Commute Seattle dramatically expanded its annual analysis of work trip survey data, finding a wealth of interesting data about how the city’s commute patterns have changed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The biggest change by far is that as of late 2022, remote work was more than seven times higher than before the pandemic, making up 46% of “commutes” to Seattle center city workplaces on average and more than 50% on Mondays and Fridays.
The data for biking is most notable for being rock solid and consistent while other modes saw major changes. Biking was 3% of commute trips to the Seattle center city in 2019, 3% in 2021 and it’s still 3% now. This means that biking has increased its share of non-remote work trips from about 3% in 2019 to about 6% in late 2022.
In one of the most fascinating charts in the whole 81-page document, you can see how commute habits shifted. It’s one of those charts that keeps being more interesting the more you look at it.
The vast majority of the new remote commutes used to be drive alone and transit trips, though a significant number were also people walking. In fact, of all the top-level changes, the decline in walking to work is perhaps the most surprising, down from 7% in 2019 to just 3% in 2022.
Combined with sharp increases in traffic deaths and injuries to people walking, this commute data should be setting off major alarms within SDOT and local elected officials. Seattle is in the midst of a total crisis for walking, which is the lifeblood of healthy neighborhoods and commercial districts. It deserves a huge response, comparable to how we respond to problems with major bridges mostly used by people driving cars.
Speaking of cars, drive alone trips are down to a measly 21% in the Seattle center city. To put that in perspective, 50% of center city commuters drove alone in 2000 and 34% did so in 2012. The drive alone rate to downtown Seattle has collapsed, which is a great thing. It’s long past time for our streets to reflect this reality.
Unfortunately, transit has seen the biggest decline since 2019. At 22%, people are using transit to commute to the center city at a lower rate than they did in 2000. A remarkable 46% took transit to center city jobs in 2019. There is a lot of room for a comeback, but bus service especially needs major improvements to restore service levels and reliability.
Bike commutes that shifted to remote work were offset by transit and drive alone commuters who took up cycling to work during the pandemic. And for the first time, Commute Seattle separated out e-bike use, which already makes up a significant percentage of bike trips. This data aligns well with the pandemic bike boom that essentially emptied out bike shops across the nation. It’s good to see that a lot of those new bike riders have stayed with it.
The chart also shows a big decline in so-called “rideshare” commutes, which includes carpools and employer shuttles.
Perhaps not surprising, the bulk of “active travel” Seattle commutes (walking, biking, scootering, etc.) start in Seattle’s more walkable and bikeable areas in and around the center city and in north Seattle. Note how the active travel rates drop of quickly where safe streets also end. For example, you can almost see N/NW 85th Street on the map, which happens to be where many of the city’s sidewalks end. The rate also appears diminished in neighborhoods near highways or highway-style city streets like Holman, Lake City Way, MLK Way, Rainier Ave and 35th Ave SW. You can also see that places that lack quality bike routes are also less likely to have lot of active travel commuters.
However, look at the light yellow all over the suburbs. Those are most likely long-distance bike commuters. It’s not an overwhelming number of people, of course, but they add up. They are also often in proximity to quality regional trails that connect to major job centers, such as the Interurban North, the Burke-Gilman, the 520 Trail and the I-90 Trail. Again, the lack of complete connections to regional bike routes headed into south King County is diminishing those trips. If there were a safe, comfortable and direct bike route to downtown Seattle from Renton, Tukwila, White Center and beyond, this map would look a lot different.
The average bike commute is 3.7 miles, which is actually longer than the average e-bike or e-scooter commute at 3 miles. I suspect that the e-scooter riders are bringing the average down since we know from micromobility data that bike share rides are significantly longer on average than scooter share rides. But it could also be that those long-distance bike commuters are still more likely to be riding pedal bikes than e-bikes, and they pull the biking average up. I’m just speculating, though.
Knowing that people are willing, on average, to bike 3.7 miles to work should be instructive to SDOT and other regional transportation agencies. There are a lot of homes within four miles of major employment centers that do not have high rates of biking due to lacking quality bike routes or major streets that are hostile to walking and biking. Investing in safe streets will not only prevent deaths and injuries, but it will also result in increased walking and biking trips.
This is perhaps a good time to talk about the limitations of this data. Because it comes from Commute Seattle, a commute trip reduction organization, the bulk of their data comes from larger employers. It is not perfectly representative of all workers. But beyond that, it is not at all representative of non-work trips, which make up most trips in the city. They do have some questions in the survey about non-work trips, but the base of respondents is still people who work for large companies. They got more than 64,000 responses, 47,000 of which were from center city worksites. Only 36% of survey respondents rented their homes, whereas 50% of Seattle residents are renters. Only 4% of respondents were Black even though Black people make up 7% of the city’s population. So while 64,000 responses is a lot, the data does have a skew that’s worth keeping in mind. But the sheer size of the sample has done a lot to mitigate that skew. For comparison, the 2021 survey sampled 4,371 people.
If you dig through the survey results (PDF), please share your insights in the comments below. There’s a lot to unpack.