Monday, September 21, 2020
Sept. 21, 2020

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Seattle sees nation’s biggest drop in solo car commuters as transit, walking surge

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SEATTLE — Why would you drive to work in Seattle traffic if you didn’t have to?

You probably wouldn’t — and in fact, new data shows that you probably don’t.

In 2018, just 44% of the 444,000 Seattle residents who were employed drove alone to work on a typical day, according to the latest census data. That’s a huge decrease since 2010, when a solid majority (53%) of Seattle’s workers were solo car commuters.

Seattle’s 9 percentage-point drop is easily the largest decline among the 100 most-populous U.S. cities since the start of the decade. And we now have the sixth-lowest percentage of drive-alone commuters among those 100 cities. The lowest is New York, where only about 23% of commuters drive alone.

Slightly more than half of those 100 cities also experienced a decrease in the percentage of drive-alone commuters since 2010, but most were tiny compared with Seattle. For example, in nearby Portland, the number fell by less than half of 1 percentage point, and remains about 59%.

Good news, to be sure — but we still have a lot of folks driving themselves to work in Seattle. Even as the percentage plummeted, there was still an increase in terms of raw numbers, because the population grew so much in this period. The total number of drive-alone commuters was 197,000 in 2018, which is a 9% increase since 2010. In comparison, the total number of working Seattle residents increased more than three times faster, at a rate of 31%.

One other mode of commuting declined among Seattle residents: Carpooling. Slightly less than 5% of us share the drive to work with other people on a typical day. Once a popular way to save gas money and improve traffic congestion, enthusiasm for carpooling has stalled, both locally and across the country.

But all the other alternative methods of transportation have increased, and none more impressively than transit. More than 23% of workers who live in Seattle took public transportation to work most days in 2018, which is a 5 percentage-point increase since 2010. And 2018 marks the first year that more than 100,000 Seattle residents used transit to get to work on a typical day.

These numbers suggest that people will choose transit if it’s more convenient than driving. No region has invested more in transit than the Seattle metro area. (Though some transit funding is unclear after voters passed Initiative 976 this month.)

It’s also worth noting that among the 100 largest cities, the second steepest decline in drive-alone commuters is in Tacoma. And while Bellevue doesn’t rank among the 100 largest cities, it also saw a drop in drive-alone commuters similar to Seattle’s: From 61% in 2010 to 53% last year.

Most of Seattle’s transit commuters go by bus (about 89,000) but the sharpest increase has been among light-rail riders, who now number nearly 10,000.

In a recent column, I reported on Seattle’s nation-leading drop in the percentage of households that own a car.

Almost as remarkable as the surge in transit commuters is the increase in the number of folks who walk to work — in fact, we rank first among the 100 cities for that. Nearly 54,000 Seattleites, or about 12% of workers, hoofed it to their job in 2018, up 3.5 percentage points since 2010. That rise is surely due to the fact that much of our housing development this decade has been located in densely populated areas, in or near major employment centers like South Lake Union.

Only three major cities have a higher percentage of walker commuters: Boston, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, in that order. New York City is a little behind us, at around 10% of workers.

Bike commuting rebounded in 2018, after a surprising decline a year earlier. Only 2.8% of workers who live in Seattle biked to work in 2017. I wrote about this last year, and noted that it could be a one-year fluke — and we had the wettest start to a year on record in 2017, which surely depressed the bike-commuting numbers. It looks now like it was indeed a fluke, because we bounced back up to 3.8% in 2018. One factor could be the introduction of electric bikes to the city’s dockless bike-share programs, which make biking up Seattle’s steep hills a whole lot easier.

Less than 30% of Seattle bike commuters were women in 2018, which is one of the biggest gender gaps among U.S. cities with significant numbers of bike commuters. In some other cities with a similarly high percentage of bike commuters, 40% or more are women: Washington, D.C., Minneapolis and New Orleans.

Nearly 8% of employed Seattle residents worked from home in 2018, up about 1 percentage point from the start of the decade.

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