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Only one-third of downtown commuters drive alone to work

Commute Seattle 2012 Modesplit One-Pager Final-graphCommute Seattle released a report recently showing that driving to work in downtown Seattle continues to fall as more and more people choose to walk, bike, telecommute and take transit.

In 2000, half of downtown employees got to work by driving themselves. Now, barely one-third do so.

Transit has taken on the lion’s share of the new commute weight, but biking and walking rates have also grown steadily. And that growth comes in spite of a lack in downtown infrastructure to make walking and biking safer and easier. Just imagine what could happen to those numbers once we build cycle tracks and make other road changes that make it easier to walk and bike through and across car-filled downtown streets.

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Interestingly, ridesharing rates have been falling with driving alone rates. This actually surprised me and makes me wonder if tolling I-90 would help turn this trend around as people carpool to split toll costs. Should the city/region do more to increase carpooling as a way to continue the decline in driving alone?

Another interesting point: Bike mode share downtown appears to be lagging slightly behind the city’s average (Census surveys suggest 3.5 percent of Seattle residents bike to work regularly, but this survey finds only 3 percent biking downtown). This seems insane, since the city’s bikiest neighborhoods surround downtown. But after you try one harrowing ride mixing with downtown rush hour traffic, it becomes obvious why more people are choosing to just take the bus, walk or drive instead.

It’s far past due to redesign the streets downtown. Currently, almost all space on our streets is dedicated to the private car even though only a minority of commuters get to their jobs that way. Dangerous streets discourage walking and biking, yet those modes are growing anyway. This suggests an intense demand that we could release by simply making the streets safe and efficient for people on foot and bike.

Combine this with a focus on increasing transit speed and efficiency (and the upcoming launch of Puget Sound Bike Share) and there will simply be no reason to drive a car downtown (wait, why are we building that $4 billion car tunnel again?).

Below is a peak at Commute Seattle’s research. The full report will be out in the coming months.

Commute Seattle 2012 Modesplit One-Pager Final-1 by tfooq

2013 Commute Seattle Modesplit Press Release 2.14.13-1 by tfooq

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14 responses to “Only one-third of downtown commuters drive alone to work”

  1. Gary

    Tolling I-90 might help with driving, but raising parking rates via a parking tax, taking that same money and plowing it back into transit/bicycling/walking would be faster at making people change. Of course we don’t want to kill night life so the tax might be “time adjusted” ie rush hours are higher than evening but I know that parking rates affect my driving into/out of Seattle.

    Also for new buildings, adding secure bicycle parking & showers for both walking/exercising could give building owners height credits, same as low income housing credits work.

  2. A

    Based on the daily auto gridlock downtown during rush hour, “only” a third of commuters driving is still clearly too many.

  3. Jack

    “A” makes a great point.

    However I wonder if this can be accurate at all. I wonder if people where able to choose their response on a survey as opposed to research done “on the street”.

    I cross 520 everyday and I bet every 7 out of 10 are still single occupant vehicles.

    Something seems amiss here.

    1. Zach Shaner

      Even a 34% drive-alone rate means 68,000 solo commuter vehicles per day in and out of downtown, not to mention shoppers, events, tourists, carpools, vanpools, etc. And even though the drive alone *rate* went down by 1%, jobs rose by an estimated 8.5% since the last survey, for a net gain of ~4,000 commuter cars since since 2010.

    2. I wonder how restrictive the definition of “downtown” is here — many definitions don’t include SLU, LQA, the ID, or SODO, and some don’t even include Belltown and Pioneer Square. A lot of people driving on 520 are going places that the bus routes over 520 don’t directly serve.

      1. Zach Shaner

        It’s technically a “Center City” mode split study, but the Downtown Seattle Association prefers the ‘Downtown’ nomenclature and prefers to subdivide what others would consider ‘downtown’ into the Financial District, the Retail Core, the West Edge etc.

        Generally, for this study the boundaries were mostly Broadway to Elliott Bay going east to west, and Mercer to Royal Brougham going north to south. (The SLU boundaries extended past Mercer a bit).

        It’s basically this map minus SODO.

      2. Zach Shaner

        Link was broken. The map is here:

  4. mjd

    I don’t think the tunnel has anything to do with this discussion since it’s bypassing downtown anyway.

    I’d bike for sure if there was a safe and separated route! I used to work off Bell St and I could take the Myrtle Edwards trail and a brief ride on Alaskan. Now I’m down by the football stadium and there is NO WAY I would ride my bike on Alaskan down there or even on the adjacent path. It’s scary to even drive that route now!

  5. merlin

    mjd, it’s especially sad and shocking that there are no safe biking and walking routes to the stadiums. Plans for the proposed new basketball stadium project tiny percentages of visitors walking and biking to games… this really has to change! How pathetic to feel you have to drive to a “sports” event.

  6. Rather than “one harrowing ride mixing with downtown rush hour traffic” being the cause, I’m guessing it’s the fact that transit to downtown is unusually good relative to other neighborhoods. Commuting from Shoreline to Interbay basically takes a car, a bike, or 2 hours. Commuting from either area to downtown is an express bus. So, blame (appreciate) the relative attractiveness of other methods.

  7. Gary

    I’m wondering if the new rules on healthcare which have incentives for healthy living will increase the number of bicyclists.


  8. Matthew

    I’m not a big fan of the tolling I-90 idea. It’s another regressive tax. We already have one of the most regressive tax structures in the entire country; tolls on I-90 would just make this worse.

    Another (less regressive) way to reduce the number of single-occupancy trips into downtown would be to make HOV lanes more numerous than SOV lanes.

  9. Marti

    Maybe more people would bike in Seattle were it not for the fact it rains alot, and there are few safe biking paths in downtown. I don’t live in Seattle, but when I come there for work I use the train and public transit or walk. No way would a ride a bike downtown except during very low use periods. And no one seems to mention families who need to haul kids to various and sundry places. Riding a bike is impractical for many of those ventures.

    1. Gary

      I have ridden from Bellevue to Seattle for the last 3 years very often (not quite daily) and its been great for commuting, but I have an employer with a shower, clean towel and a relatively safe place to lock up for the day.

      As for riding in traffic, I do it only for short sections. It’s generally not an issue for me but then I have lights as weapons and wear a class III highway reflective vest.

      I can understand the “kid pickup” “Grocery shop” issues though. Although I had a co worker who did it on a bicycle because it was faster to get around the traffic than driving or the bus.

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