Casual Disregard: The Unspoken Case For $15




I’m not a religious man by any stretch of the imagination but I do think and I do see inspiration in words like those in Matthew 25:40. I take this sort of thing seriously, and by the by a lot of what I write and right will end up being a fair mix of all philosophical traditions. It is part of where I’m from and it guides where I’m going.

So in that regard I feel it’s vital that I speak uncomfortable truths, even when people come bearing gifts and suggesting good will.

First, a little background: Seattle is currently contemplating a push that would set the minimum wage at $15. This, like most social justice struggles, is largely rooted in the need to provide not just equity but fair and just recompense for those wronged at an institutional level. What started as a grassroots movement–as Seattle does–moved into a popular wave–as Seattle does–and is now in the hands of committees and Councilmembers–again, and again, as Seattle does. So here we are.

As is typical with most of this type of activism there is some strong pushback from the business “community”. Essentially it is felt that pushing the city’s minimum wage would represent a hardship that is insurmountable by small businesses. The city’s character will change, it is argued, because those quirky shops we love will go away. In a city that is confronted with a supposed loss of its “flash” this is a powerful argument.

It is also wrong.

There seems to be a casual disregard for the underpinnings of what made those small businesses work, or even what made Seattle what it is. Underlying much of Seattle, both figuratively and literally, are untold thousands of people who have lived and died in poverty and rejection from society through institutional forces that directly benefit some and directly harm others. As a city we owe much to their lives, even if in life and death we don’t pay attention to them.

We can start this story from the beginning of the city we know, from its very founding. Seattle came after Seattle. Never was it the intention to name it thus, and in fact, it was initially called by the settlers “New York, Alki”, or “New York, Someday”. This wishful invocation itself was a product of the then-visible and now unseen. Alki is a word from the smooth and normalized Chinook Jargon that the original peoples and traders used.

Even then our city was built in spirit on the backs of the first peoples, even as the comity of the close confines of our little crossing over place swelled in pride and then shrank as ignorance took hold. As we all know, it was shortly thereafter that Seattle became Seattle, named after the person, whose Anglicized name was retooled and retooled in a game of rhetorical keep away that forced the distinction we now know of when we speak of Sealth or Si’ahl. Even to this day there’s still an awkward non-Native ownership of his name, but his descendants are grateful for the honor all the same.

More below the jump.

Plan C Is Progressive and Helps Our Long-Term Goals

Buses in the International District. Courtesy of SolDuc Photography, all rights reserved.

Securing revenue is the most critical step to improve transit in Seattle. The city has a long history of trying to build transit, from streetcars that were ultimately dismantled to the monorail project. Both the aforementioned examples largely failed because of funding problems. If we are serious about improving transit we need to reject the philosophy that we will get the best government by first cutting revenue. Additionally, we need to avoid the trap of trying to find an ideal funding method, that can’t immediately be implemented. If we support a progressive Seattle with better infrastructure and service, we need to increase revenue now.

Progressive Revenue Increases

Increasing revenue for transit is fundamentally a progressive cause. Collecting and disbursing money acknowledges that we can work together towards a better Seattle; that we are interdependent and live in a society. It is clear that residents within the city of Seattle overwhelmingly agree spending money on transit is the right way forward.

Before suggesting there are better solutions it is important to know how we got where we are and what the alternatives are. You can read a brief history here. In summary, campaigns to defund government over the last few decades have incrementally increased the vulnerability of transit funding. It is now dependent on sales taxes and state politics, both of which collapsed in the last few years. Given the current tax situation in Washington state, Seattle is extremely limited in how it can raise funds, especially before September.

To adopt a progressive solution, we must balance sharing this burden among the largest group possible while also having those with wealth pay more. A small increase in property taxes is our best solution. This initiative would require people and businesses to pay two dimes and two pennies for every $1,000 of wealth they own in property. This tax is a percentage, meaning middle class and low income families owning property would pay much less than people or businesses with million dollar homes and buildings. No other tax schemes could be implemented as quickly, spread as widely, address wealth inequities and have a legitimate chance of passing.

Towards A Long Term Solution

As mentioned before, this vote is not just about maintaining service. There are three big picture benefits if this initiative succeeds.

First, it will overturn the cynical and negative message from the April 22nd election; King County, the most transit supportive and bus dependent county in the state, rejected additional funding. Legislators are not passive observers of this outcome. Elections test support for policy and most big policy changes begin with small victories. We must demonstrate that Seattle wants transit supportive legislators. Voting yes on Plan C will be the best way to rectify this mistaken message and prove Seattle supports transit.

Second, it is impossible to rally people behind a long term solution until we stop the bleeding. Transit supporters are not a big enough advocacy group to split our efforts between many different pursuits. Improving service will require the support of those that are currently engaged because they need to save their bus while increasing engagement by increasing ridership. Funding buses in Seattle is necessary for supporters to coalesce behind bigger projects in the future.

Lastly, more state funding is absolutely critical. We wouldn’t be in this situation if the state legislature hadn’t failed to fund transit. Securing funding in the state legislature proved to be insurmountable this year because many state senators aren’t affected by cuts. Seattle representatives cannot secure funding alone. They must cut deals and they desperately need more leverage. Seattle residents can help with this by increasing locally raised revenue and spending. It is a perverse reality of politics that if we aren’t desperate, we can negotiate for more.

We must support a better city by funding transit and growing ridership. Supporting Plan C is the progressive solution and the first step to the next big transit projects.

Passing this initiative will require a lot of effort, mostly by volunteers. If you’d like to help, you can sign up online. If you have questions about this effort, you can direct those to

Holding the Line on Fish


Salish Canoe


Of all the recent regional policy discussions to fall behind the couch in urbanist circles perhaps the most important is on the topic of fish. In short, Governor Inslee is considering changes to clean water standards that could potentially increase allowable cancer rates in fish tenfold while grossly underestimating the average consumption of fish in native and non-native communities. The justification behind this is to preserve jobs because cleaning runoff up might harm Boeing’s bottom line or might require outright giveaways to the area’s top polluters.

Such a shift would be disastrous to urban policy.

This policy change is being made in the buzz around the Boldt 40 commemorations which reflect back on the landmark decision in United States v. Washington. In that case, the court upheld longstanding treaties giving local tribes the right to harvest fish “as long as the rivers run”. This court decision was important because it reaffirmed treaty rights and the importance of fish to local tribal communities while simultaneously changing course on how the state assesses the impact of policy.

A retrograde in policy toward one that prioritizes corporate profit over legitimate ecological impact would be harmful to regional policy. Invariably, such a policy ratchets down the importance of the human rights of tribes and begins to carve out massive concessions to environmental policy in the name of profit. It also codifies in administrative policy a deliberate decrease in the value of life by increasing the allowable number of cancer deaths based on estimates that assume fish consumption rates that are lower than reality or the standards in other states like Oregon.

The disparity in the underlying policy process is well-known and is a point of contention in discussions between the State and the Northwest Indian Fishing Commission. To allow a harmful policy shift to go through would demonstrate the sort of foreboding ill-will that often precedes other damaging environmental policy changes. Indeed, we’ve already seen the local permitting of a large methanol facility at the Port of Kalama and the hiring of a coal industry lobbyist into the Inslee administration. Tribes really are the canary in the proverbial coal mine here, but if people come together strongly enough, we can turn it around.

The upside to turning aside this potentially deadly shift in policy would be great. First, it reorients policy decisions toward legitimate human life rather than excusing more deaths. By doing so, policymakers would reaffirm that decisions should be made from a human-level perspective, rather than a theoretical reshaping of market conditions. Secondly, it urges smarter urban form by forcing developers to be more circumspect in planning and procedure. This would benefit cities especially because it would change the ecological dynamic in areas that are rapidly increasing in density. Finally, and most importantly, a policy that decreases allowable cancer rates and implements a realistic place-based fish consumption standard would save lives. This should be the paramount consideration of public policy, but it seems to be drowned out by a wash of cash.

Urbanists should keep an eye out on this issue as it progresses, especially those near sensitive areas where fish is currently–and traditionally–fished. It might change their world dramatically.

Magic Hour: Spinach, Belonging, Politics, Visions


Picture 15


I realize in rereading this piece that it can be seen to function as a political endorsement. It was not intended as such, though I suppose I don’t have a problem with it being read in that light; more importantly, rather, it is offered as a truthful record of moments and conversation between a couple of fellows, late one recent evening.

* * * * * * * * *

I’m beginning my last trip on the 14. It’s a short run from Mt. Baker to 5th and Jackson. At the transit center on Rainier they come rushing over. I’d been holding for time in the silent nothingness of a Monday at midnight, but then they materialize, out of the last seconds, dashing across the street. I am useful now.

Like figures in a von Stuck painting they take shape as they come closer. All three are African-American men between forty and sixty, strangers to each other, shaded in muted hues of brown and blue. Here’s a man shuffling, his walker leading him out of the darkness. Another fellow, heavyset but agile, quietly smiling with his arms full. He’s carrying a huge box of dog food under one arm. Later I’ll offer him a night stop to save a few blocks on his walk home. The thin man is third, and the youngest, sharply attired in a fitted leather jacket and beret. In each hand is a bulging QFC paper bag.

“I’m tryin’ to catch the last bus to South Park,” he breathes. “I think I can get it in the International District.” My sign says “14 to International District.”
“South Park, okay. What’s that, the 131, 132?”
“132,” he replies.
I ask, “do you know when it leaves?” I not sure which of those two routes closes out the route pairing for the night. I know each is only hourly after 8 or so.
“I think one something.”
“Oh, good, good. I get up there at 12:14, 5th and Jackson.”

He’s stressing, digging in his pockets for his transfer, trying to hold onto his QFC bags all the while.
“We’re still early, no rush.”

In my mind flashes a moment from earlier in the night: an elderly Chinese woman scurrying up to the bus at Maynard Avenue. “One more, one more,” she cried out. As she boarded there was every indication she did not have fare- her scruffy attire, the swarthy skin and odor of an alcoholic, the youthfully insolent manner in which she said she’d look for her transfer- all quite contradicting the studied presence and decorum of most of her east Asian contemporaries. I welcomed her on in, expecting nothing in terms of payment, only to be surprised later when she presented me with a crumpled scrap of H with an Orange border. “Oh, you’re wonderful! Thank you,” I said, silently chiding myself for making assumptions in the first place. Even if she didn’t have it- we all have our reasons.

In this spirit, I say to the Beret, “come on in, we can do that later. You got your hands full.”
“I trust you.”

As he settles in, Walker sings out, “hey when’s last 14 come out this way?”

I’m a believer in the idea that drivers should know the system. We are not boneheads, but professionals who can be expected to multitask and care about the service they provide. In the same way you expect a grocer to know where every last item is located, or a taxi driver to know every address in the city, I feel it is not unreasonable to expect a transit operator to know frequencies, major routes, last route departures, and so on. As drivers we’re not strictly required to know these things, but why not take pride in one’s work? Take pride in the responsibility that is expected of you as a professional. You can rise to that level. In the words of a straight-talking supervisor who recently spoke to a class of us drivers: “if you don’t know what bus goes to Harborview, you need to go get a job working somewhere else. If you don’t know what bus goes to U-District, Downtown, West Seattle… you have no business being here.” Harsh words, but sometimes you need to stretch a point in order to make one.

Having said all that, I only have a vague notion of when the last 14 is! Most of my bus knowledge comes from years of riding buses- definitely the easiest way to learn the system–but I’ve never ridden the last 14.*

“Um, they tend to stop around one. Lemme check it out to make sure,” I say, deftly grabbing a schedule from behind the timetable rack behind my seat. I hold it in my fingers as I drive, not bothering to try to read it- impossible without a red light.
“You lookin’ at the schedule?”
“Yeah, tryin’ to.”
Beret interjects, saying “here, lemme look at it for ya.”
“Hey man,” I say, “thank you for helpin out!”
“Oh yeah, well, somebody did me a favor, I may as well do someone else a favor!”
“Gotta pay it forward!”

They work out the timetables and continue chatting. I listen in as we cruise up 31st Avenue, approaching the Central District.

“What’s at you got there?”
“Spinach, bro,” answers Beret. “One seventy nine.”
“Where you shop at?”
“I used to stay out here.”
Used to,” says Walker Man. I can’t read his meaning. Referring to the spinach Beret is now enthusiastically chomping down, he continues: “that’s just raw?”
“Oh yeah, man. You eat this with anything.”
I yell out, “makes you big and strong!”
“As’ right!”
“Just like Popeye!”

Somehow they get from spinach to the housing market. Beret is feeling good this evening. He looks at the rain on the glass beside his face and says, “some cities, everything just shuts down at night. But here, they got at least one bus, sometimes two buses, they’ll take you where you need to go. Maybe you gotta walk some, but they’re there.”

I’m tempted to join in, but the mellow night soothes me. I’m enjoying the role of quiet participant, observing the twists and turns of their nocturnal meanderings. They continue discussing bus service, in generally praiseworthy terms, when the 7 pulls alongside us at 12th and Jackson. It’s the great Sonum driving, one of the masters of the late-night 7, and he opens his window. Sonum and I used to ride the bus home together, and I’ve always enjoyed his humble, well-travelled humor and tireless work ethic. He believes in a just universe.

“Hey, Sonum!”
“Hey, Nathan! Wait for me at the stop, I got a guy wants to transfer!”
“Oh, I’m only goin to 5th and Jackson. Just 5th and Jackson,” I say to the concerned passenger face beside him.
“Oh, okay. Never mind.”

Afterwards, Beret says, “major props, man. Respect. I give you major props for that, sir.”
“Gotta look out for each other, right?” I reply.
“Oh yeah. Where I come from the frequency is good but oh man, so many times the bus is right there and it’a just drive away.”
“Oh no!”
“It’s a good system here.”
“I think so too.”
“Just hope they get that funding for you guys April 22nd.”
“Yeah, well. I hope folks come out and vote!”
“Yeah, gotta keep up the service. in fact, it should be add more service, not just keep it where it is. Add more buses.”
“Oh yeah. Well, it’s funny you should say. The guy who runs Metro is a cool guy, comparatively younger guy, from New York,”
“Oh! I’m from upstate New York,”
“Awesome. Yeah, real solid guy, wants not just to preserve the network, but ideally someday he’d like to just about double the amount of service on the streets. There’s even a plan for how to do it. ‘Cause you gotta match the growth that’s happening in this place.  ‘Course we don’t got the money for it now, but one day, you know, when the money’s right.”
“I see it. ‘Cause it’s a city on the upswing.”
“On the upswing, exactly. Other cities, LA, which is my hometown,”
“Oh right on,”
“When I’m down there half a everyone I’m talking to is people telling me they’re leaving. Here, people are coming to Seattle. You always run into somebody just moved here. It’s a city that’s goin’ places.”
“I just moved here.”
“Exactly. Welcome to Seattle!”

“Okay, here’s 5th and Jackson,” I say as we make the turn.
“Right on.”
“Do you know where to get the 132 at?”
“Yeah, I think….”
I point out where 3rd and Main is, and how to walk over there. Walker Man leaves kindly, without incident.

“Alright, I say, as the bus points toward base. Time for me to go home!”
“Major props, once again, for your attitude,” says Beret, from the lamplit brick sidewalk.
“Right back atcha!”
“I didn’t know it was gonna be the bus of people helpin’ people!”

He felt the warm glow of community, the democratic, equalizing notion of individuals considering each other as parts of a greater whole. Belonging. Here was that all-encompassing sensation that floods your system, the feeling of being comforted and empowered all at once. He walked into the night energized, beginning the final leg of the long trip home.

*The last outbound 14 leaves 3rd and Union at 1:15, every night!


Editor’s Note: Nathan is a regular contributor to The Urbanist and runs his own blog where he recounts many more of his bus stories, be sure to peruse his archive at

Sunday Video: Colman Dock


See the potential changes on the way for Colman Dock in this video about the Environmental Assessment.

What We’re Reading: Death and Rebirth

Prop 1 Election Night Results
Election night results of Proposition 1, courtesy of Oran Viriyincy.

Postmortem: The buses will beginning getting the axe in September, Metro has an organized service reduction plan to achieve the necessary cuts over a one-year period. People are mad, but it ain’t the first time at this rodeo. Tons of voting data is becoming available if you want to explore the fallout, but it isn’t all bad.

Born again: Metro could still be saved, Ben and Company will lead the charge by championing a Seattle-only measure. Yesterday, the initiative was lodged with the City Clerk’s office. Take a preview at it and then make sure you sign the petition in the coming weeks. And, if you want to help, be sure to let Friends of Transit know.

Bone dry: California has finally become entirely drought ridden. Hopefully this water crisis doesn’t repeat next year because deficits build up and in the long-term this could spell utter disaster for the Golden State. At the same time, we need to get serious about topics like resiliency and rising sea levels. If California is any kind of indicator of things to come, tackling the issues of adaptation and slowing the speed of global climate change will be ever more important.

Lots of green: The eco-friendly Bullitt Center generated more energy than it consumed, 105,300 kilowatt hours more to be exact! We can definitely appreciate true living buildings, and Seattle is lucky to have the greenest of them all.

Supplying China: There are some serious ironies here: a defunct California RV manufacturer will produce electric, carbon-free buses for carbon intensive China. There’s a lot to like about that. Of course, we’re not completely innocent when it comes to emissions. 40% of Seattle’s emissions come from filthy motorized transport like cars and trucks. We may have lost that battle a long time ago, but we can win in the future.

Maybe the witch is dead: Bertha, the SR 99 tunnel boring machine (TBM), is falling further behind schedule. The restart date for the TBM will expand from September 2014 to March 2015. WSDOT say that the project can be delivered on-time, but the cost estimates are already ballooning and we are highly skeptical that the project can even meet the revised schedule.

Bike month approaches: We already know that Seattle loves bikes, but lots of good things are on the horizon (besides bike month). Two concepts for the Westlake Cycle Track are currently being evaluated by the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT). Tom over at the Seattle Bike Blog gives us the skinny on the concepts, and argues that Concept B is probably superior, but does have some downsides that would hopefully be addressed in a revised hybrid. In other cycling news, the Puget Sound Bike Share has announced that Group Health Cooperative will sponsor 15 bike stations with many other sponsors joining the cause.

15 Now, 15 Maybe: Mayor Murray held a press conference this week that basically was a non-event. The committee responsible with coming up with a plan to raise the minimum wage to a living wage couldn’t agree on any of the terms to make it happen. The saga of 15 Now continues…

Tear it down and they will come: Rising from the ashes of a former highway comes a whole new city. Hmm…isn’t that something we’re supposed to do here? At least we’re rebuilding the Seawall and helping out the fishies during the interim.

Get your map on: If you’re wondering if it’s easy to get to work by walking, biking, and car in a particular metro, this new mapping software can give you an idea of overall access. And while you’re at it, may you want to walk back in time with the new Google Street View.

To preserve or not to preserve, that’s the question: In good old NYC, the Museum of Modern Art is look to ditch an old building, but folks in the East Coast city want to reuse it. The question is, should it be saved? We have the same issues arise here from time to time, but the outcomes of preservation can be mixed. Speaking of the East Coast and reuse, DC is planning a clever way to spice up a danky old underpass. Who wants to hangout under the railway tracks!? This kid!

The answer lies in Colombia: Seriously, Medellín can teach us how to accommodate explosive growth and get creative. Christopher Swope give us an interesting set of interviews on this South American metropolis.

Tap that: SDOT will soon be turning on the ORCA reader stations along all stop of the South Lake Union Streetcar.

Colman Dock Multimodal Terminal

MV Walla Walla unloading at Slip 2 and MV Tacoma unloading in Slip 3, Seattle - Washington State Ferries
Colman Dock from the Columbia Center, photo by the author.

Washington State Ferries is planning upgrades to the Seattle Ferry Terminal, also know as Colman Dock. The existing terminal is outdated, as it was built in the 1960s and last expanded in the early 1990s. The original part of the dock, which is made of unsafe creosote timber trestle is getting replaced. The terminal building is getting completely rebuilt in order to provide more efficient operations for an ever-growing number of walk-on passengers. The passenger-only facility used by the King County Ferry District will receive new access from the main terminal and the Marion Street pedestrian bridge.

The Environmental Assessment was released in mid-April, and now the Washington State Ferries is asking for public input. You can provide you own during the many events organized in the upcoming weeks or submit comment online.

Puget Sound Regional Council (Board Room)
Monday, April 28
1011 Western Avenue, Suite 500, Seattle

Colman Dock – Main terminal building
Tuesday, April 29

King County Water Taxi Waiting Area (Pier 50)
Thursday, May 1

Bainbridge Terminal Building
Monday, May 5

Bremerton Terminal Building
Tuesday, May 6

Revisiting A Rapidly Changing Seattle: South Lake Union


South Lake Union April 2014

Color Theming: Red = Developable, Green = In Design/Planning, Blue = Under Construction, and Yellow = Completed

It’s been only three months since I first wrote about A Rapidly Changing Seattle. In that article, I highlighted the amazing amount of development taking place in Seattle and the city’s capacity for growth. Since then, new development applications have been accelerating at breakneck speeds, particularly in the central portion of the city. For this article, I want to focus on the areas just north of Downtown.

As you can see in the map above, dozens of projects are currently in design or under construction in this area, with new project proposals heavily focused in the areas of South Lake Union and the Denny Triangle. Since January, South Lake Union and the Denny Triangle have had a respective total of 11 and 7 new, large-scale project proposals. This continued and increasing building boom represents great things to come for the city: additional opportunity for jobs and housing, increased tax revenue, further neighborhood activation, and enhancement of the public realm and overall urban form.

However, the well is running dry in the South Lake Union Urban Center. If the pace of development keeps up, new building will have to go elsewhere in just a few short years.

South Lake Union

South Lake Union is reaching a point where new development applications will slow down. Aside from a dozen or so sites, there aren’t many large and easily developable sites remaining. So what does that mean?

  1. Future development will be more challenging. Developers will have to do a couple things to build on the smaller and less easily developable sites: consolidate smaller lots, use awkwardly shaped lots, raze smaller structures, and/or construct slimmer and more compact buildings.
  2. Development will eventually trickle to an end in a few short years. This will push development pressure to nearby Urban Centers. Obvious candidates to take up the South Lake Union mantle are the Denny Triangle and Uptown where development capacity is much greater.

More below the jump.