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UW commuting hits sustainability highs

Drive-alone rate target reached ahead of schedule
U District light rail station

The U District light rail station, which is two blocks from the UW's Seattle campus, has been a step forward in transit access.

According to the most recent survey, 13% of the UW community is driving to campus alone, a record low. The numbers reflect the continued impact of remote work as well as support for mass transit despite post-pandemic declines.

The latest results are from an annual survey assessing how students, staff and faculty get to one of the University’s three campuses (or not, in the case of those telecommuting). Data from the survey are used to assess whether the UW is meeting transportation goals set in state law and the campus master plan. By reaching a 13% drive-alone rate in late 2022, the UW reached what had been a 2025 target in the campus master plan more than two years early. 

With the latest results, the UW has the second-lowest percentage of people in the country commuting alone by car to a college or university, according to Anne Eskridge, director of UW Transportation Services.

“From what we know and understand as we attend professional conferences, and we convene with other folks who are working on transportation demand management, we’re second only to Columbia University,” she said.

The results of the survey, which collected data from October 22, 2022, to January 23, 2023, were surprising to Eskridge and her team.

“We thought more people were getting back into cars, and the answer to that is not necessarily so,” she said. “Remote work is really changing the dynamic of whether or not people travel to campus to do their job.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic, the UW community started doing more work and school from home, and they still aren’t coming to campus at the levels they were before the pandemic. According to the survey, UW students, faculty, and staff spent 3.67 weekdays on campus, below the average in 2019, which was 4.2. The biggest difference is with staff, who came to campus 4.33 days per week on average in 2019 and now come in only 2.88 days per week. 

When compared to other ways of commuting, including driving, walking, public transit and more, telecommuting is the “dominant commute mode,” according to the survey report. The survey asked respondents to share how they had commuted to campus over the previous seven days, and 78% had telecommuted at least once in the past week.

The story is different when it comes to students, who reported telecommuting only 9% of the time. Instead, in line with pre-pandemic numbers, nearly 40% of students walk to campus. And since students make the majority of trips to campus, their preference for walking also helps keep the overall drive-alone rate low. 

Transit popular, but challenges remain

The survey shows that 68% of the UW community had used transit in the past week — near pre-pandemic levels in 2019, when 73% used transit. This is up from pandemic levels when 25% and 60% used transit in 2020 and 2021, respectively.

However, when you look at total trips, transit use is down significantly compared to pre-pandemic levels. As a percentage of all trips to campus, 33% of students, 26% of faculty and 24% of staff used transit, compared to 44%, 32% and 46%, respectively, in 2019.

This is the case despite steps forward to increase transit access. In October 2021, the U District light rail station opened two blocks from the UW’s Seattle campus, and in July 2022, all UW employees became eligible for a fully subsidized U-PASS, giving passholders free rides on regional transit systems.

“Light rail makes transit feel sexy,” Eskridge said, noting that light rail use is going up because people feel more comfortable on it than they do on buses. 

Transit use faces other challenges, however, including leftover fears from the pandemic and hesitation about safety. And then there’s the problem of route and service cutbacks.

Eskridge calls the expanded U-PASS benefit a “present that many folks can’t open,” due to the limited hours transit systems run. They accommodate a person working business hours, but don’t help those who need service early in the morning or late at night, such as hospital workers or custodians. Eskridge is pushing transit partners to provide service 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

If the UW is to keep the gains made when it comes to commuting, it’s essential that people return to using transit more often, Eskridge said. As we get further away from the worst of the pandemic, she added, how work and school happen — and how we get there — will continue to evolve. 

“A critical mass of our population was using mass transit prior COVID,” she said. “We need to return to that critical mass of use so that our trip reduction doesn't creep back up. And what has kept that from occurring is remote work. 

“So I think both need to happen. I think we need to not fully return to always being at work, five days a week. And I hope that as people think about how they get to work, they return to their old patterns of using mass transit rather than getting back in a vehicle.”