Downtown Seattle Added 45,000 Jobs and Hardly Any Car Commuters

Transit has absorbed most of the growth in commute trips in downtown Seattle. Graphic: Commute Seattle
Transit has absorbed most of the growth in commute trips in downtown Seattle. Graphic: Commute Seattle

Transforming from a car city to a transit city is no easy task. Just ask Denver and Los Angeles, which have spent billions to build rail systems and still struggle to reduce solo car commuting rates.

But it can be done, and the proof is in Seattle.

A new report from the nonprofit Commute Seattle reveals that the share of downtown commuters who drive alone dropped from 35 percent in 2010 to 30 percent last year. Tom Fucoloro at Seattle Bike Blog explains why that’s so impressive:

Downtown Seattle has added 45,000 jobs since 2010. During the same time, only 2,255 new drive-alone trips have been added to downtown streets, according to a new Commute Seattle survey. The other 95 percent of commute trips were absorbed by transit, walking, biking, telecommuting and shared car trips.

The survey, released every two years, suggests that efforts to increase and improve transit service and build more homes near jobs are working. It also suggests that downtown streets are basically at capacity for peak-hour car trips, a truth anyone who spends any time downtown during peak hours could tell you. We can add more jobs, but we can’t add more cars.

Transit is by far the biggest winner in the survey, drawing very close to reaching 50 percent of downtown commute trips (it’s currently at 47 percent, so it could reach half very soon). Transit absorbed a net of 31,000 of those 45,000 new commute trips, a combination of new commute trips and exiting commuters who switched to transit.

Zach Shaner at Seattle Transit Blog says credit is due to thoughtful local policy making:

This leads me to two conclusions. First and foremost, praise is due to our transit agencies for improving service and delivering exciting new products such as University Link. Praise is due to SDOT for stepping in and greatly boosting service within the city, and praise is due to voters for approving it. Praise is due to Seattle’s progressive business community, including the Downtown Seattle Association, who partially funds Commute Seattle and who heavily backed ST3*. Praise is also due to the hundreds of companies paying for transit passes, installing bike amenities, and implementing other transit-friendly policies. Many of our peer cities are falling behind, even those building lots of shiny trains, but Seattle is leading the way.

For more on Seattle’s transit success story, watch this primer from Streetfilms and TransitCenter:

More recommended reading today: The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia reports that the Pennsylvania Senate passed a bill withholding funds from sanctuary cities, but Governor Tom Wolf says he “has problems” with the legislation. And at Strong Towns, Joe Cortright writes that cities need to decide whether to prioritize speed for cars or experiences for people.

  • thielges

    One useful mechanism would be to require downtown employers to unbundle parking from benefits. Offer employees a space, but they need to pay market rate for that space. Here’s how you would phase in this program without upsetting anyone. It becomes a net zero change for employees who wish to continue driving:

    1. determine market rate for parking by surveying average downtown parking costs. Say a parking space goes for $200/month.
    2. Add $200/mo to the salary of all employees. No, employers aren’t going to balk at this because:
    3. deduct $200/mo from the paycheck of all employees who continue using parking. This is a net zero for both employer and employee
    4. offer employees who choose not to drive to opt-out of the monthly parking deduction. This is the incentive as those employees now get an extra $200/mo. But won’t employers balk at this? No because:
    5. sell excess parking freed up on the open market, recovering the $200/mo lost from employees who no longer drive.

    If all works well this will be a net zero for both employers and employees who continue to drive. Of course it won’t exactly work out to zero because:
    – the reduce parking demand will add more supply, lowering the price. But initially that will be negligible since not many employees will opt-out. And you can bake that
    – administering the program has some costs. This can be offset by city tax incentives

    I think this is a variant on the parking cash-out scheme.

  • mike

    I like it.

  • Joseph pattern

    Praise is actually mostly due to the fact you can’t build new standalone parking garages and parking is very expensive downtown…..

  • Joseph pattern

    Most employers in downtown seattle don’t provide parking and market price is about $350 a month.

  • Alicia

    If by “rideshare” you are referring to Uber and Lyft, you should label them as taxis. That has pretty much the same impact on traffic as riding alone, because the rider creates the trip.

  • Courtney

    I would love Chicagoland transit agencies to take a look at Seattle’s progress.
    In the city we definitely need more bus only lanes and more express buses. Pre-board payment and all-door boarding would also add significant time savings. If you build it: folks will come!

  • Asher Of LA

    This is like an employer-led cash-out scheme.

    Why don’t employers do this already?

    1. It can be difficult to sell back employer parking – staffing, security, payment collection, lack of demand, bundling by commercial leases, etc.
    2. Payroll management – you have to track who’s parking and who isn’t. This probably isn’t a big deal, especially with modern payroll software, but it’s another headache.

    Lastly, there’s the mentality that parking is letting you get to work, and that if you don’t “need” parking, then the employer shouldn’t have to pay you for something you’re not using. Of course, that’s a flawed perspective (paying for parking = paying people to drive), but it’s prevalent.

    The long term solution is abolishing parking requirements, which will make parking pricier and thus more appealing to sell on the open market rather than give free to employees.

  • Brian Schend

    Stop building parking and you don’t need this complex scheme. The first step to stop building parking is to stop forcing developers to do it.

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