Dec 18, 2023 - Transit

Seattle-area transit use lags pre-pandemic levels — by a lot

Data: American Public Transportation Association; Note: Includes bus, rail, ferry and other modes; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: American Public Transportation Association; Note: Includes bus, rail, ferry and other modes; Chart: Axios Visuals

People still aren't piling onto buses and trains in the Seattle area like they did before the pandemic.

Driving the news: Public transit ridership in the Seattle metro area is at 58% of pre-pandemic levels, according to American Public Transportation Association (APTA) data.

  • That's based on September 2023 ridership as compared to September 2019.

Why it matters: Decreased ridership means less revenue from fares, which can hurt transit agency budgets and lead to reduced service in some cases.

  • That can make it harder for people to get around without a car, while hampering government efforts to reduce traffic congestion and pollution.

By the numbers: Of 100 U.S. metro areas with more than 500,000 people, the Seattle area had one of the lowest resurgences of public transit use.

  • 76 metros saw a bigger transit resurgence than Seattle, while nine actually exceeded 2019 ridership.
  • Nationally, ridership recovered to 77% of pre-pandemic levels as of last month, per the American Public Transportation Association.

Zoom in: Local transit ridership recovery varies by agency.

  • Sound Transit, which runs the regional light rail system, reported this fall that its ridership levels have bounced back to pre-pandemic levels.
  • The same wasn't true of King County Metro, the main provider of bus service throughout Seattle and nearby communities.
  • Metro ridership averaged about 258,000 weekday boardings in October, down from about 424,000 in October 2019, per agency data.

Yes, but: Metro's fall ridership numbers are the highest the agency has seen since before the pandemic, reflecting "consistent ridership growth year-over-year," spokesperson Elaine Porterfield told Axios.

What they're saying: Changing commuting habits in the era of remote work are playing a role, Porterfield said.

  • "In general, we are finding that light rail ridership is less concentrated around commute times, particularly the morning commute, than it was previously," Sound Transit spokesperson John Gallagher wrote in an email to Axios.
  • People are boarding light rail trains "not just to get to work but also to travel to entertainment, to the airport, or simply to do everyday errands," he wrote.

Overall, Sound Transit Link light rail ridership trended about 5% higher this September than in 2019, Gallagher said.

  • By comparison, Sound Transit's buses and Sounder trains are much more dependent on commuter traffic, and remain at roughly half of pre-pandemic levels, he said.

Of note: Sound Transit's light rail ridership numbers also got a boost from the opening of a new extension to Northgate in October 2020, Gallagher said.

What we're watching: King County Metro suspended some bus routes and reduced trips on others in September, citing staff shortages and supply chain issues that led to too many canceled trips.

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