As traffic gets nastier, many of us are shifting gears
Statistics show Puget Sound-area residents buying fewer cars, driving fewer miles, using more transit. Experts say frustration over growing road congestion is an obvious factor
Seattle Times Eastside bureau
Number of vehicles added each year in King County:
Sound Transit boardings
After years of commuting from his Greenwood-area home to his downtown job, Steve Kaiser decided last year to move closer to his office near Pike Place Market.
He now walks the few blocks to his job. His Volkswagen Jetta sits in its garage five days a week, and his driving has plummeted to about 4,000 miles a year — about 80 percent less than before.
"It just seemed excessive to be driving every day," he said.
A growing number of fellow King County residents apparently feel the same way.
Data from several key traffic measures indicate that as traffic congestion worsens, many drivers may be starting to make significant changes in how they get around — including driving less and owning fewer vehicles.
• The average number of miles driven per person in the Puget Sound area has leveled off, growing just 0.8 percent a year for the five-year period between 2001 and 2006 after rising as much as 6 percent a year for decades, according to a Puget Sound Regional Council report in August.
• The number of new vehicles added each year to King County roads fell dramatically during that same period, from an average of 33,000 per year between 1980 and 1990 to just 11,000 per year between 2000 and 2006, according to calculations based on figures provided by the state Department of Licensing (DOL) in February.
• The ratio of registered cars to drivers — which reached 1.5 vehicles for every driver in 1990 — also dropped significantly to 1.21 vehicles per driver in 2007, according to calculations based on figures provided by DOL in September.
Trends and theories
While theories differ over what's behind the slowing, transportation officials and researchers say frustration over growing road congestion is an obvious factor. Instead of sitting in traffic and paying high gas prices, more people appear to be choosing to use public transit, move closer to their jobs, telecommute or make other lifestyle changes.
The fact that most of the population growth in King County has come in urban areas, partly as a result of the 1990 Growth Management Act, also helps explain the trends, said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the state Transportation Research Center at the University of Washington. It's urban areas where congestion is worst and parking is the biggest hassle.
People are making rational decisions about what's best for them, and two-hour commutes aren't among the answers, said King Cushman, former regional-strategy adviser for the Puget Sound Regional Council, which tracks traffic patterns.
"I kind of have to think things are going to change — not because government is smart, but because of market forces," he said.
Cushman points to increasing sales of condominiums in such downtown settings as Seattle, Bellevue, Kirkland and Renton. "It's a nuisance to have four cars in a downtown condo," he said.
The steady growth of Metro Transit ridership — which at a record 103 million boardings in 2006 was up about 1 million from its previous record in 2000 — is another piece of the multifaceted trend, officials say. Metro Transit is on a record pace again this year, with ridership running almost 7 percent higher than in 2006, the agency reported last week.
Sound Transit boardings have gone from about 4.5 million during its first full year of operation in 2000 to a projected 12.8 million this year.
Population could be a factor in the growth of transit use; King County's population has grown by 124,000 since 2000, according to census figures from July.
Other forces are at work in the slowing growth of car registrations and driving, some researchers say.
Although recently released figures for fiscal 2007 show an upward blip in car registrations for King County, the overall trend since 2000 likely reflects some level of market saturation, the researchers say.
"Basically, we're getting to the point where everyone who can drive has a car," Hallenbeck said.
Larry Blain of the Puget Sound Regional Council prepared the figures on how far people drive, also known as vehicle-miles traveled.
"While driving continues to increase, the rate of growth is much less than in the 1980s and early 1990s when vehicle travel grew dramatically," Blain said.
In the 1980s, miles traveled by vehicle went up 78 percent while the population increased just 28 percent, he said.
"There's no more room"
In King County, drivers have shown as recently as this summer that they will make changes to avoid being stuck in traffic.
When travel on a section of Interstate 5 was severely restricted for repaving in August, the predicted traffic jams mostly didn't materialize as drivers found other ways to cope.
Patterns appearing in Seattle are reflected nationally, some studies have found.
Alan Pisarski, who has studied transportation for nearly 40 years and whose latest report, "Commuting in America III," was published in 2006, said that while almost everyone continues to drive alone, Seattle showed the biggest decline in that category.
"There are five metro areas where drive-alone shares actually declined from 1990, whereas there were none in the 1980-1990 period. These five were heavily distributed on the West Coast.
"All of the losses were quite small, under 1 percentage point, with the exception of Seattle, with a decline of about 1.5 percentage points," Pisarski found.
Pisarski said he thinks the Seattle drop was caused by several factors, including higher car-pooling rates, a move into telecommuting and working at home, and some shifting to transit.
Pisarski and David Schrank, co-author of the widely cited annual urban-mobility report done by the Texas Transportation Institute, both pointed to the saturation theory.
"There's just no more room for additional traffic," Schrank said.
Schrank noted that nationally, most growth is taking place in urban suburbs, with suburb-to-suburb commutes increasing — which drivers north, east and south of Seattle can attest to.
For some, avoiding traffic completely is the solution.
Rick Anderson used to live in Monroe and commute to his Microsoft office in Redmond, but a year and a half ago he moved to 16 acres near Ellensburg.
Anderson, a project manager, now works with a laptop and a DSL connection from a corner of his bedroom and travels to Redmond just one day a week.
"I just love my 20-second trip to work," he said. "You get hours of your life back, and who wouldn't like that?"
Employers, too, are making changes, offering a growing range of commute options to their employees — from discounted bus passes to commuter vans and flex schedules. Microsoft, in effect, started its own bus company last month to shuttle workers to the company's various sites.
Company spokesman Chris Owen acknowledged that Microsoft has lost employees who tired of the worsening commute and failed to attract new ones who did not want to spend so much time getting to and from the Redmond campus.
The lure of changing driving habits is obvious to those who do drive here.
While millions of cars have been added to state and county registration — from 2.4 million in 1970 in the state to 6.7 million in 2006 — virtually no new roads have been built in decades.
Cushman, who studied transportation here for more than 30 years before retiring in July, said he finds a certain irony in what's transpired, noting that the region's snail-like pace in making transportation decisions may actually have helped ease congestion.
In the end, Cushman said, people get tired of waiting, and find their own solutions.
"Sometimes, in spite of ourselves, we do the right thing."
Peyton Whitely: 206-464-2259 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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