Thursday, 12 December, 2019

Transit Reporting, Advocacy and Politics: The Center City Connector

Courtesy of SDOT

The Seattle City Council recently voted to designate a dedicated right-of-way streetcar line as the locally preferred alternative for the Central City Connector. This step allows SDOT to pursue federal funds for the project’s construction. Nick Licata stood in lone opposition to the project, essentially arguing that the money could be better spent on improved bus service. In the days since the vote, some transit advocates have come out against the project for the same reasons.

There are many reasons to support streetcar lines, which are summarized nicely by Scott Bonjukian. As many transit activists are quick to point out, like any transit, there are drawbacks in terms of flexibility, interaction with car traffic, and capital costs. Many of those concerns are debatable, and others are alleviated by the kind of dedicated right-of-way project proposed for the Central City Connector. More importantly, the technical concerns are vastly outweighed by the ridership potential that streetcars present.

The limitations to transit infrastructure investment are not financial–they are political. Politics, not funding concerns, led Nick Licata to vote against the Central City Connector in favor of studying more buses. When an elected official says that there is no money to pay for a project, they really mean they don’t think the political will exists to pay for it. They must be told over and over again that we want more and better public transportation. The way to ensure that we continue to build the transit that our city needs is to make more transit advocates who will vote against politicians who stand in the way of infrastructure. The best way to make more transit advocates is to make more transit riders. And more people will ride streetcars.

It is certainly the case that massive improvements could be made to our bus network with $110 million but this is a red herring. The fact is that the potential $75 million in federal funding wouldn’t be won for bus service improvements. Additionally, the $26 million from a local improvement district, or the nearly $130 million from Sound Transit already spent on streetcar projects wouldn’t have passed the political hurdles if they were used for improved bus service.

Transit advocates can continue to look this gift horse in the mouth or we can consider the fact that the city is seriously considering building eighteen blocks of dedicated transit right-of-way through downtown, take a deep breath, and realize that we are winning. When the CCC starts operating, it will carry 20-30 thousand riders a day, many of whom will be new transit users. The political difference that kind of ridership can make in a city the size of Seattle is enormous. In this case, all we need to do is learn how to take “yes” for answer.

SDOT To Reduce Westlake Parking Subsidy, Help Businesses


westlake-parkingChanges To Parking On Westlake

The Seattle Department of Transportation will be reducing it’s parking subsidy along Westlake this month. The city owns a tremendous amount of parking spaces along that were previously free to use all day. While there are many problems with free parking, it is frequently difficult to make parking more fair due to local push back.

Fortunately, the city has implemented studies to better understand parking utilization. Since there is a limited amount of space for parking, it is the goal of the city to ensure that there is always available space. The easiest way to do this is with time limits. Establishing a time limit in areas has been successful in garnering support from local business that see parking turnover as directly connected to sales at their business. Most recently SDOT studied the parking vacancy along Westlake avenue and discovered that occupancy rates averaged 85% during peak hours. Occupancy rates at this level indicate that it is often hard or impossible to find a parking space, essentially creating an obstacle to people trying to patronize businesses along Westlake. Before the change, the entire avenue allowed all day parking. After the change there will be a 4 hour limit south of Crockett Street. The area studied north of Crockett did not exceeded the target occupancy rate maximum of 85% and there will be no change, effectively continuing the subsidy as is. It is suspected that most of the parking along the street is from individuals commuting into the city and attempting to avoid paid parking in Uptown, Downtown or South Lake Union.

Subsidy Background

The 4 hour limit will definitely help business and the improvement should be applauded. Still, this change doesn’t entirely reduce the parking subsidy, nor does this mean the street is being used at it’s highest value. Estimates for on-street parking pin the annual cost around $128 a month per space*. If this program succeeds and the vacancy rate hits the middle of the city’s target, 77%, the  revenue per space per month would be about $118. This is about an 8% subsidy on the spaces. Using this measurement, each hundred spaces result in subsidy of about $12,000 annually (as compared to $153,600 previously). To be clear, we support subsidies for transportation but only when the transportation is sustainable and benefits everyone. Additionally, it should be noted that the cost reference above ignores the many negative externalities of parking, including pollution, health effects, safety concerns and much more.

If you want to send a kind note to the people responsible for this please do. They overwhelming hear negative feedback when implementing changes like this even though it benefits almost everyone and a little positive reinforcement can help tremendously.

*Cost per space is taken from this estimate and adjusted to 2014 dollars using the CPI calculator.



Smart Man




“Next one is Aurora,” I announce from the 44 route. “Aurora Avenue, where you can get the E Line. That’s the old 358.”
People get on, and people get off. As we pull away, I say, “here we go!”
I always say something like that. Variations on a theme: “Hang on tight;” “We’re movin’ out;” “Off we go;” and on occasion, generally upon leaving somewhere like 3rd and Pike, “let’s get outta here!”

“Here we go” was never intended by me to be funny or endearing or light-hearted, although I’m happy many people read it that way. I started saying this stuff when I began trolleys, and noticed the incredible amount of torque they have. I said “here we go” because I was terrified of people completely collapsing as soon as the bus moved. There’s nothing better- not even most cars- at getting up Seattle’s steep hills than our trolley buses, and they can fly. I announced “here we go” and the like to let people know they were on a different type of vehicle, which moved differently. I’ve since realized people fall down on all coach types, and thus announce regardless of what type of bus I’m driving.

On the 44 now, and older man comes forward, maybe late fifties but still lithe, gray hair and tanned, hanging on the stanchions.
“So I’m on a 747, right?”
“Yeah,” I say, phrased as a question, hoping for more explanation. Sometimes I say “yeah” when I have no idea what people are talking about.
“I’m on a 747 from Anchorage to Seattle, when the pilot comes on– engine’s died. Lost the engine.”
“Whoa! Were you losing altitude?”
“Oh yeah! We’re in freefall. No thrust. He restarted the engine in flight.”
“Yeah, but the pilot came on, and said all the stuff you’re sayin,’ ‘hang on,’ here we go,’ all the same stuff you’re sayin.’ It made me think of it.”
“Oh, right on.”
“But yeah, I’m thinkin,’ hang on, hold on tight, this is no problem! I fished in the Bering Sea for twenty-one years!”
“Must have pretty good sea legs!”
“Yeah, when you’ve worked the Aleutian Islands…” I look at his brown eyes and see generations of time. He tells me briefly of a life at sea. Then he says, “I’m sixty-three years old, and I’m goin’ up again.”
“You must like it!”
He shakes his head ruefully.
“Why then?”
I see him rubbing his thumb and forefinger together and it’s my turn to shake my head. “Yeah, that’ll do it,” I reply. “Money has a way of talking.”
“I got colon cancer. I’m goin’ up this time and stayin’ up there. This’ my last time in Seattle.”
“Well, shoot! I’m glad you got on my bus!”
“Hey, life is good,” he said, as we approached his stop (“Here’s Fremont Avenue, by the zoo”).
“Have a good rest of the time in Seattle!”
“Stay happy!”

The last statement was a surprise. There was an unaffected genuineness to his well-wishing. He didn’t wait  for a response, already walking away now, carrying on with the unstoppable business of living life. I watched him for a moment, reflecting. He had every justification, as it were, to be miserable. But he wasn’t. I closed the doors and began rolling away. My mind was still on him as I said into the microphone, “that’s Phinney Avenue coming up, Phinney, for the route 5.”

Sunday Video: Hyperspeed on the Silver Line


WMATA in the Washington, DC metropolitan area just opened a new expansion of their Metrorail system with the Silver Line.

What We’re Reading: Vote For Sustainable Seattle Parks

Fountain in Cal Anderson Park by Bryan Ochalla on Flickr.

Seattle transportation: The Seattle Subway makes their closing arguments on what Sound Transit should prioritize for the update to the Long-Range Plan. Zach argues that maybe Amtrak Cascades should just provide express service between Portland and Seattle while ditching the smaller towns along the way. Central and South Seattle are slated to get a whole lot of new Neighborhood Greenways by 2017. 10 Pronto! bikeshare docking stations planned for Capitol Hill so far.

Tax the carbon: Sightline thinks that Washington should adopt a British Columbia-like carbon tax, which means we can reduce many other taxes in the process, but still benefit from reduced CO2 emissions.

Local headlines: Phinney Ridge has a new mural for the 63rd Street underpass of Aurora Ave. Footprint microhousing will open up in the next year in Greenwood, work is currently underway. The I-90 carpocalypse never really transpired, which isn’t so surprising because these things never do–people adapt. Hopeworks plans new affordable housing and mixed use for Everett right where it needs to be, focused by the transit center. Better mixed use is on the way for Uptown, a 3-story mixed use CVS store. And, Modera is a new building coming to 11th Ave in Capitol Hill.

Vote for Seattle parks: Former Mayor McGinn says that you should vote for the Metropolitan Park District, and so does the Seattle Bike Blog.

The surprising (and not so surprising) stuffA DC neighborhood is leaving nastygrams for Car2Go patrons on their cars for parking the public right-of-way. UK grocery giant, Tesco, wants to redevelop properties with mixed use, mainly housing. People who live near walking and biking paths are naturally inclined to walk and bike (I guess that makes sense). Tunnel digger for Seattle makes a big monetary win on a former failure in Boston to the tune of $80 million. Singapore’s early morning free transit service is working to induce more demand, which means overall network utilization is up. The American South could be 3 times as dense than it is now by 2060. Building more roads just induces more demand while making traffic worse, not better.

Maps of the weekPostal code cartography, it’s really something. Watch the DC Metrorail system grow from birth to the new Silver Line extension.

WSF to Provide Reservations for San Juan Ferries in 2015

MV Elwha in Slip 1 and MV Hyak in Slip 2, Anacortes - Washington State Ferries
Ferries at Anacortes, the gateway to the San Juans. Photo by the Author.

After years of work, Washington State Ferries (WSF) has announced that it will start reservations for vehicles on the Anacortes to San Juans route with the winter 2015 schedule (January 5, 2015). Reservations will be available from Anacortes to all four islands (San Juan/Friday Harbor, Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw) as well as from Friday Harbor and Orcas to Anacortes.

Lopez and Shaw don’t have the necessary facilities to handle reservations (staffed tollbooths or terminal personnel), so vehicle space will still be available only on a first come-first served basis. Reservations also will not be available for inter-island traffic. However, reservations already exist on that same routes for commercial vehicles, as well as for all types of vehicles on the Port Townsend/Coupeville (Keystone) and Anacortes/Sidney B.C. routes.

For many, this means the end of long lines on Fridays and Sundays, and more time to spend on the islands. In the summer, waits can range anywhere from one hour to five hours, creating a huge barrier to tourism on the islands. Providing reservations will help the economy on the islands and garner higher customer satisfaction. This will also result in reduced emissions and queuing on local roads. Reservations are a great step forward in improving ferry service to the San Juans without actually getting more ferries out on the water.

Aufstockung: Innovative Density

Joe Mabel CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

is a German term for a vertical addition. That is, an increase in height by the addition of one or more floors to an existing structure. Aufstockungen are quite common in Europe, and have been for generations. Unfortunately, they’ve been rather underutilized in Seattle–at least outside of single-family housing. However, as the demand for housing increases in the city, this could be an innovative strategy to address the shortage without losing the soul of the city.

One of the projects I’ve been working on is an addition to an existing low-rise apartment building. Inquiries to add additional units to existing buildings have seen an uptick, though most of these have been along the lines of converting storage spaces to dwelling units. Many of these buildings aren’t maxed out on zoning height, though may be height restricted due to building type and level of protection. This uptick has been noted in local media, including a recent Capitol Hill Seattle post on sneaking in new units where possible.

Ample benefits

There are a plethora of reasons it would be beneficial for the Council to promote such a tactic. Just a few:

  1. It would reduce pressure to tear down older buildings by increasing their income potential. This is especially critical as land values continue to rise, along with corresponding rents.
  2. It would accommodate additional density. While Seattle unfortunately lacks quality perimeter block development (partially a result of bad land use regs and historic underdevelopment of lots), a 2011 study in Graz, Austria, showed a 1-2 story increase could result in 40-80 additional units per block. Graz, like Seattle, suffers from a heinously amount of area dedicated to quasi-suburban living (detached single family housing) – however the downtown core features a number of fabulous perimeter blocks with great courtyards.
  3. It extends the usefulness of the building.
  4. It preserves the character of the street. I’m constantly shocked at the number of urbanists that find block after block of banal developments acceptable, especially as they consume Seattle’s gritty heritage–heritage that contributes to the vitality of neighborhoods like Capitol Hill. I’m a big fan of granularity, diversity, and keeping something other than a semblance of old facades.
  5. Sustainability, sustainability, sustainability.
  6. They could also allow for preservation of in-city green space–both immediate (vertical rather than horizontal additions into courtyards or adjacent yards) and regional, by reducing pressure on sprawl.
  7. It can drive (actual) innovation. In many European cities, units or floors are being installed as prefabricated elements, saving substantial time (installation of lightweight wood panels or modules in a few days or less), money – and in some instances, both. The wood industry has even undertaken the development of a systematized addition for this typology.

Design considerations are something often taken into account with aufstockungen. The largest being to set back the addition from the perimeter of the existing structure. The issue of compatible versus contrasting materials, and whether the addition should complement or clash is a constant topic of debate in Europe–generally this isn’t much of an issue, except for buildings of note. A quick image search (dachausbau or aufstockung can give a pretty good sense of the scope and scale of these projects. Skyscrapercity has a short page on some incredible aufstockungen in Graz. Vienna’s got a ton, one of my favorite’s being Josef Weichenberger Architekten’s Margaretenstrasse 9.

Photos by: Erika Mayer (Josef-Mayburger-Kai 2a; 5020 Salzburg;;

Potential for adoption?

This typology isn’t unheard of in the US–rooftop additions and penthouses are fairly common, though generally reserved for the wealthy. What intrigues me most about these is that in Europe–there is phenomenal diversity of the buildings and tenants–spanning from ultra luxe to social housing. I am guessing a lot of that has to do with smart planning rather than carved out exceptions and loopholes. The German Fire Code for low and mid-rise construction is much less restrictive than the US, and this is further aided by a history of mostly masonry/concrete buildings. Seattle’s older low-rise multifamily buildings outside of downtown are generally wood, and so this would need to be coordinated with the Fire Code. For older buildings that aren’t sprinklered, this could be an opportunity to increase heights for those that undertake sprinkler retrofits. Or better yet, allow another story or two if the owner undertakes a whole building modernization or EnerPHit (Passivhaus retrofit).

There have even been some undertaken in Seattle. The Reedo Building (Elysian Fields) is a good example, although a commercial instead of residential.

Belltown’s 81 vine lofts are another one that stand out. The Washington Shoe Building on Jackson underwent one of sorts, with a 2-storey addition – albeit in 1912.

Another big difference, at least here on the West Coast, is our lovely increased seismic risk over cities like Vienna and Berlin. This could be partially mitigated, at least with wood buildings here in Seattle, with a substantial upgrade of the facade, which is why I’m intrigued by pairing this with Passivhaus retrofits. If you’re already ripping off the facade to add new sheathing for the vertical addition, it would also be a smart time to add exterior insulation (mineral wool) and quality windows. There is a fair amount of precedent for this in Europe, including an exemplary retrofit and addition to a building in Hannover, Germany which saw a whopping 93% reduction in energy usage over the existing building.

Though Aufstockungen aren’t as nifty as new construction, they should be encouraged as an innovative tool to help address the housing shortage. City Council should find a way to creatively allow this typology to take shape, carving out an exception in the Land Use Code if needed for adding units above height limits for existing buildings.

Vote “For” the Seattle Metropolitan Park District


Yes Seattle ParksThis primary election, Seattle voters will answer a question: do we believe that parks and community centers are an essential service, and a priority to receive stable, long-term funding?

It’s a simple question, and a simple “yes” or “no” answer. Seattle Proposition 1 is presented to voters under the predication that yes, in fact, we believe that clean, safe, welcoming parks are a necessity for a growing city. That community centers must be open when they are needed, and receive equitable funding to do the same–not the pay-for-play that we see now. That affordable and relevant programming for youth keeps kids out of trouble, programs for seniors ensure folks can remain active with lifelong recreation, and programs for people with disabilities ensure all residents of our city can participate in making our communities great!

The Seattle Park District is a funding mechanism that dedicates revenue to parks in Seattle, with a focus on addressing the major maintenance backlog, putting in place measures to help in avoiding deferred maintenance in the future, and bringing community center hours and programming as close to 2008 levels as possible. By levying a property tax increase of less than 1%, Proposition 1 puts Seattle in a position to engage in long-term planning, while also being able to respond to immediate needs–things that levies, frankly, do not allow.

The opposition campaign has mastered the fine art of scare tactics. Talking about building landing strips at Cal Anderson Park. Telling people that they will no longer have a vote if there is dedicated funding for parks in Seattle (missing out that the Seattle City Council is not an appointed body). Yammering on about how residents in Seattle just can’t trust our elected officials, or government at all. These tea-party talking points and support for Eymanism (putting essential service budgets up for a vote–funding cities a la carte) is unfortunate. The untrue statements and misrepresentations would be astonishing–until you see that the opposition campaign is funded, in large part, by anti-transit and Republican donors, while utilizing a GOP consultant.

As examples, the biggest contributor is Faye Garneau, at $17.5k, who also was a giver to the No On Transit campaign and recently Forward Seattle. Other notable contributors include Jim Coombes (who gave hefty amounts to Eyman’s Permanent Offense group), Fremont Dock Co. (a regular opponent of completing the Burke-Gilman missing link) and Glenn Avery (also their treasurer), who is the chair of the 36th District Republicans. Combined, these folks alone are 59% of the $37k raised. Their consultant has been Sharon Gilpin, who works with Republican candidates and conservative business interests, and has also been a donor to Eyman causes.

But let’s look at the proposition: Seattle Proposition 1 adopts a series of recommendations made by a group of fifteen Seattle citizens. We came together to look at the revenue structural challenges that we were facing as a city–in light of the Eyman 1% rule and the 2008 recession–and what would be the best option to ensure we left a legacy of clean, safe, welcoming parks that were well cared for, and community centers and programs available to all residents. We looked at levy lid lifts–short, long, and permanent term, a soda tax, a sugar tax, impact fees, and metropolitan park districts, among other, more regressive revenue ideas. Following months of intense work, looking at the needs of our city, and the reality of revenue expectations in light of the State Legislature limiting our options, the best option was a Park District–something even the Municipal League of King County agreed on.

Park levies–like most levies in Seattle–are designed to be capital in nature. From expanding the park system to replacing playgrounds, a levy lid lift is not meant for operations. Washington has a tool to get us out of that cycle, and instead allow Seattle to shift gears and focus on the unglamorous, unsexy needs of parks–boilers, roofs, comfort stations (bathrooms). Providing funding for community centers and affordable recreation programming for all residents. While at the same time being prepared to move the city forward and grow our system in a smart way with growth patterns. The Seattle Park District is that tool.

The opposition campaign against long-term, stable funding for parks in Seattle come to the table with no solutions. The best they come up with is to start the Seattle process all over again, and hope for a different result. Hope that the next group will capitulate to their demands, while ignoring the actual needs of kids in South Park, families in south Beacon Hill, new residents in Lake City, or seniors in Bitter Lake. Ultimately, they just don’t believe that our elected officials should have the tools necessary to actually govern, instead believing that micromanaging budgets by the ballot box is somehow a good idea.

The Stranger summed it up nicely: “[T]his is how the democratic process works: We elect leaders who set taxes and build budgets and fund infrastructure, and when they [mess] it up, we vote them out. Vote ‘for.’”

Michael Maddux was a member of the Parks Legacy Plan Citizen Advisory Committee. He currently serves on the Parks & Green Spaces Levy Oversight Committee, chairs the Endorsements Committee for the King County Democrats, and is a little league umpire. He lives with his daughter in the Eastlake neighborhood of Seattle.