Light rail ridership skyrockets following new station openings

link light rail parked in tunnel

Less than half a year after new stations opened at the University of Washington and Capitol Hill, Sound Transit is seeing a massive increase in light rail ridership. An estimated 65,000 riders are now boarding the light rail every day; that’s an increase of more than two thirds from last year. The daily ridership has already surpassed the expected levels for 2018, and officials estimate that it will only continue to grow as new stations are added and tens of thousands of new residents move into Seattle.

Sound Transit has responded to the flood of new riders by converting some two-car trains into three-car trains. While they say that ridership numbers has not yet become extreme enough to justify the costs of adding yet more cars, some transit riders are complaining that the crush of the crowd is a big adjustment for Pacific Northwesterners used to sparsely populated train cars and big personal space bubbles.

Each train car is designed to hold 74 sitting passengers and 74 standing passengers, for a total of 148. At that level of ridership, riders are unlikely to bump into each other, and every rider can hold onto a strap or pole comfortably. But sample counts of riders during the peak hours of the afternoon weekday commute are showing that approximately 40 percent of trains travelling south out of the International District/Chinatown Station are carrying more passengers than their design can comfortably allow.

For some riders, it’s about more than temporary discomfort. Wheelchair riders have reported that it is difficult to navigate crowded stations and train cars. And some cars are operating with a “crush load” of 252 people–over 100 more than can comfortably fit in a single car.

What’s the solution to our current transit crush? More time, and more money. Sound Transit 3, the next installment in Seattle’s plan to update its badly outdated public transit infrastructure, will be up for a public vote in November. The eventual goal: 62 new miles of light rail, with stations serving 37 new areas. The problem: all of that new infrastructure won’t come cheap, and it won’t be built quickly. Some residents of Seattle and its suburbs have complained about the additional cost of building new rail, while others are protesting that the project is progressing too slowly because it is underfunded. Meanwhile, transit officials are keeping the distant future in mind, with plans proposed as far out as 2040 to accommodate an influx of new residents that shows no signs of slowing down.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

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