The Bus Apocalypse

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Brian Miller, writing on the Weekly‘s blog, notes that the downtown condo boom means that Seattle’s rich will be able to avoid traffic, while the poor will be pushed out to the auto-dependent suburbs:

So those affluent enough to trade addresses from Mercer Island or the Sammamish Plateau or even Laurelhurst would be able to avoid paralyzing, permanent gridlock. Horrendous traffic jams would be something to enjoy, even laugh at, while looking out the windows of Smith Tower, martini glass in hand.

…a pattern emerges: Commuting is for the poor, for the powerless, for those dispossessed from Seattle and its politics.

In other words, in the not-too-distant future, the rich will walk to work every day while the folks who do their laundry will be bused in from Renton and Federal Way, a grueling two-hour bus trip.

He’s exactly right. But it’s a pattern common to all of America’s gentrifying cities, from Philly to San Francisco, not just Seattle. And it has little to do with the Viaduct. Overall, shrinking commutes are a good thing. If a downtown apartment becomes a symbol of “the good life” in America (as opposed to a lawn and a two-car garage), that’s even better, because it will increase demand for density.

Nonetheless, it’s a real problem for the working-class and poor in the city. There are really only two ways to mitigate its effects:

(1) Low-income housing in the city, which can never solve all of our problems, and doesn’t address the core issue: Why would a working-class family want to live in a downtown where the only grocery store is an unaffordable Whole Foods?

(2) Transit, transit, transit. A true regional rapid transit system will allow people to spread out and avoid a traffic-clogged commute every morning.

It should be clear to anyone who reads this blog that I’m a fan of the latter solution. But the poor alone don’t have the muscle to advocate for rapid-transit. So the question, to bring it back to the meat of Miller’s argument, is whether or not the city’s elites, the ones living in the new Smith tower and working in nearby city hall, will advocate for more rapid transit, or whether they’ll just hole up in their downtown condos and take a rooftop helicopter to the airport when they need to. The latter is the true apocalypse scenario Miller’s hinting at.

Given how spread out the region’s employment centers are (Redmond, Bellevue, Downtown, Renton…), it’s almost impossible to spend your entire career living and working within walking distance. So I have to think that it’s in everyone’s interest, even if you live downtown, to build a true regional transit system. Because even if you never ride the bus, you still benefit from its existence, in the form of decreased traffic on the highways. With that in mind, I think the trend of wealth moving downtown could actually be a boon for the poor, because it will increase demand for transportation alternatives. And that’s a good thing for everyone in the long run.

The Not-so-simple Viaduct Calculus

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

On March 13, Seattle voters (well, all 5 of them who mail in ballots) will face two questions:

1. Tunnel: yea or nay
2. Rebuild: yea or nay

You can vote yes on one, both, or neither. The Times breaks down the possible results here. The most likely option seems to be no/no, which is what the folks at The Stranger have been hawking.

The second most likely option is no/yes, which would almost certainly bring the debate to an end and result in an elevated rebuild. Even the Mayor would have to concede that he’s lost this one. If you gamble on a referendum, you have to be willing to accept the results.

Surface Option Gets Staffing

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The “Surface/Transit” option for replacing the viaduct seems to be picking up steam, according to the Times:

The state DOT says it is not studying surface proposals.

“I would say emphatically no,” said David Dye, the agency’s urban-corridors administrator. “We’re taking our lead from the statements of legislative leadership and the governor’s office. We’re focusing on working on the elevated design.”

But DOT itself has temporarily reassigned staffer David Hopkins, who was helping craft a regional highway package, to gather information about surface and transit ideas that Sims and King County transportation staffers are developing.

In other words, WSDOT is gearing up for the fight. Or, as transportation secretary Doug MacDonald says, “The surface discussion is coming like a freight train.”

Surface/Transit is just an idea at this point. Like “Bus Rapid Transit,” (BRT) it means different things to different people. The graphic that accompanies the Times article provides some detail as to what it might include, such as keeping 3rd Avenue bus-only through downtown.

The most innovative part of the plan, though, is to connect Highway 99 with I-5 interchanges at several points downtown. The problem now is that freight trucks coming off the waterfront have to take the Viaduct north through downtown. Their first real chance to switch over to I-5 (to reach destinations North and East of Seattle) is at Mercer Street. If you provide the trucks with the opportunity to hop over to I-5 South of Downtown, you alleviate that need.