SounderBruce (Flickr)
SounderBruce (Flickr)

Last week we wrote about technical problems delaying analysis of the First Hill Streetcar’s ridership. With the Automatic Passenger Counters (APCs) data transmission process broken, SDOT staff had noted that March ORCA data showed 50,000 boardings, or roughly 1,600 per day (though higher on weekdays and lower on weekends, of course).

Yesterday SDOT’s Norm Mah sent us updated APC data for the past 30 days, April 14-May 14, indicating that the data problem has been fixed.

The past 30 days have seen roughly 75,000 boardings, or 50% higher than the March ORCA-based count. The large difference is likely best explained by a combination of genuine growth, U-Link induced transfers, and a seemingly high rate of non-ORCA use (both via fare evasion and paper ticket purchasing).

A couple other things to note from the chart below. Sunday ridership is quite low, but it actually performs as well as Saturday ridership on a per-service-hour basis, as the streetcar operates a 20-hour (5am-1am) service span on Saturdays but only a 10-hour span on Sunday (10am-8pm). Second, the low May 1 ridership was due to suspension of service at 1pm due to May Day police activity. Finally, the recent free ridership promotions on Thursdays do seem to induce ridership, as the two highest ridership days in this data window were May 5 and May 12.

SDOT Data
SDOT Data

59 Replies to “First Hill Streetcar Ridership Update”

  1. I think when people realize that combined with Link, a de facto high capacity transit loop has been created for Seattle; folks will take the streetcar more. Of course, with my kind of dining (Dick’s, IHOP) on the streetcar route it sure is a sweet inducement to ride the route!

  2. Actually, if you closely, a streetcar doesn’t actually have any more passenger capacity than an articulated bus. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that there are many high-performing bus routes with higher ridership than the First Hill Streetcar.

    In spite of having a pass that would allow me to ride the thing for free, I have never done so. The streetcar suffers from being slower than walking, after wait time, and for end-to-end travel, Link is so much faster. If it’s cold outside, walking makes you warmer, while waiting for the streetcar makes you colder. And for the tiny distances we’re talking about, a group of just two people (without transit passes) could split a taxi ride for about the same cost as riding the streetcar. About the only real case I can think of where the streetcar offers significant mobility improvement is people in wheelchairs traveling to/from destinations that are immediately adjacent to the streetcar stops (because loading a wheelchair is much easier with a streetcar than with a bus).

    1. Or people with back issues like I.

      Frankly I’ve cooled on the idea of more streetcars – they’re fun but they sure are expensive. I’d rather see more express buses (e.g. Rapid Ride) do the job of streetcars… until they get stuck in traffic, that is. Then BRT.

    2. When SDOT first started considering streetcars in the late 90s, I attended an open house asking whether the city’s transit network upgrade should focus on streetcars, light rail/monorail, or buses. I said light rail is best because it’s fastest, and buses are good because they’re inexpensive. Streetcars are the worst of both worlds: they cost more than buses but they’re not that much better than them.

      1. Well, SDOT has defined “light rail” as full-scale grade-separated rail, and “streetcar” as having no exclusive lanes at all… which is actually bizarre historically.

        I recently rode the Muni Metro lines in San Francisco. They’re practical. Are they streetcars or light rail? Yes, yes, they are.

      2. They’re practical except where they run in the street. Part of the Church line has its own right of way across the side of a hill next to a park, and the difference between that and where they crawl on the street is like night and day. That segment does what you wish all the Muni Metro lines did.

    3. I’m not sure why but I love the FHSC. I’ve ridden it several times since it opened from Little Saigon to Capitol Hill. My other option would have been to walk down the hill to the Light Rail and then ride it to Capitol Hill. Both take about the same time including the walk but one is packed with people inside a dark tunnel and the other has a view.

    1. It would help some, as would signal priority at the lights. But the reality is, the distances are fundamentally too short for transit to make sense. When traveling half a mile on a vehicle that comes every 10 minutes, you could already be halfway there walking, on average, just in the time it takes the vehicle to show up. Sure, you could run the thing every 2 minutes and end up with some more time-competive with walking, but that’s a lot of money to spend in operations cost. Ultimately, this is money that would be better spent on longer routes that get people out of their cars, rather than their feet.

      I’ve also heard a lot of grumbling on this blog that the city should have thrown cyclists under the bus to build a dedicated streetcar lane in place of the bike path. First off, that would only provide enough space for a dedicated lane in one direction – to get dedicated lanes in both directions, you would also need to get rid of the parking, which would face enormous business opposition. Second, you can’t just leave Broadway without a safe place to bike on. You can’t build a bike network that expects people to constantly zig and zag between streets where the city found room to squeeze in a safe riding path. There are also numerous destinations on Broadway itself that need bike access. And with streetcar tracks making the street infinitely more dangerous than it was before, something needed to be done to compensate for it. In fact, I would venture to say that the bike path was about the only thing good to come out of the streetcar construction project (it would be even better if the bike path continued north to Roy).

      1. Historically people have taken lots of transit trips this distance or shorter. A lot of things have changed since, “Don’t chase streetcars,” was typical metaphorical advice.

      2. The issue, which SDOT has acknowledged (I think the Blog wrote about this) is that Broadway is “too multimodal” – trying to squeeze in parking, GP, transit, and bike lanes in not enough space. I would support creating dedicated transit lanes by both taking away parking and moving the bike lanes to another street, whenver the time comes for the street rebuild. The design for Broadway was simply too ambitious, and it would be better if the bike lane was on an adjacent street.

      3. But people want to bike on Broadway. That’s where the businesses all are, so that’s where they will bike. By moving the bike lane to an adjacent street, you’re simply guaranteeing injuries.

      4. The bike lane will obviously stay on Broadway for the foreseeable future. There is no way to redo the streetcar tracks without relocating the utilities the bike lane is sitting on.

        There will be more issues like this – the unfortunate reality is that bike lanes may be trading off with transit lanes on many streets that are simply not wide enough to have dedicated lanes for 3 different modes (really 4 with sidewalks). Politically speaking, transit lanes likely have less support than parking, GP lanes, bike lanes, or sidewalks, so they get cut.

      5. Broadway is a street full of destinations, above all else. Direct access to destinations has to be prioritized above through-travel, regardless of mode.

        Unfortunately parallel streets are interrupted by large institutions, not actually parallel because of the street grid layout, or separated from Broadway by very steep hills — so Broadway has to accommodate a lot of modes and activities itself. Is all-day street parking one of those activities? Maybe, maybe not… but deliveries certainly are, and any sort of vehicle parking is totally incompatible with street rail, which means there has to be some space set aside for it. Biking is also quite incompatible with street rail…

        My impression is that south of Madison or so, where land use is more dominated by large institutions, the street layout is basically OK, and some signal work could keep transit moving (many of the cross streets have important transit routes also, so… this gets complicated fast). Pedestrian circulation and car parking are largely internal to the institutions; private vehicles need to move multiple blocks along Broadway to access the institutions due to lack of local street connectivity.

        North of Madison, as the large institutions subside (particularly in the busiest areas of Capitol Hill)… cars circling for parking and pulling in and out of spaces are going to cause a lot of delays. We might be better off with a different street layout. I’d consider something where the tracks are a transit-only space and the whole area east of them is a free-for-all (i.e. useful for off-hours deliveries, where there’s plenty of room for people to get around a truck parked at the curb), but where private vehicle access is heavily restricted during active hours, with no car parking outside of deliveries. That would be similar to how mostly-pedestrianized public streets work in other countries.

      6. 12th Avenue has many more businesses on it than Broadway south of Pike Street does. It’s also much flatter. It also would not have created the hazards of streetcar tracks and blind turning movements around streetcars. It would have been a much more logical place for a bicycle track.

        Sometimes streetcar tracks and bicycle tracks are compatible and even beneficial. Sometimes they aren’t. It takes objectivity to recognize the difference.

      7. It’s generally recommended to locate bike lanes on a street parallel to and one block away from the main street, while putting your light rail directly on the main street. The bicyclists will happily bike along the backsides of the commercial buildings.

        If your street grid is broken it doesn’t work, of course.

      8. OK, there is Capt. Hindsight would have been bettering going on. I love the bike lane, I used it daily before I moved to SF. It is here to stay, so now we need to get SDOT and Metro to improve the service.

      9. Broadway is the street that goes through to the north, so that is where a lot of the bike traffic is going to be coming from. Forcing everybody to detour east and then west again simply does not work. Especially when the “detour” involves unnecessary climbing up and down hills.

        The streetcar has such an inherently bad route (with the 2-mile L-shape, plus the Yesler Terrace detour, plus lights every block that can’t really be optimized for the streetcar without significant impacts to cross-traffic of all modes) that even dedicated lanes isn’t going to fix it. In fact, when the wait time alone is enough time to walk most of the way to the destination, nothing short of a teleporter would be fast enough to make the waiting worthwhile.

        And the truth is…I don’t really care. There is nothing wrong with the 6-minute travel time from Broadway/Pine to Broadway/Madison or the 15-minute travel time from Broadway/Pine to Broadway/Jefferson. These are walking times, according to Google Maps, and are not subject to any traffic jams or delays waiting for a vehicle to show up. I care very much about transit priority for routes traveling longer distances, such as the D-line or the 44, but if the streetcar is too slow and unreliable to get people off of their feet (or their bikes), that really isn’t a problem worth screaming about. Let’s save the battles for improving transit in places where it really matters. Which, in the First Hill area, means making Madison BRT act as real BRT.

    2. Signal priority is the minimum. When Link runs on MLK at-grade, we can give it perfect signal priority on MLK (even though it has mixed traffic), certainly we can do something for FHSC. It’s the lights that totally ruins the experience. It’s worse on the streetcar than on buses because it takes so much longer for the streetcar to accelerate. The only time I seriously used the FHSC was one time last month to get from International District Station to Seattle U, and it took almost a half hour. And it hit every single light red. This makes the streetcar the slowest option from downtown by far. It’s literally slower than walking.

      1. +1. Unlike a dedicated lane, signal priority takes up no physical space. It costs some money to set up, but a pair of $50 cell phones and Arduino boards should have more than enough computing and communication power to do the job. Given the cost of transit operations and people’s time, why aren’t we doing signal priority not just for the streetcar but for every traffic signal in the region that a bus or train ever goes through? I don’t get it.

      2. For starters, the streetcar crosses streets which are traveled on by other buses. So any signal priority for the streetcar could end up hurting routes like the 2, 3, 4, 11, 14, 27, 49, 60, and probably other routes I can’t think of off the top of my head. At some intersections, like Broadway and Yesler, it can even be streetcar against streetcar.

        Given the choice between signal priority for the streetcars and signal priority for the other routes, I would argue that the other routes are more important. In particular, I would consider it especially disappointing if Madison BRT buses have to wait at red lights for streetcars to cross because the streetcar being a “train” made it more important.

      3. Given the choice between signal priority for the streetcars and signal priority for the other routes, I would argue that the other routes are more important. In particular, I would consider it especially disappointing if Madison BRT buses have to wait at red lights for streetcars to cross because the streetcar being a “train” made it more important.

        I hadn’t thought of this angle at all. Obviously, if it’s going to seriously slow down those routes, that’s a very good reason to not do it. Most of those routes have 2-3 times the ridership, on their own.

      4. Totally agreed. The streetcar has to cross Boren Avenue a total of THREE times, with long light cycles at each crossing on Broadway, Yesler, and Jackson — signal priority needs to clear trains through that section of the line much faster, and gains should be realized immediately. The argument above about Madison BRT is still valid, but any public transit should be special treatment over cars.

      5. Signal priority for a streetcar is not very effective in a place where it is stuck behind a number of vehicles. It’s also hard to do it when pedestrian crossings are needed – and most of the FHSC have pedestrian concerns.

        That said, Boren/Yesler is really awful. There are way too many seconds allocated to Boren left turns and that slows everyone down – vehicles, streetcars and pedestrians. That one needs fixing.

      6. From my limited experience riding the FH streetcar, I mostly see traffic queuing behind the car, not in front of it. So I have come to believe that signal priority (or better, signal control) would be more beneficial than exclusive lanes. What good is an exclusive lane if you still have to stop for every traffic light?

  3. That’s a big improvement on the last news we got. 50% is big. The trend line on the weekday ridership is going in the right direction, and quickly.

    Doesn’t mean the lack of exclusive lanes, frequency, and length isn’t awful and holding ridership back – but it’s at least on its way to having the numbers of a respectable bus route, maybe. (On a per mile basis, it might even be “good” with a year’s growth.)

  4. Does the streetcar still not have schedules? I think “every 12 minutes” and “every 18-25 minutes” (yes, 25 minutes) don’t suffice. We need a schedule. Metro said RapidRide was “so frequent you don’t need a schedule” (and hence, none was provided), and they have reversed course on that. It’s time to get a reliable schedule for the streetcar.

    1. At least according to OneBusAway, the streetcar does have a schedule. I have no idea how reliable that schedule is. I’m guessing “not very”.

    2. Didn’t they learn their lesson when they tried to insist on denying us schedules for the C/D?

    3. I asked for a schedule during launch week, still waiting. Without one, the streetcar is useless to me. I need to know when it should arrive at my destination to plan my trips (and transfers).

    4. The streetcar’s reliability is worse than a regular bus. Until they get that fixed, a schedule would just be fiction.

  5. My experience has shown that about 60%+ of riders don’t tap their orca cards or buy a ticket.

    1. There was (maybe still is) an interesting sign inside the streetcar close to the door that basically said if you didn’t tap on with your ORCA, please tap at exit. I’m not sure whether that is an inducement to be honest or a signal for a free ride the next time.

  6. I remember the previous remark that First Hill gets in a month what Link gets in a day, and with this new data, it’s ironically still true, considering LInk’s skyrocketing ridership numbers.

  7. As a transit advocate, I really resent being put in the position of having to defend this inefficient, expensive investment. It’s the type of transit that gives substance to all of the negative talking points of anti-transit forces.

    1. Buses are transit, too. If you’re an advocate than you know that every mode has its place. Streetcars are just a terrible fit here, for all the reasons that have been discussed ad nauseam on this blog.

      And while raw ridership data is mildly interesting, it’s really not useful when presented in a bubble. Better to compare it to bus ridership, or projected ridership, to get a fuller sense of the costs/benefits of this albatross.

      1. I would counter the claim that “every mode has its place” by challenging you to “Name the place where a streetcar is the best option.”

      2. Someplace with he lots of ridership, but not enough for a full subway to be justified, and enough political will to put them in dedicated lanes, median or tunnel when necessary. See Toronto (lots of ridership, streetcar tunnel where needed), Amsterdam (streetcar tunnel where needed) or Melbourne (lots of dedicated median) for examples.

      3. San Francisco (lots of dedicated lanes, multi-car streetcars, streetcar tunnel where needed), Boston (lots of dedicated lanes, multi-car streetcars, streetcar tunnel where needed), San Francisco again (so much business on Market Street that it’s worth running a streetcar with frequent stops on the surface on top of the streetcar subway which is on top of BART),….

        I think Milwaukee’s streetcar will also be successful. I expect Kansas City’s to be successful too. Both ciites are too low-density and too sprawly to justify a fully grade-separated subway, but they needed something nicer than a diesel bus to interconnect the key nodes downtown, and they had plenty of relatively uncongested street space. Tucson’s streetcar is doing pretty well too, for similar reasons.

      4. “Someplace with he lots of ridership, but not enough for a full subway to be justified, and enough political will to put them in dedicated lanes”

        That’s not a streetcar then, at least not in the Seattle or Portland sense.

  8. The APC ridership data could be very similar to the ORCA tap data. In this chart, the streetcar had a 50% ridership increase just from April into May. The rate the first reported week in April is similar to the ORCA data for March.

    What would cause such higher ridership in May versus April? Warmer weather could be a cause, but I can’t think of why.

    1. The average trend line is pretty linear, so it really doesn’t show any spectacular jumps in use over the entire graph. It’s probably people getting used to it being there. Remember it didn’t have a big opening celebration, so people are finding out about it being open by happenstance.

  9. They didn’t publicize the free Thursdays much; I didn’t know about them until now. Last week I saw a streetcar with “Free Ride” or such on the back, and I assumed they’d forgotten to take the sign off from the initial launch.

    1. Yeah same. I thought maybe the streetcar ORCA readers were down and that’s why it was free that day lol.

      But compared to Tacoma Link, I think ridership on first hill line is already higher??

  10. Maybe it’s time to accept the slow speed and instead rethink the streetcar user experience. One way to ease the experience of a slow vehicle and attract riders is through entertainment or amenities. Add a Starbucks cart? Hire a mime to be on board? Play soundscape music? Other ideas?

    1. I have ridden the streetcar between Pioneer Square and Swedish. It is slow, and without schedule.
      But, it is clean and quiet. That is it’s saving grace IMO. If they can keep it really clean, including the windows without wraps, I’ll continue to use it.

      1. So let’s create and market the streetcar as a place with hepafilters, ionizers and soothing white noises? That would be a striking change from most transit rider anticipated experiences.

  11. Good data, and a really good growth trend. This is all positive, hopefully it keeps up.

    So all that trauma from earlier over the estimated data was for naught. This is why you wait for real data before getting your undies in a bunch.

    Now onto the Aloha Ext and the Central City Connector.

      1. For now maybe. But I suspect eventually it will get to Prospect and/or Volunteer Park.

        Don’t get me wrong, two more stops is better than nothing, but it will still be incomplete until it gets to at least prospect and the CCC gets built.

  12. I wonder if the Thursday, May 5, spike may have also been attributed to Cinco de Mayo. Combine a freebee with a functional need to address drinking. Good transit keeps drunk drivers off of the road.

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