More Seattle residents taking transit to work (data: American Community Survey)

US Census data released on Thursday confirmed more Seattle residents are taking transit to work. More are walking too. Bike commute rates remain low, however.

Even though the Census’ American Community Survey sample is a large and sophisticated process, sample variation is inevitable and there are occasional anomalies at local geographies. So it’s more productive to step back and look at trends than focus on shifts in one mode in one year. (I’ve assembled some tables with local statistics here). 

In 2010, 18% of workers living in Seattle took transit to work. Last year, this had grown to 23%. It’s a sharp contrast to other major cities where ridership is trending down.

Transit has gained share in nearby suburban cities too, up from 6.8% to 9.5% over eight years in King County outside of Seattle. But there’s no growth in the transit share among Snohomish County residents, where it stays stubbornly stuck at about 5.9%. Pierce County grew ridership a little from an even lower base; 4.3% in 2018 vs 3.2% in 2010.

The other extraordinary success story in Seattle is far more people walking to work. More than 12% walked to work last year vs just 8.5% in 2010. Outside of Seattle, fewer have the opportunity to walk to their workplace and the walk share of commutes is low and generally falling. Seattle’s walking infrastructure isn’t all that much better than in 2010, so this mode shift perhaps has more to do with the shifting distribution of employment.

Walking to work has become steadily more popular, but cycling has not grown (data: American Community Survey)

Oddly, the increased number of workers walking isn’t accompanied by any increase in numbers biking. At least, last year’s low number turns out to have been an anomaly. Whether that was a statistical fluke (the decline from earlier years was statistically significant) or an indicator of temporary weather and construction impacts, it doesn’t appear to reflect any long term trend. Even though bike counters on corridors with better infrastructure are showing growth, it isn’t evident in city-level data. Bike trips may be shifting from corridors without bike lanes to those with new lanes. In any case, greater bike use in some places isn’t translating to a significant shift among commuters at the city aggregated level.

Seattle’s land use mean that the city is very different from the suburbs. With 37% of workers who live in King County, the city is home to 83% of those who bike to work, 78% of walk to work, and 58% of those who take transit.

There was less visible change in the mix of mode shares in other counties in the Metro area. One consistent trend, however, was the increase in the percentage of workers who work from their homes. The rate increased from 4.4% to 6.5% in Snohomish this decade, and from 3.5% to 5.7% in Pierce. There were smaller increases in Seattle. The increased time many spend in long commutes may mean some workers deciding not to commute at all.

The American Community Survey is conducted monthly, minimizing weather impacts to the annually reported data. Respondents were asked for the mode they primarily used to travel to work last week. Where a journey involves multiple modes, the survey asks for the mode used for the longest distance. The survey does not ask about non-work trips. The survey is large, covering about 2% of US households each year.

28 Replies to “Census reports steady growth in local transit use, walking”

  1. Is this the 2018-only, the 3-year rolling average or the 5-year rolling average? The ACS samples only 1 of 40 households each year. A 5-year average pushes that to 1 of 8 (similar to the long-form sample of the past Censuses like 2000).

    That’s important for readers to understand why there are “wobbles” in these data sets of less than one percent. In a given year, Seattle has about 7500 households sampled (not all of them working so say it’s 5000 working households), so that each 0.1% is only 7.5 households total or about 5 working households. It’s not that logical to claim any variation as a trend unless it’s around 1% or a multi-year average is used and compared over at least 3-5 years.

    1. These are one-year estimates. Sample variance estimates at the link.

      But yes, your point is exactly correct. And particularly so with respect to less popular modes where fractions of a percent are a large share of the total. The nine-year time series in the charts give a sense of whether variations are consistent year over year or once-off.

      https://data.census.gov/cedsci/table?d=ACS%201-Year%20Estimates%20Detailed%20Tables&q=B08&table=B08006&tid=ACSDT1Y2018.B08006&lastDisplayedRow=50&hidePreview=true&y=2018&g=0100000US_1600000US5363000_0500000US53033,53035,53053,53061

  2. Nice article, but the chart is a bit misleading. This is commutemode share, not mode share per trip. There are a lot of trips taken in the city that have nothing to do with commuting.

  3. Looks to me like an increasing number of people are finally starting to notice that on the average city street at rush hour, the slowest-moving people are the ones sitting in their cars.

    Fits the facts, doesn’t it?

    Mark Dublin

    1. …which really only can be accomplished with bus lanes. bus lanes are based on the concept that a single vehicle with 80 people onboard should get priority over single vehicles with 1 person aboard.

  4. Regarding bike use share, while low it is substantially higher in Seattle compared to the national average. Considering our weather, short winter days and hilly terrain that’s rather remarkable.

    I was wondering how much of the increased transit use is driven by cost. For example the HOT lanes on 167 and 405 plus tolls on 520. Another big cost of driving is parking. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any history of parking rates/trends for Seattle. I’m guessing it’s getting more expensive as the number of commuters is increasing and Diamond lots are turning into high rise buildings. The one site I did find shows the cost of “private transportation” is trending lower for the Seattle Tacoma area. That’s in large part due to cheap gas. Of course Seattle, as noted, has substantially different drivers of cost. Perhaps that in part explains low adoption rates for PT in Sno-Co and Pierce. Additionally, the time penalty associated with PT is much greater the farther from DT Seattle you get.

    1. My guess is cost plays a factor. I think in general it is a lot of things. Transit is getting better. More importantly, the jobs and housing is becoming more urban. It is one thing to commute from Brier to Factoria, it is another to commute from Ballard to South Lake Union. The former is going to happen with a car, 90% of the time. The latter is likely to occur with transit. We have added a lot more of the latter than the former.

    2. i think a lot of the increased transit use is the dual transit system… rush hour express buses from most points in the region, along with a maturing urban transit system in Seattle proper. the former benefits from increased congestion and the implementation of bus/HOV lanes rewarding bus travel. the latter benefits from increased density in the city.

      the rush hour expresses, as much as we like to criticize their inefficiencies, are really attractive to people living deep in the suburbs that generally arent super comfortable with transit… they are fast, there aren’t crazies aboard, there’s definitely one nearby plus they have park+rides scattered in their neighborhoods, they drop off/pick up a block of their office downtown, and they utilize those exclusive lanes.

  5. I can see why Snohomish County’s transit use isn’t growing. The only service there that’s really usable is the commuter buses to Seattle. Those buses are already full, and there isn’t money to run more of them.

    Even if some of the other services out there, such as Swift, are indeed growing in ridership, the baseline is so small that even a large percentage increase is still negligible numbers compared to the commuter expresses to downtown Seattle, which is probably what dominates the survey.

    Pierce County is kind of the same – the transit modeshare that does exist is essentially riders of express buses and Sounder trains to downtown Seattle. The transit modeshare for local commutes within their county is probably in the toilet.

    I did find it interesting that Kitsap Transit showed 7.5% transit modeshare, considering that transit is very skeletal there (worse than Community Transit). But, then I realized that the numbers are distorted by ferry commuters to Seattle. Technically, even someone who drives to the ferry is still considered a transit commuter, so long as the driving part of the trip is fewer miles than the ferry part.

    1. Pierce Transit reports annual ridership of just over 8 million. Sounder is 4.6 million. Numbers aren’t split for N/S but assume 4 million from the south. ST express adds another 2.8 million. So intra-county trips exceed ST commuter service; roughly a 46/54 split. Despite worthy attempts to improve Pierce Transit the trend of increased ridership has reversed itself. I believe a big part of this is the Tacoma City Counsel creating a business hostile environment that has driven out major employers (Russel, State Farm come to mind but there’s others). Weyerhaeuser was Federal Way but Tacoma didn’t do anything to try and keep the HQ in Pierce County. And it’s next to impossible to replace the industry that once dominated the Tide Flats (LNG plant, Methanol plant). There’s still an oil refinery on the tide flats (built 67 years ago) and Pennwalt continues to operate but don’t be surprised if they are gone soon too.

    2. Tacoma is more business-hostile than Seattle? I think we can take Russel at its word that most of its clients were in Seattle because it’s a larger market, and it’s easier to recruit workers in Seattle because it’s a larger and more urban city, and easier to commute to without a car. The first of these was probably the primary reason.

      1. Russel is a global business. The west coast lets them be between the Asian and European markets while still having favorable business hours with the NASDAQ and NYSE. The main reason they cited for the move was the chance to buy the WaMu tower for pennies on the dollar. Tacoma certainly doesn’t treat businesses any better than Seattle. The latest mandated leave policy is what drove State Farm back to Dupont. Tacoma has to be substantially more pro-business than Seattle because it’s lacking the advantages you cite. Tacoma will never develop the critical mass necessary to attract the hi-tech workers it craves with it’s current “when they come we’ll build it” attitude.

      2. I thought it was a bank. Maybe I’m confusing it with another company. Was there a bank that moved from Tacoma to Seattle earlier?

        “Business friendly” seems to mean “exploit and underpay workers, and get a tax discount”.

      3. Russel is an investment company. They publish the Russel 2000 index. Their main clientele is corporate accounts; Boeing, Aetna, AT&T, et al. If you’ve got a million or so to open an account they might talk to you but more likely they’d refer you to one of the investment managers who have accounts with them.

        Columbia Bank (a great local institution) has it’s HQ in Tacoma. There’s probably some credit unions? Long before the WaMu debacle was SeaFirst. They briefly tried moving HQ to Spokane. Sad that Tacoma couldn’t even score a win against Spokane. Although, in the end it’s probably for the best since Seafirst imploded along much the same lines as WaMu. They are now part of BOA as WaMu got absorbed by Chase.

        Business friendly does likely involve some tax breaks. Better to get some tax revenue than nothing. And as I said it’s all about building critical mass so that you have companies wanting to move there. If imposing extra burdons on businesses, like the manditory leave Tacoma eneacted, is exploiting employees then yes. Thing is, Seattle at least has a somewhat valid reason for something like a $15 minimum wage whereas the cost of living in Tacoma doesn’t justify it and should be their strong suit. It’s one thing to stick it to the rich when, like Seattle, you’ve got a lot of rich people. Tacoma at least needs to create some wealth before they try to bleed it dry.

      4. It’s Russell Investments (two L’s) and the London Stock Exchange Group retains the indexing business as part of FTSE Russell. Russell Investments was sold to a private equity partnership in 2015, IIRC.

  6. That shouldn’t be the case. Washington state ferries aren’t considered a mode of transit. They’re basically thought of as aquatic state highways, and WSFS is a part of WSDoT. Their modeshare should be zero, with the trip counting towards the next largest leg’s category.

      1. I was wondering what counted as transit mode. P&R for instance; maybe it should count a half drive alone and half transit instead of all or nothing. What do Uber/Lyft count as, carpool? I would expect that someone bringing their car across on the ferry would be drive mode whereas foot passengers would be transit. However, a large number of foot passengers rely on a private vehicle for a least part of the trip (i.e. P&R to ferry).

      1. If one drives to a ferry and the ferry ride were longer than the drive to the dock, the correct answer would be ferry. But it’s possible some wouldn’t follow the instructions, and who knows how long a ferry ride is in miles anyway?

        My impression, though, is that Kitsap -> Seattle daily commuters are mostly walking on anyway. The drive-ons are mostly tourists or occasional users.

      2. I’m pretty sure the ferry is pretty full of cars for drive on commuters. Anecdotally, the people I know that drive-ferry from Kitsap are commuting to a job outside of downtown Seattle, so I’m guessing they would consider their commute a drive

      3. For sure, more countering Dan’s point about tourist and driveons, particularly Mon-Thurs during commute times. There are more than just downtown bound commutes that depend on the ferry.

  7. Saturday at 1pm I took a 545 eastbound. This route is packed weekdays but on weekends every time I’ve taken it there were only a handful of people and nobody used Yarrow Point station. This time every seat was filled. I got the second-last one. Three people got on/off at Evergreen Point and three more at Yarrow Point. Interestingly, two of the people at Yarrow Point were going east to Redmond, on a Saturday. I looked to see if the entire bus got off at one stop, but no, some ten people got off at 40th and again at 51st. The majority got off at Redmond TC but there were still a dozen on it when I got off on Redmond Way.

    This is what happened to the 550 a decade earlier. I used to be almost the only one riding it weekends. Then it gradually got fuller and fuller, and now it’s busy on weekends, and on some Sundays it’s standing room only.

    This bodes well for East Link.

  8. note that the 2019 data may show a decline in the transit commuting mode share. transit speed and reliability are worse (e.g., slower and less reliable, especially in downtown Seattle, the major market) and gas prices are low.

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