Madeline Feig, Commute Seattle blog:

However, the pandemic significantly altered travel behavior, and this year’s data broke from these historic trends. Comparing 2019 to 2021, the share of remote work among all Downtown commuter modes increased by 36 percentage points, to 43.3% of all surveyed trips. The percentage of transit trips, once at an eight-year high, dropped from nearly 50% to 18%. Walk/bike and rideshare trips decreased slightly, while the percentage of those driving alone to work remained flat.

The chart above puts in context what I think we all know anecdotally to be true: working from home soared, while transit use cratered.

Seeing these numbers and reading about more employees opting to work from home, I began to worry about the future of the ORCA Business Passport program, which sustains so much of transit agencies’ revenue. So I phoned Madeline Feig to ask whether commuter benefit programs were at risk of being slashed.

Feig noted that Seattle’s Commuter Benefit Ordinance, which went into effect just about the time Covid started showing up in the US, requires “businesses with 20 or more employees… to offer their employees the opportunity to make a monthly pre-tax payroll deduction for transit or vanpool expenses.” For many businesses, especially small ones, offering an ORCA card is the simplest way of complying with the law. No complicated reimbursement forms required.

29 Replies to “Commute Seattle’s 2021 mode survey”

  1. It’ll be interesting to see how long the remote work will last. Personally, my entire team will not be returning to the office at all except maybe the occasional “social event”. Part of the reason for this is because we’ve hired so many people since the shutdown that we can’t all fit. I’m lucky to have a job in an industry that can be done easily from anywhere, but I imagine many downtown jobs are similar.

    We surveyed our company and something like ~25% of the employees want to return full-time, another ~25% want to return part-time, and the rest want to stay remote. Commuting is by far the biggest reason for wanting to stay home. Just some anecdotal stats to think about!

  2. My company went fully remote. Out of 200 plus people, I was the only one that enjoyed working in downtown seattle. I sometimes miss taking the bus. We also had a fair number of employees move out of king county during the pandemic.

  3. Having such a large work from home will ultimately make it tough for surveys like this to be useful. When does a remote worker fall out of their survey? What about if an employer assigns a worker to an office elsewhere since work site wouldn’t matter to those that work remotely?

    While the work remotely share will certainly fall in a 2022 survey, this basic statistic will be more difficult to study going forward. Meanwhile, I think a good argument could be made to exclude remote workers from the denominator.

    1. It will also make it extremely difficult to build company esprit and a shared culture. After another year or two employees will be replaced with pure contract workers at every lower level, so that “promoting from within” becomes even more of a rarity. That way “the stockholders” don’t have to dilute their ownership with equity awards to the worker bees.

  4. Fun fact: in 1790, well over 90 percent of working Americans worked from home (an agricultural country). The notion of prominent commuting is really a phenomenon of just the last 200 years. Are we biologically conditioned to prefer working from home? It’s not exactly the same as remote working but it’s pretty similar.

    1. I’d guess this blog’s supporters skew younger and without children, and that’s not a bad thing, but maybe that’s not the population that has the real vision of what working from home really means to greater America.

      The reason mass transit never really got off the ground in America is because it’s difficult to manage childcare and not drive to work. Outfits like Sound Transit will spend billions on subways, but nothing on figuring out the childcare/transit dilemma. This is the real difference between Europe and the US

      Working from home changes everything and we’re not going back. My wife works many moms are are flat out refusing to come into the office. The company will deal with their demands. A whole group of these ladies used to ride the #1 bus in Pierce Transit and hated it looong before the pandemic. Now they see a way for more hearth and home time. We aren’t ever going back.

      1. They don’t have children in Europe?

        Good transit needs to be reliable, convenient, and comfortable. If transit can be people where they need to be when they need to be there, they will use it, with and without children.

        Working remote (full or part time) may very well work best for many families, particularly to support childcare, but that has nothing to do with transit. Having to spend hours a week on congested, unpredictable freeways also makes it difficult to arrange childcare around work schedules.

      2. “The reason mass transit never really got off the ground in America is because it’s difficult to manage childcare and not drive to work.”

        The US had the most extensive streetcar and rail network in the world for a time. Then it went through car and airplane mania and neglected transit and built unwalkable housing and workplace patterns. In the 1970s it started redirecting workers’ wealth to the top 1% and neglecting lower-income people, so women had to go into the workforce to supply a second income for housing that previously required only one income per family. All that is what led to the current situation.

        Saying that Americans don’t use or fund transit because childcare options are so sparse sounds too simplistic, like those who say electric cars or autonomous cars will solve all our transportation and environmental problems. Maybe childcare is a major factor. But unwalkable neighborhoods and the separation of housing from retail is a bigger factor. If you could walk to daycare and a grocery store and your kids could walk to school, you wouldn’t need the car or transit as much.

  5. I’m back in the office and I love it. Get more done in three days than I did in five days at home. I basically treat my schedule now as 4×9 in the office and a half day working from home on Friday.

    1. Me too, despite working in IT where most of my job could be remote, I’ve been back almost 100% since the beginning of July 2021. My mental health improved dramatically (there’s something to be said about being able to talk to people in person, and having some boundary between work and non-work), and I haven’t looked back despite Delta, Omicron, and now BA.2. As long as vaccines remain very effective against COVID, I don’t see going back to remote, and so far there seems to be very little risk of that.

  6. I’ve been debating whether to get a pass again if I go to 3 days/week commute.

    Full-price passes are priced at 36 trips/month (18 days, or 3 1/2 weeks). I’ve always had one because my employers were small or out-of-state and didn’t offer a transit subsidy. With my 5-day commute and extensive non-work usage and short trips because I had a pass, my actual usage was around 100 trips/month, or $1 per trip. (“Did you really ride it four times every day?” No, but when I did ride it I often did two round trips or a long chain trip, so it added up to three or four transfer periods. And after-work shopping or an evening activity translates to 3-4 transfer periods in a day.)

    With covid, telework, and “essential trips only”, I stopped riding transit completely for six weeks. I started again once a week, and eventually a few times a week. So I was on an e-purse, spending $25-60 a month, so a pass wasn’t worth it.

    Now if I go to a 3-day hybrid commute. Is that enough to justify a pass? That’s 12 days a month, or 24 transfer periods. So I’d need 12 more trips to break even. Two weekend visits to Bellevue, two to Costco, two to parks, would meet that.

    Still, many commuters don’t take transit outside work. So if they go down from 22 days (above the pass price) to 24 days (below the pass price), that could wreak havoc on full-price pass sales, fare-setting, employer participation. Employers only pay for the aggregate use of their employees the past few years, so if that goes down to 24, they’ll only pay 24. But full-price passes probably won’t go down, so they’ll become less useful to people. So full-price pass sales might not recover from their covid lows.

  7. This comment isn’t specific to Seattle, rather to basically every major city in the world that has lots of employment and office space in an urban core.

    I’m curious if there will come a point where cities start breaking out carrots and/or sticks to try and get employers to bring workers back into offices as much as possible in an attempt to revive downtown areas (specifically the many smaller businesses that rely on lunch traffic and such).

    What approaches could even be taken? “Empty office taxes”? Free parking (bleh) for people coming downtown? Any ideas?

    1. The main thing to remember is that only a quarter of the total workforce can telecommute. Nurses, warehouse staff, janitors, barbers, restaurant workers, in-person classes — all must be done on-site.

      Long-term trends are that Pugetopolis’ population is increasing and a lot of jobs are opening, mostly centered around Seattle and Bellevue. It’s unclear how much telework will be a major new factor. But the long-term trends are unlikely to reverse, so those empty offices will gradually fill again. Seattle will presumably get its street-crime problem down to pre-covid levels in the next year or so. Companies are now thinking more space per worker for social distancing, so a reduction in on-site workers doesn’t translate 1:1 to a reduction in office space. And if there’s still lots of surplus space after that, it could be converted into housing. It’s hard to convert an existing building, but a new building can be designed differently.

      Lower Manhattan was an office ghetto that turned into a ghost town after 5pm, but after 9/11 a significant amount of housing was built there and people moved there, so it’s more of a balance and a 24-hour neighborhood now. That’s a good thing and can be replicated elsewhere.

      I think it’s more likely that, instead of offering desperate incentives to lure workers downtown, cities will reimagine and redefine their downtowns. If downtown Seattle becomes more residential and has a wider variety of amenities, that’s basically a model urban village. Vancouver is one example.

      1. If demand for city center office space remains depressed, and property values and rents remain presumably high, there may well be a boom in “downtown living” development. It is often assumed that the people who WFH will only be interested in large houses far out in the exurbs and suburbs. In reality, it’s often more about the commute than the square footage of the house/condo. Indeed, living far out means a further commute to everything you want to do that is not work, and people are realizing this as traffic congestion has come back to pre-Covid levels. It’s not for everybody, but I bet there is a critical mass of WFHers who would actually prefer living right in Town (or at least, a quick transit ride away). And all the more so if Seattle takes more of a “downtown living” approach than the offices+tourists+conventions approach. Seattle could definitely make it easier for developers to build housing in and around the urban core, in particular, condominiums. Miami makes it easy, and look what has happened there! Vancouver, BC is also a great comparison. More people living in Town will bring back businesses and buzz, and tend to help with crime as well.

    2. To get workers back into offices, just allow for rents to drop until downtown office space becomes desirable for employers who actually need their workers in the office.

      To support a vibrant downtown, follow the same approach of any vibrant neighborhood. Allow for a diverse mix of uses and play to its natural strengths.

    3. It’s pretty much a given that the marketplace of major downtowns is no longer exclusively offices. Instead it’s almost mixed use. Just look at Hudson Yards in NYC in a city where office employment has additional local taxes has been applied to employees fir several decades.

      I think the change is that major city downtowns aren’t booming like they have been for the last 25 years. They will still grow but just not as quickly — at least for awhile.

      A final thing that needs to be said is that the interest in driving in general is waning in younger demographics. A boomer learned to think of driving as joyful. The recent young adults view it less so. The chance to forgo driving and instead text or play with a smart phone and not have to stress about commuting is a huge incentive for them. .

      Sure there are exceptions to the trend. Anecdotes don’t make it go away.

      The result is likely that frequent all-day rail services are going to be better investments than mere commuter-hour long-distance transit services. In sum, less Sounder popularity and more Link popularity.. Less long commuter bus routes and more all-day rapid buses. Add to that more stringent DUI laws and the 1986 model of office work while living in a residential-only suburb is almost as foreign as the days before phones were put on desks.

  8. I never left the office. Since March 2020 I have commuted by car from my home to Pioneer Square in downtown Seattle M-F, although the amount of travel for work I have had to do — whether flying or just driving around for depositions and mediations — has all switched to online, which I like.

    Before the pandemic I would go out to lunch five days/weeks, mostly the ethnic hole in wall joints around Pioneer Square, and also meet folks for drinks after work. Since March 2020 I have gone out to lunch twice, and met for drinks after work zero times (now I meet for drinks on Mercer Island where I live, in part because so many of my friends now work from home). The fact is very few places are open for lunch in Pioneer Square anymore (and if they are it is often take out only), and even the food court in the Columbia Tower is closed.

    I suppose I am lucky because I have a large office overlooking Puget Sound and up 2nd Ave., so I don’t feel like I am in prison. I take a salad to lunch now and have lost 17 pounds so that is good. I can work out in the basement of the Smith Tower. My wife and I certainly go out regularly. I just don’t leave my office.

    The 2017 tax bill eliminated business deductions for employee transit, but allows the employee to accept up to around $276/mo. in transit commuting subsidies before it is taxable. Although we don’t have 20 employees pre-pandemic we subsidized ORCA cards (rather than asking staff to use their pre-tax dollars).

    Then staff did not want to ride transit, so we went to pooled subsidized parking, which ironically is tax deductible. The cost is around a wash: $225/mo. (including the ridiculous city/state parking tax of 22.5% during a pandemic) for a stall vs. around $225/mo. for two ORCA passes. Then staff — especially female staff — did not want to come to downtown Seattle, in part because of safety issues, in part because there is nothing to do, they want to WFH, and they don’t have a view office to hang out in. So what is the point of working in downtown Seattle if you don’t leave the office.

    I know many tech friends who have WFH the entire time, and some are going stir crazy, but have learned to deal with it with walks and so on. But none want to return to in office work full time, and none want to work in Seattle, or commute on public transit. I miss a full office, but I think that is a relic of the past. The irony is we will be moving our office from The Smith Tower after 32 years to Mercer Island in June, and one of the things I am looking forward to is leaving the office during the work day because downtown Mercer Island is much more vibrant — and safe — than Pioneer Square these days, although the prime reason we are moving is to get staff. The other thing I am looking forward to is cutting my office rent more than 1/2.

    I think in the long run the ability to WFH, or from any satellite office, will be one of the best things to happen to people, especially with kids. The daily commute during peak hours on packed transit or clogged freeways to urban areas had become abusive, and a huge waste of life.

    Cities and transit can figure it out, and hopefully they will stop treating customers and employees like slaves, and begin to compete for them. I highly doubt Bellevue businesses — especially those along Bellevue Way — will have any problem getting employees back into the office part of the week, or that folks from Issaquah will object to driving to a park and ride to catch the 554 for a one seat ride to Bellevue Way, because people want to go there anyway.

    1. Other than Pike Place Market and the seattle Art museum – there is little reason to visit downtown.

    2. “I know many tech friends … and none want to work in Seattle, or commute on public transit.”

      You must not know the tech people who live in Seattle, and want to work in the city they live in.

    3. The food court in the Columbia tower is open and actually never closed. Most of the restaurants have been shut down but the Asian buffet and burger joint near it have remained open and just in the last week or so a few more eateries opened back up on that level – sushi joint, some salad bar place and the giro place.

  9. The overriding issue is going to be: how much more efficient are workers when they work in an office? If the efficiency is enough, then employers will be able to offer more money to employees for doing it. If that is enough such that employees want to do work in the office, then the downtown office buildings will fill up again, eventually.

    On the other hand, if, as some claim, the efficiency is negligible or even negative, the office buildings might never fill up again, except perhaps in fast-growing job markets. In this case, we should be happy to convert our office buildings into housing or retail. I am somewhat skeptical this is the case. It would run against thousands of years of human behavior, and a thousands-of-years trend toward urbanization. But maybe now it’s different, and computers are now a close-enough substitute for face-to-face communication.

    Anecdotally, most people I know (who are mostly college-educated people without children, working for software companies) love working from home. Also anecdotally, every time I need something from some organization where everyone is working from home, it is taking much, much longer than it used to. I strongly suspect that one reason everyone loves working from home is that they don’t have to work very much anymore.

    I think a confounding factor is that the working environment (cubicle farms, or worse, open offices) is very poor in a lot of offices. There’s a very famous book, Peopleware (which used to be required reading for Microsoft managers; I don’t know if it still is), which argues that private offices make employees far more productive. I don’t know why, but few companies have adopted this. The fact that cubicles and open offices continue to be so popular with employers probably drives a lot of employees to hate working in the office.

    Another confounding factor is that our land-use policy encourages long commutes by car, and discourages transit for anything other than commuting. Nearly all of our transportation investment, transit and otherwise, is designed to “reduce congestion”, i.e. the primary motivation is always to make it easier to drive. So of course, if you don’t really like devoting 1-2 hours of every day toward driving, working from home is great. Anyway, you can see in the ridership statistics that transit use has fallen off a bigger cliff in this country than anywhere else, for precisely this reason. Most Americans, if they use transit at all, only use it to get to work and back, and otherwise they drive everywhere.

    I think the ridership drop is temporary, but it might still be many years until we get back to normal. In any case, converting underused office buildings into housing and retail could hardly be a bad thing.

  10. I started returning to the office regularly about 2 weeks ago, although it’s a walking commute, so it doesn’t contribute to transit ridership. The human contact is nice, as is the work/home separation. I’m typically in the office at least part of the day 5 days a week, but often start the day at home and switch over to the office sometime between 10 AM and noon.

    About 20% of my team is back in, the rest are still working from home. Generally, the ones that are coming in are the ones with short’ish commutes.

    Our company commuter shuttles have also started running again, but so far, they’re quite empty – enough that they could replace each bus with a Toyota Prius and carry the same passenger load with a much lower carbon footprint.

    1. Over the last two years or so my parking garage in Pioneer Square has been pretty empty, which has been nice for me so you don’t get your doors dinged or drive around looking for a parking spot.

      But the garage operator just informed our office two Pioneer Square employers leased out 60 parking stalls to entice workers to come back to the office, so things are going to be tight again.

      It would be nice to see the worker return to Pioneer Square, although one issue that has always made it difficult for Pioneer Square to attract businesses is the lack of parking, especially onsite parking that is secured, and that was pre-pandemic.

      My guess is today more workers will want subsidized parking in order to return to the office, especially in downtown Seattle (unless traffic congestion returns and the transit commuter returns), but on the other hand a certain percentage will want to WFH full or part time, so maybe it will work out in the wash. It does suggest though the leverage is with the worker and not the employer these days, something I have tried to explain for the last year and a half.

      1. Of course, the leased parking stalls would go a lot further if people are willing to stagger the days they go in, rather than everybody coming in Tuesday Wednesday Thursday and nobody Friday/Monday.

      2. My gym used to be packed Monday-Thursday between 5pm and 8:30pm as people went in after work. The past year people spread out throughout the day so it was never packed. Now it’s packed Monday and Tuesday. Sometimes it’s busy on Wednesday and Thursday but not always. So it looks like the biggest days people are going to the office are Monday and Tuesday.

  11. When considering the drop in metro transit bus riders please take into consideration and acknowledge that, for those of us who live downtown, things are much worse now than precovid.
    For myself, the change in route 2 and elimination of the bus stop at 1st and Broad going north is a disincentive as is the chaos of getting off on 3rd near Westlake to shop or go to the Market.

    1. Deborah, yes, there should be service on First which would alleviate both problems.

      I think the wire’s still there, at least as far as Virginia. Is that true?

      If so perhaps the 1 could be rerouted to First through Belltown. The going is very slow invthecevanings, but it might be worth asking Metro to study it. There’s LOTS of service on Third. The 1 wouldn’t be missed.

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