It’s easier than ever to go car-less in Seattle.
New technology-fueled services are letting people get around the Emerald City in different ways, whether via ride-hailing giants like Uber and Lyft, or car-sharing companies like BMW’s ReachNow and Daimler’s car2go.
As the city’s traffic gets worse with more people moving to the city each day — 57, to be exact — it’s an optimal time for added transportation options. But which is the best? Which is cheapest? Which is easiest? Which should you rely on?
We just completed the Great GeekWire Race to find out.
Eight GeekWire staffers met at our headquarters in Fremont this past Wednesday afternoon, all instructed to take varying transportation modes to our destination: Flatstick Pub in Pioneer Square.
It was a formidable 5-mile route through the teeth of downtown Seattle rush hour traffic, including the Mercer Mess around Amazon’s growing headquarters. We tested seven modes: Uber, Lyft Line, ReachNow, personal car, bus, bike-sharing, and an electric skateboard.
Racers agreed to obey traffic and safety laws — there was to be no speeding or other shenanigans.
After starting our trip at 4:54 p.m. we ultimately all made it down to Flatstick Pub, touching the front door to mark our arrival. But our experiences varied in regard to money spent, stress endured, and overall time of travel.
According to data from INRIX, the average commute time in 2017 from our HQ to Flatstick Pub via Westlake Ave on a typical September weekday was 24.45 minutes, up from 22.28 minutes two years ago.
Here’s a look at how bad traffic was at the beginning of our race:
The first-place finisher clocked in at 31 minutes — and the winning mode of transportation, at least based on time, may surprise you. Read on for more about our experiences, ranked from slowest to fastest overall trip times.
Clare McGrane, GeekWire reporter
Mode of transportation: Bus
Total trip time: 50 minutes
Years getting around Seattle: 7
Cost: $2.75 in bus fare
Requirements: Exact change or an ORCA card
Clare’s key observations:
On riding the bus: “It was relatively cheap and a good way to fit more productive time into my day. I was able to check my email, knit several rounds of the sweater I’m working on and listen to most of a podcast during my trip. I also felt good about not putting another vehicle on the road!
The big problem with bussing is the lack of control. I couldn’t control when my bus arrived (I had to wait about 12 minutes) or what the conditions were like once I got on. In this case, the conditions were fine — the bus was fairly empty and I got a row of two seats to myself. When we passed through South Lake Union, about 30 people got on and things got much more crowded.”
On using technology: “I used Google Maps to find the fastest route to my destination and OneBusAway to track when my bus would arrive. I also use the ORCA site to refill my card about once a month.”
Taylor Soper, GeekWire reporter
Mode of transportation: Personal car
Total trip time: 49 minutes
Years getting around Seattle: 9
Cost: $1.54 in parking, $1 in gas
Requirements: Personal car
Taylor’s key observations:
“There are many benefits of driving your own car around Seattle. It’s comfortable; you have complete control of navigation; you can leave or arrive whenever you want; you can give other people a ride; you have extra storage room.
However, with all these new services now available (Uber, Lyft, ReachNow, etc.), I’m questioning car ownership more than ever — especially when attempting to drive through Seattle during rush hour.
I left the office and hopped in my car, feeling pretty good about my chances of winning the Great GeekWire Race, especially when I breezed by Todd Bishop riding his Spin bike.
Google Maps instructed me to head south on Westlake Ave. before turning on Mercer en route to I-5 southbound. I wanted to avoid the congestion around Amazon’s HQ, but didn’t really see many alternatives.
Unsurprisingly, I then spent several stressful minutes sitting idle in the Mercer Mess before finally getting on the highway, only to sit in another stand-still on the exit ramp toward Pioneer Square — lots of green lights with no movement. Ack!
As I approached Flatstick Pub, I saw an open parking spot several blocks away. I decided to snag it instead of potentially spending more time circling around the finish line. Another stressful moment.
The flexibility of having my own car is nice; it’s also somewhat cost effective depending on how you finance a vehicle. But other negatives of driving your own car include gas, insurance, and maintenance costs. Having to find parking in downtown Seattle can be a nightmare. There’s also an issue of time wasted — if I rode the bus or took an Uber, I could have gone through email or done other work. Instead I spent 50 minutes battling traffic and getting flustered knowing that I was going to lose the Great GeekWire Race.”
Kurt Schlosser, GeekWire reporter
Mode of transportation: Lyft Line
Total trip time: 44 minutes
Years getting around Seattle: 21
Cost: $11.67 ($2 tip)
Requirements: Lyft app, credit card
Kurt’s key observations:
“I used the pool version of Lyft called Lyft Line, and the ride arrived with another passenger already in the back seat. Becky Edlund, a 20-year-old nanny in Fremont, was heading home to Queen Anne.
Dropping another passenger off added about 10 minutes to my trip, but it saved me $7.29 — and I got to meet Becky, who moved to Seattle 2 1/2 years ago from Idaho. She shares a car with her boyfriend, but only has access to it when he’s not using it to commute to work. She watches three little kids during the day, and uses the family’s car to run around when needed.
After saying goodbye to Becky, my driver headed west on West Nickerson Street toward the Ballard Bridge to connect with 15th Avenue West and then Elliott Avenue West toward downtown. It’s my preferred route for heading south, too — I never use I-5.
Satnam Singh moved from India to Seattle four years ago and has been driving for Lyft for a year and a half. He knew the congestion points well as we approached the edge of Belltown on Denny Way and the backups coming out of Amazon’s campus.
Along the way, Satnam got one request for another Lyft Line pickup, but whoever it was reconsidered and canceled within a minute.
The slowest point of the ride was sitting on First Avenue and then Second Avenue, trying to get beyond downtown traffic that was either moving toward Highway 99 or I-5. Bicyclists and walkers moving faster than my Lyft streamed past outside. I looked up at cranes. I took pictures and checked my phone. I spotted a former co-worker and she waved from the sidewalk.
In Pioneer Square, 44 minutes after leaving the GeekWire offices, I was dropped right at the rendezvous point. I wasn’t sweaty from a bike ride and I was happy to not have to walk from a bus stop or pay to park my own car. Ride hailing services have changed my life in Seattle.”
Monica Nickelsburg, GeekWire reporter
Mode of transportation: UberX
Total trip time: 41 minutes
Years getting around Seattle: 4
Cost: $18.10 (with $2 tip)
Requirements: Uber app, credit card info
Monica’s key observations:
“My colleague, Cara Kuhlman, and I were confident in our chances when we requested an UberX at 4:54 p.m. It took about two minutes to arrive and we set off from Fremont with an ETA of 28 minutes, “despite the usual traffic” Google Maps helpfully informed us.
But our confidence waned after we crossed the Fremont Bridge and hit our first traffic jam on Westlake Ave. Taylor passed us in his car but that wasn’t a huge concern; he had to park, after all. What was more troubling was the knowledge that Todd and Tim could avoid traffic delays and speed past us, despite our advantage of a car.
We arrived in Amazon territory and spent about 10 minutes trudging through the Mercer Mess. After a brief reprieve on I-5, we got mired in another delay along 6th Ave. By this time, we’d more or less thrown in the towel.
On the plus side, Cara and I were both able to power up our laptops, using our smartphones as mobile hotspots. Making efficient use of the time is definitely a pro of riding in an Uber but I wouldn’t say it outweighs the cons of motion sickness and carbon emissions from sitting in traffic. Our Uber driver dropped us off a block from Flatstick Pub and it took some wandering before we spotted our destination. In a last-minute twist, GeekWire co-founder John Cook ran past us just steps away from the finish line. We called it a tie, arriving at 5:35 p.m.”
John Cook, GeekWire co-founder
Mode of transportation: ReachNow
Total trip time: 41 minutes
Years getting around Seattle: 21
Requirements: ReachNow app; credit card; my own two feet.
John’s key observations:
On positives: “I am not sure I would ever describe moving around Seattle as a positive. If I were to describe the most positive aspects of the transportation race, it would have to be the moments when I actually was outside of the vehicle using my two feet to walk, seeing the sights of the city.
I walked about a half mile to the ReachNow I reserved at the start of the race, and then — facing an extreme back-up along Second Ave. in downtown — I actually opted to park the vehicle about a mile from the final destination and walk the rest of the way.
That said, our family recently transitioned to just one car, which means we’ve had to get a little more creative on how we move around the city. I’ve found ReachNow to be a reliable and easy service to use, though I still believe the app needs some enhancements and bug fixes. Even so, it’s nice to have a BMW vehicle relatively close by for necessary trips downtown, and I frequently use the service to get around. I don’t have to worry about gas or parking or insurance. However, as I mentioned above, you still face transportation bottlenecks as a driver — one of the reasons I chose to walk for a good chunk of my journey.
In my experience, ReachNow is cheaper than Lyft or Uber, and while you still need to find parking, that’s not too much of a hassle to discourage me. Having lived in Seattle for more than 20 years, I still feel as if I can navigate the city better than most taxi drivers.
On negatives: “If you need to get somewhere fast, it’s bit luck-of-the-draw on whether there’s a ReachNow nearby. Just before our transportation race started, I checked the app to see if there was a vehicle nearby, and the closest car was a 21-minute walk from the GeekWire HQ. Luckily, by the time the race started, a ReachNow appeared 0.4 miles away from me. That was still a long walk, and had a ReachNow been closer at the start of the race, I am sure I would have won. The biggest negative is that you must deal with the stress and tension of driving during rush hour in Seattle — not a fun experience.”
On using technology: “Technology certainly helped me find the vehicle — locating the Mini Clubman — via the ReachNow app and unlocking the doors. Interestingly on my voyage to Pioneer Square, just after crossing the Fremont Bridge at the intersection of Westlake Avenue, Dexter Avenue and Nickerson St., I went rogue and abandoned the Google Maps app that I was using as my navigation guide. Google Maps was directing me through the notorious “Mercer Mess” area of Seattle — just north of Amazon’s sprawling campus in the South Lake Union neighborhood. I’ve been stuck in that area in a car multiple times, and there’s no way I wanted that to happen again this time. I relied on my Seattle knowledge to re-route and go over the eastern slope of Queen Anne Hill. This backroad residential street short-cut proved to be a smarter route, in my opinion. So, chalk that up for a victory for the human brain over artificial intelligence!”
On Seattle’s state of transportation: “The transportation race confirmed a belief of mine that — as the city has become more crowded and congested — we’ve become meaner. An example of this occurred while I was stuck on Second Avenue, and an angry driver with a Seahawks sticker on his white Subaru started cursing at me. It just seems we are an angrier city than we used to be. I did see some people being generous and friendly on the roadways, but for the most part the congestion, crowds, construction and influx of newcomers has caused our city to become more disconnected from one another, and I hate to say it: meaner.”
Todd Bishop, GeekWire editor
Mode of transportation: Bike-share (Spin)
Total Trip Time: 37 minutes
Years getting around Seattle: 20
Total Cost: $2
Requirements: Spin app, credit card, bike helmet, bright orange reflective safety vest.
Todd’s key observations:
I worked out my route in advance using the bike directions feature in Google Maps, planning to go down Westlake Avenue to 9th Avenue alongside the Amazon campus, then riding up Bell Street to 2nd Avenue, taking the protected bike lane on Second all the way to the destination in Pioneer Square.
About a half hour before we left, I checked the traffic map and smiled at the red line stretching down Highway 99, because I knew the traffic took away the advantage of the highway for people in cars. I really had a shot at winning this thing on a bike.
Then I checked the Spin app and saw that the bike I had strategically placed near the office was no longer there. This was one of the new, taller Spin bikes, and I had tested a bunch of them in advance in the neighborhood to make sure I had one ready that was in good working condition to help me win the race. I don’t believe this was cheating — no one said you couldn’t do that! — despite what my colleagues might say. Alas, the Spin bike was gone, and with it any advantage, fair or unfair, from my advance planning.
At 4:54 p.m., we were off, and I ran to the nearest Spin bike I could see on the map, near the Burke Gilman Trail. Fortunately, it was also one of the taller bikes. I jumped on and pedaled furiously to the Fremont Bridge, but in the time it took me to find and unlock the bike, our skateboarder Tim Ellis had zipped ahead of me, perfectly timing the traffic signals on the other side of the bridge to get to the Westlake bike trail while I was stuck at the crosswalk lights at the south side of the bridge.
While I was waiting, GeekWire reporter Taylor Soper drove by and yelled something out the window about me “cheating.” Whatever, dude. Enjoy your bumper-to-bumper traffic jam ahead.
Once I made it through the intersection, everything went smoothly all the way down the trail until I was approaching MOHAI and noticed that the left pedal was getting wobbly and coming loose, which seems to be a problem plaguing this new generation of Spin bikes. No problem, I spotted two other Spin bikes up ahead! They were the originals, without the benefit of the taller frame, but better than a loose pedal.
Then things got worse. The app froze on me after I locked my first Spin bike, and it took three excruciating minutes to get back to where I could unlock the next bike. Eventually, it worked, but I had to wait several more minutes to get through the pedestrian signals at Westlake Avenue and Valley Street.
Finally, I was pedaling again, but I somehow forgot that I was supposed to get onto 9th Avenue at that point, and I ended up going straight down Westlake Avenue, right through the Amazon campus, trying to stay ahead of cars and keep my wheels out of the streetcar tracks. The Spin bike clattered and the tires seemed to almost slip a couple times, clearly not made for that kind of aggressive urban street riding.
I rode down Westlake all the way to Stewart Street, then over to 2nd Avenue, where things got really scary. I somehow ended up on the wrong side of the street, away from the protected bike lane, between a car and a bus without a lane of my own. I don’t even want think about that harrowing experience. I slowed down until the bus passed, then got over to the protected bike lane and rode it all the way down to Pioneer Square.
After my missteps, I assumed I was in last place at that point, so when I was stopped at a light, I bought a Real Change newspaper from the vendor on the corner, gave him a tip and asked him to take a picture of me on the bike. I ended up waiting at that light through a full extra cycle because of that.
A few minutes later, I made it to the finish line, and what do you know, I was in second place, behind only Tim Ellis on his electric skateboard, missing first place by a mere six minutes! Just imagine if I had found my bike right away, hadn’t needed to switch bikes, had stayed on the proper route, and hadn’t stopped for a picture. I truly think I could have won.
Riding a bike was great exercise — I was winded and sweaty when I arrived. I was also able to experience the bustling city from the streets, and ride past cars that were at a standstill.
However, I did have to navigate through dangerous traffic situations and deal with poor bike maintenance.
It was a fascinating experience racing a bike through streets filled with cars and people just getting off work at 5 p.m. I was definitely more aggressive than the typical Seattle commuter, racing out ahead after waiting at intersections, and I got some funny looks along the way. Or maybe they were just staring at my vest. Overall, it was an exhilarating experience that I would not want to repeat anytime soon.”
Tim Ellis, GeekWire contributing writer
Mode of transportation: Onewheel+
Total trip time: 31 minutes
Years getting around Seattle: 19
Cost: None, but The Onewheel+ costs $1,500. It can also be financed directly through the company that sells it at $91 per month for 18 months, which is less than the $99 price of a $2.75 monthly ORCA pass.
Requirements: This specific board definitely has a learning curve. Also it’s not “required” but it would be pretty foolish to ride it without safety gear like a helmet, wrist guards, and knee pads.
Tim’s key observations:
On positives: “It’s just cool and fun. It’s also very convenient. With something like the Onewheel or an electric skateboard, I can carry it on the bus, easily bring it into the office, etc. It’s much more portable than a bicycle, but just as mobile. I was able to hit the road faster than anybody else in the race because it was literally just set the board down, turn it on, and go.
The other huge advantage was the ability to slip right past all the traffic. In a car it has taken me 20 minutes or more just to get across Mercer during rush hour, but on the Onewheel I zipped right through. Also, although this route did not have any big hills, a big plus for the Onewheel is its ability to climb up even the steepest hills in downtown Seattle.
On negatives: The biggest disadvantage to traveling by Onewheel is exposure to the elements. When it gets wet and rainy you’re going to get wet. The Onewheel is water resistant but many electric skateboards are not, and can’t be ridden in rainy weather at all.
The Onewheel itself is a masterpiece of modern technology. A ton of sensors and a powerful electric motor let you zip down the street at up to 20 MPH balanced on a single wide wheel. It’s crazy fun and feels like living in the future.
On riding a Onewheel in Seattle: My route was almost entirely on bike paths and bike lanes through Seattle, many of which have only just been installed in the last few years. I passed a lot of cyclists (mostly heading the opposite direction, out of town) and saw how well-used these resources are, which is great. That said, one thing that could definitely use improvement is road quality. Riding on a single wheel you become very aware of every big bump and crack in the road, and there are plenty in Seattle.”
Seattle has changed quite a bit in those three years, most notably with more people living in the city thanks to an economic boom led largely by the tech industry.
With that growth has come increasingly congested roads. It doesn’t help that compared to other growing cities worldwide, Seattle’s transportation infrastructure ranks among the bottom. Though the city is making an effort to expand its light rail system and is investing nearly $1 billion over the next decade to improve transportation, it’s unclear how and if Seattle will make it easier for people to get around town.
Despite mounting budget and logistical issues, the city continues to push forward with the Link Light Rail construction. Seattle also has plans to expand bus routes and encourage biking and walking as an alternative to driving.
And Seattle’s traffic isn’t quite the worst — there are 22 other cities with more congestion, according to the latest INRIX Global Traffic Scorecard.
But given the continuing influx of new people coming to Seattle and construction projects around the city, traffic will likely get worse in the next few years.
Bob Pishue, senior economist at Kirkland, Wash.-based traffic analytics company INRIX, told GeekWire that most U.S. cities are also seeing increased traffic congestion. Though he noted that alternative transportation use in the Seattle region, unlike some other metros, is increasing, from public transit to car-sharing.
Pishue said technology can help reduce congestion; he pointed out smart traffic lights and real-time parking apps.
“Maybe you won’t be circling the block looking for parking — maybe you’ll be able to reserve a spot before you even step foot outside,” he said.
But will new innovations be enough to keep you from missing an important meeting or event? How will the crappy traffic affect your commute, or how you decide to plan your day? Let us know in the comments.