A few weeks back ST released their corrected February 2013 ridership report (an Excel error threw off Sounder numbers in the earlier version) and once again the system had healthy year-on-year gains for most services.

February’s Central Link Weekday/Saturday/Sunday boardings were 25,370/18,015/12,934, increases of 14.4%, 21.0%, and 12.2% respectively over February 2012. Sounder’s weekday boardings were up 8.7% (21% North, 9% South)*, but Tacoma Link continued it’s downward trend, – 2.3% weekdays (although part of this is due to running Sunday service on President’s Day).  ST Express Ridership increased 7.5% (part of this is counting tunnel trips).  Overall weekday system ridership was up a very healthy 9.0%.

The report for March would normally be released around this time, but due to the cancellation of this month’s Operations Committee meeting the numbers will be rolled into the 1st Quarterly Report due out at the end of the month.  Bruce Gray was kind enough to provide us with their March Link ridership estimates which show continuing strong growth:  26,485 Weekday, 20,771 Saturday, and 14,603 Sunday riders.  Weekday ridership in March was up 13% from last year.  Ten out of the last 12 months have had higher than 10% year over year growth.

My charts below the fold.

March13Weekday March13Saturday March13Sunday March13Growth

*Yes, I realize the numbers don’t seem to make sense, but Bruce Gray explained:

Keep in mind that we arrive at average weekday ridership based on days we actually ran. If we have a bunch of mudslides, that can impact the weekday average because we’ll have a smaller window of days to arrive at that average. So if you have the combination of many lost days to slides and strong ridership on the days there are not slides – you can end up with a boosted weekday average. And the south line made up 88.5% of the Sounder total for February. To further complicate things, 2012 was a leap year so there were more weekdays last year than this year.

In other words, when a mudslide cancels service, it lowers the overall weekday ridership average but doesn’t lower the average of either line. Therefore, North and South line averages don’t add up to the overall Sounder average.

58 Replies to “February 2013 ST Ridership Report and March Link Numbers”

  1. To sum it up, from Jul 2009 to Mar 2013, weekday ridership doubled from 13,000 to 26,000.

    Stating a monthly increase of 10% is a little misleading because you could have the same 2000 new riders contributing that increase each month.

    Ideally you’d be tracking unique new riders (and lost riders) day by day.

    1. “Stating a monthly increase of 10% is a little misleading because you could have the same 2000 new riders contributing that increase each month.”

      It’s perfectly valid when you’re doing year to year comparisons like this. Sure, maybe they’re that same 2000 new riders because some new housing near a station went online (or a company moved closer to a station or whatever), but it’s still an increase over the previous year’s data. If it’s an unsustainable fluke, then that’ll be born out by future data.

      I also don’t know why “unique, new riders” really matters. That similar to saying “well, those riders were going to a Mariners game, etc.”, as if those trips are somehow inherently worth less. Riders are riders and they show how well the system is being utilized over different spans of time.

      1. “unique riders” don’t matter at all.

        Trying to convert “boardings” into “riders” by dividing by two (or whatever) is one of the oldest, and most bush league of anti-transit arguments. The data presented actually contains NO info about who is riding the system, or how often. It only contains data about boardings, but boardings is what matters anyhow since it represents how many trips are being taken on the system and is directly related to how full the system is operating.

        Beware of arguments like this. Normally these people have an ax to grind and are trying to artificially skew the data in their favor.

      2. Not to pick nits, but this data says not a whole lot about load factor. One could calculate average hourly ridership, but that doesn’t get at the question of whether Link is running at capacity during peak of peak (which would roughly be a load factor of 2.0).

      3. Re: Brent

        Would adding in data about number of vehicles run for each period help? I don’t have the data, but it seems like that might get at what you’re trying to see.

      4. dan: adding in data about changes in service levels (number of vehicles run per day) would indeed allow you to extract average (mean, not median) load factors from this data.

        The service levels on Central Link haven’t changed much since opening so it’s not important at the moment, but it can matter a lot when looking at services where service was added or cut.

      5. Trying to convert “boardings” into “riders” by dividing by two (or whatever) is one of the oldest, and most bush league of anti-transit arguments.

        Not in the slightest. In fact, transit advocates should probably let themselves do this a lot more often, to keep themselves grounded in reality.

        For example, the fact that only 23,500 people will ever use East Link on a daily basis:
        – reveals much about the substandard nature of its routing and station locations;
        – helps to explain why Sound Transit didn’t even bother applying for an FTA endorsement or funding;
        – puts to lie any assertion that Bellevue’s center of gravity will realign around the chosen station location.

        Calculating actual riders (rather than boardings) also gives a much better picture of transit’s true modeshare and how people are behaving in aggregate in any given area.

        Seattle transit advocates participate in a great deal of self-delusion, leading to some truly awful results on the ground. (See: FHSC.) Sober assessments are not only not “anti-transit”; they are plainly necessary if we wish to pursue projects that do genuine good.

      6. First of all the system could absolutely know exactly who is using the system and how often because all of that is tracked by ORCA and one time the tickets.

        Just using anonymous ORCA serial numbers you could begin to separate out the regular users from airport travelers for example.

        For example it seems like the least changing numbers are January, February, March. One could speculate that not only are those low because of post holiday decreases in tourism, but it is the lull between football and baseball.

        It is an absolutely valid exercise to try and derive baseload and peak demand.

      7. From last year to this year January grew 13%, Feb 14%, and March 13%. Seems to me those months are ‘changing’ quite a bit.

      8. d.p. has articulated a caution about transit improvements that should be taken to heart. Every dollar wasted on unproductive services or projects that will never pencil out to be efficient, robs transit from providing needed services and facilities where more bang for the buck is warranted.
        When times were good, the waste could be ignored. Now that transit agencies are shrinking in size and service, this becomes a really big deal for real transit supporters.
        All three stops in Bellevue will only have about 8,000 daily boardings by 2030. That’s hardly a great bus route’s worth.
        Could that billion dollars be better spent on gaining many more new riders doing something else? RR-F is another example of good intentions, and what will turn out to be vastly more expensive than current service. North Sounder? FHSC? Duplicate service from DSTT to Udist on Link and maybe SLUT too? The list keeps growing, outpacing overall transit ridership gains compared to operating costs, and still remains below 10% of mode share.
        Having all these Caddies in the front yard on blocks does not impress the neighbors.

      9. mic, d.p.: I don’t believe the East Link numbers.

        The PSRC (if I have the initials correct) model for ridership is terrible. It suffers from “over-fitting”, due to having too many tweakable parameters.

        A back-of-the-envelope model tells me that South Bellevue P&R will be jam-packed with commuters from the entire east side, driving, transferring from buses, etc. The bottleneck across Lake Washington is going to suck people off of all other modes of transport and onto East Link. Likewise, Mercer Island will do quite well.

        On the other hand, the same back-of-the-envelope model tells me that Bellevue Downtown By The Expressway Station will do terribly.

        At this point, if I were a planner, I would be pushing a segmented EIS to build the track across Lake Washington, and just stop there until the Bellevue City Council started being more reasonable.

      10. Nathanael: JN asked this question last year why ST ridership for ST2 in 2030 was twice what PSRC in T2040. Here’s the question and response.
        “Questions asked: Certain staff at Sound Transit and Puget Sound Regional Council know that the respective official future ridership forecasts for rail transit by the two agencies are radically different: Specifically, Sound Transit’s claimed ridership for ST 2 in 2030 is double what PSRC forecasts for ten years later in 2040 with both ST2 and ST3 implemented. When will Sound Transit staff be offering an explanation? [Answer later from staff: PSRC and ST have had differing approaches to modeling transit ridership in the past. However, of late the two agencies’ modeling results have been more closely aligned. We are satisfied, for example, that the contemporary PSRC regional analyses done in connection with the state’s major projects – SR 520 and SR 99 in particular – are generally consistent with our conclusions about forecasted rail ridership.] Comment from PITF: Sound Transit in June published its 2012 Financial Plan that indicates on page 12, Table 1, an updated forecast for combined Sounder and Central Link annual rail ridership in 2030 of 89.1 million. This translates, dividing by an annualization factor of 305, to 292,000 per weekday. Underlining the concern implied in the question I asked, the standing PSRC forecast in the T-2040 Metropolitan Transportation Plan for regional rail ridership 10 years later in 2040, is still 164,400. In other words, PSRC foresees much lower rail ridership in 2040 than Sound Transit expects in 2030.”
        I’m not sure who’s right, but ST is using the high end numbers.
        As for S.Bellevue P&R, once it fills up, it’s pretty useless the rest of the day, except to intercept Seattle bound buses off I-90 and force the transfer to a Link train that only runs every 10 minutes. Hell, they can be in Seattle by then.

      11. except to intercept Seattle bound buses off I-90

        Which only duplicates what can be done as well if not better at M.I. P&R.

      12. Given the way things work around here, I would be very surprised too see any I-90 corridor routes be truncated at either South Bellevue or Mercer Island P&R.

        People in Issaquah would scream at the forced transfer. Some would avoid it by driving to South Bellevue P&R, but the prospect of this would cause people who live near South Bellevue P&R to scream, as it would lead to more competition for “their” parking spaces.

        I would also be concerned that, on weekends, when parking at South Bellevue P&R will be effectively unlimited, people in Issaquah who ride the 554 today would switch to driving directly to Link, and that would push the 554 ridership numbers below the level where weekend service becomes justified. So now, people who live in Seattle and want to visit Issaquah, say to hike Couger or Tiger Mountain, become forced into their cars too.

        This would not be the case if the 554 is still running straight to downtown, because the 554 would be faster. Just as people in Federal Way ride the 577 to downtown, rather than driving to TIBS to take Link there.

    2. Of course they’re going to be the same people! That’s what housing around light rail is FOR.

    3. Which is more imporant to you, John: Tracking arcane data, or getting a one-seat ride on the 169 to Link?

  2. I am continually amazed by the growth in Central Link ridership.

    Most systems show slowing growth with each year of operation as the system approaches its “full ridership level,” but Central Link growth shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, Central Link has never had a down month (same month year-to-year).

    This is really good, and expect even bigger things when Husky Link opens.

    1. I think it’s pretty likely this summer that we will have a month that surpasses 30,000 average weekday boardings. And yes, University Link will provide an even bigger bump.

      Not bad for a single-line system that only serves south Seattle!

    2. Agreed, it’s pretty amazing!

      We will be hitting pre-recession levels of total employees in the greater Seattle area next year (see series SMU53426600000000001 from the BLS), so I would speculate that the ridership growth with slow sometime around then, or a year or two after. Of course, as you say, by then U-Link will open.

      1. Some fairly recent adjustments to the models is show in this report.
        Tons of data on current and future population and travel demand forecasts between 27 zones in the Puget Sound.
        It’s a good read for the data junkies, and has some great maps.
        Also, someone asked about peak hour – peak direction demand in relation to average daily boardings. IIRC, the divisor was 25.4 and occurred in the PM peak at Pioneer Station for Central Link. so about 1,000 riders per hour on 8 trains an hour, x 2 cars each was about 64 riders per car, or about half of system capacity.

    3. Lazarus: eventually you will see slowing growth each year as the system approaches its “full ridership level” (which will still increase as population increases)… but not yet.

      What this says to me is that initial uptake of Link was slower than normal. In some systems, when you add a line, pretty much everyone jumps on it in year one; the Hiawatha Line in Minneapolis was pretty much mobbed as soon as it opened. There seems to have been some resistance to Link in Seattle, and we’re watching that slowly go away.

      Of course University Link will create a large boost; don’t expect it to take as long to reach full ridership, as I would think people would be less resistant to the *second* light rail line.

      1. To be fair, I think there’s also a secular move of population from cars to rail — every rail system in the country is seeing increasing ridership, including 100-year-old systems which have not had any expansions. So you’ll continue to see increases above the population growth rate even once you reach “full ridership”.

        But the current 14% yearly increases seem to be higher even than that, so I think there must have been some initial resistance to taking Link which is fading away slowly.

      2. There was definite resistance to Link in Rainier Valley. But as the years go by, people try it out, figure out how to get an ORCA card, ride the more-frequent-than-the-39 #50 to it, get tired of the 8 being so slow and unreliable, and either parking in the pay lots or parking several blocks from the station and walking to the train. (Yes, there are people doing the latter, especially around Rainier Beach and Othello stations.)

  3. One of the more surprising statistics was the ORCA boardings, provided by Metro to the LIFOAC. Only 46% of Link riders are paying with ORCA. I presume the vast majority of the rest are purchasing tickets, and a fraction are still not paying, either due to ignorance or low funds availability.

    I don’t think tourists constitute anywhere close to 50% of riders. But there seem to be a lot of Link riders who are not riding any buses.

    1. “there seem to be a lot of Link riders who are not riding any buses”

      Rail bias is real.

      1. @aw

        “Rail bias is real.”

        I wouldn’t call it “bias.” I’d just describe the ridership effect using the old adage “Quality sells.”

        I.e., it’s not that people are “biased” towards rail, but that they recognize and are willing to patronize a higher quality product when they are presented with one.

    2. I don’t like that number. It doesn’t pass the smell test that half of riders buy tickets at the vending machines, or there would be huge lines.

      I’d like to see an audit of how many are riding for free. Not that I care that much, if a few percentage of people risk a ticket we save money compared to a gate system. But half our riders? That’s worth looking closely at.

      1. (Anecdotal) I’ve witnessed quite a few fare enforcement events lately and there are very few violators found when the checks occur outside of the tunnel. When the checks occur in the tunnel, the enforcement officers seem to fill their quota pretty fast.

      2. When I do ride Link, I usually take it all the way from downtown to the airport. A fare inspector comes through fairly often (I would say at least 25% of the time in my experience). I have seen them catch people who didn’t pay, but I don’t think it has ever been more than one or two in my car.

        As long as (non-payment fine * probability of fare inspection) > (fare), non-payment simply doesn’t make financial sense. Since inspectors do actually ride pretty often, I really doubt the number of non-payers is anywhere near the 54% non-ORCA mark.

      3. TIB and SEA account for 25% of the boardings. It’s not unreasonable to assume that a large percentage of those riders aren’t depending on a bus. Kiss and ride and hide and ride account for another chunk. The crush at the TVM would be PM peak in the Bus Tunnel. That would only have to be maybe 4,000 people spread out over a half dozen stations and a two hour period. But yeah, you’d expect to see a good sized line at Westlake most of the afternoon.

      4. The TVMs offer the opportunity to buy round trip tickets, so it’s only necessary to stand in the TVM line once a day.

    3. How do you get from “only 46% of Link riders are paying with ORCA” to “a lot of Link riders are not riding any buses”? I don’t follow that connection; why is it impossible that there are people who buy tickets for both Link and bus?

      1. If you use ORCA, you only pay for the most expensive fare when transferring between Link and buses. If you pay with cash, you have to pay each fare separately, in full. One round-trip bus/train combo ride will pretty much pay for the entire $5 cost of the ORCA card.

        Surely there are some people who don’t realize this and do pay cash twice, but it’s reasonable to assume that the majority of folks who buy a train ticket with cash aren’t transferring to a bus.

      2. “it’s reasonable to assume that the majority of folks who buy a train ticket with cash aren’t transferring to a bus.”

        Rail bias is real. :-)

      3. I’ve been amazed at the stubborn resistance of people to purchasing ORCA cards and the don’t seem to grok the obvious savings available to them.

      4. On King County Metro, cash is better for your wallet than paying with an ORCA e-purse because you don’t have to pay the $5 card fee and the transfer you get almost always lasts longer when you pay with cash.

        On Link, cash is better for your wallet than paying with ORCA e-purse because you don’t have to pay the $5 card fee, and you can buy a round-trip ticket for 2x the one-way fare that lets you make unlimited trips during that day (something that is not an option with ORCA).

        The only times it makes financial sense to buy an ORCA card is if either
        1) You’re making a transfer between two different transit systems (and plan to do so again in the future), or
        2) You ride transit enough that you would save money by buying a monthly pass (only available with an ORCA card).

      5. It’s that damn $5 card fee. It was stupid. Everyone here knows it was stupid. The best practice is either to have *no* fee, or to have a small ($1 or less) fee which is *fully refundable* when you return the card.

        Who has the power to get rid of that $5 fee and how does one start a campaign to get rid of it?

      6. It occurs to me, reading your responses about transfers, that I’ve actually done this myself – there’ve been a couple of occasions when I’ve had to take the bus to get to a Link station, and the idea of transferring the fare never crossed my mind – it seemed perfectly natural to pay for a bus ticket to ride the bus, and then to pay separately for a train ticket to ride the train. So I bet it’s like Mike Orr says below: there are probably lots of people using the train and/or bus for occasional incidental non-car travel who have never bothered to deal with the whole Orca thing and just buy their tickets as needed.

      7. Couple of things. Allow Orca users to ask for a paper transfer. Yes, odd but my primary reason is so you can avoid the paper is better if you are pushing the envelope with time or the peak fare hit. Of course some will “donate” or sell the transfers but that’s a small fringe market which we’d be subsidizing at greater expense through proper channels anyway. Second deals with the reason I think the $5 charge has merit in the first place and that is to keep people from getting a free card and then tossing it since… well, hey another one is free. After say $250 is spent the $5 is rebated.

        There are some other disincentives with Orca that need to be dealt with and number one is the cards going inactive if they aren’t used in, what is it, six months or a year. That’s pretty stupid if you want people to have one just for sporting events or keep a couple extras around to give to out of town guests.

      8. Bernie, I think the six month inactivity period only refers to an online value load to a card that then isn’t used for six months. If you reload your epurse at a TVM, you won’t run into this problem.

      9. Mmmm, I’ll have to try my wife’s card on Monday. It hasn’t been used in over a year (lost behind a dresser. Of course the value was initially loaded on line and I rarely travel anywhere there is an Orca machine. It would be nice if Metro and ST made it a little more obvious where the machines are. You’d hope South Kirkland P&R would have one; maybe when they finish the destruction. I think QFC might be able to help though if the card, as I expect, is frozen.

      10. “Allow Orca users to ask for a paper transfer.”

        I think you can if you pay with an e-purse, especially after 10:30pm when the transfers are good all night.

    4. You’re underestimating the number of occasional riders. It’s not just tourists. It’s people who rarely take transit but their car broke down. Or they take transit only when going to downtown/stadiums/Seattle Center, and they do that only two or three times a year. Some of them live in Auburn and drive to TIB every few months. Or they usually take buses on the Eastside but today they’re in Seattle. I wouldn’t be surprised if a third or half the riders were occasional or tourists. Maybe less so peak hours when all the regular commuters are in force, but more so off peak.

  4. Is anyone polling these new riders to see how they were commuting before, why they waited to make the switch to Link, etc? It seems like that would be important information to know. Blindly applauding new boarding is great, but scientists such as myself want to know more.

    1. Yea, I’d be curious to know, too. Could be several factors

      * bus route elimation that forces people to use the Link
      * better signage (esp at the airport)
      * better connections to Link (though I doubt this since I don’t recall any major changes in bus routes for this purpose)
      * people moving to the Valley
      * people accepting the Link as a viable option for transport

      Ultimately, it’s probably a mix of the above along with a culture shift in the city. I really do look forward to the day when Seattle has multiple lines (GO SEATTLE SUBWAY!)

      1. You’re missing the obvious

        * Russel took over the space vacated by the collapse of WaMu.

        * Amazon has consolidated sites from all over the city into SLU

        * Apartment construction and other businesses have follow Amazon

        What transit incentives does Amazon offer it’s employees?

      2. Last I heard, Amazon gives its employees ORCA cards good for free travel on all area transit (except ferries). They also subsidize parking downtown for those who would rather drive.

      3. My job subsidizes employee parking so each employee only pays about $70 month for parking. But, for employees like me, they also subsidize an ORCA card by the same amount, so in effect, I get a free ORCA pass each month. I know when the parking costs go up each year, the employees who park have to pay more, but my ORCA pass is still free. Sure, it takes me maybe 35-45 minutes to get to work and I have to watch the clock at the end of my shift to make sure I don’t miss the bus, but each month I put the $70 I save onto my Starbucks card!

    2. ST was supposed to issue a ‘Before and After Study’ to the FTA as a condition of the $500M New Starts grant for Central Link. Data from before link started, and then 2 years after startup were documented. The report was due out a long time ago, so the data is now getting really stale, but you can see what the DRAFT says here.
      This was a 2/3 million dollar study, so it’s pretty comprehensive. Enjoy your homework.

    3. My point is, this is important information. Sound Transit is not a lean organization. It’s a bloated agency which has hundreds and hundreds of office workers making over $80,000 per year. They should task one or two of those employees to do something useful like interviewing new riders once in a while.

  5. (an Excel error threw off Sounder numbers in the earlier version)

    That’s because when there are 0 Sounder North runs because of mudslides and 0 riders as a result, when excel tries to calculate the average passengers per train, it gets a division by 0 error.

    Ok, so I’m exaggerating a bit about the Sounder North mudslides.

  6. If Central Link service is up by 10% but Bus Routes 106, 7, etc. which serve similar corridors is down by the same # of people, how does that show increased use of transit, few cars being driven, etc.? It doesn’t. The problem is that we don’t know what happened here because we are only looking at the ST Data set, instead of looking at it simultaneoulsy with a Metro data set for bus routes that serve the same transportation cooridors.

  7. The other thing that would be nice to know is operating cost per passenger on Central Link vs. pperating cost per passenger on bus routes like 106, 7, 42, etc. that replicate the light rail. Even if all we are doing is transfering riders from buses to rail (which we may or may not be doing), it still might be a net plus.

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