Last year, a coalition of Seattle’s top business and political leaders unveiled a new effort called Challenge Seattle, with a goal of finding new solutions to the region’s traffic problems, and now the group is out with its first annual report, tracking progress of its initiatives and setting goals for the future.
One of the big victories so far, according to the report, is a reduction of people driving alone to work. Some of the regions biggest companies, like Amazon, Microsoft and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are involved in the group and have been providing employees with incentives to keep them from driving to work alone. According to the report, among Challenge Seattle participants, only 16 percent of commuters heading downtown drove in alone in 2016, and in South Lake Union, that figure was 31 percent.
The report called out the Gates Foundation, where in 2009 approximately 88 percent of employees drove to work alone. In 2016, that figure was reduced to 34 percent. A robust package of transportation benefits helped account for the swing, according to the report:
Today, every employee receives an ORCA card free of charge and a $3 a day incentive if they do not drive alone to work. Monthly parking was eliminated and replaced by a $12 daily rate with the charge split for carpoolers based on the number of employees in the car. Zipcars are available for mid-day errands or emergencies and a user-friendly software system tracks daily commuting choices. Employees can track their commuter bonuses and participate in friendly competition through leaderboards, CO2 tracking, and other fun “gamification” applications.
But as anyone caught on Mercer Street at 5 p.m. knows, there is still a lot to fix. In 2016, the average Seattle resident spent 54.8 hours stuck in traffic. New transit investments, such as the Sound Transit 3 light rail package are on the way, but that system won’t be built out for approximately 20 years. In the meantime, the group called on businesses and public agencies to continue working to find solutions.
“Transportation congestion remains one of the top challenges for the Seattle region. While we all have our work cut out for us, we are seeing innovative thinking and experimentation taking place throughout the region,” said Chris Gregoire, CEO of Challenge Seattle. “Public agencies are trying new things, private sector companies are offering new products and services, and university researchers, data scientists, and experts across a range of disciplines are uncovering new insights and raising the bar for what is possible. Congestion relief will not come overnight, but if we all work together, we can make progress.”
Beyond encouraging employers to use the existing transit infrastructure, Challenge Seattle is working on a few of its own initiatives. Teaming up with the University of Washington and a group of government and private sector advisors, the group formed the Mobility Innovation Center. The center is looking at how driverless cars will affect traffic, and ways to work with policymakers to ease the transition. The group is also looking at ways to use technology to speed up responses to traffic accidents on I-5 and working on a virtual command center that would allow government agencies to quickly share data.
The gas tax is an important funding mechanism for transportation in Washington, but as cars get more efficient, that revenue source has become less plentiful. The mobility center is bringing together teams of students to develop an app that could help the state pilot an alternative a per-mile fee paid by drivers as a way to fund transportation projects.
This story has been corrected to list the city of Bellevue as a partner in a project to reduce serious injuries and fatalities related to travel.
The group also used the report as a way to establish four key goals. It wants to create a safe system of travel with zero fatalities and serious injuries, something the city of Bellevue, University of Washington and Microsoft are working on together.
The group aims to make travel times more dependable. The report shows reliability around the region is going in the wrong direction, with economic growth, population increases and relatively low fuel costs coming together to increase traffic all over the area.
Ensuring that the transit system works for everyone, not just the people commuting downtown to go to work at Amazon or the Gates Foundation, is another key goal.
And lastly, the group wants to promote environmental sustainability by reducing carbon emissions. One of the best ways to do that, according to the report, is through use of public transit and getting cars off the road.
Here is the full report: