2021 ferry ridership nears 75% of pre-pandemic levels

For second year in a row, vehicles outnumber passengers in 2021

SEATTLE – Annual ridership aboard Washington State Ferries rebounded from 2020 pandemic numbers by almost 3.3 million customers in 2021 to nearly 17.3 million. The arrival of COVID-19 vaccines and a boost in tourism are the main reasons for the system’s largest year-to-year ridership increase on record.

For only the second time since it began operations in 1951, and the second year in a row, WSF carried more vehicles with a driver (8.9 million) than passengers (8.4 million) in 2021, as many continued to work from home or chose to drive on board because of the pandemic.

Current ridership trends

State ferry ridership in 2021 rose to roughly 72% of 2019 pre-COVID-19 numbers, with vehicles climbing to 85% and walk-on customers up to 42% of pre-pandemic levels. Ridership is expected to rebound further when COVID-19 eases and as WSF restores sailings closer to pre-pandemic levels.

“We’re in the process of planning our service restoration efforts as we continue to aggressively recruit, hire and train new employees,” said WSF Assistant Secretary Patty Rubstello. “Pandemic-related vessel crewing challenges and the temporary loss of one of our biggest ferries due to an engine room fire were two major service obstacles for us in 2021.”                   

2021 route-by-route ridership highlights

The greatest year-to-year increase came on the Seattle/Bainbridge Island route, where total ridership – vehicles and passengers combined – was up 44%. The boost lifts the run back into the top spot as the system’s busiest after dropping behind Mukilteo/Clinton and Edmonds/Kingston in 2020 for the first time in more than 40 years. The Anacortes/San Juan Islands route had the second largest growth at 36% with ridership on those runs reaching 95% of pre-pandemic levels. System highlights include:

  • Seattle/Bainbridge Island: Biggest year-to-year increase with total riders up 44%, led by a system-high rise in walk-on passengers of 54%; vehicles jumped a system high 32%.
  • Edmonds/Kingston: Total riders climbed 20%, vehicles grew 14%.
  • Mukilteo/Clinton: Total riders rose 14%, vehicles increased 11% to remain as busiest route for drivers.
  • Fauntleroy/Vashon/Southworth: Total riders up 13%, vehicles jumped 9%.
  • Anacortes/San Juan Islands: Total riders surged 36%, vehicles climbed 23%.
  • Seattle/Bremerton: Total riders grew 29%, vehicles rose 20%.
  • Point Defiance/Tahlequah: Total riders increased 18%, vehicles up 13%.
  • Port Townsend/Coupeville: Total riders jumped 22%, vehicles climbed 14%.
  • Anacortes/Friday Harbor/Sidney, British Columbia: The international route did not resume service in 2021 due to U.S.-Canada border restrictions and continued crewing and vessel availability challenges.

WSF, a division of the Washington State Department of Transportation, is the largest ferry system in the U.S. and safely and efficiently carries tens of millions of people a year through some of the most majestic scenery in the world. For breaking news and the latest information, follow WSF on Twitter and Facebook.

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