Combating congestion: Seattle bucks national transit downturn; more thoughts on telework and road use fees

That Seattle is an outlier – local officials might prefer trendsetter – is an understatement. We’ve been critical of some pathbreaking policies ($15 minimum wage, income tax, soda taxes, and so on). But to give credit where it’s due, Seattle comes in for some national recognition for being one of only two large cities to see an increase in transit use. 

Randal O’Toole writes in New Geography,

The results show that 2017 [transit] ridership was lower than in 2016 in all but two of the fifty largest urban areas: Phoenix and Seattle.

It may be that Seattle stands alone.

Phoenix’s positive numbers may be deceptive as 2016 was a considerable drop from numbers posted in 2012 through 2014. As a result, while 2017 ridership was a 3.5 percent increase from 2016, it was still 4.7 percent less than 2013. Ridership will have to grow for a couple of more years before it reaches 2013 levels.

We’ll leave aside for now the usual arguments about costs and benefits, or the downsides of demand management strategies to reduce personal vehicle use. Transit remains a necessary element of a regional solution to urban congestion. Something’s working.

The Seattle Times has more on transit use in the city.

As public transit stagnates in most U.S. cities, central Seattle continued its rapid growth by adding roughly 10,000 morning transit commuters last year, new local data show.

The proportion of commuters who arrive in the morning by train, bus, streetcar or walking onto ferries has reached 48.4 percent, or by 126,808 people. Daily ridership exceeds 250,000 when midday, swing shift and afternoon commutes are added.

The 2017 data are the first to fully account for new light-rail stations that opened during 2016 at the University of Washington, Capitol Hill and Angle Lake in SeaTac. Those stops doubled overall train ridership, while bus use stayed the same or grew.

Figures were released Wednesday by the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and Commute Seattle.

The other big change is bus frequency, funded mainly by a $60 car-tab fee and 0.1 percent sales-tax Seattle voters approved in 2014. Those taxes now supply roughly one-third of all runs for three RapidRide lines and frequent route 40 in Ballard-Fremont, said Andrew Glass Hastings, SDOT transit and mobility director.

Of course, avoiding the commute altogether is a welcome alternative, as the Seattle Times reports in another story.

For the last five years, King County Metro has run what it calls WorkSmart, a free consulting service to help businesses set up telecommuting programs for their employees.

“Even though we’re primarily a transit agency, telework is just another way we can support people in getting the work that they need to get done,” said Sunny Knott, Metro’s program manager for WorkSmart. “It supports our interest in mitigating congestion and encouraging people to get to work in ways other than driving alone.”

There is room for improvement. Telecommuting accounted for just over 3 percent of morning commutes to downtown Seattle in 2016, according to a survey of businessesfrom nonprofit Commute Seattle. Nearly 10 times as many people drove to work alone.

There are plenty of reasons to believe the numbers of telecommuters will grow.

But as Seattle increasingly becomes a technology hub, with jobs that are less site-specific, telework provides benefits to businesses, workers and the city at large.

…Now, as downtown Seattle prepares to enter its so-called “period of maximum constraint,” with construction projects from modest to mega about to bring traffic to a near standstill, telecommuting is gaining traction among policymakers as a way to help keep commerce — if not necessarily traffic — moving.

For those stuck in traffic, road improvements are also critical. We’ve written about how state governments, including Washington state, are exploring alternative ways to fund transportation infrastructure, including a road usage fee. MyNorthwest.com has more on this and lessons from California.