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Why are high-income earners using Seattle public transit more than others?

(King County Metro)

As people try to negotiate increased commute times and public transportation options, many are still opting to head into work by car. But new census data shows that Seattle is one of the few cities in the country where high-income residents are more likely to take public transit.

According to The Seattle Times, 11 percent of those with a salary of $75,000 or more took public transportation in 2017, a usage higher than lower-earning income groups. It’s rare statistic, only otherwise seen in San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, D.C., New York, and Boston. In most other cities, lower-income groups are much more likely to use transit.

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“In Seattle, I can see this with somebody making $75,000. They’ve got an apartment or a condo in Pioneer Square, they get on the bus and head up there,” said KIRO Radio’s John Curley.

“But if you’re living out in Fife, and you’ve got to commute in, and you have a car and your job is in the city, you commute on in. Because it’s easier to get back out again.”

Despite that pattern, data shows that transit usage nonetheless spiked to a record high in 2017, with part of the surge related to uptick in light rail usage. That rise is an offshoot of the 2016 opening of the light rail station on Capitol Hill and the University of Washington.

Southern migration leading to increased reliance on cars

For workers who earn below $35,000, less than 10 percent used public transit. It’s part of a general pattern in which a gradual migration south from city centers has caused people to be more reliant on their cars.

“What’s happening is: if given a choice and you can afford a car, even if you’re poor, you’ll take a car. Public transportation has dipped across the country,” Curley said.

“When it’s between riding the bus and having to be on somebody else’s schedule, rich or poor across the country will take their car instead.”

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