In 2019, before the COVID pandemic, nearly half of downtown commuters took transit to work, bucking the trend in other cities of declining ridership on public transportation.
But by the end of 2021, that figure was just 18%, a decline that followed an enormous shift to remote work. The recently released data, part of the nonprofit Commute Seattle’s annual survey of downtown businesses, quantifies a reality that is unlikely to come as a surprise two years after the beginning of the public health emergency.
The Downtown Seattle Association estimates there were 321,000 jobs downtown in 2021. Once upon a time, just 6% of all employees from downtown businesses worked remotely. That number jumped to 46% over the course of the pandemic, according to the survey of 4,371 employees. In addition to transit, those biking, walking or carpooling to work fell as well, although not as steeply.
Meanwhile, the share of workers driving alone to work remained roughly the same, at a quarter of all employees. That number represents a flattening after years of declines beginning in 2010.
The fact of remote work is known to all by this point. But Commute Seattle’s data shows just how stark that shift was. It’s especially pronounced among the region’s largest employers that have more than 100 workers who begin their days between 6 and 9 a.m., Monday through Friday. From those companies, 58% of workers switched to telework.
In comparing large and small employers, “it becomes clear that folks who work for the large companies are more likely to have that telework option long term,” said Madeline Feig, spokesperson for Commute Seattle, a transportation nonprofit that does outreach and consulting for downtown businesses. Meanwhile, just 20% of workers from companies with fewer than 10 employees were working remotely. “We talk a lot about how everybody is working from home, and they are not.”
The survey comes with some caveats. For one, the sample size is smaller than in previous years as reaching businesses was more of a challenge. The data was also collected last fall, before omicron drove a resurgence in COVID infections.
Feig said that made for a dynamic situation and that the results could look different if the survey was repeated today. But the survey nevertheless provided valuable context for how people and their employers were thinking about commuting, she said.
At the time the survey was taken, work behavior already was shifting toward a hybrid model. A quarter of employees worked exclusively remotely, with the rest coming in at least one day a week. Among hybrid workers, 50% drove to their offices when they did leave home.
Feig said that’s partially because a lot of employers suspended transit benefits and subsidized parking during the pandemic. Among people working at companies with fewer than 50 employees, under a third reported being provided with transit benefits, compared to 60% of workers at large companies. Individuals may also still expect light traffic, when that’s no longer the case.
“I have a lot of concerns that if people just default to driving, there are going to be some pretty serious impacts,” she said.
Among those still commuting into work, which mode they choose is driven by convenience. Thirty-eight percent of drivers said they did so because it was the most flexible, while another 19% said it was the fastest way into work. Asked what would increase transit ridership, 31% said more routes and 12% said faster service.
For Feig, the dip in transit use is hopefully a temporary one that will reverse as people realize service is close to normal.
“I think people need to get back out there and start using transit and see that their perceptions of what may or may not be available to them right now is not accurate,” she said.