Demographics and Land Use

Orting, Pierce County, WA (Bing Maps)

Mark Hinshaw in Crosscut provides yet another entry in the exurbs-are-dying genre.  A few years ago, I wrote two posts reacting to previous articles in this thread. There have been others over the years, most notably this Freakonomics roundtable.

For me, though, Matt Yglesias applies the critical sober analysis:

Rising gas prices and various other considerations have prompted this increased round of speculation on whether the suburbanization of America will reverse, but the right answer needs to take into account the fact that what policy choices we make will have a strong impact on the course of the future.

Here’s the money graf:

It’s totally plausible that we’ll respond to high energy prices by keeping our transportation spending priorities similar, while incumbent homeowners in-or-near walkable places respond to increased demand by enacting tight development restrictions in order to maintain artificial scarcity of housing stock and maximize the value of their homes. A similar overall proportion of the population would live in the suburbs, but the urban/suburban socioeconomic mix would continue shifting (“demographic inversion”) and overall quality of life will be hampered. Alternatively, we could alter our land use rules to facilitate the construction of denser areas and shift transportation spending priorities. That would slow sprawl, encourage inner suburbs to become less “suburban,” and a shift of the population base toward the cities. That would also be the more prosperity-friendly solution (not because cities are awesome, but because it’s more economically efficient to allocate resources in a manner less constrained by arbitrary regulatory barriers) and I hope it’s the solution we adopt, but whether or not we do it is totally uncertain.

The only thing I have to add is that the population of most metro areas will continue to grow.  So in his first scenario, where we keep the statutory status quo, you might see demographic inversion, but over an increasingly sprawling area.  Homes in Seattle and Bellevue become more unaffordable than they already are.  As you get to current outer suburbs and exurbs, incomes steadily decline, until you reach towns that currently haven’t been absorbed into the metropolis yet.  These towns would grow up to be sprawling exurbs, with the added problem of being of a lower socioeconomic stratum than that currently associated with exurbs.

In the second scenario, increased density moderates prices in the core, creating a mix of housing prices throughout the metro region.  Furthermore, since growth is directed inward, the geographic metro region has roughly the same limits it has today.

Splitting Route 48

48 and 271 Restructure Map
48 and 271 Restructure Map

King County Metro’s Route 48, running from Mount Baker to Loyal Heights via the U-District is the highest-ridership route in the county; it’s also one of the longest routes in Metro’s network that exists entirely within the densely urbanized and heavily-trafficked urban core of Seattle. Both the north and south segments could stand alone as high-performing frequent-service routes: they would be the 8th and 16th highest-ridership routes in the county respectively. It is also, anecdotally, one of the most pathologically unreliable routes in Metro’s network, earning the sobriquet “forty-late” from its riders.

Talk of splitting the 48 in the U-District probably began when the route was created, and has yet to stop. In general, there tends to be much more transit ridership from residential areas to urban centers, or between urban centers, rather than between residential areas. While reasonably good bidirectional demand exists throughout the route, much of the 48’s ridership is going to or from the U-District, and in that circumstance, splitting the route there has the potential to improve reliability for all riders, while forcing only a minority to make a transfer.  Continue reading “Splitting Route 48”

Today’s Bicycle Journey

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Just to highlight Seattle’s struggling bicycle infrastructure, I thought I’d describe my bicycle experience today.  My wife and I took our 2yr old son on a ride from Gasworks Park to the Lake Forest Park Farmer’s Market.  The ride started off great – the Burke Gilman Trail was packed with bikers, joggers, and rollerbladers.  But when we were close to Lake Forest Park we came upon a sign saying that the BGT is closed in 2.5 miles, and there’s a detour.  Fairly sure the Third Place Commons was less than 2.5 miles away, we continued onward.  But I had miscalculated – the BGT was closed about a mile from our destination.  With a choice between turning around and riding 2.5 miles to the detour and just finding our own way, we chose the adventurous route.  This led us to a push-your-bike grade of hill.  Ok, a few of them.  In the hot sun, but we eventually ended up on Bothell Way NE.  This road (actually a highway), is 4 lanes of unforgiving, high-speed traffic.  It’s no place for a bike with a child seat, even downhill.  So we chose the sidewalk, until it suddenly ended.  We found a side street up and down a few more hills, and we were there.

Arriving at the market, we couldn’t find any bike racks.  I figured the town’s city hall should have at least one, and I finally found it – covered in plants from a vendor.  I asked if I could move some off it (and the vendor agreed, after some passive-aggressive banter about charging me for the spot, and how he’s going to complain to the market’s coordinator), but a recently added ballot box was installed so close that a bike couldn’t fit.  So we headed off and found people leaving the other bike rack we could find.  But another vendor was using the water spigot – located right where our bikes would go.  We eventually found another bike rack at Third Place Books.  We took a bus part of the way home, for fear of having to ride uphill Bothell Way NE.

Overall I had a great time and I love Third Place Commons.  But that was despite the lack of respect shown for bikes along the best bike path in the region.

Significant observations:

  • If I were in a car, there’s no way they’d close the only highway connecting two cities for multiple months without a realistic second option.  If the BGT really has to be closed for months, do it in the winter.
  • If you’re going to just end a sidewalk, at a blind corner with nothing but high speed traffic, at least add “sharrows”.  Actually, no.  Get rid of a lane and build sidewalks.  I can only imagine being a pedestrian – or a pedestrian in a wheelchair – in such an environment.
  • If I were in a car, businesses would go out of their way to make sure I had a parking space.  In fact, they’d devote far more than half of their entire land space to my vehicle.  Yet despite being across the street from the BGT, they can’t offer more than a handful of poorly designed bike spaces?

The New York Times: Density is better for the local economy

Soylent Density: Density is people! (photo by author)

Last week I wrote about how limiting housing supply in the urban core forces demand for transit into the suburbs, increasing the costs of supplying that demand. Sunday’s New York times has an important article that more or less bulids on the points I made last week: density also makes economic sense.

But elected leaders in cities like Seattle continue to play rhetorical and political games with land use, caving to the single-family lobby out to keep the status quo. Think I’m ranting? Here’s what Ryan Avent, the author of the article in the Times says about the single-family status quo crowd:

[They] fight development, aiming to protect old buildings and precious views, limit crime and traffic, and maintain high-quality schools. But what makes a city a city and a not-city a not-city is the fact that a city is dense and a not-city isn’t. The idea of it may chill a homeowner’s heart, but the wealth supported by urban density is what gives urban homes their great value in the first place.

What many single-family advocates forget is  their home is more valuable because of the great stuff just a few blocks away, in dense commercial and residential urban villages. How about density it’s effect on housing supply? When housing gets cheap in sprawling areas because supply gets attenuated in the urban core, many people follow the lower prices.

Factors like taste and taxes account for some of the migration, but the biggest reason for the shift is housing costs. The average Phoenix home is worth about 30 percent of the price of a house in San Jose. The difference in prices is mostly due to differences in building. In every year from 1992 to 2009, Phoenix granted permits for two to three times as many new homes as did the San Francisco and San Jose metropolitan areas combined. Around the San Francisco Bay, neighborhoods dead set against change successfully squeezed the housing supply, just as OPEC limits the supply of oil when it wishes to raise its price.

Exactly. When the Seattle City Council dithers on big land use decisions, or tries to split the baby by supporting 65 feet when developers ask for 85, they do for housing supply what OPEC does for oil supply: reduce it. Less housing with increasing demand ensures higher prices. Higher prices for owner or renter occupied multifamily housing in the city just feeds the single-family lobby more ammunition and fulfills their prophecy of gentrification. What’s the obstacle to making density happen in Seattle and what’s at stake?

Rapid urban growth would mean denser neighborhoods, which makes many Americans uncomfortable. Preventing this density, however, denies workers access to the best opportunities, constraining the mechanism that helps support a strong middle class.

The standard, single-family home in Seattle is presented by the single-family lobby as apple pie. But Avent points out that the idea that density is a bad, socialist potion just isn’t true. To make our country, region, and city work we have to see land use as fiscal policy–loosen regulations and expand what housing suppliers can do and we can create not just more jobs but better jobs and more and better housing. The more we support density the better life, work, and play can become.

The public hearing on density in Roosevelt is right around the corner, September 19th. Now that the New York Times has weighed in, perhaps members of the Seattle City Council will give more credence to the arguments that squashing housing supply to appease single family home owners is bad for our local economy and way of life, not to mention transit, air and water quality, and climate.

What we really plan transit for

Photo by litlnemo

It seems like anytime someone brings up a proposal to restructure a bus network, advocate for rail, or says anything that really encourages dense transit-friendly growth, there’s always a knee-jerk counter-reaction from someone in the community, whether it’s a social service organization, a neighborhood activist, or a well-meaning resident.  Saddest is the fact that most of these people are transit users, believe in social equity, are generally environmentally conscious, and pretty much believe in the same goals that we transit advocates do.

So it’s rather baffling that there’s this strange dichotomy of us vs. them, experts vs. neighbors, bureaucrats vs. the people.  The rhetoric is strikingly similar to the debates with transit/density opponents that tend to end up riddled with political and cultural ideologies.  Too often, it’s pitted as the smarmy planners and experts swooping down into the neighborhood to tell residents that they know better.  Paint it that way, and you’ve instantly ignited a culture war with the seeming effect of having flushed all those shared goals down the drain.

For transit advocates and planners, the bottom line that needs to be communicated is that we’re all on the same side as the people we plan for.  Transit isn’t planned and changed just for the sake of planning.  It’s done because there’s a core benefit delivered the system as a whole and the communities it serves, which, unfortunately, almost always ends up being invisible to the people that bear the brunt of the biggest changes.  And out of selfishness (good or bad), people will never fail to scream loudly at the things that affect them the most.

Planners can’t change human nature.  We can’t tell people to stop being selfish or to tell them to accept change for the greater good.  We can only be objective as possible and let facts be facts.  If the political leaders and decision-makers we commit to elect can look beyond the pluralistic choruses of “me! me! me!” and see that the facts do ultimately stand with community interests in the long-term, then we can start to get somewhere.

An Update on Escalator and Elevator Outages


Photo by Oran

Over the past several weeks, the elevators and escalators in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (DSTT) have seen a very high incidence of breakdowns with some of them out of service for several weeks and counting.  I contacted Sound Transit who informed me that King County Metro is responsible for maintenance in the DSTT.  What I found out is that while the elevators and escalators are under regular maintenance contract, the useful life of many core components has been exceeded and breakdowns occur with some frequency.

Last year, Metro applied for and received a $5.38 Million grant from the Federal Transit Administration’s “State of Good Repair” grant program.  The work was scheduled to begin in 2011 and explains why we are now seeing several escalators out of service for long periods of time.

While escalators themselves are not considered ADA devices, Metro has been responding to elevator outages quickly. Unfortunately there have been some instances of simultaneous breakdowns, as was observed on August 8th when both escalators and one elevator were out on Westlake Station’s northbound platform, leaving just one remaining elevator operational on the northbound side. This was in addition to multiple long-term downtime on escalators inside University Street Station.

According to a statement by a Metro spokesperson, Metro estimates that the major repairs on the Westlake escalator should take an additional month to complete.  However, escalators and elevators outside the DSTT, such as at Mt. Baker Station, fall under the responsibility of Sound Transit.  According to an ST spokesperson, the elevator outage at Mt. Baker is due to a required custom part, which is estimated to require an additional three weeks before the elevator can be put back in service.

CT Board Selects Hybrid Alternative

Photo by Mike Bjork

Yesterday, the Community Transit Board voted to proceed with a hybrid alternative for their system restructure set to be implemented next February.  Like the original Alternative I, it will preserve the core commuter route network with some trip deletions here and there.  The local network, however, is more similar to Alternative III, a complete restructure of local services.

From the CT news release:

In 2012, Community Transit’s commuter service will maintain much of its current routing with fewer trips, while local service will be restructured to serve higher ridership corridors. This afternoon, the agency’s Board of Directors voted 6-3 to approve a plan to cut Community Transit bus service 20 percent effective Feb. 20, 2012.

After a summer-long public comment process that included reviews of four proposed service plans, the board chose the so-called Hybrid Alternative, which combines the commuter routing proposed in Alternative I with the local routing of Alternative III, with some modifications. The board did not restore service on Sundays or major holidays.

The gory (or promising, depending on your outlook) details are available at CT’s website.  The hope here is that the local restructure will make the system more productive and efficient than it is now.  And between Sounder and frequent express service already available at  Lynnwood, Ash Way, and Mountlake Terrace, there’s a good opportunity here to emphasize connections that are certainly more cost-effective than one-seat rides.

The Role of Transit in Natural Disasters

Hurricane Rita and Gridlock on I-45 in Houston, TX (Wikimedia)

Last weekend Hurricane Irene caused an unprecedented shutdown of Metro New York’s transit (including all air travel, MTA, NJT, LIRR, Metro-North, and Amtrak). Given the assurance of wind damage to catenary wire, the probability of toppled trains on exposed elevated alignments, and the assurance of flooding – it takes all-day pumps just to keep New York’s subways from flooding every day – a shutdown was the only prudent course of action. New York was fortunate both that Irene was weaker than expected and that a large-scale evacuation was mostly unnecessary. Though there were very vulnerable spaces, such as Lower Manhattan and the Rockaways, relative safety could be had simply by traveling to the wild uplands of, say, midtown Manhattan. The New York Times deserves much credit for featuring transit news and advice prominently throughout the storm, but most other communities spoke only to drivers’ needs.

Much more after the jump…

Where New York was fortunate, the New Orleans of Hurricane Katrina was infamously unfortunate. Its 100,000 transit-dependent people (27% of New Orleans households!) were ordered to evacuate of their own accord, with no provision or direction on how to do so. Famous aerial shots depicted hundreds of flooded and ruined buses, while maxed-out contraflow highways made ‘evacuation’ on I-10 a sub-5 mph crawl. Those stuck in New Orleans in the first few days after Katrina endured conditions rivaled only by the poorest nations on earth, and they starkly revealed the fundamentally unjust result of a society built around personal cars. When I lived in Britain, more than once my colleagues marveled that a society could order an evacuation with such hand-waving as, “Y’all better get out!”

Ruined Schoolbuses in New Orleans – Wikimedia

I’d like this post and the comments to be a discussion of how transit can best contribute to disaster planning, both here and elsewhere. Though Katrina showed us the worst of both individualism (traffic, looting, etc..) and government ineptitude (FEMA, etc…), it is clear to me that societies owe each other the means to collectively evacuate themselves irrespective of economic class, and that those choosing to be carless should be provided a means of evacuation.

There are significant barriers to transit-based evacuations. Trains, though they have the highest capacity, are generally more vulnerable than highway infrastructure, as their rights-of-way were usually carved out along lowlands and waterways in 19th century. Bus evacuations are much more likely but have their own problems, such as storage of personal effects (people generally evacuate with lots of stuff) and the role of paid labor vs. volunteer driving and all the attendant liability issues there.
But perhaps the most difficult problems are trust and chaos. In disasters survivalism instinctively appears. Social contracts can quickly dissolve, leading to self-defeating self interest, textbook examples of how game theory explains disaster sociology. The urge toward self-reliance is very alluring; there is no other time I would want to be less beholden to government than when its failure to deliver could mean my death.

Hurricanes give lots of warning, a luxury our quake and volcano-prone region wouldn’t have. A major Rainier eruption could bury our rails and make the valleys impassable.  A major quake on the Seattle Fault would damage or destroy up to 80 of our bridges and up to 1,000 of our old masonry buildings. In a major disaster, then, our region should plan less for evacuation and more towards preemptive preparedness and adaptation. But the structural question – our collective responsibility in disasters – is one we need to rehearse over and over until we know exactly what we owe each other.

(For further reading, check out the 2008 report by the Transportation Research Board (TRB), or for those of you who don’t like reading 300+ pages, here’s a simple but well-written article by Michael Schwartz, an academic who has made disaster transit a central research theme of his.)

News Roundup: Cutting Red Tape

Brenda heading downtown (Sound Transit)

This is an open thread.

Reevaluating Route Concepts for RapidRide F Line

Photo by Atomic Taco

Though more than three lines and two years away, RapidRide’s F Line has been getting a well-deserved look from local politicians, including the favor of a few Republicans.  The route, Metro’s sixth installment in their RapidRide brand, will likely replace the 140 currently running between Burien and Renton.

First, I want to explain why the F Line is important.  The Burien-Tukwila-Southcenter-Renton corridor has already been identified by the PSRC as a BRT corridor in the Transportation 2040 plan.  Burien, Tukwila, and Renton are all designated regional growth centers, which makes the east-west corridor that links these centers as one of the most important in South King county.  It’s also in writing in Sound Transit’s Long Range Plan (PDF), so a potential future Link corridor, perhaps with a ST4 vote, could be on the horizon.

More on routing concepts below the jump.

Continue reading “Reevaluating Route Concepts for RapidRide F Line”