Page Two articles are from our reader community.

Jarrett Walker has an interesting and useful piece (already linked in a recent News Roundup) suggesting that anti-urban, anti-transit attitudes are often related to fundamental human characteristics that we should sympathize with – because we all share them. He highlights loss aversion, comfort with known procedures, and the desire to secure our homes. If you all don’t mind a personal story, I can add a bit to Walker’s point.

In the mid-1990’s, I had an ex-pat assignment in Amsterdam, and lived there with my family including school-age kids. This exposure showed me the value of a very livable “real” city, not least because my 12-year old was incredibly independent, largely as a result of excellent transit. Yet when we moved from Amsterdam to the Seattle area. we settled in low-density Mercer Island, hardly a city and a place with only mediocre transit service, even then.

Why would we have done such a thing? Because, like many parents, we took school quality to be the most important criterion. Affluent suburbs such as Mercer Island and Bellevue were – and perhaps still are – a safer choice for navigating kids through public schools, and metrics such test scores were more favorable there. Whether those metrics are “fair” or not becomes less important when making choices for your kids. Many parents have made the other choice – to live in Seattle and similar cities – and I’m sure their kids have done fine, but it was certainly a reasonable consideration, and one that still strongly influences many parents today.

I’d guess that parents’ concern for their kids’ security and environment has much to do with the backlash against HALA’s proposals. Some of the same folks who are strongly for bike- and walk- friendly neighborhoods also are unhappy about the possibility of denser development in their neighborhoods – and both motivated by parental concern.

Many expressions of those concerns are misguided, in my opinion. But the details are not easy, and dismissive arguments will only harden positions.

One final observation about Amsterdam: in the Netherlands, publicly-financed elementary and high-school education is an interesting historical hybrid of public, private, and religious schools, with more choice than most places in the U.S. (and transit is full of commuting students). As a result, location has much less impact on access to (perceived) high-quality education, and so there has been less pressure for affluent parents to self-segregate in affluent suburbs – such as Mercer Island.

6 Replies to “Why does a transit-blog contributor live in Mercer Island?”

  1. Whatever one thinks about school-related housing decisions, it’s good to have people with different ideas living near eachother. As many cities have made shockingly little progress on racial stratification and income stratification, political/ideological stratification may have become worse in the last few decades. That’s true both across the country and within cities.

    1. Al, all sorts of things are problematic about the tendency of affluent, well-educated parents to live in communities of the same and send there kids to demanding schools and colleges with similar kids. Yet the individual choices that are being made are difficult to fault.
      My 12 year old, when he got to be 16, certainly agreed with your point. He got tired of the culture here and went to Seattle Central (through Running Start) his last 2 years of high school.

      1. Running Start is awesome. Kudos to you both for taking advantage of a great program.

        Seattle Central is funny. It feels more like a high school than any college I’ve ever been in. I think I ran into more immature students focused on hanging out (and not academics) than in my high school. But it works. They have some excellent teachers and your kid not only experienced diversity of income and race, but age as well. I think it is great when a young man or woman rubs shoulders with a forty year old who is top in the class and asks them why they are taking the class. The usual answer boils down to “I’m tired of my crappy job”. This is a great lesson for any young person (which is why I love community colleges, even though they aren’t called that anymore).

        No reference to Seattle Central would be complete without a reference to one of my favorite songs by Sir-Mix-A-Lot, which is Posse’s on Broadway. The “college” he references is where your son went to school (and “Broadway” is that street, not the one in New York).

  2. I think your assumptions about schools is fairly common. I don’t fault you for making such a decision. I seriously doubt, though, that your kids (or any other kids) would be better off going to Mercer Island High versus, say, Garfield (in Seattle). There have been several studies that show that kids preform best when in an integrated environment, and Garfield is more integrated than Mercer Island.

    It is very hard to measure the success of a school. In terms of merit scholars, Garfield has more than Mercer Island, but not as many as Lakeside or Interlake. That seems to happen every year. But that is based on testing, which is not necessarily a great way to measure excellence.

    Like picking a college, a lot depends on what your kid wants to do. Mercer Island is very good at chess, but so too is Garfield, which has as many state championships as anyone ( For music, Garfield is outstanding (with both an excellent symphony as well as jazz and marching band). The same is true for debate (it is harder to find previous champions on debate, but I remember them being quite successful back in the day). There is no mock trial team — so if your kid wanted to do that, he or she would have to head south a bit to Franklin ( Of course in athletics, Garfield does really well in sports that don’t involve ramming your head into another human being (Bellevue is the place for American football). They are best known for basketball (both men’s and women’s).

    I think you get my point. It is really hard to make the case that Mercer Island is better than Garfield, although it is easy to make the case that they have a lot fewer kids of color and have a lot fewer kids on public assistance. The latter plays a huge part in standardized testing, of course.

    Which is, again, why I don’t blame you for picking Mercer Island. If you don’t know any better, then it is a logical choice. I do think, though, that very few people object to increased density because they fear their school will get worse. I’ve never heard that complaint. This isn’t Detroit, nor it is even Philadelphia. The fact that Seattle’s inner city schools perform so well simply shows that those kind of fears — the fear of “the wrong kind of people” — are very rare.

    The most common complaints are loss of parking, congestion and loss of character. That’s it. If you could convince people that increased density doesn’t increase the number of cars, then I think you would be half way there. In general I would say the most common complaint is the loss of the structure. I get this. It makes sense to me. I love walking around Seattle, and there are a lot of very nice neighborhoods with very nice houses. I don’t mean fancy houses, either; but middle class houses on relatively small lots. This means that you can walk by them very quickly and see the mix of landscaping. Losing that is what people complain about, more than anything.

    But that is why the HALA changes make sense. They eliminate the parking requirement, which is a tough trade-off, but essential if your higher priority is reduced congestion and structure preservation. It calls for a change in the ADU laws, which is basically just a form of apartment conversion. It is, of course, the cheapest way to add density. By opening up the vast majority of land to increased density, you reduce the chance that a relatively big, nice house gets torn down and replaced by an apartment. There will still be new apartments, but mostly when the old lot is empty or contains a shack. In other words, it is only when you draw a little circle and say “you are only allowed to build here” that it makes sense to tear down a million dollar house to put up a six story building. But that is what the rules encourage now.

    Loosening the rules to allow for more low level development throughout the city would lead to a more attractive city, not a less attractive one. It would lead to fewer parking spaces, and more congestion (at least in the short term) but in the long run, it leads to much better transit. In other words, if gives people an alternative to depending on cars (and depending on parking spaces). In short, it leads to a nicer city overall.

    1. Ross, great points all. As it turns out, in 1996 school assignment in Seattle was NOT based on geography, and popular schools like Garfield were assigned at least partly by lottery, in a highly opaque system. So we knew about Garfield but could not predict what schools our kids would end up attending within Seattle. The history is complicated, but much of the reason for that system was to avoid the (racial) segregation that came from geographic concentrations WITHIN Seattle. An unintended consequence, here and elsewhere in the US, was to encourage suburban migration.

      Now that assignment in Seattle is again primarily geographic, it will be interesting to see how neighborhoods evolve – will affluent neighborhoods get to be more so because of that? I’m glad to see folks valuing diversity, but test scores and college admission will still be pretty important to many parents.

      There’s no simple solution, but I do believe that the progressive push against charter schools and other choice programs will have similar unintended consequences, increasing affluence-based segregation and NIMBY attitudes.

      1. I think it is great to make a choice on where to live based on what public schools are available, but I also like that thoughtful people are realizing that a denser more urban lifestyle with diverse types of people and culture has real value to kids and can be less stressful for parents (more fun too).

        I also like the realistic view of Seattle Public Schools, they are really great for the most part.

        I would also conclude the switch to geographic based school selection to have reinforced some of the higher ranking school areas. We live in NE Seattle and there is sort of ridiculous real estate prices now, Old two bedroom houses are being bought for $500K, torn down and replaced with stuff like this — (4bdr 3bath $1,3 million).

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