As the human tragedy of Hurricane Dorian lingers over the Bahamas, fires devastate Indigenous lands in the world’s largest rainforest, and democratic presidential candidates unroll climate proposals, the overwhelming urgency of climate change and the mourning for what has already been lost have become our constant companions. Here in Seattle, it manifests in conversations of how “lucky” we’ve been to avoid the smoke-filled air, as if environmental breakdown is controlled by cosmic alignment rather than unregulated waste, corruption, and white supremacy.
Just last week, polls found that nearly 7 in 10 Americans are worried about climate change and its impacts on agriculture, extreme weather, and human health. A large majority (70%) of voters also favor government action to address climate change. Despite broad public support for climate solutions, the Global Carbon Project finds that heat-trapping carbon emissions are still on the rise in Seattle, in the U.S. and globally.
Let’s be clear: this crisis is a consequence of the oil and gas industry politicking and profiteering at the expense of ecosystems, human health, and our future. We won’t solve this crisis with business as usual. It will take more than banning plastic straws or remembering reusable shopping bags; it’s too late for small incremental changes. Individual consumer choices did not create the infrastructure of pipelines and science-denying PR firms that entrenched the status quo and prolonged our dependence on fossil fuels. Nor will individual choice solve the problem. We need solutions that scale with the scope of the crisis.
Yesterday Mayor Jenny Durkan revealed her plan to increase Seattle’s ridehailing fee by 51 cents per ride and direct the first five years of proceeds toward two immediate needs. One is plugging a hole in the Center City Connector streetcar project budget; the Mayor says $56 million will do the trick. The other need is affordable housing–the Mayor wants to spend $52 million to build 500 homes targeted at people with hourly earnings in the $15 to $25 range–roughly what a ridehailing driver makes before expenses.
The Mayor would also dedicate $17.75 million to a Driver Resolution Center run by a yet-to-be-disclosed organization. The proposal calls for stronger protections for ridehailing drivers, partially following in the footsteps of California, which just passed sweeping protections. The Mayor aims to include a driver pay study and said she intends to have a policy in place by next summer that guarantees drivers receive the minimum wage of $16 per hour that large employers face, even when accounting for expenses. The study would determine who would implement such a policy.
California did go further, prohibiting ridehailing companies from classifying drivers as independent contractors, upending their already-strained business model and requiring ridehailing companies pay minimum wage and provide healthcare and benefits to full-time drivers. However, Uber and Lyft are planning a $60 million campaign to repeal California’s law via ballot initiative. Uber and Lyft also oppose Seattle’s fee hike and rider protections package, but ridehailing drivers seem to be welcoming it.
“We view this as part of a broad-based package that will address the problem of unfair deactivation, establish driver pay standards with driver input, and at the same time make important community investments in affordable housing and transit,” said Lyft driver Peter Kuel in a statement provided by Teamsters Local 117, which is organizing some ridehailing drivers in Seattle.
Currently the ridehailing fee is 24 cents per ride, which means the total fee would come to 75 cents under the Mayor’s proposal. This is considerably less than New York City’s $2.75-per-ride fee, but on par with Chicago, which charges 72 cents, and similar to Washington, D.C. on lower-cost trips and considerably less on expensive longer trips–D.C. instituted a 6% fee last year. A percentage fee has the advantage of a progressive scale (and not getting diluted by inflation). A $50 run to the airport would net D.C. $3, for example. That long trip would still net 75 cents in Seattle.
Many other American cities have very low ridehailing fees or have failed to implement them altogether. Massachusetts has a 20-cent fee, while neither Los Angeles and San Francisco have fees–despite considerable congestion issues–but are working on it. San Francisco is considering putting a 3.25% fee on the ballot (it’d need to garner two-thirds of the vote). Los Angeles, which has been bleeding transit riders to ridehailing, is still at the study phase, but is kicking around 20 cents.
After the first five years, the portion of the tax dedicated to the streetcar would switch to funding transit, bicycling, and pedestrian infrastructure projects. While the Mayor’s ridehailing fee is many months in the making–apparently recently it went through mediation to finetune the details–the finished product should give many groups–including ridehailing drivers, streetcar supporters, bus riders, cyclists, and pedestrian advocates–something to like.
“This proposal is about ensuring Seattle grows into the city we want to be,” Mayor Durkan said in a press release. “Being a city of the future isn’t just about the incredible gains of the new economy. It’s about being a city where all our workers are treated fairly, our communities can afford to live where they work, and everyone, regardless of income or ability level, has access to high-quality transit.”
The Mayor also promoted her “Fare Share Plan” at a press conference at Yesler Community Center.
Happy End for Streetcar Saga?
Loyal readers of The Urbanist likely recall the Center City Connector streetcar saga with its many twists and turns–long story short, the project is back on, but its targeted opening is delayed until 2026. While at one point the Mayor seemed to be doubting the premises of the project even down to the gauge of the track, she made an about-face and backed the project in January and is now proposing a funding solution in September. Much can happen in seven years, but a dedicated funding source would reinvigorate a project only recently nudged out of limbo–and add some certainty that it will actually happen.
Vocal streetcar critic Councilmember Lisa Herbold, called the Mayor’s funding proposal “fiscally irresponsible,” but it’s not clear if she can rally the votes against it or if she’ll oppose the fee in general. Most other councilmembers have yet to comment, but Councilmember Abel Pacheco did issue a supportive statement and Council President Bruce Harrell issued a positive quote in the Mayor’s press release.
“All [ridehailing] drivers should be receiving fair compensation for their work,” Councilmember Harrell said. “Council will work closely to examine the Mayor’s proposal in a transparent manner and will provide an opportunity for the public to weigh in over the next few months.”
Ridehailing Worsens Congestion
Those hoping that the City would wield ridehailing fees to lower automobile trips and decrease traffic and emissions may be disappointed. Mayor Durkan said she doesn’t expect higher fares to lower ridehailing ridership, which is already incredibly high. In 2018, Uber and Lyft gave about 24 million rides in Seattle, half of which either started or ended downtown, and they expect to top 28 million rides in 2019 and see continued growth in coming years, Mayor Durkan said. Twenty-four million annual rides averages out to about 66,000 rides per day.
Sound Transit has some big decisions on the horizon regarding light rail alignments for Ballard Link and West Seattle Link. Having just released Initial Assessment results, the agency is inviting people to submit comments as the final alternatives to be studied in the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) are narrowed and selected.
People hoping for a tunnel under Salmon Bay to connect the heart of Ballard got some good news. The cheaper Ballard tunnel options are predicted to cost only $350 million more than the Representative Project. Another tunnel option, pegged at $450 million, would put Ballard Station at 20th Ave NW, closer to the center of Ballard, rather than skirting the core with a station at 14th Ave NW or 15th Ave NW, as two other options did, respectively.
Meanwhile, Sound Transit projects a fixed high-bridge would cost $100 million more than the baseline movable bridge. Most advocates agree a fixed bridge should be the minimum. (For some reason a fixed bridge option to reach 20th Ave NW wasn’t mentioned despite the shorter crossing distance west of Fisherman’s Terminal.) Designing a light rail bridge that needs to open regularly would be folly, especially once Ballard Link is extended northward and train frequencies increase.
Ballard Options: 20th Ave Tunnel Emerges
In addition to the Thorndyke Portal option with a tunnel just west of the Ballard Bridge, Sound Transit also studied a BNSF Portal option that veers farther north and crosses around 21st Ave W. However, the Initial Assessment found this options adds $750 million to the budget–$300 million more than the other tunnel alignment. Since the BSNF Portal option is also curvier and thus likely a little slower, it appears a poor fit. The Thorndyke Portal option looks very promising, though, especially if further analysis reveals the cost differential is less than it appears now. With protected salmon runs in Salmon Bay, environmental mitigation costs cold become a big factor and one that trips up the bridge proposals.
From time to time, eminent domain in American has been used in unwise and unjust ways to demolish and remake neighborhoods. In this video, Dave Amos explains what eminent domain is and highlights various cases where it probably should have been restrained or not used as a tool.
Northgate Link will arrive in 2021, but the neighborhoods around the stations are already transforming. We’re going to take a closer look at the build-up happening in each neighborhood in a series starting with Northgate and then working our way back to the University District.
With trip times to Downtown Seattle cut to a fraction of their former time (with transit times beating car commutes considerably at peak hours), builders are predicting these neighborhoods will be extremely popular places to live and they are adding apartments in droves. For Northgate, the transit ride to Downtown will shrink to 14 minutes.
Of the three neighborhoods getting Link stations in 2021, Northgate is the biggest reclamation project. With or without light rail, Roosevelt and the University District are thriving walkable urban neighborhoods, but Northgate needs a little help. Right now it’s dominated by parking, car-oriented retail, and suburban-style office space.
The dream is for Northgate to become a mixed-use urban destination complete with residential towers. The City of Seattle and King County are trying to get the ball rolling by building a large affordable housing complex on public-owned parking lots near the station. One version of the plan has 240-foot towers near the station, but in June 2018 the County restarted the bidding process, saying it wanted to get more affordable units and take advantage of a new law allowing it to sell the property at a below-market price.
However, the County reissued the Request for Proposals (RFP) in September 2018 without substantially increasing the affordability target or offering the land at below-market cost. The language changed only slightly from “up to 200” affordable units to “a minimum of 200 units of subsidized affordable housing on a dedicated site that will serve households earning up to 60 percent of Area Median Income (AMI) for at least 50 years.” The RFP does mention the market-rate units would need to be subject to MHA, which would likely entail at least another 30 affordable units or their equivalent in-lieu payment. Two companies answered the original RFP: Stellar Holdings and Lake Union Partners. Stellar Holdings, which also owns Thornton Place, appears to have won the bid in re-issued RFP although terms haven’t yet been finalized.
“We haven’t yet completed the process of negotiations with Stellar Holdings,” King County Metro spokesperson Jeff Switzer said in an email.
Every fall, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) traditionally allocates unspent highway funding among all the states. In late August, the FHWA announced that the 2019 “August redistribution” would total nearly $4 billion dollars, of which Washington State will receive almost $59 million. While this is nothing compared to the nearly $500 million Texas will receive, it’s still an unanticipated cash injection into the Washington State Department of Transportation’s (WSDOT) coffers. And while it does happen every year, it’s worth asking what the best use for the funds would be.
WSDOT will likely absorb this money into its highway expansion budget like most other states, but it should consider utilizing it for the emergency currently happening on streets around Washington: the pedestrian safety crisis. In 2010, there were 63 pedestrians killed on Washington’s roadways and by last year that had nearly doubled to 108. This trend mirrors nationwide data showing large gains in roadway safety being erased.
If WSDOT was going to allocate this extra cash infusion for improving safety, investing at least 22% on pedestrian and bicycle safety projects seems like the least that they could do: that’s the percentage of overall fatalities on Washington’s roads last year that pedestrians and cyclists made up. That’s nearly $13 million, not a huge sum statewide but a large cash injection compared to the state’s current spending on bike and pedestrian facilities.
“The sea levels are rising, and so are we.” On Friday, September 20th, over 500 climate strikes are planned across the United States. Additionally, strikers will be taking to the streets in over 117 countries worldwide demanding climate action. It will be the single biggest day of protest since the publication of a report by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last October declared “urgent and unprecedented changes” were needed within the next 12 years to prevent global climate crisis.
“I’m striking on September 20th to call attention to the minority communities who aren’t thinking of the ‘if’ and ‘when’s’ that often populate the climate conversation, but who are forced to live through the catastrophic effects of climate change that are happening right now, today and everyday,” said Kimaya Mahajan, 15, an organizer with WA Youth Climate Strikes. “I strike to remind people that climate change is not a far-off issue, and if we open our eyes wide enough, we will see the havoc it’s wreaking right in front of us.”
The Global Climate Strike is part of a youth led movement inspired by the actions of Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenager whose strike in front of Sweden’s parliamentary building gained international recognition. Thunberg, who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, is currently in New York City, where on September 20th she will urging leaders at the UN Climate Action Summit to do more to address the crisis. Mayor Bill de Blasio has agreed to excuse absences for NYC public school students who participate in the strike.
In Seattle, on September 20th strikers will gather at Cal Anderson Park from 9am-12:30pm for a Climate Justice Fest with activities, art, music, games, and workshops. At 12:30pm, organizers and attendees will march to Seattle’s City Hall to demand transformational action at the scale of the crisis.
Not limited to just kids, the movement is also calling on adults to stand in solidarity as allies. Labor movements, social justice organizations, and faith communities are also being called to participate in the climate strike.
Additionally, more than one thousand Amazon employees have pledged to walk out on September 20th to show support for a group of 8,200 Amazon employees who have publicly called on the company to release a plan for how the company would reduce its reliance on fossil fuels with a zero carbon emissions target of 2030.
“Young people all around the world have been striking from school to call attention to the climate crisis. We’re answering their call to walk out because our role, as employees of one of the largest companies in the world, means we need to push for a climate plan that gets us to zero emissions company-wide by 2030,” said Bobby Gordon, a Finance Manager at Amazon in Seattle.
The Amazon employees will gather at the Amazon Spheres from 11:30-12:30 and then head over to City Hall to join the city-wide rally.
Model Cities is a little known chapter in our urban history. It was part of LBJ’s War on Poverty, and was the last gasp of serious investment by the federal government to improve life in urban America. Devised as a corrective to top-down urban renewal, the program coupled major investments in infrastructure with empowerment of local organizations. The program was never large enough to sponsor transformative change citywide change; its goal was to halt social breakdown and provide a model of positive change that could be expanded and replicated with local resources.
Seattle was the first city to take part in the program and was considered on of its most successful examples. This video, from 1975, touts the successes of the Model Cities program using Seattle as a case study. It includes rare footage of daily life in the Central District and Pioneer Square, showing a glimpse of life before gentrification, displacement, and obnoxious cruise ship tourists reshaped these neighborhoods. Seattle’s program was headed by Walter R. Hundley, an African American minster, social worker, and administrator.
The video’s a treat. There’s a lot to unpack—the depiction of poverty, the modernist architecture, the white gaze of the narrator—but overall it’s a fascinating glimpse into a Seattle that feels amazingly different from the city we know today, and a reminder of the powerful role the federal government once played in America’s cities.