Archive for the ‘transportation’ Category

The other civic disorder

Thursday, August 20th, 2015
Crossing Second Avenue at Stewart with 10 seconds left, with left turners coming from directly behind. Photo by Matt Hays
Crossing Second Avenue at Stewart with 10 seconds left, with left turners coming from directly behind. Photo by Matt Hays

Finally, some movement on civic disorder and public safety in Downtown Seattle!

No, not the improved Westlake Park and Third Avenue…traffic disorder. Blocked crosswalks, bike lanes, and cross-traffic. Red light runners, whether cars or bikes. Speeding. Free right turns without looking both ways. Cars not stopping for pedestrians at crosswalks, marked or unmarked. Cars edging into crosswalks against the light, drivers texting away. Collectively this is big safety issue, a serious problem for mobility when routes are blocked, and a constant nuisance.

Ok, we’re not dealing with all of that yet. Just “blocking the box,” i.e. blocked cross-streets and crosswalks. But what a breath of fresh air. Per the Seattle Times, “mass citations will begin in October, following a publicity campaign and sign postings in August and September” and tickets are $136.

Watch any street heading toward I-5 at rush hour. It seems like every cycle at every intersection has someone blocking it. A recent Council Transportation Committee briefing by SDOT and SPD notes key intersections with more than one infraction per minute. Sometimes pedestrians have to walk dangerously in traffic lanes. Bicyclists risk serious injury, for example when using the often-blocked Second Avenue bike lane. When a car is even partially in the crosswalk, pedestrians have to worry about getting run over by that car in addition to the other directions, particularly when the car is pointing downhill and one driver stepping off the brake pedal might mean getting hit.

An occasional misjudgment is understandable, but constantly? Is there a possible reason that doesn’t involve name calling? All I can think of is idiots and jerks.

This is a traffic flow problem as well, like streets crossing Mercer, Denny, or Spring eastbound after work, or any southbound avenue before a night game. Cars and buses both get stuck.

Sometimes there’s no traffic jam at all, but cars still creep into crosswalks. Maybe they’re turning right and not looking both ways. Often they’re not turning at all, and simply don’t care about others. Or they decided to drive uphill without the skill to do it safely.

I say throw the book at them. And do the same for red light runners and texters.

Seattle might keep going

Monday, April 27th, 2015

The duration and intensity of the Downtown Seattle development boom is getting a little surprising, beyond even my optimistic guesses from a few years ago. This isn’t just another Seattle-type boom. But here’s the kicker: things seem poised to keep going.

That’s saying something. Between offices, housing, and transportation, this is clearly the busiest we’ve ever been. And we’re four years into it, vs. the typical hard stop far short of that.

The current wave is over 7,000,000 square feet of office and 15,000 housing units by my napkin count, if you gerrymander things up Dexter and Pike/Pine a little, including projects that are at least in active site prep. For offices I believe it’s a record for greater Downtown. For housing it’s a modern-day record by a factor of two.

So why the optimism?

First is tech. Amazon is obvious. But there’s also a pretty stunning wave of national or global tech companies setting up or expanding tech offices in greater Downtown. These companies need talent, and the word is out about Seattle. Even if one of our giants stumbles, is there any doubt that other firms would swoop in to hire waves of their people? This is giving developers the confidence to pursue additional projects at a high rate.

Second is a continued inflow of other companies into Downtown from around the region, for example Weyerhauser and MulvannyG2, as well as Expedia though it’s more distant. Companies value Seattle locations for stated reasons like recruitment, business synergies, public transit, and lunch options. Other local nodes are doing a good job of developing downtown-type amenities and synergies, but greater Downtown Seattle has a strong pull right now. (Bellevue will be fine of course; Downtown Tacoma, Downtown Everett, Kirkland, and others are doing a lot of great things too.)

There will be headwinds, like traffic. As the workforce grows, it’s clear that driving can’t grow much with it because there’s no space. Transit will need to improve a lot. Thankfully every new apartment helps reduce the number of inbound commuters.

On that note, housing will keep booming. New office buildings mean a lot more potential Downtown residents, both directly and indirectly. As more office workers compete for the same street, freeway, and transit space, the idea of a six-block walk to work becomes more attractive for longtime workers too, all the more so as district after district adds more residential mass and related services. Some point out that 25-year-old urbanites often become 30-year-olds with kids that want houses, but good news…today’s 20-year-olds will replace them. And how about baby boomers becoming empty-nesters?

Now about condos. Apartment pessimists often point out that renters might start buying in large numbers, sometimes implying that they’ll start picking houses. But many love urban living, roads aren’t getting any easier, and houses and house-ready properties aren’t cheap. If people start buying, many will choose condos. The old presale-based financing method isn’t viable yet, but equity-rich developers can still get loans, so condos are already coming back. We’re at the very beginning of what could be another wave, minus some of the feeding frenzy or zero-down formats that contributed to the bubble and bust.

The current wave of Asian (often Chinese) residents and investors will help our construction volume substantially, as Seattle becomes more of a global destination. Our prices are half of those in Vancouver or San Francisco, and should remain far lower because we can add supply relatively easily. Further, this is helping our status as a business and tourism center across the board, for example by bringing in more tech workers.

Hotels are also just starting. So far the new inventory only deals with 2014’s overly-high occupancy rate, not future growth. Seattle is becoming a bigger tourist destination, including stunning growth in overseas airline traffic last year and so far this year. We plan to build a second convention center (aka the “addition”). Our growing office base brings visitors as well as relocations and interns who live in hotels for weeks or months. Who knows where our hotel demand will go from here, but “up significantly” seems like a good guess.

Biotechs are talking about a lack of space again, particularly with the old Amgen campus off the table. Hospitals have slowed their construction programs after the last wave, but new significant construction is anticipated again at Virginia Mason, Swedish, and Harborview, including medical offices.

The convention center, a new ferry terminal, and post-viaduct streets and public space projects are all a couple years out. Imagine having those to soften any downturn.

Here’s another reason: we might not have a national crisis or massive overbuilding. People love to quote 1982, 1990, 2001, and 2008 like we’re automatically headed for their equivalent. The first dramatically overbuilt hotels and condos, the second did the same for offices in part because of the CAP initiative that curtailed further development, the third involved both a tech bubble and 9/11, and the fourth involved the mortgage crisis and a narrowly-averted depression. We could have another crisis, like Amazon or the global economy crumbling, but nothing looks imminent. As some point we’ll overbuild in key subsectors, but we have a good chance of avoiding the “brick wall.”

Of course all of that is independent of potential problems like the big fees the City might implement, a lack of construction workers, cost escalation if it exceeds market rents, higher interest rates, and so on. Challenges can happen on many fronts.

So caution, always. But so far so good.

Can growth reduce traffic?

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014
Via6, photo by Tim Rice

Often we look at development and wonder what will happen to traffic. This comes up a lot regarding greater Downtown Seattle, particularly the fast-growing northern portions. Actually, the truth might be pretty good.

The reasons are primarily these: 1. Congestion is mostly about peak times, and some buildings’ users spread their travel throughout the day rather than concentrating at rush hour. 2. A large percentage of growth does not add trips, but rather makes them shorter.

Category 1 includes hotels (a big growth area) as well as colleges, hospitals, retail, and art/tourist attractions. While these have peak times, they mostly spread activity throughout the day and night. Even at hospitals, only portions of the staff work bank hours, and few patients arrive at 8:00 am. Hotel guests arrive all day and evening, stay multiple nights while getting around mostly on foot, then leave throughout the morning. Destination retail is often busiest on weekends. Concerts are mostly at night. College students and faculty keep varying class hours. All of these uses avoid making rush hour much worse, while also activating our parks, spreading their lunch dollars to the slower times, and so on.

Housing falls heavily into Category 2. Greater Downtown residents are often greater Downtown workers. They’d already be traveling to these jobs daily, but living nearby means they can walk, use transit, bike, or drive a short distance instead of a long one. Working residents of the three major Downtown zip codes commuted on foot at rates of 47.6% for 98104, 34.1% for 98101, and 32.3% for 98121 in 2012 per They drove alone (often a much shorter distance) only 22.0%, 21.0% and 38.1% of the time. The gap between those figures was mostly transit, which is also much more convenient when you’re downtown. Working at home is also a major category. Expanding to the north, the 98109 area includes South Lake Union but also half of Queen Anne Hill, so its 13.7% walk and 47.6% drive alone rates are less relevant; perhaps SLU’s numbers are more like 98121’s.

Of course, those figures include people who commute to jobs far away from Downtown, who must represent a big chunk of the drivers and transit riders. The pedestrian numbers should be much higher if you only count those who also work Downtown. As for outbound commutes, these are added trips, but might peak a little earlier than inbound commutes (like 7:00-7:30 instead of 7:30-8:00?), and use the less-congested half of Downtown streets. In any case, it seems likely that most new Downtown residents also work here, so there should be a net reduction in traffic.

Many residents are in Category 1 as well, largely traveling outside commute times. This would include many retirees and students without jobs, who are apparently not counted in the commute statistics. These people seem likely to have low driving rates as well. Category 1 would also apply to many workers with non-traditional hours.

This is all relevant to transportation to and from greater Downtown as well. Turning thousands of 20-mile drives into two-mile drives and half-mile walks must be really helpful. If the current greater Downtown housing boom is around 11,500 units including tendrils up Dexter and Pike/Pine (my guesstimate), how many fewer inbound commutes might that represent, and and how many tax dollars might we avoid in future road projects, let alone less-jammed public transit? Between that savings, construction-related sales taxes, and new tax base upon completion, it’s a wonder we charge development fees rather than incentivizing new housing along with nice thank-you letters.

Offices (as well as laboratories) are the other big category of growth, and of course they contribute to rush hours. But our region needs their economic engine. That engine is best served by allowing companies to locate where workers want to work and companies can be near each other. Locating downtown means they’re transit-accessible and many employees can walk, meaning fewer cars on the road overall. They key is to balance office growth with housing growth. It would help if some companies changed their start times a little, much like the construction industry already has.

The concept of living Downtown is supported by demand. Apartments keep getting built because they keep filling up, at good prices. Maybe people like those leisurely walks to work, and choosing from the Downtown smorgasbord on the way home. Maybe they like walking out their doors on weekends and already being somewhere.

It works in other places too. Want less traffic in Redmond? Keep adding housing in that nice downtown area (seriously, take a look) as well as around Microsoft. Downtown Tacoma? Same thing. Everybody wins.

New bilingual signs in Chinatown-International District

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

Bilingual street name signs will be installed this summer at more than 30 intersections in Seattle’s Chinatown and Japantown neighborhood through a partnership of the city and the Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area.
Mayor Mike McGinn said in a press release that the translated signs in English and Chinese, or English and Japanese “will help us celebrate the ongoing diversity of the Chinatown-International District, as well as help people navigate the neighborhood.”

Photo by Jen Nance, Office of the Mayor

The CIDBIA worked with neighborhood stakeholders, family associations, local ethnic media, the University of Washington and translators from the Seattle Municipal Court to translate the existing street names into traditional Chinese and Japanese.
Don Blakeney, executive director of the CIDBIA, said “Not only is it a wonderful reflection of the neighborhood’s rich cultural history, but a reflection of the international hub that Seattle has become.”
Translated street names will be in white lettering on a brown background below the current legal name. The first sign is at Sixth Avenue South and South King Street.
Funding was provided by a $20,000 Small and Simple Matching Fund Grant through the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods.
The Seattle Department of Transportation also contributed $6,000 from the voter approved Bridging the Gap ballot measure.

King Street Station Can Transform the City

Monday, June 24th, 2013

Seattle has invested a great deal in King Street Station and the surrounding area, why not go a little further and make it a world-class transit hub?
Out of the three designated hubs in downtown Seattle, King Street is arguably the primary transit hub bringing together Amtrak, streetcar, local and regional bus, and light rail. In the not too distant future, rapid ride from West Seattle and access into downtown from SR-99 will both have significant impacts to this area. Using the already congested street grid to transfer between systems is not a coordinated nor safe approach for transit riders.  

Transbay Transit Center is anticipated to have a patronage of 100,000 every weekday and 45 million annually. Photo credit: © Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects

All the transit systems in the hub are just a block or two away from where you hoped they would be.  Light Rail is a trek across 4th from King Street Station; bus stops on Jackson are one-two blocks away; and the First Hill streetcar stops are a block or two in either direction. The City and transit agencies need to think bigger, in a way that leverages the investments in this hub including the restoration of the historic station, the North Lot, Union Station, and the Stadium District. In early thinking about the North Lot there was an idea proposed that included a significant bus terminal proposed for 4th Ave S over the BNSF tracks- this would provide the opportunity to create a stacked connection including Sounder, local bus, and perhaps an underground connection to Link. It’s time to start thinking about this facility now so that the promise of a real transit hub can be realized and the benefits of investment in the neighborhood can bring about real change.  Change that’s been planned for in the Livable South Downtown Plan.

The experience of San Francisco has an uncanny comparison.
Downtown San Francisco is a maze of cranes these days and the 6-block long gaping hole next to Mission Street that will become the Transbay Transit Center is a healthy contributor to the current crane count. With an anticipated patronage of 100,000 every weekday and 45 million annually, Transbay will be one of the largest transit hubs on the West Coast. From local rail and bus service to Amtrak and Greyhound, Transbay will provide the hub for more than 8 transit agencies including Caltrain and High Speed Rail. Originally built in 1939 to handle electric trolley service (and later bus service) from the newly constructed Bay Bridge, the original building was razed and along with several earthquake related ramp removals that provided the real estate and a significant source of funding for the new Transbay Center. The new Transbay was conceived in 2008 and is to be completed in 2017. But even the 70’ deep hole in Soma is already spurring development including the Transbay Tower- planned to be 200′ taller than the Transamerica pyramid.
Seattle has the opportunity now to rethink how transit systems come together at King Street Station and to create a world-class transit center befitting a world-class city.

The sidewalk observed: building a better street corner

Monday, June 17th, 2013
Successful street corner at 36th Ave SW and SW Snoqualmie St in West Seattle. Photo by Nate Cormier.

Last time I promised to contrast that miserable corner of 35th Ave SW and SW Avalon Way in West Seattle with something more gracious. This one is three blocks away at the corner of 36th Ave SW and SW Snoqualmie St. The context is quite different in terms of available right of way, traffic volumes and level of investment by the adjacent developer, but my interest here is in highlighting some of the aspects that make it a successful street corner.

• There are wide and nicely landscaped curb bulbs to slow traffic and buffer pedestrians at the corner from passing automobiles.
• The building entry is close to the intersection with decent transparency to the lobby so there should be a good amount of foot traffic and eyes on the street here.
• There is a seating area near the intersections for passersby to take a break. This is particularly valuable for seniors and others that pause frequently while walking. Hopefully once they lease up the apartment building they can get rid of those plastic signboards.
• There is a broad area between the ramps that is separated by a curb from turning traffic. This makes waiting to cross feel safer.
• The curb ramps align with the sidewalks and the unmarked crosswalks so the visually impaired can more easily guess the correct angle to make their way to the paired ramp on the other side of each street. Note that this leaves a triangular bit at the bottom of the ramp that needs to be carefully graded to not collect water.
• Finally, and this one is tiny, but the attention to detail is sweet…where the tactile warning strips meet adjacent curbwalls, there are subtle joints aligned with the tactile tiles. They may play a role in controlling cracking of the curb, but I like how they make those tactile strips appear rooted intentionally in those locations. Too often tactile warning strips look glued on as afterthoughts. Not here.

All in all, a solid contribution to the public realm!

Make Way for Parklets

Monday, April 1st, 2013

There is a new position at SDOT in the Street Use and Urban Forestry Division; Public Space Manager; and with this new role there is hope brewing for more permanent parklets coming to a Seattle neighborhood near you.

San Francisco Parklet

The re-purposing of parking spaces into miniature open spaces has grown from the latest soup d’jour for urban areas across the nation with San Francisco leading the charge and most recently followed by Los Angeles’ activity parklets to a more common wrench in the toolkit of cities as varied as Philadelphia and San Jose. Now it’s Seattle’s turn. Let’s give SDOT all of our support as they move forward.
Congratulations to the very capable Jennifer Wieland as she takes on this role. She let me know that Seattle can expect to see the pilot program roll out this summer with several projects in Center City neighborhoods.
If you would like to know more about how to develop and implement parklets, see this (very thorough) study from the UCLA Lewis Center here.

The sidewalk observed: a disappointing West Seattle street corner

Monday, March 11th, 2013

Others do a great job covering the major issues and signature projects of our region. I’d like to turn your attention, usually downward, to the less examined details of our cityscape. Let’s call it “The Sidewalk Observed.”

35th Ave SW and SW Avalon Way
Dodgy street corner at 35th Ave SW and SW Avalon Way in West Seattle. Photo by Nate Cormier.

This is the corner of 35th Ave SW and SW Avalon Way in West Seattle. A new building here, now called The Residences at 3295, has become notorious for its construction fits and starts. Neighbors are probably grateful to finally have the project  done, but WOW, this street corner is disappointing. We can surely do better at the intersection of two busy arterials with heavy bus and truck traffic. I write that  ‘we’ can do better because I’m not particularly concerned with who designed it. This is the kind of urban landscape shaped less by design intent than by underlying regulatory and economic forces that maxed out vehicular flow and land value at the expense of a safe and inviting pedestrian experience.

Typically, a corner like this would have two ramps with a bit of curb in between to protect a safe place for people to pause. Short of this, providing a contiguous flat area behind the sidewalk could have helped, but here we are pinned between the street and a step up to the corner of the building. For my next post, I’ll contrast this with a better example of a recent street corner improvement. And if you have a cityscape scene or detail you’d like me to highlight, please drop me a line at


LA OKs key financing for downtown streetcar

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

Voters in downtown Los Angeles have approved key financing for a $125-million streetcar project, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times.

The streetcar would run mainly along Broadway, and Hill and Figueroa streets, three of downtown’s main arteries, connecting various neighbors, including the old banking district, South Park, Civic Center and the fashion district.

Seattle’s 2.5-mile First Hill streetcar line  is  slated to be complete in the spring of 2014.  It will go  from Pioneer Square to Broadway and Denny on Capitol Hill.


10 ways to make cities more walkable

Monday, December 3rd, 2012

Seattle has a number of walkable neighborhoods, from Capitol Hill to Belltown. An article in The Atlantic Cities offers 10 tips for making cities more walkable

Ballard is an urban village and a fun place to walk. Photo by Clair Enlow.
. The suggestions come from Jeff Speck’s new book, Walkable City.