Downtown Seattle’s drive-alone commute share drops to 30 percent

By Robbie Webber

Despite an influx of jobs in Seattle’s downtown area, the number of people driving to work has barely changed since 2010. According to a survey from Commute Seattle, a non-profit working with downtown employers, the working population in and around downtown increased by 45,000 in the past six years, but drive-alone commutes increased by approximately 2,255 morning trips. Drive-alone commute mode share decreased from 35 percent to 30 percent in the same time period.

So how did the city accomplish that? As with any transformation, there are many factors, but traffic congestion and the unreliable nature of travel time may be the most important factors. Parking is also expensive, so commuters are looking for alternatives to driving. And the city and county have been working hard to improve transit options and reliability. More people are moving into the downtown, making their commutes shorter and easier without a car.

Light rail lines have been extended, and the new stops are drawing large numbers of people. The RapidRide bus lines—routes with 10-minute frequency in peak periods, fewer stops, off-board payment, and low-floor buses for easy loading and unloading—are now within walking distance of 51 percent of the city population. Bus service hours and routes have also been expanded throughout the city.

Washington’s 2006 Commuter Trip Reduction Efficiency Act required urban areas with congestion to develop programs to reduce drive alone trips and per capita vehicle miles traveled. But Seattle employers with more than 100 employees must meet more rigorous requirements, and each employer is required to have an Employee Transit Coordinator. Although the options to meet city requirements are flexible, many employers now provide transit passes to all employees.

The city also has a Transportation Management Program that targets commercial buildings, not employers. Conditions are set as a part of site development review. The TMP program affects many buildings that may have a number of smaller employers that don’t fall under the mandates for larger employers.

All of these programs and improvements, as well as the disincentive of traffic and parking costs, have helped reduce the drive-alone rate in central Seattle dramatically. But there are a few pieces that haven’t yet fallen into place. The city is losing its bike share system at the end of March, a significant blow to efforts to solve the last-mile issue when transit routes don’t quite match destinations or to fill the gap between walking and transit distances. Biking mode share hasn’t budged from three percent citywide, while Seattle’s peer cities are seeing dramatic increases. And parking is still being built in downtown despite existing spaces not being fully utilized. City records show 24,867 parking stalls will be added in buildings that have been approved throughout the central city, and potentially another 19,210 parking stalls are in permit application.

Seattle’s downtown mode share is impressive, and a few more improvements could make it even easier for workers to leave the car at home.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.