King County Metro

As most reasons to leave the house (much less travel to the big hubs) disappear, transit ridership is going down with it:

King County Metro has analyzed preliminary estimates and extrapolations to create an unofficial estimate of ridership. The results show an estimated 45% reduction in Metro bus ridership ­– or a drop of 185,000 riders, from an estimated 415,000 to 230,000  – on Thursday, March 12, compared to this time in 2019.

Jeff Switzer, King County Metro

This is based on preliminary data, and therefore is not very precise. Nevertheless, the trend is unmistakable. For people interested in even smaller sample sizes, Jeff’s blog post shows the figures for some major routes. The 40, 70, and C are hit particular hard, while the A and 7 have drops below the mean.

I have a question out to Metro about how much this is costing them in terms of revenue. Given how little of fares are actually cash at the farebox, in the short term the hit should not be large. Much more significant is the presumable drop in sales tax collections. Should cuts become necessary, Jarrett Walker, as usual, has some good principles to use when cutting service in a pandemic.

Relatedly, the monorail shut down Monday night after a 95% fall in ridership.

Finally, kudos to Metro for suspending some of their usual data hygiene to get us this data almost immediately after the time in question. Their agility will allow necessary decisions to be made with the most transparency possible.

35 Replies to “Metro ridership plunges during social distancing measures”

  1. At some point, between drivers and operations/maintenance staff getting sick and people not using the buses, does King County implement an ESN-esque overlay to reduce total service hours, but concentrate in heavily used corridors? Use artics where possible to allow people to spread out. It’ll suck yes, but what doesn’t suck right now?

    Kudos to our bus drivers and all public servants that are keeping our society running!

    1. As Walker wrote, it is quite likely they will reduce peak service. A lot of the routes are funded at levels designed to handle extra capacity, not improve service. For example, the 522/312 runs every 3 minutes during rush hour — it could get by with running every 5, and most people wouldn’t notice (especially since there is probably less bunching right now). Of course that is assuming that levels drop to the point where riders would be able to spread out on the bus even if you run the bus every 5 minutes (I have no idea if we’ve reached that point).

      1. I think a simple place to start would be to just follow the minor holiday schedule (e.g. Presidents Day) every weekday until the coronavirus crises goes away. Which is basically cuts to peak service as you suggest.

        If that proves insufficient (due to driver shortages), a next step would be to follow the Saturday schedule every weekday, then Sunday.

        In any case, it needs to be something temporary that allows service to quickly return to normal when the crisis ends. It should not be done in such a way that leads us with overcrowded buses when the “all clear” comes for up to 6 months, until the next regular service change. And certainly not in a way that reduces evening/weekend service to hourly, while the #41 continues to run every 3-4 minutes during rush hour, carrying 10 people per trip.

    2. Public transit isn’t keeping society running. It’s keeping the virus running by spreading it from person to person, and area to area. Everything needs to be shut down.

      1. So how is a nurse — or any other medical professional — supposed to get to their job if they don’t have a car?

      2. We need to keep Metro up and running so people who work in high risk environments like hospitals and nursing homes can continue to ride public transit to and from work?

      3. If society is more concerned with people getting to work than the virus growing and spreading, then yes, keep transit running.

      4. If nurses and medical assistants can’t get to work to take care of people, if logistics people can’t move the masks from the loading dock to the units, if food service people aren’t making inpatient meals, if electricians can’t keep the power on, if people staying at home can’t get to supermarkets and suffer malnutrition, if cashiers and stockboys can’t get to supermarkets, then people will be less healthy and more vulnerable to getting the virus or having a bad complication.

      5. RossB, the writer of your “worthwhile article” isn’t an epidemiologist either.

        “Finally, let me be clear: my expertise on public health approaches zero.”

      6. Mike, we used to be monkeys living in trees in Africa. Then, one day, we got tired of eating ants, changed into humans, and walked like a 100,000 miles to America. Give our species some credit. The nurses will be just fine.

      7. RossB, the writer of your “worthwhile article” isn’t an epidemiologist either.

        No, but he is a transit expert. And as he notes, there are lots of countries that have taken more drastic measures than we have that still kept the trains (and buses) running.

        The point being, if you take a radical position (“Shut down transit!”) it helps if you have a bit of expertise, if not a little forethought with your proposal (Sam has neither, but I’m sure he is cute).

      8. There’s no way of knowing if those more drastic measures, or for that matter our current measures, are more or less effective without the medical expertise. You can shuffle all the trains and busses you want. The epidemiologist is the person who tells you if that shuffle actually helps the issue.

  2. Yes, kudos to Metro for transparency regarding ridership. Yes, sales tax projections for Metro will be revised downward substantially and planners and policy makers need those projections ASAP.

    Durkan’s diversion of Seattle TBD revenues to buying ORCA cards and not preserving them for service hours now is revealed as short-sighted and wrong.

    [off topic, false information]

    1. Durkan’s diversion of Seattle TBD revenues to buying ORCA cards and not preserving them for service hours now is revealed as short-sighted and wrong.

      Say what? Why is it worse that some people have ORCA cards, instead of extra bus service if ridership is down?

      Or are you saying that she should have kept in a rainy day fund? Are you saying that if she did add extra service, you would have complained that it is too risky?
      That sounds great in hindsight, but I really doubt that anyone would have supported that approach.

    2. Metro has a lot of hours invested in crowding-relief runs, congestion-compensation runs, and standby buses for breakdowns and congestion, that can be freed up with existing hours to wherever they’re needed. Even if Durkan had saved the money for operations when the new bus base opens, that won’t be until 2030 so it wouldn’t help now.

  3. So those numbers are through the 12th. It is probably worse now. I would imagine it has leveled off, but at a very low level.

  4. It would make this discussion a lot more productive, and also shorter, if we could have a list of spending categories that could show us what our real trade-offs are.

    From what I know of revenue percentage we get from fares, just about every other expense is a lot more important during what’s got to class as a real emergency. If I’m wrong, I’ve got an emergency need to be set straight.

    As for faults in governing an agency, certainly not calling for anybody to ignore them. 180 degrees the opposite. Make a lot of notes and collect a lot of votes. Over the years, another really dedicated commenter corresponds a lot with Council Chairman Claudia Balducci. All voters, get your own “rep”‘s e-mail and follow his example.

    But if the Lacey Morrow Bridge once again relocates itself to Davy Jones’ Locker before noon, doubt that this morning’s subsequent operational discussions will be about ST’s bad habits of governance. I forget…did anybody get fired over last time? Come to think of it, maybe we’d really better check!

    Mark Dublin

  5. Kudos to Metro for such a recent update. It shows a real commitment to public disclosure over hiding bad news on ridership.

    ST should be doing the same. They have yet to even publish Q4 data from 2019.

    1. +10 I agree wholeheartedly. Rogoff loves to talk about how his agency is all about transparency but it’s nothing more than an empty talking point.

  6. Another side effect of lower ridership and lower road traffic is that the buses will run quicker. This is both good and bad. Good because trips are shorter and more competitive with cars. Bad because buses will run substantially ahead of schedule. For instance, I tried to ride the 522 this weekend, but I missed it because it came 11 minutes early. Metro’s response to me is that they consider that to be “on schedule” because it’s an estimated timepoint.

    1. I noticed a 41 rider (with one passenger) taking his time at an intersection the other day. It was a stop sign, and normally they drive aggressively, but in this case he was in no hurry, probably recognizing that he was way ahead of schedule.

    2. Timepoints are at significant hubs like U-Village or Northgate TC. In light traffic buses often wait a minute or two at or before that stop so they don’t leave early. Metro penalizes drivers more for leaving early than leaving late because it annoys passengers more and they miss their bus even though they were on time. “Estimated timepoints” are intermediate stops in high-congestion areas (usually freeway traffic) where buses are allowed to pass early; the time is explicitly not guaranteed. ST may have a different policy since all routes are on high-congestion highways.

  7. I’d note that the biggest “social distancing” factors to ridership reduction are probably the work-from-home and no-schools (including colleges) decisions — and now unfortunately service industry layoffs. People aren’t changing modes; they quit making trips altogether.

  8. It is possible that this crisis could continue for 18 months with multiple waves of illness. metro will likely need to introduce a post covid service plan. Massachusetts today placed a moratorium on all construction. If this continues, sound transit projects could be delayed. Our new normal will change how we live. Cities might be smaller as people spread out in the long term.

    1. Cities might be smaller as people spread out in the long term.

      And how would they be employed, as small farmers? While it’s true that “people can work from home” for an occasional extended period, most people who work in office buildings are involved in “teams”. And again, teams can endure periods of forced video-conferencing, but they none-too-slowly fragment when they don’t have random interactions. Our technological society needs the creativity that comes from teams of high-skilled people.

      This is a “one-off” novel disease that combines very high-transmissibility with a steep severity curve. Most people who get it suffer no debility, while a relative but non-trivial few are severely stricken. Most novel viral illnesses are considerably more deadly over a wider age and wellness spectrum while at the same time being less infectious. They tend to burn themselves out by their deadliness.

      It makes no sense to reorder the ages-long trend toward cities because of Covid-19.

      1. I’ll amplify. What would the world look like if people had flown from cities as a result of the plague or sweating sickness? We’d probably still be animal powered.

      2. I’ve started wondering if international passenger flights should become a thing of the past. Every new virus hops arount the world immediately because every day people are flying intercontinentally. What if we went back to ships?

        We can’t reorient our city/suburban/rural profile overnight,. There would first need to be agreement on what we’re changing it to, then regulations would have to be changed, millions of new homes would have to be constructed, etc. There’s already a severe housing shortage in most of the country, with the only exceptions being a few depressed areas.

        If we did reorient our landscape it should be in compact towns and walkable cities like in the pre-automobile era. I’m not categorically opposed to channeling growth to small cities and rural areas, but those areas are the ones most vulnerable to car-dependent sprawl. We need to curb the tendancy toward six-lane arterials, cul-de-sacs, single-use zoning, and draconian height limits and parking requirements before we do that. If individual vehicles are necessary for social distancing, then they need to become much smaller, an a robust network of bike and scooter trails needs to be built. And covered bikeways protected from the rain.

      3. You could also combine individual separation with the efficiency of transit. Buses could have individual compartments, although that wouldn’t scale much. But trains did have small compartments in the past, and they could be smaller. A 200-person train would be pretty large. But it wouldn’t be nearly as large as 200 cars.

  9. keep service levels as is. the spacing currently on the 120 is just on the verge of uncomfortable during peak hours. Yes its virtually empty, but those of us who’s job is at a hospital who cant afford to pay for parking, we have to use transit, and are trying so hard not to get infected. Applause to everyone who I’ve ridden with every day for staying away from each other. people standing with empty seats shows they are listening. BRAVO! everyone stay away from each other, dont sit next to anyone if you can help it.

  10. By Jarrett’s advice, should the 212, 214, and 218 be running at all? Arguably even the 219 could be cut if some peak 554 trips were to serve the Sammamish extension that normally only runs late nights and early mornings.

  11. At 11:00 am Wednesday morning, there were exactly zero people on the platform at Kent Station awaiting the 11:05 am train to Seattle. People aren’t taking unnecessary journeys.

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