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Only 5% of new downtown Seattle commute trips are made by driving alone, but biking is flat

2016Commute_Seattle_modesplit_Infograph-1Downtown Seattle has added 45,000 jobs since 2010. During the same time, only 2,255 new drive-alone trips have been added to downtown streets, according to a new Commute Seattle survey. The other 95 percent of commute trips were absorbed by transit, walking, biking, telecommuting and shared car trips.

The survey, released every two years, suggests that efforts to increase and improve transit service and build more homes near jobs are working. It also suggests that downtown streets are basically at capacity for peak-hour car trips, a truth anyone who spends any time downtown during peak hours could tell you. We can add more jobs, but we can’t add more cars.

Transit is by far the biggest winner in the survey, drawing very close to reaching 50 percent of downtown commute trips (it’s currently at 47 percent, so it could reach half very soon). Transit absorbed a net of 31,000 of those 45,000 new commute trips, a combination of new commute trips and exiting commuters who switched to transit.

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The survey was conducted between Spring 2015 and Fall 2016, so the data likely does not fully account for the Capitol Hill and UW light rail stations.

The study area.
The study area.

While the overall picture appears rosy (driving alone is at a modern low, making up just 30 percent of downtown commute trips), not all the data is positive. The number of people biking to jobs downtown has increased, but the bike mode share is flat at 3 percent. It’s not on a steep decline like driving alone, but biking is also not growing at the rate it could be.

Sadly, it’s no surprise that the city is not benefiting from biking the way it could be. None of the areas within the study area have complete bike route connections. If you want to bike to work to any of these jobs, you’re going to need to mix with heavy car traffic for some or all of your trip. And there are only so many people who are interested in doing that.

In fact, biking to these center city jobs may be more stressful today than it was in 2010 or 2012 due to rampant bike lane closures due to development and road construction. For example, there was a time when you could bike from the Fremont Bridge to downtown via Dexter and 7th Ave with very little mixed-traffic biking. Today, that seems like a dream because there is little or no effort to provide safe bike lane detours through constant construction zones.

Common knowledge says that if you build a bike lane, people will use it. Well, the inverse may also be true. When people’s bike routes are ruined by stressful or scary construction zones, some people are going to stop biking. At the very least, that ruined bike lane isn’t going to attract many new users.

We have argued that construction zones should be required to provide a temporary bike lane of comparable-or-better protection than the one being displaced. Safety must the be top priority for all road users. It is not fair or wise to force people on bikes to take on increased personal health risk in order to accommodate a private development or public road construction project. But that’s exactly what happens at some point of nearly every major bike route in downtown today, and it’s holding back the potential for biking to absorb new commute trips.

And as other cities are learning, that potential is massive. Below is how the National Association of City Transportation Officials demonstrates the capacity for multimodal streets. Seattle has a lot of downtown streets that look exactly like the one on the left.

Image from the NACTO Global Street Design Guide.
Image from the NACTO Global Street Design Guide.

Of the few significant improvements to biking downtown since 2010, none of them are fully connected to each other or neighborhood bike routes. The 2nd Ave bike lane is great, but it doesn’t connect to any other bike routes. The Westlake bikeway is also wonderful, but there’s no good option for getting from the southern terminus to downtown jobs. Meanwhile, the city’s downtown bike network is still delayed.

Concept map from Cascade Bicycle Club and Seattle Neighborhood Greenways
Concept map from Cascade Bicycle Club and Seattle Neighborhood Greenways

The good news is that the city has the ability to make up for lost time by implementing a connected “basic bike network” downtown in very little time. The bad news is that it’s not clear whether the mayor and other city leaders are going to make this a priority.

The Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board endorsed (PDF) the basic bike network idea in a letter to the One Center City team this month, citing the importance of connectivity in order to meet our biking and safety goals:

Without a network of connected protected bike facilities, bicyclists will remain the most exposed, at-risk users of the road. Seattle has invested in progressive bike facilities, but because they are often disconnected, they are limited in their impact on traveler safety. To get to Seattle’s new Protected Bike Lanes and neighborhood greenways on Westlake or Roosevelt, in Columbia City or West Seattle, bike riders must brave many of the more dangerous roads in Eastlake, First Hill, SoDo, and more. These gaps between Seattle’s promising bike facilities pose a threat to every rider and set the city back from its Vision Zero goals.

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22 responses to “Only 5% of new downtown Seattle commute trips are made by driving alone, but biking is flat”

  1. Southeasterner

    I’m actually surprised we are maintaining a 3% share. Looking at the bike counter data it looks pretty flat, or declining in the case of the Fremont Bridge.

    We conduct an annual survey of employees to gauge interest in cycling and #1 every year, by a long shot, are safety concerns.

  2. Bob Hall

    It’s not just job construction that’s an issue for bike lanes. The bike lanes on 6th Ave that runs near the new Amazon Dome is totally unusable. Now that the office towers there are finished, the bike lane is chock full of Amazon’s private buses & workers getting picked up by Uber drivers.

    Go ride 6th Ave between Virginia & Blanchard between 5-6pm, Monday through Friday. It’s insane.

    1. Law Abider

      9th Ave, from Denny to Mercer is not much better, in regards to for hire transportation blocking the bike lane. 7th Ave, from Denny to Westlake is either in terrible shape, blocked by idling dump trucks or blocked for construction. Both are vital connectors to/from the North, especially the Dexter and Westlake cycle facilities.

      It’s been that way for a couple years now. The construction problem probably won’t go away for five years. The for hire problem won’t go away until it’s enforced.

    2. Apu

      I too have noticed the Amazon buses parking in the bike lane. The weird thing is that these Amazon buildings are a brand new development; they could easily have created a private bus loading area a little to the right of the main traffic lanes (and bike lane) instead of their current practice of parking in the bike lane.

      Uber drivers, for some reason, always tend to park in the bike lane even when they could easily pull up all the way to the curb. Not sure how to deal with that problem.

    3. Breadbaker

      I bike Sixth a little later in the evening, but it’s no better. The buses are the worst; they are simply too wide for the space provided them even if they try to park close to the curb. There is zero enforcement. The Ubers and cabs don’t even make a pretense not to park in the bike lane.

      And notwithstanding Vision Zero and the complete streets ordinance, for some reason when they finished construction on Blanchard between Sixth and Seventh, there was zero accommodation for bikes, not even a sharrow. Given that this is the only way to get from Sixth to the Dexter bike lane, that’s a remarkably short-sighted omission.

  3. Andres Salomon

    Around 2010 – 2013, I would bike downtown. I stopped around 2014 or so because I was having so many close calls. With no real bike network, tons of bike lane closures, and an increase in the number of overall drivers, I refuse to bike downtown.

    Today while walking in a crosswalk in SLU, a left-turning driver stopped just a few inches short of hitting me. Our city continues to move in the wrong direction regarding transportation.

    1. Rob

      Just like Andres, I also bike downtown less than I used to. I have been a bike commuter for 17 years (downtown commuter for 10 of those), and a city biker for 25 years, and now I’ve decided that the joy of biking and getting exercise is now outweighed by the daily fear of being in mixed traffic on pothole-riddled roads.

      I wish I lived in a city where I would be feeling motivated to bike more, not less.

      1. Becky

        I still ride, but I too have been experiencing increasing anxiety about riding downtown in particular. I think it may also be linked to increased awareness that so, so, so many people are looking at their phones and not the road. And the overall traffic volume. Good to know I’m not alone I guess. But, blah. Wish it were getting better.

  4. Pedro

    Only 30% of commuters drive alone. Yet 70% or more of the public way is devoted to cars driving alone.

    This is easy to fix.

    Just start tearing down parking structures. :)

    1. Rich Knox

      I would leave the parking structures and remove all on street parking. Let the market set a price for parking. I commuted to downtown Bellevue for four years. one nice thing about downtown Bellevue is that there is very little on street parking. No door zone. No cars blocking the lane while trying to get into or out of a parking place.

      1. Southeasterner

        Amen to that. Having street parking in downtown Seattle is almost as ridiculous as the extremely low rates we charge for it.

        We claim to be a progressive city yet we are decades behind cities like Charlotte where a majority of major downtown routes do not allow on-street parking. The downtown core of Seattle (SR 99 to I-5, Mercer to Jackson) shouldn’t have a single on-street parking spot and we should have congestion pricing like London from the ship canal to I-90 for all vehicles…the revenue would be dedicated for bike lanes and transit service.

  5. Conrad

    Riding in Seattle is not getting any easier. The bike lanes don’t go anywhere and are always blocked or closed anyway.

  6. Erik

    If only we could get ride of that rain and those hills bike commuting would take up 3.01% of trips!

  7. […] who drive alone dropped from 35 percent in 2010 to 30 percent last year. Tom Fucoloro at Seattle Bike Blog explains why that’s so […]

  8. (Another) Tom

    Excellent article.

    Come to think of it my commute has degraded in multiple areas over the last couple years. On the way in I encounter the new tracks installed on Jackson, a known deadly hazard themselves plus side effect of cars changing lanes more often to get around the streetcar. Next I turn onto 4th where it used to be just two blocks of mixed riding before the bike lane picked up but of course that has been blocked for months now due to Yesler overpass construction. This one doesn’t bother me much personally because traffic is usually so congested the cars are hardly moving but it would definitely be intimidating for less confident cyclists as it forces you to climb uphill with impatient motorists breathing down your neck.

    On the way home down 5th its a constant dance with lane closures popping up every other block for new construction, poorly marked and sudden lane shifts, and the road surface is terrible. Drivers are at their worst behavior as they try to skip the line of cars waiting to turn towards I5 ramps. I grin and bear it but not surprised that few others are willing to deal with it.

    The only positive change on my commute is the new bike path around the NW side of Jefferson park which allows me to avoid aggressive motorists heading to the Columbian ramps off 15th.

    Anecdotally, the only other person in my office who used to regularly commute via bicycle (for years) finally had one too many close-calls and she now takes the bus.

  9. Mike L

    Truth! When I was commuting from LQA to the U-District last year I stopped biking on Dexter out of frustration with the construction closures. Too many flashes of panic at the dreaded “bikes merge with traffic” signs.

    Now that I’m commuting downtown, the folks at the office who bicycle all have some variation of the difficulty in escaping the orbit of the center city. Only the most devoted, experienced, and confident riders have continued to navigate SLU on bicycle every day. I still have no absolutely idea how I’m supposed to ride from downtown to LQA. So far I’ve been riding in traffic down 1st and hoping for the best

  10. Chris Mealy

    I biked downtown in the 1990s and it was okay, but downtown was pretty sleepy back then (2nd avenue was always horrible though, basically a freeway).

    The thing I learned from a trip to the Netherlands is that a bike in the city isn’t a slow car, it’s just a fast pedestrian (Normal people riding bikes in the city only go about 10 mph. That’s the same speed as a person running a 6 minute mile). Downtown bike infrastructure should be more like extra sidewalk space than a lane in the street. The Dutch style of having different uses at different levels works amazingly well:


    X = pedestrian 6 inches up
    x = bike 3 inches up (paved with red asphalt)
    _ = car in the street

    There’s even a little slope between the bike and the pedestrian lanes to make it safer for the cyclist.

  11. AJK

    Regarding the MyNorthest.com article…I agree with Tom’s quote in the article and the info he outlines here.

    While the NW author is looking at the number of “bike lanes” built, one also needs associated quality; good connections, routes that make sense for cyclists, maintained infrastructure (how many bike lanes become invisible after a year), bike lanes that don’t dissapear during massive construction projects (but don’t dissapear from the map), protected bike lanes in heavily trafficked areas, bike lanes that aren’t a bike/pedestrian lane in reality, aggressive drivers who ignore traffic laws and street infrastructure putting cyclists in much danger with no infractions, etc. I know several people who quit riding this year because they couldn’t deal with the inconsistency of their commute or the driver aggression. The NW article is just too simplistic.

    One of my friends asked me last night if I was ever scared when biking. I had to answer no, because I’m not. I consider myself an experienced cyclist, riding in/through the city since 2001. But I told her I do think it’s more dangerous now than then, and that beginners, every cyclist actually, needs to be very careful.

  12. JB

    I would say this statistic is a concrete reflection of the ineptness of the bike lobby and the indifference of the political class, especially Mayor Murray. Because 3% is not enough to win an election, cyclists need to get much better at making the case that a better biking city is better for everyone, including people who intend to never get on a bike. The way we got punked on Move Seattle, we also need to get much better at playing hardball with the way-too-comfortable Murray administration, including laying responsibility for every cycling injury and death where it belongs, right at Murray’s feet.

    1. William

      Except that the Cascade Bicycle Club batted 8 for 9 in the last Council election and candidates sought their endorsement. Not clear why that cannot translate to the mayoral race. Most people riding the bus are likely pro bike and many driving into downtown come from out of town. Murray doesn’t prioritize cycling but he has proved pretty inept and getting anything done other than politicking and PR.

  13. Greenman

    Biking is a two edged sword. On the one hand, you get exercise, are immune from car delayed traffic, and aren’t harming the environment. On the other hand you are putting your life at risk, thinking about that driver just looking down at their smartphone (or a driver that is in just too much of a hurry). Is it worth it? I guess it depends on the day, some days I feel lucky and confident, others there is just paranoia. It’s too bad that’s the way it is, but it is that way. Having a patchwork of safe bike lanes, combined with some totally unsafe connections and fast driving streets makes it all the more disconcerting. I love to bike. I love not being beholden to public or private fossil transportation, but it is a hard sell when you’re a father and just want to make sure you get home every night to your family in one piece.

  14. […] average of 3 percent. That protected bike lanes can bolster biking in specific areas supports Seattle Bike Blog’s Tom Fucoloro’s point that the city could encourage more riders by connecting its currently-disconnected array of cycle […]

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