Transit and complete streets advocates often operate with the motto, “If you build it, they will come.” That is, if you provide reliable public transportation and safe places to bike and walk, people will choose alternatives over a car. But what if there’s simply no way to get nearly half the population to stop driving alone? That’s one take away from a recent travel survey conducted in Washington’s Puget Sound Region.
The Puget Sound Regional Council is a metropolitan planning organization that focuses on the greater Seattle metropolitan region, which includes about 3.8 million residents in King, Kitsap, Pierce and Snohomish counties. PSRC conducts a travel survey every eight years that covers household demographics, how people get around, where they go, when they travel and more.
Their most recent look polled over 6,000 residents in PSRC’s four-county working area. PSRC’s trove of data — which they’ve been releasing in packets of analysis over the last few months — paints a picture of a growing region that’s still deeply car dependent, but slowly shifting toward transit, walking and biking, especially in its urban centers.
Cars still hold 81.5 percent of the mode share in the region, down from 86 percent in 1999. Transit is up to 4.2 percent, walking 11 percent and biking 1.3 percent of the mode share. Though those numbers are piddling compared to driving’s share, they are gradually growing.
“If you compare 1999 to 2014, we found a 44 percent increase in bicycling,” PSRC Government Relations and Communications Director Rick Olson points out. “It’s still just 1.3 percent overall of trips, but that’s quite a jump and most of the jump took place between 2006 and 2014.”
Seattle Times data columnist Gene Balk recently honed in on and did further analysis of data from one of the most interesting pieces of the survey, the “Stated Preferences” section.
PSRC posed hypothetical scenarios to survey respondents about what might get them to stop driving alone to work and instead try transit, carpooling or vanpooling. The scenarios included incentives such as high-speed transit or HOV that saved time and disincentives such as gas at more than $5 a gallon, tolls and expensive parking.
The incentives and disincentives had a nearly equal impact on people’s hypothetical choices: 19.6 percent of people in the region said high-speed transit that saved them 10 minutes per trip would get them to stop driving solo versus 18.6 percent of people influenced by expensive gas. A little over 10 percent of people said $5-plus tolls would impact their choice, and 9.1 percent said HOV time savings would.
Andrew Austin, policy director with Seattle-based nonprofit Transportation Choices Coalition, thinks people’s habits would change more than they imagine. “If some of these scenarios actually happened, we would see strong revealed preferences … obviously there’s some cognitive dissonance there as it would absolutely affect people’s SOV [single-occupancy-vehicle] trip-making if they had to pay $5 every time they made that trip.”
The most striking figure from the stated preferences section is that 45.3 percent of solo drivers said nothing would get them to stop driving solo for their commute. With SOVs accounting for 71 percent of commuters in the region, that 45.3 percent works out to about 1.1 million people regionwide who won’t give up their alone time. At a glance, it’s a bit of a depressing figure in the face of the region’s increasingly terrible gridlock and chronically underfunded transportation networks.
Olson says first it’s important to remember they’re surveying entire counties, which include many rural households with little to no access to transit.
“We’re taking about a big wide region,” he explains. “A lot of people who answered these survey questions never envisioned transit that is accessible and convenient to them.”
He also says to look at it through a half-full glass. “If we got half the people out of their single occupancy vehicle we’d be doing really well. Reducing half of the car trips would move us pretty far along towards the state’s greenhouse gas emissions goals.”
Austin too says it’s an encouraging survey result. “Fifty-five percent of people said something would make them change their habits — that’s a big deal in and of itself. And truthfully, an economically marginal amount of change could bring major benefits to system performance, so that amount of willingness to change is not insignificant.”
Looking through that lens gives the survey results a much rosier tint. Now it’s just a matter of building out a robust, many-billion-dollar transit system and instituting expensive disincentives for driving and the Puget Sound Region will be well on its way to solving its nagging mobility problems.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Pacific Standard and Vice.