Traffic backing on I-5 at the 145th Street exit in Seattle is part of Michelle Bernath’s 18-mile commute to and from Mukilteo, which sometimes takes one hour each way five days a week. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Traffic backing on I-5 at the 145th Street exit in Seattle is part of Michelle Bernath’s 18-mile commute to and from Mukilteo, which sometimes takes one hour each way five days a week. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Solo driver? You’re far from alone

We might be gripping it in frustration, but we’re not giving up that steering wheel anytime soon.

As awful as traffic gets, we don’t want to take our hands off that steering wheel. We like to be in the driver’s seat. (Well, maybe “like” is a bit strong …)

Pemco Insurance recently took a poll of more than 600 drivers in Washington about their commutes.

More than 9 in 10 reported they drive themselves to work, and most said they don’t plan to give that up.

Drivers reported they’d be willing to spend nearly an hour and a half on the road before they’d consider a drastic change, such as moving closer to their job. Instead, they cope by seeking out side streets and back roads — often with the help of GPS — or adjust their drive times to avoid the worst backups.

Driving solo is the top commute option for Snohomish County drivers according to a number of surveys.

It’s not just that we love our loner habits.

A house with a yard that’s affordable is tough for many families to find close to employment hot spots such as Seattle and the Eastside.

A 2017 poll of 272 households by the Puget Sound Regional Council included a question about what factors went into choosing their current home. Affordability and “having space and separation from others” were listed far more often than being in walking distance to nearby activities or even quality of schools.

Driving alone often remains the fastest and most convenient option for these increasingly long commutes.

A breaking point

Fifteen percent of Snohomish County commuters now have travel times greater than one hour, up from 10 percent in 2010, according to the latest analysis by the Puget Sound Regional Council. The number of “super commuters,” driving 90 minutes or more, also is on the rise.

Diane Ramos finally reached her breaking point.

Ramos recently sold her house in Snohomish and now rents a house in Bothell, closer to her job. She had spent two hours or more on the road commuting to and from work. She’s shaved that to 15 minutes.

“I may be able to bike to work from my new house,” Ramos added.

Ramos said she would have tried other commuting options — if they were available. Her old commute was on Highway 9 in south Snohomish County, which does not have a bus route or a carpool lane.

A failed 2008 ballot measure would have annexed that part of the county into Community Transit’s service area.

“Snohomish County has talked about potentially building a park-and-ride at the corner of Highway 9 and Cathcart Road,” Community Transit spokesman Martin Munguia said. “If that happens, it could spur more local interest” in annexation.

Ramos said the need is apparent.

“With all of the houses being built in Lake Stevens and only two-lane roads (one lane each way) going across the river in Snohomish, traffic is just going to continue to get worse,” she said.

If buses are one answer, though, they’re not the answer we particularly like.

Michelle Bernath, of Mukilteo, commutes 18 miles to Northgate, sometimes taking a hour each way five-days a week. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Michelle Bernath, of Mukilteo, commutes 18 miles to Northgate, sometimes taking a hour each way five-days a week. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

We hate buses

Michelle Bernath, of Mukilteo, has a “hellish” commute of 18 miles to Northgate that takes an hour or more each way.

“As much as I would love someone to drive me around, I will likely never ditch the solo drive,” Bernath said.

An unpredictable schedule and a job that often requires a carload of supplies are among her reasons. The bus would take longer, with multiple stops and transfers. Bernath said she’d rather “just gut it out in my car.”

“At least my car isn’t stinky and I can listen to the music I want,” she added.

Reader Holly Sunshine, of Edmonds, summed up what would get her out of her car and onto a bus this way:

1. “Buses that aren’t packed like sardines.”

2. “Park-and-rides that aren’t at capacity before 7 a.m.”

3. “Buses that don’t sit in traffic just as long as a car does.”

4. “Bus stops that are covered, and buses that come consistently every 10 minutes.”

Sunshine commuted by bus into Seattle for two years. “I took a $10 per hour pay cut just so I could quit that awful bus commute,” she said.

Melissa Clark, of Mukilteo, also used to take the bus to a job in Seattle, “back when gas prices were outrageous and I didn’t have a hybrid,” she said.

Now she commutes to Marysville.

The state is working to add a shoulder lane on I-5 from Everett to Marysville, and is considering whether to make it open to carpools and buses only.

But for now, there’s no carpool lane once you leave downtown Everett. And to take the bus, Clark would need to leave 45 minutes earlier, make two transfers, go backward at one point, and plan for about an hour and 20 minutes of travel time. And that’s just the morning commute.

“Instead, I can drive home at my convenience in 30 minutes in my frugal Prius,” she said.

Pedal power

There are, of course, other alternatives.

Michael Bauer, of Mill Creek, has tried many kinds of commutes. His current one is a seven-mile jaunt into Lynnwood on an electric bike.

“Before an ebike I tried regular biking, bus, bus-bike combo, and of course driving,” Bauer said. “For me the kicker was time and physical effort. On a regular bike it took me significantly longer than car and I was all sweaty. Showering at the office was inconvenient and took more time. The ebike solved this for me because the time to the office was the same or close to car — and I was way less sweaty.”

It’s cheap, too, he added.

The best way to get others to make a switch is to increase the costs — in money, time and physical effort — of a solo drive, Bauer said. Put more restrictions on high-occupancy vehicle lanes. And add tolls.

“The problem is not that we don’t have solutions,” Bauer said. “The problem is that we don’t have the political will to change policies that would truly change behavior for what we need.”

Yeah, good luck with that.

But if not changing policies, we’re at least searching for other options.

Shifting habits

Despite our collective addiction to convenience, the solo drive is actually on the decline.

About three-quarters of Snohomish County workers drive alone to their jobs, according to the most recent U.S. Census estimates. That’s a lot, but it’s down from 89.5 percent in 2005.

It’s not because more people are carpooling. Carpool rates continue a long downward trajectory, down to 11.5 percent in 2017 compared to 13.3 percent in 2005. Around here, folks would rather pay a toll than drive with another human.

Instead, public transportation is on the rise (not everyone hates the bus). And telecommuting is increasingly popular.

In our area, more people work from home than take a bus.

Tony Condon, of Arlington, has been among the home-office ranks since 2014, when his Seattle employer moved to Northgate and started offering the option. His IT job makes it easy to work remotely.

Before, Condon took buses into downtown, spending $8.75 a day in fares. His day started at 5:30 a.m. and, on good days, he was home at 6 p.m. One-third of his day away from home was spent on the road.

Now, he gets more sleep, is less stressed and saves money on gas, eating out and bus fares. All that, and he’s working more.

“I’m happy to be putting in more working hours during my day in exchange for not commuting,” Condon said.

With a three-week closure of the Highway 99 Alaskan Way Viaduct coming in January, maybe more people will begin to join him.

Melissa Slager’s last day at The Herald was Friday, after more than four years as the Street Smarts reporter. She has several columns banked that will run in the coming weeks.

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