We may love light rail. But carpooling? Not so much. The number of carpoolers in our three-county area is almost exactly the same as it was in 1980 — even as the workforce has grown by more than 80 percent.
At last, Seattle loves light rail.
Last week, my colleague Danny Westneat looked at Sound Transit’s spectacular jump in ridership since the opening of two new stations in Capitol Hill and the University District.
But the numbers on carpooling — another carbon-friendly commuting option — tell a different story. In 2014, the most recent census data, carpooling dipped into the single digits, accounting for just 9.8 percent of commuters in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.
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Back in 1980, 18 percent of us shared the drive to work with another person. It ranked second behind driving alone, and well before public transit.
But today, the number of carpoolers in our three-county area is almost exactly the same as it was in 1980 — about 180,000 — even as the workforce has grown by more than 80 percent.
It’s not just in Seattle — carpooling has lost ground all across the country.
Maybe people never actually liked carpooling — there’s the person who’s always running late, or the one who falls asleep and starts snoring in the car. Even so, a lot of us put up with it in the past.
When carpooling first caught on, back in the 1970s, it made a lot of sense, says Mark Hallenbeck director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington.
“Up until that point, the obvious answer to transportation questions was to build more roads — a great example of that is I-5 through downtown Seattle,” Hallenbeck said. “In the ’70s, there started to be a resistance to that.”
But there weren’t a lot of options for alleviating traffic congestion and air pollution. At the time, transit service was almost nonexistent in the suburbs, where population was booming.
Carpooling was the best solution, Hallenback says. The infrastructure was already in place, and it only required two or three people to coordinate a carpool commute. Another important factor: Most people worked the same 9-to-5 shifts.
Large campaigns encouraged people to carpool, and HOV lanes were installed. Employers gave preferential parking spaces to carpoolers, among other incentives.
All these things still exist, but for most of us, it’s just not enough.
So what’s changed? A combination of factors has made carpooling less attractive than it once was, Hallenback says.
On a positive note, there are more transportation alternatives to choose from. Bus and rail service has greatly improved. With more people choosing to live in dense urban centers, cycling and walking to work have become more popular. And technology has facilitated the rise in telecommuting.
But carpooling hasn’t only lost share to these other “green” commuting methods — it’s also lost to solo driving. Today, 69 percent in the Seattle area drive alone to work. While that number has declined some in recent years, it’s still up from 63 percent in 1980.
In the era of time-strapped dual-income households, carpooling doesn’t provide the flexibility that many families need, Hallenback says.
“Now when both adults in the family are wage earners, you have to do all those extra trips somehow in your harried life … We call it ‘trip chaining,’?” he said. “Instead of going to work and turning around and coming home from work, you drop a kid at day care, go on to work, stop at the grocery store on the way home, pick up the kid from day care, then go home.”
The introduction of flexible hours in many workplaces has helped people structure their complex personal schedules. But with fewer of us working the same shifts, it’s also reduced the opportunity to form carpools.
And Hallenback notes that the time commuters save in the HOV lane — carpooling’s biggest benefit — can be eaten up by the time lost in picking up and dropping off fellow passengers, especially on increasingly congested suburban roads. “This is a problem for those of us trying to promote carpooling,” he said.
The recession also dealt a blow, as unemployment broke up a lot of carpools.
Can it make a comeback?
Hallenback is skeptical but says that others are confident that technology can re-energize carpooling.
“With social networks and the high level of communication now available,” he said, “you would be able to identify easily and quickly people going from where you are to where you need to be, and you’d be able to find another person — maybe not the same person — coming home.”
In fact, the app-based ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft have launched carpooling services — UberPool and Lyft Line — and they’re rapidly gaining in popularity. In New York and San Francisco, more than half of all Uber and Lyft rides are now pooled.