Daily peak-time commuters into Downtown Seattle have increased their use of public transit and decreased single-occupancy vehicle trips in each of the last seven years.
These trends occurred over a period when the city added some 60,000 new jobs.
A study conducted by Commute Seattle, and funded by the Seattle Department of Transportation, confirmed that bus, light rail, streetcar, and pedestrian-ferry ridership rose from 42 percent in 2010 to 48 percent in 2017. Simultaneously, one-person car, motorcycle, and moped trips fell from 35 percent to 25 percent. Looked at as a separate single category in the study, travel by train, light rail, and streetcar grew by 110 percent from 2010 to 2017.
These results may seem astonishing in an era when transit use is declining across the United States. To explain them, Andrew Glass Hastings, Seattle DOT director of transit and mobility, cited three factors: new investments in transit, smart land-use policies, and public-private partnerships to incentivize transit. (Mobility Lab reported on the incentives last November.)
Feeding a virtuous cycle
According to Commute Seattle, the efforts listed by Glass Hastings create a “virtuous cycle” in which each amplifies the positive effects of the others. With funds from employers greasing the rails, transit use goes up, which increases demand, which prompts more investment in infrastructure.
Also helping, Seattle residents have repeatedly passed generous transit project referendums.
Commute Seattle Director Jonathan Hopkins noted, via email, that voters approved of “light-rail expansions and bus-service increases multiple times since 1996.” He also mentioned a 2016 vote in favor of a $54 billion transit package.
“The population, again and again, is willing to say, ‘Yes we want this,’” Glass Hastings added. “And, in fact, ideally, they want it now.”
One result of the willingness of voters to spend on transit was the 2016 opening of two new light-rail stations in locations previously only accessible by car.
“It was incredible to see the ridership growth on light rail just by opening up those couple of stations,” Glass Hastings said.
Geography further encouraged a culture of transit. Glass Hastings described Seattle’s hilly terrain and constrained location with water on two sides as contributors to traffic congestion and a search for commuting alternatives.
Other keys to breaking up people’s love affairs with cars include providing housing in the city center and implementing wise land use as part of a broader smart-growth strategy that mixes the elements of a diverse city into dense neighborhoods situated around transit hubs.
“We’ve added more than 20,000 residential units downtown since 2010,” Hopkins pointed out.
And Seattleites who live downtown do more walking and biking. They also opt more often for public transit. The amount of walking to one’s job leapt by 30 percent after 2010. In South Lake Union, a major site of new housing, some 20 percent of commuters are now walking, according to Glass Hastings.
The final piece of the puzzle has been Commute Trip Reduction. The CTR program grew out of a Washington state law passed in 1991 to encourage local governments to form voluntary partnerships with businesses to reduce vehicle traffic and cut air pollution.
Seattle has done more than perhaps any other municipality to implement CTR initiatives. In fact, Commute Seattle is a public-private partnership funded by the Seattle DOT, King County Metro, Sound Transit, and the Downtown Seattle Association.
Actions Seattle officials have taken through the CTR include negotiating with employers to have the organizations pay employees’ public transit fares and convincing garage owners to charge by the day for parking instead of by the month.
After 2010, Seattle transit officials began reaching out to employers with fewer than 100 workers to get these smaller organizations involved in boosting transit use in the same ways larger employers already were. Offering incentives and disincentives to as many commuters as possible matters because much evidence shows that, say, offering express bus service does little on its own to change people’s habits. So, Seattle has managed to swim against the tide. If low gas prices, competition from Uber and Lyft, and deteriorating systems have cut into public-transit use elsewhere, Seattle has proven that a different future is possible. Success can breed success, and inertia can become a friend of public transit.
However, past results do not always predict long-term performance. Seattle has a young rail transit system, and Glass Hastings warned that his city must avoid the mistakes made in New York and Washington, D.C., where maintenance went underfunded and undone for years.
He pointed to “a value in asking voters to approve these investments,” noting that doing so makes them feel that “I’m investing in it, and it’s something I use every day and value.”
Without foresight, once-successful cities can find themselves in a vicious cycle in which poor service pushes riders away, and revenues for operation and upkeep diminish.
Seattle seems positioned to avoid that fate.
Hopkins emphasized, “Thankfully, our voters support strong investments in the future. It’s part of our culture. Therefore, our agencies have lived up to voter demands by proposing and executing some of the most aggressive transit expansions [and] improvements.”
Photo by SDOT Photos/Flickr.