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Seattle Leads America in Transit Growth: Despite Record Surge in Jobs, Investment Keeps Seattle Moving

March 22, 2017

By: Jonathan Hopkins

Something magical is happening with mobility in Seattle. You’d think the current downtown boom, with nearly 45,000 jobs added over the last seven years, would have choked our already packed roadways to the breaking point. In many cities, it would have. But voters and businesses met this incredible employment growth head-on by making big, smart investments in transit infrastructure and benefits, all without investing in additional roadway capacity.

It all started in 1996, when the region’s voters approved a $3.6 billion Sound Move package, setting in motion our light rail system, peak period commuter rail, and express bus routes to connect workers and employment centers. Voters then backed up this initial rapid transit investment twice, solidly approving the $17.6 billion Sound Transit 2 measure in 2008 and the $54 billion Sound Transit 3 (ST3) in 2016--a measure that on a per capita basis is six times larger than Los Angeles’ mega $120 billion package.

In the city of Seattle itself, meanwhile, voters were busy adding bus service and upgrading bike and pedestrian infrastructure. TransitNow and Bridging the Gap (2006), Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD) (2014), and Move Seattle (2015) provided hundreds of millions in funding for new transportation options. The 2014 STBD vote funded the largest bus service expansion since the system was formed in the 1970s. The seven-year, $900 million Move Seattle levy enabled the City of Seattle and King County Metro to coordinate service expansion of RapidRide BRT lines as well as additional protected bike lanes throughout the city.

The investments have paid off. Commute Seattle’s biannual commuter survey shows that despite adding 45,000 new downtown jobs since 2010, commuters have generated only 2,255 single occupancy vehicles in the city core. An overwhelming 70% of downtown commuters get to work via transit, walking, biking or telecommuting. In fact, nearly half of the 247,000 commuters entering our center city ride our thriving public transportation system. In just the past year, Seattle’s transit usage increased 4.1%, leading the nation at twice the pace of the next closest city.

These efforts were not just government-led. Advocacy groups like Cascade Bicycle ClubFeet FirstSeattle GreenwaysSeattle Subway, the Transit Riders Union and Transportation Choices Coalition are engaging thousands of volunteers with grassroots lobbying efforts aimed at increasing options for travelers.

But there’s more. In addition to investing in plentiful choices for commuters, our business community has partnered with government to help workers make smart transportation choices. That’s in fact why Commute Seattle exists. Created over 10 years ago by the Downtown Seattle AssociationKing County Metro, and the City of Seattle, Commute Seattle helps businesses fulfill their state and city commute trip reduction responsibilities, leveraging city, county, and state-funded programs in order to offer the commuter benefits employees want and our economy requires.

In 2016 alone, Seattle-area companies invested more than $100 million in transportation. This includes millions raised to support the ST3 campaign, as well as broadly-used employee transportation benefits and amenities. Companies offer their employees flexible schedules, telecommuting options, and are replacing parking allowances with prepaid ORCA transit cards. Employer-sponsored education powered by Commute Seattle helps new hires learn about transportation options, and many firms offer incentives for carpooling or using vanpool services. Some employers are even using clever and creative incentives like gamification to reward employees for riding transit.

Had voters and businesses not made these investments and the drive-alone rate continued at 2010 levels, the city would have needed to add surface parking equivalent to the area of downtown itself, or a block-wide, 87-story parking garage. Instead, most of these new commuters are embracing the healthier, more environmentally-friendly choices that help them live more and drive less.

As Mitch Smith, CEO of Seattle-based design firm MG2 recently put it, “Our employees now have access to the best transit and rideshare options in the region. We support our employees with ORCA transit passes, showers, and lockers because it aligns with our values and supports their health and well-being.”

We also can’t grow effectively without these smart investments. Our employers know it. Our advocates know it. Our residents know it. Our world-class collaboration to support a vibrant Seattle metro region is a direct result of that knowledge. Even as we add tens of thousands of people and jobs, we are committed to keep Seattle moving, together.

Jonathan Hopkins is the Executive Director of Commute Seattle, a transportation management association that offers commuting education and resources to area businesses with a long-term goal of improving access and mobility
Commute Seattle was founded in 2004 by the Downtown Seattle Association, King County Metro and the City of Seattle.

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