The University of Washington is embarking on a massive expansion of its Seattle campus. The plan will add 13,000 people to the University District over the next ten years. What will happen if the UW—already Seattle’s second-largest employer—doesn’t act to mitigate the impacts of this rapid growth? Traffic congestion, pollution, carbon emissions, housing costs, and displacement will all increase, degrading the quality of life in our city and dragging Seattle further from the urgent goal of carbon-neutrality.
Last fall, we mobilized in coalition with community groups, environmental advocates, and other labor unions, and were pleased when the UW took a big step forward, agreeing through union negotiations to provide fully-subsidized transit passes for around half of its Seattle workforce starting on July 1 of this year.
When we first learned that UW was providing fully-subsidized transit passes to some employees this summer, we cheered this move in the right direction, and we hoped that a commitment to a university-wide policy would soon follow. But earlier this month we got some unpleasant news: The UW Administration is not currently planning to extend the free U-PASS program to everyone, but is in fact proposing to increase out-of-pocket transit pass costs for thousands of professional staff and faculty, failing to cover two major employee groups in the new agreements. This took us by surprise, as we know that UW has already decided on a smart plan to finance the new free U-PASS program without having to increase rates on others.
We are UW employees who are now fighting to ensure that everyone is covered by the new pro-transit policy. For many at UW, an ORCA pass purchased through our employer costs $600 annually. With housing and childcare costs skyrocketing, and inflation rising faster than our wages, it’s not surprising that many of our co-workers choose not to incur this cost. In fact, 36% of staff and faculty still drive alone to work, despite the University District being very well served by public transit. That number has barely budged since 2002.
These car commutes contribute hugely to our community’s carbon footprint. On average, commuting by single-occupancy vehicle produces over twice the greenhouse gas emissions of taking transit. With passenger transportation accounting for half of Seattle’s carbon emissions, reducing drive-alone trips is one of the most effective ways to fight climate change. By reducing car traffic and associated pollutants, public transit also improves air quality and reduces health risks of residents living close to major thoroughfares and highways.
One of us is a leader of the UW Housestaff Association, which represents medical and dental trainees. Our members often work long hours and change locations from month to month—sometimes public transit is a viable commute option, sometimes not. Driving easily becomes the default mindset. Shelling out hundreds of dollars a year for a transit pass often doesn’t make financial sense given that many of us make the hourly equivalent of minimum wage and are saddled with tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. Employer-provided transit passes will incentivize our members to choose public transit whenever possible.
Two of us are postdoctoral researchers at the UW, and like many of our colleagues who study climate change, are active as union leaders and environmental justice activists. We recently unionized and are now in contract negotiations. Our work helps drive the UW research engine that brings billions of dollars to our community, while at the same time we struggle with low wages, high costs of supporting young families, huge amounts of student debt, and institutionalized discrimination and sexual harassment that affects many of us every day. We’re united in pushing for a free U-PASS because it will reduce the UW’s carbon footprint while also addressing the economic insecurity that too many of us still face.
We stand in solidarity with those employees not yet represented by a union who are also mobilizing for a fully-subsidized transit pass, because it's the right thing to do for our campus and the entire community. It’s also a common-sense step towards complying with new requirements set by the City of Seattle. As part of its Campus Master Plan, the UW has agreed to reduce drive-alone commutes to 12% for students and employees combined by 2028. We estimate that the employee drive-alone rate must fall from 36% to around 22% to meet this target. This lower rate, which at least 96 large Seattle employers have already achieved, is entirely doable if the UW Administration takes responsible steps like extending transit passes to all employees.
Full transit benefits are already a standard best practice for major institutions in the Seattle area. King County, the City of Seattle, Amazon, and Microsoft all provide unlimited transit passes for their employees. Seattle Children’s Hospital charges $5 per pay period—but also offers a $4.50 per day bonus to employees who don’t drive alone. Employer-provided transit passes have a proven effect on commute behavior, and it’s easy to see why. All of us juggle multiple factors as we plan our days, figuring out where we have to be and when, making split-second decisions; having that unlimited ORCA pass in your wallet helps tip the balance towards public transit.
We’re proud to work at the University of Washington. We want our employer to be a standard-setter for sustainability and public transit, responsible to the broader community as well as to its own workforce. We call on the University of Washington to make a commitment now to extend a policy of full transit benefits to all employees. This is the right thing to do to address gridlock. It’s the right thing to do to address the rising cost of living in Seattle. It’s the right thing to do to combat climate change. It’s time for the UW to stop dragging its feet.
Dr. Adam Greenbaum, MD/PhD, is an Oncology fellow at the University of Washington Medical Center and a Boardmember of the University of Washington Housestaff Association.
Marina Dütsch is a postdoctoral researcher in Earth and Space Sciences and a member of the bargaining committee of UW Postdocs United.
Pam Baker is a postdoctoral researcher in the Dept of Biological Structure and a member of the bargaining committee of UW Postdocs United.