Study: Traffic is back, but trips aren’t ending up in downtown Seattle

26 July 2023

What will it take to get people to return to downtown Seattle? It’s not like we can schedule daily Taylor Swift concerts. The latest numbers on commuting into the downtown core are not encouraging.

There are plenty of reasons for why people might avoid downtown. It could be crime. It could be homelessness. It could be telecommuting.

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But even with a lot of companies returning to work, there are fewer cars and fewer transit riders heading into downtown Seattle.

“There are hundreds of factors out there and everyone who travels around the region has their own reasons of why they go downtown or why not,” transportation analyst Bob Pishue at Kirkland-based INRIX said.

Vehicle trips and transit rides are still way below pre-COVID levels at 18 of 20 large downtowns, including Seattle.

“Seattle’s still down in terms of vehicular trips, down 27% versus pre-COVID levels,” Pishue said.  San Francisco is still down 41% of downtown car trips. Los Angeles is off 28%. Only Phoenix and San Diego are above 2019 levels.

Transit ridership into downtown Seattle is also way off — 35% below pre-COVID levels.

Now, I can hear you yelling out loud right now. ‘What are you talking about? Have you seen the traffic on the freeways lately?’

And here is where you have to follow me on some nuance and perspective. This study only looked at the core of all cores of Seattle.

“We grid off downtown, and we want to know if people are crossing a boundary into downtown or not,” Pishue said. “That’s what we look at.”

The boundaries are very small, intentionally. The grid only goes from Mercer Street to Yesler Way and only on the west side of I-5.

“If they’re taking I-5 and passing downtown, they will not be picked up in what we looked,” Pishue said. “They would actually have to take a freeway exit into downtown.”

So this study did not include trips into parts of South Lake Union, First Hill, Capitol Hill, Lower Queen Anne, SoDo or West Seattle.

And therein lies the problem. We are back to pre-COVID traffic on our freeways. You feel that every day. But our trips on those freeways are no longer taking us into the downtown core.

What this INRIX study also found is that the Seattle core holds more than 11% of the regional jobs, and a lot of those jobs are white collar or tech-related, which allows more flexibility for telecommuting.

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Pishue said right now, a large majority of the people who would be working downtown are not.

“Two out of three people that are in those industries telecommute,” he said. “That is huge.”

68% of workers in those tech jobs are working from home.

So what’s the takeaway?

City and regional planners need to find more ways to attract those people back, even if it’s not for work.

“Downtowns across the U.S. are going to need to do something differently,” Pishue said. “Do we need to not be as focused on office buildings and instead more focused on nightlife or the arts or music or whatever. It may be to try to attract people into downtown.”

Going forward, maybe it’s time to reconsider our transit plans. Does our region really need rail systems to transport people to downtown when those people aren’t going there any more? Maybe put money into expanding bus service makes more sense.

Pishue said the data suggests that many of our previous transportation assumptions have changed dramatically because of the pandemic, and the region needs to adjust to keep the downtown core vibrant and successful.

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