Last Friday’s KUOW’s Week in Review ended up being an excellent discussion of popular recent urbanism topics: decongestion pricing, the center city streetcar, and parking reform. The Stranger’s Charles Mudede delivered a powerful call to arms for taking the city back from cars. Q13’s C.R. Douglas argued both the streetcar will happen and decongestion pricing won’t be far behind and Mayor Jenny Durkan will end up looking like the “fiscal hero” in the process. Meanwhile, Civic Cocktail host Joni Balter contended if Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods lose some parking, Seattle will lose its soul.
Another interesting debate was whether parking reform will make housing cheaper in Seattle. C.R. Douglas seemed to agree with Councilmember Rob Johnson’s argument that lowering the cost of building would lower housing prices relative to what they would have been, but Mudede argued decreasing parking and cars would make Seattle more attractive and drive up home values. In the long-run, Mudede’s argument might hold some sway, but it’s going to take awhile for Seattle streets to become depopulated of cars and repopulated by people walking and biking so that we arrive at the multimodal paradise of which we’re dreaming. Until that paradise arrives, my prediction is that relaxing parking requirements should aid in moderating housing prices.
Below is a transcript hitting some of the key points in the discussion. You can listen here.
Decongestion Pricing (19 minutes in)
Host: London has congestion pricing. Stockholm, Milan Singapore. New York keeps bringing it up and never doing it. Who thinks this will actually happen it Seattle?
Balter: I don’t think it will happen in Seattle. I think we have to be open-mined enough to experiment with it, to study it, to know more about it. …
Mudede: I’m a little on the fence about it. First of all, it was announced the same week as the streetcar delay. I do not think it’s coincidental. The streetcar—stopping the construction was bad news. It had been planned for years. The coincidence is the real problem. I don’t know if pricing is going to happen. It’s kind of pie-in-the-sky to me. … It’s hard to impose it so universally because we already under such difficulties accommodating people who are poor–who are struggling with rent. It’s seems really strange to propose this without specifics along those lines.
Douglas: I think there’s a better than even chance that this will happen. Not next year, not the following year, but in four or five years. Let’s be clear about what this is. It would draw around Downtown, a four or five mile circle. Getting in and out of downtown would cost you. It’s not the whole city. The problem with congestion downtown is they are out of tools. They’ve spent billions. If you count light rail, more bus service, RapidRide bus service, Vanpool, free ORCA cards, carpool lots, bike lanes, pedestrian routes, ect. Everything get tried and it just gets worse. There’s really no more solutions besides grand crazy things like this. If keep putting more jobs and residential units downtown it’s only going to get worse. When you have a mayor sounding as sympathetic to the idea as Jenny Durkan does in the clip, it suggests it has staying power.
Balter: It’s complicated by tolling in the tunnel. You can’t toll everything, because the people won’t go downtown. We fought a lot of years to save downtown.
Douglas: I would argue actually that is one of the drivers, because the state is going to toll that new SR-99 stating the first of next year. Tolls create the need for more tolls. If SR-99 wasn’t going to be tolls, this wouldn’t have as much legs. The fact it’s tolled is going to create diversion. People are going to avoid that by going to I-5 and city streets. The fact it’s going to be tolled creates a problem that argues for more tolls around the system, unfortunately.
Host: Do tolls gets us more used to tolls? …
Mudede: Seattle right now I don’t think we’ve run out of options–out of conventional options. I just want to say that. We haven’t pushed public transportation far enough. New York City hasn’t pushed transportation far enough, and they’re way ahead of us. More buses. More trains. More dedicated lanes for buses. And so forth and so on. And we do these things faster. Progress is too slow. And we need to be more decisive on these issues. I mean right now what we need is the kind of enthusiasm that brought up out of the dreams that brought I-5 cutting across Seattle. That’s the kind of will you need in this moment. We have not seen that kind of energy exerted yet toward public transportation yet in Seattle.
Balter: … New York did charge surchages on Yellow Cab, Uber and Lyft. We haven’t accounted for how much Uber and Lyft and even Amazon deliveries may in fact increase our congestion.
Douglas: … The human psyche is such that people react negatively at first but then it ultimately adapts. … If they implement this, there’ll be some pushback and ultimate acceptance. That’s what happened in Stockholm, Milan, and London. And they won elections.
Host: Here’s one more idea from transit consultant Jarrett Walker about a better name.
Walker: I have suggested the name decongestion pricing because that’s what the price buys: less congested streets with more room for people in all modes to get through.
Connecting the Streetcar
Host: Are we going to leave the two lines unconnected?
Balter: I think the cost overrun was a fabulous excuse for the mayor to get out of this. It’s something that takes up a ton of space, doesn’t move a lot of people, and nobody seems to love anymore. I don’t know where this thing came from. Who wants this thing? I think that the finances were so messed up, it was a good chance to reassess. I don’t their going to build First Avenue. I think she’s on her way out of this thing, and it’s a good thing.
Mudede: I agree with you and I’m sad that it’s going to happen. As is often pointed out, we don’t have a lot going for a while to deal with downtown traffic and add transportation possibilities. What is the origin of the sin? Where did the sin come from? All this starts with we didn’t open a Link station on First Hill. And the money that was going to go into the station ended up going to the First Hill Streetcar. This has been an extension sadly of an idea I never liked. I would have preferred dedicated bus lanes. I’m not really a big fan of the streetcar.
Douglas: I’m predicting that Durkan won’t kill it. She will get involved in the finances, figure out a way to scale those costs, and look like the fiscal hero in the process. There’s drawbacks to killing it completely. What we have now is the worst of both worlds. Two short streetcar lines that don’t meet up. If you add the third missing link together, you create a system that actually goes somewhere. It’s not a monorail to nowhere.
Balter: Goes somewhere slooooooow.
Douglas: The point is that you get multiples of ridership. There’s about 6,000 riders a day if you combine both the streetcars now. There’s an argument you’ll get 25,000 if you connect them. There’s a synergy you get if you put this missing link in.
Mudede: Let’s be honest though. The overruns and trying to act like you’re fiscal responsible is a bunch of nonsense. The tunnel overruns. The overruns with the new Magnolia bridge. This happens all the time. We’re going through an expensive time for construction and labor costs. I just don’t buy this business that you’re saving money by stopping it. You’re saying that she’s trying to get out of it. I think she’s trying to message that she’s not going to spend money during her term. She’s going to cut.
Parking Reform (starts 33 minutes in)
Host: Councilmember Rob Johnson said it will make house cheaper and nudge people out of cars.
Mudede: It’s not going to make thing cheaper. No it’s a good thing. I’ve been against parking forever. But the argument it’s going to make things cheaper is bogus. As you get rid of cars you’re going to increase the value of living in the city. People act like cars have this investment aspect. No. You take cars out and people will want to live there. It’s attractive. We still have a market situation. Believe me, people will want to live there, and the value of homes will only increase.
Host: It’s fascinating. Two ideas. You’re going to ruin downtown and the other that you’re going to turn this into a paradise.
Balter: … We do have to sometimes think about that 60% of Seattle is zoned for single family. And we can’t just say we’re going to do all this rapid change and put tons of cars on the streets and then wonder why Seattle is not the way it was and losing its soul. We have to think about all of these things.
Douglas: Millennial have many fewer cars than other cohorts. We’re still–the argument goes–building too many spaces. Some of these garages are going 30% unused at night. Costs $30,000 per stall to build. Some builders are taking that and some are giving it to the tenants. It’s debatable how much it will decrease cost. But I think it does make housing cheaper.
Radke: Herbold was the one no vote.
Balter: Some of this has been happening naturally. Ratio was 1.5 some years ago and now it’s 0.6. This has been happening anyway. So I don’t know why we need the City insisting.
Mudede: … How can anybody disagree with these kinds of developments. For a long time the city has been torn apart and ruined. These attitudes I have to side with them. But they come at a time when poor people are being shoved out of the city. It’s almost like brown bread. It’s good for you but it’s too expensive for most people so they end up eating white bread. Benefits should be going to everybody, but they’ll go to a small group of people. Poor people and people of color will be pushed out to suburbs. We have not solved this dynamic at all.
Douglas: … City planners are wondering when do we get credit for all the investments. They’re finally able to get some dividend from that. It areas that well served by transit–those big investments we’ve made–we will relax parking requirements, and that will help lower costs. You finally get something for all the money you’ve spent on transit. And we are. Millenials are using cars less and transit more.
Mudede: Seattle is also a leader right now in use of public transit. It’s actually falling in most cities and people are giving up on it.
Host: Because of Lyft and Uber?
Mudede: I think it’s the bus situation has improved in Seattle and Link light rail.
Balter: I think you’re right, Bill. I think it is Uber and Lyft.
Host: Sucking some people out of transit.
Douglas: You hear from neighbors that it’s going to push cars to streets and take up street parking. Can you nudge them out of cars? It’s not without a lot of pushback… If you make parking harder and more scarce, you hopefully nudge people not to get the second car or first car.
Mudede: I prefer bludgeon. I don’t like nudge. [laughs]
Host: Sound Transit may allow people to use escalators at stair after grid
Mudede: I don’t why that was a big story. Has anybody been on Denny at three o’clock. It clogs. What bothers me about the streetcar is that whenever something with transit goes wrong it’s frontpage news.
Balter: We accept overruns when we think something is going to function. Nobody envisioned the South Lake Union streetcar would have to cut through 45,000 people. That’s why it doesn’t work. That’s why it doesn’t function.
Mudede: You won’t believe it because pretty soon the tunnel is going to open and all our traffic problems will be to dissolved overnight. And it cost us how much? You won’t believe it. It will be like going to the city of heaven. Cars will be flowing in the streets when that tunnel opens. Come on.