Employers, property managers and individual commuters will make choices over the coming year regarding how to build back their commute programs and travel behaviors. The fresh-start effect will create opportunities for positive shifts as people return to in-office work and establish new commute habits. Building more equitable and sustainable travel patterns is essential for the city’s economic competitiveness and quality of life, and we should not miss out on this unique opportunity for positive change.
To learn more about what employers are planning and what kind of support they may need, Commute Seattle and partners fielded a Regional Return to Work Survey in April and May. With growing success in vaccinations and case rates, we wanted to capture employer sentiment about commuting and their return to work plans over the remainder of the year and beyond.
This survey also builds on our Workplace Experiences survey fielded in May of 2020 during the early months of the pandemic. In that survey, we asked employers about things like furloughs and layoffs, changing commute policies and the shift to remote work.
Some of the most interesting findings at that time were around the remote work questions. 89% of our respondents, for example, said they had already shifted some portion of their workforce to telework. And even then most companies said they anticipated a long-term increase in telework compared to before the pandemic.
The 2021 Regional Return to Work survey shows that in many cases, employers continue to envision a long-term shift toward a hybrid work environment, with more than half saying they anticipate a future where most employees can either work from home or in-office day to day or week to week. This is likely because employers continue to overwhelmingly report that remote work is going well or very well for their companies.
Commute Seattle has long supported flexibility regarding telework, and our 2019 Center City Modesplit Survey found that even before the pandemic, telework was the city’s fastest growing commute mode. A permanent shift toward hybrid work cultures could help alleviate congestion, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions caused by transportation. It would also be in line with what many national surveys are finding regarding worker desire for continuing to work remotely at least some of the time post-Covid.
At the same time, two-thirds of employers surveyed indicated they expect an increase in the number of employees driving alone to work. This is associated with hesitancy regarding riding transit due to Covid-19, and threatens to persist despite the efforts of local transit agencies and evidence that transit can be a safe way to travel. Local transit agencies have taken numerous steps to protect riders and operators, including improved cleaning and air filtration, social distancing guidelines, public and on-board communications and reminders, and requiring and providing masks.
[Learn more about what King County Metro, Sound Transit, Community Transit, Pierce Transit, Kitsap Transit, Everett Transit, Intercity Transit and Washington State Ferries are doing to keep travelers safe.]
While these measures are effective at keeping riders safe, ridership levels may take some time to rebound back to pre-pandemic levels because of lingering concerns about shared public spaces.
In the meantime, Seattle and the region cannot afford or sustain a sudden increase in single occupancy vehicle (SOV) car commuters. State highway traffic has been back to within 90% of pre-pandemic levels for months, even with schools being closed and many still working from home. Lately, highway traffic is off just a few points from 2019 levels.
Prior to the pandemic, downtown Seattle’s 300,000-plus workers mostly got downtown on transit, carpools and vanpools, and active modes like walking and biking. Only about 26% drove alone to work. The fact is that for the city to truly recover, transit must also recover.
According to our survey, employers are expecting a major ramp up of in-person before the end of the year. Commute Seattle recommends the following to employers as we build back commute behaviors in the coming months:
- Provide a transit benefit like ORCA Passport and consistently remind employees that transit is safe
- Do not exceed your number of drive alone commuters from before the pandemic. If you had 20 such commuters before the pandemic, aim for that, or–even better–beat it!
- Allow for continued flexibility with remote work arrangements and schedules, especially in the near term and for West Seattle residents facing the closure of the High Bridge
- If possible, encourage telework days to be distributed evenly throughout the week rather than concentrated on Mondays and Fridays
- Help set up carpools and vanpools with ride-matching systems and incentives
- Encourage active commuting and cash in on the pandemic bike boom by providing amenities that make these modes easier to use; incentives also work great here!
- If providing parking for employees, charge a daily rate rather than monthly. Monthly parking incentivizes added trips that could have been shifted to more sustainable modes
Commute Seattle is here to help with all of the above and more as we build back better commutes. As a nonprofit Transportation Management Association, our services are completely free. Learn more about what we can offer or reach out to our team today. We look forward to working with you.