Last year, a larger percentage of Seattle residents than ever reported using transit to commute to work. Seattle has made remarkable progress this decade in substituting away from drive-alone commuting. Booming employment growth in downtown Seattle and South Lake Union made it easier for workers to access jobs via transit. Large investments in bus and rail service added the capacity to get them there.
But there’s a less celebrated narrative in more recent data. Most of the progress this decade was before 2015. Light rail ridership was lower last quarter than a year ago. Bus ridership has been moving sideways since 2016. Despite large investments in off-peak service hours, non-work trips by transit aren’t growing. Where transit ridership is growing, it’s not always keeping pace with population growth.
The decline in Link ridership last quarter wasn’t large, just -0.6% vs Q3 2018, but is still remarkable only three years after opening several new stations in a fast-growing city. Ridership for the year to date is a massive 12% below the Sound Transit budget plan, as an expected boost to rail ridership after removing buses from the tunnel failed to materialize.
Ridership on Sound Transit Express is down too. The worst declines can be attributed to a specific set of issues with Eastside routes over the I-90 bridge that were disrupted by East Link construction and the move of ST 550 to surface streets. But ridership generally hadn’t grown since 2015. It’s not for lack of investment. Sound Transit operates 9.5% more trips now than in 2015 and the cost of operations has risen even more with traffic delays lengthening trips and higher costs from partner agencies. Meanwhile, ridership is 4% lower than four years ago.
King County Metro fixed route service had healthy ridership growth through 2015, before falling with the U-Link opening in 2016 as rail supplanted several very productive routes. Since then, Metro bus ridership is up just 1%. Vanpool and Access ridership has declined. The challenges have been widespread, with 51% of routes seeing fewer riders. The declines are shared across all services; RapidRide, frequent and less frequent.
Recent Metro analysis highlights that the falls in ridership are off-peak and are particularly pronounced on Saturdays. This explains in part why the Census commute figures still look comparatively healthy. The loss of ridership is mostly non-commute trips.
The graph below shows annual changes in transit boardings by agency in King County. Before 2015, all agencies were showing solid growth, and Link ridership was boosted in 2016 and 2017 by new station openings. However, there is little net change in bus ridership after 2015. Total transit boardings are nearly flat by 2018 with the diminished growth on Link nearly offset by declines on ST Express.
Seattle and King County continue to grow fast, although both population and employment growth rates have slipped from their peaks. Employment growth peaked in early 2016 and population growth in 2017, though Seattle remains among the fastest growing major cities. Some slowing in transit expansion was to be expected with slower growth in downtown employment as the Amazon boom tapers off. What we’ve seen recently goes beyond that. Even with employment growth around 3%, Metro ridership growth is under 1% in each of the last three years. Countywide transit usage per capita is declining. Metro ridership has lagged population growth since 2013, and transit trips generally have started to decline relative to population since at least 2017.
There are a few interpretations one might draw from this.
Seattle is not immune to the headwinds depressing transit ridership in other cities since the recession. These include higher incomes in the city, the migration of lower income workers and jobs to suburbs where transit is less convenient, less immigration, higher car ownership boosted by inexpensive cars and a lower cost of driving. Together, they mean fewer people are transit-dependent. Most cities are seeing lower transit ridership at all times. Downtown Seattle is dense enough that driving is inevitably inconvenient and parking expensive. Most downtown workers with reasonable access will prefer transit for commute trips. But even transit commuters appear to use their cars more for non-work trips.
Our transit investments may have bumped up against diminishing marginal returns. 77% of STBD service hours are expended on weekend, evening, and night owl service. Perhaps that’s contributing to lower car ownership in the city, though it’s hard to see the benefits in off-peak ridership. Yet we don’t know the counterfactual of where ridership would have been absent the STBD spending. Maybe it helped us dodge the disastrous falls in ridership in some other cities.
On the other hand, at least some of the secular trends against transit ridership may be nearly played out. The I-90 bus issues will be resolved with East Link, if not earlier. Most importantly, a series of large rail investments will come to fruition early in the next decade adding another 200,000 daily rail trips.