Keith Kyle wrote a very good article suggesting that we build a Ballard spur with added stations (which he calls “A4”). I would go even farther than Mr. Kyle and suggest that a Ballard-UW line would provide much greater value than anything Sound Transit is in the process of studying or proposing. In fact, it should be the highest priority corridor for ST3.
Take a look at this interactive census map and zoom into Seattle. Keep in mind that the darker the area, the more densely populated it is. I think it should be obvious that almost of the dark (populous) areas are in the Central Area, downtown or the U-District.
Of course, population isn’t everything. People travel for various reasons, including employment, education and recreation. That criteria is harder to quantify, but since the UW is a major university, Capitol Hill has a lot of nightlife, and downtown is by far the biggest employment center in the area, all three rank really high on those standards as well. Given all that, it is no surprise that Sound Transit calls downtown, Capitol Hill and the UW the “three largest urban centers in the state of Washington”. The UW in particular is growing, and will grow substantially in the coming years (even with current zoning).
Additionally, we must consider how light rail will interact with other forms of transit. Looking at the census map again, it is clear that if we only serve the areas with really high density, we won’t have much of a light rail system. On the other hand, it is fairly easy to find contiguous, broad areas of Seattle that could be considered moderately high density (for this state). While, most of these areas are not likely to be served by high-capacity transit for a long time, buses can serve these areas quite well. Therefore any proposed light rail lines should provide good connections to the bus network.
One of the most unappealing traits of many of my South Seattle neighbors is a deep cynicism about any government initiative in the neighborhood. It’s certainly a reasonable reaction to decades of policy veering between neglect and outright malice, but when it raises questions about something like light rail it can stand in the way of progress for the neighborhood.
On the other hand, it’s inconceivable that the authorities* would allow a major water crossing — say, the Fremont Bridge — to simply degrade to the point of uselessness anywhere but South Park. For three years riders on Route 60 from Georgetown to South Park had to endure a costly, time-consuming, congested diversion via the First Avenue South bridge. Fortunately, on Monday morning at 6am the bridge will reopen to traffic. On Sunday afternoon there will be festivities.
The new South Park Bridge on 14th/16th Ave. S. will open for service between South Park and Georgetown at 6 a.m. Monday, June 30. At that time, two bus stops will reopen northbound and southbound on 14th Ave. S. just north of S. Cloverdale St., serving the South Park business community.
When the bridge opens, Route 60 will operate its former routing on 14th and 16th Ave. S. between Cloverdale St. and East Marginal Way S. Route 60 will no longer operate on 14th Ave. S. between Cloverdale St. and Highway 99, and on East Marginal Way S. between the 1st Avenue South Bridge and Carleton Ave S. Operating via the South Park Bridge is expected to save about 5-8 minutes per trip in each direction.
According to Metro’s Rochelle Ogershok, schedules on the Metro website will reflect the reduced travel time on Monday. The data feed to OneBusAway, Google Transit, and Trip Planner will reflect the change on July 5th. Metro is also printing new paper schedules.
Together with the “temporary” elimination of the VA Hospital Loop, the 60 is becoming a reasonably direct route that someone with an alternative might choose to take. With luck, these speed improvements might bring the ridership that would justify more frequency.
See also Brent’s comment in the news roundup for some sample travel time impacts and the fact that Metro cuts may fundamentally alter the 60 anyway.
* This failure is a result of multiple jurisdictions expecting the others to pay for the repairs, but I believe my argument holds that this would never happen elsewhere in the city.
But politicians continually resist efforts to accelerate light-rail construction. The council has deprioritized the city’s transit master plan, twice freezing its funding, as if proposed transit lines were a novelty map. We’re currently stuck with the next regional light-rail vote likely being held in 2016—eight years after the most recent vote. Continuing to build a piecemeal subway system, by approving small extensions once a decade, which then take another 12 years to build, would take a century to reach most of the city.
The council and mayor can start identify funding sources right now, fight in Olympia to access revenue we don’t already have, and then send a plan to voters to approve preliminary planning and financing. Within a few years, Seattle could pay regional partner Sound Transit to start constructing the lines.
It would be difficult—it would take the same sort of resolve and elbow grease that city hall has exerted to build freeways (ahem).
With Prop. 1’s failure in April, the city’s going through another round of angst about “regionalism” – when do we need to coordinate with the suburbs and when we go it alone? There’s an undeniable appeal to the latter, and voting maps would seem to reinforce the argument that Seattle and its suburbs simply have different priorities when it comes to transit. But one can take that analysis too far. The “region” did vote to support Sound Transit in 1996 and again in 2008. When turnout is high (i.e. presidential election years), the region tends to come through with the votes. A vote to expand light rail in 2016 would have a good chance of passing, but it’s also possible that 2016 comes and goes with no vote at all.
Holden’s approach – for the city to get the money and pay Sound Transit to build the lines – is certainly a better idea than the last time the city tried to go it alone. But transit is really expensive and funding it purely through local taxes would require taxes that are orders of magnitude higher than anything that’s been proposed since the Monorail. It’s not impossible, of course — we’re a prosperous, growing city — but it wouldn’t be a slam dunk. That said, you can imagine many variations on this approach, such as Seattle opting to fund ST3 at higher levels than the rest of the region, or borrowing from the feds to accelerate construction.
Fighting in Olympia, however, sounds like an unabashedly great idea. One reason why Vancouver’s been able to fund so much rail transit is that the provincial government’s helped to pick up the tab. In Washington, all the transportation bills coming out of Olympia are road-centric disasters. And WSDOT has shown almost zero interest or competence in moving people instead of just moving cars. Perhaps if we all learned to ambulate by fuel injection, WSDOT would be interested in helping us get from point A to point B (ahem). In the meantime, it sure would be useful if Mayor Murray, a former state legislator, would use some of his much-ballyhooed influence in Olympia to fund Seattle’s transit needs.
The Sound Transit Board on Thursday officially designated Sound Transit Deputy CEO Mike Harbour as Acting CEO as Joni Earl continues her medical leave.
Earl is recovering from surgeries due to a brain injury from a blood vessel leakage on the brain.
“As Joni recovers she has the Sound Transit Board’s strong support,” said Sound Transit Board Chair and King County Executive Dow Constantine. “Mike Harbour has our complete confidence in this role to keep Sound Transit on track to serve our region’s commuters.”
Tomorrow at 5:30 p.m., the Seattle City Council — acting in its capacity as the Board of Directors of the Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD) — will hear public comment and consider a resolution, introduced by Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, that would implement Mayor Ed Murray’s “Plan D” to save most Metro service in the city of Seattle by using the STBD’s taxing authority.
As a refresher, the Rasmussen/Murray “Plan D” would impose a flat $60 vehicle license fee (VLF) and an 0.1% sales-tax increase within the City of Seattle, after a public vote to be held in November. These are the same taxes the defeated Proposition 1 would have imposed countywide through a separate TBD. The VLF would be permanent, while the sales tax increase would last for ten years, the maximum allowed under state law. The resolution requires the STBD to hold a hearing and introduce a resolution to phase out both taxes if the county acquires state or regional funding to replace them.
The plan would not prevent Metro’s September 2014 cuts or restore the service to be cut in September 2014. It would provide “comparable [service levels] to what was provided by Metro Transit following its September 2014 service changes,” with any additional money going to buy new service according to the Seattle Transit Master Plan and Metro’s service guidelines. Left open in the resolution’s wording is the important but politically difficult question of whether Metro would implement some or all of the restructures it planned for various parts of Seattle in February, June, and September 2015. We would argue that, given additional funding, the network changes proposed in most of those restructures — with the notable exceptions of the extreme West Seattle “chainsaw restructure” and the cuts to Beacon Hill service — would be an improvement over today’s service patterns for most riders. (Late edit: There’s nothing good in the proposed Magnolia restructure either.)
Another notable feature of the plan is that it would fund only routes with 80% or more of their stops in the City of Seattle. This would prevent the funding from restoring or enhancing certain routes which provide core service to Seattle neighborhoods, particularly in the south end, but also in the far north of the city. As it happens, none of the all-day routes in question (RapidRide E, 106, 107, 120, 124, 128, 131, 132, 345, 346, 347, 348, and 372) are currently planned to suffer meaningful cuts. It is unclear, however, how such routes would be treated in any service improvements if the taxes generate extra funding.
(Note: Edited to make clear that the Licata/Sawant plan retains the VLF.) The Rasmussen/Murray plan is competing with an alternative plan proposed by Councilmembers Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant. The Licata/Sawant plan would imposeretain the VLF, but replace the 0.1% sales tax increase with an employee hours tax (widely known as a “head tax”) of $18 per employee per year on employers and an increase in the commercial parking tax from 12.5% to 17.5% (sales tax, which is separate from this tax, is also imposed on commercial parking). Licata and Sawant argue that the taxes their plan would impose are far more progressive than the VLF and sales tax. They also claim the plan could forestall the September 2014 service cuts, although Metro has not said whether it would be able to restore the service in time, given that preparations for the September 2014 service change are well underway. Opponents, which include the UW and most of the heavy hitters in Seattle’s business community, charge that the “head tax” would slow job growth and that the parking tax increase would give Seattle the highest total tax on parking in the country. To date, no council members other than Licata and Sawant have indicated support for their plan. While it appears they will introduce the plan as an amendment to Murray’s resolution, they have not yet made legislative text public.
On June 9, 2014, the Pierce Transit Board of Commissioners held a hearing (See pages 3-4.) on a proposalto eliminate paper transfers and, as a replacement, institute a day pass, available seven days a week. Chris Karnes at the Tacoma Transit blog delves into the process that led to this proposal.
Pierce Transit currently sells paper day passes on weekends and holidays, at a cost of twice the single-ride fare ($2 for adults and 75 cents for seniors, youth 6-18, and riders with disabilities). The passes are purchased at first boarding and provided by the operator.
Pierce Transit plans to change from paper to magnetic-strip cards and ORCA-based day passes. Using a $2 million federal grant, Pierce Transit plans to replace all its fareboxes with ones that can read the date on the new magnetic-strip cards. The proposal, which is scheduled for a vote on July 14, would also set the cost of the day pass at $5 for adults, and $2.50 for seniors, youth, and riders with disabilities, which is $1 more than the current weekend day pass rates.
In addition to the magnetic-strip card option, Pierce Transit plans to make the day pass available on ORCA, through advance purchase.
In contrast to the multi-agency $9 ORCA day pass pilot program, going on through September 2014, in which Pierce Transit is participating, the Pierce Transit day pass would only be accepted on Pierce Transit buses. Rollout of the Pierce Transit day pass is scheduled for November 1, 2014.
The Seattle City Council will discuss measures to save Seattle Metro service on Thursday. Immediately prior to a public hearing, the Transit Riders Union urges you to show up to a rally demanding that service:
With 16% cuts to Metro bus service looming this fall, the Transit Riders Union will hold a rally and press conference to tell elected representatives at all levels of government, “Fund Metro NOW!”
This rally will take place just before the Seattle Transportation Benefit District public hearing on city transit funding options. Mayor Murray has proposed a $60 car tab fee and 0.1% sales tax increase be put on the November ballot to save Seattle’s bus service. The Transit Riders Union will rally to show support for an amendment put forward by Councilmembers Sawant and Licata that would eliminate the proposed sales tax increase and substitute two more progressive taxes, an increase in commercial parking fees and an employer head tax. The Transit Riders Union will also call on the State government to take immediate action to support public transit next session in Olympia.
If the TRU isn’t your speed — perhaps because you prefer the Murray plan, or are indifferent — Transportation Choices Coalition is also organizing people to show up and testify.
Recently, Sound Transit completed its Central and East High Capacity Transit Corridor Study (Part 1 & Part 2). Martin summarized the Issaquah-Kirkland options last week. Along with similar studies of South King County and Lynnwood to Everett, the Central and East studies presumably lay the groundwork for a future Sound Transit 3 ballot measure. It is just a study and not a formal proposal, but it would be easy to take this document and make a proposal out of it.
As an Issaquah resident, I’m excited to see a future where Light Rail is a part of the transportation mix. Our town is seeking “Regional Growth Center” status and has a new “Central Issaquah Plan” which approves projects up to 10 stories. Yet, this study’s Eastside options seemed to have missed the boat (or train!).
The study makes heavy use of options involving so-called Bus Rapid Transit – of the 8 options considered for Kirkland / Bellevue Issaquah, 5 are BRT. As readers of this blog know, BRT, at least as currently managed in the Puget Sound area, is frequently not Rapid. Also, Kirkland and Issaquah already have decent BRT options via the 554, 540 and 555/556 (which combined have > 3,600 boardings per day, almost half the ridership of the Sounder trains). It would seem unlikely that spending a bunch of money on new buses is going to make this service much better than it is already. Many of the proposals essentially turn the Eastside Rail Corridor into a dedicated bus lane, which will share some of the downsides mentioned later in this article.
[UPDATE: The rezone passed 8-1. Only Bruce Harrell voted against.]
After a process stretching back to at least 2008, and arguably 1999, the Seattle City Council is set to vote on the North Rainier Rezone. The agenda, which begins at 2pm at City Hall, is here. The Planning, Land Use, and Sustainability Committee voted 4-1 to approve this bill, so if one of Councilmembers Sawant, Godden, Rasmussen, or Bagshaw vote for this, and no one flips, this desperately needed upzone of a car-oriented strip-mall district next to a light rail station will finally become law.
The Ballard to University District line is why I got involved in transit advocacy in the first place. In November 2011, I was frustrated with the lack of progress on getting rail to Ballard and created The Ballard Spur Facebook page with a nice graphic made by my friend Cathy Rundell. Within a week I was getting calls from local papers who were intrigued by the idea and wanted more information, a true testament to how starved this town is for high quality transit. Soon I joined forces with Seattle Subway, and with a lot of help, we got the powers that be to get moving on transit relief for our city.
When reviewing options for high capacity transit, Seattle Subway starts by throwing out all the options that are not 100% grade separated because any portion of the line that interacts with traffic subverts the speed, reliability, and utility of the whole line. Unfortunately, that leaves us with only one presented option: Alternative A3, titled “via Wallingford Tunnel.”
A3 is a very good start. It is fully grade separated and very fast. Travel time would be as low as just 6 minutes, ridership as high as 26,000/day, and the cost would be just under $1.4-1.9 Billion. This corridor is the highest performing in cost per rider of any corridor Sound Transit has studied so far.
The Ballard Spur (Alternative “A4”)
A3 does have one glaring weakness, however: it needs more stations. A density map of that part of Seattle shows that several dense areas along the A3 alignment would be ideal for walking, biking, and transit connections if Sound Transit carefully located the stations. A3 offers only one station in the 3.5 miles between Ballard and the University District. This stop spacing is too suburban for an area with many dense neighborhoods and attractions. Closer stops would maximize the utility for both pedestrian access and transfers from other modes. This corridor is dense enough to justify full subway spacing of stops — which would mean full coverage of the corridor by the new line, replacing the need for the slow-as-molasses 44.
The good news is that adding just two stations and moving the Wallingford Station would maximize connections to both attractions and transit.
The third study area staff presented at this month’s Sound Transit Executive Commitee meeting was Kirkland to Issaquah, to go along with Ballard to UW and from UW across 520. As with the 520 options, these plans commit to save costs by using existing right-of-way regardless of its proximity to ridership generators. Assuming some sort of subarea equity continues into ST3, the East King subarea is likely to have enough revenue to do better than what these options suggest.
The two light rail options both travel down from Totem Lake to Downtown Bellevue via the Eastside Rail Corridor, link with East Link at Hospital Station, and run along I-90 from roughly Eastgate to Issaquah. The difference is between downtown Bellevue and Eastgate. Option C1 (9-11,000 riders, $2.0-2.7 billion, 23-28 minutes) uses a mixture of elevated and at-grade track via Richards Rd, while Option C3 (9-11,000 riders, $1.9-2.6 billion, 22-27 minutes) uses I-405 instead of Richards Rd. The concepts have no difference in notional station placement, so C3 would appear to have the nominal advantage.
The bus options, by comparison, aren’t so bad. The exception to that is A2a, which runs in “managed lanes” on the two freeways. At less than $700m, it would attract only 6-7,000 riders. Though fastest of the buses at 23-28 minutes, reliability depends on WSDOT maintaining speeds of 45 mph in the lanes, which they haven’t done in the past.
Sound Transit’s Executive Committee met earlier this month and discussed preliminary analysis of the entire corridor from Ballard to the Eastside via SR 520. Unlike the Ballard/UW segment I discussed on Saturday, continuing to the Eastside involves extraordinary technical challenges, fundamental geometric dilemmas, and relatively mediocre ridership. In a few days we’ll report on the possibilities to connect Kirkland, Bellevue, and Issaquah.
The geometric problem is that no destination obviously dominates. Bellevue is the largest city but is already well served by East Link. Redmond is probably the cheapest to serve, but is also a peculiar place for two light rail lines to converge. Kirkland is the city with no planned high-capacity transit, but it is difficult to serve its dense areas.
There are three light rail options. All of them tunnel on 45th St. after U-District station, run elevated down Montlake Blvd, and elevated for a short run east of the bridge. All other segments are at-grade.
B2b turns north to serve Kirkland to Totem Lake, via the Eastside Rail Corridor. At $2.1-2.9 billion, this most expensive option would generate only 7000-9000 riders and take 18-23 minutes end-to-end. Although it makes sense to use existing right-of-way between stations, it seems this corridor will only make sense if the line deviates into dense neighborhoods near station areas.
C2 and C2a both turn South on the Eastside corridor. C2 then turns east to interline with East Link to Redmond, and is the most cost-effective of these options: $1.9-2.5 billion, 18,000-22,000 riders, and a 25-31 minute travel time. C2a interlines in the other direction and stops at Hospital Station. It’s about the same in cost ($1.9-$2.6 billion) but much worse in terms of ridership (9000-11,000).
The Seattle Bike Blog has some great analysis of biking trends using data from the Fremont Bridge. Yesterday’s rainfall is almost as important as today’s rainfall when estimating daily bicycle volumes.
Bertha is beefing up to better deal with tunneling conditions.
Mayor Murray continues his impressive winning streak, removing caps on TNCs while evening the playing field. Let’s hope that he can keep up this kind of progress on the regional and state level.
The Washington Transportation Commission is looking more seriously at road-usage charges with three tiers. Implementation has always been the sticking point on this idea, and the three tier approach sound fairly implementable to me.
The state is restarting its search for the chief of Washington State Ferries
The comment period on the U-District Urban design has been extended until Monday, and I strongly encourage STB readers to provide comment on the documents as whole and the three zoning “alternatives” in particular. I’ll briefly summarise the three options below, as well as give my personal opinions, but I recommend you have a look over some or all of the documents if you have the time. Either way, please send comment to firstname.lastname@example.org endorsing either alternative 1 or alternative 2. Thanks!
Sound Transit is updating its Long Range Plan later this year, and they have released their Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (DSEIS) for for public comment through July 28. Please take the survey here!
Though it may seem a distant exercise for the average transit rider and advocate, this is a critically important process because it determines the range of outcomes that are possible a decade down the road. This is the visionary, big picture stuff. If you want West Seattle-Downtown-Ballard rail, or eastside BRT, or a range of other options, this is your official chance to make sure the Board adopts them as options for the next round of development.
If you’re confused about the multitude of scoping studies, corridor studies, environmental impact statements, etc, you’re in good company. I mean, haven’t we been talking for months about Downtown-Ballard? Isn’t that already long-range planning? Yes, and it’s complex, but here’s an analogy.
Think of Sound Transit as a restaurant. Though it may be tempting to think of the long-range plan as the restaurant menu, it’s more like the wholesaler sheet. It’s the unconstrained list of all the things the restaurant could choose to order to make its food. Right now Sound Transit has had the same list of options since 2005, has bought a few of the items for its customers (U-Link, East Link, North Link etc…) and has passed on others temporarily (Federal Way Link). The current update will decide what if anything should be added to this master list. Because Sound Transit is owned by its customers, they are asking you to help them choose what to buy.
But Sound Transit isn’t just any restaurant, it’s a co-op. The restaurant takes out a bond for the approved amount, and co-op owners (taxpayers) pay an agreed rate (sales tax and fares) spread over a number of years. Because of this, Sound Transit knows roughly how much money they are going to get over the next decade or so. They also know that the co-op owners are usually hungry when they order and like to ask for more than is feasible, so the restaurant uses this master list to whittle down its choice to ones it thinks it can afford. But once the Long Range Plan is finalized, the Sound Transit Board will develop a system plan, and that’s more like the restaurant menu. They develop a series of menu offerings from the Long Range Plan based on their projected income and the peculiar legal requirement to spend equally on all to make sure that each of the 5 separate co-op associations (named the Pierce, Snohomish, East King, South King, and North King ‘subareas’) pay for only their own meals. Once they have their system plan, they present it to their Board to predict if 50.1% of the co-op owners will approve the plan. It may tell the North King co-op delegation that “We can serve you both the Ballard Link Souffle and the Downtown-Burien Custard, but you’ll have to agree to let the Pierce association have the 6th Avenue steak, the Fife cookies, and the Tacoma-Dupont truffles you so dislike. Oh, and they’ll want free refills to continue on Tacoma Link and they want larger Sounder portions.” And so it goes until the 5 subarea representatives and their constituents agree on what each other should eat, and ensure that all their meals cost the same the money raised by the subarea groups stays with them.
As you work through the survey, you’ll notice several previously unmentioned, somewhat bizarre proposed corridors. Corridor 21, in which a West Seattle to Ballard line is routed through both the Central District and Queen Anne, is a bit like a customer telling Sound Transit that yes, they really do want them to offer ketchup on their ice cream. STB asked Sound Transit’s Geoff Patrick if they consider all of these to be viable corridors or if they just aggregated public comment, and they said, “The latter. We studied corridors identified in comments during the scoping process last fall.” So if you’re a Tacoma advocate who’s been trying to get high capacity transit on Pacific, or Portland, or 6th Avenue, don’t be worried when you’re asked to review Tacoma to Ruston as a corridor instead. ST is asking you about it because someone asked them to ask you about it. Next time make sure you’re the one asking.
Once the restaurant decides what to offer its customers in its system plan, the co-op association (all of us!) votes on it. We’ve done this twice, and we ceremonially named these votes Sound Move and ST2. The next one will be ST3! If we approve an ST3, then Sound Transit will spend a couple years asking its angel investors (the federal government) and its hundreds of chefs (representatives from cities and counties) to give them recipes for just how each item should look and taste. These chefs negotiate about which menu items should go where, how much they should cost, which to debut first, how they should be salted and spiced, and even how to spend the 1% set aside for garnishes and presentation. It gets complicated when, yes, there are occasionally too many cooks in the kitchen. Tsk.
When it’s all said and done, the menu reflects the items least objectionable to the greatest number of co-op owners. The patron who really likes it spicy might find it a bit bland, the purist connoisseur will notice every cut corner, and the simple meat-and-potatoes diner might think the whole menu to be overthought and wonder what all the damn fuss is about. But the restaurant is looking for something both that it can afford and that 50.1% of its co-op owners will find tasty enough to give a thumbs up.
And that’s how you cook a train. Please comment by July 28, and tell them what you want to be able to order. Of course we’re pretty fond of Corridors F (Downtown-Ballard) and G (Ballard-UW), so we’d love votes for those.
The Mayor’s office says they’ve worked out a deal with various stakeholders to remove the caps on drivers for services like Uber and Lift. Key terms of the deal, from Mayor Murray’s office:
Transportation network companies and their drivers will be licensed and required to meet specific insurance requirements.
The City will work with the industry to clarify or change state insurance law to account for recent changes in the industry, similar to recent actions in Colorado.
There will be no cap on the number of transportation network company drivers.
The City will provide 200 new taxi licenses over the next four years.
Taxi and for-hire licenses will transition to a property right that is similar to a medallion in other cities.
For-hire drivers will have hailing rights.
An accessibility fund will be created through a $0.10 per ride surcharge for drivers and owners to offset higher trip and vehicle costs for riders who require accessibility services.
Just like with the minimum wage hike, Murray’s proven adept at a “Ducks Unlimited“-style approach to getting consensus by giving everyone something. The 200 new licenses and hailing rights for for-hire drivers were both part of the City Council bill back in March that instituted the caps. It’s not clear to me if this deal is 200 more licenses on top of the 200 proposed in March. I’ll have to get confirmation on that. But the main deal-sweetener for the taxi drivers is ownership rights and the fund for accessibility services.
The proposal will now go to the city council for approval.
Even though suburban growth is catching up, the multifamily housing boom that has characterized explosive growth in center cities for the last several years is still driving the economy. With winter finally behind us, permits for new housing grew 8 percent in April; construction on new housing jumped a full 13 percent. Most of these new homes come in the form of apartment units. In April, there were 2,000 new permits for single-family homes versus 81,000 new permits for multifamily units. Housings starts showed the same wide divide: 5,000 new single-family homes versus 124,000 new multifamily units.
But few of those multifamily units are being built in McKinney, Texas—a Dallas exurb that is one of the fastest-growing places in the nation. What explains the mismatch between the kinds of new homes we’re building and the places where we’re moving?
The answer, technically, is that families are filling in vacant houses in the ‘burbs while newcomers move in to the new multifamily construction. But there’s a deeper point here, related to the misleading term “multifamily.” The majority of new “multifamily” construction in Seattle and elsewhere consists of studios and 1BR apartments. Not really family-sized.
Suburbanists argue that families are destined for the suburbs – that yards and kids are inextricably linked (one might note that the nuclear family predates the manicured lawn by several millennia at least). In fact, many families would like to stay in the city, but are priced out. The fixed supply of 3BR+ houses in Seattle’s desirable neighborhoods are currently commanding multiple offers and sometimes selling for 20% over the asking price. Woody Allen’s Yogi Berra’s line about the crowded restaurant seems apt.
For now, overbuilt suburban housing from the last boom is providing an escape valve for demand. At some point, though there will be a reckoning as household formation rises back to pre-recession levels. What then?