by JOSHUA NEWMAN, Candidate for Seattle City Council District 4

Once upon a time, it was easy to get around Seattle. Hop in the car and in 15 minutes, you were downtown; and outside of downtown, parking was easy. At least, that’s how many long-time residents remember Seattle. Congestion was infrequent and parking was plentiful.  

So today’s congestion feel like dramatic change; a rupture from the Seattle people fell in love with. But people all over the world want a safe, prosperous place to live, and Seattle has offered that. After 40 years of stable population size, Seattle has grown 30%, by 167,000 people, since 2000. We all need to move around the city, and because every level of government has subsidized car use, most people assume they will get around by car.

This assumption carries heavy costs. In 2000, the annual cost to own a car was $7,160 (2018 dollars). It’s now $8,175. A community designed around cars is a community that chains its residents to a large financial liability. This burden falls most heavily on working families, who are forced into long commutes. Meanwhile, our businesses struggle to move freight, transit riders wait for car-clogged intersections, and potential bike riders stay away in fear.

The more expensive burden – which bears repeating – is to our climate. The human species has never, in our entire existence, lived on Earth when the atmospheric carbon content was as high as it is now: 415 ppm. Seattle’s own carbon emissions continue growing, and we won’t stop that with our current incremental approach.

STB readers know it doesn’t have to be this way. We can simultaneously unlock congestion, improve equity, and address climate change locally by making it easy to get around Seattle without a car.

My District 4 neighbors have repeatedly told me that we can’t get rid of cars because we lack robust public transportation. That’s debatable, but they have a point. I love Link Light Rail but ST3 (and soon, ST4) are practically the distant future. Metro and Seattle voters have made enormous strides in the last decade, but our total carbon emissions continue growing.

The fact is, our car-centric transportation system is killing us, and I’m running for City Council to stop it. I started my political activism with WashPIRG, volunteered for Mike McGinn’s campaigns, fought against the head-in-the-sand Deep Bore Tunnel, and am a past president of Seattle Subway. We are out of time for incremental approaches; now is the time for brave action.

The Mayor, City Council, and transportation advocates must establish and fund a legally binding 4-year plan to reprioritize our streets for car-free alternatives. Success must be measured by the number of people and amount of freight the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) is able to move, not the number of vehicles. There will be plenty of room for cars, but they should not be our priority.

Central to that plan, is the removal of nearly all arterial street parking. From downtown, to our commercial districts, and the neighborhoods in between. Our streets are public right-of-way, and with an ever-growing population, we need that space for moving, not storing private property. With fewer cars blocking the road, we’ll have more space for people and commerce.

How we utilize that reclaimed street space is key. The MASS Coalition has identified twenty bus priority projects throughout Seattle. Those projects are the tip of the iceberg. Buses and street paint are inexpensive and quick to deploy, and we should create bus-only lanes on every neighborhood arterial from 35th Ave NE to 35th Ave SW. Partnering with the business community, we may develop solutions that allow freight traffic to use some of these lanes, though, not for delivery stops of course.

Protected bikes lanes are the other, natural method to repurpose on-street arterial parking. For short trips, a quick bike ride is often the fastest option. Study after study has shown that replacing on-street parking with bike lanes improves or does no harm to local businesses. In a dense city, it’s easier to park a bike or step off a bus, than find and pay for car parking.

Finally, a very low, flat rate of $1 for King County Metro will ease the burden on hard-working people and help make public transportation “worth it” for those who might otherwise drive. Free transit is a popular, socially compassionate idea, but over time, humans lose respect for and abuse “free” resources, such as community pastures or roads. A $1 fare combats that tendency, simplifies management, and enables Metro to collect vital usage data.

To make this happen, city leadership must listen to the voters demanding action on climate change. We cannot blame Trump and the GOP for failing to act nationally, if we cannot be brave enough to act locally. We must respectfully tune out the loudest voices holding onto their aging, car-dominated assumptions. Seattle needs to elect a strong, transit-focused City Council that thinks outside the car.

STB welcomes guest post submissions from all local candidates.

42 Replies to “Thinking outside the car”

  1. Too bad there isn’t an equity evaluation in who Seattle Transit chooses as a guest author. I just find it interesting that Seattle Transit wishes to advocate for a Rob Johnson with a beard. I ride transit and ride bikes…but Rob Johnson…had no spine and really out of touch…he appeared overwhelmed in every way possible.

    Are we to advocate for continuation of a broken council-member execution model? Looks like Seattle Transit is on that wagon for district 4.

    1. What evidence do you have — other than your opinion — that Mr. Newman is “spineless”?

      Just curious.

    2. What would a person who’s in touch do, and do you know of any? It’s easy to criticize Johnson from an armchair. There’s also someone in District 3 who looks like he might be promising, Logan Bowers. If we get a majority on the council like that then more things might start happening and the car/nimby/single-family-ist bloc would have less clout to veto things.

    3. I’m for removing street parking and for allowing up to 4-units in SFH areas. Are you suggesting there are BIGGER, Climate-related fights?

      There is always compromise, we don’t (yet?) live in a totalitarian state, and our neighbors who disagree with us, are still our neighbors. Thats politics. But we need to get to the end goal ASAP: less cars, more homes.

    4. The author asked to have a guest column. STB obliged. That is not an endorsement. That is giving a candidate a chance to be heard. I look forward to other good candidates in District 4 (and there are several) reaching out to STB to ask to post a guest column here. That goes for candidates from other districts, too.

      I also look forward to some candidates who get elected in these crowded races to realize our antiquated election system does not handle competitive races well, and pass ranked choice voting, so we can continue to have competitive (and civil) races like the ones this year.

      The winner (hopefully one of the plethora of good urbanist candidates) will face the same loud opposition to more new housing, protected bike lanes, red bus lanes, etc, that the incumbent has. That’s not going away regardless of who wins (unless two non-urbanists advance by splitting the anti-urbanist minority of votes in the district two ways while the urbanist vote is splintered among several candidates — an ongoing problem with our election system that allows only two candidates to advance regardless of whether they even collectively got a majority).

  2. This figure seems absurdly high – ” In 2000, the annual cost to own a car was $7,160 (2018 dollars). It’s now $8,175″. (And yes, I read the article that mentioned these costs)

    That works out to 681 dollars a month. Apparently no one drives paid off cars anymore? This figure works out if you have a car payment but the cost is way less if your car is paid off. Maybe 3000-4000 dollars max? Also if you’re living in the city and have a car but use public transportation for work, the cost is even lower as you’re not driving to work and putting wear and tear on it. Throw in not living in a place that charges you to park your car (every neighborhood outside of LQA, Belltown, Downtown and Capitol Hill) and there goes 100-300 dollars a month right there.

    1. That cost includes gas and maintenance and the IRS-standard cost of depreciation. Obviously some cars are cheaper but it’s an average. Some gas-guzzlers cost close to $100 a fillup when gas is $4 and they need it once a week, and most of the cars on the road are SUVs and recent so on the expensive side.

      Meanwhile my $2.75 transit pass costs $99 a month ($1,188 a year) and covers all of Metro and ST Express within King County, and Link for distances up to Westlake-Rainier Beach.

    2. Back in 2009 – that last year where I had a car, the annual cost worked out to be around $1000/year. Approximately breakdown: $700 for insurance, $150 for gas, $100 for car tabs, $40 for an annual car wash and $40 for an annual oil change.

      The only reason it was that low was 1) I drove it once once/twice per month and 2) It did not include the $20,000 in cash I paid up from in 2007 to purchase it. I can easily imagine car costs getting up to $700/month for people that drive long distances everyday, have insurance against collision and theft, not just liability, and bought their cars with loans rather than cash.

      Even if you buy the car with cash, you’re paying what’s effectively a recurring cost because you’re not earning investment returns on the money you could have gotten had the car’s purchase price been put into an index fund instead.

      1. WashPIRG? Hard pass. Nothing good has come out of WashPIRG in decades. L&I has busted them for employing people at below minimum wage. That’s not the kind of leadership we want at City Hall, is it?

        Your “Once upon a time” era ended in the mid 1990s. Literally an entire generation has passed since then. No power on Earth is going to rewind the clock back to the 20th Century.

        “Meanwhile, our businesses struggle to move freight”

        Source? Have the train tracks to Chicago been removed? Freight in this region is overwhelmingly on rails and heading east. Are you proposing to add rail to Seattle’s Freight Master Plan (which is heavily motor vehicle leaning)?

        “Success must be measured by the number of people and amount of freight the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) is able to move, not the number of vehicles.”

        1. Why freight again? This seems a common theme. It also comes across as incredibly neoliberal/Wall Street Democrat.

        2. SDOT moves freight? How does that work? Usually private businesses move freight. Tell me more.

        All in all, between your bona fides and your dizzying intellect, you come across as more of the same in a slightly more palatable package. But underneath, the ideas and issues are almost identical, and can be summed up as profit over people. Even your car cost breakdown shows a concern for money over all else.

    3. This also ignores the costs associated with things like parking. Southcenter Mall is something like 3/4 parking. While this parking is “free” it costs money to maintain it, to deal with storm drain water, plus the thousand and one things the land isn’t being used for that it could be used for if it were not dedicated to parking (“missed opportunity cost” is the economic term for this).

    4. You are going to pay for either depreciation or maintenance, unless you get very lucky. There’s no way around it: car ownership is expensive.

      If you drive 10,000 miles a year (an average amount in our area) with a $5000 used car (the cheapest price point where you can get something semi-reliable), you’re probably looking at the following bills, not counting acquisition cost and depreciation:

      – Insurance: $750/year
      – Gas (assuming 25 mpg and $4/gal): $1600/year
      – License/registration: $200/year
      – Maintenance: Varies, but probably ~$2000/year if you keep an older cheap car in good condition

      That’s more than half the average right there.

      If you buy a newer car, you can reduce the maintenance bill, but then you’re taking on depreciation.

      1. A few thoughts here:

        1) Depreciation is a non-cash expense. It doesn’t “cost” the owner of a car anything. Yes they have a depreciating asset as the years tick by, but it’s just wrong to lump that in with insurance and maintenance costs.

        2) Average costs are useful starting points, but I highly doubt the cited average ownership cost well represents a Seattleite’s – or D4 resident’s – annual expense.

        3) Many people do want to live car free, but red paint, bike lanes, and silly disjointed street cars won’t move the needle appreciably. Well-designed subways that are plentiful and easy to use will.

        4) Glad to see Rob Johnson go. He was a light weight on Sound Transit who failed NE Seattle by not going big enough on the upzone and carving and allowing a stupid carve out for the Ave. He ultimately failed because he was out of touch with the median NE resident, and governed as such. May his successor not make the same mistake.

      2. Depreciation, when calculating personal car ownership, captures your cash outlay for the purchase of your car and spreads it over the life of your car. The cost of the car (depreciation) is correctly included as part of the cost of owning a car.

        It’s certainly not GAAP, but the truest “depreciation” expense would be the total cash outlay (down payment + total car payments – eventual trade-in value) divided by how many months you expect to own your car.

        Omitting some measure of the cost of your vehicle grossly underestimates your actual cost of ownership.

      3. Depreciation matters assuming you eventually sell the car. Another way to look at it is how long it takes to get to the $5,000 mark David mentioned. In other words, if you buy a new car for 30 grand (which is actually well below the average cost of a car) how soon until the car is worth only five grand and you are paying a lot in maintenance? Now calculate the interest you paid on the loan, or the interest you could have earned if you paid cash. The sad fact is most people are paying quite a bit of money for their car, either because they paid for a very expensive one, or because they are maintaining a cheap car (or some combination of both).

    5. Yup. My car takes about $400/month to own and operate, including periodic maintenance and tires, and that includes the original loan. Will drop to about $150/month in two years when the loan’s paid off. I put about 6k miles a year on it and don’t have to pay for parking (at the house I own, off-street).

      Josh Newman seems to have forgotten all of the lessons learned over the past couple of decades of transit advocacy vs cars, mainly that even if you get people to take transit for lots of trips and to bike and walk for even more, many people will *still* want to own a car. Non-car modes don’t fit all trip purposes, and there are many folks who want the flexibility to go wherever, whenever, and with whomever they want. (In other words, car sharing isn’t sufficiently convenient, dependent, and/or flexible.) Late night trips, emergencies, weekend getaways (even within the city) — personally-owned vehicles are great for those things and have a marginal cost close enough to zero to not impede the decision to go. And people will use them until they’re more inconvenient than other modes.

      So if you’re really that concerned about the environment, you’ll come down on cars draconian-style. Good luck with that.

      1. you are a small thinker. no reason we cannot reduce auto dependency through smart land use, and transportation alternatives. the planet is in peril, also Nearly 1.25 million people die in road crashes each year, on average 3,287 deaths a day.
        An additional 20-50 million are injured or disabled.

  3. How would the Seattle City Council enact and fund a substantial fare cut for a county transit system?

    1. The only feasible way would seem to be making $2.75 passes available at the $1 rate ($1 x 44 = $44/month). Seattle can subsidize routes directly, but to subsidize fares you get into issues like routes split between Seattle and the suburbs (E, 5, 106, 120, 348, etc), and distinguishing Seattle residents vs non-residents vs tourists at the farebox.

  4. Thank you. We don’t have a candidate worth voting for in D1, but you give me hope for the future of the city.

    1. I’m writing in “Joe Nguyen”. He was an urbanist rock star in his freshman session as a senator.

  5. “Our streets are public right-of-way, and with an ever-growing population, we need that space for moving, not storing private property.”

    +1,000,000

    If I lived in district 4 you’d have my vote. One of the biggest issues with car culture is the idea that you should be able to just leave your car on the street as you please.

    There would be plenty of room for general purpose, transit, and bike lanes if we would get rid of the vast majority of on-street parking. If you are a business and think your customers need to drive then a cost of doing business is providing a parking lot. If you are moving to a new neighborhood and have a car you should pick a place that has a parking spot, arrange for private parking elsewhere, or sell your car. We accept this with every other form of private property. My neighbor has like 5 ‘project’ cars out on the street. Why should my tax dollars subsidize the storage of his toys? Should I get a discount somewhere since I store my truck on my own property? What about those that don’t own a vehicle at all? I have a lot of bikes in my basement. Can I build a shed on the street in front of my house to store them more conveniently? Why is this different than leaving my car out there day in, day out?

    1. Isn’t the maximum amount of time a car can be parked in the same spot 3 days? If this person’s cars are sitting for longer than that, file a complaint with the city, because they’re not using the space as intended.

      Property owners (or their renters) pay for the streets. We all get a say in how they’re used.

      When you ask “should I get a discount somewhere since I store my truck on my own property?”, it’s like me asking “should I get a discount on the school district taxes I pay since I don’t have any kids that go to school?” (Same goes with your next question: “What about those that don’t have kids at all? I have lots of dogs in my house. Can I send them to obedience school on the public dime?”)

      Point is, these are public goods, so no, you shouldn’t get a discount somewhere else, and neither should I. Instead, we establish rules for use (which we have done) that we can all live with. Again, we all get a say.

    1. I’m with you. I read this blog on mobile and it’s no longer possible to follow comment threads with the new formatting. I primarily follow this blog for the commentary as I generally learn more from it than the lead posts themselves. I hope STB can get the new formatting fixed in this respect or I’ll probably find myself not visiting the site as often.

      1. Your feedback has been noted, thank you.

        Bear with me as I am just one guy who is trying to do this in my very limited free time. Please know that I will do my best to fix this. Knowing how little you value my writing makes me super motivated.

      2. I’m sure what he meant to say was that the consistent work of moderating the comments section adds considerable value to the blog, in addition to the informative articles. 😀

  6. The issue for individuals is a cost versus time versus physical demand versus commitments to be places trade off — and not merely a cost one. Calling mode choices involves a varied set of needs that vary by individual. A working mom with kids at day care or an older guy who almost needs a cane are just two types of people that have to be considered.

    Arguing that choices are merely cost-related is being really simple-minded. It’s actually kind of offensive to categorize the average person as a physically able white male as it is here. Seattle is home to a wide diversity of people, each with different travel needs.

  7. “Our streets are public right-of-way, and with an ever-growing population, we need that space for moving, not storing private property.”

    Then the author goes on to talk about bus lanes. I would call it a bit of a contradiction. Bus lanes provide zero benefit if a bus is not on the road. And most bus lanes, except right downtown, are just that, empty, providing zero benefit except taking up space that could be used by a customer or commuter.

    Aurora traffic would be so much better if it didn’t have bus lanes that get used once every ten minutes, if that. More often than not it’s used three times in one minute and then empty for 20 minutes.

    While I think streets shouldn’t necessarily be used for parking (depends on the location, but I think offstreet parking is better), I don’t think most bus lanes are the best way to “improve” the situation.

    1. Psychologically, a bus every 10 minutes carrying 30 people feels like wasted space, but a lane that carries a car every 20 seconds does not. Yet, it you do the math, the number of actual people moving through the lane in either scenario is the same.

      1. The point is that standards need to be established for when buses get bus lanes. We can’t just paint bus lanes willy-nilly in a “hope for the best” approach. The city + Metro should have a mutual understanding that if bus frequency exceeds x trips per hour for y hours a day and experiences traffic-related delays above threshold z, Metro gets a bus lane. There’s no reason to make a bus lane if buses aren’t delayed by cars, and a bus lane for an infrequent route does just what the OP said: wastes space.

  8. Interesting that there was not one word about pedestrian traffic. What are your proposals on that? We have, after all, a mayor who put it on the bottom of her priorities when asked in the campaign, backtracked, but has basically operated on the basis of her original position.

    1. I’d agree that pedestrians never get the attention that we deserve! From broken sidewalks to dead-end sidewalks to terrible lighting to terrible escalators and elevators at Link stations to terrible enforcement of sidewalk clearances (and that includes some bicycles) to obnoxious pedestrian push buttons even at corners where traffic is so light that the signals could have walk signs in every phase. Let’s not forget too that adding all of our new wonderful pedestrian crossing signals require more maintenance in the future too. WE are all pedestrians, and candidates should prioritize these issues more.

      When a candidate ignores pedestrian issues, they lose my support and respect. They literally don’t “walk” the walk even though they may talk the talk.

      1. Exactly, Al S. (and Breadbaker). Pedestrian safety and accessibility should be first priority – after all, nearly everyone is a pedestrian at some point, even motorists and cyclists. Transit should be second priority as nearly everyone can ride it if they choose; bikes third, and autos fourth (freight and delivery service not included here, but more important than cars and can be slotted in). Any project that has a conflict between any of these modes should have the tie broken in the order above.

        It is a sad commentary as a city that even a major arterial with frequent bus service (i.e. drawing pedestrians) like Sand Point Way has no sidewalks, curbs, or even safe areas to walk between the speeding traffic and parked cars. This sort of thing should be fixed city wide with top priority – “Vision Zero” is a sad joke otherwise. It (and other arterials in similar condition) have been shown on pretty maps for years as getting sidewalks but very little if anything is ever done – these projects get “value engineered” out but we build shiny things that relatively few people ever use. Make it easy and pleasant to walk in this city, especially to transit, and then get to the other things.

  9. AAA gives a much higher estimate, around 9K a year, If you’re calculations of the total cost of car ownership in the 3-4K a year at the high end, you’re surely missing something.

    https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/04/16/aaa-car-ownership-costs/2070397/

    (Also these figures cover just five cost categories–maintenance, fuel, tires, insurance and depreciation–so they don’t include the cost of car storage. Even for people for whom that’s mostly just opportunity cost for their carport or garage, they’re going to pay to store it at least occasionally when they venture out into the world.)

  10. Unfortunately, it seems that we keep missing the boat. Going completely car free is not sustainable. Many folks here order items from Amazon, order food on Grubhub or use TNCs to bee-bop around town. Many of those services use cars and eliminating load zones would be detrimental.

    With price of housing near transit becoming increasingly unaffordable, commuters are pushed into exurbia; having to drive to a park and ride. I was presented an add for a 348 SF Columbia City condo this morning for $300k. One and two bedroom condos were going for far higher. Rents near transit stations are at or over $2k/month for a studio/1 bed room apartment. Not everyone is able-bodied to ride a bicycle, so transit is the most viable solution.

    What are the candidate’s solutions to this?

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