The Many Ways of Getting Around Seattle

When I moved to Seattle in 2006, Amazon was kind enough to put my car on a truck, move it across the country, and deliver it to the office. Within a year, I was driving that car so rarely that I ended up selling it to a coworker. With so many alternatives to get from point A to B, I’m happier without the hassles of owning a car.

In the beginning, there was a single car-by-the-hour company called Flexcar. The City of Seattle was offering $50 a month in Flexcar credits in exchange for a pledge not to drive my own car. After I sold my car, the city gave me $600 more in Flexcar credits. I also drew up a spreadsheet weighing Flexcar against my car expenses: I was spending money on parking, maintenance, gas, insurance, and depreciation, and I could have deposited the sale proceeds to earn 5% interest. If I had spent over $300 a month on Flexcar I’d have been better off owning a car in 2007. I’ve only exceeded that once in about 9 years. Besides the money saved, I’ve never had to deal with repairs, break-ins, parking tickets, or any other problems affecting a car of my own.

Motivated by Amazon’s free transit pass for employees, I started riding buses regularly for the first time since college. Tools like Google Maps and OneBusAway made the transition much easier. Seattle’s downtown transit tunnel reopened to buses in 2007. Central Link light rail started running to the airport in 2009; starting today, with great fanfare, it expands north to Capitol Hill and the University of Washington. More stations to the north, south, and east are already under construction. There won’t be any light rail to the west, although the water taxi to West Seattle is still available and pretty cool. We even have a few little trains in the city: two streetcars serve South Lake Union and First Hill and the Seattle Center Monorail connects the Space Needle to the commercial core in just two minutes.

Seattle’s taxi market, so stagnant and terrible in 2006, was first disrupted in 2012 when Uber came to town. Lyft has since joined it. These two companies caused such a stir that in 2014 Seattle limited each company to 150 active drivers, then lifted those same limits the same year, then in 2015 passed landmark legislation allowing drivers to unionize. Uber also claims credit for a 10% drop in DUI arrests since it opened here. These new transportation companies keep lowering their prices — and driver pay as a result — but I’d be happy to use them even if they cost just as much as the services they displaced. They’ve even forced the old stalwarts like Yellow Cab to deploy credit card readers and mobile apps of their own. (Yellow Cab’s card readers and mobile app don’t always work, but I appreciate the effort.)

Lastly, to disrupt Flexcar (which was bought by Zipcar, which is now a subsidiary of Avis Budget Group), car2go entered Seattle in late 2012. Unlike Zipcar, whose cars must be parked at specific locations, I can pick up and drop off a car2go Smart car anywhere in the city. I can drive a car2go to a party, stay and drink as much as I want, and then get a ride home from a friend or from a car service. car2go’s impact has been dramatic: I spent $1,467 (before taxes) on Zipcar in the three years before car2go opened in Seattle and only $435 in the three years since then. (I spent $1,292 on car2go in its first three years, so my total carsharing expenses are up.) car2go may yet get disrupted by another German company: BMW is testing DriveNow, its own pay-by-the-minute service, in Seattle. In my dream city, using a car would be as easy as it is in a Grand Theft Auto game: walk up, press a button, get in, and drive away.

There are so many ways I’ve navigated around Seattle and environs: public bus, streetcar, light rail, water taxi, ferry, Amtrak train, discount buses like Megabus, Zipcar, regular car rental companies like Budget, car2go, bikeshare, friends’ cars, and plenty of walking. All these choices can make a short trip more complex than when I owned a car. These services have rules that must be memorized and followed. Zipcars must be parked in designated spaces; if those spaces are full, I have to call customer service. Meanwhile, a car2go must be parked along a street, but not in an archipelago of restricted parking zones. Apps like OneBusAway might say a bus is 2 minutes away, but if traffic is bumper-to-bumper, it won’t come for 20 minutes. Seattle’s bikeshare program nearly went insolvent, requiring a $1.4 million public bailout. On some days my inbox and Twitter feed are awash in transit alerts and the occasional sharing service rule change.

One thing stays the same, though: despite not owning a car I’m not missing out on anything.

This is part 2 of 10 Years, 10 Things to Love, a yearlong series commemorating my 10th anniversary of moving to Seattle.