Sound Transit’s summary then some analysis and my charts after the fold.

Total Sound Transit boardings increased by 7% during the first quarter of 2015 compared to the same period in 2014. Boardings increased on all modes except Paratransit. System growth is trending about 6% over the annual budget and SIP forecasts. Aside from 56 slide-related train cancellations on Sounder North Line, there were no major service disruptions during the quarter.

ST Express buses had 6% more boardings in Q1 2015 compared to the same period in 2014. Average weekday boardings reached 62,285 for a 7% increase. No major changes in service took place during the quarter.

Sounder commuter rail boardings were up an impressive 17%, with an 18% increase in average weekday boardings. Ridership increased significantly on both Sounder lines. Mudslide conditions resulted in 56 cancelled North Line trains, compared to 91 annulments in the first quarter of 2014.

Tacoma Link Link light rail ridership also showed impressive growth with total boardings up 11%, and a 12% increase in average weekday boardings. This stands in sharp contrast with 2014, when ridership declined during each quarter.

Link light rail boardings were up 5%, with a 7% increase in average weekday boardings. A planned service closure related to University Link preparations and a drop in the number of major sports events this year contributed to lower growth compared to escalation rates seen in 2014.

Full report here. My charts and more below the fold.

2015Q1-WeekdayboardingsMvgAvg 2015Q1-CPB 2015Q1-CpBvBoardings 2015Q1-CpBvBoardingsMvgAvg

Overall good stuff, but Link’s Cost per Boarding jumped out at me. It has been on a steady downtrend (with seasonal fluctuation) as boardings have increased. However for the first time since Q1 2013, Cost per Boarding was over $6. I asked ST Spokesperson Bruce Gray about this over email and he looked into it. David Huffaker’s (who helpfully answered some questions last year) response below:

We typically see Q1 as the highest cost quarter of the year. I used the data set from Matthew and created a new chart of just first quarters, and the longer term trend is better:

Ed. Note: The actual chart included in the email was low res so I recreated it.
Ed. Note: The actual chart included in the email was low res so I recreated it.

There was a small uptick in 2015 due in part to some timing issues around start-up expenses and allocations (typically, the first quarter is messier accounting wise as not all allocations are correct, and there are also some start-up costs that are not quite properly accounted for), plus Q1 2014 had the big Seahawks parade.  I expect the story will return to very positive news later this year.

Makes sense to me. February 2014’s ridership was insane, meaning the cost per boarding was also likely lower than it would have been otherwise.

50 Replies to “Q1 2015 Sound Transit Ridership Report”

  1. I always forget how many people the buses take when compared with Link Light Rail. We think of Light Rail as ST’s marquis project, but the buses moved almost double as many people as of now. That will change over time, but when you ask people “What do you think of ST?” particularly around the ST3 vote– they are more likely to have had interaction with a bus than a train.

    1. I was actually surprised in the opposite way by that comparison. Essentially at this point Central Link appears to be performing (solely in terms of the number of bodies moved) as well as 13 of the 26 Express Bus lines/corridors.

      1. Ya, I was too. I find it amazing that a 15.7 mile Link system can move half as many people as the entire ST Express system with its much larger coverage area. When you think about it, essentially Link is moving as many people over 1 route as half of the entire ST Ex system. Amazing.

        But these numbers will all get rejiggered when U-Link opens.

        I’m curious as to what happens to Link cost per boarding when U-Link opens. Theoretically with higher ridership you should get lower unit costs, but there might be start up effects and such.

      2. The average costs per rider probably goes up a bit due to more passengers riding a greater distance on Link.

        Overall costs to the transit system will probably be lower due to increased use of Link over buses.

        Overall costs per passenger-mile will probably drop quite a bit.

        Once three and four car trains become regular the cost per rider probably drops below current values.

        To really blow away the current costs per passenger, it needs to have Ballard – UW built and interlined with East Link, so the core area where the ridership is the highest has most frequent service, and half empty trains aren’t having to be run to the end of the line to meet the demand in the downtown core..

      3. The DSTT is the only place in the world where rail and buses operate on the same “roadway”, in a tunnel, with common underground inline stations, and do so simultaneously. It is hardly the same thing as a transit mall on just about any level.

        Personally I don’t think Joint Ops is worth the effort, but it will end soon enough and we will see.

      4. “I find it amazing that a 15.7 mile Link system can move half as many people as the entire ST Express system with its much larger coverage area.”

        It’s ,more the route and stations than the mode. An analogous situation exists with the 512 and 550 vs the 560 and 566. In other words, the former ones have just the station pairs that a large number of people want to take transit between all day, while the latter ones don’t.

        The argument for Link in the Intl Dist – UDistrict – Northgate corridor is not really just the ridership; it’s that buses can’t physically keep up with the demand or right-of-way challenges. If you wanted a bus solution you’d have to build a tunnel anyway, so that’s most of Link’s cost right there. The 550 is apparently approaching that challenge peak hours, especially with shared DSTT capacity as a constraint. Whereas with Rainier Valley and SeaTac Link is perhaps more about “quality of service” than physical capacity contstraints.

      5. Also, some corridors are arbitrarily split between ST Express and Metro, which pulls down ST’s numbers. I-90 is split between the 554 and 2xx. Kirkland is split between the 255 and 540. Why do Bellevue and Redmond have an ST route to downtown but Kirkland doesn’t?

    2. I echo what the other guys are saying – Link is moving so many people with just 15 miles and a few stations.

      Ridership will go up significantly as more stations come online. It’s the best way to get to the airport.

  2. That ST 522 increase in ridership is off the hook. 18% up and even with +300K boardings as a baseline.

    1. Wonder how much of that is growth and how much is absorbing traffic from the cut 306.

  3. I have a question for ORCA Card transfer. If someone with a $2 regional pass want to take Sound Transit bus from Tacoma to Seattle. Normally, he or she needs to pay $1.5 from the E-purse. However, if he or she swipe the card in any Pierce Transit bus and leave the bus at once then board Sound Transit bus, he or she don’t need to pay anything (XFER + PASS). Does this situation really exist?

    1. No; the $2 Pierce Transit fare will only count for $2 credit toward the Sound Transit fare. He’d need to pay the additional $1.50 in cash, just as if he’d boarded that bus directly.

      1. But I think that he or she can use the $2 regional pass again to pay the extra $1.5. So the transfer worth $2 and pass covers the rest $1.5, the passenger don’t need to pay from the e-purse.

      2. If you have a $2 pass and board a $2 PT bus, then you have zero transfer credit. If you board a $3.50 ST bus, then you can reuse the pass and pay a $1.50 surcharge from e-purse, and you’ll have a $1.50 transfer credit. If you then board Sounder within two hours, you can reuse the pass and the transfer credit and pay a second $2 surcharge (depending on distance); then you’ll have a $3.50 transfer credit which I think will remain for another two hours.

        But if you pay the surcharges in cash, you won’t get any transfer credit from them. Unless you’re paying on a Metro bus and ask for a paper transfer, but those are only accepted on other Metro buses.

      3. All such needlessly complicated rules help keep new riders off of public transit. Why do we do this to people?

      4. With ridership climbing Roger, apparently we’re not doing enough to discourage new riders.
        Loud, annoying and mindless announcements along with bogus arrival times could work if given a chance.

      5. It doesn’t matter how complex the rules are so that the system collects the right fares under these conditions. Just tap your card, and the system will figure it out. ORCA makes that part of the various fare structures and transfer policies simple.

        If you’e concerned about whether you’re being overcharged in cases like this, then you’ll need some understanding of how it works to figure that out. But doesn’t it make sense that if you want to ride a service with a $3.50 fare, you can’t do it with a $2 pass?

  4. I’m pleasantly surprised to see 33% growth in ridership on ST 540. (Okay, it’s just +10K, but still.) Does anyone know what might be causing this?

    1. Unfortunately, it’s possible that part of the increase is for the wrong reason: since the 271 stopped serving Evergreen Point, there are no longer all-day frequent same-stop transfers to the UW available there, so riders might have found it more convenient to wait for the infrequent 540 instead of making an unpleasant transfer at Montlake that requires walking. (The situation is even worse now that Montlake transfers now require a LONG walk due to construction, but that wouldn’t have been reflected in these numbers.)

      Although, this factor alone most likely can’t account for such a large increase, so I’m also wondering if there are other causes.

  5. I would be really interested to see per-route peak/all day on-time performance (and to find out what on-time performance is). That would provide some planning guidance on which ST Express routes need rail and which are working well with buses.

  6. I’m not a fan of the slowdown in growth, and even less of the increased cost per rider. I am really impressed by the ST express services, though. It goes to show just how good buses are for suburban transit.

  7. Do these cost per boarding figures include capital costs? Because if they don’t what is Sound Transit doing that makes Link just about exactly two and a half times as expensive per boarding as MAX??????

    1. Max has more coverage and higher ridership.

      And Link has to contend with Joint Ops. I suspect that when Joint Ops goes away Link will see improved performance on a variety of metrics.

      1. The DSTT is the only place in the world where rail and buses operate on the same “roadway”, in a tunnel, with common underground inline stations, and do so simultaneously. It is hardly the same thing as a transit mall on just about any level.

        Personally I don’t think Joint Ops is worth the effort, but it will end soon enough and we will see.

    2. More complex stations plus security guards.

      Multiple lines means MAX operates off peak every 35 minutes, yet the core where the most demand is has service every 11 minutes at that frequency.

      MAX has barrier free transfers between buses and trains. Link requires Orca and different fares depending on what you are trying to do.

      MAX was built cheap and is operated cheap. Take a look at the twitter feed for the past few days and note the 35 mph speed restriction during 90 degree weather like we have been having the last few days.

      Any sort of rail operations means efficiency goes up with ridership (or at least should). MAX carries 1/3 of TriMet ridership. Link operates 16 miles before turning around and laying over. Core blue line MAX service operates around 22.

      As noted by d.p., TriMet has a low threshold for service cutoff. If given Link’s budget TriMet could operate more trains later at night, but there is a high focus of service hours on the peak periods, when the ridership is highest and thus the cost effectiveness is highest. Different agencies with different priorities on where to put their hours.

      1. Glenn,

        Everything you say is true and plays a role, but two and a half times the cost per boarding? ST is doing something wrong; either it is running too many trains for the demand or its compensation structure is out of whack.

        I expect it’s #1. Does the Rainier Valley really need a train every ten minutes all day long?

        Once U-Link opens we should get much better comparison data. But right now this is an embarrassment.

  8. It’s a good thing they didn’t separate North Sounder and South Sounder on the cost/boarding. North Sounder would be off the chart around $34. South would be around $8.

    [North has about 4/14 of the hours and 1/11 of the boardings. South has 10/14 of the hours and 10/11 of the boardings. I multiplied these fractions against the $10.74 figure listed on the report.]

    1. Thanks for doing those calculations for me. I wanted to see North and South Sounder separately

      This makes it clear that South Sounder is doing fairly well; incremental improvements to South Sounder are well worth it. More frequencies per day, faster trains.

      North Sounder is not functioning. Needs a radical rethink.

  9. Is it really fair to directly compare a single six-year-old thirteen mile long rail line with either ST Express or any bus ridership right now?

    When the first stretch of NorthLINK is finished, let alone the whole north line and EastLINK, we’ll start to get some more realistic comparison.

    We also need to figure in how many of LINK’s passengers ride one bus or another to any train station. In the long view, our whole transit system, local and regional, is in a very early stage of resuscitation from the decades-long near death experience of public transit itself.

    And RD: I think it’s ‘way time the ORCA system was seriously and publicly called to account for its lifelong inexplicably unfairness and infuriating complexity.

    The idea of a regional electronic card is excellent. But what possible explanation for one of these cards should be so difficult to get- let alone excuse?

    It should not be that hard to obtain the numbers to prove how much operating costs will plummet if farebox-caused delays go away. And how much ridership will increase.

    Even more than our putrid public information system, this one is worth some serious and ill-mannered politics to fix. This is a simple conflict between passenger’s rights versus agency convenience.

    Highly inadvisable this close to an vote for funding. Years-long inability to get a fare-card right legitimately casts doubt on a far-broader set of functional abilities.

    So I think it will be both fair and effective to inform elected officials, in front of a TV camera, that for a lot of voters in a close election, a positive vote for ST3 will depend heavily on a remake of ORCA before election day.

    My guess is that in the face of a concerted pre-election effort, participating agencies will not only deliver a long-overdue explanation and apology, but kick bales of the cards out the cargo doors of McChord’s every plane.

    Lakewood Station and SR 512 Park and Ride are very close neighbors to the field.

    Mark Dublin

    Mark Dublin

    1. Increased ridership. It’s pretty simple. If Sounder North can continue to attract more ridership, it too will improve its cost/boarding.

      1. Ok, so basically number of boardings and cost per boarding are the same metric, in terms of efficiency.

        I guess I’d want to look at aggregate costs per train, sans fares, to see if they are making headway in reducing operating costs.

      2. They are basically the same measurement. Sounder North has anemic ridership. Sounder South has great ridership.

  10. I was surprised UW has a population better than 20,000 and i’m sure cap hill has as least as much. Given angle lake will be a rider contributing station I think there will be enough new riders in play to bring subsidies down by at least a buck.
    Once the 3 burbs get on board I see seattle running close to Portland’s.

    1. Depends on which three ‘burbs and how much transfer opportunity you get. MAX doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Compared to, say, Banfield freeway and 82nd Ave MAX station, I am fairly surprised at what seem like limited transfers on Link.

  11. Link is in its infancy and doesn’t have much substance to evaluate on. Once it gets its major burbs or ride contributors connected (bellevue, lynnwood and fed way, ie, the near future ones) cost will come down considerably; and connections will follow eventually. And from looking at st’s boarding projections I think links per station boardings will eventually run higher than portlands.

    1. The best economics for LR in Seattle has always been on DT-UW, and to an almost equal extent Northgate-DT. And that is including the cost of construction. DT to the airport only got built first for political reasons and because it had more regional support.

      When U-Link opens next spring we will have LR on steroids. It will be an amazing thing and will change the regional debate. There will still be debate about where to invest next, but the debate about how to invest will be over.

      1. Others have noted that Husky Stadium Station is in a terrible location with transfers almost diabolically unpleasant because it’s not under the Triangle. Metro will not be able to make the “forced transfer” idea for the 7X’s stick. People will be out with torches and pitchforks.

      2. I forgot to add that Once Brooklyn and Roosevelt are opened, then Yes, transfer will be easier and much more popular.

      3. In the outreach conducted so far, by and large, the torches and pitchforks haven’t happened.

  12. Anyone notice Bruce Harrell calling Link ridership “abysmal” at a community forum last night? What do you make of that?

  13. I’ still struck by the cost of light rail. This is operating before depreciation. So basically it’s the costs of the drivers, inspectors maintenance workers and electricity. How is that 6> per person?

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