South Jackson Street / Credit: @transit_culturalism

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.

LINK Light Rail / Credit: Sound Transit

COVID-19 Had a Profound Impact on Transportation in 2020

Seattle was the first major metro area in the nation impacted by COVID-19. On March 5, King County recommended that anyone who could work from home do so until at least the end of that month. This led to a massive contraction in the number of people moving around the city. When Washington Gov. Jay Inslee issued a statewide “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order on March 23, Seattleites were already driving 45% less, taking transit 81% less frequently and walking 41% less, according to the Apple Mobility Index (which uses a Jan. 13, 2020 baseline). When Seattleites emerged from their homes again, driving was the dominant mode of travel. By December 2020, transit ridership remained down nearly 70% compared to the baseline, while driving and walking were near pre-pandemic levels.
Apple Mobility Index
Average percent change from Jan. 13, 2020

Source: Apple Mobility Index. Data indexed to where Jan. 13 = 100. Based on phone searches for directions by mode of travel. Note that this data is particular to users of Apple products and therefore may not be representative of the entire population.

Washington State Ferry, downtown Seattle

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.

Transportation Changes Year-over-year
Average daily percent change (2019–2020)

Sources: Seattle Department of Transportation, Washington State Department of Transportation COVID-19 Multimodal Transportation System Performance Dashboard

A Shift Toward More Remote Work

Many employees based downtown are currently working from home due to COVID-19. Cell phone data aggregated by 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.

Remote Work Culture
Among Seattle companies

Questions asked:

  • Which best describes your organization’s remote work culture prior to COVID-19?
  • After COVID-19, what do you anticipate your organization’s remote work culture to be?

Source: Commute Seattle

Streetcar, Pioneer Square / Credit: Urban Villages

How Workers Commuted Before COVID-19

In 2019, 74% of workers came downtown by some other means than driving alone. That number had been steadily rising for more than a decade. The largest share (46%) came by transit.

Pre-COVID-19 Commute Choices
Downtown Seattle workers

Source: Commute Seattle 2019 Commuter Mode Split Survey. Note that this data does not include workers who live downtown but commute to locations outside downtown; nor does it include the SoDo neighborhood. Figures are based on those who begin work between 6–9 a.m. on weekdays.

U District Light Rail Station / Credit: Sound Transit

The Need to Invest in a Variety of Transportation Options

In the face of the pandemic and beyond, Seattle and the region are still actively investing in a world-class transportation system to meet the future needs of the city. As workers return to their offices, there must be viable options other than driving alone. Before COVID-19, nearly half of downtown employees took transit to work. Shifting even a quarter of these trips to cars is not a viable solution. Downtown has a limited supply of parking and roadways were already at capacity pre-COVID-19. The closure of the West Seattle Bridge due to structural issues has decreased road capacity further. Some city projects are getting pushed out into the future, such as the Center City Connector streetcar along First Avenue. Without additional resources to increase service levels and ensure riders have enough personal space, the system cannot sufficiently bring back downtown’s workforce.

When we move to a post-COVID-19 world, there may initially be trepidation around transit use. Other commuting options such as biking and walking can help fill the gaps.

Budget constraints may also limit the ability of transit agencies to provide adequate service as workers begin to return downtown. The 2021-22 King County budget noted that projected sales-tax revenues for Metro in 2021-2022 are approximately $200 million less than the pre-COVID-19 forecast. Sound Transit projects a revenue gap of $6.1 billion from 2020 through 2041.

There is some positive news. Light-rail stations opening in the University District, Roosevelt and Northgate will connect these neighborhoods to downtown as early as fall 2021. New stations in Bellevue will allow for a 24-minute ride from downtown Bellevue to Westlake Station by 2023 and commuters from Lynnwood will be able to access downtown by light rail starting in 2024. Also, while funding issues could cause some delay, the implementation of Sound Transit 3 is still on the horizon, with opportunities to create greater, long-term access across the region. Passed in 2016, ST3 is the region’s largest investment in our transportation future. It will dramatically increase connectivity to, through and within downtown. The levy will fund an additional 62 miles of light-rail lines, expand bus rapid transit, increase Sounder train capacity and add a second downtown transit tunnel to serve six new stations. In addition, 88% of Seattleites recently voted to fund 150,000 hours of transit service over the next six years through the Seattle Transportation Benefit District.

It is important to provide a variety of safe, reliable ways to travel. Long-term trends favor high transit usage. However, in the wake of the pandemic and with restricted road and transit capacity, other options must also be explored. This could include flexible remote-work options. Encouraging walking and biking by providing ample welcoming safe public spaces would also encourage the adoption of these alternatives. Spreading out the workday with staggered start times or compressed workweeks is another potential way of bringing workers back safely in the short term while transportation capacity is limited. In the long term, robust transit funding to sustain and grow Seattle’s transit service will help ensure a downtown and a region that are poised for recovery and continued investment.

Commute Seattle logo

Help your business get ready for the future of commuting. DSA partner Commute Seattle provides free consultations and resources to businesses on topics like transportation benefits, telework policies, carpool and vanpool programs and supporting active commutes. Visit to learn more and connect with their transportation specialists.

Data last updated January 2021.