Transit Squeeze: What We Have Doesn’t Match Who We’ve Become

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A new post-pandemic commuting normal is starting to come into focus, and there are clear winners and losers. Despite the heroic efforts—bribes, threats, cajoling—by employers to get their workers back into offices full time, it appears that a substantial portion of the Puget Sound area workforce will not, in fact, be returning to their offices five days a week. We get almost daily reports of the impact this is having on restaurants, retailing, and commercial real estate, and the reordering that is happening in the national economic geography.

New work patterns are also having a big impact on another sector: public transportation. The new normal suggests that transportation agencies need to undertake permanent, painful adjustments.

Work-from-home

According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), about 15 percent of commuters nationally reported working from home at least three days per week in 2022 (meaning work from home is their primary form of “commuting”).

Work from home (WFH) rates vary quite a bit around the country, and the Seattle region is on the very high end. Washington State, with its high percentage of knowledge workers, is tied with Colorado for having the highest share of WFH, at around 21 percent; Mississippi is lowest at less than 6 percent. WFH rates are about 25 percent for residents of the King-Pierce-Snohomish metro area, 30 percent for King County residents, and 35 percent for those living in Seattle. Pre-pandemic, about 8 percent of Seattle residents worked from home. (note that all data refer to place of residence, not place of work.)

These high rates reflect the composition of the regional economy, which has a large share of its jobs in occupations conducive to working from home. Nationally, information-sector workers have the highest rate of WFH (42 percent) followed by finance (38 percent) and professional services (36 percent). The information and professional services sectors are well-represented in the Seattle area.

Work-from-home is here to stay

The nation is in the midst of a vigorous debate over the future of WFH. But since there is no precedent for this kind of change, most pronouncements are just large helpings of confirmation bias—also known as wishful thinking. Large employers and commercial property owners express great confidence that offices will fill up again soon. Individual workers, enjoying their new freedoms and ability to work in their pajamas, resist repeated calls to put on their big-girl pants and get back to the office.

For now, the workers seem to be holding their own, and recent reports indicate that employers are conceding partial defeat and accepting their half-full offices for at least the medium term. Turns out that the occupations most conducive to WFH are also the hardest to recruit and replace, so WFH enthusiasts are the ones with the leverage. It’s just not worth losing valuable employees in the quest to get butts into those expensive Herman Miller chairs.

Impact on commuting and transit

Commuting data from the past few years reflects the growth in WFH. Here are the changes in commute modes between 2019 and 2022 for residents of the three counties, showing the huge jump in WFH. Note that by just asking about “primary” commute modes, the ACS misses those who work from home one or two days a week.

The jump in WFH takes a bite out of all the other commuting modes. Interestingly, about 15,000 fewer King County residents walked to work in 2022, indicating that the attraction of WFH extends beyond just avoiding unpleasant commutes. Public transit, the dark green bars, fell in all three counties.

The National Transit Database provides granular detail on ridership and system performance, so we can see just how transit is faring. This chart shows individual boardings, or “unlinked passenger trips” (the basic ridership datum), for the transit systems in the metro area, as a percentage of trips in February 2020. Because ridership varies month-to-month, the chart shows a trailing three-month average. Sound Transit light rail takes a noticeable jump in October 2021 when the new Roosevelt and Northgate stations opened.

All the transit systems saw precipitous ridership drops in March 2020, and all have been clawing their way back to some degree. But commuters are only one part of transit ridership, so it is helpful to look at the parts of the system that are oriented primarily to commuters. (Community Transit breaks out its long-haul Snohomish-King service). 

Here we see that Sound Transit’s commuter bus service has gotten back to 60 percent of its pre-pandemic ridership, but that Community Transit’s commuter service, Sound Transit heavy rail, and vanpooling have struggled to get to just 40 percent. 

Service is being adjusted to meet this lower demand, but not nearly to the degree that ridership is falling. Here we compare the unlinked passenger trips (UPT) with vehicle revenue miles (VRM—one bus driven for one mile on a scheduled route) for the four bus systems.

Note that only Pierce Transit has matched reduction in service to the reduction in ridership the agency has experienced. 

The mismatch between transit supply and demand shows up in operating costs, what the national transit database calls “service effectiveness,” and in energy use (Pierce Transit uses a combination of diesel and compressed natural gas buses, making comparisons difficult).

It is worth thinking about how these costs and fuel uses compare with some alternatives. AAA estimates that the average cost of driving alone is about $0.75 per mile. Taxicabs in Seattle charge $2.60 per mile. A person driving a typical sedan for a 15-mile commute would use about a half-gallon of gasoline. These are not necessarily practical alternatives to taking transit, but the farther transit’s cost and energy consumption per trip diverge from the alternatives, the less public support transit can expect from those who do not ride it.

How will agencies respond?

Transit agencies find themselves in a terrible bind. They need to rightsize themselves, but don’t have any real information about what the future holds with respect to ridership. They have spent decades building up networks and establishing expectations about service, and don’t want to give up those gains if demand bounces back.

Unfortunately for transit agencies, efforts to get workers back in offices have stalled, with a big share of the workforce settling into a fully remote or hybrid pattern. The charts show ridership gradually moving up, but there is no reason to believe that that pattern will continue to anywhere near 100 percent in the medium term. And it is hard to imagine that non-commuting use of transit will expand to any great degree, compensating for the loss of commuters.

The new patterns are tough on transit. Workers gaining flexibility will encounter transit service that offers less flexibility. Many who now commute just a few days a week will find the cost of driving acceptable, especially if parking rates drop due to lower demand. With high housing prices, households may choose to live in more distant, affordable, but less transit-friendly, areas if they have fewer commute days. Vanpooling is an extremely cost-effective form of public transportation, but it relies on coordinated, predictable commutes and has taken a huge hit.

So far, in spite of the drop in ridership, transit agencies have increased their spending. While King County Metro’s ridership across all its services dropped 49 percent between 2018 and 2022, its total operating budget increased 17 percent. Farebox revenue dropped by 58 percent during that time, but local sales tax revenue, the bulk of the agency’s funding, increased 10 percent. 

The federal government dished out pandemic-related funds to transit during this time, covering 13 percent of Metro’s operating budget in 2022. With federal backfilling coming to an end, Metro and other agencies will have to come back to reality, and live within their means.

The downsizing discussions will not be pretty. The countywide agencies have always struggled with the conflict between productivity—maximizing the bodies on buses—and providing service to all taxpayers, no matter how far flung. Emptier buses in outlying areas will be harder and harder to justify. And empty buses are not just a money issue, but also a climate issue. It takes about seven riders to make a diesel bus more carbon friendly than driving alone. We will need to rethink how we provide public mobility services to outlying areas. 

To invoke the terrible cliché, let’s not let this crisis go to waste. Now is a good time to begin rethinking how we provide publicly funded mobility using emerging technologies. Demand-responsive service with smaller vehicles has proven punishingly expensive ($91 per trip for Access vans in 2022), but driverless vehicles will get here eventually. They can remove the labor component from operating transit vehicles, allowing for much smaller vehicles on more flexible routes.

Fixed-route transit was a brilliant invention of the 19th century. Now we need to work on mobility for the 21st century.

Michael Luis
Michael Luis
Michael Luis is a public policy consultant who has been wrestling with housing, growth and economic development issues around Washington State for over 30 years. He is author of several books on local history and served as mayor of Medina.

21 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for providing the detailed ridership information. It paints a dramatic picture of change. Now the challenge is figuring out a 21st century option that reflects our new relationships with time and space.

  2. Sound transit rail is a bright spot!

    Flexibility in bus ridership is a challenge for sure, but there is also a bit of doom loop with bus safety. Why bus to work if you’re concerned about being assaulted or worse, if your co-passengers are coughing or stuck in drug-induced catatonia. Light rail has made great gains in ensuring passengers feel safe – and good thing too since there is such an airport——>Seattle tourist pipeline there. Metro should take note.

    • When I step into southbound light rail at Roosevelt, there is frequently at least one high a.f. rider stretched out over two seats. Metro buses I’ve taken are actually a little better experience. But their routes have been cut dramatically. I’d like to see outcome-based evidence that Light Rail has succeeded in getting cars off the road, reducing greenhouse emissions, getting passengers around more safely. As I.J. noted, (paraphrasing), it doesn’t seem rooted in reality, as to how people actually move around the city, what their needs are — to buy a few groceries, drop off the kids, go to a movie, all the things that they used to be able to do in Seattle.

      • Light rail, or any other transit for that matter, isn’t about “getting cars off the road”, but about increasing mobility for the people who use, by choice or necessity, transit. Because while more people may use transit, we keep having more people move here who use cars. Plus, when Uber/Lyft entered our market, we found those cars were causing great congestion. That part has eased since the pandemic, but that gets to the author’s point: people WFH aren’t needing transit OR Uber.

        • (Unless we reduce the numbers of cars on the road, good luck with any meaningful reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. )Light rail routes are limited. Not everyone lives in the U district, Northgate or downtown ares. So people who live in Ballard. In Lake City. Queen Anne. How do they get to the light rail? A car, or Uber, or a bus. Yes, Metro ridership is down because of routes being eliminated. And Sarah, I suspected a sanctimonious, “just keep to yourself” message would come. But, many people don’t want to inhale fumes, or sit next to someone with an open container … or, have to stand up because someone inebriated or stoned is sprawled over two or more seats. I refuse to put a halo on people’s heads who claim they don’t care.

      • At 80,000+ riders a day and climbing, it is filling a need. Not sure what to say about high people, many responsibly use rail as an alternative to drinking and driving. Just keep to yourself on public transit, and I don’t care who you are.

        • I’m afraid any more comments from me are going to have to be directed at someone with enough strength of conviction they use their real name. I’m putting myself out there with my real name and an actual, recent photo and I”m getting replies from someone using only a first name which may or may not be real….and I have to wonder. Is this person employed by the company or agency which they defend…or another reason why they have to be anonymous?

  3. Seattle has a climate goal of 58% reduction in our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2030. Yet, Seattle is off-track for achieving this 58% reduction, with only a 21.5% reduction from 2008 till 2020 and most of this reduction is only temporary due to work-from-home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Seattle’s goal for 2030 is fully aligned with climate science, as detailed by the 2023 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) AR6 Synthesis Report.

    During this decade of the 2020s we need “emergency brake” solutions, that can rapidly reduce our emissions of heat-trapping GHGs. Promoting work-from-home is an emergency brake solution for city departments and businesses to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We can further cut emissions by converting vacant offices to affordable residential units for those who must work in the city (city, county and federal employees, business employees, teachers, healthcare workers, police, firefighters, food workers …). Approximately 30% of office buildings are appropriate for office-to-residential conversion. The city, county and Downtown businesses can provide affordable housing by funding these office-to-residential conversions. There is now federal assistance “to support the conversion of high-vacancy commercial buildings to residential use … [and] create much-needed housing that is affordable, energy efficient, near transit and good jobs, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” To fund a Downtown transition to more residential, the city, county and Downtown businesses can cover rental cost for employees that must work on-site, as part of their pay package.

    Seattle is a wealthy city with high per capita emissions. It’s our moral obligation to our children to meet our climate goal and to protect our children’s futures.

  4. It’s worth highlighting that light rail, the ultimate “fixed route” public transportation system, is outperforming all the rest. That suggests that the issues are more complicated than “old model transportation” versus “new model transportation.”

    Your analysis skips some very important issues, mainly related to diving deeper into who is using which mode (and who has stopped). There were big drops in both workers using public transportation and workers driving alone; how do the demographics compare? One could certainly hypothesize that since the work-from-home jobs tend to be better paying, working from home probably cut down more on driving alone than on public transportation. Subsidized public transportation provides an important and necessary service for low-income people who work in urban areas or generally have long commutes, and/or don’t have a car or can’t afford to drive and park one (or don’t have a drivers license). There are a lot of low-paying jobs in our cities that would not get filled if public transportation didn’t exist. You can’t simply design the public transit system based upon what the work-from-home workers will do; you have to also build it for the people who don’t have a choice.

    Metro has spent the last several years (including pre-pandemic) building out “frequent transit” routes where a bus comes through at least every ten minutes, all day, removing the need to build your commute schedule around the bus route: just show up at the bus stop and a bus will be there soon. The routes have a virtuous cycle with areas where denser housing is being built: better transit makes it a more attractive place to live (including without owning a car), which brings in more people, which makes adding more transit cost-effective. But that leaves a big question for the least population-dense areas: do we heavily subsidize public transit there, or do we leave those areas to work-from home and drive-alone? It’s a tough question without a good answer. An interesting analogy: Google’s early search engine success showed that people judged the value of a search engine not by how it did on the most common searches but rather on the “long tail” of obscure one-off ones. How do people judge the value of a public transportation system: how well it gets you to downtown, the airport, and other major centers, or how well it covers the outskirts and low-density areas?

    A final thought: I wouldn’t bet a lot of money on driverless vehicles taking over public transportation anytime soon. Driverless vehicles perform worst where public transportation is most valuable: in busy, population-dense areas where there is a lot of activity and few places to stop or park. The first and last mile are extremely difficult problems for driverless vehicles, and we are reaching an inflection point where making them viable will require changes to city streets. We’ve seen this story before: a new technology promises to be an adaptation to fit our lives, and in the end we end up adapting our lives and environment to make things easier for the technology.

    • Given San Francisco’s experience with driverless vehicles in urban areas, I second that concern. We need to have a serious conversation about “first/last mile” and remember that walking is still the easiest mode to support, with benefits to myriad other types of trips, not just commutes, for communities. Sidewalk maintenance and lighting need to be priorities.

  5. Left out of this report is where people actually need to go, and the yawning gap of affordable options.

    Even before the pandemic studies showed that 75% of car trips taken daily were non-job related. Child-related care trips, errands, travel to entertainment and dining are just a few of the many reasons people need transportation. Referring to taxis at $2.60 per mile ignores the reality that it is very difficult to actually get a “taxi” and that rideshare costs have skyrocketed. I know, because I do not feel safe getting to or waiting at my downtown bus stop on Third Avenue at night and have had to call Lyft on several occasions to get from Pioneer Square or the ferry terminal to north Greenwood. Cost: a minimum of $50 each way. It has cost me $130 to go round trip from my neighborhood to Madison Park when my car was in the shop— double what it cost in 2019 to get to the airport by shuttle!

    When I last tried to reach Yellow Cab there was no answer. When I tried the app it could not accurately find my location and I gave up. Low income, people, elders, and people on fixed income who either cannot drive, or do not feel safe, waiting for public transportation or effectively under house arrest. I believe the county had a 4 to 6 month project with shared “Colectivos“ or vanpool that people could call to go to specific places. It was discontinued, and I have been able unable to get further information on why. If anyone knows more, I would love to see what is going on with that because I think it’s an essential piece of our transportation infrastructure.

    I typically ride the number five sometimes to downtown and sometimes to South Kent. In the last year there has been a minimum of one person smoking fentanyl on each ride. On my ride from downtown last Thursday the smell on the bus was nearly unendurable and there were at least four people either nodding out or acting out and clearly high. Our focus in transit has been entirely on top-down billion dollar infrastructure and neglecting what’s really happening on the routes people take and need to take.

    • “Low income, people, elders, and people on fixed income who either cannot drive, or do not feel safe, waiting for public transportation (are) effectively under house arrest.” I’ve wondered where in hell all of the elderly people I used to constantly see on the bus, disembarking at Third and Pine, have gone to. Then it finally occurred to me, as you say, they are stuck at home. Which is a public health crisis we don’t hear anything about: the incredible loneliness and isolation of seniors who live alone. I know, from conversations with the few I know, that they are frankly terrified of taking the bus, are unable to drive, can’t afford taxis, and feel unable to cope with Lyft. They can’t easily get to the Light Rail Stations. That involves a bus ride and a transfer. Where is the concern for them? I haven’t seen the City of Seattle providing a “crisis” fund for them.

      • Seniors and people with mobility issues and other disabilities can sign up for Metro’s Access service. For many, it is free. For others, it is their reduced bus rate ($1). [Note the author’s point about the cost to taxpayers for this service! That’s your “crisis” fund, Trish!] Access then subcontracts with Seattle Yellow Cab (a huge portion of non-airport taxis are on those contract trips, rather than hanging out downtown for rides that are not coming).

  6. Moderator— it would be nice if this platform allowed commenters a window to edit. Many typos slipped through and I am unable to fix them.

    • I realize it’s frustrating not to be able to edit comments after you’ve submitted them. What writer doesn’t want to revise upon further reflection? But think of comments as contributing to a conversation. When you’re talking with someone you might not say it exactly how you want, or maybe even misspeak. But once it’s out there, it’s out there, and others hear it and respond. Subsequently, you explain what you meant or modify or even correct as part of the conversation. The problem with letting people go back and edit comments as part of a comment thread is that subsequent commenters responding to a comment which then is changed to say something else, or even deleted, makes for an incoherent thread. I realize typos and grammar are another issue, but there’s no way to allow the minor tweaks without opening the ability to make more substantive changes.

      As for links — you can add them and the URL will get published in a comment. But it won’t be linked – you can’t click on it. You can, however, copy the URL and paste it into your browser. This is a security issue. Spammers try to get their links published on sites and flood comment forms with them, so the linking function is disabled.

  7. 2016’s “future-transit-needs” environment no longer exists. This is a welcome, balanced opening salvo in the public discussions that need to happen about that reality.

    Michael, didn’t you highlight Bob Gogerty’s dictum in a recent column here (“Don’t let ’em know how much taxing you plan.”)? If the public and electeds knew how much taxing Sound Transit’s rail expansion mega-projects would entail a decision to pivot to planning for more appropriate transit modalities would be understandable to the public and defensible for the electeds. At this point expanding light rail would cost too much (taxing and spending by Sound Transit), take too long to implement, and the additional “rush hour” capacity rail would provide to a few locations is unlikely to be needed due to the rise of remote/hybrid work practices.

  8. The broader question that comes up from the last couple comments here is, where is the city going? Where will things happen – homes, services, retail? Transportation is the city’s circulatory system, a vital factor that has to be accounted for in responsible planning.

    Metro has for generations provided a service primarily for commuters. City planning for 30 years or so has been based on an urban village density focus concept, that is now deeply undermined by rules from Olympia that require more dispersed multifamily zoning. People are working from home. The gold rush growth of the previous decade is probably over. Advocates have been predicting the demise of the personal automobile for a while, but the state’s rules on zoning seem to be pointed towards more auto-oriented development.

    With Harrell in the mayor’s office, it isn’t time for bold initiatives to shape Seattle’s future, but but it isn’t too early to think about what you want, and what kind of transportation network will serve that vision.

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