then turning north and having a stop at the south end of MLK. Yes it would take longer total but would service way more people. Anyone flying to Asia with a stop over in Seatac could check their bags and spend their couple of hours at Southcenter Mall instead of sitting in the airport. People coming from Portland/Olympia/Tacoma could ride the Sounder/Cascades up and transfer at Tukwilla to the airport saving nearly an hour from their trip.

      3. Sounder is peak-only. That’s not enough justification for spending millions of dollars on a transfer station, because most of the time when people want to use it, Sounder isn’t running.

    3. I wonder how STs model takes tourist into account. Tourist that fly into SeaTac are certainly an “external” to the model. Also locals and tourist certainly have different travel options to or from the airport. Tourist, especially those that are going on a cruise or heading to a conference in downtown Seattle have very little reason to get a rental car.

      1. It should by now be clear to ST how important tourism is to Link – stand at the Nordstrom entry to Link (betw/ 5th and 6th on north side of Pine) and watch the wheelie bags come and go and see the taxis parked illegally in the bust stop dropping off and picking up fares all day long. This is no longer anecdotal – it is the real thing, available for any ST exec to see, 16+ hours a day.

      2. External to what model? Link was all along intended to serve tourists, local travellers, and airport workers. “High-class” visitors will take a taxi or limo no matter what, but budget-minded tourists, conference-goers, college students take Link.

        As for cruise ships, transit between Intl Dist and the cruise ship terminals is so bad they’d probably think twice about taking Link directly to the ship. But some people arrive a day or two before their voyage and stay at a downtown hotel, so they can use Link for that. (And they do: I’ve met cruise-ship visitors on the train.)

      3. [Tim] In my experience that pretty much describes cruise trippers and old people (and maybe some families). I’ve travelled quite a bit, and never take more than a single bag that will fit in the overhead bin. Too much luggage not only slows you down, these days it’s expensive to check in.

        I’ve travelled on a 3-week trip to Thailand with my wife and 1-yr old and we were still able to take the bus and rail.

      4. Thanks Kyle – I should have written “travelers” not “tourists” – I’m one of those travelers a couple of times a year.

      5. It looks like a number of people are boarding Link at Tukwila and taking it to SeaTac. I have to admit I hadn’t thought of that…I suppose it’s cheap parking…how do they control the volume of parking in Tukwila…and is it policed?

      6. [Matt] same goes for me, except I only carry a bag that will fit under the seat. I want access to my stuff in-flight

    4. I don’t think you’ve got it right, Mike. The graph shows about 33 boardings per trip at SeaTac, times 122 trips per weekday, for a total of 4,026 per day.
      Link had 3,557 boardings in the Spring of 2010 (weekdays), while the MT194 carried 4,800 riders in the Spring of 2009. Of the 4,800 total ridership on the MT194, some were just ons/offs between CPS and Spokane St. (say about 10%, as I don’t have that data), so Link is just about where the MT194 route was.
      Could you cite your source on the Airport Link station projections, so I may be corrected if wrong?

      1. Apples and Oranges, now that I think about it further. 194 had trips to FW also, and the 4,800 was both directions, so cut the number in half to get just SeaTac boardings headed NB. Me bad!
        I would like to see something on what the real 194 NB boardings were, if anyone has access to the old on/off data.
        I’m sure it will be included in ST’s ‘Before and After’ study being prepared for the FTA as part of their FFGA.

  5. I’m one of those end-to-end riders. I live on Capitol Hill and fly 1-2 times a week. I always take Metro to downtown and Link to SeaTac except for very early or late flights, which means that about 20% of the time Metro/Link is impractical for me. Agree that Link hours need to be extended – ideally it should be possible to take light rail to SeaTac to catch any flight and from SeaTac after any flight, though I realize Link can’t run 24/7. Metro also could use more early-AM runs. Can’t wait until 2016 when I can get from Cap Hill to SeaTac without transferring, although maybe by then my job will have ended and I won’t be flying so much anymore. (Coincidentally I am writing this from a plane having taken Route 10 and then Link to the airport this AM.)

    1. There were plans on running a Link shadow bus for late night trips, but I assume it never materialized due to budgetary restrictions. Notwithstanding, you can still make it between Downtown and the Airport 24 hours a day using routes 124 and the A Line, although it takes quite a while.

      1. Tim, it’s a lot less useful than you think.

        On Sunday mornings there is no southbound 124 departure between 3:30am amd 6:45am. I think the first Link train is departs at 6:17am, getting to Seatac around 6:55am, but it’s either taking the 124 at 3:30am and getting to Seatac around 4:50am, or then a 2+ hour wait.

        Saturday mornings the 124 also doesn’t help. I think the first Link train is 517am and the first 124 is at 6am.

        Leaving the airport on Sunday evenings after 11:05pm the connections are virtually unusable. Not only aren’t they coordinated, they seemed designed to frustrate.
        RRA arrival times at Tukwila: 12:09am 12:39am 1:09am 1:54am 2:24am 3:33am
        Route 124 departure times from Tukwila: 12:36am 1:07am 2:15am 3:30am

      2. I’m a bit off re first southbound trains.
        Sundays first train leaves Westlake at 620am and arrives Seatac 658am (Flights start deparating around 530am!!)
        Saturdays first trains leaves Westlake at 506am and arrives Seatac 544am

        The underlying points remain: the 124 isn’t of much use of filling in gaps in Link service nor does it serve Seatac employees living in RV; and given the high ridership at the Seatac station, Link should expand the span of service, particuarly on Sundays

      3. I believe the formula is:

        (Link)*1 + (Taxicab)*1 = (Still cheaper than Taxi or even Gray Line Airporter was both ways)

      4. If you have access to a car, one taxi fare pays for about 5 days of off-airport parking, so for a short trip, Link is mainly economical if it will be running both ways when you need it.

      5. There’s always a shuttle going to the downtown hotels, from which it’s easy to transfer to Capitol Hill or elsewhere.

      6. Two Sundays ago I did the 84-124-RR A thing from Madison Park because I had a very early flight (6:30am). It did take a long time but wasn’t too bad (mainly because the weather was decent during the half-hour wait downtown). The trip planner tells you to transfer at S. Main, which seemed sketchy on a late Saturday night/early Sunday morning, but the driver wisely told me where to catch the 124 on Union between 3rd and 4th. Much nicer place to wait, and once the bus arrives you can get on and wait for departure.

        I was surprised at how many people were on the 124, and more so on the 4:30am Sunday morning RR A — 25+ (I counted), and only about half got off at the airport.

        (I would have prefered just to do an 84-Stadium Link ride, however…but not an option yet on a Sunday!)

  6. Has there been any discussion on how to increase ridership at SODO (park/ride, zoning changes, etc)? If nothing can be done in SODO, it seems to me ridership could be improved a little bit with the removal of the SODO station and the addition of a new station on MLK at S. Graham.

    1. Anecdotally, the SODO station is used mostly by employees of the local fast food restaurants, commuting in from the Rainier Valley. At least, when I was managing that Arby’s, pretty much all of our employees were using it.

      But the biggest problem with SODO station is that it’s out of sight. There’s plenty of employment down there, between the warehouses, the retail, the trainyards, Allied Waste, the Post Office and Seattle Public Schools – the walk-in lunch business we got at the Arby’s was proof of that.

      But no one can see the stations, hidden between a parking garage and a open lot used for storage. On game days, we kept getting questions of “what bus gets me to the stadium from here?”, and rather than point them to the infrequent/unreliable 23/124, we’d tell them to take the train. They’d ask where the station was, we’d tell them a block down Lander, they’d look around skeptically and then go wait for the 23.

      Wayfinding is absolutely necessary. These stations aren’t going to be hugely busy, but they can do better than they are now. And future redevelopment of the USPS parking garage will help.

      1. So you’re suggesting that well-marked paths to the SODO station from the stadium and large employers are what is needed? I wonder how much that would cost? It can’t be that expensive and would have to be worth it. It might be the sort of thing where you could come up with a community design and actually get the city to pay to do it.

    2. How about increasing ridership by making it a transfer point for buses from West Seattle? I don’t know if it’s known what the final routing for RR C will be post-viaduct removal, but if they ended up on 4th or the Busway (using the new 4th Ave off-ramp on the WS Freeway for the NB route), then this would be a useful transfer point in a generally uncongested area.

      SB is the problem for RR there. It would have to go down 1st Ave S, with the many stadium-related and train-related traffic vicissitudes.

      1. What’s the point of that transfer? Get off the bus and wait for a train that makes the same stops as the bus, just a few hundred feet away?

      2. I guess the point is more about the bus-free future of the DSTT and future fears of the tolled 99 tunnel – once the line of toll-avoiding cars exiting 99 at Pioneer Square starts its backup, it’s a much faster trip into/through downtown to exit the WS bridge at 4th Ave S and get to Link as quickly as possible.

    3. A new station at MLK Way and Graham is ESSENTIAL. There is so much commerical there, lots of residents and busy foot traffic. Why this station was left out is beyond me but it needs to be added soon.

    4. SODO was always going to be a low-ridership station. It’s useful politically for industrial workers (a blue-collar group), and to encourage them to take transit. I use it to go to Costco, although I have to walk a mile or transfer to the 23/124.

      Eliminating the station or making it part-time would not affect travel time enough to be worth it. Likewise, adding a Graham station would not harm travel time that much. Adding one or two stations is fine; it’s adding several stations that would make Link less usable.

      1. What exactly are you buying at Costco that you can take home with you on the bus? Certainly not a pack of toilet paper.

      2. As a single person, surprisingly, I find things that are feasible to purchase there. Some food staples, toiletries, Costco roasted chickens etc. If I travel there using public transit, I of course limit my purchases to what can be carried in standard cloth grocery bags. I’ve experimented with going to different Costco’s by transit including Issaquah, Tukwila and Seattle/4th Ave.

      3. For bulk shopping, Amazon is much more convenient than Costco will ever be, regardless of which store you pick or how you choose to get there. Even if Amazon may cost a trivial amount more with shipping, it’s well worth the convenience of having UPS deliver the stuff to you, rather than having to make the trip to the store.

      4. Amazon Prime costs $75 a year. In return, you get free two-day shipping on pretty much everything, and you can pay an extra $4 to get any of those items overnight — or, in many cases, on the same day that you ordered them. You were going to have to pay a membership fee for Costco anyway. :)

        Tim: Unless, of course, you live in a building that accepts packages for you…

        Anyway, I don’t understand why UPS, and (especially) FedEx, have adapted so poorly to a world where most household living spaces are empty most of the time. This isn’t the 1950s anymore; there are lots of two-income or single-member households.

      5. Bi-weekly groceries. I take a gym bag (smallish) and my backpack, and two canvas bags I always keep in my backpack anyway. I take the train+bus or train+walk down. Coming back, if the stuff is especially heavy I’ll take the 23/124 downtown and transfer to a Capitol Hill bus. Otherwise I take the 23/124 to Lander St, Link to Westlake, and walk home. Every few months we take my roommate’s car for things I can’t carry, and then we use the opportunity to stock up for a few weeks.

  7. How about a link to the raw numbers these charts were made from? Like you posted for Feb 6 to June 11, 2010. But the most-recent figures, which were used for the charts in this post.

  8. It’s interesting to see the number of people who ride north from International District or south to the International District station. Most of the day these same trips could be made for free by waiting a minute or two for a bus. I hope for their sake that these people all have monthly passes or active transfers when they make this trip.

    1. For afternoon Sounder trips: When I’m at Westlake Station, for example, I stand near the ORCA reader so whatever comes first be it bus or train.

      I have a monthly pass that covers full fare on Sounder so it’s not like in-tunnel Link trips cost me extra.

    2. I lived in the Chinatown area in 1993, and the ID station was completely empty, 24/7. Whenever I would walk over to catch the bus, I might see one, two, or even three(!) other people in the entire station. Using the station to catch Link a number of times this summer, I was pleasantly struck by seeing 30 or so at a time, and this was on the weekends.

      It’s nice to see the station come alive.

  9. Beacon Hill, for all of its mediocre land use, does pretty well — which confirms my anecdotal experience of waiting with 20-30 people to board the train at 8am on weekday mornings. Also anecdotally, there’s quite a bit of transfer activity to the 36 and, to a lesser degree, the 60 from the BH station.

    Now if we could only get the private propoerty owners adjacent to the station to return phone calls from developers/investors interested in them being somthing other than gravel lots…

    1. There’s actually a small (40′) apartment planned for the lot adjacent to the station (the one with the chain link fence and weeds). It ain’t much but it’s a start. Unfortunately I read it in a DJC article that’s not free.

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