ST Express 550, connecting Bellevue to Seattle, is the highest ridership bus in the Sound Transit Express system. In the last two years, it has shed more than one third of its ridership. Issaquah-Seattle route ST 554, also operating on I-90, has seen ridership decline 14% over the same period.
Recently, a Sound Transit Committee received an analysis that explores the reasons why. It’s unlikely very much of the lost ridership could have been avoided. It’s nevertheless concerning because the I-90 express routes ought to be building a market for transit ahead of Blue Line trains running to Bellevue in 2023 and Redmond in 2024.
ST 550 has become progressively more difficult for riders to access as several major stops have closed. The South Bellevue P&R closed in June 2017 for East Link construction with a loss of 519 parking stalls. That was followed by the closure of Convention Place Station in July 2018 and Rainier Freeway Station in September 2018. However, the greatest loss of ridership came with the closing of the downtown transit tunnel to buses in March 2019. On average, Metro and Sound Transit routes formerly in the tunnel have seen 20% ridership losses since March.
The loss of 2,300 ST 550 daily riders after the DSTT closed to buses seems closely tied to the slower travel times. Delays are multiplied for riders taking the 550 to the north end of downtown. Stop data shows moderate losses in ridership at the southernmost stops in Seattle, with huge losses at stops after the buses have slogged unreliably across downtown.
The experience of ST 554 hasn’t been quite as bad. There, the challenge has been a loss of convenient stops at the south end of downtown. Construction at the Rainier Freeway Station also closed a stop at 5th Ave and Jackson St, and another at S Washington St and 4th Ave. The new stop at 2nd Ave and Yesler saw 26% fewer riders than the stops it replaced.
Last month, Sound Transit added a new Route 554 stop at South Jackson St and Maynard Avenue South, restoring eastbound service from Chinatown/International District on Jackson St. It’s too early to conclude whether it will be effective.
Sound Transit estimates 20% of former 550 riders have abandoned transit, and another 8% have switched to other routes. 12% of former riders on ST 554 have stopped using transit, and some more, maybe 100, are on other routes.
All this matters because the Blue Line will replace the express buses across I-90. The challenge of getting to a targeted 43,000 – 52,000 riders by 2026 is harder if current transit riders are abandoning transit in the face of bus delays.