What’s in the Water, Seattle?

What Seattle can teach us about driving less, growing more, and being bike-friendly

Recently, I was bowled over by a headline:

“New Commute Seattle data shows that driving alone is now the alternative mode”

Huh? Really? I was more than a little skeptical. Only in towns with cobblestone streets, or cities that ban cars (Paris), or places called “Amsterdam” did this kind of mode split seem plausible. Is Seattle really the new Europe?

Adding to my incredulity was the fact that Seattle is the fastest growing city in the U.S., and has been near the top for the past two decades. Numbers like “net gain of nearly 21,000 people — 57 a day, on average” or a “3.1 percent population increase” for the year help illustrate the Emerald City’s people explosion. But the picture sharpens when you take in the cranes of Seattle’s South Lake Union area (home of Amazon’s headquarters). Or shoot a timelapse video from the top of the Space Needle.

Seattle’s latest mode split data reported by Commute Seattle, shows that “more than 70 percent of downtown’s estimated 247,000 daily commuters opt for transit, ridesharing, biking, walking and teleworking – leaving less than 30 percent of commuters to drive alone to work.” That’s astounding, especially when compared with other more transit-equipped U.S. cities, like New York, where 62 percent of all trips citywide were made by bus, by bike, or on foot. In the past year alone, downtown Seattle’s drive-alone rate dropped a whopping 5 percent!

One last remarkable trend: Seattle has a decent amount of bike commuters. As a Pacific Northwest native rendered soft by perpetual California sunshine, I can’t fathom pedaling through puddles nine months out of the year. But Seattleites don’t seem to mind, and studies peg the city’s bike mode split somewhere between 3 and 4 percent. For context, in L.A., only about 1 percent of the population commutes by bike. And the Bay Area hovers around 2 to 3 percent bike mode share.

So how does one major U.S. city add that many newbies and get everyone to drive less (and bike more)?

Step 1: Make a state mandate

For starters it’s the law. Although many individual cities across the country started requiring large employers to cut car trips (Menlo Park in Silicon Valley for example, recently capped drive-alone trips for Facebook), Washington has the only statewide mandate in the nation. The Commute Trip Reduction Law, passed in 1991, encourages Washington state cities and employers to help ease traffic congestion and improve air quality.

Step 2: Hold businesses accountable

Seattle followed the state’s lead by adopting a similar ordinance, and then compelling companies with 100+ employees to show the city that their workers were using sustainable modes. That meant these large employers—more than 250—had to make some big changes. Like pay their employees’ bus fares, add bike rooms with showers and lockers, or offer vanpools.

Employers seem to have taken these changes in stride. Take MG2’s CEO Mitch Smith, who told Commute Seattle that “increasing transportation options for MG2’s employees was a key factor in our choice to move to downtown Seattle. Our employees now have access to the best transit and rideshare options in the region. We support our employees with benefits like free ORCA transit passes, showers and lockers because it aligns with our values and supports the health and well-being of our employees.”

Step 3: Encourage biking Washington state

Washington state was ranked the #1 “Bicycle-Friendly State” in 2017 by the League of American Bicyclists. And some large Seattle companies have a truly mind blowing number of employees who pedal to work regularly.

The Allen Institute, where 21 percent of trips are made by bike, is Seattle’s top performer in this arena. Its success is attributed to its proximity to the West Lake Cycle track, and bike amenities the Allen Institute offers employees. Some of these are no brainers, like secure bike storage, showers, and lockers. But the company also has a bike committee that hosts activities and events and offers its employees personalized bike commute advice.

Close by in Fremont, Tableau is helping its employees bike to work—currently 14 percent of them. Its more innovative bike offerings include eight loaner bikes that can be checked out during the day, periodic free bike tune-ups, and a “Bike Ambassador” program that syncs seasoned riders with newbies.

Seattle Children’s Hospital is really setting the standard amongst Seattle companies when it comes to good TDM. Aside from offering free transit passes to all employees, paying people up to $1000 a year not to drive, and (gasp!) charging daily for parking, the hospital encourages biking by loaning employees bikes if they pledge to ride two days per week and offering two free bike tune-ups per year. They even have an on-site bike shop to help employees with all their bike needs and questions.

Facebook, with its current Dexter Avenue outpost and new office on Westlake, is continuing to up its bike amenities game. The company already offers its Seattle employees free on-site bike repair and is gearing up to open a flagship employee bike shop/transit hubin Westlake. And the bike parking facilities will be sweet, with with double-decker racks for easy storage, outlets for e-bikes, and a marine-quality drying system for wet bike clothes. You could say Facebook is spoiling its cyclists, but really these offerings help Facebook attract and retain employees. Also, who wants to pull on soggy socks at the end of the work day?

Bikeshare is another big reason Seattle continues to be a front runner in TDM. After the city-sponsored fleet—Pronto—flopped, Seattle didn’t waste time grieving or hand-ringing. Instead, it created a dockless bikeshare pilot program last summer, and allowed *all* the bikeshares to proliferate within the city. Prominent contenders included LimeBike (who just rolled out e-bikes in Seattle), Ofo, and Spin. Although Seattle went through the same bikeshare growing pains other cities experienced, ultimately the pilot was a success, with an average of 2,711 trips taken per day within the first four months. The University of Washington is still crunching the numbers, but it’s likely that Seattle will formalize the pilot soon.

Step 4: Prioritize transit

Finally, tax-payers prioritized transit by passing measures to increase bus service in 2006 and again in 2014. Then at the mayor’s behest, voters approved “Move Seattle,” in 2015. These ballot measures meant huge gains for residents: According to City Lab, currently, “25 percent of Seattle residents live near a bus that comes every 12 minutes. By 2025, as many as 72 percent of city residents should have that kind of access to transit.”

As Scott Kubly, director of the Seattle Department of Transportation, says in a new short by Streetfilms: “Our mode split, over the next 10 years, needs to go from 30 percent single-occupancy vehicle to 25 percent single-occupancy vehicle. And the lion’s share of that is going to be carried on the bus.”

Bravo, Seattle. Three cheers, Washington! You’re a shining example for other US cities and states.

By Anna Walters, for Bikes Make Life Better

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