Workers are returning to the heart of Seattle. They’re just not making the trip all five weekdays.
About 60% of the city center’s 320,000 workers were commuting to jobsites on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and a majority on Thursdays, but most employees continued to work from home Mondays and Fridays as of late 2022, according to just-released survey numbers.
Now that COVID social-distancing rules have waned, Seattle commuters are redefining “hump day” as not merely the midpoint of the workweek, but as the apex of traffic and congestion.
“We need different strategies in how we get people to work Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday than on Fridays,” said Kirk Hovenkotter, executive director of Commute Seattle, which promotes nondriving options on Seattle’s tight isthmus.
The report, released Thursday by the nonprofit Commute Seattle and the University of Washington’s Mobility Innovation Center, represents the most rigorous examination available of downtown commuter trips, and this year’s version illustrates an upheaval in workers’ daily routines, since the pandemic hit three years ago.
Merchants who deal in back-to-work incentives can attest to this new normal.
“We definitely notice Wednesday as a lot busier,” said Julie Peckham, morning shift manager at the Top Pot Doughnuts in Belltown. “Monday and Tuesday are slower, Wednesday is when there’s a lot of dozen-orders and group orders.”
A typical 1,000-donut Wednesday is about 100 more than the average, she said. “Donuts bring happiness. It’s an easy thing for people to stop by, on their way to work.”
Piroshky Piroshky on Third Avenue, reopened in late December after the owner said street crime prompted an extended shutdown, attracts few customers before Wednesdays now. Its best day is Friday, when tourists and conventioneers also show up, owner Olga Sagan said. Daily sales of $700-$900 amount to a third of its 2010s volume, she said.
The other broad theme in Commute Seattle’s report is the slump in public transit use, though authors say essential workers including those in health care kept riding. Conditions have changed since Metro, Sound Transit and Community Transit shaped many routes in the 2010s to feed a then-booming downtown.
In 2019 a full 46% of central-city commuters rode public transit, falling to 22% last year. Telework soared to 46% in that period, a sevenfold increase. The proportion of all 320,000 central-city employees who drive alone declined from 26% to 21%, as some of those stayed home to work.
The commuting numbers reflect the overall change in downtown Seattle, where office tenants in the second half of 2022 leased 1.2 million square feet, down 25% from the second half of 2021, and 40% from the second half of 2019, according to data from commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield.
In January, Amazon and Facebook parent Meta announced they were leaving large office spaces in downtown Seattle, citing the shift to remote and hybrid work.
Commute patterns could change again after May 1, the date Amazon has said it will require staff to appear in-person three days per week. That might prod other employers to do likewise, Hovenkotter predicted.
Remote work gained popularity during the 2½-year closure of the West Seattle Bridge for repairs, a factor not analyzed in the report. Six months after it reopened in September, the bridge carries only 60,000 to 65,000 daily vehicles, compared to historic counts near 100,000, said Seattle Department of Transportation spokesperson Ethan Bergerson.
The study team analyzed 64,355 questionnaires to calculate patterns for center city worksites and Seattle as a whole, including people who live in a four-county area. Center city was defined as the downtown commercial core plus the Uptown, South Lake Union, Denny Triangle, Belltown, Capitol Hill, Pike/Pine, First Hill, Chinatown International District and Pioneer Square neighborhoods. Surveys focused on the 6 to 9 a.m. morning rush hours.
Study co-authors Qing Shen, a UW urban-design and planning professor, and doctoral candidate Lamis Ashour were struck by a finding that only 6% of respondents said they expect to change how they commute. Has the public already hardened into new long-term habits?
Despite reduced transit commutes, Shen said Seattle will need high-capacity routes. “The future of public transportation, as I imagine it, is you do want to build some main trunks of service, so I would not discourage further expansion of major lines.”
But in low-demand, low-density areas, the answer is to create smaller, more flexible service, he said.
As commute trips declined, people have filled the void by driving to personal destinations, such as medical centers, taking kids to school, or grocery shopping. Non-commute trips generate far more traffic than work trips, said Bart Treece, Mobility Innovation Center director. Half of trips to fitness centers in late 2022 and 80% of health care trips are by car, the survey found.
In other highlights:
- People with household incomes below $60,000 a year worked from home at only a 19% rate citywide, compared to 51% for those making $150,000 or more.
- Nonbinary and transgender commuters took significantly more public transit citywide, at 25% or higher, compared to less than 20% overall. The study authors don’t have a theory to explain this difference.
- “Active transportation” on bicycles and on foot was undertaken mostly by Capitol Hill, Wallingford, Fremont, and Green Lake residents, who live near downtown, the UW, and bike trails.
- Shen said he was surprised walking declined from 7% to 3% of central-city commutes. There’s not a clear explanation, though some people mentioned safety, he said.
- Vanpoolers live the farthest from their Seattle jobs, at 18.1 miles average, compared to 11.1 miles for solo drivers, 9.8 miles for transit riders, and 3.7 miles for bicyclists.
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