Archive for March, 2010

Realism on vehicle miles traveled

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

Seattle will reportedly go another year without specific targets for reduced driving per capita. The State, on the other hand, set targets in 2008 for vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per capita that seem aggressive at first glance, or like wishful thinking — 18% less by 2020, 30% less by 2035, and 50% less by 2050. Rather than wishful or aggressive, it’s more accurate to call them “aspirational” numbers that the State might support with additional legislation and spending choices over four decades.

But are the numbers realistic, and what do they mean?

Forty years out, it’s hard to predict the public’s reaction to anything. It seems likely that oil will be scarcer and more expensive in the mid-term, and this will cause reduced gasoline usage per capita by 2020, but by how much, and of that, how much will be reduced miles vs. improved fuel efficiency? And at what point will other types of fuel become popular? Will the new fuels usher in another era of cheap driving, and if so when? Transit will obviously play a big role in urban areas, and could in rural areas if driving gets too expensive and local leaders think long-term. Choosing to live near work and/or simply taking fewer trips are obvious ways most individuals can deal with high costs. If driving grows anyway, for example if oil stays affordable, growth will be somewhat limited since there will likely (and thankfully) be limits on how much we can or should expand our road system.

Even with improved transit, generations of improved proximity via infill and mixed-use, and more telecommuting, we don’t seem likely to reach the State’s goals without added impetus from extremely expensive oil and a lack of oil alternatives. In other words, a lot of “stick” even if unintentional. The biggest reason is lack of density. For example, in the wildest dreams of those of us who love infill, the highest predictions suggest that even Seattle itself might reach about half the density of inner London, which suggests we won’t get anywhere near the walking or transit usage London’s density helps engender. And that’s Seattle, not our suburbs or rural areas.

Let’s assume for a second that the State’s numbers are the future. If so, perhaps surprisingly, the likely net effect would be fairly minor reductions in total VMT over the years. Based upon my shaky calculations, an 18% reduction from 2008-2020 coupled with 16% population growth (my wild guess, in line with 13% growth 2000-2009) would mean about 5% less driving overall. A 30% per capita reduction coupled with 40% population growth by 2035 would be a VMT reduction of just 2%. Only the more aspirational 2050 figure with the 50% per capita drop suggests a serious 20% reduction in VMT, assuming 60% population growth.

It’s interesting to look at some of the discussions about 520 and 99 in this light. Some people have suggested that peak oil will cause a sharp, massive drop in driving, and therefore there’s no need for either roadway. In other words, maybe we can tear them both down without replacement. This argument is used by some surface 99 supporters, and was part of a recent trial balloon about 520 by Knute Berger on Crosscut. For those of you who are hyperventilating, keep in mind that both are State highways, and both projects are controlled by electeds who largely consider replacement mandatory.

But consider: To believe the total VMT will fall substantially means believing that either the per capita drop will be far more dramatic than the State’s aspirational goals, or that population growth will be much slower, or both. It seems likely that these beliefs are way off, based on the very minor drop in driving during the recent high oil prices and near-depression, based on our region’s continued population growth in every year for generations except one during the Boeing bust, with no sign of stopping, and based on most projections for peak oil being one of managable decline followed by the rise of alternate fuels.

Yes, we should focus heavily on giving people alternatives to driving. In fact, it’s mission-critical for the region if you believe oil prices will rise, because transit uses less energy per rider in general, and walking and biking use none, and the regions that prosper will be ones that use energy efficiently. Personally, as a car-less enviro, I’d love to see a lot less driving, and support road diets on surface streets because they make the streets safer and friendlier. But as we look at transporation options, let’s be realistic!

It’s green to vote on the seawall

Friday, March 26th, 2010
The damaged seawall needs replacing. Image courtesy of WSDOT.


In a recent post I called attention to the Seattle City Council’s repeal of the so called “Head Tax” as an example of the Sustainability Gap. I feel like I should follow my criticism with at least one practical suggestion to help close the gap: the Council should put the Mayor’s proposal to replace the seawall on the ballot for voters to approve this year.


It is really difficult for some local commentators to let go of the “manual” of politics used to run Seattle for the last 8 years. In her lengthy lecture of Mayor McGinn, Joni Balter of the Seattle Times cites the Mayor’s seawall replacement proposal as an example of the new administrations failure to play by the old rules. But that’s the point. McGinn is rewriting the manual, one chapter at a time.

Balter, who’s paper hyped the repeal of the so called “head tax,” suggests that McGinn is simply hurling ideas and that the seawall proposal is spendy. Balter neglects to say that the seawall has to be replaced anyway, and as a supporter of the waterfront tunnel, Balter clearly isn’t against spendy proposals. 

Passage of the seawall is ultimately about safety. During last year’s campaign the Washington State Department of Transportation held nothing back with their disaster porn video showing what would happen to the seawall if Seattle was struck by an earthquake. Fixing the seawall is an urgent and important safety measure not a spendy idea.

Seattle’s safety on the sound is critical, but fixing the seawall helps in other ways. Last summer while discussions were going on about repealing the “head tax,” Councilmember Time Burgess offered ideas for replacing the head tax. He didn’t make any rash promises but he worked diligently with supporters of the tax to find sources of funding that would keep the revenue and the idea behind the tax, specifically discouraging driving and providing affordable, safe, and convenient alternatives.

There was about $19 million in potential funding on the table to choose from for tax replacement, including increases in parking meter fees, the commercial parking tax, and the creation of a Transportation Benefit District. 

The problem is that many if not all of these dollars are being eyed for improvements to the waterfront related to the tunnel. If the seawall measure is placed on the ballot and passes, all of this additional money is freed up. The city would be able to use transportation dollars for transportation—possibly pedestrian, bike, and transit infrastructure—rather than fixing the seawall. So putting the seawall on the ballot and getting that project finished frees up a lot of other money that should go, in part, toward the purposes assigned for revenues from the “Head Tax.”

And that’s why the Mayor’s proposal to get moving on the seawall using bond financing makes sense. Why on earth would Balter and the business community want to pay for the seawall repair and the “spendy” tunnel project with increases in the commercial parking tax? Wouldn’t that hurt business? Wouldn’t that keep our neighbors from Bellevue—who will never use the tunnel—from shopping downtown?

Far from being a conspiracy to scuttle the tunnel, the Mayor’s seawall measure actually allows the city to maintain existing transportation infrastructure throughout the city, helps replace the lost “Head Tax” revenues, and helps keep the momentum on important bike and pedestrian projects all over the city, not just on the waterfront. If the Council puts the seawall measure on the ballot they will have taken a big step toward putting the city on a path toward sustainability.  




Does the council just give lip service to sustainability?

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

A couple of weeks ago Mayor McGinn called a press conference to highlight the troubled state of the City of Seattle’s budget. I couldn’t help but notice one number that came up in his presentation on slide number 17. Because of falling gas tax revenues the City’s Department of Transportation (SDOT) is facing “a potential gap of between $4 (million) and $6 million in 2010.” That number sounded really familiar.

Then it hit me. The so called “Head Tax” that the Seattle City Council repealed last year totaled about $4.5 million in revenue annually. You read that right, the Seattle City Council gave up a $4.5 million revenue source for transportation infrastructure during the worst economic downturn in at least the last 30 years. And how big is the shortfall in the SDOT budget?

The tax paid for pedestrian and bicycle improvements such as this on Capitol Hill. Photo courtesy of Roger Valdez.

I wrote on Sightline’s Daily Score several weeks ago about what I called the Sustainability Gap, which I define as the distance between what elected officials say about sustainability and what they actually do. The repeal of the so called “Head Tax” is perhaps the most striking example of how the gap works.

The tax cost businesses that earned above $80,000 an average of $92 per year but generated enough funding to pay for significant pedestrian and bicycle improvements like the one on Olive Way on Capitol Hill. The Olive Way crosswalk is a pretty simple and unglamorous project but important to pedestrians, favoring them over people who choose to drive their cars. These are also construction projects that would create real jobs in the construction trades. On the other hand a lot of local businesses now have an extra $92 annually thanks to the Council’s decision. Maybe those businesses can use their windfall to buy a new letter opener.

Meanwhile, the Council announced they were the “get it done gang,” promising to build a waterfront tunnel to the tune of $4.5 billion before overruns. At the same time the gang also included proposal to put the city on track to achieve carbon neutrality by 2020 or some other date in the future. Trying to achieve carbon neutrality while building highways (our biggest source of CO2 emissions) that encourage more driving is, to paraphrase Einstein, like preparing simultaneously for war and peace.

The Council punched a hole in the SDOT budget when they approved a tax give back to business that generates no community benefit but ends neighborhood pedestrian and bike projects while supporting a multibillion dollar, traffic generating tunnel. But they also want to Seattle to be carbon neutral. That’s the Sustainability Gap. But how do you measure something like the Sustainability Gap? How big is it? In Seattle I’d say it’s about $4.5 million give or take a few billion.

High-rise living planned for Federal Way

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

The DJC recently reported that developers want to build two mega mixed-use projects in Federal Way near the transit center. To read the stories, click here and here.

Here’s what Patrick Doherty, Federal Way’s economic development director and a SeattleScape blogger, says:

Response to the two potential projects has really ranged the full gamut. There have, not surprisingly, been a

Lander Korus’ project would have 544 condos and 262,200 square feet of retail. Rendering courtesy of Lander Korus
few naysayers.  Some folks are simply taken aback by the notion of tall buildings in Federal Way, an environment chiefly characterized by low-profile, automobile-oriented, suburban-style development. There have even been some folks who are concerned about the influx of Korean investment, investors, businesses and even more residents and how that could change the character of the community.

Conversely, there have been many folks who are really excited about the prospect of the “big change” that such large-scale, high-rise development would constitute. It’s not only the Chamber-of-Commerce types who have expressed their enthusiasm, but folks right across the spectrum of the city’s residents.  There are many longtime residents, especially empty nesters, who love their community and don’t want to leave, but are no longer able to or interested in maintaining a large house.  There are also many first-time home buyers who may be scraping together the money to afford a condo and would prefer to live within walking distance of the regional transit center and shopping, entertainment, dining and other destinations.  In this way, perhaps they can either forego a car or reduce the need to invest in a new car so they can afford their home.

Twin Development plans a 45-story mixed-use complex in Federal Way.
Twin Development plans a 45-story mixed-use complex in Federal Way. Image courtesy of Twin Development LLC

Projects such as these would be the first modern high-rise residential options in all of South King County, responding to the latent demand for such product in a market area of approximately 700,000 residents.

It is interesting to note, however, that both of these projects have been proposed by Korean-American developers/investors.  When asked about the wisdom of constructing new housing in this period of soft home prices and tough financing, I’ve repeated something that uniquely derives from that Korean connection: when it comes to either the investment opportunity or the housing market, these projects transcend the local South King/North Pierce market.  With Federal Way’s “regional center” designation, attracting EB5-visa foreign investors, its status as hub of the Puget Sound area’s Korean diaspora, and the direct connection that many local Korean-Americans have with their home country, Korea in essence becomes part of such projects’ market!  Or perhaps, the reverse is more appropriate: perhaps Federal Way and these projects become a satellite of the Korean economy.

With an economy that is almost fully out of the recession, with investors in Korea and neighboring Asian countries that have money to burn and are looking for places to invest it, and with investors also very enticed by the notion of securing a “green card” in tandem with their investment, Korea becomes a very viable economic driver in our region and in Federal Way, in particular.

So to summarize, I’d say that the response to these potential projects has been quite enthusiastic on the whole, but we cannot discount that they will represent a substantial change from the environment of today, and that will continue to engender some opposition.  Those opinions need to be respected and, in fact, may serve as useful insights into concerns that can be responded to in various ways in the design, construction and/or operation of these new projects.

Bed lame

Friday, March 12th, 2010

Not long after the new Four Seasons Hotel and Condominium project opened across from SAM on First, Charles Mudede of The Stranger gushed effusively about its cutting edge architecture. That it may have, but its presence on the street level? No so much.

Given the stacks of liens and claims of unpaid contractors filed against the building, as reported in the Seattle Times, it might seem a bit like beating a dead horse to pile on the criticism. But this is one high-priced thoroughbred that does not deserve to take home the “Show” category — at least from an urban design perspective.

With the room prices commanded within the hotel, coupled with the almost usurious prices of the dwellings above it, we should have been given a lot more in the way of public benefit on the ground. OK, there is a grand staircase leading down to Western. And there is a piece of public space overlooking the Bay at the end of Union.

And I suppose with the presence of Fonte at the south end and Fran’s at the corner, there are some things of merit. (Hey, who can complain about a chocolate shop?)

But look a little closer and you find some offensively penurious attitudes, particularly when it comes to the public realm. The staircase is pitched like a big angled beam holding up a staircase. But there is little finesse to the thing – just a massive concrete blade supporting a relentless stair. The little pulpits are sort of nice, but there is nothing to perch on to enjoy the views.

Likewise, the tiny scrap of a belvedere at the upper street level is pretty miserly. OK, you can sit on the cold concrete, backless seating, but who would want to? At least for very long. The moving watercourse is a nice gesture (and undoubtedly expensive) but how about spending a little money on comfortable seating, huh? And perhaps a few plants while you’re at it. I could be wrong, but it almost seems as if the hotel folks really didn’t want to encourage anyone to linger. Just sayin.’

The end of Union Street essentially has become a drop-off for the hotel, with vehicles often choking up the space as valets rush about. This space — although likely intended as some sort of plaza-like area — is really problematic. The three planters that were plunked down onto the Union Street sidewalk hardly make up for the austerity of the street. Adding insult to injury, they even intrude into the sidewalk.

People on foot have to enter the hotel through what is essentially a suburban-style porte cochere, squeezing past cars and stacks of luggage. Just about every other major hotel in town offers an entrance for pedestrians directly from the sidewalk. Even the old Sheraton, with all its other numerous urban design sins, atones for them — at least partially — by a grand entrance on the corner.

But not the Four Seasons. What appears to be a recess leading to a walk-in entrance is simply a stark, concrete wall with a window well above the sidewalk — “taunting distance” away. In fact, this stretch of blank wall is truly inexcusable along a major downtown street, given the lively façade of the art museum across the street and every other neighboring building that has provided windows. As it stands, the high concrete walls, with the only detail being recessed holes at the corners, seem not unlike what encloses a major offender prison. Perhaps a little unintentional irony is evident?

Never mind the shifting planes and deftly detailed metalwork of the tower above, this class of hotel should have been spectacular at the street level. With the exception of the coffee, wine and chocolates, the effect is more Lowes than Luxe.