Puget Sound drivers: What will make you get out of your car?

By David Kroman
Crosscut archive image.
By David Kroman

One of the proposed solutions to Seattle’s innumerable transportation problems: Spend money and lots of it.

In early May, Mayor Ed Murray raised his (already massive) Move Seattle levy to a whopping $930 million. If approved in November 2015, the money will add and improve infrastructure: new bus and bike lanes, repaved roadways, patched bridges, raised sidewalks and more.

But the South Lake Union Streetcar’s (or S.L.U.T., a 21st century version of the monorail) underwhelming ridership is a reminder that, if we build it, they will not always come.

Beyond infrastructure, most other solutions rely on commuters. More specifically, on changing commuters’ habits.

Which takes what, exactly? The Seattle Department of Transportation’s (SDOT) director, Scott Kubly, suggested, for example, that the City of Seattle promote telecommuting, compressed work weeks and carpooling.

But no matter how you commute – by foot, bike, car or transit – you know that your mode of choice is, in large part, a matter of habit.

If so many transportation “solutions” will rely on changing commuters’ habits, who will change our habits? And how? What will it take to get more Puget Sound-ers out of single-occupancy vehicles and onto bikes or buses?

Get people early

Celeste Gilman, the University of Washington’s transportation systems manager, operates on a campus where 82 percent of people commute by alternative transportation modes like transit, carpool and bike (i.e. anything other than single occupancy vehicles).

“We connect with people when they are most receptive to change,” said Gilman, who understands that early intervention is important. “When people are new to the university, they are more likely to choose a greener choice.”

All UW freshmen and new hires are immediately given an unlimited “U-PASS” (now powered by ORCA) and connected with a “commute concierge.” That concierge works with new students to map out their commute.

“We tell them, ‘we’ll do all the heavy lifting.’”

“Get on board”

What about the folks who are already stuck on driving?

Jennifer Rash, communications strategist and transportation policy expert at PRR, said that she turns to the “behavior change continuum” – a sort of guidebook on how to encourage people to switch up their routines.

“They need to be introduced to the new concept, then experience it,” she said.

“Then you need to get people to the next stage of feeling like there’s something they can do. Once they feel educated and aware, there is a behavior trial. Bike to Work Month is a good example: It gets a lot of people to try it out.”

Jessica Szelag, executive director of Commute Seattle, said that a key part of changing peoples’ habits is peer pressure. In a recent study, the University of Victoria found that commuters were five times less likely to drive if told that their peers were not driving.

Crosscut archive image.
Executive Director of Commute Seattle, Jessica Szelag.

If Szelag could design a campaign to change commuter behavior, she’d call it “Get on board” – a sort of nudge in the right direction. The UW is currently developing its own nudge – a website that allows users to record the routes they take to campus. The site will have the twofold effect of providing the easiest routes while also showing students and staff that their peers are, for instance, on bicycles.


Citywide, parking is going out of style. City Council will soon consider an amendment to reduce the number of parking spaces that developers need to provide.

“Parking is one of the best ways to show that there’s a cost to driving,” says Gilman.

Jamie Cheney, transportation director at Seattle Children’s Hospital, led the way in this effort. By doing away with monthly parking passes and charging one, universal rate for hourly parking, Cheney and her team force drivers to think about paying for parking “every day.”

On top of that, Children’s pays employees $4 for each day they choose not to drive alone to work. At the end of the year, workers get the total sum in a bonus check.

As a result of its efforts, the number of employees driving alone to Children's has, from 2004 to 2013, gone down 11.5 percent.

Work with major employers

Children's is no longer unique: Transportation incentives are on the rise. As SDOT’s travel options lead, Anne Sutphin, suggested, just look at Metropolitan Magazine’s “Best Places to Work.”

“This is the first time I noticed transportation benefits as one of the biggest perks of working in a company,” said Sutphin. Transportation subsidies have almost become a requirement, especially in Seattle’s tech companies, which are all competing for talent.

But while Seattle has the attention of entities like Commute Seattle and SDOT, where can other communities – those outside of the city limits ­– turn for help with incentives and transportation management?

Under the 1991 Commuter Trip Reduction law, major Washington employers are already required to “aggressively develop substantive programs to reduce commute trips by state employees.” The law requires companies to develop a plan for trip reduction, but it makes suggestions for goals, rather than mandates.

State requirements are effective, said Sutphin, but it’s better if employers are invested in reducing trips. And while places like Seattle Children’s are motivated for obvious reasons (like caring for car crash victims day in and day out), even companies like Amazon are increasingly likely to get on board: They’re motivated to attract and retain talent, Cheney posited. And if the many studies on millenials are any hint, transportation options for their relatively young employee base are a way to do that.

It has to be easy

All potential solutions, said Gilman, boil down to one question: Short of building new infrastructure, “how do we make the better choice the easy choice?”

Could it be as simple as adding a shower and more parking space for bikers? Or encouraging in-house childcare for employees, so working parents don’t have to drive to multiple locations?

Because, in spite of additional bus service this summer (that should shorten wait times) or protected bike lanes on Second Avenue and Broadway (that should make riders feel more comfortable), building infrastructure won’t solve all of the region’s transportation woes.

Even if the mayor can pass his Move Seattle levy – that should (again, theoretically) make city be more walkable, bike-able and fluid – developing transportation infrastructure is slow.

Within and without Seattle, government leaders, agencies and nonprofits have shown that there are creative ways to maximize the value of the assets and infrastructure, we already have. So, Puget Sound commuters, what do you say? What would it take to get you out of your car?

Crosscut will hold a Community Idea Lab discussion of transportation solutions on June 17. Event information here.

Correction, May 22nd, 2015: An earlier version of this story said UW was developing a bike app, when it is fact a web page.


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.