SounderBruce (Flickr)

More people are driving into Downtown Seattle than ever, and car commuting is at its lowest rate in the modern era. Both of these statements are true. This morning Commute Seattle released its 4th biennial “Modesplit Survey” capturing commute trends in Seattle’s Center City  – see our coverage of the 2012 and 2014 surveys – and the results show the paradoxes of our growing city.

First, the bad news anyone stuck in traffic knows in their gut: there are nearly 2,300 more car commutes each weekday peak period than there were two years ago. In a system already strained for capacity, these tiny increases reduce the system’s resilience and tip it into gridlock far more often. In 2014, Downtown had 228,000 commuters and 31% of them drove alone, for 71,100 daily car commutes. This year the rate edged down (to 30%) while the volume went up (73,350), because Downtown grew to 275,000 commuters over the same period.

Looked at another way, our Center City added 45,000 jobs but only 2,300 more cars, meaning transit, walking, and biking absorbed a truly stunning 95% of new job growth. If new workers chose to drive Downtown in the same proportion as everyone else (30%), we would have seen 14,000 more cars instead. The result? Probably total chaos.

Within Downtown neighborhoods, trends were just as encouraging. The traditional Commercial Core saw its driving rate fall from 22% to 17%, and South Lake Union saw its rate fall from 46% to 38%. While driving, walking, and biking all stayed near their historic proportions, transit is what’s making the difference. Transit’s modeshare grew from 45% of 228k in 2014 to 47% of 275k, which represents 37% growth of transit ridership in just two years.

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.

Second, in this context of rapid growth, it is no longer sufficient to reduce driving proportions. Because our roads don’t grow with jobs, the operating constraint is a constant. Accordingly, future goals should be strictly about reducing vehicle volume. To get there, we will need to be move further and faster away from accommodating cars. It will become progressively more unconscionable to preserve the right of the 30% to monopolize 70% of our right of way, while delaying (and sometimes shutting down) the movement of the 70% who don’t drive.

In the context of One Center City, this should translate into a framework that isn’t afraid to squeeze SOV capacity. Current draft plans place nearly all the pain on transit riders, especially in the West Seattle and I-90 corridors, and asks very little of those driving alone. SDOT and our agencies should take the political risk and recognize that serving the needs of the supermajority who don’t drive both optimizes throughput and rewards those making the least intensive use of scarce right-of-way. We should increase the carrots for those making the space-optimizing choices, and increase the sticks for those who drive.  Once a small number of people stop taking up a disproportionate share of space, we’ll see just how fallacious are our fears about our street capacity. And for those whom we depend on to drive, such as deliveries and freight and ambulances, etc, we owe them the space to move.

*The author worked at Commute Seattle from 2013-2015.

38 Replies to “Amidst Unprecedented Growth, Transit is Saving Downtown”

  1. Funny how the article about Denver listed rapid population growth and low gas prices as major contributing factors to their increase in SOV commuting. Seattle has both of those too.

    The difference for Seattle is that driving is truly hellish. I cannot imagine why anyone would subject themselves to the pain of driving into downtown during commute hours, let alone every single day. I wonder how Seattle compares to other cities but 17% SOV in the financial district and 30% overall has got to be among the lowest in the country.

    1. I used to be a bus commuter in Denver. Downtown has tons of surface parking (though less and less as it gets developed), but the real problem is that all the nice neighborhoods where well-to-do folks want to live are in the city – City Park, Capitol Hill, Cherry Creek, etc – are mostly ignored by Fastracks, as are all the working class neighborhoods (Five Points, etc). Fastracks seems intent on building rail to the burbs wherever there is a legacy track. The suburban rail bias there is really pretty bad, even though by 2018 they’ll have built 11 lines.

      1. I’ve noticed that too while visiting Denver. Their light rail is not useful at all for traveling within the city and the bus service, in my limited experience, was pretty terrible.

        Here we have pretty excellent inner-city and regional bus service, all things considered. And while Link isn’t perfect, it is a game changer for getting around the city. Geography is a huge advantage for transit.

    2. Gas is much cheaper in Denver, traffic is better, and much more of the growth is greenfield expansion rather than urban infill. All three of those shift the incentives towards SOV.

    3. I’m sure the 30% is much higher than the “big 6” transit cities (SF, Chicago, NY, Boston, Washington, Philly). But other than that, yeah, it’s pretty low.

      1. And city of Seattle boundaries are rather large, with lot’s of low density areas developed post-auto including most areas north of 50th N and much of West Seattle. City of Boston is quite small and Philly, though a huge geography, is almost entirely row houses or semi-detached and was entirely built out in the era of streetcar suburbs ended.

    4. Yeah, Denver and Seattle are far from apples to apples. Not just traffic. Drastically different geography, topography, land use, and development patterns. And as Zach notes, recent investment has tilted heavily toward commuter-style rail over urban transit.

  2. If we want to reduce the total number of cars on the road during rush-hour we should really question why we allow every new development in downtown and SLU to have parking spaces under it. Particularly when many those spaces are going to be bundled with commercial leases so individuals that choose to drive and contribute to the public ill of congestion will be shielded from the cost!

    And when we finally do plan out a bike network for downtown, and when we finally-finally do plan out a bike network for SLU, it will come pre-damaged by driveways with terrible sight-lines.

    Cap the number of spaces that can be used for office parking. Cap it at a lower number than is in operation today. Auction the right to operate spaces. Close garage entrances that are known ped/bike hazards. Save downtown.

      1. Not so. That code section you linked to mentions that downtown zones are regulated by a different code section, which starts off saying that no car parking is required except for certain uses in the International District.

  3. I’m pretty sure that all of that 30,000 trip increase is from University Link. In matches pretty closely to ST’s ridership jump from when it opened.
    Expect a new big jump in 2021.

  4. 1) At what point can we ban the construction of new parking garages downtown?
    2) When we shop at places that validate parking for free if you shop there, are we subsidizing the customers who are using the parking?

  5. “In the context of One Center City, this should translate into a framework that isn’t afraid to squeeze SOV capacity.”


    Mixed messages from the powers that be these days…

    Hey, Seattle commuters, thanks so much for taking transit and getting our drive-alone rate down. To show our appreciation, here’s 4 years of pain and suffering we like to call “One Center City.”

    1. This also extends to such things as limiting Link frequency on ML King because more trains might reduce auto throughout.

    2. Speaking of which, Frank, what does your message-line from the Powers That Be indicate about what we have to do to keep at least the Route 41 and the Route 550 in the DSTT for as long as transit needs them?

      Not least for a snowball’s chance in (your choice of life’s worst traffic ) of letting anybody use the existing convention center at all. Not to mention everything else commercial in Downtown Seattle.

      Personally, not looking for a conflict with the Dark Powers of Evil. Just a working arrangement to get two bus lines through their Domain, while they work on other ghastly parts of it.

      But I think continued joint use will rise or fall on one practical question that’ll answer all the rest. “What’s maximum time we can let buses will delay trains?” My own guess? If train one has to wait in the tube for a bus- as opposed to just move slower-discussion over.

      Side-guess, though: The deciding operating measure won’t be anything extra mechanical, but getting operations crew trained and motivated to run joint-use as a team, and provided with communications and dispatch tools for the work. Team part the hard one.

      If we just can’t, instead of just pretending to not be able to, it’s only basic human rights to liberate the dungeon-dwellers, I mean bus-passengers who still don’t have air-conditioning. Assuming only that there’ll be enough working elevators and escalators for the evacuation.

      Mark Dublin

      1. When they kick the buses out of the tunnel is because the access to the express lane is going to disappear, so if the buses are there they wont have any were to go.

  6. Right now, one of the largest sources of transit delays is SOVs in the downtown area. There are three sources of these delays. OCC doesn’t address any of those three sources, and it should address all of them.

    1) Cars on 3rd Avenue. 3rd Avenue is often congested with cars outside of peak hour, restricting north-south bus movement. Even during peak hour, enforcement of the car rules is sporadic at best, and turning cars (both legal right turns and illegal left turns) often block buses. The corridor would be easier to enforce, and much more efficient, if cars were banned from it altogether between Bell and Washington 24/7. That does not affect any parking garage entrances, and there are only a few loading zones, which could be restricted to permit-holding delivery trucks only.

    2) Right-turning cars blocking the bus lanes on 4th and 2nd Avenues. These bus lanes flow far less freely than they should because of right-turning cars that have to wait for pedestrians. Ban as many right turns as possible from these streets, and look at reconfiguring the turns where they can’t be banned. Or move the bus lanes to the left with island stops and ban left turns.

    3) General non-observance of bus lanes. This is a particular problem on Battery and Howell, but is an issue everywhere there is a bus lane in the core. SPD has proven totally unable to enforce bus lanes. We need driver-activated cameras on buses, similar to those in San Francisco.

    1. FWIW, there has been discussion in OCC meetings about point #2. Specifically, there are proposals to change signal timings to introduce a dedicated right turn signal phase to clear cars on 2nd and 4th.

      I think your other points are good and are things I’ve tried to raise in the advisory group meetings.

    2. You’ve earned your icon with this one, Dave. No reason for any cars at all on Third. Not even a through street. Hardly a street at all south of Yesler. Though since Third Avenue service routes directly above the DSTT all the way to Jackson, natural new home for a lot of Tunnel routes.

      But like with the DSTT, Third Avenue badly needs some driver training, especially in teamwork and cooperation. Systemwide, considering lost operting cost, would be worth an ST- worth of funding to create drivers who can “hit the seat driving”, especially on demanding segments.

      Signals also need to be set and equipped so buses stop only at zones. Good idea elsewhere, mandatory on the Third to Be. One useful measure any arterial. Let approaching bus hold a green signal ’til it gets through. Would be good to get the (BA) off the (T) and center-platform every route.

      Turning traffic makes every A-line bus stop at every light, even the ones that can hold for buses.

      Most disruptive blocked right turn I can think of is at the streetcar stop in front of Whole Foods. Right turning across the tracks in front of the train can make it miss lights. Would be problem even with no cars in track lane, just crossing it as they turn.

      Answer is signalled stop line holding cars back from turning until streetcar has cleared.

      Island stops can work with regular right-hand doors if buses can be signaled to cross intersections diagonally, and run counterflow for whole length of a critical neighborhood. Though special pavement good idea.

      For bus only lanes everywhere, wonder about concrete pavement with steep-edged troughs for bus tires to fit in. If trough is flat and rail-less, maybe bicycles could use them too. But leave that to bike clubs. If grooves sit in some really sharp (not just fashionable looking) cobble-stones, car insurance should take care of enforcement.

      Great icon, too. Just don’t trade it for one of those yellow and purple ones. Easter doesn’t last all year round.


  7. For some reason, I’ve never seen any appeal to limit driving lead with its most persuasive fact: Nation, State, county, city, Americans’ worst limit on personal freedom of movement is number of cars themselves.

    And by seventy years of freeway-building experience, every added lane is jammed within, what, five years? Also, especially for those of us who really do love handling an automobile, traffic conditions now make driving itself suck.

    But anti-single-motoring campaign is also very quiet on two major points. One, what are we, the people, going to do about the fact that the explosion of housing prices region-wide has forced thousands of us to leave our very modest long-term transit benevolent homes, involuntarily and on very short notice?

    Thereby overwhelming a regionwide highway grid already pushed to capacity? And, daily eyewitness, making public transit, any mode, to unreliable to use anytime you can either miss an appointment or get fired for being late.

    Confession if I were sorry about it instead of infuriated, but as a would-be passenger, best I can do for the rest of the traveling public is to know enough back roads that my car isn’t in anybody else’s way for fifty miles. Thurston County Courthouse in Olympia to the parking garage at Angle Lake.

    Extra time re: distance? Probably get there faster than anything on I-5. But leaving home an hour or two early, worth it to bill my time higher to travel like a free American human. Like being ethnoconometrically cleansed out of Ballard, not my idea.

    But here’s main personal grief right now. If this were the 1960’s, we’d already have a widening citizen political movement pushing for laws requiring the corporations gaining fortunes out of the present situation to pay their fair share of addressing its consequences.

    Not street demonstrations. Or letter-writing campaigns. Or social media. Butr unning people for office, backed by enough votes and grass-roots work to offset the enemy’s money. Worked before, or we’d have nothing to breathe now, and fewer civil rights than the ones being threatened right now. Let alone any transit at all.

    Any answer or reply, please don’t anybody use the word “Market”. Unless you’d let your kids eat a piece of fish or chicken you bought in one like this.

    Mark Dublin

  8. These numbers make it obvious that buses need to be given more priority. More cars will just slow down buses, deteriorating service if buses are stuck in the same traffic as those cars.

  9. I’m eagerly awaiting the option to take transit downtown for midday meetings from the South Sound, and not face a massive time penalty over driving and expensing my parking fees (parking fees are far less than any individual’s billing rate). Sadly, that day probably is 20 to 30 years away.

  10. Great news, and a great reminder that we need to keep increasing capacity as our downtown economy grows.

    However, it is a tiny little nit, but I’d like to pick it: “Our Center City added 45,000 jobs but only 2,300 more cars, meaning transit, walking, and biking absorbed a truly stunning 95% of new job growth. If new workers chose to drive Downtown in the same proportion as everyone else (30%), we would have seen 14,000 more cars instead.”

    This makes it sound like the 95% of the 45,000 new workers choose non-SOV transportation, based on the unstated assumption that existing workers didn’t change one bit in their choice of transportation. This is extremely unlikely, though – why would they be so different from existing workers, and why would existing workers be so static?

    It is far more likely that existing workers shifted slightly towards transit and new workers chose transit at a similar rate.

    But otherwise, great writeup of great news.

    1. It’s probably true that additional transit riders were both new and existing employees. But it’s important to make the comparison of many new jobs and few new drivers. In many cities the civic and business leadership say that it’s impossible to have economic growth without growth in car traffic. This is a clear refutation to that.

      1. I totally agree – the thrust of the article is that transit has absorbed the extra trips created by job growth, which is totally true and a refutation of “traffic is bad enough already” anti-urbanism arguments.

        I’m just picking the nit that new workers probably drive to work in the exactly same proportion as everybody else; it is the change in drive-alone rate for the whole population that has been enough to cancel out the effect of adding workers.

        It’s totally sensible to say, “wow, transit absorbed the extra trips so that we only saw 5% as many new car trips as we saw new jobs!” – but it is not sensible to say “wow, 95% of new employees therefore don’t drive alone, vs 30% of existing commuters – I wonder how they’re different?”

        To see the problem with the latter, consider the thought experiment – what if the drive alone rate had dropped further, so there were actually fewer SOV drivers now than in 2010, despite job growth. You wouldn’t conclude that more than 100% of new commuters choose not to take SOVs, you’d just conclude that the whole population of commuters was choosing to use transit, walking, and biking more.

      2. EHS – in aggregate I’d agreed, but I disagree with “exactly.” Consider that a new worker is more likely to pick their home or a job based upon transit because of flexibility during the home/job search. So I’d imagine a slightly higher SOV mode share among older workers, even after controling for age.

        A certain % of SOV drives would probably love to take an express bus, but where they live isn’t conducive to taking transit, probably because good transit didn’t exist when they looked for a home. If they own a home and/or have a family, they’d rather put up with the drive than uproot their life. Over time more people shift modes to transit as they self-select their home/job trip pairs accordingly.

        Just nitpicking your nitpick…

    2. The growth is in computer tech jobs, and they are culturally favorable toward transit. If they had been Boeing administrative jobs the driving share might be higher. What’s the driving mode share of Russell Investments, the largest non-tech company I can think of that moved or started downtown recently.

      1. Interesting – could you expand? Is it because tech employees tend to skew towards young, single, and well-paid, and so are more likely to live in transit-accessible parts of town? I think you could also argue that tech workers are generally paid enough to afford to drive alone and are concentrated in SLU, which is less well-served than the traditional downtown core. But I really don’t know.

      2. I have been in and around the tech industry for thirty years. I became an urbanist separately before that, so I moved to Seattle from the burbs right when I got out of high schiool and tried to work in the city and not have a car ever since. It felt like I was about the only one. But then a concentration of Microsofties arose who lived in Seattle and reverse-commuted. They lived in the city for the same reasons I did: to be able to walk to the store and have frequent buses and live in pre-WWII traditional neighborhoods and be close to the clubs and bars. No other company or industry did that.; In the 90s other tech companies arose and they were almost all on fhe Eastside. People like me tried hard to work in Seattle or if we couldn’t we reverse-commuted. Again I didn’t see it happening as much in other industries: people who worked in the suburbs lived there and that was that. For years we tried hard to get computer-related companies to locate in Seattle but few did, until finally in the mid 2000s it started turning around and more and more companies came to the city. Yes, people in the tech industry are particularly young and male and single and that’s part of it, but it also has to do with the values they have. And perhaps the opportunities they had due to the nature of the technology. In the 1950s everybody wanted a car because it was the only way out of small-town isolation and boredom, and the most effective way to convince a chick to go out with you, But in the 80s and 90s as technology became more powerful, early adopters were able to create worlds, pursue intellectual exercises, communicate by email and text chat, things that didn’t depend on driving to other places, or if you did it was probably to a users group nearby or in the city. In the 00s when social networks and smartphones became prevalent, this phenomenon spread to the general population, such that in the 1980s the vast majority of teenagers wanted a drivers’ license as soon as they turned 16, but in the 2010s a lot fewer teenagers get a drivers’ license because “if I have a smartphone and my gaming buddies and chicks will go out with me anyway, who needs a car?” I submit that even though the urbanist mindset has risen in the general population, it still remains a higher percentage in the tech population, at least from what I’ve seen. And it’s not all young single men. Some people grow older and get married and and have kids but they still live in the city and try to get jobs downtown or in SLU or Fremont that they can bike or bus to. Of course, one can ask whether it’s really “urban” if they live in a single-family house on Phinney Ridge and drive everywhere, but the fact remains that their house is smaller than they’d get in the suburbs and they’ve chosen proximity over size, and that’s urban in a significant sense.

      3. EHS — I’m a tech worker and have some theories.

        I think one part of the answer is that tech workers generally don’t have set work hours: I don’t have to report to anyone at a certain time, so if there’s some huge snafu that makes me arrive 15 minutes later than I intended to, no big deal.

        Another factor is that tech jobs are typically not physically or socially demanding. If my job required standing up for 8 hours while remaining upbeat and smiling, I would not want a commute that may be another 20 minutes of standing amongst more people and a 10 minute walk: I’d want to be guaranteed a nice quiet car where I didn’t have to directly interact with anyone. Maybe extroverts would be less sensitive to the interaction, but surely their feet tire in the same way.

        Finally, yes, it is probably a factor of age / generation. Tech skews young. I feel like my generation expects to grow up and live in a city where they don’t have to drive, whereas a previous generation probably thought that driving (to work, especially) was a part of adulthood. Moreover, if you’re not yet planning for your kid’s schooling, you have more latitude to choose a transit-friendly neighborhood, and not a cul-de-sac in Bellevue that is in a great school district.

      4. I read an article (might have been a podcast) a few months ago that was examining the lower rate of car ownership in the current generation of 16~30 year old. Apparently a big reason kids cited as why they don’t want to drive is because they’d rather be on their phone while traveling. Basically, the argument was that smartphones are making transit more desirable … 20 years ago the only thing you could do on your commute was listen the radio – now you can text, watch movies, listen to podcasts, etc.

        Once I took the bus into the city instead of driving specifically so I could catch a game on my phone during rush hour rather than listening to it on the radio.

        I’d imagine the same argument could be extended to tech workers, who might be more interested in multitasking than the typical commuter.

  11. I don’t want to be Debbie Downer, but the CTR program only applies to “major employers” (with 100+ employees) so those are the only ones included in this data. Do we know what percentage of downtown workers that is? And is anyone looking at the data for small businesses?

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