Rush hour buses on 3rd Avenue. Credit: Bruce Englehardt.

The Puget Sound region’s transit investments are paying off. In recent years, ridership has grown faster in the Seattle region than anywhere else in the United States, according to the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC.)

That trend is true over the long term, as total ridership in the Puget Sound region has grown by 19 percent since 2010. That growth is larger than any U.S. peer city’s over the same timeframe. In the short term, Puget Sound transit agencies saw a larger absolute increase in boardings—5,108,582—than any other urban area in the United States during 2016-2017.

The Seattle region is now eighth in the U.S. for total annual transit boardings, behind the big three (New York, Chicago, and L.A.), San Francisco, D.C., Boston, and Philadelphia. In terms of ridership per capita, with 55 annual boardings per person, Seattle ranks sixth, ahead of Los Angeles.

Seattle’s ridership per capita is behind only “metropolitan areas with legacy transit systems”—though we did beat Philadelphia, which has one of those systems. Not coincidentally, it’s the least extensive of the eastern U.S.’s legacy rapid transit systems.

It’s pretty easy to conclude a major reason for ridership growth is the expansion of the Link system, which has come online in more or less that same time period. Sound Transit’s 2017 ridership figures certainly support that conclusion. Of course, that’s not the only reason. As Bruce pointed out in the same article, Metro reported a steady, annual upward trend in ridership last year, particularly on RapidRide. High-density population growth may be more responsible than any agency.

High quality, high frequency transit makes a significant difference in mode choice. But don’t take our word for it. The PSRC concludes that, in our region, “some of the highest rates [of boarding] come on routes with the most frequent service.”

14 Replies to “Puget Sound region added most U.S. transit boardings in 2016-17”

  1. I think there are three things that can explain the increase in transit usage: increased density in the more transit friendly areas, major improvement in light rail infrastructure, and increased service on the bus network. The last two are interesting and easy to take for granted. Much of the country is spending less on their bus system than they did a few years ago (and seeing ridership go down). There is also nothing stopping an agency (in theory) from cutting back on bus service as it expands its rail network. In a different city, Metro would have simply cut the 71/72/73, and saved taxpayers some money (to balance out the cost of the light rail expansion). That didn’t happen (thankfully) and we have a much better transit network than we did only a few years ago. That trend should continue as the city supports increased transit funding, and Link expands.

    1. I’m pretty sure that high Downtown parking cost (and general shortage of parking) is also a major factor. The same cities ahead of Seattle in the article’s ranking are here:

      While we can be proud of our bus legacy and recent light rail popularity, let’s recognize that local support for funding these things also comes from personal economic and time choices. If parking Downtown parking was cheap and plentiful, the public dollars going to funding would likely not be there.

      1. Yeah, good point. I don’t know if parking is going way up, but I know that parking has always been difficult and expensive downtown. At the same time, transit has always been good. So that leads to another point, which is the employment growth has occurred in places that are well served by transit. This wouldn’t be the case if there were lots of new suburban office parks being built. My guess is employment growth in downtown Seattle, downtown Bellevue and the UW is much higher than places that are both difficult to access with transit and cheap to park at.

    2. The 72 was cut and the only reason the 71 is still around is because King County Council member Rod Dembowski wanted it saved because his family rides it.

      Another typical politician only caring about special interest groups and in this case his own family.

      1. Any chance decision also resulted in chance that others beside Rod decided the 372 could handle Lake City Way into the U-District, while the 71 served a neighborhood that made it harder to replace?

        Always a remedy for a selfish political decision- rally voters who dislike the change enough to mount a campaign to change it back. Being aware of chance that more voters might favor the route change for their own reasons.


      2. The 62 serves NE 85th Street. The 71 is all about the one-seat ride from Wedgwood and 65th to the U-District.

        There was also growing demand to keep 15-minute service on 15th to 65th. Originallly Metro planned to put all north-south service on Roosevelt (45 and 67) as an ultra-frequent corridor with only peak and reverse-peak service on 15th (373 and 73), but the community lobbied to keep an all-day 73 on 15th. So the 71 completed the 15-minute service, which was convenient for Dembrowski. But ideally the 71s should bave been 73s short 73s.

  2. Where is NYC on the second graph? Shouldn’t they have huge per capita numbers? I assume they were just cut off because otherwise it would skew the chart.

    1. Exactly. New York would be two pages above the others if the y-axis were sufficiently precise that the others weren’t a little undifferentiated puddle at the bottom.

  3. My view: Increased ridership is a combination of:

    – Increasing transit quality (capital investments, stop reductions, bit of priority here and there)
    – Increasing transit service level (more trips)
    – Increasing population and population density
    – Very little increase in SOV capacity
    – Creating some supply & demand for existing SOV capacity (HOT lanes etc)
    – Better matching supply & demand for SOV parking (more restrictions, increased prices)


    For Phildadelphia, not sure how the stats run, but have to figure this one into the numbers for Philadelphia. Max accel and decel. Might want to check out how it’ll do on multi-station ride.

    After about forty years around Seattle, I think our ridership expansion has most to do with this last few years’ residential supernova, occurring in a relatively confined space.

    Also, fact that we’d designed our system to expand existing service to work well at separate stages, bus, joint-use, and rail only, and also to segue each one into the next as demand arose. Hope we’re being studied.

    On return-to-the-airport trips over the years, unanimous out-of-town passengers’ approval of joint use, even from places that already had rail: “Buses and trains same tunnel! Wish (name rail system you’re most jealous of) had done that!”

    Maybe that’s why the System always “shined on” all my urgency on smoothing out DSTT ops. By out-of-town reports, at least all our vehicles that went into the Tunnel always came out.


  5. I would note that gasoline prices had been much lower across the country during this period. Now that they have increased these past few months, I expect to see increased ridership wherever service levels have held constant.

    The denominator is also important. If only 5 percent of all trips are made by transit, a growth to 7 percent is a 40 percent growth in transit ridership! Sometimes both transit advocates and naysayers forget this.

    1. I would also add that transit support from the general population has really increased at the ballot box in our area. Not so much elsewhere. It would be interesting to crunch those numbers of increased taxation v. increased transit usage.
      Just like roads (if you build it they will come), transit is no different (if you provide it, they will ride)

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