Kicking the drive-alone habit has been key to Seattle’s economic boom (and Vancouver’s)

This is part 1 of a 2-part series on how a focus on providing transportation options is working in Seattle. Part 2 is here.

Nearly one in five commuters in Seattle (and nearly 40 percent in downtown) now rides the bus to get to work, which seems inconceivable for a U.S. city.

Meanwhile, fewer than 30 percent of trips to work in the city center are in single-occupancy vehicles, according to Commute Seattle (47 percent of commuters take transit, 9 percent walk or bike, and the rest find other means).

Seattle has done this while becoming the fastest-growing city in the United States. It added 45,000 jobs from 2010 to 2016, yet increased SOV trips only 3 percent, with 70 percent of new commuters taking transit. The rest used other modes, primarily “carpool, biking, walking, and teleworking,” Jonathan Hopkins, Commute Seattle’s executive director, told me.

How, in our car-obsessed society, did Seattle do it?

The answer began in 1991, when Washington State passed its Commute Trip Reduction (CTR) law, in which the government collaborates with businesses to discourage solo driving and encourage other commuting modes. It continued throughout the 1990s, when the state and Seattle collectively passed a slew of measures and improvements: a bus tunnel, a growth-management act, regional transit legislation, and then light rail in 1996.

Jonathan Hopkins, Commute Seattle’s executive director

All those dividends are coming home right now,” Hopkins said, with transit-oriented, walkable neighborhoods driving economic development.

The CTR program is perhaps the jewel in the crown of Seattle’s transit achievement. “It’s a Washington State law associated with reducing pollution as part of the Clean Air Act,” explained Sarah Spicer, CTR program lead, in a phone interview. “We receive state funding in order to implement a local jurisdiction program.” Washington continues to have the only such program statewide.

While the CTR law prescribes targets, the “flexibility of the state program allows us to set our own local goals,” Spicer said. Even within the city, different districts have different goals, with more rigorous targets for urban areas with better public transit. Areas in the midst of growth become a focus of efforts to avoid the new cars that can accompany growth.

The benefits are an amazing bargain. Seattle spends only about $300,000 a year for its CTR program, then lets cooperation with employers do the rest. The law has a light fingerprint, requiring only that employers make a “good-faith effort to reduce” drive alone commutes by 10 percent, with “no time period” mandated, Hopkins said.

The exception is when businesses want to expand, in which case the city will contract with them to achieve certain targets, added Hopkins. He points to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Children’s Hospital as organizations that have embraced such practices.

Once businesses come on board, the approach to encourage commuters not to drive alone is carrot and stick. Perhaps the most innovative stick is daily payment for parking – often $12 – rather than monthly programs. With a monthly fee, the financial incentive is to drive as much as possible. A daily fee by contrast changes the incentives, spurring use of other, more sustainable transportation options.

A few businesses even offer a small daily payment for employees who choose not to drive. An additional tactic, used for instance by Children’s Hospital, is to allocate parking revenue “to help subsidize transit, walking, or biking,” said Scott Kubly, director of the Seattle Department of Transportation, in an interview.

The most prominent carrot is providing transit passes for commuters. Indeed, in King County, “65 percent of weekday transit boardings are employer-subsidized,” according to Commute Seattle. Meanwhile, “downtown Seattle businesses invested $100 million in commuter benefits, infrastructure, and promoting infrastructure expansion” in 2016.

Businesses like the arrangement because it greatly cuts down the cost of parking, which in turn provides social and environmental benefits. Avoiding massive parking lots is a huge bonus. If the 45,000 jobs that Seattle has attracted since 2010 each came with its own parking space, the results would cover the entire Seattle downtown area, according to Commute Seattle.

Government also cooperates at multiple levels. Representatives from state, county, and local government, the Downtown Seattle Association, and Commute Seattle meet monthly. This allows for a feedback process in which ideas can start from a number of government or businesses sources – what Hopkins called “a co-design process.”

Commute Seattle is at the hub – a nonprofit organization rather than a government agency – acting as a kind of intermediary between business and government. “Because we’re not government, we’re viewed differently by businesses,” Hopkins said. “Our job is to go out and to help, to be an advocate for best policies and practices for businesses.”

CTR is only the most prominent of a number of approaches in Seattle. Kubly explained how the city has worked on a land-use code that “focused probably two thirds of growth in the city” – in the densest neighborhoods and where transit is most effective. The city has also set a target of 72 percent of households within 10 minutes of bus service that is available every 10 minutes by 2025, Kubly said. Currently, that number is already at 64 percent. In addition, requirements for off-street parking have gone down.

Having succeeded with the 250 largest employers, Seattle is now turning its attention to smaller businesses of 50 to 100 employees, Kubly said. The city is also beginning surveys of non-commuter trips, to learn more about how people travel on, for instance, weekends and shopping trips. Officials are even looking at individual buildings with multiple employers and how they can integrate these into the CTR plan.

Seattle is proving both ambitious and detail-oriented in building on its past success.

Graphics courtesy of Commute Seattle.

Photo by SDOT Photos/Flickr.