Commutes into downtown Seattle are ticking up slowly as hybrid work arrangements and cautious office reopenings put off any mad dash to the pre-pandemic work routine, according to a new report from traffic analytics firm INRIX.
The stagnation, even as nearly all coronavirus restrictions have been rolled back, raises the question of when or if workers will fill Seattle’s core again. Bob Pishue, transportation analyst with INRIX, said their data shows no urgency to return and that it would behoove the city to consider how to draw more people downtown for reasons beyond just work.
“As downtown businesses or chambers of commerce or government officials talk about how to get people back downtown, I think what we’ve determined from this report is they’ve got to look beyond the office,” he said.
Seattle is seeing 70% of the trips downtown as it did before the pandemic. That’s a marked increase from a year earlier, when it was just 41% of commutes. But it’s notable that many of the increases were borne out by last August, Pishue said. Since then, the city has only experienced single digit increases in commutes.
“This is starting to seem like it’s the new normal and I think that we should start kind of preparing for this,” said Pishue.
That’s not to say that the roads are empty. Data from the Washington State Department of Transportation shows traffic volumes across the state are just 5% less than what they were pre-pandemic. And Pishue said INRIX is noting similar volume in the Seattle Metro area.
But the nature of those trips has changed, suggesting people are taking more local or recreational trips and are not necessarily headed into the office.
Most cities are still below pre-pandemic levels of commuting, according to INRIX’s analysis. Seattle shares company with Dallas and Washington, D.C., at its 70% level.
Two cities have met or exceeded 2019 commute numbers: Denver and Nashville. Nashville stands out, at 125% of pre-pandemic levels. Looking at the city’s data, Pishue said you see large spikes on Friday and Saturday nights, a sign that the downtown core of Music City – or NashVegas to some – is itself an attraction. The number of people driving into downtown Seattle on Friday or Saturday night plummets.
“Now, weather is different in Nashville than it is in Seattle than it is in New York,” said Pishue. “There are other factors here, but we’re just kind of laying it out there that, hey, based off of transportation data, we might be able to see what works, what doesn’t work, sort of in real time.”
Seattle’s downtown may be particularly vulnerable to a drop in commuters, with more than 11% of the metro area’s jobs centered there. Much of that is due to Amazon, which hasn’t demanded its workers return to the office.
The commute data tracks with office trends, kept both locally and nationally. Although it doesn’t follow Seattle’s office occupancy, Kastle, a Washington, D.C., office security firm, found that similar cities have occupancy rates of around 33%.
That number matches the Downtown Seattle Association’s estimate that 33% of downtown workers are going to the office three or more days a week. Like INRIX commute data, the number of office workers has remained mostly flat since February.
Jon Scholes, president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association, said he’s “bullish” on the return of office workers, especially as summer weather arrives and people find more reasons to leave their houses. Surveys of downtown businesses show more could soon push for workers to show up in person, he said.
“The summer’s a great place to be downtown,” he said. “It’s a time when there’s lots of stuff to do, after work in particular.”
Scholes said he doesn’t expect a full return to 2019 levels of in-person work, but said he still thinks downtown could see 70% capacity by fall.
Transit ridership is still well below pre-pandemic levels, but has seen a more robust uptick in 2022. Sound Transit’s total ridership increased to 2.5 million riders in March, up from about 2 million in February and 1.8 million in January. Light rail drove most of the increase.
King County Metro reported more than 240,000 average daily boardings in March, up from 177,000 in January.