SEATTLE — As transit lines across the country struggle to regain their pre-pandemic ridership, there’s one mode that’s quietly experiencing a golden age: the Seattle Center Monorail.
The elevated train — built for the 1962 World’s Fair and occasionally mocked in popular culture — saw better ridership in the first quarter of this year than it has in any similar period since at least 2009, easily outpacing its pre-pandemic ridership.
The reason is the Seattle Kraken.
The excitement surrounding the team’s inaugural season, in which a hockey-curious city was eager to sneak a peek at the new team in its new home, followed by a playoff run in season two, kept seats in Climate Pledge Arena full and gave what many viewed as a novelty trip new practical use.
“What we’re really seeing is the power and the impact of the Kraken,” said Megan Ching, general manager of the Seattle Center Monorail, the private company that runs the nearly mile-long line owned by the city of Seattle.
Commuters, such that there were any, haven’t returned, at least not that the monorail team can tell.
But where that’s a crisis for other agencies, it’s a dip that’s easily eclipsed by the up to 6,000 boardings the monorail sees around game time. For comparison, an ordinary Thursday last week saw 4,000 boardings for the entire day, said Ching. Some days in January get just 2,000 people. The result is a boost to the one-track line that catapults it up to and beyond where it was before the pandemic.
In 2019, the train was just shy of 2 million rides for the year. Monthly boardings varied widely by season, from between nearly 300,000 in July, during the height of tourist season, and about 70,000 in February.
In 2020, the rail shuttered during lockdowns. When it reopened, few people returned, and the year’s total was just 300,000 or about 15% of the year before. There was a bounce in 2021 to 666,000 that still fell well short of its earlier numbers.
The real changes came in late 2021 and into 2022, when the Kraken started playing. In 2022, there were nearly a million more rides than the previous year, at around 1.6 million total.
This year is easily on pace to exceed that. Through April, the monorail had 533,000 rides, about 150,000 more than the same period in 2022 and over 100,000 more than the same four months in 2019.
Ching acknowledges the monorail is unlike almost any other transit option. Its track is not quite a mile, and it only goes between two places, Westlake and Seattle Center. A bump of a few thousand rides shows up as significant but would look like “drop in the bucket” to a larger agency like Sound Transit.
Now that the Kraken’s season is over, it’s unclear if the ridership bonanza will continue. “I think the thing that we’re a little bit hesitant about is if it’s something that will continue through the summer,” she said.
Nonetheless, Ching celebrates that the monorail has become a link in a chain between Sound Transit, Metro and a new arena.
“It’s been really incredible to see the amount of folks who are using public transit to get to and from Climate Pledge Arena.”
As Seattle officials spent years considering two options for a new arena — in Sodo or a retrofit of KeyArena — the concern for the Seattle Center choice was traffic. Stuck between Denny and Mercer, conditions were ripe for gridlock before and after big events.
That’s why NHL Seattle, the group that brought the Kraken to town, hired Rob Johnson, who left his seat on the Seattle City Council early to become senior vice president of sustainability and transportation for the Kraken and Climate Pledge Arena.
Public transit was key to the group’s strategy. With each Kraken and Storm ticket, fans would receive a free pass on Sound Transit, Metro and/or the monorail, a benefit not available when the Sonics were still in town. This year, the arena added the perk to concerts and other events.
The early returns have been positive. About 25% of fans are using public transit to get to games, said Johnson, “which is a really, really good number.”
In surveys taken after every game, about 10% of fans say they took the monorail and an additional 9% say they took light rail — which often means they also took the monorail from the closest Sound Transit stop at Westlake.
These surveys are corroborated by invoices from Metro, Sound Transit and the Seattle Center Monorail sent to the arena following every event, showing that nearly 20% of fans use the monorail to get to and from the games.
Part of the line’s appeal, said Ching, is they run both trains around game time, meaning the hundreds of people queued up into the Seattle Center Armory are whisked away every four minutes — a speedier headway than any other mode in the city.
There’s also a camaraderie among passengers, backed up by much higher rates of satisfaction in the postgame survey among transit users than those who drove. “In that moment pre- and post-event, you’re riding with all these other people and you’re all wearing jerseys and you’re all in this together,” said Johnson.
Fewer people are using transit to and from one-off events, such as concerts, said Johnson. Regulars to Kraken or Storm games have developed a habit and know where to line up and how long it’s likely to take, while fans of the Boss may be visiting Climate Pledge Arena for the first time. The numbers are creeping up slowly, helped by the free transit passes recently added to all events, but still make up just 10% to 15% of event attendees.
In advance of the Kraken’s arrival, the monorail spent $7 million upgrading its Westlake station, helping to increase capacity by 50%, from 3,000 people an hour to 4,500.
Now plans are moving forward to upgrade the northern end in Seattle Center. The Legislature set aside $5 million and the monorail was recently awarded $15 million from the Federal Transit Administration.
Sometime in the next two decades, light rail will stop at Seattle Center. What that means for the monorail is unclear, but the plan is to keep the line humming.
“The system, which is 60 years old now, is being invested in and maintained in a way that we expect it to run for another 60 years,” said Ching.