The proportion of commuters who arrive in the morning by train, bus, streetcar or walking onto ferries has reached 48.4 percent, or by 126,808 people.
As public transit stagnates in most U.S. cities, central Seattle continued its rapid growth by adding roughly 10,000 morning transit commuters last year, new local data show.
A total of 126,800 people, or 48.4 percent of a workforce of 262,000 employees, arrive using a bus, a train, or by walking onto ferries.
The 2017 data are the first to fully account for light-rail stations that opened during 2016 at the University of Washington, Capitol Hill and Angle Lake. Those stops doubled overall train ridership, while regional bus use held steady — and some downtown routes overflowed.
Figures were released Wednesday by the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and Commute Seattle.
“The performance has just gotten better every year,” said Jonathan Hopkins, executive director of Commute Seattle, a nonprofit funded by employers and transportation agencies.
About 75 percent arrive other than by driving alone, which the city discourages. Downtown’s job growth is being absorbed in other ways.
The survey includes downtown and areas cornered by Uptown, Pioneer Square, the Chinatown International District and Capitol Hill.
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One motivation is added bus frequency, funded mainly by a $60 car-tab fee and 0.1 percent sales-tax Seattle voters approved in 2014. Those taxes cover roughly one-third of service on three RapidRide lines plus route 40 from Ballard-Fremont, said Andrew Glass Hastings, SDOT transit and mobility director. RapidRide C, D, and E total 43,300 riders a day, a 28 percent jump in two years.
Another shift comes from walking, as employees choose housing towers nearby, said Hopkins. Some 20,174 people walk to central-city jobs, a 69 percent increase since 2010.
Bicycling stayed at 3.1 percent of total commutes, and remains highly seasonal. Commute Seattle says as many as 13 percent cycle once a week in warm months. Seattle opened a West Lake Union bike trail in 2016, and this winter extended its Second Avenue bike lane through Belltown.
With growth comes problems.
King County Metro Transit buses from the north side tend to overflow the last couple of miles after the Ship Canal, as they pass denser housing.
The RapidRide E Line on Aurora Avenue North carries nearly 18,000 riders a day, and often passes up people at southern stops. Seats were available for RapidRide C riders at West Seattle Junction a year ago, but now peak customers there are standing, as buses sometimes pass neighbors along Avalon Way Southwest.
“The reality right now is, transit faces a capacity constraint, and we can’t invest in it fast enough,” Glass Hastings said.
Bill Bryant, service development director for Metro, said the agency will acquire 16 more RapidRide buses this fall, along with routine service boosts in March and September.
“We’ve really been trying to rise to the challenge of meeting that explosive demand, particularly in South Lake Union,” said Bryant.
Through repeated votes, Seattle-area residents have chosen to pay the nation’s highest taxes to build and operate transit, exceeding $1,000 yearly per median household. The next light-rail stations, at the U-District, Roosevelt and Northgate, are on track to open in 2021.
Of course, miserable driving conditions affect transit and housing choices. An INRIX report said that Everett, 24 miles north of Seattle, suffered the nation’s worst highway congestion. Seattle ranked ninth worst among big U.S. cities, for highways and arterials combined.
On gridlocked Mercer Street, the state in April will try ramp-metering signals for cars merging into Interstate 5, which should aid freeway flow but might aggravate Mercer’s intersections.
Solo driving accounts for only a 25.4 percent share, down from 35.2 percent in 2010. Last year that category decreased by 7,211 morning drives — the only kind of trips that shrank. These might be shifting to Uber and Lyft, or to improvised carpool apps like Scoop.
Hopkins suspects that a drop in car commutes is being filled by more deliveries, ride-hailing services and tourists, who he said made 39 million visits to Seattle in 2017.
Seattle runs the risk of downtown mobility helping mainly well-to-do people, as rents exceed $2,000 in the central city, and houses exceed $700,000 citywide on average.
The city’s government’s answer to “the suburbanization of poverty,” says Glass Hastings, is more transit that lowers people’s commuting cost — and to increase housing supply through zoning and density changes.
Some community groups are suing over zoning changes, saying they will damage neighborhoods.