Central Link light rail at Othello Station, courtesy of Sound Transit.

Time and time again, we wonder: when will transit rider growth diminish? And time and time again, we’ve been pleasantly surprised that it hasn’t happened! Not only do people clearly love transit, people are simply moving to communities and taking on lifestyles than necessitate it. That’s great news for organizations like Sound Transit that get to occasionally bask in the glory of wildly positive news.

Yesterday, Sound Transit got to do a little bragging about their 8% annual growth in systemwide ridership. The agency now has a daily weekday average of some 109,000 boardings. That brings the total number of boardings systemwide to 33 million for all of 2014. This level of growth is vastly outpacing the national average for transit agencies, which stands at just 1.8%. So, just where is all of this ridership growth going?

Sound Transit says that Central Link now has average weekday ridership in excess of 32,924–a 13.7% increase over 2013 while Sounder and ST Express have weekday ridership averages of 12,694 (a 9.6% increase) and 60,944 (a 6.7% increase), respectively. In total numbers for 2014, Central Link light rail had 10.9 million boardings (a 13% increase from 2013) while Sounder and ST Express had 3.4 million boardings (an 11% increase from 2012) and 17.6 million boardings (a 6% increase from 2013), respectively.

If you can’t tell where the shining star is here, you’re missing all those double digit growth numbers on Link! Matthew Johnson over at Seattle Transit Blog has done a great job of consistently showing the amazing growth on Link over the past few years, and all data shows that this train ain’t a’stoppin’ anytime soon.

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Stephen is an urban planner with a passion for promoting sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He advocates for smart policies, regulations, and implementation programs that enhance urban environments by committing to quality design, accommodating growth, providing a diversity of housing choices, and adequately providing public services. Stephen primarily writes about land use and transportation issues.


  1. John Niles: for 2016, ST is planning six-minute headway by two-car trains; they will procure more LRV closer to 2020. No one knows when the DSTT will be for Link only; it depends on very tight Link headway.

  2. Robert:

    11.5 million annual ridership on Seattle light rail in 2011 was the commitment Sound Transit made to the U.S. Government about ten years ago when the $500 million Federal construction grant was nailed down. This commitment occurred after the Phase One line was pared back to postpone the segment north of downtown as described in the original 1996 plan approved by voters. Furthermore, no ridership to and from the Stadiums was assumed in the 11.5 million per year forecast supposed to be reached by the fall of 2011.

    However, as the article above describes, even with significant Stadium ridership, the number reached for all of 2014 was just 10.9 million. The original forecast for 2011 is documented on page 35 in a little-noted Before and After study to Congress formerly posted on the Federal Transit Administration web at https://web.archive.org/web/20150227230709/http://www.fta.dot.gov/documents/FY2013_Before_and_After_Studies_Report_to_Congress_Final.pdf This document also notes some of Sound Transit’s excuses for not reaching 11.5 riders million number by 2011, including “The Great Recession.”

    Now that the recession is over, and 2011 is three years in the past, the Sound Transit general excuse for still not achieving its ridership forecast is that the market for the service is slow to mature.

    As context for 11.5 million light rail riders in a year is the fact that according to planners, this is a smaller number of trips than are taken in a single day by car, transit, bicycle, and truck in the Sound Transit district.

    It’s important to note at this point that Sound Transit has made new higher approximately doubled Seattle light rail ridership forecasts for 2016 and beyond coming after three more light rail stations are planned to be opened, when the downtown transit tunnel will be for trains only, and the trains can finally be four cars long instead of two.

    Success in achieving high ridership on light rail is dependent on King County Metro eliminating as much competing bus service as possible, since the history so far demonstrates that the majority of light rail ridership comes from bus riders who switch to train riding.

    • Thanks for the primary source. The report does a good job of laying out the discrepancies.

      I would say that your characterization of the report is not accurate though. It indicates that 76% of the discrepancy between projections and actual ridership is due to the recession. The city expected to add nearly twice as many jobs downtown than it actually did, due to the recession. The other factors are myriad but include the fact that the cost of ridership averages 50% more than the initial plan.

      It’s hard to argue that the light rail has been anything but a huge success.

      • Pickovven:

        Thanks for your comments based on reading the FTA Before and After Report to Congress. If you are deeply interested you might care to look at the full input to FTA from Sound Transit at http://www.bettertransport.info/pitf/Seattle_Central_Link_Initial_Segment_Before-After_Study_2013_04_01.pdf . Lots more detail in it.

        While there are the factors you named that suppressed ridership below forecasts, there are other factors that pushed up ridership.

        One is that the airport station is doing very well attracting riders, better than expected, despite the long walk needed between the train station and flight check in. And when the Airport Station was added to the Initial Segment after the forecast was issued, the future ridership number was not elevated at all.

        Same with the Stadium Station, added after the rider forecast was made and now adding thousands of boardings per month that were not considered in the forecasting. So we have two of light rail’s best stations today adding bonus ridership to light rail’s customer count yet the rider forecast for the whole line is not yet met.

        Third is that City of Tukwila forced the addition of more parking spaces at their station beyond the number planned by Sound Transit, which helps ridership from the south beyond what was planned and in the forecast. Another bonus.

        A fourth issue helping light rail’s popularity beyond the expectation of the forecast is that the price of downtown parking and gasoline have both gone up dramatically since the original forecast was made. Aren’t these big drivers of transit ridership? So what happened that Sound Transit can’t make its numbers?

        There are these pluses (and perhaps others) that boosted light rail ridership in addition to the ridership minuses noted in the FTA report, yet light rail to this day is not yet carrying the number planned to be achieved as of three years ago.

        As for calling our light rail a huge success, I agree with you that it is a huge public relations success, driven by the Sound Transit focus on calling annual year over year growth of its start up service “impressive” over and over.

        On other grounds, I beg to differ. The combination of high cost and disproportionately meager results is the crux of my criticism.

        It is disturbing how hard Sound Transit leaders are pushing for a third round of transit taxes supporting even higher cost levels and leveraging billions more in borrowing, before achieving the ridership numbers that justified the first two rounds. The push for more light rail dollars is coming before achieving the 105,000 per day ridership said in 1996 to be a slam dunk by 2010 once the trains were running from NE 45th to S 200th, a line once promised by 2006 that won’t be done until 2021.

        After spending billions over almost two decades, more trips are counted in a day than Sound Transit light rail serves in a year. Sound Transit is already fully funded by us to build and operate light rail from Northgate to South 200th, and out to Microsoft. Let the agency prove that this will generate the ridership promised in the most recent forecasts before raising the agency’s tax collections further. Trust but verify.

    • I really don’t care about the ridership estimates and I think too much emphasis is placed on the ridership increase. It is interesting, but not important.

      Sound Transit has made a lot of obvious mistakes, and a lot more political compromises. It obviously makes sense to build the most important, busiest line first, and grow from there (just about every community in the world does this). Anyone with any knowledge of the area would start with the UW to downtown Seattle. But Sound Transit, for political reasons, did not. They chose a suburban heavy line in the first place (UW to the airport) and then when things got tough, decided to build the safest part first (from an engineering standpoint). The numbers for the current system might be growing and they might be surprising, but they are hardly worth the investment (spending billions on a light rail line to run every 7.5 minutes with two car trains just isn’t a good deal). It should be obvious that the numbers will explode once it comes close to serving the most important section. I say “comes close” because the next wave of Link (about a year away) does not quite get to the U-District. The UW hospital is a fine stop, and it is close to the campus, but it is a ways from the business district, and is terrible from a bus interaction standpoint. When the U-District station (at Brooklyn) is built, it will blow away the numbers for Husky Stadium, and make bus changes a lot better.

      Speaking of which, so far Sound Transit has completely ignored this vital part of the system. Mount Baker is terrible for transfers. We have to beg them for the obvious station at NE 130th and there will never be a station connecting 520 and Link. The third item is mind blowing, considering it would have cost peanuts to simply add a station there.

      To me, what is surprising about the numbers is that they are increasing, despite all of the obvious flaws. Maybe, like our soccer team, this city just likes public transit, even when it is mediocre. The Sounders are at best a second division European team, they have never won a championship (these Sounders, anyway) and yet they surpass every other U. S. or Canadian club by over 20,000, more than second and third place cites combined (the much bigger Toronto and Los Angeles). Maybe public transit is like that — if we build something, anything, people will ride it.

      I say it doesn’t matter much because despite all these flaws, it is worth it to keep going. Some of them can be corrected (like back filling the station at NE 130th). But when it comes to new infrastructure, we have to keep pestering Sound Transit to do the right thing, and build a good system. I could really care less if their ridership estimates are accurate or not, that is the least of my worries. Sound Transit has shown, over and over, that they are a political organization that lacks expertise. They need input from the public to build things that would be obvious to an outside expert. But if we, as citizens, pester them, maybe we can build a decent transit system when all is said and done.

  3. Can you please comment on how these figures compare to what Sound Transit projected before the light rail system was built? I consistently hear negativity from some people in Seattle about any transit project, saying that transit agencies oversell ridership when giving projections. I don’t think this is actually the case. It would be useful for all of us to see how it is panning out versus what was initially projected when the public bought into the project.

    • It’s really a muddle because the last set of good projections were done assuming that what is now “University Link” would open with Central Link. The projections for just “Central Link” were done very sloppily on short notice and shouldn’t be considered serious projections.

      Based on current trends, I would expect the U-Link + Central Link line to exceed the initial projections, substantially.

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