OPINION: Congestive Failure

by Geov Parrish

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s announcement that she wants the city to come up with a plan for “congestion pricing,” to toll surface streets in downtown and South Lake Union, is only the latest in a growing tradition of city policies that are meant to sound and feel good, but that are deeply delusional and throw Seattle’s working poor under the bus – in this case, literally.

As with many of these policies, the general goal of Durkan’s edict sounds laudable — to get more people out of their cars and using public transit, thereby reducing the carbon emissions that contribute to climate change. As Durkan notes, the last four mayors have been trying to reduce Seattle’s carbon output, but it has remained basically stable over that time. That doesn’t mean past efforts have failed – on a per capita basis, they’ve had impressive success. But explosive population growth, both in the city and in our region, has offset the per capita reductions. Durkan wants more.

Okay — but at what cost, and to what benefit? Seattle’s contribution to national carbon emissions, let alone global ones, is miniscule. In absolute terms, reducing it by ten percent — which would be a lot, given that Seattle’s population growth isn’t expected to slow any time soon – just doesn’t matter much. It does allow Seattleites to feel smug about ourselves, and it would help to shame a somnambulant federal government, if Republicans were capable of shame. But by itself, it won’t do much to actually slow down climate change.

Seattle is even unlikely to influence other American cities, several of whom have already considered and rejected congestion pricing. Most famously, New York City has had several such proposals to toll access to Manhattan in the last decade. No US city has actually enacted such a plan. The best-known examples of congestion pricing are European: Stockholm, Milan, and especially London, the first major city to implement it.

But as we should have learned with bicycles, homelessness, and any number of other issues, Seattle is not Europe. Our geography (especially the sprawl) is different. Our levels of poverty and our social safety net programs (such as they are) are different. Even our hills are something that regularly cited bike-friendly models like Copenhagen and Amsterdam don’t have.

In this case, cities like London can use congestion pricing to reduce car usage because they have a well-established public transportation system that people can and do use instead – especially rail, which takes people off the streets entirely and is more carbon-friendly than buses.

For example, Greater London, with 14 million people, has not only a robust passenger rail network, but its subway system – The London Underground, or The Tube — has 11 lines, 270 stations, 250 miles of track, and 1.3 billion passengers annually. Metropolitan Seattle, including Pierce and Snohomish Counties, has a quarter of London’s population – but Link Light Rail has only one Seattle line, with 16 stations, 20 miles of track, and 23 million passengers annually. That’s less than two percent of London’s ridership, or eight percent of its per capita ridership. And, of course, Link light rail’s one line doesn’t even serve most King County neighborhoods, with the next expansion — the relatively modest four mile extension from UW to Northgate – not due to open until 2021, the same year Durkan wants congestion pricing to start. Assuming no delays, the first stations on a second, Eastside line will open in 2023.

Metro buses are also a problematic option to replace car usage. Every year recently has seen record ridership, but for years Metro funding hasn’t kept up with demand. Voters approved a record $930 million transportation levy in 2015, but the city is quietly getting ready to announce reductions in the projects that levy was meant to fund, due both to escalating costs and the predictable loss of federal funding under the Trump Administration. Some projects will be hit harder than others – particularly the projects, like the proposed seven new Rapid Ride lines, that were expecting to rely heavily on federal funding. Without those new lines, bus options won’t be much better in 2021 than they are now, with central city routes already frequently at capacity during precisely the same hours as the vehicle gridlock that congestion pricing will supposedly address.

At this point, congestion pricing resembles nothing so much as Seattle’s current approach to homelessness, which is to dismantle most emergency shelters and social support services in favor of funneling the homeless into permanent affordable housing that does not exist, at least not in anywhere near the amount needed to meet the demand. A similar dynamic awaits those who decide to turn to public transportation rather than paying to drive downtown. After decades of political leaders using transportation money to fund vanity projects and real estate development schemes, Seattle doesn’t have the public transit infrastructure a city our size should have — let alone one that can accommodate our projected future growth, let alone our ambition to, uniquely among US cities, get people out of their cars.

And beyond all of that, congestion pricing, like so many of Seattle’s other revenue sources, is extremely regressive. Someone who can afford a downtown condo or rental won’t even notice downtown tolling – but someone who works downtown but has been forced out to Kent, Lake City, or some other outpost in search of slightly less outrageous housing costs faces a light rail system that’s irrelevant and a bus system that’s frequently packed in rush hours but doesn’t even serve many areas well on nights or weekends. What are they supposed to do? If they’re driving because, like in most American cities but unlike the rest of the world, there are no practical alternatives, it doesn’t make sense to force them out of their cars until those alternatives are in place. Having to choose between increased driving costs and, say, rent or food seems pointlessly cruel – but people in that situation are precisely the ones who will be impacted by most variations on the type of plan Durkan wants.

But, as with the homeless waiting in vain for alternatives, the city’s policies doesn’t really much care about the working poor. Instead, Seattle simply hopes they’ll go away, in this case in service of a largely symbolic goal. It hasn’t worked with the homeless, and it won’t with this, either. It will simply place more burdens and misery on the lives of people far removed from the eco-friendly confines of City Hall. Most good Seattle liberals would be mortified by the comparison, but there’s something positively Trumpian about city leaders that make policy decisions based on the city they imagine, rather than the one that actually exists.

Feature image courtesy Alex Garland

3 thoughts on “OPINION: Congestive Failure”

  1. Remember that transit cards like ORCA Lift are programmed to provide discounts to the working poor, they could even do subsidies for that matter. These could also work in conjunction with free transponders on vehicles, so I don’t see poverty as the main problem. Rather, it would be the logistics of setup, maintenance, and enforcement, and the complexities of who gets discounts, how much, for what purposes, and when, etc.

    In some cities they have actually gone much further than congestion pricing – they actually have car free zones. Examples I’ve enjoyed are in Porto Alegre and Curitiba, Brazil. These are fantastic, but all small enough to be walkable, with delivery truck access at night, and only emergency or other special vehicles during the day.

  2. About 15 years ago the city screwed up Beacon Avenue. It went from a 4 lanes, 2 north 2 south to 2 lanes. You also blocked left turns from some intersections. I cannot turn left into my office parking lot. I have to go down the block and take a left turn into an alley. This is much more dangerous.

    Next the city decided to plant trees. It will be like Paris driving through the tunnel of trees. 15 years later. We could not open the front door to our dental office. The sidewalks are buckled up to 18 inches at the base of the trees. Two elderly people fell due to the broken concrete of the sidewalk in front of my office one broke an arm. The other hit her head and died 2 days later. You cannot walk the sidewalks on Beacon Avenue. Kids cannot ride they bikes, skates or skateboard. Every 15 feet the concrete is broken sticking up to 12 to 18 inches. It is dangerous to walk down Beacon Ave. Look around we have more trees than ticks on a hound dog. We have many trees. Look at the mountains. We did not need to destroy our sidewalks.

    The trees look like giant “Y”s the city had carved out the middle of the trees to clear power lines. These trees are seriously weakened and you will find them all over the South end. The next time we have a heavy snow, cars and homes will be damaged if not destroyed.

    Next you put the train down the middle MLK. This is the only part of Sound Transit that goes down the middle of a busy street. You cannot cross the tracks. I have sat several times for 15 minutes to get a left turn light to allow me to cross the tracks one time it was 17 minutes. Just as it is our turn here comes another train. But of course this is the low income area; it does not need to be in a tunnel like the rest of the system. Certainly Bellevue would never have put up with this.

    Next we came to a meeting about the road diet for Rainier Avenue. 105 people were at the meeting. 2 people spoke for the road diet everyone else was strongly against it. This was a Friday evening. As the meeting ended, we were told Rainier Ave. would be restriped Monday morning. No one listened to the concerns of the citizens. You have made Columbia City a parking lot from as early as 6 am to as late as 10 pm. You cannot use Rainier Ave. to go north and south. You destroyed half the north south streets in southeast Seattle. You have loaded up Seward Park Ave. and Lake Washington Boulevard with cars.

    Seward Park Ave. has taken a lot of that traffic. I have a photo on my phone that shows 72 cars lined up bumper-to-bumper trying to get past the stop signs at Othello. This happens every afternoon about 3 pm and lasts to 7 or 8 pm. By screwing up Rainier Ave you have made Seward Park Ave. almost unusable every afternoon.

    It will be wonderful for bikers we were told. The bikers have no license to ride to show they know traffic rules. They ignore stop signs and lights. They pay no licenses fees, they pay no fuel taxes and yet you have given them half the NS streets in SE Seattle. They make up less than 1% of the vehicles on the streets. but you gave them half the streets. Last Friday on a trip from Capital Hill to SE Seattle I counted 300 autos and 2 bikes. You have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars striping bike lines up McClellan, Spokane, Morgan streets. I have never seen a biker going up or down any of these streets. If most of us rode a bike up these streets you had better have a medic unit at the top to restart our hearts. If we rode a bike down, our breaks would be on fire or you would have to install arrest nets like on an aircraft carriers. 23rd Ave. use to be a reasonable route to the U of W. Well you fixed that. It is now a 2 lane stop and go street, with cars sitting idling waiting to be able to move.

    I have a solution for Seattle’s traffic problems. Lets first look at what has been done and how well it works. I am most familiar with S.E Seattle. We have road diets and are about to have a new road diet on Rainier Ave. S. In a road diet they take a perfectly good 4 lane avenue and make it a 2 lane avenue. When a bus stops to pick up riders, cars are stopped behind it. They place islands in the middle lane so you cannot go past the stopped bus. They also eliminate many left turns. In doing so, SDOT tells us they will be able to move more cars. They did this on Beacon Ave. we now have traffic jams each morning and afternoon. The volume of traffic is much lower than it once was and many drivers had to shift to Rainier Ave.

    A road diet is about like telling the firemen to put away their 5” hoses and use ¾” garden hoses. By using smaller hoses you will get more water for your fire. If we place some further obstructions in the hoses, this will further increase water flow. We all know that if the Fire Department did this our homes and businesses would all be at great risk should a fire get started. Our road diets are a bit like using the garden hose for water to put out a fire. If you think you can eliminate half the north south lanes in Seattle and get more traffic moved you are drinking some very strong liquor.

    Lets start with prevention. Place roadblocks on all the streets leading into the city. Do not allow any motor vehicles to enter the city. Put one-way spikes allowing motor vehicles to leave but not to come back.

    Housing prices will plummet. Those who remain in the city will be able to live anywhere at no cost as most houses will be vacant. Only bicycles will be allowed on the streets. Those houses on steep hills will be abandoned and the hills will revert to blackberries and ivy.

    Boeing employees will leave Seattle as will Boeing. Amazon employees and Amazon will leave. The U of W will have much smaller classes because students will not be able to get there from the eastside. Microsoft employees will not live in Seattle. Stores will close, schools will close and businesses will leave.

    In the end, Seattle will become, the much discussed Urban Village, of about 20,000 inhabitants who will live in the flat areas where bikes work. Medic One will be a tandem bike with a defibrillator. If they get your heart restarted, you may live. You will have to ride your bike to the hospital. They will have no way to transport you; nor will we will have hospitals. The sick and old will simply die and add to the smell of rotting garbage. Remember there will be no garbage trucks. Seattle will become a small town of unemployed, no income, bike riders. The citizens will be fit and young because no one else will be able to mount Seattle’s many hills on their bikes.

    You think bikers are aggressive and abusive now. Just think how it will be when you have 30 bikers at the same time running stoplights and stop signs all from a different direction knocking each other over. There will be no services, no big box stores, no mail delivery, no fire engines, no ambulances and very little in the way of jobs. This will be known era of under development of the once great city, Seattle.

    You have taken 4 streets with 16 lanes north south to 8 lanes. Traffic comes to a total standstill every day thanks to your brilliance. Now you want to screw up Wilson Ave. What is it you drink and smoke downtown to come up with such stupid ideas. What have we done to you to cause you to be so negative and vindictive to those of us who live in SE. Seattle.