Car dependency is a hell of a drug and that’s by design.

85 Replies to “Weekend open thread: Realizing car dependency”

  1. BART ridership study released. They expect 65 percent of their riders to return in 2026, that’s a best optimistic estimate. Office occupancy in both Seattle and SF hover around 20 percent of 2019 levels in October. Wonder what the future holds for us…

    1. Seattle Office Market Report

      Of the regional projects under construction, 5 are in Seattle totaling 1.78M+ s.f. (29% pre-committed) and 11 on the Eastside totaling 6.14M+ s.f. (89% pre-committed).

      Given the size difference in population and existing jobs one would expect these numbers to be reversed. Less than a 1/3 of the new space in Seattle is pre-commited vs 89%. It seems pretty clear that business are taking a watch and wait attitude regarding Seattle. Average rents are virtually the same at $40.12 in Seattle vs $40.70 for the Eastside.

      1. It looks like there are turnback tracks at Judkins Park. Other than an emergency I can’t imagine why trains would switch direction here unless maybe it’s for SB trains to go back north to trade frequency on the north end instead of the Eastside.

      2. The Eastside is where all the cool kids hang out? Part of it’s that the Bellevue Redmond corridor is transitioning from light industrial to high rise high tech. And it doesn’t hurt that East Link is opening in a little over a year and has stations that connect all the tech centers with housing that’s within walking distance. Not “cheap” but cheaper and more plentiful than Seattle.

        In DT Seattle the easy land around S Lk Union has already been gobbled up by Amazon. I think land still costs more in Seattle and then you’ve got the cost of tearing down an existing building. And construction costs are higher because there’s little land for staging, freeway/road access is harder, etc. But part of it has to be wait and see if Seattle is serious about turning around and become a clean safe city. And part of it is a wait and see on the attitude toward large employers; specifically taxes.

        One think about the article is it seems to only be looking at developers that are building to lease. That is, I don’t think it included any of the substantial new office space Microsoft is building and likewise wouldn’t include anything Amazon is adding to it’s HQ in Seattle.

      3. It’s mostly Amazon in the Eastside as well —
        “Significant new construction starts over the quarter are on the Eastside and include The Artise (605K s.f.) which is leased to Amazon”
        “The three largest regional projects are Amazon committed towers in Bellevue including Vulcan’s 555 Tower (940K s.f.), West Main (1.02M+ s.f.) and Bellevue 600 (999K+ s.f.).”

      4. Those are examples of Amazon leasing rather than building it’s own campus. It’s much easier to lease for a few years and then make a decision to move jobs back near HQ in S Lk Union. I don’t know if they are currently adding to the company owned real estate in Seattle but Microsoft is replacing a lot of 2 story buildings on it’s campus with much taller buildings. I forget what Redmond finally decided on for a height limit. Amazon seems very much on the fence as to whether or not they will add new jobs long term in Seattle, the Eastside or out of State. Facebook OTOH stepped up and bought the REI building which speaks to a more long term commitment to Bellevue. The fact that REI sold it and State Farm is trying to sell it’s campus in Dupont are proof that there will be a lot of jobs shifting to remote work long term. Our company has decided on a 3 day per week in office policy but the date for implementing that has slipped three times as many months and is now out to January. My wife’s employer reassigned her whole departments office space and they will be entirely remote going forward.

      5. Bernie, not every job in most corporations is “accounting” (broadly defined). Not even close.

        Companies who want the greatest synergy among their employees will want them in the coffee room regularly and out to lunch together often.

        Sure, lots of jobs can be completed solo remotely.
        But they’re the domain of “support staff”, not profit-creators.

        And those jobs will soon all be done by cookie-cutter, third party rent-a-bodies. Folks gleefully severing their relationships with the corpus of the “oration” should not be surprised when they’re “out-sourced” to avoid overhead costs.

        Employees who share in corporate profitability should and increasingly will be only the “creatives” who drive product design and production.

      6. “ Other than an emergency I can’t imagine why trains would switch direction here unless maybe it’s for SB trains to go back north to trade frequency on the north end instead of the Eastside.”

        Turnback tracks can be useful in sorts of situations.

        – vehicles that must go to another OMF
        – one platform ahead on East Link blocked for any reason — from a crime scene to a suicide to an unexplained power loss
        – an ST closing of the Lake Washington bridge to trains when winds are high and water sprays across the bridge (or the Blue Angels show)

        Plus, it’s great insurance for the future. If the DSTT had turnback tracks, Connect 2020 would have not been needed. Once a line goes into daily service, merely installing a switch can be difficult.

      7. Being able to turn around when the bridge is closed makes sense. I wonder if there are also turn around tracks on MI for the same reason?

      8. Sure, lots of jobs can be completed solo remotely.
        But they’re the domain of “support staff”, not profit-creators.

        The company I work for is made up of civil engineers and CAD support. Both have been done just fine remotely. There’s actually a greater by percentage portion of support staff in the office. There is value in being in the office but management has decided three days a week is sufficient given that there are definite benefits from working remotely. Software is certainly something that can be done from home. Half of my neighbors “commute” to the Bay Area. Pre-covid they were flying down a least once a week. That’s gone to once a month to never. Remote work let’s companies draw from a pool all over the globe. Anything that doesn’t require hands on can be done remotely and that’s the majority of good paying jobs in America.

      9. I think Tom’s view of the workplace is not quite correct. WFH is just an additional tool. It will allow some or all WFH depending on the job, say to care for a sick child but still be productive. I am sure employers and employees will want to go to the office some of the time, and no doubt that will depend on where their office is located, and whether there is good shopping and dining for after work.

        Before the pandemic too many bosses — who like me tend to be older and not very open to change — resisted Zoom and online work, but we have had to adapt, and like usual like the changes and flexibility once we learn them. I also like the ability to work from home or while on vacation. I hate flying for work, and now have to do much less.

        No one is getting rid of staff. Staff is how partners make money, by charging more than staff are paid. Zoom and Microsoft Teams have made a lot of travel unnecessary, and made everyone more productive. Very few of us are Steve Jobs, and Jobs needed tons of staff.

        Before the pandemic the confines of the work schedule and the market made the work schedule too abusive and inflexible, and that was a bad thing, especially if you have kids. The pandemic will force employers to be more flexible, because everyone today is chasing too few employees.

        In this region there was also a disconnect between where workers (especially women) want to live for schools, kids, safety etc., and where employers wanted their offices (downtown Seattle). That made for for an unpleasant daily commute on transit for the baseline staff who couldn’t ‘t afford to park downtown, and our transit agencies have come to rely on transit slaves by making parking too expensive or restricting driving to work, so the peak service is often crummy. Seattle’s streets have not helped.

        The Democrats in Congress are making a big deal out of paid leave, but of course it is mostly women who would take paid leave, and risk losing their place in their company, because while out because everyone knows that spot has to be filled by someone while the other person is out on leave. WFH leaves them productive and involved. That is exactly why women have been the demographic last to return to the work market. They have kids at home, or don’t want to return to their pre-pandemic job or a long commute standing on a bus.

        I think the biggest change to come out of the pandemic will be a more flexible work schedule for those who can work from home, and higher wages because so many have dropped out of the work force (which means inflation). Look for 3, maybe 4 days/week in the office, less 8 to 5, and more subsidized parking for staff rather than subsidized ORCA cards. The pandemic has gone on too long, and looks like Covid will be around for quite a while, for these changes to not be permanent.

        To look at this from a transit angle is unproductive. Transit follows and serves society, and pandemics, and employers. Transit does not determine where people work or live. Transit will have to adapt. There will be fewer peak riders. That will affect operational assumptions and budgets, but that is life. You can pass an operations levy, figure out a different way to get employees to the office, move the office, WFH, cut service, private shuttles, the 630, or all of the above.

        If anything proves this, it is the eastside restructure for East Link. Completely different assumptions about where eastsiders will work, how many will commute peak hours, than pre-pandemic. Metro and ST now assume eastsiders will stay on the eastside, there will be much less cross lake transit (because the pandemic has closed the gap between where these workers want to live and where their employers have offices), and peak commutes will decline 20% to 40% just like the Stanford Study predicted.

        When you look at it it is all good. Better and more flexible schedules, better productivity, less commuting, higher pay, shorter commutes, less commuting costs, more options among WFH, transit, and subsidized parking, hopefully a better work experience for everyone, and more concentration on off-peak transit use, although I am not sure East Link makes a lot of economic sense post pandemic, considering I didn’t think it made much economic sense pre-pandemic. But who knew in 2008 a pandemic in 2020 would change the work world. The eastside subarea can afford a fancy train that probably ends up with half the riders ST estimated pre-pandemic.

      10. Bernie, I wrote software for twenty-five years and I certainly agree that MOST of the time the actual keying of code can be and is done solo. But when done solo it almost always runs off the rails at critical points if it is of any significant scope.

        If software is 99.93%”correct”, it is absolutely guaranteed to fail in a non-negligible way. As you surely know, correcting software errors costs two-magnitudes more than writing it originally.

        But that’s just WRITING it. The scope-determination and design stages, the development of testing plans, and the execution of those plans all require collaboration and critical feedback. Most people won’t be honest on a Zoom meeting that’s viewed by dozens of people and recorded.

        So, if by “software” you mean developing specific objects defined and strictly specified by people in those collaborative stages, then “Sure, software can be done solo at home.” There are thousands of people who do that.

        Daniel, “staff” to you ARE “creatives”. They are not “staff” the way I meant it.

        I am long-time friends (50+ years) with a fellow who retired as the Facilities Manager for Perkins-Coie and was active in the local, regional and national levels of the association for such Facilities Managers.

        A part of his responsibility was managing an “internal pool” of para-legal “staff” who could be assigned to cases which needed extra brainpower.

        While he was generously compensated, he never had a spoon in the gravy when the firm won a huge judgement for one of its clients based at least in part on the work of his PL’s. He was just “staff” the way I mean it.

        I do not know how the para-legals were compensated in such an instance.

      11. In the paragraph about people in Zoom meetings, I should have completed my thought as

        Most people won’t be honest on a Zoom meeting that’s viewed by dozens of people and recorded and as a result important errors won’t be uncovered.


        Then I should have told the story of how I got fired once for asking the client over a phone meeting if something I knew the client wanted carried over from a test version but which was being deliberately omitted “for the schedule”.

        When people see things like that happen — and everyone has — they aren’t going to speak up in public.

      12. @TT
        Seems you had a bad outcome adapting. Things have changed dramatically since the pandemic. And I don’t think of our IT and support people as “non profit” generators. Any company that did I’d leave in a heart beat,

    2. I think BART is pretty commuter/peak-trip focused, so this maybe isn’t surprising. Given that off-peak trips are apparently back in force in SF[1] I can’t say I’m particularly worried about transit in general, either here or in the Bay Area. I’ve been on a couple of SRO trips on the 44 in the last month, and many more on other routes like the E, 62, and 31/32 where nearly every seat is taken. I think the lesson is less that transit is doomed (though I certainly thought that last year) and more that transit has to adapt a bit. As someone without a driver’s license, I’m actually looking forward to this future where non-work trips are seen as just as important as commutes.


      1. And the 550 westbound today around 5pm had most of the seats filled. Not just double seats, but two to a seat. We got on and there were no two seats together; I ended up sitting sideways in the back.

        Likewise I took Link northbound from Capitol Hill yesterday afternoon around 2:30pm, and twenty-five people got on, and the opposite direction had about as many.

        Metro’s all-day ridership is mostly back, at least in Seattle. Link fills its double seats peak hours and and shoulder times. People are still trying to social distance and not sit next to strangers, so they tend to stand on Link rather than sharing a seat, and with that there are a few standees.

        So I’d say Metro’s ridership is back around 60-70% except for the peak crowds, and Link may be similar. So it’s not suffering BART’s fate. Link goes to more walkable places and neighborhoods than BART does. BART has all those long extensions that Link doesn’t have yet but will, and it’s not surprising if ridership has dropped off majorly there, with offices still closed and suburbanites more inclined to drive.

      2. Was there and event going on in Seattle? I’ve yet to see Eastside buses with more than a driver visible. There was a 245 today that stopped and I had to drive around so there must have been someone using it. The 249 stops on Northup are “active” but construction workers found a work around while it was suspended so it doesn’t seem to have anyone using it. It was suspended so by definition it wasn’t needed. Nothing has changed so it’s not needed now. So, it’s just money needing a hole to spend it on.

      3. Depends on the route. During the daytime, it’s rare to see a bus that’s completely empty, although there are routes that tend to only get one or two people.

        Among the Kirkland routes (the ones I’m most familiar with), the 250 and 255 seem to be the most productive. The 250 seems to carry more people between Kirkland and Redmond than between Kirkland and Bellevue, while the 255 is most productive between DT Kirkland and UW, while running pretty empty over by Totem Lake. The 245 is often very empty around Kirkland, but gets better ridership between Crossroads and Eastgate, enough to justify its continued existence.

        The 230 and 231 are pretty empty, but I’d hate to see them go away; they are important routes, both from a coverage standpoint and in connecting major activity centers in a straight line. Given enough time, these routes (unlike the 249) have potential to eventually build up decent ridership, but it takes persistence over many years to make that happen; it won’t happen overnight.

        The 239, I’m not sure, since I’ve only ridden it once. My guess is that it’s productivity is below the 250, only slightly above the 230. It should never have been selected for future RapidRide. If I had to pick a route in Kirkland to be RapidRide, it would be the 250.

      4. I think that the high percentage of vaccinated people makes riders feel like they are safe from Covid on transit.

        It would really help if ST and Metro started being more current on their ridership data. ST used to publish system ridership reports (as recent as 2017) about each month no more than 2 months and a week following the monthly close. Why did they stop?

      5. I think that the high percentage of vaccinated people makes riders feel like they are safe from Covid on transit.

        I’m not sure I would go that far. I think a high percentage of people feel like it will be long time before we are safe from COVID. I think it is more about the timing.

        A lot of people have been waiting. They were waiting for the vaccine. Then they were waiting for lots of people to get the vaccine, which would be followed by the number going down, very rapidly. But then not that many people took the vaccine, and we had the Delta variant, and the numbers actually got worse. So we kept waiting and waiting. Finally, the numbers are going down, slowly. People don’t feel safe, but they feel like it isn’t that bad, and more than anything, won’t be safe anytime soon. We just have to accept the risk, just like we do when get into a car. You could die in an accident, but probably won’t. You take as many precautions as you can, and hope that others do too. But you don’t hold out hope that things will be really safe in just a little while, and delay accordingly (the way you would say, driving New Year’s Eve). This is the new normal, as risky as it is.

      6. It’s encouraging that France, as well as a few other countries that have taken contact tracing and other measures seriously, have not been able to trace spreading events to any of their buses and trains.

    3. Rando fun fact about S.F. … Their Central Subway connector is mostly done and will fill in major MUNI gaps in downtown.

      Los Angeles is also making good progress with their own downtown connector.

      1. Both of these projects are great — but are embarrassingly delayed from their announced dates at groundbreaking. SF Muni should have opened theirs in 2018, and LA MTA in 2020. They are both looking at 2022.

    1. Oops, my comment above about ” turnback tracks at Judkins Park” was meant to go here.

    2. I really enjoyed the pictures, descriptions, and background info. It’s the first time I got a real grasp of the East Link alignment and stations. Thanks for sharing the link here, I also saw the link on Twitter.

  2. The one thing I’ve wondered now living in Europe for a few months is why North American transit agencies are so adamant about 2 doors for standard (40′) buses and 2-3 doors for articulated (60′). When having lived here, I’ve seen a lot of 3 door for standard busses and 4 door for articulated busses depending on the city. They can actually help with loading and off loading efficiency and dwell times on busy routes. If people wondering what I’m talking about, I’m talking of like Mercedes-Benz Citaro buses as one example of this bus design that is common in parts of Europe.

    1. Those doors take up a lot of room and valuable seating space. Besides that, I guess it’s hard for the driver to monitor people getting off and on with more than two doors.

    2. AC Transit was trying to bring these kind of busses to North America with their decision to order a ton of Van Hools in the 2000’s. I felt that MUNI should’ve been ordering these buses, because of the high levels of ons and offs most route have.

      I actually went to meeting when MUNI was making the excelsior order, and said that they should get buses with this design. Unfortunately, New Flyer’s a bunch of Troglydites, so the best MUNI got was bigger doors.

  3. Why is Link limited to 55? I forget. I hardly ever go to Tacoma, but did today, and while on I-5 was thinking ‘“damn this would be a long way to go if I was limited to 55.”

    1. Top speed matters a lot less than people to think it does. For a car on the freeway, 30 miles at 60 mph takes 30 minutes. 30 miles at 55 mph? 33 minutes. 30 miles at 70 mph? 26 minutes.

      For a train, travel time usually has less to do with the top speed and more to do with the station stops. For instance, over a 30-mile trip, the time difference between 55 mph and 70 mph in a car (7 minutes) is equivalent to the difference between a 50-second pause and 20-second pause at each of 14 station stops. Frequency also matters a great deal, as 7 minutes is also the difference between a 3-minute wait for the train on the station platform vs. a 10-minute wait.

      Even for long-distance trains, such as Amtrak, travel time is usually dominated not by the top speed, but how much time the train spends either stopped or moving at very slow speeds. Often, the track improvement that gets the most bang for the buck is replacing a stretch of 10 mph track with 40 mph track, or adding double-tracking so the train doesn’t spend 45 minutes pulled over, waiting for an opposite-direction train to pass. Not replacing stretches of 79 mph track with 110 mph track, even though the latter often feels more exciting to people and politicians.

      If I had to pick a train route where a higher top speed would really make a difference, I might go with CalTrain, simply because the distance between San Francisco and San Jose is so far, and they run express trains with wide enough stop spacing to allow a higher top speed to actually matter. Even then, the biggest problem with CalTrain today is not top speed, but its poor frequency. If the CalTrain were somehow improved to every 15 minutes or so, then top speed might start to become the dominant issue.

    2. ST’s specs were for 55 mph trains and the curve tightness and inclines those trains can handle. It could have ordered 65 or 85 mph trains and designed the track for them if it had wanted to. In the run-up to ST3 the board said it would look into how much it could retrofit the existing system for faster trains now that it’s actually going to Tacoma, but I have’t heard any followup.

      1. …” retrofit the existing system for faster trains now that it’s actually going to Tacoma,”

        That would be really interesting if they are looking into this.

        If anything it may be under study for inclusion in a future vote once people realize how long these trips from Everett and Tacoma are.

      2. The trips from Everett or Tacoma will take a while, but the top speed of the train has little do with it. My guess is you would save 3 or 4 minutes tops (if that)*. There are long stretches where the train acts as an express (from Fife to South Federal Way, from Tukwila to Seattle, across the lake) but for the most part, it acts like a real subway, not a commuter train.

        The reason it will take a long time to get from Tacoma or Everett to Seattle is because those cities are a really long distance from Seattle. For the vast majority of trips (those within Seattle and the inner suburb) the speed of the train won’t matter. If you want a fast trip from Tacoma or Everett to Seattle, you should take an express bus or commuter rail (which would make fewer stops along the way). But then you wouldn’t be able to get to important destinations like Fife and Angle Lake. You don’t build a super expensive subway line for long distance trips — you build it for shorter trips (like Federal Way to Fife or South Federal Way to Angle Lake). Those are the trips that drive ridership, and add value, not the long distance ones.

        * Anyone want to do the math on this? First you need a chart showing the distance between stations. Then you estimate where a train hits its current top speed. Subtract that distance from each end. Then calculate the time difference between running at 55 MPH, and a higher speed.

    3. “Top speed matters a lot less than people to think it does. For a car on the freeway, 30 miles at 60 mph takes 30 minutes. 30 miles at 55 mph?”

      Those add up when you have to sit through the extra five or ten minutes wishing it would go faster. And for a bus or train, going faster means it can do an extra run or two a day and you get more frequency for practically free. It’s frustrating to have trains slower than cars when we’re trying to compete against fifty years of ingrained car bias; what would really get people out of their cars is if transit provided a substantially better trip, not one that’s just “No, it’s not as good as driving but that’s transit, we’re not going to try to make it better.” In the UK I note that train travel time between London and Cambridge and London and Edinburgh is half that of buses, whereas here trains take longer than buses.

      1. In the case of downtown to the airport, how many minutes does Link actually spend going its top speed of 55 mph? Given that the scheduled travel time from Rainier Beach Station to SeaTac airport station is 12 minutes according to the ST website, I’d guess maybe 10 of those minutes, the train is going at its top speed. Everywhere else (Rainier Valley/SODO/downtown), the train isn’t going anywhere near that fast. 10 minutes at 55 mph covers 9.17 miles. 10 minutes at 70 mph covers 11.67 miles.

        So, for the cost of completely throwing away and replacing the entire fleet with more expensive trains, ST can save maybe 2.5 miles off of a trip to the airport, while saving nothing in the Rainier Valley->downtown section. The emphasis is on the word “maybe” because, even if the trains themselves are capable of doing 70, if curves in the track alignment do not support that, it won’t help (at least, not without spending billions rebuilding the track).

        Alternatively, simply running the trains all day every 6 minutes instead of every 10 minutes would save more than this on wait time, and probably cost less. For those that need to ride a feeder bus to access Link, the speed and frequency of the feeder bus probably matters much more than any of this.

        Top speed may be what’s most noticeable when the train passes by the freeway, but it is seldom the main factor in determining actual travel time.

        As another example extreme of how top speed matters much less than we think it does, I will point to the 255’s behavior during snowstorms. Because the bus is in chains, it drives across the entire 520 bridge at 30 mph, which feels brutally slow when all of the cars around it are going 60 or 70 on the plowed freeway. But, because the snow route skips South Kirkland P&R and goes straight to Kirkland Transit Center on Lake Washington Blvd., total travel from the U-district to downtown Kirkland is essentially the same as on a normal day. In other words, a teeny-tiny change in routing from the snow route makes up enough time to compensate for driving all the way across Lake Washington at 30 mph. I’m not going to suggest buses drive 30 mph on freeways during normal conditions (that would be crazy). But, it’s another extreme example of my point that, in terms of actual travel time, top speed is overrated.

        Should be noted that car drivers over-estimate the effects of top speed too. Think about all those drivers that weave around cars, go too fast, only to be 3 cars ahead in line in a traffic jam a couple miles down the road. I see it happening all the time.

      2. @asdf2 — Absolutely. It is common for people to exaggerate the importance of top speed. It is a cultural thing, but it may also be primal. If you are chasing down your dinner, top speed is important. But in the modern world, it is rarely important. Driving from one part of town to another is the same in a Ferrari as a Fiesta. Yet car culture emphasizes top speed, while taking for granted instant access.

        Transit doesn’t work like that. It is more complicated. How far do I have to walk until I can get on the vehicle? How long will I have to wait? Will there be any big delays along the way (caused by traffic, or traffic signals)?

        Consider the D, for example. On 15th West, it moves fairly fast (30 MPH). Let’s say we allow that bus to go 40 MPH on that stretch. That is much faster. Does it make much difference? No. Let’s say instead, we build a lane so that the bus can get right next to the bridge when it is open. This would allow it to cross the bridge the second it closes. Would this make a difference? Hell Yes. It would make a huge difference. That is because currently, the bus has to slog through traffic for minutes after the bridge closes. (It isn’t the waiting for the bridge to open and close, it is the waiting for the traffic to clear out.) The same is true for various places on various routes. It is about getting rid of the slowest sections, not speeding up the fastest. It is also about ease of access and frequency.

        Link has issues with access that can’t be corrected. But it is an extremely fast subway system. The easiest, cheapest way to improve it would be to run the trains more often. Going from 10 minutes to 6 minutes all day would make a big difference — a much bigger difference than faster trains. I’m not saying that makes sense now — but after we recover from Covid it would.

      3. Flying from London to Edinburgh is even faster. same for SeaTac to Portland. Rail gives you consistency in travel times. Express trains would give you speed over distance.

      4. Even in the case of flying, maximum speed really doesn’t matter that much. Years ago, Willamette Week did a test race of various modes between Portland and Seattle. Flying took 2 1/2 hours or so. Sure, the 45 minutes spent flying is fast. All the other crap associated with flying is far more time consuming than any other mode.

      5. Portland to Seattle at around 180 miles is the point at which flying, and the hassles of flying — start to make sense. I think most think driving to Portland is the fastest and most convenient mode, and numbers prove that out. Especially if you need a car in Portland, and can deduct 55 cents per mile for work, although the cost of flying is also deductible. I am not sure how many from the Seattle area travel to Portland for pleasure any more.

        Seattle to Spokane is the next level. That is a 5 to 6 hour drive, and like a lot of America through mostly nothing. . The train or bus is longer, and not a pleasant ride with odd times, and Spokane does not have great transit when you get there except some Uber in the core, or a rental car

        Beyond 300 miles flying makes sense, unless you need to pack a ton of stuff and the drive isn’t too far, say to Sun Valley for a week long vacation with the family, in which driving is long but cheaper than flights for four and a rental car.

        Trains are romantic, for maybe the first three hours. But most folks are interested in their final destination more than mode, and how to get there as quickly as possible. Plus if you are a seasoned traveler, pre-book, have pre-check and MVP status, and don’t check baggage you can navigate an airport pretty quickly.


      6. How many people travel to Portland for work as opposed to other reasons? I’ve never traveled to Portland or another regional city for work. And when i went for a conference, it was at the convention center which has abundant transit (and a nice scenic long walk across the Burnside Bridge). Yes, if your employer is paying or you can take the 55c/mile work deduction, that changes the cost/benefit calculus. But many trips aren’t like that.

        “Seattle to Spokane is the next level. That is a 5 to 6 hour drive,”

        Greyhound is also 5-6 hours. Especially when you can get one that has only one stop in between (Ellensburg).

        “and like a lot of America through mostly nothing.”

        The first two hours are beautiful: Lake Washington, the Issaquah foothills and western Cascades and national park, and the contrast east of the Cascades. After that it gets more like nothing, but even the nothingness is amazing, that it’s so close to the Cascades and Seattle yet so different. The Bitterroots and Coeur d’Alene Lake between Spokane and Missoula are also wonderful. And if you go the northern route through Everett and Stevens Pass (sometimes possible on Greyhound or Trailways), it has its own charms. (Although I like Snoqualmie better because Stevens has sprawl all the way to almost the pass on both sides, while Snoqualmie has a larger protected park.)

        Transit in Spokane is not great, although it’s OK in the central city and on the main bus routes. It is building a RapidRide-like line east-west between downtown and the universities/college, and there’s also a nice riverfront trail between them.

        Trains to Portland and Spokane could be better if Washington prioritized them like other countries do. It doesn’t even need to be high-speed rail; medium-speed could be competitive or even faster than driving.

    4. Reece Martin released a great video describing train wheels and curves a few days ago. It feels like a graduate level engineering lecture for novices.

      The video details many individual design specs involved with train speeds. He didn’t even get into power issues either.

  4. Re the video, this is why I don’t want to live in the Eastside, Renton, Tukwila, Kent, Federal Way, Pierce County, or Snohomish County, and why I think lower-income people shouldn’t have to. None of these places are as bad as Houston, Dallas, or Atlanta — thankfully! — but they’re still depressing and hard to get around in without a car.

    1. Mike, The fact you don’t want to live just about anywhere except Seattle (north of Yesler) says more about you than those other areas.

      I work in downtown Seattle five days/week. Weyerhaeuser and the King Co. courthouse remain closed due to public safety concerns. Transit riders find transferring at 3rd and Pine terrifying.

      These suburban and rural areas are not depressing, Seattle is, at least for me. Not every single aspect of life can be viewed through the prism of transit vs a car.

      These areas have transit, but it is very expensive to provide good transit to large areas that have little density. The residents know that, but they moved there for that lack of density. So they rely on a car or truck to get around because their mode of transportation is not a critical factor in their happiness. Cars are safer, more convenient, have no first/last mile access issues, are faster, and you can haul things like tools, groceries, kids, dogs and Christmas Trees.

      I am sure the things they haul makes them very happy. Very, very, very little of life is about transit, whether a train, bus, streetcar, plane, ferry and so on. Transportation is just a tool to allow us the mobility to enjoy life and go places.

      If you are made happy by riding a bus or train, and not owning a car, and living in dense multi-family rental housing, I think that is great. But it is a mistake to think others must be unhappy because they don’t find pleasure in the things you do. SFH prices are not rising 39% year over year on the Eastside because the residents find it a depressing place to live. In fact they think you choice of lifestyle is depressing, but that is your choice and if it makes you happy than that is great for you.

      1. Using that logic, the increases of over 8% in Seattle while Mercer Island was down in the 7.2% range must mean Mercer Island is a terrifying hellhole compared to Seattle.

        The reality is the supply of millionaires able to afford Mercer Island is relatively finite, compared to those seeking housing the average person is able to afford.

        Thus, it seems like the price increase seen across the region is more about the lack of housing than it is about where people want to live. People buy housing where they can afford to, and if the only thing being built is housing in the middle of nowhere with a commute through the 9th circle of hell, then that is what they do because they have no other economic choice.

        Here’s an exercise for you: try to come up with a budget that you could survive on if your income was $2,500 a month. Where would you wind up living, How would you go about getting from there to your workplace?

      2. I disagree with your statement that “Very, very, very little of life is about transit, whether a train, bus, streetcar, plane, ferry and so on. Transportation is just a tool to allow us the mobility to enjoy life and go places.” That’s not true for me, and probably not for lots of other people either. I’m much happier when I live somewhere walkable, because I love walking. Also, there are so many people with disabilities or who can’t afford to drive, and for these people, things like walkability and transit accessibility make huge differences in their day-to-day quality of life.

    2. If you notice from the video, he wasn’t even complaining about the lack of transit. It was the lack of the most basic forms of walkability. I don’t care how suburban a place is, there is no excuse for ever designing a city to require a car for safely traveling short distances (800m in the video example) that can be easily walked. Even if 95% of the people there have cars, a sidewalk is basic safety infrastructure that allows the other 5% to get where they’re going without getting run over. It is not too much to ask. Compared to the cost of road construction, a sidewalk costs almost nothing.

  5. Glenn your article is from March. Year to date MI housing prices are up close to 39%. Affordable SFH in the sub $500k market were hot in March as were SFH’s in Pierce and Snohomish counties. Seattle has the slowest price growth, but started with higher prices than Pierce and Snohomish Co.’s. But today there is now a $500,000 price difference between a SFH on the Eastside and Seattle.

    There are many reasons for escalating housing costs and Bernie has addressed many of them. AMI for Seattle is around $103,000, and interest rates are at historic lows. Plus folks think housing prices will never decline, and owning a SFH is an American ideal.

    My point to Mike is folks in East King Co., Pierce and Snohomish Co. are not depressed with their mobility choices and housing. If your point is simply upzoning Seattle’s residential zone will create lots of affordable new construction I think you are mistaken.

    Actually, several SFH landlords I know — who live on the Eastside — told me they are selling their rental homes in Seattle, for several reasons, but the folks buying them don’t plan on renting them out — or the ADU: they plan to remodel and live in the house. So less rental housing despite Seattle’s upzone sin the residential neighborhoods that allow three separate dwellings and don’t require the property owner to live onsite.

    Right now everyone wants a SFH, and apparently there is plenty of money for buyers, but to live in, not rent.

    1. Seattle is making it really hard on landlords. In the SFH market this is largely people that invested in multiple homes over many decades or moved away and kept the Seattle home as an investment. When you can’t vet renters and can’t evict them for not paying rent that investment is more hassle and downside risk than it’s worth when the cash out price is at an all time high. People do want to own their own home in Seattle and there is demand (i.e. people with cash money) so absolutely I expect the percentage of owner occupied properties to go up (approach the norm) in Seattle. Rental units are likely to increase but will be multistory apartments and not single family homes.

      Latest Redfin data (median home price):
      Seattle $770k
      Bellevue $1,3M (totally insane)
      Redmond $1,16M (insane)
      Kirkland $1M (irrational)
      Bothell $855k (more than Seattle??? WTF!!!)
      Renton $648k (bargain basement)

      Bottom line, buy a house it Seattle, prices relative to the surrounding areas are at an all time low… wonder why? Honestly, even with the current “irrational exuberance” I think Seattle in city has great investment potential. High risk == high reward.

      1. Houses are cheaper in Seattle because they tend to be smaller. Show $/sq foot and I think Seattle will be in alignment with the east side.

    2. “My point to Mike is folks in East King Co., Pierce and Snohomish Co. are not depressed with their mobility choices and housing.”

      Not the ones who are living there because they can’t afford to live in Seattle, or got displaced from Seattle.

  6. Wow! I coincidentally watched this video a day before this post. I liked it so much I subscribed to this channel. I won’t move to places with bad walkability and bad transit. Unfortunately the most walkable places are the most expensive : /

  7. The car-centric planning in Houston has another drawback not touched on in the video: paving over nature makes flooding worse, because while the native tallgrass prairies of Texas are great at absorbing water, asphalt and concrete are not. It makes events like Hurricane Harvey even more destructive than they’d otherwise be. Rewilding in urban areas is awesome and this is just one more reason to do it.

    Sometimes the Great Plains and Midwest seem to have a reputation as boring, aesthetically unappealing parts of the country (at least in these parts they do), but their native landscapes and ecosystems are gorgeous. Less parking lots and more prairies (and all of the pedestrian-friendly planning discussed in the video here)!

    1. So is the argument urban areas have less concrete or impervious surfaces than suburban or rural areas? Even urban areas with excellent transit? I don’t see that. If you look at downtown Seattle it is a concrete jungle with a few street trees. Same with NY. Of course so is Bellevue, because they are urban areas. I don’t know what rewilding urban areas means, but urban areas are too expensive to “rewild” them.

      One of the benefits of suburban areas is the larger minimum lot sizes create front, rear and side yard setbacks, and lower house to lot area ratios creates more impervious surface areas. This is where vegetation and trees grow. For example, when I go from my office in Pioneer Square back to my home on Mercer Island the difference in green space is remarkable, at least in the residential neighborhoods.

      The real factor in the level of vegetation and green spaces is the density of the zoning, because trees and vegetation don’t grow in concrete or foundations.

      There are streets, of course, because cars and buses and delivery trucks need roads. But that is in every city. There are highways for the same reasons. The larger the city and the denser the population the wider the streets to accommodate buses, trucks and cars. Bellevue Way is six lanes wide; North Mercer Way is two lanes wide.

      The U.S. is around 2.3 billion acres, and around 3% is urbanized. Urbanization is what eliminates wild or green spaces, not cars or roads. The farther away you go from the urban core the greener it becomes, because there are fewer people, and less density.

      When you drive I-90 across Snoqualmie Pass the highway is the same width but the surrounding area is zoned much differently, so it is much greener. A large city is a work place, with a necessary density, and accessibility, and that means pervious surfaces and green spaces get eliminated. If you want both urbanization and green living spaces that is the conundrum of living in suburbia but working in an urban core.

      Urbanists had hoped to solve this dichotomy by having more urban workers move to the urban core, but cost and other factors made that unrealistic. Now working from home, and moving offices closer to suburbia, may solve this dichotomy, and cut down the commute, because it is the commute that gets allocated to suburbia and not the urban work place that accounts for the difference in carbon emissions between suburban and urban. Of course such a zoning paradigm does reduce housing, unless the urban cores in suburbia are upzoned like The Spring District. Not affordable housing, but more housing none the less, surrounded by green residential neighborhoods.

    2. Cities by definition have more people per area. so that limits their environmental impact to a smaller footprint. Suburbs are the most environmentally damaging of all world: they aren’t compact and don’t have the environmental benefits of a forest or rural area. Energy/resource usage is highest in suburban/exurban areas because people and utility lines have to cover larger distances, larger houses need more energy to heat and cool and have more furniture, people overwhelmingly drive SOVs, and they buy city-like products that people in rural areas might not as much.

      Tree canopy and permeable surfaces need to be compared neighborhood by neighborhood, not just assuming cities are less. Downtown Seattle may have little tree canopy because it was built up in the early 20th century when this was not seen as important. Still, you’d need to count all the trees and planters to see how it compares to other downtowns. Both Seattle and Eastside cities have been building bioswales to capture/clean rainwater and provide habitat for critters and pollination for bees/butterflies. You can see these on 9th, Terry, and Boren Avenues between Stewart Street and Denny Way and maybe further north.

      Seattle’s residential neighborhoods have a green strip between the sidewalk and street, and there’s a strong tree canopy on some streets, like 16th and 17th Avenues East between Denny and Galer. Columbia Street has a butterfly/bee pollination corridor from 28th to 12th. The city invited homeowners to voluntarily replant their sidewalk strips and front years with pollinating plants and eco-friendly shrubs and things, and offered grants and gardening advice to do so, and many homeowners took them up on it.

      The suburbs have a lot of large blank lawns that are like environmental deserts. They’re monoculture, don’t support habitat, and the cutting them short and digging them up disrupts what habitat has been able to establish itself. And they require inordinate amounts of water to keep green.

      I used to be bothered by all house yards, but I’ve learned to see trees, flowers, and shrubs as our plant friends, and I’ve seen more and more homeowners grown more eco-friendly gardens and native plant installations rather than blank lawns, so I appreciate that, and I sometimes go walking in single-family areas to see them. I wish more homeowners would do that and it becomes the norm. And some churches and industrial lots with huge blank lawns should do likewise. Blank lawns are so 20th century. So even if their house and car and parking space is using an inordinate amount of resources and causing pollution, at least their yards are doing something positive, if they have eco-friendly plants.

      But a yard, even if it’s the most eco-friendly imaginable, can’t compare to a forest or large natural space. I’ve been reading about trees, and they communicate with other trees through their roots and the fungi around them, if there are other trees around and the ground hasn’t been torn up recently. So larger natural spaces are the best. Putting people in a compact area allows more of the land to be natural. We have to house the population somehow, and we shouldn’t artificially limit the population, so we should house them in a sustainable way. That means a significant number of cities and denser areas, alongside rural areas and forests. The suburbs should make themselves more like one or the other, not stick in the most wasteful and damaging middle.

  8. There is an article in today’s Wall St. Journal. On Tuesday St. Paul Minnesota will vote on whether to enact one of the strictest rent control ordinances in the country. Basically rent will be restricted to 3%/year increases. At the same time across the river Minneapolis will vote on whether to grant its council the authority to draft a rent control bill, while also voting on whether to defund its police dept.

    The good thing about rent control is over time is does limit the price of rental housing. The bad thing is like in NY it creates two classes of tenants: those who have lived in their unit — no matter how expensive — for a long time and so have a low rent, and those who have lived in their rental unit for a short time and have a high, market based rent. It also discourages breaking up large multi-bedroom units into smaller units since the rent is fixed.

    The article however raises two other issues:

    1. Rent control — or just the threat of rent control — tends to depress the construction of multi-family housing. A landlord can figure a single family rental house can always be sold to someone who will use it as owner occupied, which will approximate market prices for owner occupied SFH, but a multi-family rental building does not have that option.

    Apparently due to the pandemic the construction of multi-family housing is in a lull, whereas the problem for SFH is they cannot build them fast enough. But what developer would build a new multi-family rental building in St. Paul if they know annual rent increases will be capped at 3% despite what inflation or their costs will be.

    2. When mandated rent increases don’t keep up with the cost to maintain buildings and generate some profit, and cover the huge loan, owners neglect upkeep and maintenance, and the buildings become dilapidated and run down, bringing the neighborhood down.

    What are the views on this blog about rent control for Seattle. I could definitely see Seattle renters bringing this kind of ordinance to a vote, considering over 50% of Seattle residents rent.

    Is the restricted rent — over time — worth the risk of disincentivizing construction of multi-family rental housing (although the new construction is not affordable anyway), and the fact the restricted rent probably does not keep up with the operating costs of the building so the buildings will fall into disrepair?

    1. There are both good and bad kinds of rent control. The bad kind is what NYC, San Francisco, and other American cities enacted in the mid 20th century, It applies only to buildings built before a certain time, so as new buildings get built and the population increases, a shrinking percent of renters have access to it, only those who have lived in their unit a long time. People don’t vacate because they can never get that price again, so they sublease and sub-sublease it forever. People who are young or moved more recently can’t get a rent-controlled place and are subject to much higher costs. And the rent cap is so stingy it doesn’t allow owners to recoup the cost of maintenance, so the units fall into neglect. And if a tenant dies or vacates, the rent resets to the current market rate. That’s a huge jump and makes the unit unaffordable to even the middle class, and it gives landlords an incentive to neglect the building and illegaly evict the tenant so the rent can reset.

      We should also mention California’s Prop 13, which while it’s not related to rent, freezes property taxes as it was in 1979 or when you bought the house. This acts like the bad kind of rent control, incentivizing people to never sell or move, and forcing other residents to pay most of the burden for schools and other government services.

      The good kind of rent control is like Germany. Each state has statewide rent control, and the level is set to cover expenses and allow a reasonable and steady profit every year. So developers can’t evade it by hopping to the suburbs, and residents are more willing to rent knowing they won’t be priced out in old age. It doesn’t stop development: developers are still building, because they know they’ll get that steady profit. They just won’t get a windfall when rents rise 5-10% or more in one year.

      Minnesota/Minneapolis’ approach may be good if they avoid the above pitfalls. I’m concerned about an absolute 3% cap: that gives no room to vary with inflation. It might work under our 2000-2019 economy, where inflation was 2% or less so that gives 1% profit/expenses, but this year’s inflation is expected to be 5%, and if that continues in the future landlords would be losing money. That’s the same problem as Initiative 601, which caps unvoted state/local tax increases at 1% plus an amount for population increase. That means it’s below inflation year after year, so the governments are gradually being starved of resources. When analysts pointed this out to proponents, they said that’s exactly what was intended, to gradually starve the governments.

    2. I strongly oppose any form of rent control. Yes, if the maximum rate of increase is higher, it’s not as bad, but it still has consequences. For example, let’s say there’s a downturn and the market drops. With no rent control, landlords will lower the rent to match what the market will bear, knowing that when the market goes up, they can easily raise it again. But now, let’s suppose the rate that you can raise rents is restricted. Now, instead of renting the unit during the downturn at a discount, it becomes more profitable in the long run to just leave the unit empty until the market changes, so when rents spike back up again, you can charge the full market rate.

      If the desire is simply to have rents be more stable, there are market based solutions. For example, when businesses rent space, they don’t normally renegotiate with their landlord every year. Instead, they sign a long term contract with the landlord, guaranteeing the rent for the next 5-10 years. Annual rent increases are written into the contract, but mostly just keep up with inflation. I don’t see any particular reason why such contracts cannot be offered for residential rental units (is it lack of interest, or legal reasons?), but having such options available could be a solution to provide tenants who want it and are willing to pay for it with some stability without actually instituting rent control.

      Of course, in a booming market, getting such a guarantee would have to mean paying more initially, to make such a deal worthwhile for the landlord. You can’t have everything. Nor does it address the problem of poor people not being able to afford rents. Ultimately, the only solution for increasing the number of people able to afford to live somewhere is to increase the number of homes – either that, or make the city so miserable that nobody wants to live there until the rents go down (reverse gentrification).

      Without increasing the housing supply, even low income subsidies don’t help. They simply shift the displacement from one group of low income people to another, as Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand displaces low-income folk not getting the subsidies to make room for low-income folk that do.

    3. The key word in “rent control” is control.

      An analogy: freeway speed limits. If they were set at 100 mph or 25 mph, the effects would be much different on public acceptance.

      It comes down to setting rent control percent maximums in cases where no significant improvements are not made. Here is a illustrative link to SF allowable annual rent increases:

      So some restraint is probably good, but unresponsive ceilings would not be good.

      Finally, other eviction laws also can have an major effect. For example, I knew this condo owner who rented out her condo. The tenant would not obey the condo rules and was belligerent about it. However, the owner could not evict the tenant because the rent laws favored the disobedient tenant. Finally, the owner had to pay a very large sum of money to entice the renter to move. It appeared that the renter knew the game all along, and was just doing this to get a large cash payout from the condo owner.

      1. That is a good point Al. Very little point in increasing the amount of rental housing — new or used — through upzoning if property owners no longer want to rent in the area. That is a problem right now in Seattle, and my guess is that had something to do with the Crosscut article showing 72,000 apartments vacant in Seattle.

        I posted earlier about SFH landlords for Seattle properties selling their rental units due to regulations and eviction moratoria, and that the new buyers were not interested in renting the former rental SFH, or any ADU the landlord had installed (and Seattle requires annual certification, another disincentive for an ADU/DADU in Seattle). I think some landlords figure housing prices are high right now, so time to cash out, and the buyers are not investors looking to rent because the prices are high and the rental market unfriendly.

        With the inability to vet tenants, and the impossibility and expense of evicting a tenant who refuses to pay, plus the risk of having the unit trashed without a sufficient damage deposit to cover the repairs, rentals in Seattle really are not for the one or two unit owner anymore. I have a friend who is head of his condo board, and one tenant smoking Meth for a year required an entire floor to be completely remodeled. Take the money and run. Especially with such a hot stock market, and you don’t have to worry about someone trashing your Microsoft stock.

        Now with the relaxation of the warranty on new condo construction I see more owner occupied condos coming onto the market, and any new multi-family condo construction will likely start with demolishing an older, existing, affordable multi-family building, because the name of the game is buy low and sell high. There just is very little vacant land for an affordable multi-family building in Seattle these days, so new construction has to displace existing construction, and new construction is always the least affordable without public subsidies.

        Affordability in the region is going in the opposite direction, and will continue to go that direction unless there is a recession or major economic downturn for this region, which is unlikely. There is plenty of housing in the region, but its cost continues to go up, especially SFH.

        This blog has a lot of posts about the rising ROW costs for ST. That same problem is at the heart of housing affordability in this area. Affordable housing begins first and last with affordable land. Then you have the profit motive of the developer, which without public subsidies means buy low and sell/rent as high as possible.

        Our housing crisis, despite the amount we spend on homelessness, really comes down to the fact Seattle and the County really don’t have the money for affordable housing, let alone emergency housing. We spent our wad on light rail. King Co. is paying $65,000/year per hotel room for each homeless person it houses, but that is totally unsustainable, and is over $5000/month for one person (because God forbid the homeless share a room).

        Competing for affordable housing in a city with an AMI of $103,000 is going to be very expensive for a city to subsidize, and Seattle just does not have the money, just like ST does not have the money for the ROW, even with the realignment, because the cost of the ROW — or land for affordable housing — rises faster than the revenue from an extension in taxes.

        Many on this blog talk about Econ. 101 when they claim building more housing will lower prices, except the new housing is the least affordable so in fact you are not increasing the supply of affordable housing, you are decreasing it because new housing replaces old housing. No one tears down and remodels a new house.

        The real Econ. is cities and counties have to compete in the same market for land and construction if they want to build 0%, 30% and 50% AMI housing, and they just don’t have the money, and developers and builders have the opposite financial incentive than building affordable housing.

        It would be like me claiming Econ. 101 means you don’t have to subsidize public transit.

    4. Rent stabilization exists in Seattle and is a softer kind of rent control. The rate is a little higher initially but it won’t change for five years. So it’s similar to a five-year business lease, and gives renters more certainty and more time to save for a possible rent hike at the end of the term or find another place to move to. I think it’s a city program with income limits but I don’t know much about it or how widespread it is. I’ve known a couple of people in it and it seems like a good idea. Maybe this could be a model for wider rent control.

  9. The more sprawling an urban area is, the more paved surfaces it will have per person. Houston’s urban area is super large for its size, so it contains a larger area of paved parking lots and roads than a more densely packed urban area of the same population would. I guess that’s what you’re saying when you say that “The real factor in the level of vegetation and green spaces is the density of the zoning, because trees and vegetation don’t grow in concrete or foundations” and in that case we agree there. But urban areas aren’t always too expensive to rewild. There are vacant lots in Detroit, for example, that have been reforested with native species. The same is being done in Houston to some extent, like there is a program called Bayou Greenways there to try and rehabilitate their bayous that collect runoff.

    3% of the US’ area urbanized is a lot when you consider that way more than 3% of the country’s population and economy is found in that area. Plus, the amount of green space in a city impacts people’s health quite a lot. That’s why I think we should increase transit access to places like Discovery Park in Seattle, and plant more street trees.

  10. We are working on our six year parks, recreation and open space plan. One interesting point is the outside expert explained the change that has occurred in urban/park planning. In the past a planner would determine the number of active or recreational activities in a park per 1000 citizens, such as basketball courts, that displace green spaces.

    Now planners are realizing the larger and denser a city the more important green and passive spaces in parks are, because those are the things urbanization destroys.

    One of the key statistics for livability of any city is park acres per 1000 citizens. Unfortunately as city populations grow that ratio declines, and it becomes more expensive to create new park acres. A good lesson for some who want to eliminate parks and golf courses for housing. You will never get that green space back.

    The reason Detroit is “rewilding” is because of its massive population loss, and it has so many dilapidated houses it must tear down. Someplace like Seattle does not have that problem or that luxury. The vast majority of Seattle’s tree canopy is in the parks and residential zone.

    Street trees are good in an urban area zoned commercial or multi-family because lot area is usually totally consumed with foundation, plazas, and sidewalks. Transit to parks is always a good idea, but buses need roads too.

    Houston is unique. For many years it had no zoning. I think it was a Super Bowl in which the city was panned for being so ugly and urban that Houston began a process to beautify the city, and create more plazas and green spaces. Houston is usually the poster child for why restrictive zoning is necessary (and the floods prove that out). It also has 2.3 million residents to Seattle’s 746,000 so naturally it has more sprawl.

    It also has around seven times the land size and 1/3 the density as Seattle.

    Cities like Santa Barbara are on the other spectrum, with very strict codes and zones, and a very strong design board. Guess which has higher property values and much less density.

    Personally I would like to see much greater housing and population density in downtown Seattle, and according to some that is the future of cities if the work commuter declines. I can understand the UGA’s, but the heart of a city is its downtown. Upzoning the residential zones makes little sense to me because it won’t create affordable housing, and you are basically incentivizing sprawl. It isn’t like the limits of Seattle are forests. It is already zoned to its limits, so if you want to move more residents there and out of the urban core you hollow out the core and spread out the population.

    1. Houston has no formal zoning but it has many of the regulations that in other cities would be part of zoning. Instead of citywide zoining it gives private covenants the force of law. These are restrictions the developer puts in title deeds to prohibit apartments, duplexes, laundry lines, doors other than red, etc. When a city has a citywide zoning plan, it has to be nominally balanced, and the mayor/council are accountable to voters for the entire plan. When the city instead puts the force of law behind private covenants, it allows a few arbitrary developers and homeowners to make policy affecting the entire city and everyone. Those people naturally look out for their own individual interest and try to keep lower-income people and other people’s cars out, so their narrow unvoted interests impact everyone else. That’s even worse than zoning.

      1. Houston doesn’t have zoning, but they do have a development code, which is quite similar. It just doesn’t have use restrictions. Sometimes it doesn’t have any restrictions (akin to an area without zoning restrictions).

        There are also deed covenants and historic districts, which are very much like zoning, but with different processes. Here is a great summary of how it works, with links to more details if you want to dig into the details:

    2. “Upzoning the residential zones makes little sense to me because it won’t create affordable housing, and you are basically incentivizing sprawl.”

      Huh? Sprawl is greenfield low-density housing and strip malls and one-story big-box stores and excessive freeways. Infill development is the opposite of sprawl. Any infill development within the 1980s urbanized area (Bothell-Redmond-Renton-Kent-Des Moines) is not sprawl.

      Opinions are mixed on exurban new urbanist developments like Snoqualmie Ridge, Redmond Ridge, the Issquah Highlands, etc. But densification within Mercer Island, Bellevue, Kent, Bothell, etc, is an unequivocal good.

      1. I disagree Mike. King Co. does not have the population for county wide densification. Not even close. When you move people from the urban core to the outskirts of Seattle and King Co. you are creating sprawl. No one is talking about changing the zoning of rural areas or natural lands.

        And when you densify suburban areas instead of creating or maintaining density in the urban core you hollow out the urban core so we have no urban core, and you destroy the pervious surfaces and vegetation on suburban lots. You move people from an urban setting to a suburban setting, and pour a lot more concrete, but you are just transferring housing, not creating it.

        You don’t house anyone new, but you certainly increase the amount of concrete throughout the county from upzoning, until every corner has the same urbanization and impervious surface ratios as downtown Seattle, for the same totsl county population.

        This idea of upzoning residential and suburban areas only makes sense in a county the size of King (plus Snohomish and Pierce) if you expect several million more residents soon, and growth patterns show that is very unlikely. So all you are doing is moving people from urban areas to suburban areas to “rural” areas zoned residential, for the same number of folks, but with much, much more concrete and impervious surfaces.

        It is like those who talk about paving parks and golf courses for housing. You are just moving people to different housing in what was once a park. You don’t create any new housing. They move from where they lived to living in what was a park.

        If I am an urbanist I want a true urban area. I don’t want to live in Blue Ridge or in a remote Mercer Island residential neighborhood. I want to live in the downtown of a vibrant city like San Francisco once was, or Paris, or NY.

        For an area with a lot of committed “urbanists” I am not sure I have seen a poorer urban area. I mean, if downtown Bellevue has more vibrancy and density and walkability than Seattle then Seattle is doing something wrong. We have a ghost of a downtown, and folks are clamoring for upzoning Blue Ridge and Mercer Island. I don’t get it.

      2. Downtown is not a ghost town. There are more people living downtown than ever before. It is really extraordinary how many people now live downtown, given how few lived there a generation ago.

        The reason folks want to change zoning in places like Blue Ridge is because it is close to everything, and relatively sparsely populated. You get all the benefits that Mike mentioned that come from urbanization. Changing the zoning not only adds growth where you want it, it lowers housing costs. So does sprawl, but at much higher environmental costs. It is also a lot more difficult to live in most suburbs without a car, which means an additional cost to those who live there. This means that if both places cost the same, living in the city is far more affordable. The more growth that occurs there, the more affordable the city is.

        Mercer Island is an inner suburb. It is very close to Seattle. Even before economic growth in Bellevue and Redmond, it made sense to see growth there, just as you see it in other inner suburbs.

        If I am an Urbanist I want a true urban area. I don’t want to live in Blue Ridge or in a remote Mercer Island residential neighborhood. I want to live in the downtown of a vibrant city like San Francisco, or Paris, or NY.

        Nonsense. There are a lot of people have no interest in living in Manhattan, but love living in Brooklyn. Like those who live in Paris, Montreal, or other great (relatively low-rise) cities, their urban desires are no less valid. Not everyone who likes an urban lifestyle wants to live next to skyscrapers, or can afford it. They would be happy living in Capitol Hill, or Ballard, but Seattle has relatively few places like that. Almost all the apartments are next to busy streets — places where people don’t want to live. That is by design — the zoning is meant to restrict the nicer places (the quiet places) for those who can afford a house.

      3. The DT argument is predicated on the notion that the total population of the Puget Sound area is fixed and not growing. Thus, if the suburbs densify, the rest is empty high-rise buildings downtown, not more people actually being housed. And, whatever local tree loss occurs as a result of that densification does not save trees elsewhere because, since the population is fixed, the urban area is not expanding.

        This argument is wrong on so many points. The population of the Puget Sound area is growing, not fixed. “No one is talking about changing the zoning of rural areas or natural lands.” is exactly the opposite of what’s happening. Tons and tons of rural and natural areas have been replaced with suburbs over the past 30 years, a trend that is showing no signs of stopping. That rural->suburban conversion is exactly what sprawl is. And, if the city doesn’t densify, the only way to house everybody that wants to live here is pave over more rural/natural areas out in the hinterlands and build more sprawl. Each new family that is able to find a place in the already built-up area is 5000 sq. ft. (or whatever the minimum lot size is out there) of forest saved.

        Of course, it is possible to sake densification too far, to the point where inner cities have no green space at all. You can find examples of this in cities such as Cairo and Istanbul. But, Seattle is not like that. We have plenty of parkland, and our streets have street trees. Moderate upzoning of single-family zones to allow duplexes and triplexes does not change this. We could add even more trees to our neighborhoods if we are willing to accept some inconvenience to people driving. Each parking spot on the street is large enough to host a good-sized tree. We could also build more diverters at intersections, like we see in Capitol Hill, and plant trees in the middle of the intersection (the ones in Capitol Hill look beautiful). And, of course, the city should never force people to remove trees on their property, just to satisfy minimum parking requirements.

      4. As @asdf2 said, the population of Puget Sound is growing, not static. But suppose, for the sake of argument, that Daniel’s assertion is right about the population not changing. I think these are a few things that he gets wrong:

        (1) For the “urbanists” who really want to stay in Downtown Seattle (like you say in towards the end of your post), they actually would not empty the “core” (like you assert towards the beginning of your post). But I guess that is not enough contradiction in one post. Somehow, you also assert downtown is a ghost town, with less vibrancy or walkability than Bellevue, but still the urbanists must want to stay there, …. hard to follow.

        (2) For the “urbanists” who don’t absolutely have to be in Downtown Seattle, like my daughter who just wants to be able to walk to a grocery stores and transit stops: More upzones and housing in the inner suburbs mean more people can live closer to the city/Link stations, thus preventing more sprawl, decelerating the growth in traffic, and avoiding new concrete from being poured for new roads to green fields.

        (3) Inner suburb densification/brownfield development will also avoid clearing of established trees for SFH lots, like what happened to my in-law’s Auburn neighborhood. Where I live, most of the land being covered by townhomes are driveways and lawns, not existing tree canopy. Even if a few trees are lost to new development, I think that still is still better than the much larger clear cuts that happen at the outer suburbs, when low cost housing are so far away from city centers.

        I could go on to point out other things, like how Paris will plant lots of trees in place of car infrastructure, so it doesn’t mean highly paved cities have to remain that way. So, Seattle can even have more tree canopy, if it ever becomes hollowed out. All good things, not sure how anyone can argue against upzones and transit-oriented development in the suburbs, especially those areas surrounding Link stations.

      5. “King Co. does not have the population for county wide densification.”

        It wouldn’t be wall-to-wall density. Even if it’s blanket rezoning of singie-family areas, that doesn’t mean all or even most lots would be densified. The market would be saturated long before that. The housing shortage is 150,000 units. it would take only a fraction of the single-family lots to address it.

        “when you densify suburban areas instead of creating or maintaining density in the urban core you hollow out the urban core so we have no urban core,”

        We are maintaining density in the urban core, and in all multifamily areas. It’s just not enough.

        “folks are clamoring for upzoning Blue Ridge and Mercer Island. I don’t get it.”

        You keep singling out View Ridge as if that’s urbanists’ biggest goal. View Ridge in particular is unimportant; it’s one of the most isolated areas in Seattle. The areas that most urgently need to be upzoned are adjacent to urban villages; e.g., the rest of Wallingford, West Woodland next to Ballard Station, eastern Capitol Hill, etc. That’s where more people should be able to live and it’s better for them to live. We can get around to View Ridge and Magnolia and the Lake Washington shore last for all I care. And in the Eastside, I want to see the areas adjacent to the downtowns and between the urban villages densified, so like Surrey Downs, southeast Bellevue between 116th and 156th, southwest Kirkland around 108th, etc. Not way out in Somerset or Newport Hills or even Mercer Island. I only single out Mercer Island to needle you. It’s not that I think they shouldn’t be upzoned; they’re just the lowest priority. The purpose of a blanket upzoning, say all single-family to lowrise, isn’t that all lots would be built, it’s for fairness, so that homeowners can build if they want, and to avoid the inequity of certain neighborhoods not sharing equally in the burden of providing housing, especially neighborhoods near downtowns or urban villages. Single-family neighborhoods force multifamily/commercial uses to leapfrog over it, when it would make more sense to have the density taper out from the center. Pacific Avenue in Tacoma is a good example of this: riding the 1 south from Tacoma Dome, you first encounter a single-family patch, then a patchwork of lowrise and single-family neighborhoods all the way to Spanaway,. Why not make that area uniformly lowrise because that’s where the BRT line is, and single-family neighborhoods can be in more remote areas.

      6. “If I am an urbanist I want a true urban area. I don’t want to live in Blue Ridge or in a remote Mercer Island residential neighborhood. I want to live in the downtown of a vibrant city like San Francisco once was, or Paris, or NY.”

        That’s you. Other urbanists are happy in Summit, 15th Ave NE, Wallingford, Greenwood, Columbia City, Othello, etc.

    3. Seattle’s already done some great things I would consider rewilding, like creating the Union Bay Natural Area and new wetlands in Magnuson Park. UBNA is an amazing place, and it used to be a landfill.

      1. Union Bay Natural Area, is that the trail across the UW fields from the Horticulture Center in Laurelhurst to Husky Stadium? I’ve been on it a few times and it does seem to be getting better (and once it was closed for renovations). I didn’t know it had a fancy name like Natural Area. And what and where are the wetlands in Magnuson Park? What used to be where the wetlands are?

      2. Oh, and as for where the wetlands in Magnuson Park are, they’re mostly in a chain along the southern edge of the park. There are a decent number of small ponds connected by paths that start immediately north of the big parking lot and then lead east all the way to Lake Washington. It’s really cool to witness how nature is beginning to take the lead on processes of change in this area that was a military base not long ago. There are multiple beaver dams on the streams running from pond to pond, and evidence of their activity (felled trees and gnawed tree limbs) everywhere, though the beavers themselves are more elusive.

      3. Discovery Park used to be a lot less wild when it was Fort Lawton. Bit by bit it is becoming more wild.

  11. Mike, covenants, conditions and restrictions (CCR’s) are allowed and are enforceable in WA state, too. They can’t violate civil rights, but can include everything from height, setbacks, design, SFH only zones, plantings, hosting Halloween festivities, noise, exterior colors, Christmas decorations, you name it.

    I just returned from Palm Springs, and I bet over 75% of all developments have CCR’s. We have them on Mercer Island. They tend to increase the value of a property. They supersede zoning regulations in that they can be more restrictive, but not less.

    I have a house on Whidbey Island with CCR’s. I like them. They restrict the height and size of the house, which is nice because Island Co. has very loose codes, and this way a greedy person or developer does not try and build a castle among modest homes under Island Co.’s loose codes. The area is zoned SFH to begin with, but the CCR’s provide greater restrictions on scale.

    In fact most condos come with CCR’s, in effect.

    I thought I read where Mayor Durkan lives in a gated community in West Seattle, which would mean CCR’s.

    1. In Washington covenants are a civil procedure to enforce, so homeowners or developers can sue their neighbors. In Houston the government puts its own resources (police, regulations) into enforcing private covenants, so violating a covenant is breaking the law.

      1. Yes! UBNA is the area between Husky Stadium and the Center for Urban Horticulture. It’s actually one of the best places to birdwatch in the Seattle area. I’ve seen so many species for the first time there, especially waterbirds, along with pond turtles and a garter snake :) There are river otters and salamanders there as well, though I’ve never gotten to see them.

        Magnuson Park used to be a naval base, and the wetlands that have been built there over the past decade or two used to be buried under pavement. They’re another great place to observe birds and other wildlife. Actually, if you walk up to the edge of the ponds there, you can see netting just underneath the surface of the soil, which helps retain the bottom of the new ponds. A huge amount of reshaping the terrain was done there after the naval base was decommissioned (is that the right term?) which has sped up a natural process that otherwise would have taken way longer.

  12. I wonder if a wetland in Jackson Park is possible. There have been arguments to convert it to a different kind of park. Is there a stream that would facilitate a wetland in half the park and housing in the other half.

    1. Apparently there’s already an area of wetlands called Flicker Haven Natural Area on the west side of the golf course, where Thornton Creek flows through. There’s a 2.2 mile trail there!

      “This stand of second growth forest is home to many creatures: coyotes, bald eagles, hawks, woodpeckers, kingfishers, and the occasional beaver.”

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