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Originally published September 24, 2013 at 9:14 PM | Page modified September 25, 2013 at 1:21 PM

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Cars losing grip on Seattle

In the war on cars, bikes and pedestrians are winning as Seattle has become one of only five major cities in the nation where more than 50 percent of the commuters don’t drive solo to work.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Here’s an update in the war on cars: The cars are losing.

Well, OK, it’s not a total surrender. There are still plenty of cars whizzing to and fro in our utopia. But in Seattle anyway, cars have taken a beating of late.

Not necessarily by the government greenies and their supposed anti-car policies, though that may be part of the story. No, the cars were defeated by you.

You just don’t love them like you used to.

The latest census stats about how we live and get around were released last week. They suggest our city, if anything, hasn’t been doing enough to cater to an explosion in greener, car-free lifestyles chosen by many residents.

Seattle is now one of only five cities in the U.S. where more than half of the commuters no longer practice that hallowed American ritual — driving solo to the office.

As The Seattle Times’ FYI Guy Gene Balk reported last week, Seattle passed this symbolic tipping point last year, marking the first time in generations that driving to work alone hasn’t ruled our daily commute. (New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Boston are the only other cities where majorities do not drive alone to work.)

What has replaced driving alone in Seattle? It’s definitely not carpooling. The census figures show what many have suspected for years: Carpooling isn’t the answer. Since 2000, carpooling has dropped by 12 percent in Seattle.

In fact, if you add driving alone and carpooling together, slightly fewer workers use the car today than did back in 2000 — even though the workforce has grown by nearly 50,000 (and the city’s population by more than that).

So how are Seattle workers getting there? This is where it gets interesting. The most obvious guess — buses and trains — is up since 2000, but only enough to account for a third of the change.

The real sea change in commute patterns around here is in, believe it or not, bicycling to work (up 152 percent since 2000, to 15,000), working at home (up 76 percent, to 26,000) and old-fashioned hoofing it (up 56 percent, to 36,000).

Ten percent of Seattleites walk to work, fourth-highest among big cities in the nation.

This is not a poll of people’s opinions about how society ought to get around. It’s what Seattleites are actually doing.

It’s also just a Seattle thing, for now. Three-fourths of workers outside the city, in the suburbs, still drive to work alone.

But in the city, it’s like people increasingly are living a modern version of the village life. In fact, the total number of Seattleites who bike, walk or telecommute (77,000) now surpasses the total that commute by mass transit (72,000). Add all the non-car alternatives together and the fabled automobile is losing its grip.

Why? The city’s getting younger. The economy and the expense of cars, including city-led parking costs and hassles, are other factors. A recent Associated Press story about the waning car culture included this quote: “I don’t think it’s a change in people’s preferences. Give a person a good job 25 miles away and they’ll be at the dealership the next morning.”

Maybe so. There are still 180,000 Seattleites driving solo to work every day (one of whom is me). None of this is an argument we no longer need good roads or highways.

But shouldn’t Seattle spend more than a paltry 5 percent of its transportation budget on sidewalks and bike paths?

All the controversy the past few years about how city leaders are too bike-obsessed or are wasting money on road diets seems wildly misplaced. When you look at how their customers are choosing to live, the opposite is probably closer to the truth:

City leaders haven’t been obsessed with bikes or pedestrians enough.

Seattle Times news researcher Gene Balk contributed. Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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