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Drive-alone commutes to downtown Seattle take a nosedive

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Even fewer people are driving to the center city alone, even as jobs increase

The interior of a Link light rail train.

The number of downtown Seattle workers who commute by transit is very nearly to half—and fewer people than ever are jumping into their cars alone to go to work, according to new data from Commute Seattle, a private-public partnership that tracks commute trends funded by the Seattle Department of Transportation, King County Metro, Sound Transit, and the Downtown Seattle Association.

Commute Seattle’s data comes from more than 55,000 workers in the “center city”—that’s downtown proper, South Lake Union, the Denny Triangle, Pioneer Square, First Hill, Chinatown International District, Belltown, Uptown, and Capitol Hill. Some results came from worksites participating in Seattle’s Commute Trip Reduction program, while others were administered separately. Commute Seattle, along with EMC Research, then statistically weighted the data to get a clearer picture.

Last year, Commute Seattle’s data saw the biggest drop in single-occupancy vehicle (SOV) commutes it had seen so far. This year, Seattle broke its own record. SOV commuting was even less popular—and the drop was that much more dramatic.

When Commute Seattle first started collecting data in 2010, 35.2 percent of commutes happened alone, in a car. Now, that’s down to 25.4 percent, a nearly 5 percent drop in the last year alone.

That drop comes as a record number of jobs—and new people—come to the Seattle area.

Driving alone decreased even as downtown jobs increased.
Courtesy of Commute Seattle

And it’s not just that SOV commutes are taking a downtown in commute share. They’ve actually decreased by about 4,500. Meanwhile, Seattle’s transit options—train, bus, ferry—gained 41,500 new riders.

Transit made up about 48 percent of downtown commutes in 2017, compared to 42 percent in 2010. The vast majority of those took place on a bus, which has the largest coverage area to Seattle neighborhoods and the surrounding area, but rail commutes nearly doubled since 2010, jumping from 4.9 to 9 percent of the share.

Those walking onto ferries to get to work has just about held steady since 2010, which tracks—many walking onto the ferry don’t have much of a choice. 66 percent of people commuting from a westerly direction took a ferry, with only 5.6 percent opting to drive alone.

How many commutes gained and lost by each commute type, 2010-2017.
Courtesy of Commute Seattle

That gap in between is about what you’d expect: ride-sharing, biking, walking, and other methods, like telecommuting. Those all remained largely unchanged from previous, although walking ticked up about 2 percent and ride-sharing slightly increased compared to last year.

The share of bike commutes remains largely unchanged since data collection began, holding steady at around 3 percent. But some supplemental data shows that—surprise—people tend to commute less by bike during the colder months. Surveying a smaller data pool than used for the larger survey, 5.9 percent said they rode a bike to work in the fall, when the survey took place, compared to 13.1 percent in warmer months. Walk commutes could also be affected by the survey timing.

Since 2010, though all commute methods besides driving alone have seen some amount of numerical increase.

How downtown Seattle commuters got to work in 2017.
Courtesy of Commute Seattle

Commute Seattle attributes the changes to a number of factors.

We are adaptable,” said Commute Seattle executive director Jonathan Hopkins in a statement. “Downtown Seattle commuters are embracing smart mobility options during a period of tremendous growth.”

For example, there’s been a much larger investment in regional transit. After voters approved the Seattle Transportation Benefit District in 2014, Seattle residents living near transit went up from 25 percent in 2015 to 64 percent in 2017. Link Light Rail expanded south to Angle Lake and north to the University of Washington, greatly increasing ridership. Rapidride bus rapid transit corridors reached Seattle in 2012.

Courtesy of Commute Seattle

Many employees working for employers like Amazon—who participate in the city’s commute trip reduction program—now live nearby their workplace. In turn, those employers that participate in the program saw a 5 percent increase in walk commutes since 2010.

So who are the commuters that are still in their cars? People commuted from outside the city at a higher rate than those inside, which isn’t much of a surprise. Overwhelmingly, Bellevue commuters favored driving alone more than anyone else, with a whole 38.3 percent of them commuting to Seattle by SOV. Out of all people commuting from elsewhere on the Eastside—Issaquah, East King County—37.4 made solo drives. (East Link light rail service doesn’t start until 2023.)

That’s not a large percentage of downtown commuters in general, though: only 3 percent of commuters came from Bellevue, and 4 percent from elsewhere in the Eastside. Overwhelmingly, the survey found that commuters to the center city originated somewhere else in Seattle, to the tune of 58 percent.

Out of those commuting from outside the city, northend commuters—Snohomish County, Kirkland—were largely bus-riders, at 49.4 percent. Those coming from South King County and Pierce County had the largest share of train riders, with 25.3 percent.

Of course, ditching an SOV doesn’t mean that people are ditching cars. A recent report by Seattle Times’s Gene Balk found that Seattle’s car population is growing as fast as its human population. But fewer cars are idling in rush hour traffic, which is a start.

This article has been updated to clarify Commute Seattle’s funding sources.