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Updated Feb 26 2016, by Gary Simonson, PSRC

After Years of Decline, Ferry Ridership is On the Rise

Figure 1. Ferry Ridership
Figure 1. Ferry Ridership

Ferry Boardings are a measure that demonstrates how many people are traveling about the region on our region’s ferry system. The ferry system is an important access link to jobs, health care and recreation for citizens on both sides of Puget Sound. The Ferry system is also the only means of access to Vashon Island. There are currently four providers of ferry service in the region with county level service provided for passenger only service and the Washington State Ferries that serve both cars and walk on passengers.

What is the Overall Ferry trend in our Region?

Annual ridership on the Washington State Ferries (WSF) in the Puget Sound region increased in 2015 by almost 3%. This follows a 2.4% increase in 2014 and was the third straight annual increase after a long stretch of declining ridership dating back to 1999. WSF ferry ridership in 2015 was 21.2 million distributed over six auto-routes, and each route had increasing ridership. The peak for regional ferry ridership was 24 million riders in 1999. Frequent fare increases, gas price hikes and the recent recession have contributed to a 12% ridership drop since that peak, recent gains notwithstanding.

Ferry ridership on the county provided service has experienced strong growth since 2006, growing almost 70%. County level operators have increased service frequency over this time period to meet the growing demand. A large part of this growth is on King County Ferry District service to Vashon Island and West Seattle. Overall annual boardings neared 1.2m on county provided service in 2015.

How did ridership vary throughout the year in 2015?

Ridership on the ferry system mixes commuters and recreational travelers. Ridership varies by month and by route but in general the highest ridership months for the ferry system are June through August. In these months the biggest increases in ridership occur on the routes that connect to the Kitsap Peninsula in Bremerton, Bainbridge Island and Kingston as well as Whidbey Island. Routes on and off of Vashon Island and the West Seattle Water Taxi tend to have more stable ridership patterns throughout the course of the year.

Figure 2. Regional Annual Boardings by Month
Figure 2. Regional Annual Boardings by Month

How did mode of access differ by route in 2015?

Walk on passenger volumes vary greatly by route. The two largest walk-on volume routes serve Colman Dock in Downtown Seattle from Bremerton and Bainbridge Island. Bainbridge Island carried over 3 million walk-on passengers in 2015, approximately 49% of its total ridership. The Bremerton route carried over 1.6 million walk on passengers, 63% of its total ridership. Walk on trips made up roughly 10%-15% of the total annual ridership for the remaining WSF routes. Approximately 32% of all ferry passengers in the Puget Sound Region were walk on passengers in 2015.

Figure 3. Regional Annual Boardings by Mode of Access
Figure 3. Regional Annual Boardings by Mode of Access

Ferry service between Mukilteo and Clinton (Whidbey Island) carried more vehicles in 2015 than any other route followed closely by the Kingston-Edmonds route. In all, 89% of the total passengers on the Mukilteo-Clinton route access the ferry by automobile, the highest share of vehicle access in the system.

What are the Future Implications?

Ferry routes will continue to connect the communities across the Puget Sound and are a critical link between people and the services they need. The more recent growth in both the supply and demand for passenger only ferry service will be important to understand as the region continues to grow.