Action Alert: Last Chance to Comment on HALA Before the Election

The missing middle. (Classic brick condos near Volunteer Park, illegal in most of Seattle.)
The missing middle. (Classic brick condos near Volunteer Park, illegal in most of Seattle.)

Apologies for the short notice, but tonight (September 30) at 5:30 is your last chance to testify before the City Council on the HALA Grand Bargain and the Council’s related workplan. The Council’s Select Committee on Housing Affordability will hear public comment on the proposed Affordable Housing Impact Mitigation Program (aka the Commercial Linkage Fee).

After tonight, the budget and the election will consume the energies of the council, so your turnout tonight is important, especially if you did not have a chance to testify at the September 9 hearing.

New development capacity is critical to ensuring that people who want to live in Seattle will be able to find a place to call home, and the core of HALA is a Grand Bargain of mandatory inclusionary zoning, commercial linkage fees, and dozens of other recommendations. It is not a purist document – its proposals chafe both pure supply-side urbanists and hardcore social justice advocates alike – but a remarkable coalition has come together to recognize that its net impact would be very positive for the City, with more units built at more levels of income than ever before. If you cannot make it tonight, you are encouraged to email your comments to

Podcast: Restructuring Bus Service for U-Link

With the proposed U-link restructures headed for council this week, I recorded a podcast with Zach and David to talk about the restructure, the history, and what will change when U-link opens next year.   We tried to give a good overview of the changes, some of the challenges (both technical and political) and the potential benefits for riders.  David’s frequent network proposal also makes a brief appearance. Enjoy!

PS: the podcast is now available on iTunes

Dear Mercer Island: Public Space is for Public Use

Twitter Screengrab of #Listen2Mercer-01Last Thursday at the Mercer Island Community Center, Sound Transit held a Listening Tour to give residents a chance to comment on just about anything related to the East Link project. The open-mic night was well attended with an estimated 200 residents, from which 35 speakers were allotted 3 minutes each to speak. The meeting was attended by many Sound Transit staff, Bellevue Mayor (and County Council candidate) Claudia Balducci, WSDOT Secretary Lynn Peterson, and many Mercer Island council and mayoral candidates.

The tone of the conversation was one of polite exasperation, seasoned with occasional bursts of anger or bewilderment. Many commenters came prepared with talking points loosely organized around a list of special accommodations for Mercer Island residents proposed by the Vision Mercer Island group, namely:

  • Permanent SOV access to HOV lanes
  • Permanent exemption from I-90 tolling
  • Resident-only parking at the Link Station
  • Complete abandonment bus transfers on Mercer Island
  • Dedicated and guaranteed seats for Islanders on Metro and Sound Transit buses

Each of these 5 privileges would be completely unique to Mercer Island. Despite this, if you followed the #listen2mercer hashtag you saw that speakers overwhelmingly felt that this was the least Sound Transit could do on their behalf. Comments were overwhelmingly negative about Sound Transit, about parking, and about any type of bus facility being built.

From urbanist, transit, land use, and social justice viewpoints, the conversation was very disappointing. In asking for resident-only parking at the Park & Ride, they are asking for an unprecedented appropriation of public space for the private use of the most privileged. In asking for untolled SOV use of HOV lanes, they are asking for a privilege no one else in the state enjoys. In asking to abandon the idea of bus transfers on Mercer Island, they are asking to pay for their aesthetic preferences with other commuters’ time and money.

Two doctors used that day’s crash on Aurora to stress their need to get on and off island quickly, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they were asking government to grant them special rights on account of their choice to separate themselves from their patients by a large body of water.

Perhaps most egregious, the consistent “othering “of nonresidents – to dust off a grad school phrase – was both offensive and provincial. One commenter called on Sound Transit and other “off-Islanders” not to be “pigeons that just come here, drop your s__, and leave.”

All of this fundamentally misunderstands the general access mandate under which public facilities operate. No one at South Bellevue Park & Ride scans license plates to root out those “moochers from Somerset” claiming “their” parking. Most people understand that people have a basic right to move freely on our transit and highways. All other transit facilities exist for the general benefit of any regional transit traveler, including Mercer Island residents who use other facilities regionwide.

And whether restricted or not, parking is not the answer, as parking is a niche product that fundamentally cannot scale. The current Mercer Island Park & Ride has 447 spaces, less than the capacity of a single 3-car Link train. Mercer Island and Sound Transit could spend $50m to build to build an enormous 2,500 space facility – larger than Tacoma Dome Station ­– and it would still only fill 5 trains, less than an hour’s worth of Link service.

Fast, frequent bus service is the answer to connect to Link, both for Islanders and for the entire I-90 corridor. That means a big boost in frequency on Route 204 and Island Crest Way, ideally with timed Link connections. It also means a large, well-designed transfer facility for the I-90 corridor buses. Continuing peak bus service into Seattle on I-90 after 2023 would effectively be taking bus service away from others, a purposeful waste of taxpayer resources. Any diversion of buses to South Bellevue or Downtown Bellevue would directly trade Mercer Island’s aesthetic preferences for the time and money of those in Issaquah and Renton.

As for process, it’s very early. We are still 8 years out from East Link service, with plenty of time to design an excellent bus transfer facility that seamlessly integrates our transit systems and mitigates Islanders’ concerns while exponentially increasing their access to transit. But judging from the listening tour meeting, it will be a steep uphill climb to achieve good transit outcomes.

I-405 Express Toll Lanes Open

Screen Shot 2015-09-28 at 10.30.00 AMAfter a soft open on Sunday, yesterday marked the first full weekday of the I-405 Express Toll Lanes between Bellevue and Lynnwood. During off-peak hours, SOV drivers will pay between $0.75-$10.00 for the privilege of using the lanes, while HOV 2+ will use them for free. During peak hours – 5-9am and 3-7pm – only transit and HOV3+ will get free use of the lanes.

A quick scan of Twitter (using #405ETL) revealed an expected mix of praise of frustration from commuters. For a large portion of yesterday’s travel, the Express Toll Lanes saved drivers nearly an hour,with $0.75 buying a 20-minute trip from Lynnwood to Bellevue, compared to 70 minutes in the general purpose lanes. People who remained in the GP lanes for the 20-mile trip– rather than paying $0.75 to save 50 minutes – were effectively valuing their time at $0.90/hour.

In general, most urbanists support dynamic pricing to manage demand, and as a usage fee, tolls are a method of taxation that has some level of bipartisan support. Even as overall vehicle miles traveled are flat, peak congestion on our regional highways and HOV lanes has worsened significantly the past couple years, leading Sound Transit to quietly cut service back in June and requiring an additional $2m annual outlay from Community Transit to keep the same buses running on time. We wish the I-405 Express Toll Lanes all the best at keeping transit and carpools moving effectively. If you’re a rider on routes 237, 252, 257, 311, 342, 424, 532, 535, or 952, you can now look forward to a much faster and more reliable trip.

On this side of the lake we’re still waiting for any type of HOV priority between Northgate and Downtown Seattle, especially reverse peak, but it is encouraging to see the Eastside open these new lanes and inch us toward the systemwide tolling and transit priority we need.

Are you an I-405 commuter? How was your experience yesterday?

Call for Endorsements

The reconstituted STB Editorial Board is beginning its endorsement process for the general election. We have the information we need on Seattle City Council races, Move Seattle, and the Community Transit measure, and are looking at some races outside Seattle. If there are any you’re afraid we’re going to miss, please say so in the comments.

As always, we are solely interested in the relevance of a candidate and office to land use and transit.

Better Vocabulary for the Housing Debate

Alki-marinaFor quite some time now, the debate over density has immersed itself in the language of affordability. Density advocates, quite reasonably, cite supply and demand, while unsophisticated detractors correlate development with rising rents. More sophisticated detractors instead cite displacement as a downside, as development indeed sometimes displaces existing tenants on a given property.

While there are technical definitions for various bands of affordability, to ordinary people “affordable” means “affordable to my peer group.” An apodment isn’t affordable if your peer group is families with children; it’s not part of your housing universe and doesn’t address your difficulty in finding housing. Likewise, there is inexpensive market-rate housing in Rainier Beach. It stinks to have to move there if you’re on Capitol Hill, but “I’m not rich enough to avoid a poor neighborhood” might not be a humanitarian crisis worthy of a policy response.

Although it’s obvious that increasing rents have forced some people out of their homes, their neighborhoods, or even their cities, the problem with the affordability formulation is that is suggests bad solutions. A higher minimum wage has many merits, but more affordable housing is not one of them.

At root, Seattle has not an “affordability” crisis, but a housing shortage. Rents increase not because ownership and construction have become much more expensive, but because demand outstrips supply. Any “solution” that doesn’t dramatically lift supply is simply rearranging whose desire to live in Seattle is denied. In a pure market system, the high bidder wins. A rent-control system favors the longtime resident and the well-connected. And socialization of all housing (to take an extreme no one is proposing) will benefit whomever the politically favored groups are at the time. In any case, someone is left out, and that’s a damn shame from an environmental, economic, and compassionate standpoint.

The only way out is to maximize unit construction. That means neither single-minded focus on market-rate construction nor on public housing. A policy response that doesn’t address supply for the whole range of the market — housing for all income levels; students, retirees, large families; newcomers and longtime residents  —  is an incomplete one.

U-Link Now on Google Maps


University Link won’t be open for a couple of months, but the outline is already on Google Maps. The stations aren’t yet labeled, but the rest of the tunnel is there in all its glory.

Feast your eyes, and then take a moment of silence to mourn the phantom stations at Summit & Pike and Volunteer Park, senseless casualties of The Great Race to Snohomish County. 

Streetcars not in Move Seattle, Still Priorities

First Avenue Streetcar right-of-wayIn March, Seattle DOT’s Move Seattle plan included two streetcar lines. The Center City Connector (CCC) is a tram in dedicated right-of-way along First Avenue that would join the First Hill and South Lake Union Streetcars. It scores well on cost per rider metrics, partly because it’s quite short, at a cost of roughly $110m. Extending the First Hill Streetcar to Roy St., a $25m project, is a longstanding demand from nearly residents and businesses.

Alert readers noticed that the final $930m Move Seattle ballot measure announced earlier this month mentioned neither project in the promotional materials or the ordinance itself. I asked SDOT director Scott Kubly what this meant for the rail plans:

Both are priorities.  The Levy isn’t planned as a funding source for either project. Both are listed in the Move Seattle strategic vision.

As it turns out, both projects have reasonably solid funding plans that don’t depend on Move Seattle. For the CCC, Seattle applied for a 2016 $75m Small Starts Grant from USDOT. Sources at the city say they hope to fund the remaining $30m or so by bonding against on-street advertising revenue. Construction would begin in 2017 or 2018. If a $7m Local Improvement District (LID) materializes for the Roy Extension, it will start construction as soon as 2016.

This actually might help Move Seattle’s electoral prospects, given the faction in city politics that reacts severely to the slightest whiff of streetcar funding. Critics pilloried the failed 2011 vehicle license fee* for spending on streetcars, although  their share of the budget was a mere 9%. In June retiring Councilmember Nick Licata unsuccessfully tried to forbid any money from Move Seattle going to a streetcar, no matter how much conditions change. But even before his maneuvering, there was no streetcar funding in the program.

So will any part of Move Seattle ultimately fund one of these two projects? Realistically, SDOT has to deliver the signature projects in the measure before it thinks about using any savings or surplus on other stuff in the master plan. Most of the streetcar funding will come from other sources, and with good fortune it all will. In any case the gap would be a tiny percentage of the Move Seattle package. In the end, the projects actually on the ballot are so badly needed that it’s worth passing, no matter how you feel about streetcars, and whether or not Move Seattle becomes relevant to them.

* Sadly (?), links to these arguments are lost to bit rot.

4 Dead, Dozens Injured in Crash on Aurora Bridge

A Ride the Ducks amphibious vehicle has collided with a Bellair Charters bus on the Aurora Bridge. As of 1:00pm, 4 have been confirmed dead, with dozens more wounded. Injuries were likely exacerbated by the lack of seatbelts on either vehicle. The historic 6-lane, 57′ bridge has anomalously narrow 9.5′ lanes and no median or barriers.

The Aurora Bridge will be closed into the late evening for investigation of the incident and care for the wounded, and the Fremont and Ballard bridges will be closed to boat traffic. Routes E, 5, 5X, 16, 26X, and 28X will be detoured until further notice.

Most local television stations are carrying live video of the incident and its aftermath.

Our hearts go out to the wounded and the families of those who lost their lives.

Highline Students and Staff Rally for Direct Link Access

Photo by the Author

On Tuesday afternoon, an estimated 125 students, faculty, and staff at Highline College rallied for a Link station on the west side of SR 99, directly adjacent to campus. Speakers claimed that the likeliest option – a station in the vicinity of 30th Ave S – would endanger student safety and worsen campus access by requiring a crossing of the 6-lane arterial to reach campus. During the 30-minute rally, roughly a dozen speakers were frequently interrupted by energetic chants of “Which side? West Side!” and “West is best!”.

Back in July, when the Sound Transit Board chose I-5 as its primary pathway for Link’s southward march from Angle Lake to Federal Way, the Board deferred to the unified voice of city governments over the similarly unified voice of stakeholder groups such as Transportation Choices Coalition and Highline College. While there are benefits to the I-5 alignment, namely a lower likelihood of lawsuits, lower capital costs etc, we still lamented the decision as a fundamentally suboptimal transit outcome for South King County riders given the objectively poor rider experience and reduced TOD potential of freeway-running light rail, especially at Star Lake.

But during the amendment process prior to that vote, Boardmember Upthegrove responded to community concerns by introducing an amendment to study options for siting the Highline College station as close to the campus as possible, including a station on the west side of SR 99, hence Tuesday’s rally. Given the location of Angle Lake west of SR 99 and the planned I-5 alignment south of Highline, siting a Highline station on the west side of SR 99 would require Link to cross SR 99 three times in just two miles.

Continue reading “Highline Students and Staff Rally for Direct Link Access”

Community Transit Kicks Off Campaign for More Service

Community Transit CEO Emmett Heath (Photo by the author.)
Community Transit CEO Emmett Heath at the Kickoff Event (Photo by the author.)

Last night at Diamond Knot Brewing in Mountlake Terrace, the Community Transit Now campaign kicked off its own Prop 1 effort to fund significant new transit service for Community Transit. For an agency that cut its service by 37% between 2010-2012, losing all Sunday and holiday service in the process, the confident mood in the room was a stunning and hopeful reversal.

Earlier this year, the big transportation package (Senate Bill 5987included specific authority for Community Transit to levy an additional .3% sales tax, making it the only agency in the state permitted to impose a 1.2% sales tax. When combined with Community Transit’s current .9% authority and the .9% collected by Sound Transit, a passed Prop 1 would give most of urban Snohomish County (excluding Everett, anything east of the Snohomish River, and other outlying areas) the highest transit taxes in the state, a combined 2.1% rate.

Every day, 120,000 Snohomish county residents commute to work in King County, the 17th largest inter county flow in the U.S., and the largest on the West Coast outside of Los Angeles. Its transit needs are thus more asymmetric and peak-oriented than peer counties that don’t have such an imbalance between residents and employment. Low-cost housing comes with costs that are externalized elsewhere, and perhaps nowhere is this more strongly felt than with roads and transit. Excessive peak pressure requires lots of peak service, the most expensive kind of transit. Continue reading “Community Transit Kicks Off Campaign for More Service”

First Hill Streetcar Delayed Indefinitely

Gordon Werner (Flickr)
Streetcars under construction back in March 2015. Photo by Gordon Werner (Flickr)

[Update, 4:45pm: Mayor Murray has responded with a statement: “I share the public’s frustration that the First Hill streetcar has yet to enter service. We continue to focus on fixing the problems this administration inherited. SDOT renegotiated the penalties for late delivery to make the delays more painful for the manufacturer, which now owes the City nearly $800,000 for failure to meet deadlines. This delay is unacceptable. If these higher penalties are not successful in motivating the contractor to complete its work, we will be forced to consider other alternatives.”]

Confirming rumors we’d been hearing recently, King 5 and Capitol Hill Seattle reported yesterday that that the First Hill Streetcar still has no estimated opening date, and that the line may not launch until 2016, nearly two years late. It is now a very real possibility that ULink may open first.

In addition to previous problems like failed fire tests and extreme procurement delays, SDOT Director Kubly told the Transportation Committee yesterday in a report that new problems abound: software glitches, propulsion problems, water damage in 6 out of 7 inverters, and unfinished items like wayfinding graphics and the customer information system. Apparently one of the inverters has been shipped back to Switzerland for maintenance. Inekon is paying hefty fines of $750,000 for their share of the delays, but it should be noted that this is 0.5% of the project budget, or roughly the amount King County Metro spends every 5 hours.

This streetcar project can now fairly be described as a disaster in conception, planning, and project management. Even if the bulk of the blame should be shouldered by Czech company Inekon, it is difficult to point to many decisions made along the way that will lead to the purported intent of transit: superior mobility outcomes. In the end, we will have spent $132m to build a mixed-traffic line with independent power, proprietary battery technology, purpose-built cars, circuitous routing, inadequate frequency, an average 7 mph speed, and an unfixable right-of-way design that permanently precludes transit priority. The ghost of Rube Goldberg is amused.

To be fair, the streetcar will do some good things. It will mitigate some of the overly radial focus of the bus network, enabling crosstown trips long underserved on Routes 9 and 60. It will permanently connect the new Yesler Terrace to the International District for the first time. And it will likely be a hit with Sounder riders headed for Harborview or Swedish who currently suffer a 3-seat ride and a crush loaded 3 & 4 on James Street.

But by most metrics, the line will perform poorly and will be unlikely to improve. Short of tearing up tracks, rechannelizing the roadway, reinstalling the tracks, removing parking, restricting turns, and/or banning cars on Broadway, we’re largely stuck with what we’ve built. Thankfully we’re poised not to make the same mistake with the Center City Connector, with dedicated right of way virtually guaranteed. But the integrated lines will still suffer from their weakest link, with trains on First Avenue delayed on account of peak hour cars queuing on First Hill. This entire experience inspires everything but confidence.

SPONSOR: What do you think of Seattle transportation?

This is a sponsored post.

What is your main mode of transportation? Do you think Seattle is a safe city for bike commuters and pedestrians?

We want to know what you think in advance of Seattle Speaks: Move Seattle?, a live, televised community forum, which will consider the biggest levy in Seattle history — $930 million over nine years to fund transportation projects.

Weigh in now and take the short pre-poll survey.

Seattle Channel host Brian Callanan will lead a discussion with proponents and opponents of the levy, 7 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 29, at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave.

The Move Seattle transportation levy, paid for through a property tax, replaces the existing Bridging the Gap transportation levy that expires at the end of this year.

Some critics say the proposal is a collection of disconnected projects and question where the levy dollars will go. Supporters say levy investments offer more choices to move people and goods around Seattle safely and affordably and will help the city keep pace with growth.

Admission to Seattle Speaks is free, but advance registration is required. Doors open at 6 p.m. with audience instructions at 6:30 p.m. and the live televised program at 7 p.m. Join the conversation in person or online, where you can take part in polls and voice your opinion via social media and e-mail. Follow the event on social media and use the hashtag #SeattleSpeaks.

Seattle Speaks: Move Seattle? will be broadcast live on Seattle Channel cable 21 (HD on Comcast 321 and Wave 721) and online.

Seattle Speaks is presented by Seattle CityClub, Seattle Channel and Town Hall Seattle. Seattle Speaks is an Emmy Award-winning series that brings together local leaders, critics, stakeholders and residents to deliberate pivotal moments in our city’s history.

News Roundup: Mysterious Disappearance

Community Transit 10806

This is an open thread.

Sounder Service and Cash Shuttles Return for Seahawks

Zap GridlockThe Seattle Seahawks kick off their home season Sunday, September 27. Cash shuttles, $4 each way, will run from Eastgate Park & Ride, South Kirkland Park & Ride, and Northgate Transit Center to 6th & Weller (next to International District / Chinatown Station) before each weekend game, and return after the game. (The pre-season games were both on weekdays, so there were no shuttles.) Sound Transit Express 554, Metro route 255, and Metro route 41 also run between these three locations and ID/C Station, for $2.50 each way, but less frequently than the shuttles. The shuttles will not be available for the Monday night game.

Sounder service returns, for six games: Continue reading “Sounder Service and Cash Shuttles Return for Seahawks”

Detours Announced for Xi Jinping’s Visit

Chinese President Xi Jinping (Wikimedia)
Chinese President Xi Jinping (Wikimedia)

[UPDATE 5:00pm: Sound Transit and Community Transit published erroneous info. Their routes serving Olive Way will make their normal stops. The post below has been updated.]

Chinese President Xi Jinxing’s historic visit to the Seattle area this week will come with more than its share of headaches for regional commuters. Security will be tight, and closures and reroutes will affect marginally more people than your typical Obama visit. Whereas Obama typically requires closures during active transit from Boeing Field to a fundraiser or occasional closures around the Westin, Xi’s visit will close the entirety of a 9 square block area of central Downtown for 3 full days, from Tuesday through Thursday. In addition, Xi will visit Tacoma’s Lincoln High School, Everett’s Paine Field, and Microsoft’s Redmond campus, scuttling travel regionwide . His schedule has not been announced for security reasons, but many arterial or freeway closures are likely to occur during peak hours.

So what does this mean for your commute?  The usual advice applies: telework if you are so privileged, walk or bike if at all able, take Sounder (especially to/from Snohomish County), take Link or a tunnel bus if possible, and/or just avoid Downtown. Mixed-traffic surface transit will likely break down significantly.

Some of these changes will be moving targets, so stay tuned for updates or corrections.

Here are the details:

  • General Restrictions: No through traffic will be permitted within the closure area, by any mode. Pedestrians with destinations within the secure area will be permitted, subject to additional security.
  • Cars: No through traffic or parking permitted, but parking garage access will be allowed.
  • Link Light Rail: Expected to operate normally, though tunnel operations will likely suffer as routes 41, 71, 72, 73, and 255 struggle to approach Convention Place via Stewart Street.
  • SLU Streetcar: will continue to operate, but will run empty south of Denny. All passengers will be required to deboard at at Westlake/Denny.
  • Monorail: expected to operate normally, though passengers may be subject to screening.
  • Pronto: The station at 6th/Westlake will be closed.

Bus Detours!

Metro Routes

  • Metro will detour 22 routes total
    • Routes that use Stewart and 2nd Avenue:
      • Southbound routes 177, 178, 190, 192, and 308 will use Stewart/8th/Lenora/2nd instead
      • Normal northbound routing
      • Also applies to late night trips on tunnel buses 41, 71, 72, 73, 106, and 150
    • Routes that use Stewart and 3rd Avenue:
      • Southbound routes 25, 66, 304, and northbound 355 will use Stewart/9th/Pine/3rd
      • Normal northbound routing
    • Route 70 will have a unique pathway, using Blanchard/8th/Virginia outbound, and Fairview/Boren/Pine inbound.
    • Routes that use Stewart to 5th Avenue:
      • Routes 64, 83, 252, 257, 268, 311, and ST 545 will use 9th Avenue, Convention Place, and Union Street
    • Expect significant delays on all other Pike Street routes, including routes 10, 11, 43, 47, 49, 301, 308, 312, and 522. If you’re traveling between Downtown and Capitol Hill, walking and biking are highly preferable.

Continue reading “Detours Announced for Xi Jinping’s Visit”

Walking the Montlake Triangle

At last Tuesday’s County Council meeting about the ULink restructure, Metro estimated walking times from various bus stops to UW station:

  • 2 minutes to the Pacific Place stop, served by routes 44, 45, 65, 67, and 73/78
  • 2 minutes to northbound Montlake Blvd stop, served by routes 65 and 73/78
  • 2 minutes to UW Medical Center, served by routes 44, 45, 48, 65, 67, 167, 197, 271, 540, 541, 542, 556, and 586
  • 5 Minutes to Stevens Way/Mason Rd, served by routes 31, 32, 65, 75, 78, and 372

Councilmember Dembowski asked Metro if they had walked each of these to confirm the accuracy of these estimates, and they admitted they hadn’t. Metro also quoted these times at “platform to platform”, but there was some uncertainty about whether the estimates were platform-to-headhouse instead.  Last Thursday, I went out and walked from both Stevens Way and UWMC to the station, and the videos are above.

As an able-bodied 6’2″ male, my walking times can reasonably be expected to be the lower bound of reasonable estimates, with people of other heights and abilities being expected to take longer to make the walk.

From Stevens Way, it was 4 minutes exactly from Mason Rd to the top of the UW Station escalator, so the 5 minute platform-to-platform time that Metro quoted is reasonably accurate. Of course, the walk from Stevens Way will also be 100% reliable due to its full grade separation.

From UWMC, even from the closest future location of the bus stop on westbound Pacific, it still took me 2:26 to get to the top of the station escalator, with 1:00 wasted waiting to cross Montlake Boulevard. If you caught a green light to cross Montlake, you could be at the station headhouse in 1:30 and at the platform in 2:30-3:00. But if you just miss a light and have to wait a full light cycle,  the walk could take 4 minutes, still modest but roughly double Metro’s estimate. It’s ok to quote 2 minutes as a best case, and we should definitely make every attempt to optimize signals for the shortest possible wait, but the variability inherent in the Montlake Blvd crossing should be transparently stated.

How Many Rich Households?

1907 Triplex, Jeannette, PA (wikimedia)

Seattle District 1 Candidate Lisa Herbold made some good points in the clarification of her position on HALA. I especially welcome her support for Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). Most interesting, however, is what she said about displacement, as that’s where the tension is strongest between the stated social justice goal of displacing no one, and the environmental (and public safety, urban-agenda, economic) goal of welcoming as many people to Seattle as possible.

First, I agree with Ms. Herbold that a workable strategy to replace affordable units destroyed by development is desirable, especially if it doesn’t deter said development. At the same time I’m not willing to delay a badly needed upzone process indefinitely in search of such a strategy.

But her most powerful argument is a forceful challenge to my just-maximize-the-units ideology, taking the example of a cheap single-family home replaced with a new triplex:

I have more compassion for a displaced low income family renting one of our scarce affordable family-­sized rentals who has to move their family out of the city, pull their children out of school, and suffer a long, emissions-­producing commute like this family who Janet Tu profiled in her excellent piece in the Times, than I do for the three higher-­income families who otherwise would likely be buying the new homes that are built in the place of that one low­-income rental. Do you know why? That low income family has far fewer options, and the hardship they will experience will be much, much greater than the 3 higher-­income families will experience not being able to buy one of those 3 pricey new homes.

I absolutely agree that exchanging one cheap unit for one expensive unit is in most cases a net loss for society, for the reasons she describes. But as the ratio of new households to displaced households increases, the benefits start to overwhelm these concerns. The environmental impact of three middle-class families in the suburbs and a low-income one in Seattle greatly outweighs the reverse. Seattle is much more likely to convert some of those families’ wealth into social services, transit, and subsidized housing, thanks to the generosity of its voters. And an ever-increasing population increases Seattle’s weight in Olympia, which helps in the arena that blocks most transformative policy change.

Unfortunately there is no formula that “proves” the minimum ratio where the benefits of growth exceed the pain of displacement. For me, that figure is low — probably less than 2. And that’s because outlawing duplexes and triplexes doesn’t ultimately prevent displacement. Herbold is right that an upzone increases the incentives to redevelop, but this only accelerates an inevitable process where the affordable house gives way to one new home (under current zoning) or up to three (under the proposed change). Meanwhile, our three hypothetical families may not end up in the suburbs; they may very well outbid three other families elsewhere in the city who are less equipped to deal with the inconveniences of displacement.

Once again, it would be ideal if Seattle can craft a policy to replace demolished affordable housing without impairing new construction, rather than achieve its goals on the backs of the displaced. But delay in achieving those goals, or failure altogether, is much worse for thousands of households like the one a preservation policy strives to save.