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The 2010 update to my Urban Rail Matrix (available here) includes ridership data from the APTA’s 2010 quarter 1 report.  This is the first report since the initial Seattle Sound Transit Link light rail segment and the Airport Link extension were both in service.  So how does Link stack up against the established rail systems?

Link had an average weekday ridership of 20,000 people during that quarter.  Ridership has been trending upwards since then, but let’s go with the nationally available data.  On the metric of ridership per mile, Link comes in at 1,282.  Out of the 46 rail systems in North America, 8 of them have lower ridership per mile, which means Link’s ridership density is pretty low at this point.  But we can find established systems with even sparser patronage:  Cleveland’s light and heavy rail lines, Dallas DART and the Staten Island Railway.  The median ridership density of all 46 systems is 2,717 people/mile, which is a reasonable benchmark for Link.  That equates to weekday ridership of 42,000 for our current system, or 51,000 after University Link opens in 2016.  My projection is that Link won’t hit the median ridership until it expands to Northgate or until significant new housing or office development occurs along the existing line. 

For comparison, Portland’s MAX has an average ridership density of 2,262 people/mile, and Vancouver’s SkyTrain has a density of 10,023 riders/mile.  Vancouver’s high ridership 1Q2010 included the Winter Olympic’s spike, but they consistent produce high ridership because the metro area has grown up with the SkyTrain lines as the spine.  A disproportionate amount of the region’s businesses, shops and homes are alongside SkyTrain stops.  Seattle metro needs to follow the same path to have success with rail transit.

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