A smaller share of central Seattle commuters drive alone to work in their cars, new data shows. That means more folks are using transit, walking, bicycling, carpooling and telecommuting.
Apparently the area’s commuters agree.
While the working population in and around downtown increased by 45,000 in the past six years, drive-alone commutes increased by approximately 2,255 morning trips, based on data published Thursday by Commute Seattle, a nonprofit funded by business and transportation agencies.
Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, CenturyLink, Kemper Development Co., Sabey Corp., Seattle Children’s hospital and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.
In other words transit, walking, bicycling, carpools and telecommuting soaked up nearly all the growth.
Only 30 percent of center-city workers drive alone, meeting Commute Seattle’s goal four years early. Transit use rose from 42 percent in 2010 to 47 percent last year, or 117,000 morning trips.
“Sometimes people talk about alternative transportation. In downtown Seattle, alternative transportation is driving your own car by yourself,” said Jonathan Hopkins, executive director of Commute Seattle.
“It’s not the best thing for the space in the city, for the environment, or for your pocketbook. That said, some people do have to drive, if you’re a real-estate agent, or maybe making deliveries, moving freight,” Hopkins added.
The report is released every two years.
The addition of light-rail stations and bus trips, funded by voter-approved tax increases, represents only part of the equation driving down solo commutes.
Traffic congestion and vehicle costs also have drivers looking for options. There aren’t many projects in the near future to relieve city-center congestion, except improved signal timing for Mercer Street and a short, $18 million lane expansion proposed for I-5 at Seneca Street.
A drive from Everett to Seattle averages 56 minutes, but motorists must allow 92 minutes to be sure they get to work on time. Downtown-area parking costs $250 or more each month.
Central-city employers spend $100 million a year on transit passes, incentive pay, bike storage and other methods to encourage people to give up driving. Companies are importing tech workers from throughout the world who often chose transit from day one.
Having met the 30 percent solo-driver goal, managers haven’t named a new figure, except “less than 30.”
“The goal is really the same, which is all of the new growth being accommodated by modes other than driving,” said Scott Kubly, director of the Seattle Department of Transportation.
Nonetheless, more cars will arrive, even if transit grows faster.
City records show 24,867 parking stalls will be added in buildings that have been approved throughout the central city, and potentially another 19,210 parking stalls are in permit applications, according to data kept by Ethan Phelps-Goodman for his independent Seattle in Progress website.
That includes more than 11,000 parking spaces for buildings planned or under construction in South Lake Union alone, adding pressure to Mercer Street and Denny Way.
Kubly said that area is going through a “transition period” in which the construction market may be supplying surplus parking space, at a time when downtown parking already isn’t full.
“If we are doing our job well, in terms of delivering safe infrastructure for walking and biking, good transit infrastructure for signal priority and moving buses through downtown, delivering light rail … the reality is not all of those 11,000 spaces may be needed,” he said.
Commute Seattle is a nonprofit that includes downtown businesses, Seattle Department of Transportation, King County Metro and Sound Transit. The survey combined March data from the state’s commute-trip reduction program with an October polling sample of other businesses.
Rapid growth in the central city is not expected to let up for years.
A total 9,369 housing units were being built in 2016-17, followed by about 20,000 planned in the years ahead. Another 14.5 million square feet of office space is under construction or planned. Meanwhile, 1,629 hotel rooms were being built in 2016-17, with 3,602 more in the pipeline, according to the Downtown Seattle Association.
Phelps-Goodman said his main concern is traffic generated by new office and retail buildings, adding weekday trips, compared to residential parking that might be used mainly for weekend road trips or off-peak errands.
“We’re seeing a lot of housing downtown where there are a lot of jobs, and that’s a good thing,” said Phelps-Goodman.