There was some good discussion generated from the summing up of my reading of the land use code at Crosscut. One thing I learned from reading the code is that we should take the simple rules of supply and demand seriously and apply them when land use decisions get made. When it comes to land use and transit that lesson tells me that along with pushing for $20 car tab fees and $60 Vehicle Licensing Fees, advocates of bus service and light rail also need to push for better land use decisions that reflect basic and sound economic principles.
When our land use policies diffuse housing supply the demand for that housing will usually follow that supply, especially when it is kept cheap by externalizing the cost for transportation infrastructure (roads and buses). But that diffusion of housing supply to the ‘burbs, also means disaggregated demand for transit which drives up its costs, forcing it to rely on flaky King County Council politics and fickle voters at the ballot box.
The greatest offender when it comes to making bad land use decisions that negatively affect transit has been the Seattle City Council, a city that should be leading the way on showing the region how to grow. The Council’s worry about developers making a windfall from up zones has made them do something that doesn’t make any sense: make it harder to develop housing in the city. The more they worry about developer profit the more rules they impose (take incentive zoning, for example), which limits supply. Again, the simple rule is that if you limit supply and demand stays constant or goes up, you’ll increase prices, making housing by the usual standard “unaffordable.”
As people look for housing in our region they run up against limited supply in the places we most want people to live, the city. If it’s easier to build new single-family housing or sell that housing out in the ‘burbs, the supply out there will be greater. Seattle’s hesitant attitude toward up zones to create Transit Oriented Development not only keeps housing prices high, but also means that costs for maintaining transit service to far flung reaches of King County will go up too.
Among the many great things density does (lower emissions, more efficient energy use, less impact on water), it also aggregates demand for transit. Lots of demand for transit in one place makes it less expensive to supply. It’s as simple as visualizing a bus stop on Third Avenue versus a stop somewhere in Maple Valley, there’s going to be a lot more people, more fares, and fewer operating costs. Density is good for transit’s bottom line in King County. More people in a smaller space can mean more efficiency.
The more that Seattle resists density, the more expensive it is going to be to operate transit. We talk a good talk about sustainability but our land use policy is in direct conflict with it. So when Seattle constrains housing supply, it’s actively pushing up the operating costs for Metro and stretching subsidies to the breaking point. Meanwhile County politics dictates more and more of that subsidy go to keep bus service cheap where it is most expensive, a pathological cycle of codependence and inefficiency. Seattle’s land use policies drive up the price of transit, forcing local governments to pay for the City Council’s mistakes with extraordinary revenue from more fees and taxes.
This is why transit advocates have to be just as enthusiastic in their support of up zones as they are for subsidies through tax and fee increases. And those subsidies should be seen as a bridge to keep transit viable until we get our land use right. Then, maybe, the subsidies can largely go away. I know that the idea of a transit system paying for itself is kind of like Eldorado. But if demand is aggregated with good land use policy the idea that transit could be self-sustaining is not as farfetched as it is today.