A preliminary decision on the specific lines and stations included in ST3, Sound Transit’s 25 year plan for Link Light Rail expansion on the November ballot, has been announced. ST2, approved in 2008, is finishing up with the new East Link line from Seattle to Bellevue and Redmond in 2023, and extending the current Central Link line south to Angle Lake later this year and Kent in 2023, and up to Northgate and Lynnwood in 2021 and 2023, respectively. The new $50 billion package lays out extending the current line down to Tacoma and up to Everett–finishing Sound Transit’s widely contested “completed spine” mission–along with new Ballard, West Seattle, and Issaquah lines.
Seattle Met’s Josh Feit critiqued the plan:

After all, the whole slave-to-the-spine POV of the plan reads as pure political calculation to woo as many subarea voting blocs as possible this November rather than as thoughtful urban planning; transportation planners generally advise that you build out from the central core first rather than building straight out to park and rides.

Notably absent from ST3 is fulfilling proper transit to several of Seattle’s “urban villages”–the master plan the city developed about a decade ago to bring population density to retail destinations in each neighborhood, generally the places that were once the downtowns of pre-annexation towns. Missing service includes the highly desired Ballard to UW line linking Wallingford and Fremont, or stations near Lake City, South Park, Crown Hill, Bitter Lake, First Hill, and the Central District. The assumption is that SDOT’s presently 5mph streetcars will fill in the gaps.

The Urbanist described the plans as, “suburb heavy,” offering only two in-city routes, with Sound Transit choosing the cheaper, slower, less reliable, partially at-grade Ballard route that will has a significantly lower estimated ridership than if it were entirely underground or elevated, able to run more frequently. ST3 uses the difference on routing the Everett extension to service Paine Field rather than remain along I-5, costing an extra $2 billion, slowing it down by an estimated 13 minutes, and offering only a marginal increase in ridership compared to other uses of $2 billion. This decision mostly benefits Boeing, a company that constantly threatens the state into granting it massive tax breaks, always hoping to find less unionized pastures. ST3 will spend $980m on 18,000 new parking spots, offering the car-reliant folk of suburbia $52k worth of free real-estate a piece, and spending transit dollars on automobile infrastructure that could likely be made obsolete from the advent of autonomous cars.

In the post-war era, wealthy and middle class (mostly white) people were sold the dream of a manicured private lawn and automobile. Folks realized that by ejecting themselves from the tax burden of paying for the social services that every real city needs, they could organize better schools and parks. They could stretch out in larger homes more catered to the modern desires that carried no initial land value or scarcity to make them out of reach, all developed by one company offering vast plots of idealistic domestic homogeneity. Greatly benefiting the automobile giants of Michigan, counties and states paid for smaller infrastructure, while the Federal Government paid for the previously-unneeded massive interstates to make commuting dozens of miles daily feasible, forcibly embedding Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors in the American dream. Anyone hit by inequality would quickly find the social services and walkability of a real city necessary, fleeing to them. Suburban developments are parasitic, made possible only by the core city, extracting the tax base from it and exporting the poverty they create to it. They gain an inherent 20+ miles of transportation for all resources and travel, then build locally in the least effective and environmentally sustainable way through cul-de-sacs and wide arterials that make bus routes and walkability impractical and dangerous, as this charmingly ‘90s government documentary explains. In addition to this, even the people of color that could afford this lifestyle were prevented from accessing it through denying them the low-interest Federal Housing Administration loans that made these homes attractive to white folks, forcing them to rent for life. Home ownership in the past half century is considered a major reason for why black Americans on average have 1/20th the net wealth of whites.

Charles Marohn, founder of the blog Strong Towns and a former civil engineer, found his suburb unable to pay for $300,000 in sewage system repairs. He resorted to getting a $2.6m federal grant to overhaul and double their sewage capacity. Also doubled was its maintenance cost, which they had already failed at paying. Marohn became disillusioned by his profession, both for this case and his industry’s insistence on sacrificing human lives to make residential streets feel like highways, coming to the conclusion that sprawls are an unsustainable ponzi scheme:

In each of these mechanisms, the local unit of government benefits from the enhanced revenues associated with new growth. But it also typically assumes the long-term liability for maintaining the new infrastructure. This exchange — a near-term cash advantage for a long-term financial obligation — is one element of a Ponzi scheme. The other is the realization that the revenue collected does not come near to covering the costs of maintaining the infrastructure. In America, we have a ticking time bomb of unfunded liability for infrastructure maintenance. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates the cost at $5 trillion — but that’s just for just major infrastructure, not the minor streets, curbs, walks, and pipes that serve our homes. The reason we have this gap is because the public yield from the suburban development pattern — the amount of tax revenue obtained per increment of liability assumed — is ridiculously low. Over a life cycle, a city frequently receives just a dime or two of revenue for each dollar of liability. We’ve simply built in a way that is not financially productive. We’ve done this because, as with any Ponzi scheme, new growth provides the illusion of prosperity. In the near term, revenue grows, while the corresponding maintenance obligations — which are not counted on the public balance sheet — are a generation away.

A report by LSE Cities and Victoria Transport Policy Institute found sprawl costs the US over $1 trillion each year. Dense cities like Barcelona have about 1/6th the per capita carbon emissions from transportation of sprawling ones like Atlanta. This car-oriented design has a real effect on public health: residents in cities like New York weigh on average six pounds less than suburbanites, and have lower obesity and diabetes rates. Additionally, the ten densest counties in the US happen to be the safest for road safety, with a quarter the traffic fatality rates of the most sprawling counties (CityLab). Low-Density suburban tax revenue does not come close to maintaining the massive amount of pipes, roads, sidewalks, poles, wires, and added healthcare expense, let alone 20 miles of tracks and stations that serve just 8,000 riders, as is expected on Issaquah Link.

From looking at the fare recovery rate, you can make assumptions on environmental impact, efficiency, and use value. Despite being the most expensive project and not a priority in the timeline, the Ballard line’s cost of subsidy per rider over 30 years is just $2.77, recovering about half the cost in fare, just like the New York Subway. The Madison Street Bus Rapid Transit project, already funded, is even profitable, up 60 cents a rider. This compares quite favorably to the estimated $18.09/rider subsidy of Issaquah to Bellevue, and $12.92 for Lynnwood to Everett. Seattle receives just 27% of the fare subsidies, yet will bring 52% of the new transit riders. This isn’t to say we should take an unsubsidized approach to transit, just that we should think carefully about who and what practices we’re paying for, and whether they’re truly creating environmentally sustainable lifestyles and social equity. Sound Transit’s policy of “subarea equity” might not be doing that, considering its apparent priority to serve Microsoft and Boeing sooner than the masses of people that need it the most.

Washington DC’s Metro is close to what Sound Transit will build by its numbers: each system has a bit over 100 miles of track that’s around 70% out of city, with 44% of stations within city limits. Link is estimated to garner a bit over 500,000 daily riders, while DC Metro currently gets over 700,000. These are relatively good numbers for post-war systems, far better than what the admittedly bad BART offers San Fransisco. Forty years after opening, DC Metro is facing physically dangerous tracks due to lack of funding for maintenance. Link’s lowest usage lines will require the greatest amount of infrastructure, offering a scary parallel to the sparse communities it will serve.

This economic impact directly translates to ecological sustainability through the excess use of resources, especially the carbon emission-heavy concrete and oil that suburbs use a lot more of. The lowest environmental impact per capita in the US is found in New York City, with a population density over 28,000 per square mile, while the highest is found in places like Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with metro area densities under 200 people per square mile. That difference isn’t from the prevalence of Teslas and reusable grocery bags, but rather much larger systematic differences in the construction of neighborhoods and the way people adapt to them.

Issaquah will always have 20 miles of innate inefficiency for commuters, both in time and energy. Tracks to suburbs will also not decrease car usage and traffic. Because of the induced demand phenomena, it will instead increase the carrying capacity of the sprawl. The percent of people taking public transit will increase, but the number of people driving will remain static. This is why adding more lanes to a road doesn’t improve congestion. Two studies, one in LA, and one in the UK, found no conclusive change in traffic after rail expansion. Decreased traffic is found to encourage more drivers and people to move to the area temporarily relieved of stop-and-go. I-90 will never get better.

The congestion reduction benefits of LRT are likely very limited. If new LRT lines are located in high demand areas, we can expect a lot of latent demand; so LRT—to the extent that transit capacity is increased—allows for new auto trips, some of which may fill up the space made available by those who shift from auto to transit (Downs 1992). Moreover, as in the Expo Line case, new LRT lines typically add only incrementally to the overall capacity of the corridor. (LA Metro Expo Line Study)

For both individual safety and livelihood, and the future viability of the human race, well designed cities are a must. Suburbs give the illusion of living in an individualistic vacuum of freedom that’s compatible with neoliberalism, yet they have a far greater strain on others than in living situations more commonly associated with welfare where our co-dependence is in plain sight.

As suburbs age, we risk a further widening of inequality. Sprawl with infrastructure never viable for maintenance or replacement loses value while urban areas are rapidly gentrifying with new developments aimed solely maximizing land value rather than meeting the needs of the city’s people. Great densification around many Link stations is planned, such as the all-new Spring District of Bellevue, creating brand new and walkable mixed-use neighborhoods. However, with most of these new developments focusing on luxury condominiums and small apartments, they won’t do much for the working poor being forced to dilapidating neighborhoods that will still require either long and dangerous walks, or driving to the metro.

Yet again, the masses are displaced into a lower quality of life because of the desires of the wealthy. Suburban living inflates the cost of living for low income folks forced into the car-reliant neighborhoods designed by richer people meet their then-fashionable obsession with green lawns and fast driving. This has already happened in one of the worst historical examples of white flight, Atlanta. From 2000 to 2011, its suburban poor population grew 159%. Across the country, 16.4 million people below the poverty line live in suburbs, now greater than the number in cities. In DC, city-dwellers spend as little as 9% of their income on transportation, while the people in places similar to Issaquah spend over double that. The worst shortages of affordable rentals are in the cities with the strongest economies, including ours, San Fransisco, and New York.

Karen Narefsky at Jacobin Magazine explains:

Meanwhile, as housing prices increase and once-affordable apartments are converted into luxury condominiums, cities are becoming inaccessible to the poor and working class. This not only displaces actual residents, but also creates a barrier to entry for potential new residents. Cities have always been havens for new immigrants because of their dense social networks and easy access to public services, but this, too, is changing. “Affordable housing” now means formally subsidized units rather than de facto cheap rents, and the subsidizing entities rarely accept tenants without social security numbers or clean criminal records.

Because of this, working-class Americans increasingly live in suburbs or exurbs. As of the 2010 census, three-quarters of all metropolitan-area residents lived outside the urban core. This suburbanization means that workers are less likely to have easy access to public transportation, and that they will have to travel farther to visit the post office, bring their children to daycare, or join a rally. Isolated and disempowered, the suburban poor must work even harder to meet basic needs, leaving less and less time for “what they will.”

One saving grace is Sound Transit’s new housing policy. Sound Transit will buy more land than absolutely necessary for building Link, and sell at least 80% of what’s left after construction to be developed with a requirement that 80% of the residential units be set aside for people making no more than 80% of the area’s median income. They’ve already done this in Capitol Hill, and 150 affordable units are going up in the empty lot above the subway station.

The Eastside is designed for the rich to be with other rich, rather than an ecosystem, and its municipalities will never be large enough to offer a fair share of social services. Seattle is a contiguous and tight grid from Burien to Shoreline and Alki to Lake Washington. Due to this, even single family housing is almost always accessible to bus routes that can connect to mass rail transit, letting you get anywhere publicly, without needing park and rides that spend transit dollars on cars. The grid also allows near infinite densification, and makes efficient use of resources and utility rollout. The things 19th to early 20th century Seattle streets did right and newer places contest–shorter block lengths with a sharper turning radius, narrower lanes, two-way traffic, and a sidewalk median that provides a tree canopy and pedestrian protection–make drivers more aware and abiding of the speed limit and their surroundings, bringing safety to the community. Cars are guests in cities developed in the human era, welcome where necessary, but with an understanding that they remain respectful of the environment they’re visiting. The size of the city of Seattle means public housing is viable without being limited to the more stretched County budget coming from a more conservative voter-base.

Our policy right now is making expensive homes the only kind profitable to build, and therefore, the only kind that gets built:

It’s becoming cliche to note that 65% of Seattle’s land is off limits to development (zoned for single-family homes and parks).  Some percentage of the remaining 35% is presumably already developed to the zoning limit. That means all the city’s growth has to happen in the small fraction that remains.  Intensive development + small amount of buildable land = high land prices.  Some may lament that new housing is only built for the top end of the market, but when land prices are high and height limits are low, expensive houses are really all that can be built.  And yet the developer, not the landowner, receives the bulk of the public’s ire.

Municipalities try to ameliorate the expensive housing with subsidies, but the cost of land eats through scarce government funds. San Francisco, for example, is planning to spend almost $900,000 per apartment to build affordable housing in the Mission because of high land costs.

The simplest answer is to build more densely where the land is cheaper, i.e. in single-family neighborhoods.   Instead, current city policy encourages people to tear down single family homes and replace them with even larger, more expensive single family homes, which seems like the opposite of making things more affordable.  The “charming” old bungalows are going away one way or another, the only question is what they get replaced with.

Even though they’re a markedly more efficient and better design than what newer places have built, Seattle’s classic craftsman bungalow blocks will be lost as the option for every middle class family. Family-oriented denser housing, including duplexes, triplexes, multi-floor apartments, and row housing, is utterly scarce, and that needs to change quickly to keep Seattle affordable for the lower and middle class. Right now, just 3% of affordable Seattle housing has three bedrooms. Backyard cottages are a cute idea, but the upfront cost is preventing them from taking off, and they ultimately just add an extra person to a single family lot.

Unfortunately, some of the new “transit-oriented” developments make no attempt to fix this, instead preferring separate and unequal class segregation. Joshua McNichols at KUOW interviewed UW professor Alon Bassok on Bellevue’s Spring District neighborhood, pictured above:

“Everything that they are doing is cutting edge. It’s in line with the most modern thinking in terms of being environmentally friendly, in terms of architecture, in terms of being next to a rail station – all of those things are wonderful. And there’s just this one more piece missing.”

“And that piece is affordable housing,” says Bassok. “At least housing affordable for low-income residents, such as the workers who cook and clean for the higher-paid works who will inhabit the district’s offices and eco-friendly apartments. The development won’t include anything that working families like that could afford. Instead, the developer will pay into a fund to develop affordable housing outside the Spring District.”

“So you’re propagating essentially this area of poor people and an area of rich people,” Bassok says. Alon Bassock says the Spring District’s developer is doing everything right, but by skipping over affordable housing, is missing the chance to do something exceptional.

“As opposed to what would make it more convenient would be to have everybody living in one place and not having to make that commute.”

Individual units of public housing and subsidies are not enough. If we consciously go forward with building dense enough that controlling rent and offering low income residents a good quality of life is feasible, we can finally make progress on shifting gentrification’s oppressive market paradigm.

Despite the popular assertion from tech fanatics, self driving cars are not the simple solution here. They may even reduce the average operating occupancy in vehicles from the currently abysmal 1.2 to below one human. Even with smarter algorithms than human error offers, the sheer number of cars and inefficiency of maintaining single occupancy commutes makes no systemic change to our economic and environmental sustainability issues. Remember, with two narrow lanes of traffic, Link can carry 24,000 people an hour in each direction, never facing any congestion. Wider highway lanes can do 1,800 at best. Self driving electric cars likely only get more efficient than public means at the levels of sparse density we don’t see even basic bus services offered, which means an overall still far less sustainable system, even if better than a human-driven gas car in the same neighborhood. Mass transit will also go fully electric a lot faster than personal cars, always having a clearer incentive than individuals to upgrade for fuel savings. King County Metro’s 48 line is being electrified, and that alone will save six Olympic swimming pools of diesel a year. The per passenger mile per gallon equivalent of electric public transit can easily make it into the thousands in a well-used system, compared to the under 100MPGe figure electric cars get. They do, however, put into question the $1b spent on 2040s parking in ST3, as self driving, taxi-like cars will likely spend very little time parked, and their affordability will quickly trump ownership. The proposition that cities will get to reclaim 10-20% of their land, already underutilitized, is certainly exciting.

It’s good to note that Seattle residents won’t be footing the bill for suburban rail, as Seattle Transit Blog pointed out:

Moreover, although our picture of the subarea math is incomplete, there is no sign that Seattle funds are flowing to the suburbs; indeed, Shoreline and Lake Forest Park funds are coming in to Seattle. There is no “go it alone” approach, even assuming the legislature would allow it, that magically brings more funding and speeds up timelines. The only reason to reject on these grounds is if one is willing to make Seattle rail worse to deny it to the suburbs.

I absolutely support ST3. Though I disagree that increasing carrying capacity to all subareas is the right idea, stopping suburban rail won’t do anything to derail the displacement of Seattle’s poor. As the wealthier flock “deals” above the prior neighborhood norm, Seattle’s cheaper and lower density neighborhoods will face redevelopment no matter what, and others will be forced to dilapidating homes, with or without mass transit access. Link will still be focused on downtown Seattle as its hub for jobs–which is effective policy. Right now, just 31% of downtown commuters drive alone, and 55% use public or human-powered transit. These kinds of numbers would be impossible to achieve for workplaces in Seattle neighborhood villages, let alone Eastside office parks. Any policy that encourages shifting workplaces outside of downtown Seattle, even if its closer to the homes of employees, will likely result in more driving. To solve climate change and inequality, we need solutions stronger than just “a bit better”.


Image Sources:
Featured image by ECTran71 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
ST3 Map
Eastgate Park and Ride photograph taken by Tyler Simpson
1 mile walkability map comparison from Walkscore, maps courtesy of Lawrence Frank & Co. and the Sightline Institute
Suburban neighborhood image by Futuredirections (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
Bellevue Spring District Website