Afternoon traffic on I-405 near Canyon Park. Photo by SounderBruce.

We are regularly reminded that traffic congestion is growing across the region. The median Seattle metro area worker commutes nine miles to work. What if we could live closer to our workplaces? Drivers would drive fewer miles, and spend less time in traffic. Everybody who lives closer to work would contribute less to the congestion experienced by everybody else. This would reduce traffic even if everybody drives. But there’s a multiplier as denser places have higher transit (and walk, and bike) shares. Reduce travel distances by 10%, and there’s a more than 10% reduction in vehicle miles traveled.

Who has the longest and shortest commutes? The U.S. Census Bureau’s Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics has a handy mapping interface to their Origin-Destination Employment Statistics. I’ve charted the length of commute journeys for major cities in the region, per the PSRC classification of Metropolitan, Core, and Larger. (Here’s a similar chart for smaller cities).

The shortest commutes are enjoyed by residents of Mercer Island, Seattle, Bellevue, Kirkland, and Redmond. 75% live within ten miles of their work (vs. 52% for the region). Of course, these are the nearest cities to the two largest employment centers in the region. Commuters from more distant cities to downtown Seattle and downtown Bellevue must travel further.

Among the cities on the chart, the longest commutes are from the exurban communities of Maple Valley, Monroe, Arlington, Lake Stevens and Marysville. 71% of workers who live in those cities are more than 10 miles from their work. 31% are more than 25 miles away. These aren’t the very worst commutes in the region, however. Residents of some of the tiny mountain ‘smaller cities’ drive extraordinarily long distances to work.

Incidentally, Covington and Bonney Lake, both seeking larger city designation so they can grow faster, would have longer commute distances than most of the larger city peer group.

It will surprise few that people who live near Seattle and Bellevue have shorter commutes. But it invites an obvious question. Why is the regional growth strategy constructed around five Metropolitan Cities and 29 Regional Growth Centers? Why not draw more residential development closer to the two dominant business centers?

Everett and Tacoma have not yet exerted a comparable gravitational pull. Both cities are employment centers with more inward commuters than outward. But Tacoma’s workers mostly commute from further south. In Federal Way, three times as many residents commute to distant Seattle (20%) as to adjacent Tacoma (7%). Everett draws workers from southern Snohomish County, but 29% of Lynnwood residents work in Seattle vs fewer than 9% working in Everett. Almost every city between Tacoma and Everett has a commute pattern that primarily points toward Seattle rather than a local growth center.

There is a jobs/housing imbalance in many cities, with more jobs in Seattle, Bellevue, and Redmond. Other cities generally have net outflows of commuters. But even cities with a balanced mix of jobs and workers have uneven commute patterns. For instance, Kirkland has a near balance of jobs and workers. But residents mostly commute into the core. Just 12% of Kirkland residents work in the city, and 58% commute to Seattle, Bellevue, and Redmond. In contrast, only 22% of jobs in Kirkland are held by commuters from those three cities. (Another 13% are Kirkland residents). Those who work in Kirkland are commuting in from less central places, and over significantly longer distances.

118 Replies to “We have traffic because we drive so far”

  1. People choose to live far, because the don’t want homeless in their alley, don’t want needs strewn around their park and want schools with better ratings. So they are kind of forced to live 30 miles away because they think that safety and better education of their kids are more important than 40 minutes one way in a tin box.

    1. If that were true, one would expect to see high prices in the far flung suburbs and and cheap housing in the central city, when in fact we see the opposite, especially on a per square foot basis.

      1. Not really, since the land is cheaper and much more abundant in Arlington, rather than in Seattle where there is _no_ land left to built upon. So that drives the prices.
        Plus we’re seeing more of the younger, unburdened by the families workers moving in for tech industry, straight outta college. At some point some of those will overcome their social shyness, make pairs, marry, have kids and then move to Arlington or whatever as I have seen with my colleagues.

        In all honesty, I am living in Greenwood. On my block there are no kids under age of 14. And above that age there are just 3. There was 4, but he’s a convicted murderer now and serves time. Plus, twice my house has been broken into.
        Now persuade me to have kids while living there… :-)

      2. I guarantee you tech workers are never going to move to arlington. Maybe Lynnwood… arlington would be an insane commute, and there are zero jobs for tech workers in the area.

        Not that many millenials have kids… The recession along with high college debt caused the birthrate to nosedive. The US would be in population decline right now if it weren’t for immigration

      3. This is nonsense. No one said anything about far flung. Sammamish, Maple Valley, and the areas of south Snohomish county all have very expensive housing and are nightmare commutes. But what they have to offer families blows what Seattle has to offer out of the water.

        The city is great for SINKs and DINKs, but it is very burdensome on anyone with kids looking for good quality of life beyond traffic.

      4. @Ignorant: And just what DO Sammamish, Maple Valley and “the areas south of Snohomish County” have to offer, that “blows what Seattle has to offer out of the water”?

        I know quite a few people that are raising kids in the City and never have to think of things their kids can do. Not to mention, a lot of the activities are within walking distance.

        Contrast that to people I know raising kids in the ‘burbs, where you pretty much have to drive them to anything, which causes fatigue for the parents and ultimately results in sedentary lives for the kids.

        This is not to say that everyone in the City or the ‘burbs has experiences like this, but I’m offering examples that I know of, something you did not do.

    2. My understanding is Bellevue and Kirkland are considered quite safe and have good schools, so you don’t have to go out 30+ miles and leave for work at 5 AM to find this. Housing costs are of course the larger issue, though, which reinforces the argument for more housing close to job centers (what a concept!) and mass transit so people can at least avoid the most congested stretches. Of course, it might mean less real estate profits for the 1% and the billionaire class, so we can’t do that.

      1. Kirkland pretty much doesn’t allow anything to be built but single family houses which now all cost $1M+. Kirkland does not want you to move there unless you are one of the 10% and can fill the 3 car garage and drive everywhere.

    3. Breakins and car stealing are a major problem in Bellevue, and especially stealing Christmas presents from cars during the holidays. The thieves know where the money is. That’s also why they target Greenwood.

    4. Remember, the suburbs will become the new slums. I feel safe nearly everywhere I go in Tacoma, but Lakewood is scary.

      1. Donde, my now usual drive through Tacoma to Angle Lake takes me through hospital neighborhood on MLK, which I understand used to be pretty rough.

        Love it. And look forward to Tacoma Link connecting it with Tacoma Dome Station, when service once again gets reliable enough to use for appointments. Maybe I’m gun-shy nowadays, but am starting to think really good coffee means I have to choose between that and rent.

        In Europe for a very long time, it’s customary that the better your income, the closer you can live to the center of the city. And same ratio in reverse gear.

        In some countries, having to live the suburbs carries so much clinging prejudice nobody can see past your address to your citizenship papers. If they thought there was any point in it.

        Not much comfort that ISIS will take credit for what you do when you’re tired of the treatment.
        Because their assistance to you will be same amount as the legal bills a certain candidate keeps promising to pay for people who commit assaults at his speeches.

        Tacoma isn’t quite Paris yet. But Lakewood is a matching suburb.


    5. @va. The 1970s called, they want their attitude back.

      Sorry, but that is simply an outdated concept. You are essentially arguing that no one goes there anymore because the place is too crowded. Seattle public schools have a real problem right now because of increased enrollment. They are considering building a new elementary school downtown because of the all the families that have to schlep their kids out of the neighborhood in which they live.

      Schools, crime — that isn’t keeping some families out — prices are. Have a lottery — for families only — for a house in, say Greenwood. Set the price for a small three bedroom, two bath house (nothing that fancy) at a typical Arlington price and see how many people are interested. So, we are talking 300 grand or so, for a decent, middle of the road house in Greenwood. Do you really think there will be lots of families saying “Looks great, but the schools aren’t as good as they are in Arlington (really?). Oh, and what about crime? Besides, I just want acres and acres of land to tend, since I have nothing else to do”. Nonsense. People would be crawling all over each other to get those tickets, because you now have dropped the price of that house in half, if not more.

      As it just so happens, I went house shopping with my son yesterday. He is looking to start a family and so he and is girlfriend want a house that is kid friendly. As luck would have it, he is a fairly well paid professional, and so is his girlfriend. He has to fly a lot, so he wants something on the south end, although in a few years he might end up working in Seattle. I suggested Rainier Valley, which last time I checked was one of the better values in the city. With the train, he would have easy access to the airport as well as good ride into town. He laughed and showed me his Redfin App, which basically had only a handful of houses in Rainier Valley at his price range. “You are out of date, dad”, he essentially told me. Rainier Valley isn’t the bargain it used to be, so instead he is looking at White Center. It is a little sketchy, but nothing like East Saint Louis (where he lived for a while). But it is all he can afford without breaking the bank.

      Again, this is a well paid, two income household, and they can’t afford most houses in Seattle. They aren’t setting their standards that high, either (in fact he turned down a few houses because they were just too big for him as well as a stretch financially). If you already have wealth — say, a house in Palo Alto — then no problem. But for someone starting out, it is really hard.

      The main reason people move to the suburbs is because they can’t afford to live in the city. The main reason they can’t afford to live in the city is because too many people want to live here, and we aren’t building enough new houses. Supply and demand — it is that simple. The town houses that are being built go for very high prices, because there just aren’t enough of them. Our overly restrictive, out of date zoning laws are largely responsible for the fact that so few new families can afford to buy a home here.

      1. “The main reason people move to the suburbs is because they can’t afford to live in the city.”

        Maybe the exurbs but not the suburbs anymore. Have you seen housing prices in Kirkland and Bellevue? You’ll be able to find something cheaper than in Seattle, but not by much. The difference though is that unlike Seattle you’ll likely have more land, a newer house, and better schools. I moved to the suburbs because good schools and getting more than just a tiny lot (I don’t have a farm, but I can fit more than two trees on my property) won out over supposedly easier access to grocery stores and the like. Yes I need to take a car most places on weekends, but I can bike or bus to work (and do almost every day). Just a matter of priorities.

      2. I’m not sure what his price range is but there is still value to be had in the Valley, you just gotta take the time to look for it and be ready to jump when it shows up.

      3. Thanks Matt. Yeah — funny you should say that, because a house just came on the market and it sure seems like a good value. So yeah, I probably exaggerated things a bit when I said you can’t find houses there. I think the main problem is just too few houses on the market. It may not be the great value it was a while ago, but still a good value, especially if you are patient.

        Good schools* and decent prices make it a good value. But that is rare for Seattle, as much of town is very, very expensive, and people move to most suburbs because they can’t afford most of the city. Their are plenty of people who move for other reasons but it is hard to deny that for the same type of house, it costs a lot more (on average) to live in Seattle than it does in most suburbs. David just made my point, in a round about way. There are plenty of houses in Seattle with big lots, they are just more expensive than the suburban ones. Per square foot, Seattle houses are more expensive (just see the numbers on Zillow). So if you want a big lot, you are better off moving to the suburbs, even pricey ones like Bellevue or Kirkland, because they are cheaper.

        * But image is everything when it comes to real estate, isn’t it. It cracks me up that folks think they are getting a much better education in the burbs when they really can’t point to anything except maybe test score data that largely reflects the income of their neighbors. Music programs, arts, chess, debate, mock trial — Seattle holds its own, even in the poor parts of town.

    6. As growth continues and zoning remains the same, south King County, Lynnwood, Everett, and Tacoma will also become unaffordable. It’s just a matter of how fast it spreads to each area. South King County has been the nearby bargain basement for the past three decades but it’s now the fastest increasing in price, and construction hasn’t picked up there yet. Long-term the King County prices will move toward convergence even if they don’t go all the way, and Snohomish and Pierce will be coming up behind them and have more single-family offerings. The only way to reverse this growth is with a major recession, stopping climate change, or an earthquake or volcano that devastates Pugetopolis like Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans.

    7. @va….You are missing the #1 reason people move out of Seattle. Cost. If you hadn’t noticed, buying a single family house in Seattle is VERY expensive.

      I live, what, 2.5 miles NE of you – still in the city of Seattle – in one of the poorest parts of N. Seattle, and there are kids EVERYWHERE. Why? Because it is one of the last places a young family can still afford housing in the city. Cedar Park is opening a new elementary next year to help with the burgeoning growth of children. Sorry you live in an area that is too expensive for families to move into, but that is the reason, no some fear of crime.

      1. So answering to all specifying cost. I am speaking of my anecdotal knowledge. My colleagues and friends can all afford to buy houses in Seattle. And quite a few did buy houses in Seattle, Kirkland and better parts of Bothell in ’15-’16. None with kids bought in Seattle. FWIW, the prices were higher for houses in Kirkland and on par in Bothell. But well, you know, Lake Washington School district, rather than SSD. And yes, once more, my neighbor is killer and robber and my house been broken into. Theirs? Zero times. Go figure.

      2. >> But well, you know, Lake Washington School district, rather than SSD.

        No I don’t, but you are implying that Lake Washington School District is somehow better, with no data to support it. Since we are talking anecdotes, I went to Seattle Public Schools, as did all my kids. None of us had trouble getting into college. Most of my kids have advanced degrees (masters, J. D., etc.) and all passed their various professional certifications (e. g. Washington State Bar). All their friends are in the same boat.

        I’m sorry your neighbor is a killer and a robber and your house has been broken into. Maybe you should move out — I’m sure there are plenty of families that would love to move in (if they could afford it).

    8. Nah, they still exist in the suburbs. I pass by panhandlers and side-step needles on my walk to the bus up here in the hinterland between Arlington and Marysville. It’s arguably worse when you have cities like Everett forced to sue the maker of Oxycontin because of an out-of-control addiction crisis.

      Seattle has a lot more benefits that outweigh their downsides. I’d move in a heartbeat, as would many others up here, if we could afford it.

      1. From 2009 to 2015 I had a friend that lived in Magnolia, which is definitely Seattle. Never saw a single panhandler or even a homeless looking person wandering around.

  2. Great post. I think we’re quite lucky that we have a very strong job center, rather than the multiple spread out job centers that our region plans for. This allows for a good strong transit system, but importantly it fundamentally limits sprawl. People tend to not want to live too far from their work because of commute times, and with our hub-and-spoke system this keeps them from bulldozing too many forests and farms for new housing. Under a suburban mesh network layout we’d have easy car commutes from the periphery to job centers well outside Seattle. This would absolutely drive sprawl, ruin any hope of a good transit system, and be an environmental disaster.

    1. Pugetopolis has an unusually large concentration of jobs in downtown Seattle. I thought about that as I saw two 4xx buses coming from Snohomish this morning. Transit fans decry the long commutes, the cost of deadheading back for another run, the peak expresses taking resources away from all-day local service that would make it easier to live car-free, and suburbanites’ preference for peak expresses. But we also celebrate the fact that SOV driving downtown has gone down to 30 or 40% — below transit. But that mode share depends on full express buses running, and their counterparts Sounder and Link. Without those express buses the driving mode share would go back up again, and then instead of having one neighborhood with less than 50% driving, we’d have zero neighborhoods with it, and people would say it’s impossible or too expensive to push it down. Because if the buses went away, not all of those ex-riders would quit their jobs and find a job closer to home, many of them would drive. And there’s no job in their field closer to home, and many of them can’t afford to move to Seattle especially with a family.

      But, if we disperse the jobs and shrink downtown, then it would be harder to provide good transit to the jobs because you’d have an everywhere-to-everywhere pattern rather than an everywhere-to-one-place pattern. We don’t need to guess how that would turn out, we can just look at Ohio and San Jose.

    2. I agree, good point. Keeping employment as close as possible to the core makes for a much better transit system, which overall makes for a much better transportation system. Suburban office parks sound great for those who like to drive, until the reverse commute becomes the standard, hellish, spend all day slogging through traffic commute, and the various agencies can’t do much about it because they are stretched too thin.

  3. Even within Seattle, there’s a substantial mismatch between job centers and housing development. SLU and Downtown are adding more jobs than housing. Although housing has grown quickly it hasn’t kept up. Ballard, Capitol Hill, West Seattle, etc. are adding housing but few jobs.

    I moved 4 miles further from work last year and I’m still the 2nd closest person to the office among my team of 12. 5 of the team live in Seattle, just not that close to the office itself.

    Then there are the vagaries of the job market and life outside of work. Sometimes the better career opportunity (or better $$) is further away. Even if you’re renting, it might take a year to relocate closer to work. Even then, perhaps your outside of work life keeps you attached to an area even if you don’t work nearby.

    1. Additionally many jobs aren’t stable enough for me to move for it. I just became a contractor in Seattle. It is a 6 month contract and though my commute sucks I am not willing to move to change it. I do take the bus though.

    2. I disagree, slightly – there is a large amount of housing being built in the downtown core, with several large apartment blocks coming up in Uptown and Westlake and multiple towers in SLU/Denny Triangle. I think this is borne out by the increase in walking in Seattle mode splits – my hypothesis is the spike in walking is a direct result of new units opening up within walking distance of jobs in the downtown core.

      That said, there still is a mismatch, and the city could do better to add more housing in the core. I don’t necessarily support adding more jobs in the urban villages unless there is a good transit to move people in and out of the village (so yes please more jobs and housing in U District and Northgate)

      1. Yeah, I agree with AJ. If you are going to add jobs, then adding them in South Lake Union is way better than adding them in Ballard, Fremont or West Seattle. South Lake Union is simply an extension of downtown, which makes it relatively easy to get to via transit. Ballard is hard to get to by transit, especially in the north end (it just takes a long time to ride the 44). Fremont is just as bad. West Seattle is much better (that freeway is extremely fast) but I would still say that South Lake Union is easier for most people to get to without driving.

        I do agree with your overall point, though, Alex. Seattle is fairly big geographically, and there is a big difference between trying to get from Lake City to Georgetown versus trying to get from the Central District to First Hill.

  4. The answers to your question involve several factors that aren’t examined.

    1. Property costs in general. This is relevant to both residential and commercial. Some businesses just can’t afford or won’t try to afford moving their work centers into Seattle or Bellevue and on the other side some people just can’t afford or won’t try to afford moving to more expensive areas like Seattle and Bellevue.

    2. It’s natural for businesses to avoid competing within a single sphere of customers, which is why you won’t see a Five Guys burger joint next to a Lunchbox Laboratory. Most smaller businesses and restaurants are looking to provide access to a need or want that their consumers otherwise wouldn’t have the option of getting in a timely manner. Driving from Renton to Ballard for some Finnish Licorice sucks, and if there’s enough latent demand on the East Side it’s reasonable to assume that someone would open a business more convenient for people to visit over driving to Ballard. This principle incentivizes living further from dense metropolitan areas that wouldn’t under other circumstances be as livable, because having access to the things you need and want in a convenient distance while having to pay less to procure residency is a powerful draw.

    3. As smaller metro areas continue to densify, more job opportunities open in those specific regions and more people (in theory) have access to much smaller commutes.

    There’s so much more on this subject, but I figured I’d throw some things out there that have an effect on individual migratory patterns, commerce patterns and commute issues.

    1. I’ll address number 2:

      Restaurants are a very bad type of business to look at. When it comes to employment, there are jobs serving the neighborhood economy (that is, people living nearby) and jobs serving the world economy (that is, people living everywhere). No community will ever have enough neighborhood jobs to employ their citizens. Even remote places like Skykomish have some world economy jobs like forestry work – it can’t survive on just plumbers and restaurants.

      Any place that has people will have neighborhood economy jobs. But it’s the world economy jobs that drive commuting patterns. It’s the world economy that has put 600,000 people onto a tiny parcel of land.

      1. I’ve been surprised by how many people I’ve encountered who commute long distances to “neighborhood” jobs in retail or food service. Customers presumably go to their closest Subway, but the workers sometimes are coming from many miles away. Most franchise businesses do have programs which allow people to switch to closer franchises, but various factors can make that difficult or add a significant delay.

      2. As in the North Bend outlet stores. People don’t work there if there’s a closer location available, but many times there isn’t a closer location with an opening. They may only work at North Bend for a year or two until they find an opening elsewhere, but it’s still a year or two.

      3. @fletc3her — Yeah, one of my kids did that. He worked at the Redmond Target even after moving to Fremont. He just didn’t want the stress of a new boss and was busy trying to get a different career going anyway. As Mike said, that is usually temporary, but a year or two is still a year or two.

    2. >> which is why you won’t see a Five Guys burger joint next to a Lunchbox Laboratory

      You even been to New York? :)

      Even in this city, you can see a dozen or more Asian noodle joints right on the Ave. Not just Asian restaurants, but restaurants that focus on Asian noodles — on one street. If you pull up a beer map of Washington State, you will find a bunch of them concentrated in the greater Ballard and Fremont area. More or on the way, too.

      Without a doubt there are some restaurants that hesitate before opening because they don’t want to saturate the market (and your two chain restaurants is probably a good example). But there are also lots and lots of restaurants that don’t mind opening next to similar restaurants. What they all want is people. Those breweries in Ballard/Fremont as well as the noodle joints on the Ave all survive because of lots of people. It is why so many of the burroughs of New York, but especially Manhattan and Brooklyn, thrive. Lots of people per square mile.

      But your first point still rings true. At some point, you can’t afford the high rent of the Ave, or the cost of a brewery in Ballard. It makes sense to move out to a place with fewer people. You get the advantage of being “the local place”, along with paying a lot less for rent. But what makes places like the Ave thrive is the fact that most of them are tiny. While that is difficult to do with a brewery (which requires a fair amount of space) it is not that hard for restaurants, as long as there are opportunities to use a smaller amount of space. That is what makes the places on Ave unusual for this city (and especially this area). The restaurants are tiny. A lot of skinny little shops, that mostly serve take out. So it really isn’t cost per square foot that matters as much as cost per business. Rent for the building must be sky high, but you are only paying a quarter of the cost.

      Even with brewpubs (which require more space) there is a concentration in one of the most expensive markets in the country. There are 8 brewpubs in Manhattan (all clustered together on the lower part of the island) which is more breweries and brewpubs in all of Everett. In terms of restaurants I would guess there are more on that tiny island than in the entire county of Snohomish. It seems counter intuitive, but it makes sense for businesses to concentrate, it is just that you need the physical infrastructure (including regulations) to allow it.

  5. People live farther away because their dollar goes farther in places away from Seattle. We moved out of Seattle because we could not afford to buy a decent sized home (that is 800sf+). Some folks like small little 500sf places, but not everyone, and those folks that need space (kids, work from home, etc) have to look at the far fetched suburbs for the best bang for their buck. We picked Tacoma because of the options to get to Seattle on transit, and even the airport, at reasonable prices. Even if you have lots of money, you may find more yard space, quieter neighborhoods out in suburbs for more value. We could live closer if housing was more reasonable in the city.

    1. Excellent points. Seattle is attempting to build more Affordable Housing, but that’s only for the low end of the income ladder. Middle class families get no help, and those families can no longer afford to buy a decent home in Seattle. Seattle is being hollowed out — a city for the poor and the rich and, over time, little or nothing in the middle.

      1. Roger, you’re old enough to remember when strong labor unions both made the Democratic party able both to get elected and govern.

        Which made things like long-term residence affordable by paying the average worker enough to afford it. My glasses need adjusting, so help me out while I’m looking.

        Is anybody else saying that tonight? And if not, what’s your take on why not. To quote everybody my age in history: “These young people around fifty don’t realize how much of their parents education got paid for by their grandparents’ taxes!”


    2. Which is largely because of the zoning laws that make it extremely difficult to build more housing. Here is a typical house in Brooklyn: Not your cup of tea, perhaps, but thousands and thousands of families lived very comfortably in places like that. You’ve got a tiny area in front to hang out as well as little back yard. Those are really expensive right now, but were quite affordable back in the day. The problem is that they just aren’t building enough of them, now.

      What is true for New York City is true of Seattle. It isn’t that expensive to build row houses, but we simply don’t allow them in most of the city. So families move to expensive apartments, or head out of town. I haven’t seen the numbers, but my guess is more the former than the latter. The idea that folks move to the suburbs just because they have kids is exaggerated. They move mostly because it is so damn expensive. If a small townhouse costs 700 grand, it really is no bargain. That townhouse wouldn’t cost nearly as much if they simply allowed them to be built in more areas of the city.

      My neighborhood, for example. I live in Pinehurst (half way between Lake City and Northgate). Like most of the north and south end, the zoning is 9600 SFH. This means you can’t build more than one house for every 9600 feet. There are housing lots that are much bigger than that, though, as the area used to be farmland. So guess what happens with someone buys a house sitting on a gigantic lot? They build as many houses as they can, but they are all huge houses. Of course they are. Once you’ve already thrown away a perfectly good house, the cost of construction isn’t the big issue. So rather than build four small, separate houses ($500, 000 a piece), or eight row houses ($350,000) they build two giant houses ($850,000). Everyone loses! The builder loses, because he makes less money. Families lose, because most can’t afford a house that expensive.

      Change the zoning and things become a lot more affordable.

      1. And almost none of the new developement in Seattle are condos — nothing but apartments. For some reason, developers just don’t build them. I suppose they’ll wait 20 years until all these new buildings start having maintenance issues, then they will likely convert them to condos to pass on the costs to someone else.

      2. I didn’t mean to single out homes with land. We bought a condo, and to simply compare, we bought 1100sf (8yr old building) for low $300s while 824sf in the Luma building (brand new) on the 2nd floor was low $500s. On the “kids” I’m just saying people who can afford Seattle, may choose suburban areas because they can get more house for their money. Even new construction is overpriced, firms buying 2 lots with 2 houses for $200-300k, and building 6-7 townhouses on the same land for $600k+ each (skinny tall townhouses), that’s just greedy. Making affordable middle class income housing, homes, condos, just isn’t in the interest of Seattle, so we move where we can afford it, therefore driving/commuting from afar.

      3. Josh: From what I hear, Washington has relatively punitive construction defect liability laws, so most developers would rather build apartments, wait out the statute of limitations, then convert: it’s cheaper to fix defects as the landlord than get sued for defects by owners and pay damages.

        Not sure how true that is, but that’s the hearsay

      4. The construction of condos lagged the apartment construction boom following the recession because so many developers were badly burned in 2008 with newly completed condos–many of which needed to be converted into apartments because nobody could/would buy. Financing for condo projects was much slower to come back than it was for apartment projects; in Seattle, a good portion of it is still overseas money. No word yet as to whether a wall will be built to keep it out.

        The Washington State “Condo Act” (RCW 64.55) does mandate higher construction standards for condominiums. This was in direct response to shoddy construction practices and cost-cutting in the 1980s/90s, a ton of lawsuits and even demolition of some substantial projects. (Vancouver BC got hit even worse, and yes, people do tend to sue when making a major purchase that begins almost instantly to fall apart, develop leaks, mold, you name it). What we are seeing right now is many projects built to market as apartments but compliant with the “Condo Act,” specifically so that if the market dictates, they can become condominiums. Resale of these buildings by definition would generally be higher value, as the standards of construction are higher. Many developers either are flipping the building instantly, meaning they aren’t “waiting out” the requirements of the Act, or they are holding it as a long-term management project, meaning they reap the benefits of the higher standards in higher rent/resale, lower maintenance and operating costs, etc.

        In this market, housing has been strong enough for long enough now that financing for condominium projects has rebounded, and that’s another reason we are seeing more condominiums under construction or in the pipeline now than we have for many years.

      5. Ah, yes. The magical zoning solution. Rezone all the single family neighborhoods to allow multi-family redevelopment. Tear down those already-unaffordable houses and build more townhouses that are even more unaffordable.

      6. @RDPence — Not magic, any more than any other aspect of supply and demand models are magic. It doesn’t mean that things will magically be cheap again (minus a recession) it just means that if there are more places for people to live — if the market is allowed to build more of what people want to buy — then prices will be cheaper than if we continue to pretend that things are cheap. You still have the cost of property as well as the cost of construction but overall things are cheaper when you don’t artificially limit the supply.

      7. RDPence: If you upzone a large enough area, it will be more than market demand and only some of the lots will be converted, and after the market for the maximum height has been saturated shorter buildings will predominate. Seattle has much more demand than capacity so most new construction is the maximum height and they skim off the richest buyers/renters and there’s nothing left for everybody else. But if you upzone north Seattle between Ballard, U-Village, and 65th to ten stories, it doesn’t mean it will become solid 10-stories everywhere because the market is not that big. If you upzone the whole city.the multifamily development will be diluted even more. Individual developers and homeowners will decide which parcels to build to maximum height, which to build lower, and which to leave as-is. Only the biggest developers have the financing and will to build the biggest buildings. Beyond them are smaller and more local developers and mom n pop homeowners that want to build smaller buildings. They aren’t building at all right now because only a few lots can be built up and the large developers outbid them for them.

        Also, the tallest buildings are the most expensive because they require more concrete and steel support. And if you dig down for an underground garage, you also have to dig further for the foundation. Taller buildings need deeper foundations. Every level you excavate is exponentially more expensive. Structured parking spaces cost $30K+ each. So shorter buildings are less expensive, especially if they have less or no parking. Less expensive means they’re within the reach of small developers and mom n pop owners, and some people just prefer small multifamily buildings or townhouses. You can fit a lot of people in a lowrise district if you don’t have large setbacks and parking lots taking up space: look at Boston, Paris, Edinburgh, etc. But you have to do it over a large area in order to fit the people.

  6. Seeing Mercer Island at the top calls the study methodology into question.
    No jobs there. Residents must sit in traffic on I90 each day, with corresponding commute times at least as long as the 25-50 mile commuters.

    Seeing commute numbers split out to 0-5 miles might make the data more useful, or better, seeing median and 95th percentile commute times.

    (This isn’t a criticism of the article)

    1. Mercer Island is an interesting case. Fairly close to everything, but still a bridge crossing away from most anything. On the linked small cities version of the chart, Hunts Point and Yarrow Point do even better. Almost everybody has a short commute.

      But I don’t know that Islander commute times are particularly long. A lot of people have to sit in many miles of traffic just to get to the bridge.

      1. As a MI resident, I’d agree. I’m a daytime worker, with only limited flexibility (mostly for family reasons) on when I travel. I’ve commuted to both the Eastside and Seattle. Eastside by private car, Seattle by bus. The biggest daily problems are in the evening: Second Avenue traffic in the evening, and southbound I 405 traffic between 520 and I-90. [While some of this is probably toll avoiders, my read is that the real problems here are the bad merges onto 90 east, backups on Coal Creek Parkway, and the narrowing of 405 to two general purpose lanes south of 90].

        The important point is that much of the overhead in both cases comes pretty close to the beginning of the evening commute. Time spent on the bridge itself is pretty negligible (this was true even when I rode the 202) except for evening commutes from the Eastside when the Mariners are good and in town.

    2. The graph is commute distance, not time, so it’s not surprising that Mercer Island has a shorter commute than Seattle itself. Mercer Island is closer to downtown Seattle than several Seattle neighborhoods. Downtown Seattle to Mercer Island is ~6 miles. Downtown Seattle to Lake City is ~10 miles. Downtown Seattle to Rainier Beach is ~10 miles. Plus Mercer Island to downtown Bellevue is ~5 miles.

      I second the thought that $$$ is a major factor. Anecdotally, I moved from NE Seattle to Lake Forest Park because even with 2 people working, we couldn’t afford to purchase in Seattle. Lake Forest Park wasn’t cheap, but it was cheaper by enough.

    3. This is a good point. I think in our region, commute times can help identify behavior better than the mileage. For example: I chose to buy a home about 25 miles away from my work. I used to live about 10 miles away. However, my commute (all freeway on an express bus) has changed from 40 minutes to 55 minutes – because while those ten closer miles are jam-packed with non-stop congestion, the further 15 miles are open highway.

      1. One benchmark we throw around is that it takes the same amount of time to get from downtown to Puyallup on Sounder as it does to get from downtown to Ballard on a bus on a bad afternoon. And the same from the U-District to Ballard on an average afternoon, or downtown to Broadview, etc, vs conversely downtown to Issaquah and downtown to Lynnwood. That’s why people are pushing so hard for grade-separated rail and exclusive bus lanes in Seattle.

      2. That’s true, and a good method for identifying behavior (I certainly choose where to live and work based on commute times)…but would be circular reasoning for the point of the article. It would just be saying “We have traffic because our commutes take too long.” You could just as easily say “Our commutes take too long because we have traffic.”

        For what it’s worth, I think it’s a combination of long (distance) commutes, the I5 merging problem, and uncompetitive transit alternatives, and probably some X factor.

      3. Except that it’s not circular, it’s a spiral. Maybe we have traffic because our commutes take too long, although I’m not so sure about that. The lengthening is in the middle, which means on the highways. But the problem with the buses to Ballard and Broadview and within downtown isn’t the highways, it’s congestion on arterials. Many of them are going to the freeway entrances, but they’d be doing that even if their commute was shorter (both because of the perception that freeways are faster, and the fact that Seattle has few large boulevards that would draw people).

        But when you turn it around and ask why are our commutes too long, you get a different answer. The commutes are long because people can’t afford to live near their jobs, their spouse works in a totally different direction than they do, their job is short-term or uncertain and their next job will be somewhere unknown, they get transferred between Boeing plants on short notice, they don’t like Seattle schools, they think Seattle is unsafe, they insist on a detached house with a yard and a 2-car garage and free parking at the shopping centers, they’re in a lease, they don’t want to make their kids change schools, etc.

      4. Re using commute distance rather than commute time.

        For the land use policy question, it yields the same answer. A longer trip by distance is almost always a longer trip by time. Not exactly proportional perhaps, but definitely longer (at least for a direction/mode).

        It’s like those developments with the “If you lived here, you’d be home by now” signs. Driving past that development always means a longer trip than if you did live there.

        I am abstracting away the detailed questions about local congestion and choke points. But those are hard to avoid anyway. Every driver to downtown Seattle has to deal with the same off-ramp choke points at the end of their journey whether they come from five or twenty-five miles away. But whether they face the long slog on suburban highways is a choice, for them and for policymakers.

    4. So many of these types of studies rely on direct distance which can be very deceiving in an area with as many water ways as we have. I frequently find that the nearest business or service to me is only a couple miles away, directly across the Sound.

    5. MI is quite centrally located by regional standards.

      The problem is the regional standard: it’s an auto-centric standard. Commutes shorter than 10 miles may look pretty similar from behind the wheel, but very different for other commute modes. Much of MI is less than 10 miles from each of downtown Seattle and Bellevue, and around 10 miles driving to Microsoft. But it’s not within 5 miles of any of these; biking is a lot easier and local-stop transit a lot more palatable under 5 miles. And there aren’t enough local jobs to give many people commutes under 2 miles, where walking is a lot more common. So I’m going to guess that if we broke down the sub-10-mile bucket further we’d see that MI has a lot of middle-distance commutes, not many truly short ones.

      Another thing that’s true of MI is that, because of its central location, a larger-than-usual share of MI residents’ miles is on our busiest roads. This is also true of Seattle and Bellevue. Congestion isn’t the only reason to care about commute distance, but it’s tied to other things… for example, the local impact of a unit of pollution is greatest in the densest areas, where the most people are around to breathe it.

    6. I think Mercer Island is a statistical anomaly for a couple reasons. First, there is the 10 mile limit, which as Al said, is really a car centric standard. If you broke that down to 2 and 5 mile segments, I think Seattle would look much better. My guess is that most of the people who only travel a couple of miles to work live in Seattle.

      Second, there is the city designation. Mercer Island is fairly small — to go north-south on the island is about 5 miles. Seattle is much bigger. It is 15 miles from White Center to Shoreline. It is also much wider Basically Mercer Island is simply a “large neighborhood”, similar to say, West Seattle. But it is a strategically located one for this survey. To get to downtown Seattle, downtown Bellevue or Factoria is within that ten mile limit. Even the UW might slip under the wire, depending on where you are in the island. (It isn’t clear whether this is “crow flies” or driving distance).

      Anyway, my point being that if you split Seattle into smaller neighborhoods (e. g. West Seattle) you would get a lot more representative numbers. Some places — like the greater Central Area/Capitol Hill area — probably look really, really good. Downtown Seattle, Bellevue, UW are all very close. Same with Queen Anne and the U-District.

      But areas like Lake City take a bit of a hit (especially if you added more refined data, like the 2 and 5 mile designations). Downtown is within the ten mile limit and the UW is very close, but Bellevue is more than 10 miles away. Same with West Seattle, which is just outside the 10 mile limit to Bellevue, and, for many residents anyway, struggles to get under the wire to the UW.

      1. Distances are ‘crow flies’ from the center of the home census block to the center of the work census block.

        Unfortunate that the mapping tool doesn’t support a more granular split on the distance. If my GIS skills are ever good enough to tackle the raw data, it would be interesting to see.. :)

  7. Yes. For every unit of housing that we decline to build in walkable, bikable, transit-connected neighborhoods, we have one additional family driving through the walkable, bikable, transit-connected neighborhood.

    1. Exactly. But the walkable, bikable, transit-connected neighborhood fights more density (see UDistrict) and one of the common arguments is traffic.

      1. Because most people still drive, even in the densest neighborhoods, and can’t conceive of a person living in their neighborhood and traveling without a car.

        Also see Houghton, Market, and whatever that neighborhood is south of downtown Kirkland.

      2. And most people in the densest Kirkland neighborhoods still drive because:
        1. Kirkland forced them to build a bunch of parking so the only people willing to buy/rent there are ones who see value in the parking (i.e. own multiple cars)
        2. Kirkland doesn’t have good transit and twizzled away its one chance at getting good transit in this generation

        In other cities in dense neighborhoods people drive less.

        Kirkland City Council and city staff assume that everyone moving to Kirkland will drive everywhere. And then they implement policies that ensure that only people who drive everywhere will move to Kirkland. Self fulfilling prophecy.

  8. Some people who live and work in Seattle now will eventually not be able to afford to do so, and will need to move farther away where housing costs are lower.

    1. The conundrums are many.

      Should we encourage suburban job growth so that people will live closer to work and drive more, or encourage growth in core areas with great transit and parking costs so that people will use transit more but go further?

      What is the role of government in employment location decisions?

      Perhaps the best strategy is to set up almost every Link station for mixed use – residential and employment at every station — so that we lessen these challenges.

      1. This is the point, isn’t it? As far as I know, all link stations are/will be part of a cohesive neighborhood up-zone, where building heights will be raised dramatically.

      2. Your second paragraph is a false choice. You need (at least) a third option: build more housing in the city. There’s plenty of room for housing, just not the appetite to allow it from a handful of vocal Seattle voters (and therefore not enough zoning to build it). Strange how the preferences of a comparatively few people determines the commutes and lifestyles of so many in our region.

      3. Anonymous, upzoning is different than mixed-use zoning. Ground floor retail with 10 story apartment buildings will still require residents to travel elsewhere for jobs. Large employment hugs with no residences nearby will require longer commutes to those jobs. Certainly, denser development benefits Link, but many of the future stations are focused primarily on a particular use and not on a mixed-use strategy that approaches a jobs-housing balance at a station..

      4. Matt, your third option is certainly another general policy choice. I was thinking more about how our land use policies relate to employment and not housing, so thanks for thinking outside of the box.

        Creating dense housing choices are not without challenges. Developers are hesitant to build condos because of potential legal liability from future condo owners, for example; apartment renters don’t usually sue developers for workmanship issues because they can simply move out.

        Even with dense housing provided a few core cities, it is very hard to accommodate every current job in Seattle with a home for a worker within the City limits. It’s even hard to accommodate every job coming on-line in Seattle in these next few years in Downtown and SLU with enough housing to serve all of those workers soon to be at those jobs. Some regions around the country have more focused jobs-housing strategies in place than we do.

        The missing data that we really need to provide another dimension here is to see what both the current and future jobs-housing balance numbers are to be. Only then can we assess and consider what is the best strategy mix to implement.

      5. “As far as I know, all link stations are/will be part of a cohesive neighborhood up-zone, where building heights will be raised dramatically.”

        Where did you hear that? There are no clusters of 20-story towers going up around neighborhood Link stations like in Vancouver and New Westminster BC. A few areas are getting a mid/highrise upzone: the U-District and Lynnwood are about the only ones that aren’t already highrise. Maybe the Spring District. But Capitol Hill tops out at six stories, Roosevelt comes down sharply after one or two buildings, Mt Baker has only a couple 6-8 story lots. The citywide HALA recommendations were a good step forward for Seattle but each piece is being watered down significantly. About the only thing everybody can consent to is a few highrises in SLU and the U-District, and lowrises in expanded urban villages, and nothing beyond that. Northgate’s highrise zoning is the mall lot, which the mall owner doesn’t want to exercise. They couldn’t spread it out to the surrounding blocks, even though Northgate would be a perfect place for another U-District.

      6. Spring District has a few 8~10 story buildings, but is generally comparable to a Cap Hill. Same for Overlake. I do think you can accurately describe some Link upzones like Shoreline or Kent-DM as “dramatic,” even if it’s just 1-story SF to 8-story mixed use.

        Vancouver-esque 20-story towers will likely materialize at the following stations – U District, Northgate, Lynnwood TC, and East Main (Bellevue). Otherwise, Link TOD will be in the 6-8 story range.

      7. “Even with dense housing provided a few core cities, it is very hard to accommodate every current job in Seattle with a home for a worker within the City limits.”

        Look at Chicago’s north side. Most buildings are 3-10 stories. There are a few row houses and even a few single-family houses scattered around. On the shoreline are highrises with water views. What if we upzoned north Seattle to that level, from the Ship Canal to Greenlake, Ballard to U-Village? That could fit two or three hundred thousand people, or add a third to the city’s size. That would be enough units for everybody who wants to live in Seattle but can only afford the suburbs. It would stop the price increases and probably roll them back because sellers/landlords couldn’t gouge anyone with so much competition. And you wouldn’t need any evil dense highrises. And it wouldn’t be fully built out because there would be more lots than demand (we aren’t 3-million Chicago with nine counties of suburbs), so a lot of houses would remain. It would give developers more choices where to build, and homeowners the option of developing.

      8. If you go to see (or examine a street view online) many of the Vancouver light rail station areas, even in the places where stations just opened like Coquitlam, you will find that tall residential buildings of 20 stories are fairly common at almost all of the stations. Outside of Downtown Seattle and Downtown Bellevue, we’re not seeing that happen in Seattle; most station areas are seeing no more than 7 or 8 floors. The other thing that you will see is that there are spaces between the buildings, and they aren’t shoved up against each other blocking views and light.

        Which is better?

      9. Which is better depends on how closely you want to follow Portland’s example of skyrocketing housing prices and rental occupancy rates by zoning that dictates absolutely no changes.

      10. Al S. agree with your last sentence. But for development patterns, I don’t equate longer distance with sprawl. My choice? Dense, compact multi-use towns, with local transit feeding directly into regional express lines.

        Karlsruhe, Germany has LRV’s run streets to city limits, then onto express track for longer distances. In other words, start setting up transit as we’ve always done with cars. Streetcar from your door switching onto track across the region.

        Government’s role? The machinery by which we, the people, cooperate to build ourselves things we can’t build by ourselves. Making it unnecessary to pay somebody else a profit in addition to their costs.

        And a school system that’ll train us from day-care on up to run the machinery. Starting with putting ourselves in a position that we don’t have to leave the role-decision to anybody but us.


  9. This is one of the most frustrating situations. I work with a lot of people that live a long ways away and I have a hard time understanding why. It tends to piss me off.

    But, I am just as guilty. 20 years ago my wife worked in Seattle and I worked in Tacoma so we bought a house in Auburn. During those 20 years we have changed jobs a lot and we have had jobs in Sodo, downtown, SLU, Renton, Fed Way, Tacoma and Auburn. We didn’t move because our kids got comfortable in schools and we couldn’t tear them away from their friends, clubs, sports and activities. The reality is that jobs change and most of us live with other wage earners. another example: Zach S.

    I am looking forward to my last kid leaving home and being able to move to a place that will allow myself and my wife a better commute. But this time, I will also be able to move to be near a Link station so it won’t matter as much to which areas our careers take us. This is why we need a regional system and not just a Seattle subway. Jobs are everywhere in the puget sound and sometimes careers lead us to places where we don’t really want to work.

    1. Your situation points to the overall challenge of putting housing near jobs. Our tenures are jobs are shorter and shorter. Our households increasingly have two or more wager-earning jobs that a member need to reach. It’s not like the 1950’s when there was one wage earner employed by one company until he retires. Housing selection is a host of complex considerations.

      The one good thing about a good regional transit system is that if you live near a station, you have more job opportunities to consider because your commute worries will lessen for more possible jobs.

      1. It’s pretty easy, if pricey, for a tech worker. Just live somewhere between SLU and Redmond and you’ll never have to commute so far however many times you change jobs. It gets harder if you work in an industry that is spread around the region.

        A curious thing I noticed is how some South King cities have residents making extreme commutes to Paine Field. Most likely, they live somewhere like Covington because it was convenient to a Boeing plant in Kent or Renton. Then their job gets transferred.

      2. This is a good argument against home ownership. Unfortunately our society is built on the American Dream of home ownership and our education system is varied. Homeowners are subsidized so everyone wants to be a homeowner. But if your job moves you are much less likely to want to move if you own your home or if you have kids in a great school.

        If we had great schools everywhere, a great grade-separated regional transit system to everywhere and we stopped subsidizing homeowners, everything would work out fine.

        So just do that. Problem solved :)

      3. It’s not just the American Dream. With rents and house prices rising so fast, it raises the question of how people will live when they’re retired and won’t be able to afford $2000 a month rent every month ($2500 or $3000 by then), especially if they also develop expensive medical conditions as many elderly people do. Buying a house or condo is a way to guard against runaway rent. But it forces people to make a very difficult decision: take on a huge decades-long mortgage and hope you’ll remain employed to avoid foreclosure, or hope that runaway rents won’t make you homeless when you turn 65, or move to Spokane or Iowa which are far away and you can’t walk to anything and have skeletal if any transit. There should be better choices than this.

      4. GlenBikes,

        My hope would be to have a home that I own outright – no rent, no mortgage few expenses – when I retire. Home maintenance will no longer matter, as the house will only need to last me until death, and I can’t take the value of the home with me to the deathbed. There is a reason that homeownership is desirable, especially in a place where rents have skyrocketed since I entered the workforce. My mortgage payment has remained exactly the same since I purchased and is now approximately the same as rent on the first apartment I had here which had less than half the SF of living space and no property (lawn, garden, parking). Stability is worth something.

    2. That’s a major reason for the long long commutes: two spouses work in different places. Add to that the fact that 2+ BR units in Seattle are few and expensive, and the perception that Shoreline/Northshore/Bellevue/Lake Washington schools are better for your kids.

      1. That’s a major reason for the long long commutes: two spouses work in different places.

        Yeah, which is why decentralization of employment (which was huge in the 1980s) is such a bad idea. The tech industry was as bad as anyone. Move to Redmond or Mountain View! It is a “campus”! Sorry, but a campus — at least a college campus — is designed as a place where you temporarily spend a portion of your life. It is not where you settle down with your spouse and kids. To pretend (or assume) that your significant other wants to work in the exact same place (in the middle of nowhere initially) is rather arrogant. Give me the soulless urban skyscraper any day. Because, eventually (of course) you are and your sweetie don’t work in the same area — you commute to the burbs, and (s)he has to get into town. One of you is likely hosed (if not both) no matter where you live. It probably would have worked OK way back when (when women were forced to accept home baking as a career and gay couples were forced to pretend they were roommates) but it certainly wouldn’t be great. I definitely don’t want it again. Anyway …

        Add to that the fact that 2+ BR units in Seattle are few and expensive, and the perception that Shoreline/Northshore/Bellevue/Lake Washington schools are better for your kids.

        I wonder how much of that is just B. S. developer talk. Crime! Bad Schools! You know, brown people — not the ones that just got here from across the ocean — we are talking poor ones!.

        All of those arguments were used way back when as a means to sell the suburban dream. Escape to the suburbs!

        Really? Escape? What I am escaping from? My fellow man (and woman)? Yep.

        Own a bit of the wilderness (while we chop it all down for the subdivision).

        Seriously though, how many people really — I mean really — dislike the Seattle Public Schools? An occasional teacher, sure, but an entire school and the entire district? Give me a break. People sneak into these schools. They register in Seattle from the likes of Burien just so they can move into a district that has more money. Of course that won’t stop realtors from wealthy districts from touting some B. S., test driven data suggesting that the wealthy district has better schools (test data largely follows income — who knew?).

        I really don’t buy it, and I think very few do. Sure, some pat themselves on the back and think they escaped the horrors of gritty urban life (“I grew up on the south side of Green Lake — believe me it was no picnic — I once had a guy bump into me while I stared at my new iPhone”). But most would love to afford to live in town, they just can’t because we simply aren’t building enough places for them. So they move to Kent, Renton or Auburn (where it is cheaper). Remember this: Who is number one? Shoreline? Bellevue? No, Seattle. The only reason Sammamish is even close is because they have so much new land to develop (which is very cheap) and they started at such a low level. In terms of actual number (not percentage) Seattle blows all those cities out of the water. It isn’t even close (by my math we have over 50% of the growth).

        Of course you are going to have plenty of east side growth in part because you have major east side employment. If you work in Redmond and Bellevue, then living in Redmond or Bellevue makes a lot of sense. But for folks who work in Seattle, it just makes sense to live in Seattle, and it is obvious that they want to. We just need to make it easier to do so.

  10. Looking at Kirkland, I think the split is driven by the type of jobs. People who live in Kirkland generally have high paying white collar jobs, which are in Redmond, Bellevue, or Seattle. The jobs in Kirkland are generally lower paying government jobs – school teacher, city employee, etc. – so if you have that job you (generally) can’t afford to live in Kirkland but can afford a suburb farther out.

    1. Yep. And this is all due to zoning. The small minority of old retired people with lots of time to go to City Council meetings fights against any kind of development that would allow jobs to come to Kirkland or the creation of any significant amount of housing that would bring rents/home prices down so more people could afford to live there. Kirkland has one of the worst commute in/out percentages in the region. Something like 90%+ of working residents commute out and 90%+ workers commute in (I am sure Dan has the actual #’s and will correct me here but they are close to this). That’s why their traffic sucks so bad. But the council is unwilling to do what’s right for the city and fix the zoning (all but one of them are SFHowners – Doreen Marchione is the only exception).

      To illustrate: Kirkland City Council was considering the Right Sized Parking push from the county. They paid for a survey of multi-family parking and found that:
      1. In existing m/f buildings (this was rentals only, not condos), 40%+ of parking is unused at peak parking time (3AM)
      2. Most of the existing m/f housing had even been built with less parking than required by the city codes at the time they were built due to requesting exemptions from the city so they could build less than the required parking.

      But then instead of reducing or eliminating the parking minimums or even just requiring parking to be unbundled from rent, council raised the min parking requirements which increased the price of housing in the city and further exacerbated the problem of Kirkland workers (mainly lower wage as AJ points out) not being able to afford to live in the city.

      Then the same council allowed a few vocal homeowners to make them turn down light rail being offered by Sound Transit in ST3. So Kirkland gets worse traffic and no options other than driving or sitting in traffic on a bus.

      My kids live in Kirkland and in 2015 I was looking to buy or rent there. But I am car-free and couldn’t find “middle” housing in Kirkland. It was either SFH costing $500K+ and not walkable to anything, multi-family housing with tons of parking way out far away from (i.e. not even bikeable to) anything, or crazy expensive $1M+ m/f housing within downtown or the few neighborhood business centers that have a few homes other than SFH’s (Houghton, Juanita).

      So I bought in Seattle because it was cheaper than Kirkland and I could find what I wanted: multi-family with little or no parking. And it is primarily the min parking requirements that is driving the cost of housing in Kirkland so high. Developers can’t build m/f housing near the business centers without building underground parking (which drastically drives up the price) and they can’t build m/f housing away from the business centers because the old cranky retirees scream bloody murder. So all the new residents the city attracts are car-owning drivers.

      Get rid of the crazy parking requirements and Kirkland would have more housing options for middle income and lower income people, would attract residents who don’t contribute to traffic and then there would be enough people to drown out the complaints from those older SFHowners who want nothing to change ever.

      1. Two other problems living car-free in Kirkland that are easy to overlook include poor street lighting and lack of car sharing. After sunset, Kirkland is much darker than Seattle, and I’ve felt uncomfortable just going one block from the Google campus to the PCC. (Fortunately, sunsets are getting later now, so it won’t be an issue much longer). Lack of car sharing is another issue. Don’t own a car and want to rent one, you have to travel all the way to either Seattle or downtown Bellevue to pick one up, then repeat the trek to go home after returning the car.

    2. It would be interesting to see how travel distances vary between higher and lower income groups. That would require a cross-tabulation of the data from above graph with income groupings.

      Much of the world’s major metro areas have a situation where people with high incomes live closer to work than the ones who make low incomes. It would not surprise me if Seattle data would show this as well.

      There are a few places that get into income-stratified jobs-housing balance issues, but it’s still not a focused discussion for most of the US metro areas. An extreme example is in the Napa Valley, where many of the jobs are low-wage agricultural or service jobs but real estate is very expensive because of the scenery and very strict development controls; they have a big and growing commute problem because while the jobs and housing are mostly balanced, high-income earners leave the valley and low-income earners are entering the valley creating massive local traffic problems every day.

      1. The San Jose Mercury News in the late 1990s had an article about how it was getting hard to fill fast-food jobs because the people who usually took them couldn’t afford to live within twenty miles of there. Twenty years later it has gotten much worse so I don’t know what they do.

  11. One of the worst articles ever presented on Seattle Transit Blog, a combination of obvious information as to why people live far away, and an insistence by the author not to include in equal measure emotional/psychological choices people make (a.k.a. “Qualitative Data”, I know foreign concept…) when choosing where they wish to live. Furthermore, as the father of several children who attend public schools, Seattle is one of the most fiscally mismanaged, bumbling bunch of overpaid whack-a-moles attempting to guide a school district that may be large for the state of Washington, but is not even close to being a large school district in the United States. Many families that would live in the 3BR in Greenwood would if they felt their was some predictability in their kids education (and subsequent financing of their respective school).

    So to label your story as “we’re driving too far” or “living to far” away, have some common sense before you put yourself in the position of tripping over your quantitative analysis and falling on your ass as you wait for permission to cross the street.

    1. Thanks for being such a conscientious steward of the Earth, Bill. Here’s hoping you find that perfect place when you do move.

    2. While I disagree wholeheartedly with your criticisms of the article Pablo96, I do agree with your comments about Seattle’s school system.

      Seattle essentially has a segregated-by-income school system. Their option schools are the top tier where the families who can afford to get their kids there are the top tier and the other neighborhood schools have everyone who can’t afford to get themselves into the top tier. Also in the top tier are the plethora of private schools where anyone who can afford it sends their kids (and with the high housing prices there are a significant percentage of families who can afford it).

    3. I don’t have firsthand knowledge of Seattle’s schools but I understand they’re at the national average. They only look inferior because the Eastside and northshore districts are among the best in the country. So I question whether your children would really have a poor education in Seattle schools, in spite of what you think the administrators do on bloated salaries.You could send them to the magnet schools if you want to give them something extra, or to the international baccalaureate although I’m not sure if it’s open any more.

    4. Pablo, by my reading of tonight’s comments, the author’s audience agrees with him, content and presentation. But a relative of mine who’s a decorated career public school teacher also agrees with you completely about Seattle Public Schools, pretty much verbatim.

      Maybe it’s my fond transit-generated childhood memories of Chicago, but you could argue that honest straightforward graft really does make participants work harder for their money with fewer staff meetings.

      Taxpayers at least get some cement and garbage pickup from the Mayor’s brother, instead of fee-for-service consulting by the whole City Council’s former college room-mates. With results like report that DSTT on-board fare collection wouldn’t damage service.

      But little-known ironclad rule of leadership- of which Seattle Public Schools are recent decades’ poster child:

      Violence and terror can command obedience. But a hundred percent, leadership has to be demanded by a large number of people who need action so desperately they’ll agree to trust a single person with the authority they’d been killing each other fighting over to get for themselves.

      Good leader’s first characteristic? They don’t want the job, and accept it only our of a sense of duty. Knowing full well it’ll probably get them killed by violence, exhaustion, or old age. The Smart Money of both major parties thought Abraham Lincoln would be a great last President of the United States.

      Lincoln probably agreed, but thought that by that time there was nothing to lose by fighting the nation’s most self-destructive war in its whole history to save it. Also not surprised as being its last casualty, and grateful for finally being able to get some time off.

      So Pablo, you can run for either City Council or school board and give it your best shot. And take away the fifty-year-old kindergartners’ whack a mole set and giving it to Goodwill. Also, if today’s posting is bad as you say, your duty to write a better one. Fact that likely nobody else commenting here will write it, the more you hate doing it, the more you’ll deserve vindication.

      Also, not necessarily after either the work or your own followers kill you.


  12. “It will surprise few that people who live near Seattle and Bellevue have shorter commutes. But it invites an obvious question. Why is the regional growth strategy constructed around five Metropolitan Cities and 29 Regional Growth Centers. Why not draw more residential development closer to the two dominant business centers?”

    I don’t think it’s obvious, and it’s even a bit disingenuous. If you look at the ST3 package and/or ST and Metro long term plans, it’s clear Seattle is the 800 lbs gorilla that is the nexus of regional transit, and Bellevue TC is the nexus of two LRT lines, two BRT lines, and Rapid Ride. Everett & Tacoma have substantial transit, but they are endpoints for Link, not hubs.

    And if you look at actual growth – where in the region are we building office & condo towers? Exactly where you want them: Seattle and Bellevue downtowns. The biggest projects in Tacoma & Everett are more at the scale of projects in Renton and Redmond, not Seattle.

    But to answer the question, it’s because the region doesn’t want just two growth center, it wants multiple. We don’t want channel all the growth into Seattle because Seattle can’t handle it on it’s own. We need robust, mixed use development elsewhere in the region, and that’s exactly what’s being planned/zoned for in places like Shoreline, Lynnwood, Totem Lake, Overlake, Spring District, etc. – growth centers where someone can live, work, and play all within walking distance.

    The PSRC map coupled with the ST3 plan shows a vision of the region that has many centers, not two.

    1. “Why not draw more residential development closer to the two dominant business centers?” – I think it’s important to not conflate physical distance with temporal distance. What matters with how “far” something is from a job center is travel time, not miles. Therefore, you can draw development closer to a job center through transportation improvements. By, say, building a LRT station in Federal Way or opening a fast ferry from Bremerton, we ARE moving people closer to their jobs.

      Building residential development physically closer to jobs is a good solution, but it’s not the only solution.

      1. This can be especially true for transit riders. If you rely on a particular bus or rail line anything on that line will be perceived as “closer” than things off the line. When I’ve relied on transit I’ve frequently traded a longer distance ride for a shorter walk to my destination at the other end.

        Though it certainly holds for highway users as well. A home, job, or business which is accessible from the highway can be perceived as more convenient than one located deep within a neighborhood, even if technically more distant.

    2. “And if you look at actual growth – where in the region are we building office & condo towers? Exactly where you want them: Seattle and Bellevue downtowns. ”

      This “observation” is part of the problem. Almost all of those new residential high-rises are apartments not condos. Seattlites seem to have an unhealthy obsession with classifying all new developments as condos (in Ballard people have bumper stickers “welcoming their new condo overlords”). The reality is finding a condo is Seattle for sale is harder than finding a detached house, and the condos that are built are aimed at the super wealthy or foreign investments, that ultimately end up being turned around as rentals (if at all).

      As a father with two kids who wants them to have a stable school but also wants to have predictable monthly household costs, renting in Seattle is a huge risk as we never know what our rent is going to be the next year (we have had two 10% increases in a row). We want to stay in a walkable community but what are our options if there are no condos on the market or rent control?

      For me and many other the solution is political and the state needs to repeal or greatly revise the condo liability act which made building condos prohibitively expensive. This would increase the interest and availability of 2-3 bedroom condos that would allow families to stay in the city with a bit more financial stability and without the risk of needing to switch schools every year.

      1. I haven’t heard Seattlites misclassifying apartments as condos. In 2004-2008 almost all the new buildings were condos because developers believed they could make more profit from selling them and the mortgage frenzy encouraged it, along with the condo-flippers who never intended to live in them. Those Ballard bumper stickers may be from that era. In 2008 construction stopped, and in 2011 when it restarted it was all apartments. Many of them are built to condo standards so they can be converted later, but not all of them.

        Now a few condo developments have started up again, and it remains to be seen whether it will become a large niche, whether new apartments will start converting, and whether condo construction will again displace apartment construction. At this point it’s just a few condos. And most Seattlites know that, and do not assume everything is a condo. But if you’re looking for a condo in Seattle and money is no object, there will probably be more to choose from in the next few years.

        The reason for the condo liability act is a ton of “leaky condos” in Vancouver a couple decades ago, and similar problems in Seattle. The developers refused to take responsibility for their work after they sold the units and skipped town, and people ended up with barely-liveable condos that they had to spend tens of thousands of dollars on fixing things that the developer should have prevented. So maybe there needs to be a loosening of the Condo Act, but a substantial repeal would bring back the bad old days.

      2. I meant condo towers as shorthand for condo & apartment towers. My overall point is unchanged.

        While your personal preference is for condo over apartment, I’m agnostic from a regional planning perspective. 100 new condos or 100 new apartment units (assuming same # of bedrooms) have the same impact on the overall housing market, even if the specific households that move in are different.

        Right now we have an apartment boom, and apartment rent is starting to reflect that. Most of SLU construction are apartments because the target market are young, mobile tech workers. The bulk of the pipeline in Bellevue are condos because it’s a different market.

      3. The General Contractors would like that law repealed, no doubt, because it lets them off the hook for cutting corners and shotty work.

        So you buy a condo and then you get stuck with a $20k special assessment to fix a building defect. I would rather that be the contractors’ responsibilty, not mine.

      4. So what is it you want? I thought your first message said you wanted more condos. But in your second message you equate condo and apartment towers. So do you want less midrise and more lowrise?

        What I want is more of both apartments and condos, and townhouses. so that everybody can get the kind they want. I don’t know what I would choose; I go back and forth, But the problem in Seattle is that 2/3 of the land is zoned uingle-familytt only, and that may have been appropriate when the region’s population was 1 million but it’s over 3 million now. Another problem is the big gap between single-family houses and the large apartment buildings that are built now. What’s missing is everything from granny flats, abundant townhouses, and small 4-8 unit apartment buildings: they’re prohibited or made practically unfeasable by zoning, minimum lot sizes, parking minimums, and setbacks.

        Another interesting fact, Seattle’s population peaked in the early 1960s at 560,000. It then declined to under 500,000 with white flight, and then started climbing again in the 80s to 720,000 now. If you were here in the 80s you’d know two-story it was. All those tons of new apartments and condos since then have added only 160,000 people above the 1960s peak, or 28% from then or 22%% from now. That’s the consequence of keeping 2/3 of the city off-limits to more housing.

        The lack of condos is definitely because of the market, not the Condo Act. There was a flood of condos and hardly any apartments right up to the 2008 crash. One of the last condo buildings was the Moda on 3rd in Belltown. It got into extra trouble because some of the units were smaller than they’d been promised to buyers, and there were so many refunds and the condo market was so weak that it converted most of them to apartments on opening.

  13. I think the region will continue to get more centralized at least until the light rail is done.

    Right now I believe most new housing construction is in Seattle proper, and most of the rest in king county on the eastside.

    Seattle may seem very expensive now, but long term I think prices across the US will come down due to demographic changes and low population growth.

  14. Great analysis of the structure of suburbs and core cities. I think there are a lot of questions about the role of Everett and Tacoma in our regional growth. It is clear that treating them as core cities, Everett especially, without a significant commitment by the region as a whole to build them up is not going to square with reality. UW’s Tacoma campus is probably a good example of Seattle based institutions branching out and investing in one of our sister cities.

    1. It’s not the region that’s the problem, it’s the cities themselves. They upzone only a small area downtown to a modest level and leave the rest of the city single-family. Everett had a big opportunity for mixed-use TOD and Link stations along 99 and it turned it down. Tacoma has plans for downtown and the Tacoma Mall neighborhood, and perhaps a modest upzone on MLK and the Dome area, but what else? In Kent and Des Moines, which own the opposite sides of 99 from around 220th to 260th, Kent was all ready to upzone and build a TOD neighborhood, but Des Moines said no, we’ll keep our strip malls and car dealerships and we don’t want a station at 216th or Link on 99, no siree.

      The reason behind UW Tacoma is that Washington state is worst in the country in the number of 4-year college slots per capita, so the state really had to do something about it, especially since the economy depends on so much tech and international trade. So UW expanded to Tacoma and Bothell, Bellevue College and the Seattle Colleges and Highline became 4-year, and WSU and Western and Central and Eastern opened campuses in Pugetopolis and across the state.

    2. I like how you point out the UW Tacoma as a commitment to the region. Contrast this with Snohomish County, which wants a new public university, but last I heard, was looking at Arlington or Stanwood.

      EWU’s ex-urban location is not something anyone should emulate. Compare that lifeless campus with the community building that centrally-located Western, Central, WSU and UW bring to their communities.

  15. I wonder what a chart comparing distance in minutes would look like, rather than miles.

    I’m not sure if miles are the best indicator of the challenge here. It’s only a few miles from Renton to Bellevue, for example, even though it’s a really horrible commute no matter how you are doing it. Conversely, some of the outer cities with more long-distance commuters are usually where the bottlenecks aren’t.

    I also think that when people make housing choices they don’t ask how many miles it is to their job, but how long will it take them to get to their job.

    Still, a miles-to-work metric is a good topic for a discussion.

  16. Problem being impartial this afternoon, with my last back-road escape route out of Olympia blocked solid a mile back this morning. From the radio, maybe two accidents took down this region’s whole freeway system.

    While listening to public radio stats about percentage of income going to housing in this region. Formerly: 25%. Now, more than half. And the lower the wage, the worse the ratio. For working people, Seattle is the new Aleppo, and Marysville and Olympia the new (name your favorite refugee-starting-to-hate European country.)

    For the thirty years I lived in Ballard, I thought I was doing everything being advocated here today. Not only driving and using public transit, but working solidly out of Central and Atlantic Base, with a shakeup or two riding the bus to North. Small apartment, basement washing machines. No elevator. Anybody above, weigh in and tell me again why I moved.

    Thirty years of regional planning being completely blown away in three, thousands of hard-working people forced out of long-time homes and neighborhoods. And not one single express transit corridor less than twenty minutes late- 100% of the weekday rush hour time. Only reliable ride from Olympia to Seattle being drive through Steilacoom and DesMoines to Angle Lake?

    Two age-related memory problems here. Memories of times when people across the spectrum would have demanded the major political action necessary to get this disaster under control. As opposed to people with no idea they can, or should even bother trying.

    “Your business plan will make you billions and employ people? Good. Paying taxes for public transit no problem, right? Same with wages and labor contracts so your workers can afford a decent living? You know. “Affordability?” And schools for your technicians? Problem with those conditions? Your loss! Next applicant?”

    The reason capitalists themselves invented modern Government five hundred years ago: to make the rich and the hereditarily powerful pay their bills. If our reps aren’t earning their salaries, we replace them. But we don’t tolerate anybody bribing them. And most of all, the firm is our kids’ inheritance and we don’t sell it. Somebody tries to take it by force…..,that’s what the police are for.

    Something happens to them, like being bribed or permanently bought? History of revolutions shows that for another forty years, better to leave the guns in the basement, or spend same money on our own participation in politics. Where we can write laws at our desks, not just yell in the streets.

    Because after shooting revolutions, rebel secret police generally shoot their most revolutionary leaders first. Besides, unless Jeff Bezos get hits by a drone while not wearing a bike helmet, we can settle this peaceably. As soon as transit agencies can agree on an ORCA card, and put Thurston County into ST so Sounder can get to Olympia.


  17. We were able to find a 4 bedroom home, 6 minutes walking (or one stop on the 106) from a Link station for 307k in Oct ’13.

    Now it took a lot of looking, and getting a place with flaws we could live with AND requires living in a diverse neighborhood which most Seattleites are afraid of, but there is definitely affordable family housing available in Seattle.

    1. Seriously, Matt, I’m glad you found a home. But since by my own choice my life’s course will never include a free-standing house… is 307K really $307, 000? Again, no firsthand experience, But am I right that, being a home-owner, you’ll never get a month’s notice to move because the rent’s gone beyond your ability to pay?

      In present market…for the average renter, inevitable. Only question is how many times, and how (increasingly) frequently. Work, schools, and anything else public?

      The “fabric” of our whole society is going to look like a giant house-cat got even madder when the toilet paper was all on the floor, and went for the back of the couch. We can’t go on living like this.

      And with this many lives disrupted, (only a good thing when “D”is capitalized, for people whose industries Disrupt other people’s lives) there are probably enough votes to start the political action we need to protect ourselves.

      Diverse or homogeneous, the more neighbors get organized socially and politically, the safer the place gets. I think you’ll find that like-minded neighbors are already in action on that front. You already know this or you wouldn’t have moved in.

      Personally, some very mixed feelings about Columbia City- which could be Ballard without the boats.The wheel of the Route 7 was my desk for at last ten years, ending two decades ago.

      One African restaurant I really like, run by a very politically active Kenyan friend of mine. The Safari Restaurant. Meet the lady owner. She formed her own trucking company back home.

      But I don’t think any of my high-school age passengers can afford to live there now. Most of them are probably near forty. The coffee at Empire Cafe would taste a lot better if some of them were there to compare our days.

      Good luck- I think you’ll like the place, and by your presence make the Valley a place where more people will be comfortable. I can also see you participating in local political affairs so that you’ll get to see your present neighbors’ high school students turn forty. And their kids turn twenty.


  18. Another point worth mentioning – “we have traffic because we drive so far” may be true for the freeways, but as long as everyone is driving, even if it’s just short trips, the local streets are still going to be congested. In fact, getting more people to walk those 1/4-mile trips or 1/2-mile trips might matter more in terms of reducing local neighborhood congestion than living closer to work and substituting 20-mile drives with 2-mile drives.

    1. There’s a chicken-and-egg element to this analysis. When zoning forces some neighborhoods out of walking distance to grocery stores and other neighborhood businesses, then, yeah, we end up having to drive or bike short distances. We, and the climate, are paying a price for the failure to have mixed-use zoning be more prevalent all over the city.

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