Photo by AvgeekJoe / Flickr

Like many workers, I all but abandoned transit usage through 2020 and most of 2021, only returning mid-last year as my office reopened. Yet even as a lot of facets of society have returned to normal, transit ridership has struggled to rebound. There is still lingering uncertainty as COVID persists and most company return-to-office plans have either been delayed or scrapped altogether.

Prior to the pandemic, there were certain arbitrary figures that you could say were the high water mark of good ridership. I remember how big a deal it was when Sound Transit hit 100K daily boardings systemwide. These kinds of absolute figures don’t have much functional value, but they served as a common lingo for benchmarking among transit enthusiasts.

With the transition out of the pandemic, there is a pressing question of what the new normal might be. Will Metro ever hit 400K daily boardings again? Do we toss all the ST2 and ST3 ridership estimates down the drain? Or do we focus on other metrics instead? Two years into the pandemic and counting, it’s fairly evident that there has been and will be no “v-shaped” recovery for transit ridership.

The issue is that many of the variables that go into ridership projections are still riddled with near-term uncertainty. It remains to be seen whether inflation stabilizes, and if gas prices will follow suit. Budget-induced service impacts from depleted farebox recovery also loom. More difficult to quantify is if COVID has forever introduced an aversion to public spaces and crowds for some individuals. And the two biggest unknowns, in my mind, are land use forecasts and commute patterns, both of which are predicated on still-fluid remote work policies.

Here’s a crude back-of-the-napkin analysis for calculating potential lost ridership: Roughly half of pre-COVID ridership was commuters, of which we might assume a third will now be fully remote, another third will be hybrid (commuting a few days a week), and the remaining third will go back to the office mostly full-time. Rounding out the math, that gives us a quarter of trips that will disappear forever. According to APTA, nationwide ridership is still hovering about 50-60% of pre-pandemic levels.

The forecasts sound discouraging but I’m not sure it even matters if we get back to pre-COVID ridership. What does matter is that cities and transit agencies immediately adapt to our new housing and land use reality. More remote work probably means less activity in central business districts and a greater dispersion of activity across smaller urban villages and neighborhood centers. It also means more housing diversity and mixed-use development — even in single-family zones — is still badly needed.

As a consequence, I expect transit systems will shift away from being commuter-heavy. This naturally means downsizing peak-only services and building up frequent all-day cross-town connections. We saw signs of this shift early in the pandemic and there isn’t much reason to expect a drastic recalculation.

It’s good to remember that remote work reduces travel demand period, not just for transit. People working (near) where they live can be a good thing, as long as we build the right communities to support it.

93 Replies to “What will be the new normal for post-COVID ridership?”

  1. There is another key question: When will the pandemic be over? When it started, a lot of experts suggested it would take five years. That seemed pessimistic — at least for the United States — when they developed the vaccines so fast. Of course there would be areas of the world where the disease was relatively common, and here in the U. S., we would have occasional outbreaks (like measles). But the assumption a lot of people made (including me) was that by now it would really be over.

    It isn’t. The numbers are growing again, both locally and nationally. It is nowhere near as bad as it was, but the trend is a bad one. People are still nervous about being around other people, not because of some lingering aversion to public spaces, but because of current fears of a terrible disease.

    The five year estimate is sounding more and more accurate. That means transit should be close to normal around late 2024 (give or take). That sounds about right.

    1. Are people really that nervous to be in close quarters with others? Air travel is basically back to 100%, so I’m skeptical that it’s why most people are avoiding transit, though I certainly know a few people who are. If I had to guess, it’s more of a lingering anxiety that makes driving seem just slightly more preferable (and in many cases, more convenient) than transit. If that weighting shifted even a little (i.e. congestion tolling, parking scarcity) it could be a boon for transit.

      1. A cruise ship docked in Seattle a couple of days ago, and it had become a superspreader modality. So yes, people should avoid densely-packed environments.

      2. It is a combination of being nervous, and just not being as much fun. Just the other day my wife and I took the grand kids to see “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” at the Children’s Theater. (It was a good musical by the way, and had some fun transit references.) They checked vaccination status, and required everyone to where a mask. I’m glad they did, as it made me feel quite safe. But it wasn’t as much fun. I don’t particularly like wearing a mask (it reminds me of when I have asthma). I do it, but I don’t like it. That is basically my attitude towards transit. I do it, but it is worse than before.

        In contrast, driving is no worse than before, and is often better. Same with biking. Until everyone feels comfortable (and thus doesn’t wear masks) transit has trouble competing with alternatives. That doesn’t mean I (and others like me) don’t use it, but we are less likely to.

    2. Didn’t the Feds officially announce COVID is now endemic? I would consider that as the mark the pandemic is ‘over,’ as with an endemic disease the current surge will more-or-less reoccur every winter in perpetuity. I suppose offices could close every winter & transit ridership plummet accordingly, but it’s more likely the region’s perception of the risk will evolve, while the actual risk will remain pretty much unchanged from today (aside from seasonal variances).

      1. This comment section tends to an alarmist view of COVID, because that’s the way our readership skews. But I’m not seeing much evidence that COVID is an important part of why travel patterns are what they are any more. Sure, a few people are afraid to go back to the office, but far more are working hybrid or remotely because they like it. Most workers outside of offices (which is a lot of people!) went back to work full time nearly two years ago.

  2. Taking a quick glance at the APTA data (thanks for the link to that – I didn’t know about it before and there’s some great dashboards), it looks like there’s some outliers by agency, in particular LA Metro where they’ve returned to almost 80% of their pre-COVID ridership. We were just there a couple weeks ago, and took transit everywhere, and can confirm their buses and trains are *busy*. We were on SRO buses more than once, even in the middle of the day and on routes that were running with 10 minute or better headways. I was pleasantly surprised, given LA’s reputation for being car-centric, so maybe we should figure out what they’re doing right?

    My guess is it’s partially demographic (they do have a lot of poverty, but so do we) and partially traffic (I can certainly confirm it’s bad, but not sure it’s worse than ours), but it also probably helps that they have more rail and a lot of very frequent routes, even on weekends. It’s hard to speed up our rail construction, but we could be more aggressive at boosting route frequency and looking for under-served corridors that can support frequent routes, even if it means sacrificing low-frequency/low-ridership coverage routes.

    1. L. A. has a lot more density than us (although we have certainly made strides recently) which goes against the common notion of the city. They have also been chipping away at various improvements.

      1. Eh, Seattle has much better jobs density (which is more important to transit than housing density) than LA … but that jobs density is mostly the Seattle & Bellevue CBDs, while as long as those two CBDs are mostly empty then LA will continue to outperform.

      2. I’ve heard it said that LA has an area the size of Seattle that’s as dense as Capitol/First Hill.

        The problem with LA is the high parking minimums push things apart and put a ceiling on density. That’s what gives it its suburban character compared to San Francisco or Manhattan. But it’s more even medium density over a large area, as opposed to Seattle, San Francisco, and New York that are spiky. So the good news is you get medium density in a lot of neighborhoods. The bad news is you don’t get more than medium density.

        I’ve only been to LA a few times and seen parts of Hollywood, downtown, Pasadena, Long Beach, and suburban Chino Hills, so I haven’t seen most of what’s called the “Seattle-sized dense area”. Silver Lake is there somewhere, but I’m not sure where.

      3. “ L. A. has a lot more density than us”

        Funny, and also very wrong. At least wrong by conventional means of calculating population density.

        Seattle actually has a somewhat higher population density than LA. About 8700 people per mile**2 of land compared to LA’s 8300 people per mile**2 of land.

        Why might someone think otherwise? Because total area and land area are completely different, but when calculating population density only land area really matters.

        Stated another way, Seattle is about 35% water, LA about 5%, but water area doesn’t really count in any meaningful calculation of population density. And water area certainly doesn’t count in most transit and “land” use planning discussions.

        But hey, if you think all that water-area that we have in Seattle counts towards population density, then more power to you.

        But me? Na, when I think of population density I think of how close I am living to my neighbor, not how close I am living to the nearest Sockeye (not that there is anything wrong with sockeye of course.)

      4. Well, what is LA? If measuring the city of Los Angeles vs city of Seattle, Lazarus is correct that the density is comparable.

        Zoom out to the metro area and the story is different (Any Californian referring to LA is referring to the metro). Metro LA is has a far higher population weighted density (the actual lived experience of density) than Seattle. Yonah Freemark estimates it about twice our number.

        LA ‘suburbs’ are often really dense. Santa Ana and Long Beach are far denser than Los Angeles proper.

        The recovery in transit ridership in LA, though, has little to do with density. It’s because approximately nobody who can afford a car takes transit. The transit-riding workers aren’t in jobs where working from home was ever an option. So of course the riders are back. Seattle, which has historically had a more economically diverse transit ridership, is going to lag a lot further.

      5. @AJ,

        Absolutely loved your links! I got a good laugh out of the way the author addressed the supposed “fact” that LA is denser than NYC with the following quote:

        “ Some people leave it at that and begin to make “well, actually Los Angeles is dense” arguments; this is especially common among supporters of cars and suburbs, like Randall O’Toole,”

        So the people on this blog that are aligning with the “well LA is actually really dense” argument are actually aligning with Randall O’Toole? Hilarious.

        But I think in reality people are just being misled. Look at the sub-linked data in your link from the Austin Contrarian and you can start to get a clue. LA density (weighted or otherwise) includes Long Beach and Santa Ana (both denser than LA by most measures, but the population of Seattle is listed as 2.7 million people? In 2000? Ya, right.

        Clearly they is a lot more going into the making of the sausage than most people care to know about! Want LA to appear dense? Add surrounding denser areas! Want Seattle to appear less dense than Cleveland? Add a whole lot of less dense areas to it (Kirkland! North Bend! Enumclaw!), then label it as Seattle and don’t show what data you actually considered! 99% of the people will never notice what you just did….

        It’s a statistician’s game. But, as always with statistics, it should be “user beware”.

        But thanks for the links. That was fun.

  3. Great post, Sherwin. Like many things about the recovery, it seems like it’s been uneven. Peak-only suburban commuter routes remain anemic, while core urban routes filled with shift workers and students are recovering decently well. The latter is more important for a healthy transit system in terms of ridership, but the former contributes a disproportionate amount of funding and political support. I don’t know how that shakes out.

    1. Peak/suburban ridership won’t return until the white collar offices reopen. Those peak trips were overwhelmingly work commute trips, so without commuters there won’t be riders on those routes.

      I expect Seattle to be only a few months behind most other American cities, so those commuters should begin to return this summer. I predict the recovery will be “V-shaped,” but only on an annual ridership chart, with 2023 ridership close to ‘normal.’ With the existing backlog of Class A office construction in Seattle & Bellevue CBDs, plus a deepening acceptance of multifamily construction both regionally & nationally, I don’t see anything to suggest long term ridership forecasts are at risk.

      I don’t see the political calculus changing much. People who will argue that with remote work we don’t need suburban transit are mostly the same people who were arguing autonomous vehicles will render suburban transit, so I don’t see the net politics changing much.

      1. Six months ago, I would have agreed with you AJ. Now I’m not so sure.

        Anecdotally, my white collar office is fully re-opened. I thought I’d be back more often, but I’m personally finding it a struggle to make time for a commute. It’s not COVID fears; I’m taking public transit. It’s just that the rhythms have changed. My co-workers are now globally distributed, which means my would-be AM commute time is now full of meetings with Europe and Asia. The office just seems increasingly pointless. I am willing to admit I’m not typical, but I’m not sure I’m *that* atypical. I guess we’ll see this summer.

      2. I for one hope offices are increasingly pointless. Committing represents a huge waste of resources, and the associated parking and land use practices are pretty bad. It’d be great to see some office or parking to housing conversions to try to take care of the homeless crisis.

      3. No one goes into the office, so no one goes into the office. I’m optimistic that most firms will have most workers back in the office in a few months. Within Tech, there will certainly be some firms that will be mostly hybrid … but then I expect those firms to rationalize their office space (less sq ft per worker) and those workers to shift their homes aware from transit accessible neighborhoods. There will certainly be people who desire to live in walkable, transit rich neighborhoods no matter where or how they work, but the primary driver of rent premium is proximity to major job centers, so over time the most transit rich neighborhood should skew towards people who commute regularly into CBDs, while high amenity but (relatively) transit poor neighborhood will skew towards those who commute rarely.

        @Glenn, I couldn’t disagree more. If there is no longer a need to gather large groups of workers together regularly, then the production theory of agglomeration collapses and large cities become dependent on the consumption theory … which may be fine for Seattle & its tourism industry, but generally a disaster for most urban places.

      4. I’m with AJ. Over four millennia of human history, cities have been the drivers of innovation, culture and material progress. Programmers (a lot of us on the blog are or were) tend to think that we know it all. Yeah, sure, we give lip service to “team solutions”, because the bosses insist on it. But inside, most of us are looking forward to the next solecistic episode of “coding excellence”!

        A world of programmers would be a dystopian, self-centered place and not make any progress. We’ve given up bowling, we need the water-cooler to sustain a functioning society.

      5. “But inside, most of us are looking forward to the next solecistic episode of ‘coding excellence’!”


        Job Security … That’s why.

    2. Note that most suburban one-way peak-only routes were in decline before Covid. With Covid, they were suspended. With ST2 Link, they will not be needed at all.

    3. Frank;
      I think the solution is replacing peak-only service with the kind of redistribution that Community Transit’s CT2024 is offering the suburbs. Frequent and spaced out.
      Helps when we have Spine Destiny actually appearing…

  4. Time to cut service to NIMBY Mercer Island and all those highway stations

    1. it is past time to delete Route 630 and provide shorter headway and waits on Route 204.

    2. Nobody who calls for cutting geographic transit service to a place with housing except during a financial emergency has the right to say they are a transit fan.

  5. Free parking. Free highways. Paid transit.

    I wonder what the outcome will be?

    1. eh? Are you saying the costs of maintaining a car, and fueling it aren’t part of the calculus?

  6. Everyday, I receive e-mails from KC Metro that a run (or 2) of the 15 and 18 are cancelled (to and from Ballard to downtown). It is a chicken and egg issue– until more drivers can make every run (including the ones previously eliminated), folks, if they have a choice, won’t ride poorly ventilated (especially if windows are closed) unreliable bus service.

      1. Good to know. Just yesterday I was on a new Metro bus–still nice and clean–but I think the driver had the heat on. There was a constant “noise” which might be consistent with the heater being on–I couldn’t exactly identify it. But the inside air being on the warm side, I went to open the top window but there are no upper window latches on this new bus! I suppose all the new ones are like that. With more and more passengers entering and remaining unmasked, I wasn’t very happy. So the article partially assuages my fears of Covid transmission on the bus, but I sure do like the option of letting some fresh outside air in. Old habits die hard.

  7. Thanks Sherwin, this is a thoughtful and interesting piece.

    I have a more pessimistic take on the office commute market, which is that it’s determined in important ways by capacity. Take away 30% of office commuters, and there’s enough road space and parking for everybody else. Why take a bus when driving is easier than before and there’s a parking spot right in front of the building?

    Nobody likes the term ‘choice rider’, but they exist aplenty in commuter markets, and the choice has tilted a lot in favor of driving.

    It also gets harder for transit to serve. Moving masses of people along the same path at the same time is a core transit capability. Hybrid workers spend a lot more of their time travelling at least slightly off-peak, are more likely to combine trips when only going to the office occasionally, and can live in places much further removed from downtown. It all favors driving relative to the status quo before 2020.

    1. I think most choice riders are choosing to WFH and drive occasionally. When workers are back in the office (whether its the same workers or an entirely new cohorts filling up the office stacks), congestion will return, which should shift choice workers back into a mode share simillar as pre-COVID (assuming gas prices & transit network quality are also simillar as before)

      1. As long as the city is still growing employment, the CBD will eventually fill back up. But it’ll be on a lower long-term trajectory unless everybody is back in the office full-time. Picture a future where transit ridership is still growing YoY, but always a decade or two behind where we thought we were going to be in the pre-COVID plans.

      2. Fair point on trajectory. I’m bullish on the timeline, but I could easily be completely wrong. Mostly comes down to how Andy Jassy feels about hybrid WFH.

    2. That’s a good point but as long as we continue to underprice our roads induced demand will surely consume any excess capacity sooner or later.

    3. Take away 30% of office commuters, and there’s enough road space and parking for everybody else.

      I think it would take a much bigger drop than 30%.

      Why take a bus when driving is easier than before and there’s a parking spot right in front of the building?

      Because driving and parking is expensive. It also sucks. There is always a trade-off, but if riding transit is time competitive, it has plenty of advantages. It isn’t wasted time — you can read, or get work done. Yeah, I suppose some folks listen to podcasts, or talk on the phone while driving, but the vast majority of office jobs involve reading and typing (things you can do on the bus, but not while driving).

      My guess is the ratio hasn’t changed much in terms of people going downtown. There were always people who drove. Just like the folks who took transit, or walked downtown, they are staying home. Mainly there are just a lot fewer people downtown. A few may have switched to driving, but not that many.

      I also think AJ’s point is valid. There is no “new normal” because nothing is normal. We have no idea what things will be like in a few months. Before the Delta variant there was great optimism. Big companies had scheduled returns that were made public. But then Delta, and then Omicron, and all of the sub-variants. As a result, things are tumultuous.

      That is bad, because commuting by transit in a city like Seattle relies greatly on stability. The default is driving, and transit requires more work. People hone their transit commute. The first time you take the bus, you get there ten minutes early. Eventually you learn how to cut it tight, but not too tight. In the evening, you know when you have to leave work to get the fast bus. You glance at your watch, or the corner of your computer screen (you don’t have to bother with One Bus Away or Google Maps). Since many of the trips now require a transfer on Link, it further complicates things. Few are going through this learning curve in part because there is no stability at the office. You might be asked to come in for a meeting on Tuesday, around 10:00 AM. Sure, you can ask Google for transit instructions, but it is just easier to drive, and pay to park.

      That may continue, but I doubt it. There are counteracting forces. The city is growing. Not only downtown, but the neighborhoods surrounding downtown and in much of the city. Transit usage increases per capita as density increases. Driving is just a bigger hassle the more densely populated you are, and areas with higher density tend to be self contained (you often walk to your destination).

      I would be worried if people were leaving the city, but their not. Rent is sky high. Apartment construction if booming. People want more places to live in the city, but the laws won’t allow it.

      I could see how the estimates could be off, but that was likely anyway. It is very difficult to predict the future. Many of the estimates expected areas like Everett to boom, and places like Seattle to stay roughly the same. I think that is highly unlikely. It will probably be the opposite (see the last paragraph). There is increasing pressure to rezone much of the city. I see that as only a matter of time. This is all very good for transit, as density plus proximity leads to higher ridership (even if quality sucks). So we won’t get as many riders commuting in from the suburbs, but we’ll more than make up for it as areas get more density. Projects like ST3 will look stupid, but we knew that anyway.

      As long as Seattle keeps growing, transit should be OK. If it hollows out — if jobs move to the suburbs, and people flee the city — then we are in trouble. We don’t want to become Detroit.

    4. The data comparing 2019 and 2021 is here:

      What these data show is that the big shift was from transit to WFH. However, as employers bring back onsite jobs that will somewhat to mostly reverse.

      More significantly, traffic congestion has recently seemed to return to 2019 levels, so transit vehicles that have exclusive right of way are going to gain riders again. Parking spaces for workers don’t seem to be numerically increasing so the parking costs won’t get cheaper. Gas prices are skyrocketing. There are no new road projects in Seattle except for the last part of 520 near I-5.

      For choice commuters, time and cost are huge determinants of mode choice — sometimes on a day-by-day basis. All of these indicators suggest a return to transit use. Even if current employers move jobs out of office buildings, other employers will eventually fill up any vacancy. Occupancy will return.

      I also expect the 2 Line opening to create commuters who live in Seattle to quit driving to Downtown Bellevue, Microsoft and new employers in the Spring District. Not only will this add riders, but it will add riders in the off-peak direction.

      Plus, new free parking garages are opening soon on every Link line. Why would anyone from Shoreline even drive Downtown if there is a train every 4-5 minutes (until 10 pm) and free station parking after 2024/5? Even South Bellevue adds 1000 more free parking spaces. These are the new “Downtown” worker parking garages and Link will work like a sideways elevator to these workers parking in these new garages.

      A work trip drive of 10-15 miles is almost equal financially to an unsubsidized round trip transit fare — if there is free parking. Add parking costs — and/ or offer transit subsidies for workers — and riders will return to transit. Saving $15 or $20 each day is a huge deterrent to driving to work.

      2025 is going to be so good for local transit that 2020 productivity issues will likely be just a forgotten nightmare.

  8. A clear-eyed, thoughtful posting by S.L. Another reality is that the population of King Co. and Seattle actually are dropping.

    Land use and transit modalities were chosen because Seattle and Bellevue business districts were to be the regional centers for offices. Now that daily commutes to and from those CBD’s are expected to be a small fraction of what ST2 and ST3 projections showed there needs to be a serious discussion about whether the light rail system expansions ST3 described remain justified. What voters were told about the costs of those was a small fraction of what those costs look like now, and the ridership projections now are “overly optimistic.”

    1. “Now that daily commutes to and from those CBD’s are expected to be a small fraction of what ST2 and ST3 projections” Who expects this? Not the decision makers building, buying, and leasing in the CBDs.

      Rents may be very different, and the economic sectors using the CBD may be very different, but I’m baffled by people who think the CBDs will have permanently lower utilization without a broader economic collapse.

    2. Part of the 2020-2021 population drop is because campuses closed. Some college students moved back home. That impacts both dorms and nearby apartments.

      Big cities probably won’t grow like they did in 2010-2019 but they won’t continue to shrink in population like what was estimated between 2020 and 2021 either.

      1. That makes sense. Basically the “drop” in population was simply a statistical anomaly. It would be like closing the prison in Monroe. Technically the population of Monroe would see a dramatic drop, but the only people who would be leaving are prisoners (and perhaps a handful of employees).

        It is interesting because some estimates claim there never was a drop ( With housing prices sky high, and a construction boom, I have a hard time believing there was a meaningful drop in the population.

    3. Somewhere around 3/4 of counties across the country recorded a drop in population over the past couple years.

      Turns out, if you unleash a deadly disease, cut off immigration, and allow people to work anywhere in the world that suits them, the population drops in a bunch of places.

      There still seems to be a housing shortage in Seattle, based on the small amount of time residential property stays on the market.

      Wondering how much of that is housing converted to short term rentals or something, thus reducing housing supply? I can see the pandemic driving an increased demand for AirBnB and other such arrangements for those who are working from anywhere.

  9. “More remote work probably means less activity in central business districts and a greater dispersion of activity across smaller urban villages and neighborhood centers. ” I don’t see this being true, long term. Remote work may result in less of a price premium for rents (business & residential) in CBDs verses elsewhere, but in the long run the market should adjust such that the CBD utilization remains the same.

    It’s plausible that for some cities, the CBD rent premiums drops such that high/midrise construction is no longer profitable … but even then, the long run result should be lower CBDs land values, not lower CBD activity. OTOH, high land values for suburban/rural communities will result in more development there, but for Seattle that impact will be mitigated by the UGA. Permanent remote work will drive a population boom in St George UT and Bozeman MT, not in Carnation WA.

    The rent premium in Seattle & Bellevue CBDs is immense, 2~3x as elsewhere in the region. Rents in Seattle could collapse by 50%, and Seattle CBD would still be the most desirable place to build in the region. As long as the CBDs are filled with people working, living, and playing, transit ridership will be there.

  10. Another big segment of transit ridership are students going to colleges and schools. How education moves forward will matter lots.

    I see that more classes are likely to go online but professors in my circle tell me that it’s a poor substitute for an in-person class. I would expect about 90 percent of those transit trips will return as online class options wane.

  11. The relationship between peak hour ridership and daily ridership has probably changed. Many riders have the option of avoiding peak transit vehicles. Much less peak hour travel will probably come back more fully as opposed to daily travel.

    This means a few things:

    1. Niche peak hour demand will noticeably wane. That may change how Sounder and long express routes schedule service. It may mean that some peak extra buses go away. I’m not so sure that ST will need all those new Sounder garages. I expect marginally-performing express bus routes to get cancelled.

    2. Riders will mostly return to day-long frequent transit like Link and RapidRide. As some riders move from peak hour trips to non-peak hour trips, the reliability and availability of these core lines at most hours of the day will draw riders away from peak-focused service to these.

    The good news for transit agencies is that fewer drivers will be needed at peak times and fewer buses will be needed during those peak hours — times which cost more to serve. If a transit agency can rethink its fleet and scheduling, the overall productivity could stay stable or even slightly improve.

    1. Yes – this last point seems especially important, and an actual silver lining. High contrast peak/non-peak travel patterns are bad for cities because it’s so expensive – in terms of road space or coaches or service hours or whatever you need – to serve the the peak travellers and much of that capacity is wasted during off peak hours. I think about this all the time passing through empty spaces near the stadiums and on desolate downtown streets in the evening, but the same rule applies for bus base capacity.

  12. I always thought the Stanford Study had it right: 20% to 40% will WFH on average. That is a wide spread, and today 40%, or two days on average – seems right, maybe a bit more for this tech heavy region. I think the length of the pandemic affected young people long term more, and a big part of their youth has been at home.

    Generally people do what they like to do, if they can. Everyone commuting to work at the same time was an unproductive (and unpaid) use of time for everyone. As Skylar notes folks have gone back to what they like to do, such as travel, bars, sporting events. They just didn’t like commuting to work, and Covid provided the alternative like the market usually does.

    Another factor is the huge demand for workers as so many have dropped out of the work msrket. This has left employees with the bargaining power.

    When it comes to CBD’s AJ is right and wrong. The cost per sf is very high so businesses don’t want to lease space they don’t need. This means a lot of empty space which hurts retail vibrancy. Declining occupancy will trigger loan defaults on buildings, which discourages retail or commercial tenants and new development.

    The key but hidden metric IMO is the sublease market because most employers have 5 or 10 year leases that need to expire. Right now the downtown Seattle market is flooded with office space for sublease so no property owner will let a tenant out of a lease early. Look for vacancies to grow each year as leases expire.

    Transit has several issues, the same issues as pre-pandemic. First is safety or perceived safety. Second is the work commuter doesn’t want to commute, period. Then there is lack of traffic congestion, free or employer subsidized parking, convenience, the usual. Even if transit were free — and the atmosphere on transit didn’t deteriorate further — these advantages would exist. Very few folks can or want to live without a car, so gas vs. fare is about the only cost consideration.

    Unfortunately the PSRC and ST overhyped transit and TOD with inflated population growth estimates and ridership estimates. This will affect farebox recovery, and reallocate business and sales tax revenue from CBD’s to more suburban areas (like ironically) Mercer Island that don’t want or need more transit. Transit itself has not worked hard to treat riders like customers, and a lot of folks felt like transit slaves due to artificially high parking rates and demands to commute M-F.

    Still, as a suburbanite I want to live in suburbia but play in a CBD. Tourism is/was a cash cow for Seattle and the region. Many of the issues in Seattle are self-inflicted. With the right leadership Seattle can once again be a world class city, something I don’t think Bellevue can. I think Bellevue is going to have a hard time filling towers the farther east you go from Bellevue Way, while Bellevue Way will remain vibrant because retail needs retail density, and is very hard to create, but easy to lose, like downtown Seattle.

    As for transit its issue will be the differential between capital and operations costs and general and farebox revenue. There will be fewer riders forever, way fewer than ST and the PSRC estimated, so either other funding sources (that take from suburban areas where the business transit tax revenue has shifted to CBD’s) or cuts to service like peak demand.

    Transit will need to stop trying to change how people live and focus like a laser beam on providing as much mobility per dollar as possible to those who must ride transit. Forget about transitioning folks out of their cars. That was a doomed goal all along.

    1. Nobody is trying to force people to live differently in order to drum up transit ridership. Upzoning neighborhoods in the city does not force you or anybody else to move there. It simply allows more people who want to live in the city to be able to do so. They don’t even have to be regular transit riders. They might simply want to be able to walk to basic amenities that most suburbanites have to drive to. That’s fine too.

      “focus like a laser beam on providing as much mobility per dollar as possible to those who must ride transit”…

      Ignoring special boutique routes that operate only during rush hour, a transit system that is useful to poor people is also useful to everyone. The moment you try to design a transit system specifically for poor people, you end up enumerating destinations where rich people imagine poor people going. You end up with a bunch of special purpose shuttles connecting destinations like homeless shelters, food banks, drug overdose clinics, etc. For anyone wanting to anywhere else (including poor people), too bad. That’s not the way a transit system should work.

      By contrast, if you just stick to the basic principle, if there’s an arterial street, run a bus down it, anyone who needs to travel on the street can get where they are going.

      1. Asdf2, recent transit restructures to account for “equity” specifically designed routes and frequency based on wealth, in part by using transit ridership during Covid on the principle these folks had no other option than transit. So of course transit coverage and frequency need to account for use, and those who must use transit.

        Don’t spend a fortune on transit around Mercer Island if transit dollars are going to be limited.

        Running buses along arterials is exactly the kind of laser beam transit spending I am talking about, not huge transit projects like WSBLE that will serve two white wealthy exurban areas at a cost of $180,000 to $360,000 per each estimated rider, and move 400 people out their cars.

        We all know the disadvantaged areas, and personally I support allocating transit dollars there if transit dollars are limited. The reality is poor transit riders and wealthier transit riders are not going to the same locations because they live in different neighborhoods.

      2. Median income matters in an area’s ridership potential, but it’s just one factor. Population density (the number of total people who live near a street) matters too, as does a neighborhood’s walkability. That is why Capitol Hill has higher transit ridership than Kent, even though it’s median income is higher.

        Also, people need transit to everywhere they might go, not just where they live. Just because someone can’t afford to live in a neighborhood does mean the bus system should deny them the right to visit it.

      3. Don’t spend a fortune on transit around Mercer Island if transit dollars are going to be limited.

        They aren’t. The Mercer Island Station only exists because it is “on the way”. The line would exist with or without Mercer Island. Might as well add the station, as it is an excellent transfer point for feeder buses along I-90. Mercer Island residents just get a bonus.

        There is the 630, which should be cancelled, but to call spending on that route (or any of the feeder routes in Mercer Island) a fortune is a stretch.

      4. Ross, I was thinking of returning the 201 or increasing frequency on the 204 or other intra Island Metro service. Mercer Island is apparently subsidizing the 630 so little cost to Metro. MI workers on First Hill are not going to take transit to East Link to Seattle and then transfer to First Hill and many of these employees can’t work from home.

        Better for MI is reserved space in its park and ride, or at least less off Island use. Today there is very little on or off Island use. However I could see off island park and ride use to catch the 630 which would be problematic.

        As a taxpayer I would like to see some financial help from the larger employers on First Hill for the 630 however.

        Putting a light rail station on MI made sense — kind of based on likely Island ridership — since East Link was running through MI between the east/west lanes of I-90 and it is a surface (35’ below grade) station so the cost was low. But I think island ridership is estimated (pre-pandemic) at 3000/day.

        BYW I also thought your page 2 article was well researched and written, and took a lot of time and knowledge. I didn’t reply because I didn’t feel knowledgeable enough, but enjoyed the analysis. .

      5. “MI workers on First Hill are not going to take transit to East Link to Seattle and then transfer to First Hill and many of these employees can’t work from home.”

        If the city of Mercer Island wants to pay for it, that’s their business. But, I would argue the money would be better spent by running the 204 more often, and later into the evening, so that, when Mercer Island park and ride fills up, the transit system remains accessible.

        The problem with a route like the 630 is, it’s too specialized. Your place of employment has to be specifically First Hill (not downtown, not UW, not anywhere else). Your working hours have to be something close to 9-5, Monday-Friday. Need to leave a little bit earlier or later than this, you can’t use it. You also have to have a flexible enough schedule for a bus that runs only every 40 minutes to not be a dealbreaker. If you ever just miss a 630 from Mercer Island P&R, you will get to First Hill far more quickly by just riding the regular buses and transferring downtown than by waiting for the next one. Considering that the population of Mercer Island isn’t all that large, and there is no particular reason for Mercer Island to have a greater concentration of First Hill employees than Bellevue or anywhere else on the Eastside, I don’t a route like that would be well-ridden.

        Of course, specialized routes like this are often the fastest option for people fortunate enough to be able to use them. That’s why tech companies such as Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and Facebook all run special-purpose shuttle routes between park and rides and their corporate campuses. But the fact of the matter is, by insisting on a special-purpose route tailored to *your* commute, you are essentially asking the transit system to spend a disproportionate amount of money to speed up *your* commute at the expense of others, so you are effectively being selfish. Even more arrogant is the attitude that, since you’re rich and have a car, the transit system “owes” you a special-purpose route for your commute because you can make good on your threat to drive yourself instead if they don’t give it to you, while other, poorer, riders cannot. This is the exact opposite of the “laser focus” on making transit useful to people who really need it, you’ve been advocating a few paragraphs above.

        The fair way to allocate service is to run bus routes that are as useful for as many trips as possible, as frequently as possible, and stick to them. The unfair way to do it is to start with the core network, then pick some random origin->destination pair and say “you get a special shortcut that nobody else gets (but only if you are able to leave at a very specific time) because we believe you’re special, and also because you’re a ‘choice rider'” – every bus used to run these “special” routes is a bus that isn’t used to make the core routes that everybody else has to use better.

    2. Still, as a suburbanite I want to live in suburbia but play in a CBD.

      And no gestapo is going to come to your house and force you to live in a 20th-floor condo. Some people are actually interesting in living and playing in dense neighborhoods – it’s people like you, who oppose legalization of denser housing on most land, who are forcing them to live in what’s available and “affordable” (old houses in suburbia), rather than where they want (old houses near their jobs).

      1. regarding Route 630: does it duplicate Link; is it cost-effective; could its hours be used to improve intra-MI service and reduce waits? Should every suburb have a Route 630 transit vans running parallel with Link? One-way peak-only routes with narrow spans of service is a terrible way to service the First Hill employment center. We will miss the ST Link First Hill station forever. But even without that the network has routes 2, 3, 4, 9, 12, and 60, and the FHSC; it could be improved. The G Line will be implemented in a few years.

      2. Transit doesn’t “service” its riders. It “serves” them. The bull “services” the cow.

  13. If this means that peak-only suburban commute routes die, I for one will not mourn them. But I believe that in a growing city like Seattle, we will eventually reach the limits of road capacity again. This might just mean we need different service, rather than less service.

    For other cities that aren’t growing (e.g. Chicago or Cleveland), it might mean a permanent reduction in travel, and naturally a permanent reduction in transit use.

  14. Great piece.

    To give input from a different market: in the Netherlands on average 73 % compared to precovid takes the train again. In the weekends the numbers are now sometimes higher than precovid.

    Although it is still early I do get the impression that overall the type of travelrr is changing. Meaning we should start changing the type of transport is being offered. Less express buses catering to 9-5 workers. It puzzle me for example why bus 64 is running and 79

  15. Another anecdote: I prefer working in an office, but also like having an established desk at home, for days when I don’t need the collaborative/communicative atmosphere inherent when working in-person with my coworkers.

    I recently started a new position at a large, international consulting firm with an office near the Central Library in Downtown. The week I was hired, the office officially “reopened,” but few people have returned to the office on days when there isn’t a coordinated meeting planned. On those days, most people have expressed an appreciation for working in the office with coworkers around, but 80% of the other days I’ve gone into the office (~2-3 days a week), I’m totally alone.

    I think the commuter split is going to be between jobs (like Frank C.’s) that spend most of their time on “the phone” (teams or zoom or whatever) regardless of where they’re seated, and jobs that have a significant in-person component that can’t be replaced by screen-sharing over a phone call. For people that don’t experience significant in-person benefits, they’re not going to motivated to do any commute since the internet is just as good at home. For smaller, local, or otherwise collaborative white-collar jobs, they’re already on a path towards returning to the office most of the time. What determines whether people will drive is largely the cost of parking (at home and at work), gas, and traffic. What determines whether people will take transit is speed, frequency, and reliability. If peak-only buses can be reassigned to increase all-day frequency, then that’s a Win in my book.

  16. It needs to be specifically mentioned that Link average weekday in February 2022 was at 86 percent of February 2019. However, there are three more stations opened last year so it’s not a direct comparison. My best guess is that about 70 percent of ridership was back in February +/- 5 percent.

    Of course, since February fuel prices have spiked and more employees and schools are active onsite.


    (The data doesn’t display on many cell phone browsers)

  17. Good discussion here and an important question. But I think missing from this discussion is the dependency of transit ridership on the health and vigor of Seattle’s downtown, which is coming back more slowly than the rest of the region. Downtown is in desperate shape, and regional transit use won’t come back until downtown feels safe and full of people and events and healthy retail and restaurants again.

    1. Agree. Someone this blog of “transit enthusiasts” seems to miss this. People don’t ride transit for the sake of being on it.

      Without a vibrant downtown, and all signs point to a diminished downtown, Seattle transit ridership is on a doom spiral.

      But just wait until Seattle’s style of CHOP and “fares are racist” nonsense fuels the conservatives media steering us to a Republican governmental trifecta and the gravy train of federal funds stops flowing.

      Wake up. There’s no tower without a foundation.

      1. The next Republican “trifecta” will lead to the final dissolution of the American Union, because the Republicans elected these days are “my way of the highway” types, and the highway will clearly be the better option.

    2. I think it’s essential that Metro give more thought and consideration, meaning better bus service, to those of us who do live downtown. Having buses only on 3rd is a disaster.
      Let’s go back to having buses on 1st at least. And yes, maybe there is some congestion near the Market, but traffic downtown is way less than it was pre Covid so the excuse of too much congestion just doesn’t fly. Traffic congestion is way worse in Ballard now than downtown.
      I’m tired of the routes of the buses I used to take, and hope to take again, being changed just so people in the inner suburbs can save 2 minutes. For example my route 2 going north was changed to eliminate the stop at 1st and Broad. There were a slew of buses using that stop, now just route 1.
      One other thing. There used to be an annual Senior Pass which was SO convenient. I’d be willing to pay double what the old pass cost $99 I think, just for the convenience of not having to mess with an orca card. And yes, I’ve travelled and used public transit around Europe and grew up in England, so I know what good transit is.

      1. Debrorah: yes. The 1st Avenue situation is Beckian; we are waiting for Godot, or the Center City Connector streetcar. Between 1998 and 2011 there was frequent 1st Avenue service by routes 10-12 and 15, 18, 21, 22, and 56. Several AWV projects and then utility work for the CCC booted service from 1st Avenue. The CCC is a very costly way to get local circulation. If Seattle stopped waiting for the CCC, SDOT and Metro could place frequent bus service on 1st Avenue.

        After the ST2 Link extensions, few suburban routes will be needed in downtown. In city routes might be divided between 3rd and 1st avenues. The bulk could remain on 3rd Avenue; it works well; but enough could shift to 1st Avenue to have short waits. SDOT has protected 3rd Avenue transit from traffic pretty well. 2nd and 4th avenues will be slower in the peaks as lanes were taken for the protected bike lanes.

      2. If traffic comes back downtown, the lane reduction on 4th (the only northbound through street) will be a flaming disaster.

      3. The wire is gone north of Lenora and to the south of Lenora it’s only there on the southbound side. The “D” is not going to be divered from the RR pathway on Third, so what’s left to serve the area south of Broad? The only possibilities are a shuttle and the Magnolia buses.

        Maybe you could get the 15 and 18 peak routed down First between Denny and Virginia (southbound) and Lenora, but they have to be on Third through the major core, since that’s where the D runs.

    3. Quasimodal: yes. Transit seems in a downward spiral entangled in the interrelated issues of Covid, homelessness, fare evasion, drug use in and around transit. Civil behavior on transit is dependent on good ridership and eyes on the coach; good ridership is dependent on security; the environment must have something to do with the operator shortage; so, chicken-egg. Note the agencies set out to address homelessness have had backroom disagreements; no surprise, as the issues are vexing. Land and funding are both scarce; they could be a discussion on how much of each to use on short term solutions, such as tiny house villages, v. long term supportive housing. The European and SF Muni approach to have network wide proof of payment fare inspection has merit; it would speed service and make it more attractive and help with security. So, while ST discusses how to do fare enforcement humanely, they could be applying POP on all their routes and not just Link, Sounder, and Stride to be branded in the future.

      Of course, the interrelated issues extends beyond downtown Seattle. It touches South King County, Capitol Hill, the U District, Lake City, and Ballard. Everywhere. There appears to be nearly open drug use on many routes. Yesterday, there was a disturbed shouting man in a bus shelter in the U District.

      1. Right. There are good solutions out there if anyone cares about customers, performance or outcomes – but it seems all that matters these days is political posturing and virtue signaling, whether we’re talking about transit service, housing or public safety. While that’s going on, nothing gets done, government credibility plummets and the anti-city anti-transit culture warriors have a field day. We need government to work, which means our leaders need to refocus on practical, achievable outcomes and win-win policy solutions.

      2. “Transit seems in a downward spiral entangled in the interrelated issues of Covid, homelessness, fare evasion, drug use in and around transit.”

        You’re blowing it out of proportion. I ride Metro and Link extensively, and the percentage of riders who could be described as visibly homeless, taking drugs on transit, or behaviorally challenged is a low 5-10%. It varies widely by route, so you may be on one of the worst ones.

        Bus stops are another story; a lot of non-riders loiter in them. But that, like not tapping on Link, has been around for decades.

        “Civil behavior on transit is dependent on good ridership and eyes on the coach; good ridership is dependent on security; the environment must have something to do with the operator shortage”

        The entire economy has worker shortages. Bus safety is part of it, but it goes far beyond that.

      3. “the percentage of riders who could be described as visibly homeless, taking drugs on transit, or behaviorally challenged is a low 5-10%”

        The problem is, 5-10% isn’t really all that low. It’s enough to make most bus trips carrying 10-20 people have at least one person on board who is visibly homeless taking drugs, or behaviorally challenged. For people to be able to reliably get on a bus that doesn’t have that, the rate needs to be more like 0.1%.

        Of course, the route matters. For the most part, Eastside routes don’t have these problems. It seems to be most prevalent in Seattle, particularly south Seattle.

      4. When 1% of the transit riders takes a piss on the train during the trip (my last time on Link between Othello and CC), that’s too high a percentage.

      5. This fall, ST’s fare enforcement policy changes, and it will become almost impossible to remove people from transit. Over time, this will have the effect of more and more homeless people setting up camp on buses and trains.

      6. “Perception is what matters when it comes to public safety.”

        So we must call out disinformation. Like those that say safety problems are on the majority of runs, or most other passengers are homeless, or that one should think safety is the #1, #2, and #3 issue.

  18. I see a bright future for transit in this region. Our region’s workforce is dominated by tech, and tech wants most/all workers back. Employers are biding their time. Getting workers back isn’t a fight they want to pick right now, so they are playing along with the hybrid model for the time being. The next couple of years for transit will be rough, but they are gradually going to get back to pre-covid ridership levels in a couple of years, I believe, and after that, I see it flourishing. But, not because Link or ST Express or Metro is a great product that people are drawn to. I actually think the riding experience is going to degrade considerably, but, for many, there will be no other choice.

      1. Some of the tech sector will indeed go fully remote … but why would those remote workers pay a premium to live in transit-rich neighborhoods, unless their lifestyle is such that they would be a regular transit user with or without their commute?

        Transit orient housing will be more desirable to those who use transit.

      2. “our career page was visited 800,000 times after that announcement”

        That doesn’t mean all of them will apply or that AirBnB has 800,000 job openings. And pent-up demand makes the initial spike higher.

    1. Remote workers don’t need to live in transit rich neighborhoods. My take on this is the percentage of remote workers will continue to shrink throughout this decade until eventually they become an insignificant amount of the workforce.

      1. I think remote workers will be a major part of the skilled work force .. I just don’t see many of them living in Seattle along frequent bus lines.

      2. I don’t think remote work will last. Right now, job seekers and employees have the power, so companies aren’t going to force the issue, but once the labor shortage subsides, and the balance of power shifts back to employers, I think we’re going to see them bring nearly everyone back to the office.

      3. The key to Sam’s prediction that workers over time will return to the office is why.

        If it is due to employer mandates I think that will fail for high valued employees, and in this jobs market nearly every sober employee is high value. For those who have to go to work the 630 and private employer shuttles will be the future. No transfers. Commuters HATE transfers.

        If employees return because they want to that is different. For example, Pelaton stock has plunged because people like the gym atmosphere and the cost is around the same.

        I think the reality is workers will return to the office, but on Average around 3 days/week. Commuting during peak hours M-F is just too much of a waste of uncompensated time, AND businesses will tailor their expensive urban office space for around a 40% to 60% return to office work.

        Few employers can afford to have 20% to 60% of their office space empty, and long term the sublease market will be brutal. In the past it was common for larger employers to lease more space than they needed and sublease out the excess until needed. That is too risky going forward.

        I don’t think this necessarily relates to urban living or transit use. People might not like commuting to an office full time, and never did, but historically they have liked living in an urban city, or just visiting, depending on safety, schools, culture, retail vibrancy, and maybe most of all whether you have the income or wealth to live in a vibrant urban setting. There is a very good reason many Manhattan workers live in NJ and commute. If they can’t live in Manhattan or afford most of its amenities they will prefer to WFH. Same with Seattle. The irony is young people most enjoy an urban setting but generally don’t have the wealth. The tech worker bridged that divide.

        Transit simply serves what people like to do. Transit rich neighborhoods generally are not the most expensive. Mercer Island, Clyde Hill, and Medina have little transit. People take transit in urban cores because it is more convenient due to the scale and density, IF it is safe and goes to vibrant areas. Otherwise Uber is a much better alternative, and like with gyms and Pelaton around the same cost.

        Folks still WANT to go from A to B, and will choose transit if it is more convenient and safe, and really cost is rarely an issue with Uber, or driving since most already own a car.

        Transit does well when the urban centers do well and attract workers and shoppers. If Seattle recovers so will transit, because hybrid workers will want to go to the office more days so employers will lease more space, ,more will want to live downtown, retail density will return, and so will shoppers, because they WANT to go to downtown Seattle because it is happening and not their living room. It feeds on itself.

        If not people will still want to go to the office sometimes, and to shop and dine out, but they will go someplace else like Bellevue, and either drive because the Eastside has made driving more convenient than transit even though transit is safe, or Uber if they plan to drink because the cost of Uber vs. a DUI is worth it, and Uber is so much more convenient on the Eastside.

        Never blame people for a city’s or transit’s woes. People simply do what they enjoy, including having families and living in a SFH, and driving or taking Uber to Bellevue if Bellevue provides a better retail experience and driving or Uber is more convenient and faster than transit.

        Change those factors and the same folks will take transit to Seattle, because 99% of the world don’t spend time debating mode.

    2. “Link will do OK, as will Swift type stuff in growing suburbs. Metro will need to shrink a lot. It’ll feel like 2012 (?) with an elaborate proposal to cut routes if they don’t get more taxes. And no one will care.”

      Most of the cuts will be in extra peak-hour service. When Metro restored most peak service last fall assuming offices would reopen then (but Delta and Omicron happened instead), it said that if ridership doesn’t return to pre-pandemic levels within a year or two it would have to cut them again. So that’s already known. Metro’s policy has shifted to keeping up a baseline of all-day service and focusing on equity to disadvantaged areas. During the bad covid year, Eastside ridership fell precipitously while South King County ridership remained at pre-pandemic levels. Seattle was in between. I don’t care if Issaquah-Seattle peak expresses run every 5 minutes or 10 or 20. I care a lot whether all-day routes run every 15 or 30 minutes, because the former is usable but the latter is not. 30-minute service makes people try hard to avoid using it, in a way that they don’t with 15-minute service.

      Link will be popular for the same reason it has been popular for the past twelve years: it connects a lot of areas simultaneously, runs every 8-10 minutes, and is faster than local buses. When we complain about Link’s slowness in the south end, that’s compared to express buses, not local buses.

      Hundreds of thousands of people ride Metro by necessity or choice or to protect the environment or to avoid driving in traffic or expensive parking. That’s not “no one”.

  19. Maybe I’m missing the point of this article with my comments but here it is anyways. Why are we so concerned about the numbers of commuters on our mass transit system when the system is essentially a “free” system funded on the backs of the good citizens of puget sound? The number of travelers doesn’t help with paying for the system as was promised by the transit officials . It is a free system. Who cares whether commuters return to use it or not? The laws, if you can call them that don’t stop anyone from using the system for free so why are user numbers so important to know? It’s obvious it’s a failed socialist model that all tax paying citizens will be paying for generations to come. The rampant crime and lawlessness in Seattle and the puget sound add to the failure. Unless the mayor ( he seems to be trying ) but more importantly the Seattle city council get their act together and enforce the rule of law, we are all in trouble.

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