Friday, 3 July, 2020

Deeper Transit Cuts Loom as Metro Faces Serious Financial Constraints in 2021 and 2022

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The Covid-19 pandemic has been very disruptive to transit, forcing agencies to vastly change operational practices and slash service while seeing ridership fall off a cliff. For King County Metro, that has meant ridership losses in the 70% to 75% range. That has mostly bottomed out with some signs of ridership recovery, but the pattern of ridership is decidedly different from pre-Covid times. Metro has been clear that operations will persist in an altered form and at reduced levels for quite some time. Agency staff pointed to long-term financial constraints that may well drag on after the pandemic lifts, last week at the Regional Transit Committee meeting, forcing even heavier and lasting cuts to service in 2021 and 2022.

On Monday though, Metro did restore enough service to bring service levels to about 85% of pre-Covid times, including resumption of entire routes. For the time being, Metro plans to run a fairly consistent style of service during the summer that looks a lot more like Saturday service: an all-day network without many peak-hour services. In the fall, further service changes are poised to be phased in.

At the Regional Transit Committee meeting, agency staff said that the pandemic has changed ridership patterns considerably. Morning and afternoon peak commute demands have largely evaporated as fewer people ride transit to offices and businesses in urban cores. Ridership is now hovering at about 124,000 daily riders, down 71% from normal times, with ridership losses having been most heavily focused on express routes in Seattle and the Eastside.

Meanwhile, ridership has been steadier and losses more minor on routes in South King County communities and some areas in Seattle where people tend to be more reliant on transit to get around. However, Metro staff have seen habits changing with persistent all-day demand, particularly during midday periods. That could suggest people who are working from home are using transit locally for midday needs.

Back in late March, the corridors with the most and least ridership losses were fairly evident in percentage terms. (King County)
Back in late March, the corridors with the most and least ridership losses were fairly evident in percentage terms. (King County)

Agency staff painted a very precarious financial outlook. Going into the pandemic, Metro already had a 10-year, $1 billion shortfall as a starting point for new investments. That was considered a manageable challenge since revenues were still well positioned with opportunities for additional resources ahead, but the pandemic jeopardized the funding streams on which Metro was relying.

Sales tax revenue has plummeted and is expected to be $200 million lower for 2020 than originally projected. Through 2022, the sales tax shortfall is expected to widen to a $465 million loss. But the long-term impacts are similar to Sound Transit’s projections where approximately $1.2 billion in sales taxes projected will simply evaporate over the next 10 years as lower economic activity in the region occurs. On top of this, Metro has suspended fares during the initial pandemic response phase and expects significantly lower ridership during the interim. Farebox recovery is generally pegged at 25% of bus service costs, making it another major source of revenue for the agency.

Seattle Should Count Its Ecological Assets

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Completed in 2009, Thornton Place includes 389 homes next to Thornton Creek, which was restored in the process. (Photos by author)

Seattle’s green urban assets are worth billions and valuing them could protect them.

Thanks to Covid-19 and the West Seattle Bridge closure, the air is so clear that from Alki Beach, you can see the colors of trees and houses on Magnolia. The 55% drop in Seattle’s weekday traffic has cut CO2 and smog-related nitrogen oxide levels by more than 15%, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT).  

But a public health crisis is not a sustainable way to decrease pollution. It may put a micro-dent in the Keeling Curve. But in a city that has been ranked one of America’s ten worst heat islands and sixth worst traffic congestion (and pollution), building up Seattle’s long-term pollution reducers–trees, green spaces, and aquatic habitats–would put us on a more sustainable course. 

While Seattle is noisily driving, building, and manufacturing, our underappreciated green assets are quietly making oxygen, absorbing pollutants, sponging up stormwater and controlling erosion. They’re also enhancing property values, supporting urban fisheries, agriculture and recreation, animal habitats, and pollinator corridors. And they’re helping improve mental health and longevity. About 30 years ago, economists realized those benefits and savings–-“ecosystem services” are worth big money–more than $33 trillion a year according to Robert Costanza et al. in their estimate of the planet’s biosphere value. That’s nearly $54 trillion in 2020 dollars.

The Seattle Green Spaces Coalition (SGSC) reckons that, within Seattle’s 142.5 square miles of land and water, our “natural capital” provides more than $3 billion a year in benefits and savings. While our city doesn’t account for that as an asset, King County has. In 2000, it used ecosystem services valuation (ESV), which estimates the worth to cities and towns of fisheries, habitats, agriculture, and recreation space, to design its Duwamish River watershed salmon protection plan. Then in 2001, Seattle Public Utilities used ESV in restoring Thornton Creek. The Urban Forestry Commission, in 2008, set a goal to cover 35% of Seattle with trees by 2035 (since revised downward to 30% by 2037), and drafted guidelines for an updated tree protection ordinance. Despite widespread public support, the City Council has not passed an update, leaving nine uncoordinated city agencies to protect Seattle’s trees–and no clear plan for expanding green urban assets.

Mayor Durkan Pledges to Close the CHOP and Reopen East Precinct, Chastising ‘Agitators’

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Mayor Jenny Durkan flanked by Andre Taylor at Monday press conference on the CHOP shooting. (Seattle Channel)
Mayor Jenny Durkan flanked by Andre Taylor at Monday press conference on the CHOP shooting. (Seattle Channel)

Mayor Jenny Durkan promised to disperse the Capitol Hill Organized Protest and reinstall police inside East Precinct “in the near future” at a press conference Monday.

Seattle Police Department (SPD) Chief Carmen Best blamed the Seattle City Council’s “hasty legislation” banning chemical weapons for SPD’s failure to reach shooting victims early Saturday morning. That claim was wrong on multiple levels.

For one, the police showed up 20 to 30 minutes after the shooting by which time volunteer medics were already transporting the first victim (a 19-year old Black man who bled out and died) to Harborview Medical Center. Tear gassing protesters doesn’t magically solve the timing issue or heal the victim’s wounds. Although I’m sure it would be further traumatizing.

Moreover, Chief Best blamed the wrong ban; the City Council’s chemical weapons ban doesn’t go into place until next month. A United States District Judge ordered an injunction restricting use of chemical weapons and rubber bullets in crowd control situations, citing their indiscriminate use on whole crowds and neighborhoods. The injunction isn’t as extensive as the city council’s ban, but apparently police got the message nonetheless.

While Mayor Durkan said she isn’t yet planning to physically remove protesters, she did leave that as a real possibility if CHOP campers don’t leave voluntarily. She isn’t technically enforcing the 8pm to 8am curfew that had been rumored, but it does seem like that might be on the horizon.

Decriminalize Seattle–a grassroots coalition of groups that came together around the demand of defunding police by at least 50% to fund community-led responses–issued a rebuttal to the Mayor’s plan disputing the idea that police would prevented the violence we saw over the weekend.

“We know that in every neighborhood of our city, violence is a constant,” Decriminalize Seattle wrote. “We know that police do not stop violence. We know that violence happens even when the police are present. Less than a year ago, a Black woman was killed on the same block as last night’s shooting, with the East Precinct fully staffed with officers only 200 feet away. The presence of police did not stop that death.”

I livetweeted the press conference, if you’d like a play-by-play. Erica C. Barnett also had tweeted extensively and asked an excellent question about how tear gas would have helped police reach the victim. Neither the Mayor nor Chief Best gave a satisfactory answer, but it didn’t stop the chief from continuing to blame the city council’s “hasty” legislation, which again hasn’t gone into effect yet.

The Mayor was flanked by two Black faith leaders and steady ally Andre Taylor who have taken her and Chief Best’s side and argued for clearing the CHOP. Everyone placed blame on outside “agitators” for escalating violence and a deteriorating situation. Taylor, who is executive director of Not This Time and brother of Che Taylor who was killed by SPD, went so far to suggest blood would be on the hands of CHOP organizers if they didn’t negotiate an end to the occupation.

Lime Relaunches Bikeshare in Seattle with 500 Jump Bikes

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Lime-owned red Jump bikes in Ballard drop-off zone. (Courtesy of Lime)
Lime-owned Jump bikes in Ballard drop-off zone. (Courtesy of Lime)

Today Lime Bikes announced it had relaunched bikeshare with about 500 bikes, making Seattle the second city where Lime has relaunched bikes. The bikes are available only through the Uber app currently, but Lime plans to relaunch its own app down the road to provide another rental option.

The fleet consists of red electric-assist bikes formerly of its competitor, Jump, which is generally considered a superior model to Lime’s green bikes. Lime got access to some of Jump’s fleet as part of an investment deal in which Uber abandoned its own bikeshare program, sold its assets to Lime, and invested in Lime instead. Lime had been the early champion of Seattle’s dockless bikeshare battle, but Jump catapulted ahead with zippier bikes at cheaper rates only to see its Uber corporate overlords pull the plug.

Jonathan Hopkins, Lime Government Affairs for Pacific Northwest and Canada, said Lime aimed to offer a safe and socially distant transportation option amid a pandemic that has seen transit ridership plummet, triggering service cuts.

“Bikeshare is going to be critical to mobility in our city as Covid has reduced the capacity of our transit system,” Hopkins said. “Over the coming weeks, we will continue to work with the City of Seattle to ensure bikeshare is a critical part of our recovery and key part of our City’s efforts to create safer streets and reduce emissions.”

$1 to unlock, 36 cents per minute

One change users will notice is that bikeshare fares have increased. Lime’s new rates are $1 to unlock and 36 cents per minute. That means a 15-minute ride would cost $6.40. Jump had previously charged no unlock fee and 27.5 cents per minute (including tax) for the same bikes. However, neither company had been making money with the fares and ridership they were getting, which is what precipitated the merger.

Lime has argued that operating a combined fleet with mostly scooters (which they say turn a profit) and some bikes (which don’t) could make bikeshare sustainable. But if some companies are allowed to operate scooters only, that could disrupt the model and potentially preclude a lasting bikeshare program. With a scootershare pilot still expected this year but delayed by the pandemic, we will find out how the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) seeks to thread that needle and prevent the loss of bikeshare.

The bikeshare demand is there, if not an easy economic model. One in four Seattle residents took at least one bikeshare trip in 2019 according to SDOT statistics.

What We’re Reading: Phase 2, National Moratorium Continued, and DC Slow Streets

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Unemployment extremes: Why is Japan’s unemployment rate only 2.6% while America’s is off the charts ($)?

Phase 2: Now that King County is in Safe Start Washington Phase 2, what can you do?

CAHSR: Rail advocates are fighting back against the latest self-defeating effort to cut California’s high-speed rail program.

Check soils: A Sound Transit audit shows that the agency could greatly benefit from better soil surveys and analyses earlier to reduce project costs and risks ($).

Painful reductions: The pandemic economic impacts are likely to hit Pierce Transit. What does that mean for the future of service ($)?

Deadly designers: A new study shows that autonomous vehicle boosters continue to fail at designing cars to properly recognize pedestrians, specifically people with black or brown skin at notably higher rates than white skin.

Redistributing funding: Greater Greater Washington looks at how defunding the police in Baltimore could help transit.

National moratorium continued: Mortgage holders backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will benefit from an extended foreclosure moratorium through August, which will also prevent renters from eviction.

Open air recovery: Portland’s open air pandemic recovery program, dubbed the “Healthy Business” program, has begun to roll out on city streets.

NYC bike plan: A third-party planning organization in the New York area has released an ambitious five-borough bikeway plan for New York City.

Not dying: The death of urban living in the post-pandemic world is greatly exaggerated.

Black Faith Leaders Urge Seattle to Fund 1,000 New Affordable Homes in the Central District

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Councilmember Kshama Sawant and a group of faith leaders held a press event on Friday, June 19th, to bring attention to a letter submitted to the Mayor and City Council by Black Faith Leaders seeking City funding for affordable housing and more. (Credit: Kshama Sawant)

Calling for a “Central Area Housing Plan” that seeks to remedy decades of gentrification that have displaced Black residents from Seattle’s Central District, last week a group of pastors from African American churches held a press conference with Councilmember Kshama Sawant to draw attention to a letter they had submitted to the Mayor and City Council earlier this month detailing their call for action.

The letter, which was signed by Rev. Jeffery of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, Rev. Lawrence Willis of Truevine of Holiness Baptist Church, and Rev. Willie Seals of The Christ Spirit Church, contains a list of initiatives ranging from specific to broad that the pastors desire to see implemented. It also contains a call for Seattle as a “progressive” city to “honor the legacy of George Floyd and the many unsung heroes who fight for justice and an end to racism” by changing the “landscape after the pandemic so that Seattle becomes a great place for African Americans to live and thrive for generations to come.”

Funding for the initiatives would come from the $500 million payroll tax proposed by Councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Tammy Morales, best known as the Amazon Tax.

An infographic depicting revenue sources and some potential investments from the proposed payroll tax. (Credit: Councilmember Kshama Sawant)

The proposed tax would raise revenue by imposing a 1.3% payroll tax on companies with more than $7 million in annual payroll. Nonprofits, grocery businesses, local government, and some other entities would all be exempt from the tax which Sawant and Morales estimate would be paid by about 800 companies, or roughly 2% of Seattle businesses.

Sawant has long called for a tax on big businesses to raise funds for affordable housing. During the press conference, she voiced her support for using funding from the Amazon Tax to fund the pastors’ requested initiatives.

“I’m proud… to stand here today with the faith leaders, with the Low Income Housing Institute, and with our neighborhood to demand that the city and its political establishment acknowledge the historic and current wrongs inflicted on the Black community, and commit to taking the concrete steps–not words but concrete steps, that faith leaders have outlined in their Central Area Housing plan. My socialist council office wholeheartedly supports all of the nine demands in their letter, just as I wholeheartedly support the demands of the King County Equity Now Coalition.

Councilmember Kshama Sawant

What is the Central Area Housing Plan?

The centerpiece of the pastors’ list of demands is the Central Area Housing Plan, which would use public funding to build 1,000 new affordable housing units over three years for “historic residents and those displaced from the Central Area.” The Central Area (also known as the Central District) has been historically defined as “bounded by East Madison on the north, Jackson Street on the south, 12th Avenue on the west and Martin Luther King, Jr. Way on the east.”

Reimagining Southcenter: An Urban Mixed-Use District

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Southcenter Mall abuts two freeways. (Credit: City of Tukwila)

Can a sprawling mall become an urban oasis?

Our Seattle region is growing up. New skyscrapers loom over where humble abodes once stood. New buildings rise seemingly by the day, transforming our urban fabric for better or for worse. The Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) estimates that we’ll meet one million new neighbors by 2040⁠—there’s no question that accommodating such growth will be a daunting task.

But while our region’s population grows, so too do our inequalities. We’ll need to build an estimated 244,000 units of affordable housing by 2040 in King County alone to ensure that every one of our friends and neighbors has a safe and healthy home they can afford. To make room for everyone, we’ll have to use every bit of our land efficiently, building homes where there are none and adding units to where there are few.

Parking lots are perhaps the most inefficient way we can use land. Not only do they provide housing for zero people, but they’re also inherently car-oriented, ugly, pollution sinks, and an overall terrible waste of space. By redeveloping them, we’ll be to transform them into sustainable, diverse, and equitable communities.

The sheer size of parking lots (and the strip malls they accompany) makes them excellent candidates for redevelopment, and as such would be largely inoffensive. Little to no residents would be displaced in the process and the businesses that are affected can be easily reintegrated into developments that replace them.

The Northgate Mall used to be one of the worst offenders of parking lot land-wasting in our region until we began the process of replacing it with much better higher-density transit-oriented development. The Bellevue Square mall was also up there, but it too is being replaced by higher-density walkable developments. But the Southcenter Mall continues to be a parking wasteland–despite some commercial infill attempts in recent years–and will likely do so for the foreseeable future.

Northern Southcenter area. (Source: Google Maps)

It’s a real shame that the Southcenter area isn’t slated for change since it actually has a lot of potential. For starters, the land is uniquely massive and contiguous. Unlike typical strip malls that cling beside highways for miles (similar to a river’s shoreline), Southcenter is much more spread out. That means we’ll be able to cluster buildings together and ensure walkability similar to a downtown core. There’s numerous quality transit connections, too, such as King County Metro’s 128, 150, and 156 buses to West Seattle, Downtown Seattle and Kent, and Des Moines, respectively, along with the RapidRide F Line which provides a short hop to Renton and Burien. Plus, Sounder commuter rail is just an arm’s reach away. All this means that if Southcenter were to be the home of transit-oriented development (TOD) and mixed-use housing, residents would enjoy convenient access to many of their destinations from day one.

Indeed, the city of Tukwila (in which Southcenter is located) did have ambitious plans for Southcenter’s redevelopment back in 2014. In what was dubbed as the “Tukwila Urban Center,” several districts were proposed, including a Regional Center district and a TOD neighborhood. The former included significant infill development on Southcenter Mall property and the latter focused on building a mix of housing, office, lodging and supportive retail. Supporting both was a comprehensive overhaul of the street network. The plan was adopted into the Comprehensive Plan and development regulations.

Sunday Video: How Did Planners Design Soviet Cities?

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Regardless of how you feel about Russian communism, Soviet planners were very consistent in their approach to developing cities and building communities. Across different eras, the planning approaches did change in adapting to different social goals. Dave Amos highlights several of these eras in the Russian context.