May 2016 Bar Bulletin
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May 2016 Bar Bulletin

Pressing Analysis of Seattle’s Commuting Infrastructure

By Robert WM Zierman


About a year ago, The Seattle Times reported that Washington’s population had surpassed 7 million with the addition of 93,200 new residents. Tellingly, more than 20 percent of the state’s total increase occurred in Seattle alone.1

It appears one of the main drivers of this influx has been the arrival of fairly newly minted, college-degreed techies who are drawing fantastic salaries. Being young and unrestrained by family obligations, these folks love the idea of having their work, home and urban playground all close together.

Seeking to compete for the best of that young talent, it is not at all surprising that Amazon — an employer of a considerable number of young technocrats — should choose South Lake Union as the place to locate its world headquarters and much of its operations.

South Lake Union is ringed by Capitol Hill, Seattle’s central business district (“CBD”), Queen Anne, Ballard, Fremont, Wallingford and the University District. Soon to further strain Seattle’s northern infrastructure, Expedia will set up its new headquarters along Elliott Avenue further affecting Interbay, Magnolia, Ballard, Queen Anne, Belltown and the downtown CBD as well.

Bottom line, the north end of downtown Seattle is bursting with new people and activities, and this means more people trying to get to more places, thereby creating unacceptable pressure on our transportation system. A continued inability to make improvements is almost sure to choke off Seattle’s growth.

Considering all this pressure on our transportation system, it seems that there is complete consensus on the idea that something needs to be done. Where the agreement breaks down is what needs to be done and how.

Seattle decided to scrub a voter-
initiated call to build a monorail running from Ballard through Seattle’s CBD and then over to West Seattle. The pols appear to have purposefully frustrated that plan because they want to have a fancy light-rail system that runs throughout Seattle, ultimately across Lake Washington and connecting with the eastside.

Is this realistic? Well, why don’t we start by looking at the beautiful trolley running in the middle of Paul Allentown? How’s that going over? At present, the trolley appears to be little more than a shiny new toy, which draws amusement, but not much practical use.

Now, Allen is in a position to take a gamble on this project. He thinks it will help bolster his considerable real property holdings. But if the public is going to pay for all these shiny new light railways around Seattle, shouldn’t the public know what it’s getting into? Essentially, will the public get the most bang for its buck? I highly doubt spending on Seattle’s light-rail system will be optimal. Let’s ponder.

In a dream world in which space, money and time for project construction are of absolutely no concern, I would completely agree it would be just grand to have a light-rail or subway system that interconnects all of Seattle’s neighborhoods. It would also be lovely to have a dedicated bike-lane system that safely runs throughout all of Seattle, too.

But tracking this bicycle example, in that Seattle’s hills are made more unsafe by long, rainy, winter nights, making significant outlays for such a project is not going to significantly increase bike ridership. Even avid bicyclists, if willing to be honest, ought to recognize that.

So, very similarly, it is critical to be sure whether light rail will work for Seattle before over-committing to it. This is because light rail and subway systems appear to only work well under certain conditions. Those conditions are population density, no practical alternatives and significant system interconnection, which limit the effects of the dreaded “last mile.”

At present, it appears that alternatives to taxis in the form of Uber and Lyft might work for young professionals to close the gap on the “last mile.” That makes it fairly easy for them to get from the end of mass transit to their final destinations when deciding not to hoof it.

But will these millennials always be so willing to do this? When Gen Y gets to that point in life where they collectively decide to really get down to the business of raising families, are they really going to want to live in condos? I highly doubt it. No, instead, just like every generation before them with adequate means, they are going to want to find a house in a neighborhood with good schools so they can raise a family.

True, some of the folks working for Amazon, Expedia, the Gates Foundation and the Paul Allen Brain Institute will likely have the wherewithal to purchase houses in the communities immediately ringing South Lake Union or just beyond. Yet, this will again displace others who will need to move and commute.

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