Sound Transit has released new station level boarding data that, unlike past releases, covers entire years instead of periods between service changes. Here is the raw data. In all cases the figures below refer to daily weekday boardings.

Total weekday boardings are still highest at the terminus stations, with the Rainier Valley and Beacon Hill making up 27%.

In absolute terms, daily boardings at SeaTac and Westlake also grew the most. Southeast Seattle stations were mostly in the middle. The y-axis is weekday daily boardings.


However, the Rainier Valley and Beacon Hill had four of the five highest percentage growth rates.


About 1 out of 3 new boardings took place in Southeast Seattle.

When looking at the data, it’s important to remember that almost every trip has a return, and this data only looks at boardings, not exits. For example, every morning I get on the train at Columbia City, adding a boarding. However my evening International District boarding is also due to there being a Columbia City station for me to exit. So while Southeast Seattle may only directly account for 27% of the boardings, it likely has a role in over half of all boardings. Similarly, as Southeast Seattle accounted for 33% of all new trips in the 2011-2013 time period, as many as two thirds of new trips are likely starting or ending in Southeast Seattle. Although some trips may well be intra-valley or one-way, these are likely very small as the 7 and 8 are often far better suited for the former.

I don’t think it’s coincidence that the two Rainier Valley stations with the most new development have had the highest ridership growth. The North Rainier Rezone and Bowtie plan will hopefully generate stronger growth at Mt. Baker as well. While Rainier Beach station doesn’t currently have the fundamentals for strong residential growth, there have been some great bus reorganizations suggested by Aleks and Bruce that would improve  personal mobility and increase ridership.

Overall, ridership is heading in the right direction. There is no need to listen to calls for a one-time bump in ridership that might come from subsidized parking. Instead we should keep to the path that’s generating all day, sustainable growth: increase the number of people allowed to live near the stations and improve the bike, pedestrian, and bus connections to them.

54 Replies to “Rainier Valley is Fueling Link Ridership Growth”

    1. Despite the 1ish minute slow down to the schedule, building that station would be awesome. Great commercial district, flat on both sides, lots of potential. Whenever I’m on the Link, time-wise, it always feels like there should be something between Othello and Columbia City. A split platform wouldn’t require too much reworking of the road.

      1. Yes, it’s flat. And it would indeed be awesome. But there is not enough width to do it without buying more land and rebuilding the entire intersection. It would be very expensive and disruptive. It’s a good candidate for including in an ST3 Plan, folks just need to be realistic about what it would take to accomplish.

      2. Yeah, remember when they just rebuilt the road from scratch six years ago, and didn’t bother to future-proof the intersection in the slightest, because “regionalism”?

        Think of Graham the next time Sound Transit doubles down on a poor design choice, or releases an unsupportable fantasy map. This is not an agency with a grasp of the basics.

        And it wouldn’t even need to cost 1 minute, Mike B, if we didn’t have the most unnecessarily long dwell time in the universe. Some tighter-spaced subways manage to make two stops in the course a minute.

      3. @railcan It wouldn’t take much to accomplish in most other places. Here, it’d be like pulling teeth.

        @d.p the dwell time is comical. Nobody getting on and off? Wait another 30 seconds! And so is the operator consistency. Some really love to pour on the juice while most like to take it nice and easy. SPEED! Looking at an aerial map, I see tons of room for an at-grade, split platform station. It’s a dang shame nobody thought to future proof that area, but they did future proof the strange Sounder transfer at Boeing Access Road.

      4. I agree that the infill station makes sense near Graham St. It might do better a little further north towards Orcas St. I noticed that there is several hundred feet of surplus space on the east side of MLK at 37th Ave S that could be used in a NB lane shift in a split platform design.

        At the very least, the design and cost needs to be assessed for possible inclusion in ST3 in its own study. The study objective should not be merely to see if it feasible, but how such a station would be created and how much it would cost. It also needs more advocacy, so I would consider calling it the Hillman City station to build interest beyond those in the immediate vicinity of the station. Did anyone look at this when Link was being designed a few years ago? Is there a way to move this proposed station from a “dream” idea to at least an exploratory one?

      5. I’d just add that the speed of Link trains are already restricted on MLK, so that delays from slowing down and speeding up are relatively small. That merely would leave the dwell time at the station as the major delay. The total delay would likely be less than a minute.

    2. As much as I would love a Graham St station I just don’t see how you do it without huge right-of-way costs. That intersection is very built up with commercial.

      1. I dunno. Maybe you do it with a split platform, just as Mike B has suggested twice…?

        Maybe you take the tiniest possible sliver of McDonald’s’ or Speed-E-Mart’s parking, and every-so-slightly reconfigure the roadway…?

        Maybe this city can live with one fewer recently-constructed drive-through-only Starbucks, which was allegedly built in violation of codes that required food businesses in the area to offer pedestrian access…?

        Maybe the intersection in question is so insanely wide and so commercially underbuilt that it’s borderline psychopathic to parrot the “too little space” claim…??

      2. It looks to me like d.p’s idea would work.

        Also, to me there is also the question of weather Martin Luther King really needs all of those lanes through there. Interstate Avenue MAX and E. Burnside Street MAX took up two entire traffic lanes on roads where they really were unnecessary with modern intersection design.

        I wold suggest the same here. For best traffic flow, you need three lanes on ML King leading into the intersection (left turn, right turn, and straight) so that cars waiting to turn left or right don’t block traffic going straight. However, do you really need all three of those lanes on the other side? Many light rail lines (MAX included) would use the area on the opposite side of the intersection from the left turn lane for the platform – so you do wind up with a split platform (one occupying the opposite side of each left turn lane), but is that such a big deal?
        (122nd & E. Burnside in Portland).

        The left turn lane from Graham onto ML King just seems to consume dead space in the intersection design.

        If you make the right turn lane a “Right Turn Only Except Bus” lane, so that the bus can pull through the intersection and stop at a bus pull out on the other side of the intersection, you can probably reduce ML King to a single lane wide in each direction at the station platform area. Traffic flow needs more lanes going into the intersection because of turn lanes than it does going out of the intersection, because other than the bus stop there is no reason for anything to stop traffic after it has passed through the intersection.

        If you are worried about 53 foot truck trailers turning left from Graham onto ML King, the bus pull out would act as a wide spot in the intersection, so they could consume that when they make such a turn.

        So, it would be best to do d.p.’s suggestion and consume a bit of those parking lots (really, they seem to have a *lot* of wasted space in both of those lots) but if you want to do it on the cheap it seems like it would be possible to accomplish a station there with a bit of intersection redesign.

  1. Thanks for doing this!

    It would be interesting to see how many of these riders shifted from Metro versus how many came from other modes.

      1. It would surprise me that this hasn’t been examined. Most transit agencies I’ve ridden often survey riders for mode of access to and from stations, and I’ve completed a transit rider survey form many times in my life. It’s easy to do; interns can quickly survey riders at a station platform as they wait for a train and then they write a tidy report for class. Surely Sound Transit surveys this too.

        Wouldn’t this research be important to see whether the original forecasts got the modes of access right, and help out in ST3 advocacy when the ridership numbers are scrutinized as part of the campaign?

  2. This doesn’t actually make as much sense as you think it does. Your morning boarding at Columbia city is largely because there is a downtown station for you, right? So does that mean that boarding was really driven by downtown?

    1. Yes, it is both. Both the origin and destination are important. I didn’t feel the need to highlight the importance of serving downtown. No one is arguing that Link should have bypassed downtown to get from the UW to Sea-Tac faster.

      1. Well I hate to say this, but then that story really is meaningless. Other than SE Seattle, the train only goes to Downtown and the Airport. So those are the only options for places to go.

      2. SE Seattle is only 5 out of 13 stops. There are plenty of other places to go. People have been saying for a while that Rainier Valley segment was a waste and that the Valley should have been bypassed to go straight to the airport. The data shows that is wrong. People have also been calling it a train to nowhere, that it’s basically only an airport or gameday shuttle. The data shows that is wrong.

      1. While I’m disappointed some of the more prolific guest contributors have declined offers to become STB staff I do understand as people have day jobs and lives outside of STB.

        That said the quality of the writing and research here is excellent. It easily equals any other transportation focused blog I’m aware of. For that matter the quality often exceeds what you see from professional journalists on transportation issues.

  3. This seems to cry out for an “Airport/Stadium” Express.

    It would make all the stops from Intl Blvd South (Angle, 200, SeaTac, Tuk) and sail all the way through to Sodo and the Seattle stops.

    1. In most countries this would be accomplished by joining LINK to the BNSF main line, so trains could use the line already there for this. Maybe a station for King County Airport and Georetown?

      Sadly, CalTrain is currently the only agency that has plans and a waiver to operate UIC style equipment on a USA mainline.

      1. In most countries this would be accomplished by joining LINK…

        Nope. Not really. Not at all.

        Please travel and self-educate, rather than lying.

        Thanks a bunch.

      2. I hate to jump down your throat, but this was fiction the last time you said it, it’s fiction now, and I hate having to repeatedly debunk the same random fallacious crap that a handful of people insist on spewing incessantly all over the local discourse.

        Seriously, PNW, I have never encountered a place where people so stubbornly insist on the right to repeat their ridiculous misconceptions incessantly, even once proven wrong and dumb. No learning curve + no shame = deeply problematic.

      3. “In most countries this would be accomplished by joining LINK to the BNSF main line”

        It would be more accurate to say that in many countries airports are integrated into their national rail networks. Some have intercity trains stopping directly at the airport; others have an S-Bahn type train to the city’s main train station; others have both. In all the ones I’ve been at (Gatwick, Duesseldorf), the train comes every 15-30 minutes. And the national rail network goes to all cities both large and small, at least a few times a day.

        We don’t have a national train network like that. There’s no way Amtrak or Sounder would be rerouted to SeaTac airport. A Boeing Access transfer station would be practically useless as long as Sounder is peak only, and it wouldn’t have much value even if Sounder were hourly. If you’re going from the airport to downtown, Link is only 37 minutes. If you’re going to Tacoma, there will be more direct ways than Sounder. If you’re going to Kent, the 180 is much more direct than transfering to Sounder.

      4. Well in other countries light rail equipment might share track with conventional rail equipment for part of a route. As d.p. Says this very much depends on the existing local infrastructure and needs. Munich and Karlsruhe are quite different and demand different solutions.

      5. I hate to jump down your throat, but this was fiction the last time you said it, it’s fiction now, and I hate having to repeatedly debunk the same random fallacious crap that a handful of people insist on spewing incessantly all over the local discourse.

        Yes, much like claiming that there is more than one bus lane on the West Seattle Bridge.

      6. Apologized. Corrected. Discussed in painstaking detail.

        Noted places where traffic never backs up (mostly westbound), effectively precluding any need for exclusive lanes. Noted where bottlenecks remain, and new exclusive infrastructure is highly necessary.

        Was backed up by a man who drives the C Line at rush hour, among others.

        Care to apologize for casting aspersions on my intellectual honesty?

    2. Actually, I might be missing something, but this doesn’t seem like a bad idea in principle.

      We could add a connection to the BNSF line where the light rail crosses it in the Duwamish area and another near the Maintenance yard. Given capacity issues from East Link, you might have to run the express trains from SODO south only, but that might still be a worthwhile speed boost… assuming you could get folks to switch from the regular link trains at SODO to the express airport express trains.

      Whether or not this would be the best use of ST funds though is another question…

      1. Physically possible to build? Certianly.
        Possible to buy rights to run trains? Maybe at some price.
        Useful enough (given that it would serve very little between the airport and SODO and require a transfer to go north of there) to be worth the cost compared to the basic “no-build” alternative? Doubtful.
        High enough priority to get into any forseeable ST capital package? No.

        Consider the low frequency such a service would run at (given its limited demand, general operational costs, and money paid to BNSF on a per-run basis), and the additional walking/transfers required to access the “downtown” end… and you have a service that rarely saves anyone time compared to using frequent but slower Link service.

        Where airport-downtown expresses work out elsewhere in the world they’re in much larger cities with much worse traffic and much more comprehensive transit systems than we have. Compare to the Heathrow Express.

        – London is big enough and the airport busy enough to justify 15-minute frequency much of the day. Seattle is about an order of magnitude smaller and the destinations that are important to people visiting by air are much more geographically dispersed.
        – The London Underground is comprehensive enough that a point-to-point connection to one of its major transfer stations actually offers you a lot of freedom. Seattle’s other transit connections are not close to that good — even if you’re not forced off in SODO (say, for example, the train runs to KSS instead) you’ll have Link trains to the eastern and northern destinations they’ll soon reach (for any southern destinations you’d have taken Central Link anyway) and pretty slow buses/streetcars anywhere else.
        – London’s traffic congestion is bad enough, on freeways and surface streets alike, that a train trip is time-competitive with taking a cab to many Central London destinations, even if you have to transfer to the Underground. They charge 21 pounds for the service and it’s worth every schilling. Our traffic isn’t nearly that bad, particularly off-peak, so taxis are faster and cheaper here.

      2. Wouldn’t just be airport passengers that would use faster service though. Anyone from Federal Way to TIBS could use express service.

        Capacity issues on that section of line shouldn’t be an issue, since there are three main lines (two BNSF, one UP), plus a number of lesser lines that could be upgraded.

        Cost per added rider could certainly be a problem, but upgrading existing lines can be relatively cheap. Take a look at the cost per mile of some other projects, like the TRE in Texas. WES here in the Portland area may have its issues, but the entire thing was done for about what it costs for a mile of new light rail line.

      3. @Al Dimond agreed, its not something that looks like a good use of funds at this juncture… maybe if Seattle’s population doubles or something (not looking remotely likely at the current growth rates).

        I have to say that I don’t particularly mind the current trip to the airport.

      4. I’m not sure the BNSF mainline is the only route into downtown. Union Pacific also has a ROW next to East Marginal Way between (about) the Museum of Flight and Spokane St. that might work for a future line to the airport. The line would require major upgrading and UP still has a number of existing industrial customers on the line, but it could be looked at.

        I would expect that if there is a new line built to the airport, it will be an extension of the West Seattle Link and not a direct express from downtown Seattle.

      5. And you know what else, Al?

        Even with all of London’s available transit buffet, the Paddington Express still suffers enough disadvantageous connections that it may simply be faster to ride the local Tube option to many destinations.

        (Thus, Crossrail. The kind of $20 billion megacapacity project that only a megacity needs.)

      6. We can consider an airport bypass after Ballard, 45th, West Seattle, Greenwood, and Lake City have Link lines.

        However, one of the West Seattle alternatives has two lines, one going through South Park to TIB. That’s your bypass route right there. The through line would still go through Rainier Valley though.

      7. “Anyone from Federal Way to TIBS could use express service.”

        They’re in South King. North King has several higher priorities for its ST money. If South King and Pierce want the bypass so much, maybe they should pay for it.

      8. (Thus, Crossrail. The kind of $20 billion megacapacity project that only a megacity needs.)

        It isn’t just megacities that have S-Bahn type services. though, where regional rail services provide a decent backbone to the transportation network. For that matter, the S-Bahn concept originated in Munich, which today has an urban area population of about 2,600,000 – and was smaller when the S-Bahn concept started in the 1960s. Today, Puget Sound as a metropolitan area is around 3,500,000.

        Quite a number of metropolitan areas of that size would be using S-Bahn type services. In fact, any of the cities in western Europe where transit trips are >40% of trips have that type of service. The reason is fairly simple: that is the only way to get speeds above those of driving over the same distance, whereby then transit becomes an attractive way to get around.

        Yes, I know that CalTrain doesn’t have much freight traffic on their primary route, but the reason they had to obtain a waiver to use UIC equipment rather than use temporal separation is that they will be operating this equipment on the UP main line as well as the line on the peninsula.

        Sure, there isn’t a huge network of main lines in the Seattle area, but you are already using what is there. Take a map of the Puget Sound region and show what Sounder is currently doing to any of the European equivalents to the STB, and they will probably tell you the same thing that they have told me: if someone were to put into operation something that has that much equipment sitting around during the day would probably be asked to visit the local jail for a while.

        Sure, I understand why Sounder does what it does, and why you would not put a few Link trains on the local main line, but that doesn’t change the fact that in many places on earth the nearest main line forms the core for the passenger transportation system. It is so commonplace elsewhere in the world that when someone from outside North America looks at what we (and by that I mean pretty much any North American city) is doing they scratch their heads and wonder what on earth we were thinking.

        Now, back to the original comment that started this discussion: the concept of an express train along the existing Link line. It is possible to do, but the time savings of such a thing would be limited to the headway between trains. The only way to make express trains possible in a very frequent line like this is to make it possible for them to pass, and that means added infrastructure on the existing line. Once you start to look at what it would take to accomplish this, I think you would find that the cost of doing that vs. improving the existing freight main lines winds up tipping the price in favor of right of way that is already there – but of course since BNSF is in charge it would depend on them.

        WES in the Portland area cost $162 million to build, including 14 miles of new ties, and upgrading sidings to mainline standards plus add new track in places to make it a double track line, plus four bridge replacements to increase speed over them. It was a single track line with four freight trains per day, and that daily traffic increased many times over so quite a lot of improvements were needed.

        However, the right of way was already there and thus the land purchase price was avoided. A MAX line would have been better, but there is no way to build a MAX line on that corridor for $162 million. It would have cost at least that per mile.

        From the Link crossing of the BNSF main line to the SODO area its about 9 miles. If you could make the trains average about 50 miles per hour (and you would really want them to be closer to 65 or 70 in that area for this to work) it would take only 11 minutes to travel that distance. At 70 it is closer to 8 minutes. With those types of speeds, if you add a mile or so of passing track towards the center, the line could operate reasonable frequency with a mostly single track line.

        Sure, you probably wouldn’t be able to put those trains on the BNSF main line without a bit of investment, but take a close look at that section of the line when you take Sounder between Tukwila and Seattle. From Tukwila north that section of the line has a lot of parallel secondary track. Some of that is used quite a lot, while other segments are not used as frequently. As stated above, creating such a service is a matter of upgrading that to expand the capacity of what is there.

        All of this is just in response to John’s original comment about an express train on the existing line. The problems with dealing with express trains mean investing money in the line to create space for them to pass. With the cramped quarters of the existing line, and the relatively broad expanse of the BNSF from Tukwila north (from Auburn south is a different matter) such an express could probably be done cheaper and more effectively there.

        Especially when you consider that the ML King track is encased on concrete rather than being a ballasted open track, any additional switches or other track changes are not going to come cheap there. The $162 million for WES here in Portland shows how cost effective it can be to rebuild existing lines to increase their capacity. (The cost per passenger of WES shows how expensive that can be if you are doing this with a line that goes from nowhere to nowhere – so obviously the expense would have to be worthwhile).

      9. Okay, but you’re still both missing and bastardizing the point.

        S-Bahns only serve elevated urban-connective purposes in places where they run distinctly urban service patterns though built urban areas, generally because the lines they run on were built with passengers in mind in the first place.

        What they don’t do is jump into the equivalent of a SoDo Industrial corridor, bypass all of the people and the stuff, and still expect to serve as a core piece of the urban transit network. And S-Bahns absolutely are not built with the expectation that all other forms of high-capacity transit across the built urban area will “feeder” into some intercity “mainline”, as if all primary destinations existed along a single axis.

        There’s simply no basis in reality for what you describe.

      10. Here’s Munich. Highly compact, archetypally Old World, urban in every possible dimension. In what possible way are those comprehensive U-Bahn lines “feeders”, as you claim, for your mythical “S-Bahn core”?

        Now here’s that primary east-west S-Bahn route. Can you name any differences between this image and the industrial main-line hypothetical you’ve constructed? Because this doesn’t exactly look like SoDo — or, frankly, any part of Caltrain — to me.

      11. “Take a map of the Puget Sound region and show what Sounder is currently doing to any of the European equivalents to the STB, and they will probably tell you the same thing that they have told me: if someone were to put into operation something that has that much equipment sitting around during the day would probably be asked to visit the local jail for a while.”

        That’s the ultimate problem. Europeans put as much resources into their public transit systems as their highways and airports, and they include comprehensive transit in any metropolitan expansions. Here people question whether Metro needs any service in the evenings, and accept as normal an hour-long bus trip from Ballard to Lake City or Capitol Hill or West Seattle, and argue that we can’t afford anything beyond that.

        “in many places on earth the nearest main line forms the core for the passenger transportation system”

        It’s the other way around. The core service is the most frequent one. The core is subways running every 2-10 minutes, running throughout the city and to certain near suburbs. The S-Bahns cover a much larger area and run every 20-30 minutes. Viz. London Underground vs Overground, Duesseldorf U-Bahn vs S-Bahn, Cologne streetcars vs S-Bahn, Moscow/St Petersburg metro vs elektrichkas, Chicago CTA vs Metra, New York subways vs PATH/LIRR/Metro-North/NJT.

        You can invert it and call the wide-area service the core, but then you get into logical contradictions like people waiting 30 minutes for the core service, which New York subway riders emphatically do not do, and if they did ridership would plummit. People travel from New Jersey to New York maybe once a day, but they may pop over to uptown, Astoria, and the Village three times in an evening and they don’t expect to wait 30 mintutes for an S-Bahn each time.

        Applying the European system to Pugetopolis, you’d have a 30-minute S-Bahn from Everett to Olympia, and in Snohomish County it would use the inland Interurban route rather than the coastline. That would allow Link to be truncated to essentially SeaTac/Redmond/Lake City, which would make DP happy. But that’s essentially the same kind of debate as RapidRide vs Swift. People aren’t willing to pay to build two full levels of service, so instead we get one in-between one.

    3. When did Seattle become Las Vegas or Honolulu? I mean, I know the airport is a decent destination, but it doesn’t deserve this much service. Not back then, not now. We aren’t Chicago, either; we don’t need commuter rail to every suburb that happens to be close to a railroad line. Especially since, unlike Chicago, we don’t have a rail system in the city. We are a midsize city with plenty of folks inside the core and most of them have nothing right now. This is the area that needs the service. It is crazy to me that we still haven’t built the line from the UW to Downtown, the two biggest destinations in the Northwest, but we built a line to the airport, 15 miles away.* After building the most important line in state, (UW/Capitol Hill/downtown), how about we start servicing the other areas that really need it: Ballard, South Lake Union, the Central Area, Greenwood, etc.

      But yeah, if Federal Way wants to chip in for a bypass route to downtown then you all can knock yourself out. But don’t expect anyone from an already congested city to chip in.

      * Yeah, I know the reasons why we built it — politics (related to the fear that digging a tunnel under the ship canal would incur cost overruns, which would doom the rest of the line). But still, it is crazy that we built the third or fourth most productive or useful line in the city before we built the first.

      1. When urban rail is being built, it’s actually fairly common to build the second-best or third-best rail line (or an even worse route) before the best one. I’m not sure why, but I’ve seen the pattern in Los Angeles, San Diego, Denver, and Minneapolis-St. Paul recently, and it was arguably true of the initial construction of the London Underground too.

  4. Who would have thought that the station where new housing was allowed to be built would have the fastest growth rate?

  5. There is no need to listen to calls for a one-time bump in ridership that might come from subsidized parking

    Sadly I know goofballs who think there should be a free garage at Capitol Hill station. I think it will be a while before we stop seeing calls for subsidized parking at urban stations.

    1. I’m surprised SDOT employees are happy with the current light rail ridership – the study presented here looks extremely low when compared to the number of cars traveling northbound through Rainier Valley. Residents thought the light rail would reduce commuter traffic, yet it has increased. 30,000 cars travel north daily along Rainier Avenue – parallel to the rail. The ridership boarding a train northbound at RB, Othello, CC, and Mt. Baker total 1,400 passengers. If the goal of light rail is to reduce greenhouse gases, then the smart thing to do is build parking lots at stations to get people out of their cars when driving to the city center. Seattle is the only city without subsidized parking at major transit centers. Building the most expensive mode of transportation for people living 1-3 blocks from a station is poor planning and a waste of taxpayer dollars.

  6. A Graham Street station was considered by Sound Transit, but there was a lot of budget pressure at the time and local residents simply did not mount a strong enough campaign for it. The additional space required for a station is not occupied by high value buildings. In fact, much of it is parking lot, or small buildings like the Starbucks drive-through.

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