Driving is no longer the dominant way Seattle residents get to work — and all it took was a pandemic.
Census data released Thursday shows from 2019-2021, the number of Seattle workers who primarily worked from home increased nearly sixfold, from about 36,000 people to 205,000 — that’s 47% of all workers who live in the city.
And with that incredible surge, every other major commuting mode dropped sharply, including driving, which had been the most common way to get to work for as long as these statistics have existed. The number of Seattle residents who commuted by car alone fell 31% between 2019 and 2021, from 205,000 to 142,000. With that decline, driving alone became a distant No. 2 to remote work in Seattle.
While remote work increased sharply all across the country, Seattle has taken to it like few other places. Among the 50 most-populous U.S. cities, only Washington, D.C., had a higher percentage of remote workers in 2021, at 48%. San Francisco ranked No. 3 at 46%. All other major cities were below 40%.
And some of them were way below. The data reveals a huge divide in remote work between the cities at the top and the bottom. In Wichita, for example, just 9% of workers worked remotely. In El Paso and Memphis, only about 10% did.
The gap between cities like Seattle and Wichita reflects differences in the local economies and the nature of their workforces. According to Pew Research Center data, upper-income professionals who have a four-year college degree are the most likely to work from home. These types of workers, of course, are more common in Seattle than in most other places.
Nationally, only about 18% of all workers primarily worked from home in 2021, according to the new census data — Seattle's figure is nearly three times higher. Pew data also shows that the majority — 60% — of American workers have jobs that can't be done from home. Even among those who do, a substantial number still go into the office or worksite.
Nationally, a higher share of women, 19.5%, than men, 16%, worked from home in 2021, but among Seattle residents, the percentages were just about equal.
As remote work became dominant in Seattle, driving wasn't the only commute mode that took a tumble. Public transportation fell dramatically. A mere 28,000 Seattleites used transit to commute on a typical day in 2021, down from 116,000 in 2019 — a 76% drop. Carpooling and walking also saw huge declines.
And local cycling advocates won't be thrilled, I imagine, with the latest numbers. Only about 9,000 Seattle workers commuted by bicycle regularly in 2021, around 2% of commuters. It's typically been closer to 4%, as it was in 2019, when 17,000 people biked to work.
Another effect of the rise of remote work was a reduction in commuting times. For Seattle residents who commute, the average one-way travel time was 25.6 minutes in 2021, down from 28.4 minutes in 2019 — a drop of nearly three minutes. You have go back 10 years to find commute times this short in Seattle. The average in 2011 was 25.5 minutes.
The data comes from the American Community Survey, an annual product of the U.S. Census Bureau, which contains a variety of local data. Because of difficulty with data collection caused by the pandemic, the Census Bureau was forced to skip this survey in 2020, so this is the first chance to compare pre- and post-pandemic habits.