Feb 5, 2024 - News

Seattle has 7th-worst downtown traffic in U.S., data shows

Change in average travel time by car, 2021 to 2023
Data: TomTom; Map: Axios Visuals

Seattle may lag other cities regarding its downtown economic recovery — but new data shows it's beating most of them when it comes to time stuck in downtown traffic.

What's happening: The average 6-mile trip in Seattle's city center took more than a minute longer last year compared to 2021, according to data from TomTom.

  • That made Seattle's downtown traffic the seventh-worst among 80 U.S. cities analyzed.

By the numbers: A 6-mile car trip through Seattle's downtown took 15 minutes and 17 seconds in 2023, compared to 14 minutes and 10 seconds in 2021.

Average travel time by car, 2023
Data: TomTom; Note: U.S. overall includes an average of 80 cities; Chart: Axios Visuals

Zoom out: Car commutes have largely gotten slower across America since the mid-pandemic era — likely a reflection of increased traffic as more people head back to the office at least some of the time.

  • Traffic slowed most significantly in Washington, D.C., New York City and Boston between 2021 and 2023, based on the average time spent traveling 6 miles in their respective city centers.
  • In D.C., that 6-mile trip took 97 seconds longer last year compared to 2021; in New York, it took 87 seconds longer; and in Boston, it took 86 seconds longer.

The big picture: While corporate leaders' efforts to get employees back at their desks full-time have mostly fizzled, the work-from-home era's heyday is undoubtedly behind us.

  • WFH rates are slowly slipping downward, with a minority of workers enjoying total flexibility.
  • The result: More car traffic as the rush-hour rat race continues.

What they're saying: "People have now gotten into the habit of going back to the office again," Andy Marchant, TomTom's head of global product marketing, tells Axios.

  • "What we saw during COVID was 100% working at home, and then what we saw after that was a hybrid model where perhaps they went in one day a week, two days a week, but predominantly still worked at home."
  • "And I think what we've seen in the last year by looking at the stats, especially around congestion at rush hour, is that people have gone back to the office more regularly now."

Between the lines: The pandemic allowed cities to rethink their transportation infrastructure in ways that might push people toward public transit.

  • But ridership plummeted during the outbreak, leaving some agencies without the resources or justification for ambitious projects.

Plus: Marchant says commutes may be slower in some cities because of big post-pandemic construction projects, as people find their usual routes blocked.

  • That's especially true of European cities, he says — but it's also the case in many American cities, especially as work begins on new projects funded by the 2021 infrastructure law.

The bottom line: Three things are certain in life: death, taxes, and rush-hour traffic.

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