by Jonathan Hopkins
As readers of the blog are likely aware, transit usage in the Seattle area is booming. The greater Seattle metropolitan area had the highest transit ridership growth in the country last year, and is one of just six major U.S. urban areas where transit ridership increased in 2016. Some of this growth can be attributed to voter-approved service and infrastructure expansions. Others, to be sure, will point to our breakneck population and jobs growth. But these two facts alone probably don’t fully explain how, since 2010, downtown Seattle has added 45,000 new jobs but only 2,255 new solo car commuters. Overall, seventy percent of our job growth (over 31,000 trips) was absorbed by transit.
When Zach Shaner wrote that transit is saving downtown, he was right, and our business community knows it. Therefore, to thank riders and celebrate June as Ride Transit month, nine Challenge Seattle member companies donated over $22,000 in prizes to our first-ever Puget Sound Prize Patrol. Challenge Seattle’s CEO, former governor Christine Gregoire, noted that “Challenge Seattle companies are proud to support this effort to highlight how critical high transit ridership is to easing congestion and improving our region’s quality of life.”
These gratis prizes compliments of Alaska Airlines, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (in partnership with Bike Works), Boeing, Chateau Ste Michelle, Costco, Nordstrom, Puget Sound Energy, Starbucks, and Zillow Group allowed us to do something groundbreaking aboard transit. Instead of riders having their heads down, focused on their phones, they instead had their “best transit ride ever.” They weren’t riding in isolation, using transit as a utility. They were part of community, and shared together a sense of ownership over their daily choices to protect our environment and its economy. We hope it’s a meaningful message that lasts.
Most Employers Get It
The community story we shared with riders is thankfully something that most companies already get, making our region fairly unique. Promoting transit is not just a one-off event for our major employers; it’s a core benefit to their employees. In fact, 65% of transit boardings in King County are made by someone with an employer-subsidized fare card, signaling just how pervasive this benefit has become. Employers are also investing in on-site amenities for commuters and are even pitching in to help pass local transit initiatives. All told, downtown Seattle employers spent over $100 million in 2016 in support of transit benefits and infrastructure.
Why the emphasis on transit ridership? For some employers, encouraging more environmentally friendly commutes fits well with corporate responsibility initiatives. But businesses also understand that in a competitive environment, transportation choices and benefits can help attract and keep top talent. Furthermore, they understand that a region choked by traffic comes at a high cost to their employees and their own bottom lines.
“Reducing our carbon footprint and the stress that often accompanies commuting is important to Zillow Group, which is why we cover the cost of public transit for our employees. Last year, Zillow Group employees in Seattle took nearly 300,000 free bus rides thanks to this benefit,” said Dan Spaulding, Zillow Group VP, People and Culture. “We’re thrilled to be participating and doing our part to contribute to the fastest transit growth in the country.”
Preparing for Future Growth
As is obvious from the video, giving out prizes on transit is fun and rewarding. More importantly, however, is the symbolic message: we as a community─as a region─are successful because we are working together to make our transportation system work. And it has to, because our growth is not stopping anytime soon. Transit agencies are busy building infrastructure and increasing service because citizens are voting with their feet and at the ballot box. Businesses are supporting that infrastructure growth and providing the incentives to employees to use it─in partnership with organizations such as Commute Seattle, Downtown on the Go (Tacoma), TransManage (Bellevue) and the transit agencies.
For our continued economic vitality, we need to learn from this success and continue to travel smarter. While an overwhelming number of our largest companies provide meaningful transit benefits, we as a community must work to reach many of the smaller companies that until this point have not invested in their employees’ transportation options. For our continued economic vitality, we need to learn from this success and continue to travel smarter. While an overwhelming number of our largest companies provide meaningful transit benefits, we as a community must work to reach many of the smaller companies that until this point have not invested in their employees’ transportation options. If you are an employee without such benefits, it’s a perfect time to help your employer get in touch with any of the supporting agencies above. It’s one of the strongest tools we have to keep the greater Seattle area moving.
Jonathan Hopkins is the Executive Director of Commute Seattle, a not-for-profit Transportation Management Association incorporated within the Downtown Seattle Association.