Uber and the Evolving Mobility Landscape in Seattle

Rik Williams
Nov 7, 2019 · 5 min read

By Rik Williams, Policy Research Data Scientist, and Chris Pangilinan, Head of Global Policy for Public Transportation

Over the past few years, something remarkable has taken place in Seattle. New Census data reveal that Seattle’s car ownership rate has dropped faster than any other US city. During this time, transit ridership has seen significant growth while Uber rideshare trips and JUMP bike share trips have also been growing. In fact, according to the most recent Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) Traffic Report, nearly half of Seattle residents are choosing to commute without using their own car via a mix of transit, carpools, bicycling and walking.

Source: SDOT 2018 Traffic Report

As the mobility landscape continues to evolve, we wanted to take a closer look at how technology-enabled services are impacting mobility in Seattle. To do this, we’ve looked into data about where, how, and when riders are using Uber in Seattle. The results suggest that rideshare is helping to change how people get around, including:

  • Providing access to new transportation options in areas of Seattle that have historically been underserved by more traditional modes;
  • Serving as an occasional, infrequent mode of travel for most riders;
  • Complementing public transit to serve trips at different times of the day; and
  • Increasing access to a suite of affordable transportation alternatives — including JUMP bikes — available to Seattle travelers.

Uber’s Impact in Underserved Areas
In other parts of the US, we’ve seen signs (both in our data and from third-party research) that ridesharing trips increasingly occur outside of urban cores, in areas where public transit is often limited and residents are more dependent on personal automobiles. For instance, Uber trips in California occur in many smaller communities (including 100 cities and towns with populations below 30,000). In megacities like New York and Los Angeles, ridesharing is available to the vast majority of the population (with over half of NYC Uber trips beginning outside Manhattan).

Seattle is no exception — over the past couple years, use of the Uber app has grown fastest in historically underserved neighborhoods in Seattle where diverse transportation options aren’t as readily available. For instance, when we look at the number of pickups in City Clerk Neighborhoods between Sept. 2017 and Sept. 2019, we find that the growth rate of Uber trips was highest in several neighborhoods outside of Seattle’s downtown core.

Uber trip growth by neighborhood, Sept. 2017 to Sept. 2019 (selected)

  • High Point: 55%
  • South Beacon Hill: 83%
  • Bryant: 88%
  • Holly Park: 92%
  • Brighton: 101%
  • South Park: 101%
  • Dunlap: 103%

For comparison, during that same period, citywide trip growth was 21 percent.

The geographic distribution of trips themselves (not just trip growth) also indicates that Uber helps underserved communities access reliable transportation: about 43 percent of trips starting in Seattle originate in economically distressed ZIP codes as defined by the City (shown below). This analysis excludes three distressed ZIP codes in Downtown and Capitol Hill, since these areas have substantial commercial activity; when those ZIP codes are included, the figure is more than 70 percent of trips.

Economically distressed “Tier 1” ZIP codes in Seattle (as defined by the Seattle Department of Finance and Administrative Services), excluding three ZIP codes in Downtown and Capitol Hill, are shaded in green. About 43% of Uber trips start in the shaded areas.

Seattle Riders Are Multimodal
Many Seattle commuters use alternatives to driving alone for their travel needs. Dockless bike share is also emerging as a popular option to get around — we were recently excited to announce that, in less than a year, more than one million JUMP rides have been taken in the city.

Even so, in certain circumstances (such as places and times where taking transit or bicycling aren’t as feasible), someone may choose to take a car instead. So how do rideshare trips fit in with travel by other modes?

In previous work, we’ve inferred multimodal journeys through the spatial patterns of Uber trips. Another way is to look at trip frequency: do riders use Uber to get around on a daily basis (like most car-owning households use their vehicles), or more for occasional travel? As it turns out, the latter seems to be the case: 84 percent of active riders in Seattle averaged one or fewer Uber trips per week during the third quarter of 2019¹. This suggests that most riders do not use the Uber app for regular commuting, relying instead on other modes for most of their day-to-day travel.

Complementarity With Transit Service
Seattle residents not only use public transportation for a substantial fraction of their commutes, but their penchant for multimodal travel is reflected in the steady growth in transit ridership we’ve seen over the last decade:

Source: SDOT 2018 Traffic Report

The simultaneous growth of transit ridership and rideshare use, alongside the continued decline in single-occupant auto commuting, suggest that high-quality transit and rideshare can together provide an attractive alternative to driving alone. While transit tends to be most frequent (and therefore most used) during weekday commute times, activity on the Uber app is higher on evenings and weekends. In fact, a substantial fraction — 39 percent — of Uber trips in the last quarter began overnight (between 10pm and 5am) or on weekends, both periods when transit service in Seattle is most limited.

The chart below illustrates these patterns, showing transit² and Uber activity throughout the course of a typical week in Seattle:

Uber and public transit activity during an average week in Seattle. The curves are separately normalized to fit on the same graph, therefore showing relative temporal patterns.

In recent years, Seattle has stood out among US cities for improving public transit service, increasing ridership, and bringing down rates of single-occupant automobile commuting. Ridesharing has also continued to grow, and our data indicate that it’s doing so in a way that complements transit, bicycling, and walking in Seattle: by providing access to on-demand transportation in historically-underserved neighborhoods, facilitating over 1 million dockless bike share trips across the city, and filling occasional transportation needs for riders, particularly during nights and weekends.

We’re proud of these findings, as they signal that ridesharing can work toward cities’ goals for more efficient and equitable mobility. At the same time, we know there’s much more work to be done, and are excited to continue our work with cities to find even more opportunities to enhance urban mobility.

¹ Average trips per week were calculated for Seattle riders who took at least one Uber trip in Q3 2019

² Transit trips by hour in Seattle were computed using General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) data