Research shows that the combined cost of housing and personal transportation is reduced, not increased, in metro regions with higher density. However, the Seattle area lags behind, perhaps scandalously, in providing needed transit infrastructure, writes guest columnist Eric Bruun.
THE mobility of the population in the Seattle region is of increasing concern to regional planners and, of course, to anyone who has to experience current travel conditions on a regular basis. Does the region have a realistic or even conceivably implementable formula for improving it?
Further widening of most highways would be very expensive and meet with intense resistance from anti-tax groups, from environmental groups and from people living near these highways. Good luck with that.
Living in central cities is once again popular. But there have been claims that zoning changes in recent years designed to increase the density of housing to permit more people to live there will only make traffic worse. This is true only if you ignore opportunities to make walking safer, fail to change zoning in such a way that also puts more work and shopping destinations nearby, and most important, fail to improve transit in both quality and quantity.
This last item in the mix is of genuine concern, as transit service is being cut instead of expanded due to an ongoing tax-revenue crisis.
There has been some confusion caused by the oft-cited statistic that only 2.9 percent of trips are taken by transit. It is based on a meaningless regional average where outer suburbs are averaged in with the University District and the Seattle central business district. Even worse, it doesn’t include walking and bicycling trips, which can be substantial in places that are not designed entirely for access by the auto. In denser urban locales, transit and nonmotorized trips combined can exceed 50 percent of all trips.
Research from cities worldwide shows that the combined cost of housing and personal transportation is reduced, not increased, in metro regions with higher density. This is because there is reduced auto dependence and a reduction of all of the expenses that go with it. Creating more such locales can provide a higher percentage of the population with lifestyle options that are both more affordable and more to their liking.
This is what public policy should be trying to achieve, not promoting the acceleration of construction of houses on increasingly scarce forests and farmland.
Energy conservation and greenhouse-gas reduction also need to be taken more seriously in conjunction with policies to improve mobility. Even if huge efficiency gains are achieved with autos, without densification these gains are likely to be offset by ever-increasing trip lengths and by increases in traffic volume due to population growth.
Transit networks in U.S. cities now need to catch up with highway and road networks to enable this densification that is central to mobility improvement, to increasing housing and lifestyle options, and to energy-conservation efforts.
There was disproportionate spending on highways during the past century. Just as with highways, it will indeed cost more to build transit where it is needed most — the built-up core areas — than it does to build on farmland.
The Seattle metro region in particular has a very long way to go. It has a woefully inadequate transit infrastructure for a region of its size and the construction pace of new high-capacity transit links is almost glacial. Reaching Husky Stadium with rail only in 2016? The vote that authorized going all the way to Northgate was held in 1996!
Reaching downtown Bellevue only in 2022? Building a new Highway 520 bridge without either a bus-only or rail lane? This failure to add sufficient transit capacity in a timely manner is a major public-policy failure, perhaps even a scandal.
Eric Bruun, a Seattle area native and University of Washington graduate, is a visiting professor of transportation engineering at Aalto University in Finland.