Mobility Lab | By Ethan Goffman | November 7, 2017
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.