Ferry ridership plunges to lowest level since 1975

Ferry ridership plunges to lowest level since 1975
The Washington State ferry Hyak passes Flat Point on Lopez Island.

SEATTLE — The coronavirus pandemic, which brought stay-home orders, remote work and decreased tourism, is the primary reason for a massive drop in ridership on Washington State Ferries last year.

WSF said annual ridership dropped by nearly 10 million in 2020 to about 14 million. That’s a 41% drop from 2019 and the ferry system’s lowest annual count since 1975.

The largest year-to-year decline was on the Seattle/Bremerton route, where ridership decreased 64%.

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The Seattle/Bainbridge Island route had the second largest decrease at 59%, dropping out of the No. 1 spot as the system’s busiest route for the first time since 1958.

The Mukilteo/Clinton and Edmonds/Kingston runs both carried more riders than Seattle/Bainbridge Island.

Ferry officials said 7.6 million vehicles were carried on state ferries last year, marking the first time since the system began operating in 1951 that WSF carried more vehicles than passengers.

WSF said the shift was caused by a large drop in walk-on passengers on routes serving downtown Seattle and more people driving on board because of COVID-19.

In recent months, ridership has returned to about 60% of what it was before the pandemic, with vehicles close to 70% of the 2019 numbers and walk-on passengers about 20% of last year.

Once COVID-19 is under control, WSF expects ridership to rebound further as more sailings are restored.

WSF provided route highlights for 2020 below:

  • Mukilteo/Clinton: Carried the most customers in the system for the first time despite a 26% drop in total riders. It remains the busiest route for drivers, even with a 19% decrease in vehicles.
  • Edmonds/Kingston: Total riders fell 29% and vehicles declined 22%.
  • Seattle/Bainbridge Island: Total riders down 59% with the system’s largest year-to-year drop in walk-on passengers at 74%. Vehicles decreased 36%.
  • Fauntleroy/Vashon/Southworth: Total riders fell 39% and vehicles declined 31%.
  • Anacortes/San Juan Islands: Total riders dipped 30%, vehicles down 21%.
  • Seattle/Bremerton: Largest year-to-year drop (excluding international service) with total riders down 64%, led by a decrease in walk-on passengers of 72%; vehicles fell a system high 50%.
  • Point Defiance/Tahlequah: Smallest year-to-year dip with total riders down 22% and vehicles dropping 15%.