Photo by Slack Action

This is an open thread. I hope to see some of you at tonight’s fundraiser.

47 Replies to “News Roundup: Puff Piece”

  1. Re streetcars: Comment to The TransportPolitic spot-on about right-of-way, for all transit vehicles. But in my observation, it’s harder to get necessary guaranteed reservation for streetcars precisely because they can’t get around obstacles. Buses theoretically can, and therefore nobody cares how often they have to.

    Flexibility of buses is often exaggerated, especially in Seattle: there are only so many places buses can even be routed to, let alone diverted. No substitute for route-length with nothing allowed on it but transit.

    A rail system can be designed to minimize blockage. Crossovers work- however, there need to be enough of them, and drivers and coordinators need training to make them work smoothly. Transit system really should have its own fleet of tow-vehicles to keep its tracks-or busways-clear.

    Speaking of street rail and other transit, vehicles and right of way, since this is an open thread: A week from today, Thursday, the Waterfront project will have a major public session on “Design and Idea Sharing” for the new watefront.

    As yet, the project seems not only to have eliminated the Waterfront Streetcar, but emphatically has no plans whatever for a transit right-of-way on the new, and massively more populous waterfront.

    Whatever you think about streetcars, it would be good to show up and insist that there at least be public transit that can get through crowds.

    Bell Harbor Conference Center, Pier 66 – Elliott Hall
    Alaskan Way and Bell, Thursday, October 27
    5-9 PM

    When asked what you’d like to see on the Waterfront, if you don’t say “streetcars,” at least say “transit.”

    Mark Dublin

    1. Yeah on the right-of way comment. A lot of the watering down of BRT you see is precisely because buses are “flexible”.

    1. A ways in he runs some really useful numbers. The result of some basic calculations (assuming $0.34/mile, and $25/hr wages): “a logical person should be willing to pay about $15,900 more for a house that is one mile closer to work, and $477,000 more for a house that is 30 miles closer to work. For a double-commuting couple, these numbers are $31,800 and $954,000.”

      1. Yes, but consider that driving costs you a little all the time, which is easy for anyone of moderate means to handle. Buying a $954,000 house may make you break even over the long-haul, but who’s got $200k for a downpayment?

      2. I commute because I want to live in central Seattle and my exurban employer pays for my commute. I’ve commuted 12,000 awful miles in the past 14 months, not a penny out of pocket, but I get to spend evenings and weekends in a great city rather than some awful suburb closer to work. For me the calculation still favors commuting, but that would change instantly if I actually had to pay for it.

      3. Assuming an average of 35 mph, that’s 343 hours of your life staring at the bumper ahead. That’s like giving up 8.5 weeks of vacation. Not that you’re making the wrong choice, as long as you value city life more than those 7 weeks per year. Another reasonable choice (if it’s an option) is to change jobs rather than homes.

        Re: Money at once, versus over time. Exactly the point I made in my post. If mortgage companies would look at more than income and credit, they’d lend a lot more to someone with a short commute than a long one. In the world we live in, the best financial strategy is to move the closest to work you can afford. If that means a smaller home than you’d like, odds are you’ll be able to afford that larger home soon.

      4. If mortgage companies would look at more than income and credit, they’d lend a lot more to someone with a short commute than a long one.

        Yes and no. People change jobs very often. It’s much more likely for a highly-paid employee to find a new job in a different area, with a different commute, then for that employee to become jobless (which is already a risk they take into account).

        In practice, it would be more likely to expect borrowers to look at a person’s spending history. If Alice and Bob earn the same amount of money, but Alice has a 5-year history of spending much less money, then it’s reasonable to lend more money to Alice. (And as we all know, there’s a good chance that Alice spends less money precisely because she doesn’t drive.)

      1. Zack, by choosing to live in Seattle when you work in the suburbs, do you feel (and I am no way passing judgement on your commuter lifestyle), that you, and people like you, are a big part of the problem?

      2. In general, yes, my long commute is part of the problem, and I’d love to change it. But living near work would require all sorts of things that on balance would create more problems… (1. I’d have to buy a car if I lived in Lakewood, where now I haven’t had a car in 6 years. (2. All the trips I make now on foot or bike (groceries, bars, etc…) would likely convert to car or transit trips if I lived in the ‘burbs. (3. My wife currently walks 1/2 a mile to work, and every mile I could move closer to work would be a further mile for her, and she would likely have to start taking transit, canceling any potential benefit. So yes, I’m riding buses and trains an unacceptable 80 miles per day, and I’d LOVE to get a job in Seattle, but when considering household travel patterns it’s a complicated calculus to figure out what’s part of the problem and what’s not.

      3. +1 to Zach’s point. I live in Seattle and commute to Redmond, That means I make two 15-mile commutes a day for about 4 days a week, but in exchange, all of my remaining travel is done by non-car methods; the vast majority is on foot. If I lived in Redmond, I could walk to work, but I’d have to own a car for virtually every other trip, and I’d have to make the same 30-mile roundtrip (15 miles each way) whenever I wanted to go into Seattle.

        I would love to have a job in Seattle, but changing jobs just isn’t that easy — and aside from the location, my current job is pretty much perfect.

  2. Requiring developers to build “public space” is a foolish tax on density.

    So many problems with the linked article I don’t even know where to start.

    Technically, it does work out to a tax on density. However, every developer always bites at the carrot, because it’s always worth it financially to the developers.

    But there are times when a denser structure would have some economic benefit, just not enough to make it worth building the park. In those cases, you get a smaller building and no park.

    I’d love to see an example of this. I’ve certainly never heard of it happening; the cost/benefit ratio is so heavily skewed in these that the developer’s often getting $20 of value for every $1 he spends on the public amenity. Feel free to find me an example of a developer not taking the extra height. So the plaza “bonus” is just a funny way of representing something that’s essentially a mandatory requirement.

    The article rails against overly specific zoning prescriptions for the “optional” amenities, claiming they actually reduce the quality of the provided spaces. However, Zuchotti Park, the example given in the article, predates all of these specific requirements by about 15 years. It was built in an era when the height bonus was just given for providing a generic public plaza, with no specific requirements at all. It was the abject failure of most (but not all!) of the public spaces created in this era that triggered Whyte’s famous study of plazas, public spaces, and street life, to find what factors actually work. Most of the specific guidelines set forth since have been to counteract specific, counterproductive decisions that developers and property owners have a tenancy to make when left to their own devices (like the removal of seating and addition of metal spikes).

    Wide, expansive plazas are not the answer; multiple, well designed, small spaces (even just a narrow strip around the outside of the property). But developers MUST be forced to create good public spaces, because they will not otherwise. History bares this out, they simply create inward facing structures out of scale to the pedestrian, and turn their backs on the neighborhood.

    Read it.

    1. Why do developers need to be forced to create public space, when we have five lane streets downtown that could be one or two?

      1. Because 5 lane streets downtown are fine for the city, just we need to balance the type of traffic on those 5 lanes (more busses/streetcars/bikes) better.

      2. This is also true. From a pedestrian perspective, 4th ave doesn’t seem inordinately wide. I wouldn’t want it any wider, but it’s not like crossing the 7 lane arterials you see out in the suburbs. I suppose it’s just a matter of perception, but there’s a big difference there.

        There is also a strong argument to be made for not widening sidewalks until they are actually congested. A certain amount of “crowding” is actually quite beneficial, psychologically.

      3. haha, I agree … I didn’t even realize 4th ave was 5 lanes (but a quick peek at google maps shows that indeed it is).

        Seriously, in my mind it’s a sort of smallish local street, infinitely different from those depressing suburban hell-roads…

      4. @Lack Thereof
        WRT sidewalks, I guess you’re referring to the “buzz” one gets on a busy sidewalk, but I don’t think any imaginable sidewalk width increase would have a perceptible effect on the “buzz”—a busy sidewalk remains a busy sidewalk, even at twice the width, an empty sidewalk remains empty, and a “somewhat busy” sidewalk remains that.

        [I say this based on seeing a number of sidewalk widenings (doubling of width or more) in areas of different pedestrian densities; in every case, there was a significant improvement in convenience, without any noticeable effect on the “vibe.”]

      5. Wow, Ben. That is a strange statement coming from someone with your intelligence. Try thinking a bit more before you respond.

    2. I agree with you, continuing to provide bonuses for creating parks is a good thing, IMO, that’s half of why downtown Seattle is so awesome!
      Looking at Chicago, and Seattle, Seattle has tiny parks with beautiful landscaping, trees, ponds, etc, all over, Chicago has millennium park, lake shore east park, daley plaza, the federal center, the vanburen/state park and de-paul’s small plaza (that I can recall) The experience downtown Chicago is completely urban canyon, with no greenspace almost at all(not considering the nice planters on state street and michigan ave..) This is very different from Seattle, where there are parks and ponds and trees all over downtown, buildings don’t form quite the narrow canyons Chicago does, but they still form some sort of continuous street walls, but with street-level beauty that is unparalleled in any city I can recall visiting.

      I recognize that the lack of water features in Chicago is probably due to climate, but even so, there are fountains and the like so its not like they are completely out of the question.

      Chicago’s canyons and street-walls are AMAZING. (The river, michigan ave, lasalle st.) but Seattle’s pocket parks, just take the street-level experience to the next level.

      1. Chicago floods some of the downtown sports fields in the winter and maintains skating rinks. That’s pretty cool! I love the temperate NW climate (Chicago thinks they are in the NW… evidently didn’t get the memo about Manifest Destiny ;-) but it is sort of telling that both ice skating and swimming are considered indoor sports :=

  3. Re: speed limits. Lowering the speed limit may sound like a good idea to protecedistrians, however it is asking for people to disobey the law even more than they already are. You see this all the time where citys have a stop sign every block so people start california stopping or simply running them, same for school zones where you have some arbitrary when children are present or inbetween the hours of 6 am to 6pm type operation. A better solution is to invest in our infrastructrure to make it safer for bikes and peds with marked lanes and proper side and crosswalks. Either state law or the mutcd specifies that speed limits should be set to the 80th percentile, that is if 80 pct of the people go at x speed thats what the speed limit should be set at.

    1. I appreciate your point that adding more rules doesn’t necessarily mean that people will follow those rules, but if it’s worthwhile to lower the speed limit, then it’s may also be worthwhile to enforce the lower speed limit.

      I don’t have any hard data to back it up, but my sense from talking to non-bicyclists, is that one of the primary (though not only) factors keeping more people from bicycling is feeling unsafe biking in and around car traffic. If we decide that it’s worthwhile to increase the percentage of people using bicycles to get around Seattle, then we need to expand the area people feel safe bicycling in.

      One way we can do that is by decreasing the speed differential between cars and bicycles. Much of the time, bicyclists will be traveling at 10-20mph, and will feel much safer near cars going 20mph or less, rather than zooming by them at 30+ mph.

      Another way to make people feel safer is to increase the buffer between cars and bicycles. This needs to be more than the pitiful bike lanes we currently have. Right now, too many of our bicycle lanes are narrow strips immediately adjacent to parked cars. Much of the time, half or more of the bike lane is within the radius of an open car door, so bicyclists have to constantly watch for people getting in and out of parked cars, as well as cars going in or out of on-street parking spots, and the occasional car or delivery truck using the bicycle lane as a temporary parking spot.

      Since the bike lanes are narrow, avoiding these obstacles usually means leaving the bicycle lane and going out into car traffic. The same is true, in most places, if you want to pass another cyclist; you have to move left, out of the bike lane.

      Some percentage of people, especially younger people, and people who are already more physically fit, are willing to put up with these things and use the existing streets with their minimal bike infrastructure, alongside fast-moving cars, but if we want to get more people onto bicycles in Seattle, we need to do a lot more than paint white lines a few feet to the left of on-street parking.

      1. The only proven way to actually practically decrease car speed is to change the design of the road. Signs don’t do it. Enforcing the signs just makes drivers angry.

      2. however it is asking for people to disobey the law even more than they already are.

        If we, as a country, can’t be bothered to obey the rule of law — even if it means that we might *kill* someone — then we’re screwed in a much bigger way.

        Maybe we just need stricter penalties. Caught going 40 mph in a 20 mph zone? You’re paying a month’s worth of your income in fines, and you’ve lost your license for a year. Do it again? You’re going to jail, and your license is gone for the rest of your life. Is that what it would take to get people to follow the law?

        Enforcing the signs just makes drivers angry.

        Really? We can’t enforce the law — a law that is designed to save lives — just because it might hurt some poor driver’s feelings? Boo fucking hoo. If you can’t be bothered to follow the law, then you can’t be trusted behind the wheel of a 4,000 pound killing machine.

        Does no one else see the problem here? Am I the only person who hasn’t completely given up on the idea of a law-abiding society?

      3. [Aleks] The best way to create a law abiding society is to form reasonable laws. Unenforceable laws give us less respect for government. Take marajuana. Having an unenforceable ban on pot doesn’t keep people from smoking it, it just makes the harsh penalties involved when someone gets caught inhumane.

        Oregon’s 55mph speed limit on I-5 is similar. Nobody drives 55, and much of the freeway was likely designed for 80. Want people to drive 55? Make the lanes more narrow and add intersections.

        I’m actually in favor of cities having control over their speed limits. And there are many residential streets in Seattle that should be 20mph or less. But I’d rather spend my energy narrowing roads than lowering speed limits. In my neighborhood nobody drives over 10, whatever the speed limit, because our narrow 1-lane roads feel fast at 7.

      4. How young are you, Aleks? More specifically, how much driving experience do you have? Because if there’s one thing history is proved, it is that paper is just that: paper. The only law is what is enforced.

      5. Matt: I knew someone was going to bring up pot, and I actually had a counterargument prepared, but I decided to wait until someone else made the opening strike. :)

        Personal use and possession of pot does not in itself endanger anyone’s life except the user’s. Speeding does. Smoking pot is the textbook example of a “victimless crime”; speeding is not.

        I also completely disagree that speeding is unenforceable, especially compared to marijuana use. The number of places that someone might speed (dangerously) is tiny compared to the number of places that someone might smoke pot. If you installed speed cameras on all major arterials and highways, you would catch 99% of speeders. I want to see you try to install a cannabis smoke detector in *one* private dwelling, let alone every single one in Seattle.

        You know what’s also really dangerous? Driving drunk. And it’s harder to enforce laws against drunk driving than speed limits, since there’s no such thing as an automated “drunk camera”. So are you saying that we should make it legal to drive drunk, at any speed, since having a law against it would give us “less respect for government”?

        In fact, it’s particularly interesting that you bring up marijuana, because we spend a *lot* of money enforcing drug laws. If that money was instead spent on enforcing traffic laws, we would save way more lives.

        I actually totally agree with you that road diets are fantastic. But it’s the principle of the thing. I refuse to accept that drivers are above the law. I refuse to accept that we shouldn’t even try to enforce speed limits because it might involve spending some money or making some drivers mad. We have a law. It’s designed to save lives. We need to enforce it.

        Morgan: You’re contradicting yourself. Previously, you stated:

        Enforcing the signs just makes drivers angry.

        That’s what I’m responding to. I completely agree with you that the law is what you enforce. I completely disagree with your earlier statement that we shouldn’t enforce a law that would save lives because it might make a driver angry.

      6. Morgan, you’re absolutely right.

        We’ve had a long fight out here in upstate NY because the state DOT keeps wanting to widen lanes on roads in residential neighborhoods. They’re claiming they’re doing it for “safety”.

        *Yet we know for a fact, from multiple studies, that wider lanes cause people to speed*. Drivers assume a natural speed based on the perceived safety of the road. So the section of town with the roads which *look* least safe (narrow lanes, no shoulders, walls on either side, trees blocking visibility) have by far the fewest accidents.

        If you want to slow a road down, put in 9 foot lanes with curbs on either side. The cars will slow RIGHT down.

      7. Aleks, the reason why you can’t just slap signs on in order to get people to slow down is that *most driving is subconscious*. If you have been driving for any length of time, you’ll understand that.

        When I’m on a road which is “too fast” for its signed speed, I still check my speedometer a few times a minute (like I was trained to), and I find that every time I check I’ve subconsciously sped up and have to deliberately slow down. *This is typical*.

        So road diets should come first, speed limit signs should come after.

      8. Nathanael, I know all about road diets and perceived safety. I think that all of the improvements you’ve described are fantastic, and I’d like to see us implement them on every road in Seattle starting tomorrow.

        But here’s the thing. THe vast majority of Metro bus drivers drive below the speed limit on every single segment of their route. I don’t know whether or not their driving is subconscious. But I do know that they follow the law, because it’s their job to.

        What you and Morgan seem to be arguing is simply that driving safely is hard. I agree. And so I’m definitely in favor of putting in improvements to make it easier. But I am *not* okay with trusting people behind the wheel of a 4,000 pound vehicle, going fast enough to kill someone, just because it would be “too hard” to drive at the correct speed.

        If you can’t stop yourself from speeding, then you don’t belong behind the wheel. We wouldn’t make exeptions for bus drivers, and we shouldn’t make exceptions for car drivers, who are every bit as dangerous to pedestrians.

        (And yes, I know that what I’m proposing will never be implemented. My meta point is that cars are king. My proposal would save thousands of lives a year, but it would make some people have longer commutes, and for the car drivers of America, the latter is more important.)

      9. I’m sold. If you combine speed limits with a whole lot of speed cameras, this can work. Especially if you add a few of those electronic speed signs that start flashing yellow when you’re going over the speed limit. But modify them to flash red when you’re going 5 mph over the speed limit, then change to the message “your ticket is in the mail” at 10 mph over.

  4. Thought:

    Since there is so much focus on the 1% versus the 99% these days, I wonder how the transit and density figures breakdown.

    For example, at what density level do the 1% live in? the 99% percent?

    What is the transit modality for the 1% versus the 99%?

    It would be a fun exercise to see how extremely divergent (or not) the two are…

    1. The affluent have always opted for a quieter, “get away from the masses” option. No doubt, the 1% will have homes in that country on vast acreages with stunning views and amenities galore, like golf courses and sand beaches to name two.

      When the economy is good and the middle class has expendable income, they choose the same thing, or at least the option to “time share” into that life. When times are tough, the hypermilers, transit riders and coupon clippers make headlines.

      Those who rent will always want more and cheaper options, so they lean toward density. Those who own, for the most part, are on the other side of the coin.

      1. The affluent — well, the top 0.1% — can have their chauffeurs drive them into the city. Or, nowadays, the pilots of their private helicopters. And that’s what they do. So they aren’t bothered with the inconvenience of driving themselves.

        Even the top 1% can afford to take a taxi whenever they want to go into the city.

        The truly elite, the billionaires, will generally own a country home AND a city home.

        Try watching “Richistan”… John, you may not really understand that for the truly rich, your question doesn’t even make sense. They get both worlds, they don’t have to choose.

      2. “The affluent have always opted for a quieter, “get away from the masses” option”

        Yes and no. In many cases cities grew up around rich people’s houses as the population expanded and it went from agricultural to industrial to high-rise. In the 1800s and earliest 1900s they mostly stayed put, although they often did have a country estate or a relative with a farm too. But I read that the Depression really scared them and they retreated to out-of-the-way mansions where they wouldn’t be as obvious targets. So essentially they joined the general suburban movement at that time.

      3. The thing is, the average density for this country is significantly brought down by the residents of rural red states. And those states are poor.

        Yes, the richest of the rich may have country/island estates. But where do they live most of the time? Where do they work? In or nearby a city.

        Just look at a list of the richest counties in the country. It’s chock-full of DC and New York suburbs.

        By the way, Glenn, you’re correct that ownership is correlated with lower density, but you’ve got the causality backwards. Condominiums have only existed in the US since the 1960s. Co-ops have been around for longer, but for obvious reasons, those weren’t as popular. Effectively, the ability to own a home in a dense city has only been available for a very short time.

  5. Hydrail – The Green Transport Solution We’ve All Been Waiting For?

    “Hydrail is simply rail that uses hydrogen to carry energy onboard,” states Stan Thompson, director of the annual International Hydrail Conference, first held in 2005, chairman of the Hydrogen Economy Advancement Team (HEAT). “This means is that intermittent renewables energy sources including wind, tide and sunlight can be harnessed to power something running on exact schedules, such as a train,” he continues.

    “The primary advantage of hydrail is that it runs on ordinary track and the only new infrastructure needed is trains and/or locomotives and a very few fuelling points along select lines using the technology,” explains Thompson.

    International Hydrail Conference, June 2012

  6. I wish Sound Transit would work to reduce the noise INSIDE Link light rail cars – the noise generated by the hyperactive ventilation system. There are quieter ways to circulate air.

    1. Put on your iPod, tune in to Def Lepard, turn up the volume, and drop out of the noise.

    2. Link is so quiet! I can hear the person next to me on it! that’s better than most trains I’ve been on.

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