Via a recent Metro briefing comes a striking map of how Metro ridership has shifted in the COVID era. The 10% of routes with the greatest ridership losses all serve the Eastside or a few Seattle neighborhoods close to the water. Very nearly all of the 10% of routes where ridership has been most stable are in South King County (as of last week of March).
It’s not quite a surprise, of course, except perhaps that it’s so stark. Higher income commuters are mostly commuting to an office and those workplaces have shifted to working from home. On the other hand, those whose workplaces are still open and who are required to be physically present are mostly commuting from South County.
Metro ridership is down about 75%. After a series of reductions between March 23 and April 20, just 34 routes are still running at normal or near-normal levels. Another 81 are substantially reduced and 104 routes throughout the county are not operating at all.
Is the geographic shift in ridership a hint at the future? Post-pandemic forecasting is a risky game, but a sustained shift toward telecommuting would shift demand for transit away from cross-lake routes and toward the south. It would also make transit use somewhat less peak-oriented. Jobs outside offices are less likely to follow a 9-5 schedule. Recent declines in ridership have been less pronounced at peak hours.
Transit demand normally spikes sharply at the AM and PM peaks for higher income households. It’s less spiky for low and no-income riders, either because their work is on different schedules or because they are travelling more for non-work reasons. Similar patterns are seen in ORCA usage, where ORCA Lift boardings are more evenly distributed through the day than non-LIFT ORCA.
Metro’s Mobility Framework, adopted by the County Council last year, addresses disparities in access to transit by race and place. The voluminous analysis in the Mobility Framework Report points rather clearly to a reorientation of service toward South King County communities.
The map on right, for instance, is a composite scoring of households of color, low vehicle ownership households, and low transit access to services. It lines up uncomfortably well with the map of where transit demand has fallen the least and, by inference, where transit is most necessary.
How far that orientation might go has not yet been worked out – 2020 was to have seen much of the work of integrating the mobility framework into Metro policies. The complication is that the Council hasn’t yet figured out how to balance addressing disparate access against all the other considerations in setting transit service levels. In particular, some Council members have pointed to existing unmet demand in northern neighborhoods of King County. If that demand doesn’t re-emerge, or if Metro faces sharp new financial constraints, expect advocates for more transit access in the south to push for more extensive changes in Metro service.