As the employment center of the region, it is essential to have a variety of options to get to, through and around downtown. Safe and reliable transportation is a priority for DSA. Before COVID-19, Seattle had some of the highest transit demand in the nation. COVID-19, however, has impacted how people move about the city. Preferences for transit and shared mobility options have given way to a desire for personal space. Between diminished transit service, social-distancing requirements limiting capacity, and a large share of the population expressing apprehension about riding transit, bringing the downtown workforce back to 2019 levels of ridership will be a challenge. Shifting to driving is simply not an option and is not consistent with Seattle’s climate goals. What is needed for continued economic prosperity for downtown and the region is a smart, forward-looking, multi-pronged mobility strategy.
In the section that follows, we look at how transportation to and around downtown has changed over the past year and explore some of the challenges and opportunities ahead.
In 2020, transit ridership, including ferries and long-distance rail, dropped 50% or more according to each agency’s data, but has started to increase again. Driving showed the fastest return to normal by the end of the year, with vehicular traffic on I-5 just north and south of downtown down only 16%. According to the Seattle Department of Transportation, vehicle traffic counts on downtown surface streets are starting to tick up again as well. Having been down approximately two-thirds from pre-COVID-19 levels in April and May, surface traffic was down roughly a third from 2019 levels toward the end of 2020.
A Shift Toward More Remote Work
Many employees based downtown are currently working from home due to COVID-19. Cell phone data aggregated by Placer.ai showed that weekday daytime visits to the neighborhood by those who work downtown have consistently been down about 80% compared to pre-pandemic levels. In a Commute Seattle survey, 89% of employers said that some portion of their employees are working remotely, with nearly three-quarters saying that between 81% and 100% of their employees were doing so as of May 2020. In that same survey, 50% of employers anticipated a post-COVID-19 work culture where their employees would work from home at least a few times per week.
This is in line with national surveys of employers as well as employees. In a meta-analysis of several national office employee preference surveys, CoStar found that 21% of employees favor a fully remote work environment, 55% prefer partially remote and 25% prefer to work entirely at the office after the pandemic is over. In addition to worker preferences and a shift in office culture, COVID-19-related school closures and lack of daycare options could keep employees from returning to their offices in the near term.
The current work-from-home period has some clear downsides and a mix of in-office and remote work is likely in the future. A study published by Cushman & Wakefield shows that not all people want to work from home and among those that do, most prefer a hybrid model. Working exclusively from home, office workers feel disconnected, and there are fewer opportunities, particularly among new hires who benefit from in-person mentoring when working in an office setting. Cushman & Wakefield’s research also showed that work-from-home scenarios are likely to have only a slight impact on office absorption as offices increase space per employee and utilize more square footage for flexible meeting spaces.
Among Seattle companies