Commute Seattle has released their 2019 mode split survey, and it shows a slightly higher percentage of single occupancy vehicle (SOV) drivers compared to last year, while remote work increased substantially, despite the fact that the survey was conducted well in advance of the 2020 Coronavirus semi-quarantine or Connect 2020. Transit use unfortunately decreased for the first time, on a percentage basis.

SOV trips slightly reversed their remarkable downward trend, though Commute Seattle’s Kevin Futhey told the Times that this might be due to a methodology tweak that counts Uber and Lyft as solo drivers if they only have one passenger (a smart move, I’d add).

Meanwhile, telecommuting shot up from 3.3% in 2017 to 5.7% versus 2017 and Commute Seattle notes that at least 14% of downtown workers telecommute at least one day per week.

Transit use, which was on its way to breaking 50%, has stalled out. While increasing in absolute numbers, ridership seems to be bumping up against a limit, despite increased investments in service hours. Since the total number of jobs downtown is growing, the number of absolute riders is probably increasing as well, but the share is down.

The report doesn’t speculate as to why, but I’d wager the Alaskan Way construction played a big role, along with generally worsening congestion in the downtown core and an overall lack of bus lane enforcement. The rise in employer shuttles may have played a role as well — they account for less than 3% of trips overall but could be eating away at transit use on the margins.

On a slightly interesting methodological note, the survey makers have re-jiggered the boundaries of “downtown” to match other city data. This pulled in parts of Eastern Capitol Hill while deleting the outer edges of Queen Anne and the International District. It doesn’t seem like this affected the data too much, but commenters can tell me why I’m wrong.

27 Replies to “Teleworking, solo driving rise in latest Commute Seattle report, transit use drops”

  1. I think COVID19 will push teleworking and decentralized teams forward. Instead of having 50k employees in one location, they will be spread across the country into much smaller teams. It makes sense from a business continuity sense. This will impact large downtowns in the future and transit ridership as people spread out.

    1. People have been predicting mass teleworking, and decentralized teams and offices, for at least as long as video chat has been viable on the internet. What has happened empirically is the opposite. Big companies — including big tech companies who have infinite money and the fewest technical constraints — have consolidated teams and offices, especially in the walkable urban centers where their highly-paid and young-skewing workforce chooses to live.

      All these companies *do* allow teleworking — but almost always as a part-time or occasional arrangement. Getting people into the same physical space continues to provide a huge return on investment.

      1. I agree with Bruce, but I wonder if Tom has a point. I wonder if the Spanish Flu, for example, made cities in the U. S. less attractive. That could have been a factor in the increase in popularity of the suburbs. I’m just theorizing here — I haven’t found any historical evidence for that (historians on here might know more). I could see that happening with this virus, although I doubt it.

      2. Eh. Cities in general were dirty, dangerous, and unpleasant before WWII, with most industries in urban neighborhoods. The flight to suburbs has always been an attempt to avoid the danger, real or perceived, of urban areas, even before cars … Streetcar suburbs were sold as cleaner, quieter, and safer well before we had automobiles and tract housing.

        The Spanish Flu would have been just one data point alongside centuries of plagues, cholera, and general terribliness making urban living dangerous and leafy suburbs attractive to those with enough wealth to afford it in the suburbs but not enough wealth to acquire such privacy in cities.

        Geekwire had a recent podcast wondering if this giant experiment in teleworking will work or not. Could push more decentralization, or confirm that mass teleworking is unproductive and amalgamation is worth the expenses. We shall see.

      3. For those of us that don’t work in IT, some companies, particularly smaller ones, are thrifty in who they allow to work from home due to lack of resources to provide the capability of all to do it but the most valuable or tenured, as well as those with child care responsibilities.

    2. @Tom,

      Nope. Because you miss the point of decentralization, and you if ignore the reasons driving the resurgence in downtowns.

      The reason why various entities might consider decentralization is risk management for critical functions. As such, spreading your team across a county instead of in a downtown buys you nothing. Any natural disaster big enough to take out a downtown will also take out most of the county. This is true of earthquakes, hurricanes, COVID-19, you name it.

      Na, if you decentralize you spread critical functions across cities further apart, and the question then becomes whether you put your remote Center in a different downtown, or a suburb somewhere far away. Downtowns have advantage since for critical functions, so the Amazon HQ2 model is more likely to be the norm than is the business park.

      Think downtown Portland vs BFE Centralia. Downtown Portland is more likely to win out. Better transit, better infrastructure, better working environment, more diverse.

      1. This is just one story but my company has consolidated offices the past few years. Employees who can work remotely don’t need a satellite office, they can do it anywhere, so it makes sense to have one large home base rather than a half dozen satellite offices. Anyway, most of our exclusively remote employees are contractors or freelancers located in other countries.

  2. It wasn’t just the Alaskan Way construction. This was also the period when the buses were kicked out of the tunnel, without any improvement for the trains (yet).

    I also think changing the boundaries could make the numbers a little bit worse. In general, I would say both the new area and the area that was replaced have worse mode share than the central core. The difference is that the new area probably has more jobs, due to including Seattle U.

    All of that is a very small change, but the numbers changed very little, so it would make sense.

  3. Yeah I think it’s a confluence of Seattle Squeeze type stuff: messed up West Seattle buses and their various reroutings, buses out of the tunnel with no train frequency bump, Montlake Flyer stop closed, Rainier Freeway stop closed, slower trip times on 554 due to its Dearborn routing, 550 no longer serving the ID southbound, etc. Hurry up, Northgate and East Link…

  4. Only ~25% of commutes by SOV is still impressive, especially compared to other cities of similar size. Our bus network has punched above its weight for many years. I’m more surprised that walking to work hasn’t increased much at all.

    1. The geographic boundary changes may be playing a role in some of the “wobble” with the survey results. They now include Seattle U and deleted a few areas (albeit with low employment) near the Stadium light rail station. It likely doesn’t affect the general findings, but anything slight (less than a 1 percent shift) could easily be related more to the boundary change than any sort of behavior change. I wouldn’t obsess about any number less than a whole percent.

      1. I mean, even since 2010 walking has increased only from 6 to 7%. Considering the growth in housing downtown this is what surprises me the most. I guess that’s just a sign of how much the whole region has grown: tens of thousands of new downtown apartments don’t make a blip in walk commuting stats.

      2. My apologies, Barman. I didn’t mean to nest my comment under yours.

        I think your observation is important. The growth in housing in and near Downtown would seem to have elevated the walk percentage. On the other hand, I’d think that someone living 2/3rds of a mile from their job and receiving an employer-paid transit pass would choose to hop a bus or train before walking.

      3. I live a bit over a mile from work and nearly always walk despite having multiple buses in the area that also work. That said, despite healthy foot traffic, I doubt many of my neighbors do the same unless the weather is quite nice. If it’s absolutely miserable out I will sometimes catch the bus in the morning, but will still nearly always walk home as the buses are normally jammed and unpleasant in the afternoons. For most, however, weather and terrain here will often conspire to keep people from walking and certainly from biking.

        Of course, I live away from Third sufficiently far away that at best it’s a five-minute savings to walk up to catch a bus, ride downtown, then walk a couple of blocks back to my office as opposed to walking straight there. West of Third, in the densest neighborhood in the PNW, there is almost no transit of any kind.

    2. This is a very hilly city that isn’t conducive to walking if one is far away from their place of work.

      1. I’ve suggested before that we need a three-dimensional or a vertical pedestrian study for Downtown Seattle, which is perhaps the hilliest major downtown in the US.

  5. Viaduct demolition, loss of Tunnel buses, East Link construction, major regional building boom- all at once- for a long while these haven’t been “Ordinary Times” for transit or anything else.

    Stressing STB’s transit focus rather than the land-use one, throughout whole period of bus-only and then shading into joint-use, the system never got Tunnel operations anywhere near their potential.

    I’m leaving the floor open for performance assessment by Tunnel operating personnel-please say something- but as rail operations get into full swing, I’m pretty sure that whole project will eventually lose all these years’ aversion to the smell of its own sweat. Kind of thing succeeding generations are for.

    Criticism? Just doing ST’s duty, and excellently well. But we really are just barely getting started.

    Mark Dublin

  6. The metro March service change web page still says that full information will be available the first week of March. Today is March 10. Metro continues to be unable to deliver on its own deliverables. oh well at least they won that award…

  7. “The rise in employer shuttles may have played a role as well”

    What? So employer shuttles are not transit?

      1. Agree. It’s like a very large – and therefore more effective – carpool. It’s a part of the toolkit of an effective transportation network, but it’s still private transportation.

        I read “transit” as short for “public transit.” I’d imagine paratransit is under transit, despite a paratransit van being much smaller than a large employee shuttle bus.

    1. Charter busses, including employer shuttles, may be transit. They are not mass transit though. Their selective nature excludes the masses.

    2. No. Employer shuttles are not transit. They don’t serve the general public. I lived in a Seattle neighborhood and worked in Redmond, once upon a time, before Microsoft’s shuttle. I took the bus, along with dozens of Microsoft folks, to basically the same location. The bus route I took has since been eliminated. All those folks I rode with (or their current neighborhood counterparts) are probably taking the Microsoft shuttle. I would not be able to do that though. If anything, Microsoft or Amazon could help shape bus routes to meet their commuters’ needs by offering to pay a substantial portion of the operating cost, but keep it open to the public. That would be transit.
      Let’s ask this, is a mom group bringing 6 kids to school in a minivan the same as a school bus?

      1. The counterpart is that employer shuttles are point-to-point (more or less; Microsoft Connector routes, at least, usually stop 3-4 times on the remote side) and thus have much shorter commute times than the regular bus routes. So they’re a bit more like very effective (for a small subset of the population) express routes that we tend to view here as not cost-effective, and thus not worth Metro’s money to support.

        I do agree that it would be great if they could be only partly subsidized by the employers and opened to the general public. There could even be some operational benefits from all the employers in a region contributing to the same specific routes. Less of a thing to Redmond but I expect Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft all have shuttles from Seattle to downtown Bellevue now, and their operations probably largely overlap. So funding a few fast point-to-point express peak routes from neighborhoods that Link will not serve well (like NW Seattle, NE Seattle, and West Seattle) might be quite a boon for both employees of all these and the general public. How do we get in contact with the transportation coordinators at each of these companies and try to pitch such a thing? Or does it need to come from Metro?

  8. The one thing that worries me about a massive shift to telework is wouldn’t companies be led to rely more on contractors and freelancers, and in particular foreign contractors and freelancers? If you’re going to do it any way, and if employees become accounts you interact with via The Network as opposed to people you see daily or at least weekly, why not go all in and get the most bang for your buck. The “Uberization” of the workforce. It may well be inevitable, but it is nonetheless a bit dystopian.

  9. The areas removed don’t make much difference. The areas added, though… I am surprised it goes east of I5 at all. The transit there (Capitol Hill Link station aside) is terrible.

  10. I hope more folks can telecommute, or work from home. Although a lot of us can not. These are strange times we live in.

    But once this virus is gone, I’m all for myself as well as more commuters, to use mass transit as their first choice for transportation.

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