In yet another hit piece aimed at local government, The Suburban Seattle Times is questioning an effort to increase the efficiency of city streets. Hiding behind Briar Dudley, a technology columnist with no apparent planning credentials, the Editorial Board is lambasting an appendix in the Seattle 2035 plan for a minor policy which is intended to modify how traffic is measured on city streets. If Dudley is to be believed, it will make driving a living hell in Seattle. The reality is much more nuanced and rational.

As is tradition, the headline for the column is hyperbolic and factually inaccurate: “City’s vision for a carless Seattle doesn’t match reality”.

If Seattle were indeed planning for a carless future, that headline would be fine. A carless Seattle is utterly ridiculous and a complete fantasy. In my own writings, I have embraced the necessity of automobiles for modern civilization. But the fact is that nobody in the City government, and no one working in the transportation sector, in advocacy in Seattle, or elsewhere, is proposing such a thing. This headline is only intended to inflame a fictional debate and draw in angry readers.

And then Dudley opens his piece with: “Seattle can no longer deny it’s engaged in a war on cars.”

Let’s stop right there. Seattle, and practically every local and state government in the United States, has done nothing but bend over backward for automobiles for the past century. We’ve widened suburban roads, mandated millions upon millions of parking spaces, and ripped apart urban neighborhoods to build thousands of miles of controlled-access freeways. This country is built upon car infrastructure, and it has shaped our culture, our economy, and our politics. And it results in up to 38,000 deaths every year, four million more life-altering injuries, unbelievable amounts of pollution and carbon emissions, and a systemic marginalization of the millions of Americans who can’t or won’t drive for physical, financial, or personal reasons, including our children and the elderly.

If we are at war with cars, the cars certainly are winning. (Wikipedia)
If we are at war with cars, the cars are winning. (Wikipedia)

But as soon as a local government does a little more for those people who get around in other ways, as soon as we stripe a bike lane, expand a sidewalk, install a bus signal, or charge a dollar for parking, a “war” is declared by the perceived victims who drive around $30,000, three-ton vehicles.

A war.

A battle. A siege. As if the forces of evil are descending upon the city to murder our cars and pillage our parking spots, burning every 12-foot strip of asphalt in their wake. Dudley embraces this by following up with, “…the new growth plan is a shock-and-awe campaign targeting anyone who dares to drive in, through or around Seattle.”

He explains, “Under a novel standard proposed by Murray’s transportation department, street performance will be ranked by how many single-occupant vehicles (SOV) are using them.” That’s it.

Dudley helpfully links to the 580 page draft Seattle 2035 plan, but one has to go digging to find out exactly what he’s talking about. It’s buried in the Transportation Appendix on page 437, under a section titled Local Level of Service Standards for Arterials and Transit Routes:

This measure focuses on increasing the people-moving capacity of the city’s roadways by reducing the SOV share of travel. The SOV share of travel is the least space-efficient mode and occurs during the most congested period of the day…These performance levels differ from the prior screenline-based system. A target SOV mode share has been established for…eight sectors of the city and will be applied to every development project.

In essence, this is indeed a novel approach to measuring the performance of local streets. The traditional Level of Service (LOS) tool ranks roadways based on how fast cars move; free flowing traffic gets an A, and gridlock gets an F. As demonstrated by over 60 years of post-WWII sprawl, the problem with this is it leads to an infinite loop of congestion, construction, and poor urban environments. Cities set a high standard for LOS, see that traffic is congested, widen roads or build new ones, see that the roads fill up with more cars due to induced demand, and repeat ad nauseam. This is also results in limited, if any, consideration for other users of the street: people walking, bicycling, and riding transit.

The City's targets for the share of single-occupancy-vehicle trips by region. (City of Seattle)
The City’s targets for the share of single-occupancy-vehicle trips by region. (City of Seattle)

Seattle is not hiding the fact that it is more concerned about moving people than cars. When a City reaches a certain size it is only prudent to prioritize more people-friendly and efficient ways of moving around. Streets packed with people are a good sign of urban vitality and desirable city. Even traffic jams are a good indicator of economic health; no major city in the world has figured out how to completely get rid of vehicle congestion.

Dudley conveniently leaves out the Seattle 2035 plan’s elaboration:

Adding vehicle capacity can be costly, and can lead to community disruption and environmental impacts. In many cases, widening arterials may not even be practical or feasible in a mature, developed urban environment. This mode share method of measuring LOS allows the City to use existing current street rights-of-way as efficiently as possible…

But he does describe the concurrency principle of the Growth Management Act: “To ensure streets aren’t overloaded, cities must use level-of-service standards to grade performance. If streets fail, cities can limit development until improvements are made.”

With our rate of population growth, limiting development is not an option. And by “improvement” the vast majority of traffic engineers interpret that as “widen”. Widening Seattle’s streets is not physically possible. We have many lovely neighborhoods with buildings that sit on the edge of the property line and adjacent to the sidewalk. If Dudley is thinking along the lines of traditional LOS, we can only conclude that he is also advocating for arterial expansions that will unleash destruction on a massive scale, displacing thousands of residents and businesses, taking away hundreds of acres of private property, and purging the City’s coffers.

Comparative simulations of urban transportation modes. (International Sustainable Solutions)

Dudley really makes a stretch when he says Seattle is ignoring state and federal transportation standards: “[The City] says single-occupant vehicles are inefficient so reducing them improves level-of-service. That’s debatable.” He’s dead wrong: there is no debate. The laws of geometry dictate that the fewer cars there are on a stretch of road, the faster those cars will go. A comparison of modal efficiency is shown above.

Many experts in the transportation planning and urban design fields have recognized the futility of LOS. In 2014, California kicked LOS to the curb for any development projects that require environmental review; instead, the state now requires calculating how much vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) will result from a project, a much more useful gauge of how many car trips will be generated, and what the associated impacts will be on multi-modal transportation systems and the environment. Washington State should follow California’s leadership and swap VMT for LOS in development review.

Driving alone is the least efficient mode of urban transportation. (Fehr & Peers)
Driving alone is the least efficient mode of urban transportation. (Fehr & Peers)

All of this said, the City of Seattle is not proposing to entirely abandon traditional measures. The very same section that Dudley references contains a wealth of detail on the City’s current and projected volume-to-capacity (V/C) ratios on arterial streets around the city. The V/C ratio is related to LOS and compares the number of cars using a street to how many cars can physically fit and move reasonably quickly. Despite the anticipated reduction of vehicle capacity of a few streets due to the addition of bike lanes, over the next 20 years the City does not expect V/C ratios to significantly increase, i.e. go beyond 100 percent.

Dudley goes on to conclude that the City’s policy “gives the finger” to everyone who drives, including nearly all residents and businesses, and, without any data or citation to back it up, declares that congestion is harming Seattle’s cultural life and arts organizations because people are giving up on driving and parking in the city. The fact is that people who drive alone in Seattle are a minority.

City-level data is available on pages 71-72 of the Seattle 2035 plan. It shows 43 percent of work trips that end in Seattle are made by driving alone. But even less of Seattle residents’ nonwork trips, 33 percent, are made by driving alone. In the Center City, the numbers keep going down; 31 percent of Center City employees get to work by driving alone, and only 23 percent of employees in the Downtown core drive alone.

In a similar vein, survey data shows at least 9,000 Seattle residents have ditched car ownership thanks to car2go membership. The number is likely much higher considering the growing variety of other carshare, rideshare, and transit services in the Seattle. And it has surely relieved traffic congestion and on-street parking crunches for the people who still own cars. The number of car-free households will only grow as the city’s population grows and options for getting around improve.

Dudley concludes by lamenting, “…City Hall’s assuming that driving is optional—a lifestyle choice—and it can force people to change how they live.” What we have in Seattle and beyond is not a war on cars, Mr. Dudley. The reality is we are fighting back against a genocide of choice. Our infrastructure does not give the vast majority of Americans any other option than driving. Sharing the small percentage of streets in the densest neighborhoods with safer and more efficient infrastructure for walking, bicycling, and transit is not forcing people to do anything—it’s only giving them more options. And yes, the fact is that more people will likely take advantage of those choices when they have access to them and realize the benefits. That’s how the marketplace works, so why shouldn’t our streets work the same way?

The Seattle Times Editorial Board has always urged government to operate like a business, but then they balk when local agencies engage in business-like marketing and make more efficient use of urban resources that will inconvenience the Board and its suburban subscribers. As our region’s only major print newspaper, the Editorial Board and its individual members have a responsibility to more strictly check their impulses and conduct balanced research on the issues.

That’s what we do here at The Urbanist, and we will continue to offer deeper insight, data, and reasoning on the urban policy issues that matter the most to our growing city and region.

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34 COMMENTS

  1. A car-less Urbanist living in a pipe dream. This is definitely a war against SOVs. From our last mayor shrinking our roads for bike lanes that I see hardly being used, to these idiotic proposals under scrutiny now, the Seattle gov’t has lost their minds. As a general contractor I will never be able to ride a bike, take light rail, or any other form of transportation to work. Much like the multitude of other people who are in the same boat in our area. I had to shrink the area in which I service to Ballard to Burien, and never across the lake, because the traffic has become unmanageable in the last 5 years. Scott, you’re out of your effing mind.

    • As a general contractor, I would think it would be to your advantage to have other drivers given viable spatially efficient alternatives so that people whom by the nature of their work are required to drive have more space to do so. So long as economic forces are pushing people towards Seattle, there will be more demand for housing and more demand for travel. You cannot make any more space than you have, so you must use the space you do have more efficiently.

      • Bikes, trains and buses are not viable alternatives for the majority of drivers. We need to spend more money on the existing infrastructure to keep vehicles moving, and get the city leaders heads out of the utopian sand.

        • Actually, they are a viable alternative. I work in an office building that serves 300+ people. There are exactly 5 parking spots for our building, the rest is street parking.

          The CEO for our company? He walks/takes the train. Our CTO? He rides an electric skateboard. Almost every employee in our company walks, bikes, or takes transit to work.

          We do have one employee who does drive, he’s our handyman. His job is to go out and pick up stuff, move equipment and furniture around. He needs his van during the daytime to do his job.

          The actual building parking spots are mostly used by the building owners.

          The private car mode share for the city I live in is 30%. Within the city core it’s under 15%.

          This isn’t utopia either, it’s just a typical German city.

          • This isn’t a typical German city, this is Seattle. For everyone one person like you that works in an office building, there are eight people like me akin to the handyman that have to service the area. Many of the people that work in downtown Seattle have to live well outside the scope of any train or bus, just to afford to live here, and there are more and more coming. Artificially congesting the roads to force people to use alternative sources will just disrupt an already hillacious scenario.

            I’m the CEO of my company and I have three daughters that go to two different schools, one five miles away and another ten miles away in a different direction. Their schools don’t offer busing, how am I going to get them there? Then I have to get myself to work, which would take me an hour and a half by bus and/or all day on a skate board (besides the fact that I would surely die one day, have you seen the hills in Seattle???). Not all of us work in an office building, you have to think outside your bubble, many people do not share that luxury.

        • You’re correct that to some extent, we’ve built ourselves into a mess that makes alternatives to driving impractical. But by that same token, we must now build ourselves out of that mess, rather than doubling down and continuing to make future generations suffer for our mistakes. There is no city that is so unique or exceptional that it cannot begin to remediate the poor planning decisions of the past. Many have done so already, and many more will continue to do so in the future. Yes, the progress happens slowly and it may not be entirely apparent in real-time, but every decisions that lessens an urban population’s dependence on motor vehicles is slowly and surely contributing to a more economically vibrant future for that city.

          • Not impractical, impossible, there will always be a need for motorized transport. However, if we go to greener vehicles and depend less on fossil fuels, that will definitely help our future. The reason “car-less” urbanists can be car-less, is due to motorized transport bringing your favorite quinoa to the local grocery and fresh vegetables to the farmer’s market. The garbage men that take your trash and the plumber servicing your old galvanized pipes, they HAVE to drive. The percentage of the population that can benefit from alternative sources is eclipsed by the percentage that cannot use it. I agree that something has to be done by artificially congesting our traffic situation that is already bursting at the seams is not the way to do it. Fine, build some light rail to help those that can benefit, but also don’t make it harder for those that cannot. We need a proposal like STS 3 to help drivers, not just those who have the luxury of not driving.

          • We live in a capitalist society, yet when it comes to cars, it’s as if we had socialism. Resources that auto drivers demand, such as freeways and parking, are free or heavily subsidized. The gasoline tax hasn’t increased in more than 20 years, and pays only a fraction of the cost for roads. Streets and roads are a public common, built on public property, yet devoted almost entirely to private use with the automobile. Most traffic in central Seattle is commuters coming from the suburbs or from outer parts of Seattle, not the drivers of commercial vehicles like you.

          • “The reason “car-less” urbanists can be car-less, is due to motorized transport bringing your favorite quinoa to the local grocery and fresh vegetables to the farmer’s market. The garbage men that take your trash and the plumber servicing your old galvanized pipes, they HAVE to drive.”

            That’s all commercial traffic, and isn’t in cars in the first place. Again, getting day-to-day commuters out of cars would free up space for commercial vehicles.

    • “the Seattle gov’t has lost their minds…”
      (later)
      “…and never across the lake”

      Um. Which would be the fault of Seattle’s government how? Or did the city limits suddenly expand when I wasn’t looking?

      “As a general contractor I will never be able to ride a bike, take light rail, or any other form of transportation to work.”

      So if more people used public transportation, they’d be getting out of your way, yes?

  2. “In my own writings, I have embraced the necessity of automobiles for modern civilization.”

    Venice is not part of modern civilization? Or the car-free downtowns of most Dutch cities? Or the Toronto Islands? Etc, etc.

    • Venice is definitely not a part of modern civilization. I love Venice, especially for its lack of cars and was shocked by how oppressive the sound, smell, and danger of cars when returning from Venice to the modern world. But Venice exists as a cultural artefact of a pre-car civilization, not as part of the modern world.

      (Don’t have experience with the Toronto Islands).

  3. “…City Hall’s assuming that driving is optional—a lifestyle choice—and it can force people to change how they live.”

    As if there was actually a choice we had in the matter of turning our public right-of-way over to cars – and the resultant lifestyle choices – in the first place. I shake my head at how some people think it’s perfectly natural – and possible – for us all to enclose ourselves into shiny metal boxes and drive everywhere at rapid speeds.

  4. “Seattle is not hiding the fact that it is more concerned about moving people than cars.” Apparently, those in cars aren’t even people according to the author. If the vast majority are in cars and the city ignores their needs, SDOT’s policy is effectively anti-people.

    • The people in cars are people, but the cars aren’t people. The people in cars don’t count any more or less than the people outside of cars, so why should their preferences be prioritized over others taking less space on the road?

  5. Another slanted viewpoint from the Urbanist. Reality is driving in on Seattle streets is getting worse and worse due to SDOT policies and actions.

    • No, it’s getting worse because their are more people and the streets are the same, and it’s physically impossible to squeeze that many people onto the streets if they’re in cars.

      • “and the streets are the same”

        So there’s your “SDOT policies and actions” (or rather inactions) right there. For whatever reason through a time of significant population growth the city has done very little to expand road capacity. And that leads to additional congestion.

        • So… where are you going to fit in the new cars? Are you going to tear down houses like they did with I-5? Which is more efficient? More people using the existing housing space and walking or busing it? Or tearing down houses so we can provide “better” car roads for people driving in from the suburbs? Try to think a little more rationally, Bill!

          • They are spending our tax dollars in a manner that restricts vehicular traffic. That to me is counter-productive to the problem. People in the “trades” must drive. Office employees/businesses have other choices.

          • They’re LITERALLY spending tax dollars in a way that maximizes the number of PEOPLE that can utilize a street. They’re prioritizing # of people over # of vehicles. How are you not able to understand why that is superior for the city/region as a whole? How is this even a controversy or given credence as a an objectionable idea? This is smart governance, and should be applauded. Not ridiculed by the same people that complain about the lack of govt effectiveness.

          • By allowing the people who do not have to drive to take the bus, they free up more capacity for people who have to drive. There is no other way you can free up capacity.

          • You’re going to have to tear down houses whether you do it to make better use of the existing housing space or to add more roads so I guess I’m not seeing why that’s an issue. In reality you need to do both because people demand both. And unless you start putting more businesses in the suburbs you need a way for suburbanites to get into the city. Living within walking distance of a job is not always possible for many reasons and buses are slow and inefficient – as is the light rail, by the way. So that leaves people to drive. Maybe you should start thinking rationally, Jean.

  6. Great response to a hilariously awful Op/Ed. Every time I read one of those pieces in the Times, I cringe from how poorly written, poorly researched, and simply wrong the information is.

  7. “What we have in Seattle and beyond is not a war on cars, Mr. Dudley. The reality is we are fighting back against a genocide of choice.”

    *Mic drop*

    Killer line. This was my favorite quote from the ST article:

    “Seattle needs to think bigger. As the state hub of commerce and culture, its streets are critically important to millions of people, most of whom don’t have the option of riding a bus or a bike instead.”

    Because we all know riding a bike or the bus is a matter of privilege, only available to the wealthiest of Seattleites…

  8. Yes, they’re all in favor of the market. Right up to the point where the market disagrees with them.

Comments are closed.