The Seattle Times Gets It Wrong
on Portland and Seattle Transit
A Commentary
by Leroy W. Demery, Jr.
A 2005 Seattle Times editorial contains the following sentence:
The Seattle area carries a higher proportion of people on the bus than does Portland on bus and light rail. (“To the Eastside, by bus,” May 23, 2005).
But the Times missed the big story: Portland transit operators carry significantly more boardings per capita that Seattle’s – and spend substantially less, as illustrated by the following data (National Transit Database, 2003 fiscal year).
Operating Expense
Fare Revenue
Sound Transit
Community Transit
Everett Transit
King County Metro
Pierce Transit
Seattle Monorail Transit
Seattle Region Total
Portland Region Total
Figure 1.  Annual Boardings per Capita
Seattle’s six transit operating agencies carried 58 boardings per capita at 2003, compared to 67 boardings per capita by Portland’s three transit agencies. Regional transit boardings per capita were 14 percent greater in Portland.
King County metro carried 78 percent of transit boardings in the Seattle region, while Tri-Met carried 93 percent of transit boardings in the Portland region. The contrast between the two “major” regional transit operators is significant: King County Metro carried 55 boardings per capita, while Tri-Met carried 79 per capita, 41 percent more.
Figure 2.  Annual Passenger-Miles per Capita
The Seattle urbanized area covers more than twice the land area as the Portland-Vancouver (WA) urbanized area. Seattle transit consumers therefore travel longer distances on average than do their Portland counterparts.
Annual transit passenger-miles per capita in the Seattle region was 320, compared to 286 pass-mi per capita in the Portland region. However, Tri-Met carried significantly more pass-mi pe capita than King County Metro: 331 compared to 300. This reflects the fact that Tri-Met serves a greater share of the overall region than King County Metro.
Figure 3.  Annual Transit Operating Expense per Capita
In 2003, the Seattle region spent $289 per capita for transit operations compared to $185 per capita in Portland. Portland’s annual transit operating expenditure per capita was 36 percent less than Seattle’s.
King County Metro spent $222 per capita for transit operations in 2003, while Tri-Met spent $212, 5 percent less. Transit ridership within the city of Seattle accounts for roughly 50 percent of King County Metro ridership. Seattle region transit operators such as Community Transit and Sound Transit provide regional express sevices which require relatively higher operating expenditures than urban services.
Figure 4.  Annual Transit Operating Subsidy per Capita
Farebox recovery, the share of transit operating expense paid by fare revenues, was only slightly greater in the Portland region than in the Seattle region at 2003: 18.8 percent compared to 18.1 percent. (Note that SMART, the smallest of Portland’s three transit operators, provides fare-free service.) However, Seattle spent $236 per capita for transit operating subsidy, compared to $150 per capita in Portland. The difference - Portland spent 36 percent less per capita - reflects the relatively larger quantity of regional express-bus service operated in the Seattle region.
Tri-Met acheived a slightly greater farebox recovery ratio than King County Metro: 20.5 percent compared to 19.2 percent. King County Metro spent $179 per capita in transit operating subsidy, compared to $168 by Tri-Met. The difference - Tri-Met spent 6 percent less per capita - reflects the more-efficient “trunk-feeder” configurtion characteristic of the Tri-Met network.
Figure 5.  Annual Transit Operating Expense per Boarding
Unit cost comparisons highlight the relatively greater cost efficiency of Portland transit services. At 2003, Seattle spent $4.95 per boarding, compared to $2.77 per boarding in Portland. “Average travel distance,” the number of passenger-miles per boarding, was 20 percent less in Portland than in Seattle (4 miles compared to 5 miles). However, Portland’s regional transit unit operating expense was 44 percent less than Seattle’s.
The average travel distance per boarding carried by Tri-Met is 4 miles, 20 percent less than King County Metro’s 5 miles. However, Tri-Met spent 33 percent less per boarding than King County Metro: $2.70 compared to $4.00.
Figure 6.  Annual Transit Operating Expense per Passenger-Mile
Operating expense per passenger-mile is the most significant indicator of transit unit operating expense. Portland’s transit operators spent $0.64 per pass-mi at 2003, 29 percent less than the $0.90 spent by Seattle’s transit operators. Tri-Met spent $0.64 per pass-mi, 13 percent less than King County Metro ($0.74).
Figure 7.  Prospective Annual Transit Operating Cost Savings
If transit operations in the Seattle region had achieved the same overall cost efficiency as in Portland, the region would have saved $179 million in transit operating expense at 2003. This amount represents nearly 29 percent of the actual total expenditure. King County Metro would have saved 53 million, or more than 13 percent of its actual total expenditure.
We hope that the Seattle Times will do better in the future.