2020 in Review: Our Annual Report

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Urbanist bike tour at Gas Works Park. (Doug Trumm)

2020 did not pull its punches, and yet we at The Urbanist did our best to roll with them. We’re proud of how we persevered.

As the pandemic hit, we had to cancel our in-person monthly meetups. By May, we switched to an online format and hosted 12 events over the course of the year. Some of highlights included Shaun Scott’s talk in June, Erica C. Barnett in November, and a special subscriber drive kickoff with Charles Mudede and Cary Moon in September.

Rain, shine, or quarantine, we published at least one post per day, tallying 672 for the whole year. Not bad, all things considered. We recapped the most popular articles in our annual greatest hits article. We also grew our team of contributors, advanced new advocacy campaigns, and won new legislative victories.

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Here’s some of our accomplishments this year:

The economic recession stole momentum and derailed long-made transportation plans. King County Metro has slashed service by 15% and struggled to maintain bus and rail operator staffing at times. The King County Council abandoned plans to run a countywide transit measure augmenting bus service, as Seattle did in 2014. Most Sound Transit timelines were pushed back a year and likely more if regional leaders don’t act to provide funding or at least bonding capacity. The seven new RapidRide lines promised in the Move Seattle Levy have been whittled down to two and a half after Rainier RapidRide was shelved and Roosevelt RapidRide shortened to not include Roosevelt. None of the promised RapidRides will be delivered during the Durkan administration due to numerous delays. 

Progress on the Bike Master Plan is sputtering with Transportation Chair Alex Pedersen and the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) focusing attention on repairing the cracked and sagging West Seattle Bridge.

Owen and Doug address fundraiser attendees at Peddler Brewing. (Photo by Rian Watt)
Owen and Doug address fundraiser attendees at The Urbanist’s Spring Fundraiser. (Photo by Rian Watt)

From the wreckage of 2020, we’ve also wrenched victories. 

We backed JumpStart Seattle, joining a broad coalition marshalled by Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, with the goal of Covid relief and investment in affordable housing, homelessness services, and equitable development. Together we succeeded in passing a progressive payroll tax on the largest companies in the region that is expected to raise $214 million per year. Mayor Jenny Durkan opposed the plan. Nonetheless, she was all too happy to raid JumpStart revenue to fill holes in her 2021 budget and scrape together something approaching her $100 million investment pledge to communities of color. As such, JumpStart prevented deep social service cuts that would have worsened suffering from the pandemic. It was a lifesaver.

Some budget cuts are welcome. The Urbanist joined the Decriminalize Seattle coalition, which called for 50% of the Seattle Police Department (SPD) budget to be redirected to community-based health and public safety programs. The protests this summer were a wakeup call for White allies to do more and heed Black leadership. We endorsed the Solidarity Budget, which sought divestment from police and greater investment in communities of color, and fought Durkan Administration efforts to divide us. That unified front succeeded in getting a 18% reduction in SPD’s budget, which led the nation, though divesting from racist policing does not stop there.

After Mayor Durkan proposed a much smaller replacement for the Seattle Transportation Benefit District, we led the charge with the Move All Seattle Sustainably (MASS) coalition to double the measure, as did Councilmember Tammy Morales. With some Council colleagues hesitant, we ended up at a 50% boost, which still could save nearly 100,000 service hours. Advocates that unified behind the package, and Proposition 1 passed with a resounding 80.3% of the vote. Without that decisive action, bus service cuts would have been even deeper and the reduced fare program for students, seniors, and public housing residents may have disappeared.

Moreover, we and our MASS partners reversed key Durkan transportation cuts and pushed the City to dedicate more street space for people walking, rolling, and biking by rolling out open streets, which cities like Paris pioneered to great effect during the pandemic. Our pressure helped convince SDOT and Mayor Durkan to launch their “Stay Healthy Streets” program that upgraded existing neighborhood greenways by closing them to through car traffic. The program grew to 27 miles, but SDOT began turning some streets back over to cars, starting with its most popular open street: Lake Washington Boulevard. 

An open street being put to good use by two young Seattleites. (Photo by SDOT)

We continue to press the City to pedestrianize streets, especially in key corridors like Lake Washington Boulevard and in our densest neighborhoods, and add more durable diverters and signage. The Stay Healthy Streets program isn’t perfect, but it was a powerful reminder that a much more livable and accessible city is there for the taking. We need only the political will and an adequate supply and ‘streets closed to cars’ signs and diverters.

Supporting our friends at Futurewise, we also geared up for a fight to improve the Growth Management Act (GMA) and make sure single-family zoning reform is on the docket during Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan update. The Washington Can’t Wait campaign is seeking to pressure state legislators into passing GMA reform this session to ensure efforts aimed at climate action, affordability, and equity can move forward. Growth management and comprehensive planning should encourage wiser and more equitable decisions rather than hindering them.

Finally, we pointed out that the design review program continues to cause unnecessary delays, like a Queen Anne Safeway project that could provide 323 homes when it’s finally approved and built. We pitched our readers to apply to join a design review board in hopes of improving outcomes. We support deeper change than the modest reforms passed in 2017 and the emergency measures implemented during Covid.

Pandemic or not, we need to keep building both market-rate and social housing to provide enough homes. More people continue to move to Seattle than leave, despite all the ‘Seattle is Dying’ hype. Our housing crisis is far from over.

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

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Daniel Thompson

I thought there were two good news pieces today.

The first was a piece on CNN noting Singapore has just approved the sale of no—kill lab grown chicken (especially interesting to someone like me who lives with an on and off vegan who does all the cooking). According to the report the meat and dairy industry makes up nearly 20% of global carbon emissions. Two cows produce the same amount of carbon emissions as a new car each year, and there are 1.5 billion cows worldwide. Combined with electric cars this breakthrough could cut global carbon emissions by up to 40% without any sacrifice or loss of convenience for citizens.

Second was the series of articles and editorials in the Seattle Times about future transportation funding, and whether it is better to avoid budget cuts or avoid raising taxes on a battered post-pandemic state economy.

Although state tax revenues are higher than first estimated (thanks to the stability of the property tax) I still think it was a mistake for the legislature to not meet in August for a special session, which pushed all the budget issues and cuts into 2021 and 2022 budget years, unless taxes are raised to equal 2019 revenue levels, which is unlikely.