New data reveals that thousands of downtown Seattle workers already turned to telecommuting in 2019, long before the coronavirus hit the shores of Puget Sound.
Commute Seattle surveys found that 16,815 people, or 5.7% of the entire 295,000 central-city employee population, worked from home last fall. That’s nearly twice the 2017 estimate of 9,075 teleworkers, and triple the count in 2010 when 5,481 or 2.7% did so.
Although the numbers are still small, teleworker was the fastest-growing mode in the nonprofit’s latest report, released Tuesday at CommuteSeattle.com, that illustrates how traffic finally turned miserable enough to make more people stay home.
That slice of the labor force now exceeds those for downtown vanpools, bicycling or ferries. The survey allows people to divide the week, so a person might report driving four days and teleworking Fridays, for instance.
It appears people carried over some flexibility they learned during a three-week Highway 99 closure in January, when the Alaskan Way Viaduct was closed and the new tunnel had not yet opened, said Kevin Futhey, executive director for the Commute Seattle. Regional highway traffic temporarily fell by 90,000 daily trips.
The survey involves about 63,000 downtown-area workers, mostly from medium and large businesses that participate in Commute Seattle’s trip-reduction program. It measures commutes by people who started work between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m.
The survey raises questions about how downtown travel is managed, because transit served only 46% of commutes last year, versus 48% percent in 2017.
Regionally, data from transit agencies show four-county ridership dipping 0.8% for 2019, including King County Metro slipping 0.4%, based on Seattle Times calculations using the Federal Transit Administration (FTA)’s monthly database. The counties include King, Snohomish, Pierce and Kitsap.
Before that, transit ridership grew 50% over a decade, by far the quickest rate in the U.S., and taxpayers here also provide the highest funding per household.
Futhey was eager to learn 36% of downtown commuters were “multimodal” during the October survey period, and 54% used transit at least once.
For that reason, he said, it’s not troubling transit lost a couple of percentage points, which maybe shows flexibility, where people coped with bus slowdowns by telecommuting, biking or walking.
“Having a system where everyone’s locked into one mode — that makes us more vulnerable when something happens to that mode,” he said.
Commute Seattle said transit growth cooled following a spike in 2016 when new Capitol Hill, University of Washington and Angle Lake light-rail stations opened. New stations at the U District, Roosevelt and Northgate open in 2021.
However, FTA numbers show light-rail ridership actually gained 2.5% in 2019, suggesting that gridlocked or uncomfortable bus corridors repelled people. Sound Transit Express routes lost 6% last year across the region. In downtown, the ST Express 550 and Metro’s C Line lost riders due to slower reroutes.
Transit ridership actually grew downtown last year by 2,100 morning commutes, but downtown jobs grew faster, said Sam Zimbabwe, Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT).
Zimbabwe is hopeful for improvements in 2020-21. West Seattle buses, recently moved to new Columbia Street bus lanes, just regained several minutes lost to a Pioneer Square detour last year during viaduct demolition.
City and corporate efforts to establish telework, that started in the Highway 99 closure, made it easier to change habits quickly this month in response to the coronavirus, Zimbabwe said.
Solo-drive commutes downtown increased by 6,000 trips daily from 2010-2019, despite being only 26% of the booming workforce. A bump of 1 percentage point last year from the 25% recorded in the previous survey, in 2017, might be due to new methods that count ride-hailing trips with one passenger as solo drives, Futhey said.
Commute Seattle’s survey doesn’t measure employer-provided transit, buried in the “other” category. Those counts are considered private information, not collected by the state and city. Microsoft Connector provides 5,300 daily rides in the metro area, reports the Puget Sound Business Journal.
Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon told employees last week to stay home, while many schools switched to online instruction to slow the coronavirus epidemic.
This experiment in “social distancing” suddenly reduced freeway and transit congestion to levels not seen in about 50 years.