Today is Bus Driver Appreciation Day!

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Yes it is! The title says it all. Have you thanked your driver lately? Officially speaking, today’s the day to do so, although you’re welcome to do so any day you choose!

Driving the bus is a rewarding task, but an extremely demanding one. I’m amused when passengers ask if “it ever gets boring-” it’s rather more the exact opposite. Repeated exposure to certain behaviors makes being at your patient best more difficult- but still possible. Each day is a test. The County Council’s financial decision to tighten schedules exacerbates all the problems one encounters on the road; here’s hoping that April 22 funding tax comes through, without which everyone in the county, even those who never use buses, will be put at a severe disadvantage. But enough of that for now.

There’s no doubt bus driving has made me a better person. I’ve learned levels of empathy, patience and kindness I’ve never approached at any other job, let alone known were possible. I consider the needs of others and see the equal plane we all exist on so much more clearly. I’m thankful for the intense joy it brings me, the opportunity to be here, amongst the crowds, where I feel whole. There is an immediacy and a fulfillment of being that I encounter out here. It is specific and soul-satisfying; I’ve not felt it anywhere else.

Much of that joy comes from you, the passengers and other operators. I have you to thank for building such a beautiful house together, on every bus I drive, over and over, day after growing day. Thank you to all the operators who guide me by their example, and who teach me valuable things without even trying, simply by being themselves. You know who you are.

Maybe I’ll see you later on today.

Minimum Density Rules

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Last summer, the national pharmacy chain CVS decided to enter the Seattle market, building new stores in Lower Queen Anne, Wallingford, and West Seattle. This turned out to be surprisingly controversial; many residents felt that CVS’s cookie-cutter suburban designs had no place in their dense and growing urban neighbourhoods. In response to feedback from neighborhood groups, the West Design Review Board rejected CVS’s Queen Anne proposal, and the Seattle City Council passed an emergency rule to establish the city’s first minimum density requirements.

Minimum Density Rules

Traditionally, the Seattle zoning code has used floor area ratios to restrict high-density development. Floor area ratio (FAR) is a measure of how intensively a given parcel of land is being used. It is generally defined as the total amount of floor area located on a parcel divided by the total square footage of the property. For example, a 60,000 square foot building on a 20,000 square foot lot would have an FAR of 3.0. This could be a three-story building covering the whole lot, or a six-story building covering half of the lot.

The council’s new rule turns this tradition on its head, using FAR as a minimum, rather than a maximum. Any project in a designated pedestrian retail area (also known as a pedestrian zone) that adds or removes at least 1,000 square feet of floor area space must satisfy a minimum FAR standard, determined by the height limit of its zone (as seen in the table below). In addition, the new rules do not count parking areas as floor area. A high minimum FAR encourages denser development, forcing developers to build up if they want to build at all.

Minimum Floor Area
Height Limit30'40'65'85'125'160'
Minimum FAR1.51.5222.52.5

The Seattle Department of Planning and Development (DPD) is working on refining the emergency legislation adopted by the Council into a permanent policy. DPD expects to reach their first milestone in April, and to approve and adopt the final rules in September.

As The Urbanist previously covered, DPD is also working to expand the scope of the city’s pedestrian zones. This effort is particularly interesting in light of the new minimum density rules. Minimum density rules only apply in pedestrian zone overlays. Currently, the city only has 33 pedestrian zones, but DPD’s expansion effort could more than double the total size of pedestrian zone overlays. As a result, the DPD project also has the potential to double the number of areas with minimum density requirements. This is especially important in instances where mom-and-pop businesses or developers for chain stores consider redevelopment or expansion. These type of uses often opt for low-intensity development, even when their properties would allow for a lot more density.

The Rules Are Working

Some time after the West Design Review Board rejected their initial plans, CVS came back to the board with a new proposal. Because their Master Land Use Application came two months after the new rules, CVS’s new building was required to achieve a minimum FAR of 1.5. And in fact, it does exactly that; it features retail on the ground floor, office space on the second floor, and underground parking. (The proposed building is also much more visually interesting.) The strength of this proposal demonstrates that the minimum density rules are already achieving their intent.

If you’re interested in learning more about the minimum density rules or getting involved, please check out the DPD page for the project.

A Disease You Wanted to Catch

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Northbound Aurora at 100th. Leaning into the front door:

“Hey, did you see a, I left a wallet a couple hours ago…?”
“Uhh,” I said.

I look around on the dash. This coach has been out all day, already operated on for eight hours by another operator. We have an agreement where she leaves her lost and found items with me, instead of her taking them back to base. It doesn’t affect the process of the items’ transit to the Lost and Found Office, but it does give the items several more hours to remain on the road. I prefer this because you never know who might be out there, bus-hunting, trying to find their lost item. Lost items take 24 hours to show up in the Lost and Found Office, and sometimes that’s too long.

I do have a lost wallet today. It’s an unusual one- huge, black, really big, with a lot of pockets.
“Describe it to me.”
“Um, it’s big, it’s really big, black, with a lot of pockets.”

“I got you!” I said, smiling, handing him the goods. He made a wordless exclamation of joy, his once anxious face instantly transformed into a radiating, glowing orb. I felt thrilled just to be giving it to him, but I knew my excitement was no match for what he must have felt. He stayed on board, going home, his gratitude spilling out on everyone around him.

“I thought I had lost my wallet,” he blurted out to anyone who would listen, and to quite a few more who wouldn’t. “I’d lost it, I’d asked I don’t know how many drivers, standing out here for hours and all of the sudden, he’s got it! He had it! I found it!”

The others shuffled around him. A few commuters listened, but for the rest his praises fell on deaf ears. He didn’t care. He had the glow. I smiled, watching him in my mirror, a spirit awakened, vivified out of despair. Happiness poured forth from him like a living organism, omniscient and spreading, a disease you wanted to catch. He’d been swimming for too long, grasping in the dark for air, and now he was on dry land.

Read more work by Nathan at www.nathanvass.com.

Mukilteo’s Unique Opportunity

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Departing the Mukilteo terminal. Photo by the author.

Located just southwest of Everett, the city of Mukilteo boasts excellent urban amenities, many transportation options, and impressive views of Possession Sound and Mount Baker. The city’s location along the shore of Puget Sound makes it a natural crossroads for rail, sea, and road transportation.

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) is planning to replace Mukilteo’s aging and congested ferry terminal with a new multimodal facility. The new terminal will be built adjacent to the existing one, on a large parcel that was formerly used by the military. To complement this project, Sound Transit will also expand the Mukilteo Sounder station by adding a second platform. After construction is complete, the old terminal will be removed.

Together, these projects present a unique opportunity for Mukilteo. The new terminal will significantly improve pedestrian access to trains, buses, and ferries. Meanwhile, the removal of the old terminal will leave behind a huge amount of land in an area with beautiful views and abundant transit access. By designating this area for transit-oriented development, Mukilteo could create a vibrant neighborhood, enriching the lives of residents, workers, and tourists alike.

Planned Improvements

While WSDOT’s future ferry terminal site is currently nothing more than a sea of parking, it will see a major transformation over the next few years.

Currently, the Mukilteo Sounder station only has a single platform, on the north side of the tracks. This creates scheduling bottlenecks, since all trains with a stop in Mukilteo must use a single track. For this reason, no Amtrak trains currently stop at Mukilteo. Sound Transit is in the process of building a second platform on the south side of the tracks. A pedestrian bridge from the south platform will connect passengers to the north platform. When complete, trains stopping at Mukilteo will no longer have to cross over to the north track. This will improve reliability, simplify scheduling, and potentially allow Sound Transit or Amtrak to increase service to Mukilteo Station.

The Mukilteo ferry terminal is currently served by two half-hourly all-day routes, and peak-only routes to Boeing, downtown Seattle, and the University of Washington. Community Transit will be building a new transit center adjacent to the Sounder station and the new ferry terminal. With the addition of much-needed layover space, Community Transit will be able to run more buses to and from the waterfront.

There are also many other improvements:

  • Walk-on ferry riders will have a new terminal entry that leads directly to the passenger level, a significant accessibility improvement from today.
  • An additional tollbooth will reduce ferry backups on the Mukilteo Speedway.
  • A new waterfront promenade will create public space for residents and visitors.
  • More parking for Sounder riders will be added.

Reclaiming The Waterfront

When WSDOT vacates the existing ferry terminal, they will leave behind many acres of land. Mukilteo should seize the opportunity to build a new transit-oriented neighborhood.

There are many parcels that are well placed for redevelopment, including the existing Ivar’s site and the old ferry holding lanes. There are also a handful of possible sites nestled inside the new terminal, including a parcel east of the new stormwater treatment facility, and another east of NOAA.

Buildings could be as tall as four stories without obstructing the view from houses up on the bluff. With ground-floor retail, and three residential floors, this could provide Mukilteo with about 400 housing units and a vibrant commercial district.

A few other minor changes could further improve safety and mobility for the new neighborhood:

  • A sky bridge across the train tracks, connecting the terminal to Prospect Avenue, would improve access to both Sounder platforms, and would provide a convenient connection between Upper Mukilteo, Sounder, the waterfront, and the ferries.
  • There is currently just one at-grade railroad crossing in Mukilteo, just where the Boeing spur meets the BNSF mainline. Replacing the crossing with a grade-separated bridge would improve safety and reduce train delays.

Conclusion

It’s not every day that an important port city opens up acres of prime coastal land. Mukilteo has a once-in-a-lifetime chance to revitalize their waterfront and create a transit-oriented neighborhood. Let’s make sure that it doesn’t pass up this opportunity.

Sunday Video: Creating Functional Streets for Livable Cities

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Bicycle Culture by Design from  on YouTube.

Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize Design Co. gives us a brief history of our streets and suggests how we can design more functional streets for livable cities.

What We’re Reading: Transit Ridership, Road Safety, Elevators

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Apparently, transit is popular: In 2013, Americans made almost 10.7 billion public transit trips. Around the country, transit agencies are taking note. In San Francisco, Muni plans to increase service by 10%. Closer to home, Community Transit will increase service by 20% over the next 6 years.

Apparently, driving is not: The USDOT’s travel demand estimates are still abysmally wrong. Traffic on the Alaskan Way Viaduct is collapsing. And the viaduct itself might collapse any day now. In the words of Dominic Holden, “tear down the damn viaduct already!

Not just for cars: Self-driving buses could change the way we think about transit.

The sharing economy: What could be better than sharing a car trip with a stranger? How about sharing it with two strangers?

Unsung heroes: The Seattle DOT is making SW Roxbury Street safer, and building neighborhood greenways in Lake City and the U-District.

Too big to climb: Before there were elevators, there were mid-rise buildings. Over at Planetizen, Robert Freedman argues that “cheek-to-jowl” mid-rise construction is still an excellent way to provide density at a human scale.

A Dishonest Moratorium On Providing More Housing

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A number of local neighborhood groups have banded together to push their agenda of preventing more housing. They are using the misleading name, Coalition for an Affordable and Livable Seattle (CALS). They intend to provide a petition to the mayor at the Seattle Neighborhood Summit and there is a very real risk that they will have a disproportionate voice when it comes to decisions made about housing in Seattle. Erica Barnett at PubliCola does a great job summarizing their petition.

The group is calling for six changes that all sound nice (and in fact some should be discussed) but are a dishonest attempt to prevent more housing. Some of the supporters in these groups are my neighbors and I sympathize with their concerns about changing neighborhoods. There is a serious discussion to be had about the future of Seattle and how to manage change. I would very much like these neighbors to participate in that discussion, but only if they are willing to engage the problems we are facing honestly.

Priorities and Values

CALS’ priorities and values do not match Seattle’s priorities and values. They believe there should be a moratorium on housing if their demands are not met:

Until they are adopted [their list of demands] we call on our newly elected Mayor and City Council to exercise their emergency powers and impose an immediate moratorium on further upzones.

This moratorium should also place a hold on issuance of residential permits (their emphasis)

Their call for a moratorium would only be in some neighborhoods, effectively making it impossible for anyone new to move there or for non-profit developers to build more affordable housing. This makes it clear that preventing “out of scale” development (one of their demands) is a higher priority than ensuring everyone has shelter and is welcome in every neighborhood. As we’ve stated previously, providing enough housing is often considered secondary to other concerns, including the aesthetics of neighborhoods. This reversal is extremely detrimental to important priorities, like lowering housing costs and ending homelessness. It should seem obvious to most people that affordable access to housing should be more important than aesthetics. If you agree, you might be asking, “how does a moratorium affect housing access?” This graph should help answer that question: 

The Urbanist Case for $15/Hour

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Over the past year, there has been a growing faction in Seattle that believes the minimum wage should be higher — much higher. The amount is $15/hour, a 60% increase from Washington State’s current $9.19 (which is already the highest state minimum wage in the nation). The “instigator” is Kshama Sawant, an economics professor at Seattle Central Community College, and a Socialist Alternative politician who is now a member of the Seattle City Council. Once a niche movement, the campaign for $15/hour has taken on a life of its own. Even Mayor Ed Murray has pledged support for phasing in a higher minimum wage.

Whenever you propose to increase the minimum wage, someone will cry foul. Local perennial candidate Goodspaceguy frequently opines about the “job destroying minimum wage”. Closer to Earth, small business owners fear that a higher minimum wage will make it harder for them to stay in business. Do these criticisms have merit? Can we really legislate our way to a living wage? And why should urbanists care one way or the other?

Everyone deserves a place to live

In some ways, life has become cheaper over the past 100 years. In other ways, it has become more expensive. In 1900, the average household spent 57% of their income on food (43%) and clothing (14%), and 23% on housing. In 2003, 17% went to food and clothing, and 33% to housing. A century ago, if a household needed to save money, they would probably figure out a way to consume less food. Today, such a household would be forced to move to a cheaper home.

Compounding the issue, the average household today spends much more money on motorized transportation than the average household did 100 years ago. On a per-mile basis, motorized transportation is cheaper than it has ever been. But over the past century, urban design has significantly increased the number of miles that the average person must travel to go about their life. Commutes, errands, and leisure trips are longer than they have ever been. If a worker must own a car to get to her job, then she has less money still to spend on housing.

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