SounderBruce (Flickr)
SounderBruce (Flickr)

Sound Transit released its September ridership numbers yesterday, and it was another impressive month for Link and Sounder. Average weekday Link boardings held steady at 68,358 (+76% YOY), average Saturday boardings were 51,799 (+100%, thanks Huskies!), and average Sunday boardings were 39,919 (+116%, thanks Seahawks!).

As usual, weekday Link ridership dropped slightly from August to September, but September still bested July for Link’s second-best month to date. The total drop was a mere 767 weekday riders, or about 1.1%. Last year the August-September drop was 888 (and against a much smaller baseline), or 2.2%. The U-Link  extension is flattening Link’s traditional seasonal curve, with summer-like numbers extending into autumn. With Angle Lake’s first numbers expected next month, October could be another summer-like month.

As ticket-buying tourists were replaced with UPass riding students, Link’s farebox recovery fell from 60% to 37%. Sound Transit also says the “timing of outbound payments” affected the large drop as well.

Sounder ridership was up another 6% YOY, with a record-setting 16,261 weekday boardings. As we predicted back in August, the new mid-day service is performing better southbound, with 115 weekday riders on the 10:18am northbound train, and 300 riders on the 2:32pm southbound train. With 2-car trains and 150 seats per car, that means the northbound midday train is 38% full, while on the southbound train every seat is taken. Sound Transit has appropriately right-sized the capacity of the trip so far.

ST Express was up 5.1%, and for the first time in months Tacoma Link ridership didn’t fall, instead edging up by 0.2%. Sometime in October, Link likely exceeded total ST Express boardings for the year, despite having nearly 3 months without ULink.

27 Replies to “September Sound Transit Ridership: Summer Hangs On”

  1. “Sounder ridership was up another 6% YOY”

    That was for South Sounder. North Sounder was up 9.6% and Sounder overall was up 6.4%.

    Is ST acquiring new coaches for the new round trips next year? When will those be showing up so that the midday trip can have more coaches and the shortened north trains be restored to their original length?

    1. We’ll get official ALS numbers next month.

      ALS was only open about a week in September, so reporting how it did over that week really isn’t that meaningful. Much better data will be available in October.

      ALS garage has been running about 3/4 full (approx). But that is meaningless.

      Also meaningless would be a number like “number of boardings at ALS”. As a terminus station, and as one of the few P&Rs on the line, you really need to look at TIBS and ALS together to understand the impact of ALS. ALS will definitely suck some riders from TIBS, so it won’t be easy to get a clear picture of what ALS has brought to the Link table.

      And remember, ALS was only expected to add about 4% to the overall Link ridership. Measuring that 4% amongst all the other Link changes will be very hard.

      1. I agree with your observations.

        Still, ST was rolling out several extra stories about U-Link ridership at this point. They have said nothing about ALS.

      2. Ridership wise U-Link opening was like a bomb going off. ALS opening was more like a mouse fart. It will take ST awhile to figure out exactly how big the mouse fart was, but eventually they will figure it out.

        Next ridership bomb to go off will be NG-Link opening in 2021. That will be impressive, but there will still be solid growth between now and then.

      3. UW Station replaced the highest-volume routes between northeast Seattle and downtown. Capitol Hill Station is like a 43 express that never existed before and there was latent demand for. Angle Lake Station does not replace any bus routes, much less trunk routes, and it’s just a flat, transit-lane-provided mile from SeaTac station. So nobody was forced to switch and it didn’t cut travel time in half like UW Station and Capitol Hill Station did. So the gradual ridership model applies: people will gradually remember it’s there over the next two years and that it could be relevant to their trips.

    1. At first I thought it was southbound ORCA taps, whatever that meant. But the linked tweet says “outgoing” not “outbound”. So I assume it means the timing of ST’s expense payments. Maybe ST paid a lot of bills in September.

  2. In very rough numbers, Sounder ridership equates to about one freeway lane. I’m thinking 16k/2 = 8k/4hr commute. Freeway lane ~1300 vehicles/hr. If that’s close to reality then that’s damn good value.

  3. Sounder carrying more people at 2 PM than 10 AM is not all that surprising. Out there, it’s fundamentally about the parking. At 10 AM, the station parking is filled up, so not enough open spots to fill up a train. At 2 PM, you have people headed home who traveled the other direction much earlier, and had no trouble finding parking. Somehow, the feeder service to the Sounder stations needs to improve, especially during the later hours after the station parking has filled up.

    1. It is one thing I have not understood is why the lack of feeder service?

      Kitsap Transit does a few things well and this is one of them with ferry take home buses that are drop off buses exclusively (some go direct to park and rides throughout) some are routed service but they make sure to feed the commuter ferries. My bet is parking issues wouldn’t be as bad if there was enough of a concentration that a bus could be filled up. Just depends on where regular Sounder riders live in relation to what could be made a connector route.

    2. The west sound revolves around the ferry, at least for those who go to the city, and if you drive onto it the fare is higher and you often have to wait an hour in line. So people highly demand feeders and want their transit tax dollars spent on that. Conversely in places like Tacoma, most people drive to Seattle or Southcenter or Puyallup or somewhere, they have several highways to choose from, they don’t have tolls, and you don’t have to wait an hour at the freeway entrance. The people who drive all the way see Pierce Transit as a social service for the poor and are mostly concerned about their taxes not going up. So that large percentage of people is not demanding feeders, who would if they lived in Kitsap. Then there are the people who take Sounder and ST Express. They do so because driving in highway traffic is stressful and parking in Seattle is expensive. But they’d rather drive to a P&R than take a feeder because it’s a one-seat ride. In Kitsap they’d take the feeder anyway because of the ferry fare and the lack of waiting and not knowing if you’ll fit on the next boat, but on the mainland they don’t have that incentive. The fact that Sound Transit and Pierce Transit are different agencies also plays a role: they need Sound Transit but they don’t need Pierce Transit, so they’re more willing to vote for ST projects than PT projects.

  4. “As ticket-buying tourists were replaced with UPass riding students”
    How much revenue per boarding does ST get from UPass when UPass users use Link light rail?

    1. Excellent question, though perhaps a finicky one to answer. The (perhaps unintended) implication of the story is that ST receives much less revenue per boarding for Upass holders than for others. If true, this amounts to a large subsidy to Upass holders by ST (and its funding governments). The net effect of this may be good education-related public policy, but for transparency’s sake it should appear as an expense in UW’s budget rather than as reduced revenue in ST’s. On a heavily used, short line such as Ulink, we should be expecting very high farebox recovery, perhaps even something like 100%. Subsidies to students (and other reduced-fare riders) may be great public policy for social reasons, in which case let’s make them explicit. ST and other transit agencies should be managed pretty tightly to farebox recovery, among other operational efficiency measures, and as far as possible subsidies for social good should be explicitly budgeted by the social-service entities.

      I realize this goes against decades of practice, in regard to many different fare subsidies. But what we are (apparently) doing now causes policy problems on both sides: the subsidy to beneficiary transit users is hidden, and the efficiency of the transit agency is obscured. Time for some more light.

      1. So nobody knows how much ST receives per Link boarding from passengers using UPass?

        Then, how exactly does UPass work? Does it cost UPass users anything to take trips on Link? Or, are those Link trips essentially free to UPass users?

    2. Bulk purchases lower costs and make revenue more predictable and certain. If the UPass didn’t exist, ST would have to convince 50,000 students and staff individually to buy an ORCA card and use Link. The UPass rate is supposedly set at a break-even point for the transit agencies: the same amount of money it would on average get from individual passes and e-purses. Perhaps the formula is out of what for Link, but is it really? Link has been running since 2009 so you’d think ST would have experience setting the rate for company Passports.

      1. “If the UPass didn’t exist, ST would have to convince 50,000 students and staff individually to buy an ORCA card and use Link.”

        You mean students and staff would not use Link if they actually had to pay a fare to use it?

      2. @ Mike, thanks for the (as usual) thoughtful reply, though I’m not sure that marketing cost is the main thing going on. I recall now that several years ago Upass was made mandatory for full-time students, and the price lowered to make that more palatable. The main reason I recall was to reduce traffic and parking congestion in the area – certainly an external cost worth controlling. I still hope for a world in which such costs are made internal – congestion pricing for street driving and parking,in this case. Technically possible now (with some infrastructure development) but of course a political non-starter.

    3. We should actually go further with bulk purchases. Some agencies (e.g., Denver) allow an apartment building or city block to get a bulk pass if 70% of the residents agree. Tallinn, Estonia, buys passes for all residents.

  5. Good numbers, and about what was expected overall.

    ALS opened on the 24th, and classes started on the 28rh. With the U now served by the line the normal seasonal peak in the summer will probably shift to the fall instead. I’d expect something in excess of 70k in October.

    Bottom line: Link is performing like a champ.

    1. But UW was also in session April-June. So won’t the fall ridership be the same as the spring ridership was? There are a few more people in fall (people starting in September, people dropping out in the first quarter) but probably not enough to make much of a difference.

  6. I rode the mid-day Sounder North for the first time last week. I did notice the conductor actually walking the car making a manual count of passengers.

  7. The 832K year-on-year Link ridership growth appears to be a record. I don’t recall Link getting anywhere close to that number in a single month from July 2009 to June 2010.

    1. Rainier Valley ridership took a long time to reach normal because of the significant opposition to surface Link in the valley: many people said they wouldn’t ride it or assumed it wouldn’t be better than Metro. Non-English speakers were also confused by it and the payment procedure and stayed away initially. Also Link’s fare was higher relative to Metro. But over a few years many of the opponents gradually started using it and remaining on it, better outreach convinced the non-English speakers, and Metro raised fares faster than ST did thus making Link trips from the valley the same or less expensive than Metro.

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