Bikeshare Delayed After Complaint from Magnolia Activist

Coming soon? Lyft wants in to the bikesharing market.

The city’s decision to do a full State Environmental Policy Act analysis of a proposed expansion of its bikesharing pilot program, which I reported earlier this week, was spurred in part by a request for a SEPA analysis by Elizabeth Campbell, a Magnolia activist with a long history of filing legal complaints against the city. Campbell sent a letter demanding a full SEPA review on August 6. Sometime that same month, SDOT decided to do the review—a process that likely added at least couple of months to the timeline for expanding bikeshare. SEPA reviews are typically performed for projects that exceed a certain threshold, in terms of their potential environmental impacts.  Projects that are generally subject to SEPA review include things like new apartment buildings and projects that involve significant impacts on city rights-of-way. (To give just one point of comparison, new parking lots for fewer than 40 vehicles are categorically exempt from environmental review under SEPA. The bikeshare program does not include any new permanent structures in city right-of-way.)

The city’s experiment with free-floating bikesharing began in 2017, with a pilot program that allowed companies like Lime, Spin, and Ofo to disperse thousands of rental bikes around the city. The city approved new permanent rules for bike share companies in June, and three companies applied for permits—Uber, Lyft, and Lime. Both Uber and Lyft told me that they had expected to launch their bike share programs in September. However, the city still has not announced a date for the official expansion or granted permanent permits.

In her letter to the city, which was addressed to then-SDOT director Goran Sparrman and bikeshare program director Joel Miller and cc’d to Mayor Jenny Durkan, council member Mike O’Brien, and the heads of the city’s parks and neighborhoods departments, Campbell enumerates what she sees as the likely public costs associated with the program. Then she requests a SEPA analysis.

“The sheer number of pieces of business equipment that are to be unleashed upon Seattle’s streets, up to 24,000 bicycles and cycles, coupled with the fact that the majority of the bike-share business operators’ business equipment is to be placed, stored, and located by a number of means, including by mischief or abandonment, at any one time on the City of Seattle’s right-of-ways, parks, lands, public commons, and/or upon private property has immense environmental implications,” Campbell wrote. “At a minimum a SEPA checklist must be prepared and a threshold determination made before the Free-Floating Bike Share Program proceeds.”

The SEPA review wrapped up earlier this month.

Campbell says she asked for the review because she considers the bikes “litter” and believes they’re cluttering sidewalks like so much “trash on the streets.” SEPA seemed like an appropriate avenue, she says, because it pertains to business equipment. “I used to run a bakery,” she says. “What if I took all my bakery carts and set them out on the sidewalks [all over the city]? Realistically, it is that kind of a practice. It’s not the same as, say, a taxi business, where you’re going to take your taxis back to your garage” when they aren’t in use, she says.

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I asked SDOT and the mayor’s office several times if a citizen complaint had influenced SDOT’s decision to delay the bikeshare program and  go forward with a full environmental review.  SDOT repeatedly denied there was any such complaint, saying that the city undertook the analysis in response to the results of two surveys (one by EMC Research conducted back in February, the other an unscientific online poll) and the gist of negative feedback from the public. “After continued conversations and community engagement around these concerns, the Department [moved] forward with SEPA in an effort to launch a formal program that not only enhances mobility, but also considers environmental impacts,” Hobson wrote. “I don’t know of any formal complaints.” Later, Hobson added that “the impetus for the SEPA review” was “the final evaluation that included the comments and concerns of community groups about safety.”

That final evaluation, which came out in August, is here. The complaints listed in the evaluation are mostly about bikes being left in places where they don’t belong, as well as the fact that many riders don’t wear helmets—not exactly the type of environmental impacts that the State Environmental Policy Act checklist is intended to address. The checklist, which is standard for all projects, includes questions about the impact a proposed project or development might have on erosion, air and water quality, native plants and animals, shorelines, and environmental health.

On Tuesday, I asked SDOT representatives again whether Campbell’s request was the reason, or a reason, for their decision to do a SEPA analysis. Initially, Hobson responded that this was “the first [she had] heard of” Campbell’s letter and request for SEPA analysis. Later, I heard back from another SDOT spokeswoman, Dawn Schellenberg, who said in an email, “After hearing some concerns, including written correspondence from Elizabeth Campbell … and wanting to do our due diligence, the department decided to complete a SEPA analysis and confirm there were no items of significance we needed to address.”

Conceivably, the city could have decided to do a full SEPA review back in August based solely on survey results and subsequent “concerns” expressed by many citizens, incidentally including Campbell. It’s also possible that there were other specific requests for a SEPA analysis. (I have a records request in to the mayor’s office and SDOT for all communications from the public that contain negative feedback on the program).

But it’s worth noting that Campbell isn’t just any random citizen: She’s a perennial thorn in the city’s side. Over the years, Campbell has filed many complaints against the city, including several that are still working their way through the legal process. For example, the city hearing examiner is currently considering complaints filed by Campbell about a tiny house village on Port of Seattle-owned property in Interbay and a proposal to build affordable housing at the Fort Lawton site near Discovery Park in Magnolia. Campbell, in other words, has been very effective in the past at delaying and deterring projects. This fact alone could give her complaints more weight at the city, which does not typically do full environmental reviews for projects with minimal impact on the natural or built environment, like the addition of a few thousand bikes throughout the city.

The SEPA review concluded with a determination of nonsignificance (DNS), meaning that expanding bikeshare has no significant negative environmental impact. Campbell, who says she was not aware that the city had decided to do a SEPA analysis, says she was disappointed to learn that the window for appealing the DNS closed on October 18; had she known, she says, she might have appealed. “They did a quick and dirty and they didn’t really address the things that I was talking about, which is that [the bikes] are disruptive,” Campbell says.

She says she’s still deciding whether to find another avenue to appeal the bikesharing program. “I’m kind of not known for letting things go,” she says.

Bikeshare Program Expansion Delayed by Environmental Review, Parking Concerns

This post originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

If you’ve been wondering when the city plans to expand its bike-sharing pilot program to allow more companies to participate, you’re not alone. After Ofo and Spin, the companies with the yellow and orange bikes, respectively, announced they were pulling out of the Seattle market—both citing the city’s new $250,000 annual permitting fee—other companies such as Uber (which acquired the bike-sharing company Jump in April) and Lyft (which acquired the bike sharing company Motivate in July) have been waiting for the city to officially expand last year’s pilot program.

The city approved new rules for bike share companies in June, and both Uber and Lyft told The C Is for Crank that they had expected to launch their bike share programs in September. However, the city still has not announced a date for the official expansion or granted permanent permits to the three companies (Uber, Lyft, and Lime Bikes) that applied.

City officials gave varying reasons for pushing back the anticipated expansion date—which, they say, does not represent a delay because no formal date for the expansion was ever announced. Among the reasons: Uber’s bikes, unlike those owned by other bike-share companies, include locks that must be secured to a bike rack when they’re not in use, and the city says it’s concerned about bike rack availability.

“When we did the pilot, the locking technology was not available to us,” SDOT spokeswoman Mafara Hobson says, referring to the fact that the existing bike-share bikes are meant to be left unlocked. “SDOT is currently evaluating rack capacity and will install additional racks as appropriate.”

Uber spokesman Nathan Hambley says the company believes that requiring riders to lock up their bikes “cuts down on theft and vandalism and bikes ending up where they’re not supposed to be.” Uber’s proposal prompted the city to initiate an inventory to find out how many bike racks it has, to see if there were enough to accommodate up to 5,000 new locking bike-share bikes.

Another reason for the delay: After reviewing feedback from Seattle residents over the year-long bike-share pilot as well as the results of a survey conducted for the city by EMC Research, the city decided to do a full environmental analysis of the program under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). This extra step involved evaluating the potential negative—and positive—impact an expanded bike-sharing program would have on greenhouse gas emissions, water quality and habitat, and added an unknown amount of time to the approval process. Hobson says the SEPA review was prompted by an evaluation that was made public in August; the review process just wrapped up with the close of the public comment period on October 11.

The SDOT 2017 Bike Share Evaluation Report found that while three-quarters of those surveyed (both by EMC and in an unscientific online poll by the city) were generally in favor of the program, many expressed concerns about safety and right-of-way access. “After continued conversations and community engagement around these concerns, the Department [moved] forward with SEPA in an effort to launch a formal program that not only enhances mobility, but also considers environmental impacts,” Hobson says.

The city’s report also looked at comments from people who emailed or called the city about the program on their own. According to the city’s report, almost all of those comments were negative. The top five complaints were “bad/incorrect parking,” “pedestrian access and safety,” “Ugly/Clutter/Garbage Bikes,”  “unresponsive company,” and people not wearing helmets.

The EMC survey’s list of “top drawbacks” was similar. People complained about seeing bikes in places where they didn’t belong, cyclists riding without helmets and cyclists “who don’t know or follow the rules.”

The SEPA checklist does not specifically ask about the issues people brought up in response to the city’s surveys, because the checklist is confined to the impacts a project will have on the environment.

In its SEPA analysis, SDOT did address the most common complaint that bikes were parked on the sidewalk or in other places where they weren’t supposed to be— including in response to a question about how much parking (for cars) an expanded bike share program would add or eliminate. The city wrote: “The evaluation determined that while between 70 to 80% of bikes were parked correctly, 15 to 25% were incorrectly parked and 5% fully blocked pedestrian access.” They also noted that the city plans to impose new requirements (the rules adopted back in June) that will hold bike share companies responsible if too many bikes are parked in the wrong places.

It’s unclear whether specific individual complaints played a role in the city’s decision to do a full SEPA analysis, if the survey results and voluntary negative feedback were the primary reason the city took this step, and what the “continued conversations and community engagement” about the feedback looked like in practice. I have filed a records request for any additional complaints the city has received about the proposal to expand its bike share program.

The city issued a Determination of Non-Significance on the bike share program—meaning that the proposed expansion won’t have a negative impact on the environment—on September 27. The city still has not said when the bike-share expansion will happen.

Morning Crank: “Housing First, Indeed.”

1. Unified Seattle, a group that has created a series of  slick videos opposing “tiny house villages” (authorized encampments where residents sleep in small eight-by-12-foot buildings with locks on the doors, electric light, and heat) has spent between $10,000 and t $50,000 putting those ads on Facebook and targeting them at Seattle residents. However, since the aim of these ads isn’t explicitly related to an upcoming election—the latest ad vaguely blames the “mayor and city council” for “forests of needle caps,” “drug shacks,” and  “rampant prostitution” to—the people funding them don’t have to report their activities to the state and local election authorities. The Freedom Foundation, the libertarian-leaning think tank that funded a lawsuit to stop a temporary tiny house encampment on a piece of city-owned land in South Lake Union, has declined to comment on whether they’re funding the ads, but the rhetoric is certainly consistent with the argument the Freedom Foundation makes in their lawsuit against the city and the Low-Income Housing Institute, which claims that allowing the encampment will “encourag[e] loitering and substandard living conditions” in the area.

2. Speaking of the Freedom Foundation lawsuit: Since the group filed their lawsuit back in June, the original four-week permit for the tiny house village has expired. That, the city of Seattle argues in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed earlier this month, renders the original lawsuit moot, and they filed a motion to dismiss it earlier this month. LIHI still plans to open the encampment, on Eighth and Aloha, in late October.

3. In other news about unofficial campaigns: Saul Spady, the grandson of Dick’s Burgers founder Dick Spady and one of the leaders of the campaign to defeat the head tax, doesn’t have to file election-year paperwork with the city and state elections commissions, though perhaps not for the reasons you might think. Spady, who runs an ad agency called Cre8tive Empowerment, has been soliciting money for a campaign to defeat the upcoming Families and Education Levy and take on several city council incumbents; has has also reportedly been meeting with council candidates and taking them around to potential donors. Ordinarily, that kind of electioneering would be considered campaigning. However, according to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, Spady hasn’t managed to raise a single dime since September 11, when he sent out an email seeking to raise “$100,000+ in the next month” to defeat the education levy and  “shift the Seattle City council in much needed moderate direction in 2019.” If he does start raising money to support or oppose candidates or ballot measures this year or next, Spady will be required to register his campaign at the state and local levels.

4. One campaign that isn’t having any trouble raising money (besides the pro-Families and Education Levy campaign, which has raised almost $425,000) is Neighbors for Safe Streets, the group that formed in opposition to a long-planned bike lane on 35th Ave. NE between the Wedgwood and Ravenna neighborhoods. The PAC, led by attorney Gabe Galanda and Pacific Merchant Shipping Association government affairs director Jordan Royer, has raised more than $15,000 so far for its effort to, as the Save 35th Ave. NE newsletter put it last month, “mobilize around transportation-related causes like Save 35th and candidates for local office who are not ideologues when it comes to local transportation planning.” Galanda has argued that people of color don’t need bike lanes, which only  “serve Seattle’s white privileged communities, and further displace historically marginalized communities.”

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(Meanwhile, far away from the North Seattle enclaves that make up Save 35th Avenue NE,  neighborhood-based bike groups in the Rainier Valley have spent years begging the city to provide safe bike routes for people who live and work in the area—even holding protests to demand modest traffic-calming measures on Rainier Ave. S., the deadliest street in the city). Neighborhoods for Smart Streets has not identified which council candidates it will support next year, when seven seats will be up; so far, only a handful of contenders—including, as of last Friday, former (2013) mayoral candidate Kate Martin, who also headed up a 2016 effort to keep the Alaskan Way Viaduct intact and turn it into a park. Martin joins Discovery Institute researcher Christopher Rufo in the competition for the District 6 council seat currently held by Mike O’Brien.

5. As I reported on Twitter, George Scarola—the city’s key outreach person on homelessness, even after an effective demotion from homelessness director to an obscure position in the Department of Finance and Administrative Services—resigned on October 9. In an email to city staff, Scarola praised the city’s Navigation Teams, groups like LIHI that are working on tiny house villages, and “the outreach teams, shelter operators, meal providers and the folks who develop and manage permanent supportive housing.” He concluded the email by noting that the one area where everyone, including opponents of what the city is doing to ameliorate homelessness, agree is that  “we will not solve the crisis of chronic homelessness without more mental health and drug treatment services, coupled with safe housing. Housing First, indeed.”

In a statement, Durkan said Scarola’s knowledge on homelessness was “key to the continuity of the City’s efforts and helped ensure strong connections throughout the community. Altogether, George participated in hundreds of discussions around homelessness – from public meetings to living room chats – and took countless phone calls and emails, always willing to engage with anyone who had a concern, a complaint or a suggested solution.”

Away from the watchful eye of the mayor’s office, which he usually was, Scarola could be surprisingly candid—once asking me, apparently rhetorically, whether people protesting the removal of a specific encampment were “protesting for the right of people to live in filthy, disgusting, dangerous conditions.” On another occasion, Scarola pushed back on the idea, very prevalent at the time, that money spent on emergency shelter and short-term interventions was money wasted, because—according to homeless consultant Barb Poppe—every available resource should go toward permanent housing.  “Her overall view is absolutely right—she wants stable housing,” he said. “I just don’t know how you get there without going through steps A, B, C, and D”—meaning solutions like tiny house villages, authorized tent encampments, and services that address the problems that are keeping people from being able to hang on to housing in the first place.

Morning Crank: Prohibitive and Frustrating

1. Marty Kaplan, the Queen Anne activist who has filed multiple legal challenges to delay new rules that would allow homeowners to add up to two additional units to their property, is reviewing the final environmental impact statement (EIS) on the proposal and deciding whether to press on with his appeal, according to an email he sent to members of the Queen Anne Community Council last week.

In the email, Kaplan notes that the group has until October 18 to file an appeal, and suggests that they adopt the following motion: “If the ADU FEIS is found by Martin Kaplan to be deficient in representing a comprehensive environmental study as required by the Hearing Examiner in our former appeal and outlined with our letter of comment pertaining to the ADU DEIS, then Martin Kaplan is hereby authorized to file an appeal on behalf of our QACC.” Kaplan has not said whether he plans to continue pursuing his case against the city, or whether thousands of Seattle homeowners will finally be able to build secondary units on their properties.

The FEIS, released last week, added a fourth, preferred, option to the three alternatives in the draft document, which I covered in depth in May.  If the city adopts the preferred option, homeowners will be able to build up to two accessory dwelling units (ADUs) on their property—two attached (mother-in-law) units, or one attached unit and one detached apartment, subject to maximum rear lot coverage of 60 percent. (The total maximum lot coverage—35 percent for lots over 5,000 square feet, or 15 percent plus 1,000 square feet for lots under 5,000 square feet—will remain the same). The minimum lot size for building an additional unit will be reduced from the current 4,000 square feet to 3,200 square feet, and rules requiring homeowners to build an extra parking spot for each unit, and to live on the property at least six months a year, will be lifted. However, in an odd concession to opponents like Kaplan, homeowners who want to build a second ADU won’t be allowed to do so until they’ve owned the property for at least a year. Both attached and detached units could be up to 1,000 square feet—up from the current 800—and up to 12 unrelated people could live on a lot with three units, allowing (for example) a house, basement apartment, and backyard cottage with four roommates each on a single lot. (This has been a particular sticking point with single-family activists who say so many unrelated people shouldn’t be allowed to live on a single lot). Unlike one of the alternatives the city originally considered, the preferred alternative would not require homeowners to pay into a city affordable housing fund if they want to build a second accessory unit.

Finally, in an attempt to mitigate the spread of new McMansions in Seattle’s single-family areas (and encourage homeowners to add density instead), the proposed new rules limit new houses to just 2,500 square feet or a 50 percent floor-area ratio (FAR), whichever is larger. FAR is the ratio of the square footage of a building to the lot that it’s on. A 2,500-square-foot house on a 5,000-square-foot lot would have a floor-area ratio of 0.5, even if that 2,500 square feet is spread over two stories; so would a 3,600-square-foot house on a 7,200-square-foot lot, and so on.

Because the the city used slightly different assumptions in calculating the number of second and third units that will be produced if the new rules move forward (assuming, for example, that homeowners will have access to pre-approved standard plans for accessory units, and that the city will lower other regulatory barriers that drive of the cost of adding extra units), the new preferred alternative is expected to lead to slightly more units than any of the options the city previously considered. Overall, the preferred alternative would produce about 2,460 more accessory units than the no-action alternative (a total of 4,430), which would correspond to about 3,960 additional residents in single-family areas, spread across Seattle (6,645, compared to 2,955 under the do-nothing alternative.)

2. Saul Spady—the grandson of Dick Spady, of Dick’s Burgers, and one of the most vocal opponents of the “head tax” for homelessness that was overturned earlier this year—has been busy. Since September, Spady has reportedly been meeting with prospective city council candidates for 2019, including Erika Nagy of Speak Out Seattle and Ari Hoffman, who unsuccessfully sued the city for $230,000 in “homeless-related damages” to a cemetery in North Seattle. On Friday, Hoffman officially filed to run for council in District 2, the South Seattle council seat currently held by three-term incumbent Bruce Harrell. Spady, whose parents spend decades advocating for charter schools,  sent out an email in September seeking funds to defeat the upcoming Families and Education Levy renewal and to recruit “common sense candidates” to defeat council incumbents—a solicitation that could put him at odds with city and state election  laws.

In addition to his work recruiting local candidates, Spady has an upcoming speaking engagement in front of members of the Washington Policy Center, a conservative/libertarian-leaning think tank. The group’s annual Young Professionals Dinner includes speeches and “exclusive Q&A sessions” with two keynote speakers: Spady, and former US House Speaker-turned-Trump apologist Newt Gingrich. Non-member tickets start at $75.

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3. Speaking of potential council candidates: A few other names that are starting to circulate in the rumor mill for 2019: Former Nick Licata campaign manager Andrew Lewis (District 7, currently held by Sally Bagshaw); former Seattle police chief Jim Pugel, also in District 7; Beto Yarce, a onetime undocumented immigrant and entrepreneur who now runs a nonprofit that helps launch small businesses (District 3, held by Kshama Sawant); and community organizer Tammy Morales, who came within 400 votes of beating District 2 incumbent Bruce Harrell in 2015 and is widely expected to run for his seat this year. Bagshaw is widely expected to step down this year, as is District 4 council member Rob Johnson. Sawant has given no indication that she won’t seek reelection, and Harrell’s plans are currently anybody’s guess.

4. Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed 2019 transportation budget includes new investments in “adaptive signal” technology—a term that typically describes systems that monitor where vehicle traffic is heavy and adjust light cycles to give traffic more time to get through crowded intersections. Seattle has a system like this in place on Mercer Street in South Lake Union, which “detects cars in each lane at every intersection … determines traffic levels, predicts the flow of traffic, and adjusts the amount of time available to each movement through the intersection.” These marginal drive time improvements often come at the expense of pedestrians, who are forced to endure long waits as the city gives cars extra time to drive through intersections (and to dash across the street on short walk cycles designed for maximum vehicle movement), which is one reason the National Association of City Transportation Officials says that “long signal cycles … can make crossing a street or walking even a short distance prohibitive and frustrating, [which] discourages walking altogether,” and recommends adaptive signals only for suburban areas.

However, the new budget also includes funding for a pilot project at the University of Washington that could at least start to restore the balance between pedestrians and cyclists and the almighty car. The project, which will also be funded by the UW and the Federal Highway Administration, will test passive pedestrian detection and pedestrian counting—technologies that could eliminate the need for walkers to push a “beg button” to cross the street and allow longer crossing times for large groups of pedestrians, respectively. (One way to obviate the need for a beg button, of course, would be to assume there are always pedestrians trying to cross the street in busy areas like South Lake Union and the U District and provide a walk cycle during every green light, as pedestrian advocates across the country have been requesting for years, but baby steps.)

The pilot project will also test an app that will enable cyclists to trigger signals at intersections that equipped with weight-sensitive sensors in streets, which don’t detect vehicles lighter than cars. Cyclists (and, presumably, motorcyclists, who are also usually too light to trip pavement-embedded signals) will be able to download an app that will notify any signals equipped with the new technology that a bike is present, causing the light to change even if there aren’t any cars around. This “solution,” of course, will only work in the limited number of signals near the University of Washington that are equipped with detectors, and for cyclists who download the app and have it running on their phones when they approach those intersections.

This post has been edited to reflect that maximum lot coverage rules will remain the same under all accessory dwelling unit options; the change is to maximum rear yard coverage, which would increase to 60 percent for new detached accessory dwelling units.

Budget Crank: Juarez vs. Bike Lanes, Golf vs. Affordable Housing, and Climate Goals vs. Convenience

Mayor Jenny Durkan calibrated expectations for her first-ever city budget early, by asking every city department to come up with across-the-board budget cuts of between 2 and 5 percent—creating the impression that her budget would require difficult choices, while also ensuring that if popular programs did manage to escape the knife, the mayor’s office would get the credit. That, essentially, is what happened—Durkan unveiled a budget that modestly increases general-fund spending, from $5.6 billion to $5.9 billion (slightly more than the rate of inflation) while preserving homelessness programs that were paid for this year with one-time funding, minimizing layoffs, and handing out $65 million in retroactive pay to  Seattle police officers who have been working without a contract since 2015.

Shortly after she released her budget, Durkan’s office sent supporters a list of 18 suggested social media posts intended for use on social media. Each suggested post included messaging and images created by Durkan’s staff. For example, to illustrate the fact that her budget preserves funding for existing homelessness programs without raising taxes, Durkan’s office suggested the following Facebook post:

“To help our neighbors experiencing homelessness, @Mayor Jenny Durkan’s budget commits $89.5 million to support programs that we know work, including rapid rehousing, diversion, and enhanced shelters – without new taxes on businesses and residents.”

For a Twitter post on the new police contract, which also includes a 17 percent raise for officers,, Durkan’s office suggested the following:

. @SeattlePD officers haven’t had a raise since 2014. @MayorJenny’s new budget includes funding for the proposed @SPOG1952 contract that’s a good deal for our officers, good for reform, and good for Seattle. #SEAtheFuture 

Durkan appears to engage in the practice of distributing canned social-media materials, which more than one observer recently described as “very D.C.,” much more frequently than her predecessors. (Kshama Sawant may use city-owned printers to make hundreds of posters for her frequent rallies at city hall, but it’s still unusual for a mayor to use staff time to rally support for her initiatives on social media). As in D.C. politics,  the method is hit  or miss. A quick search of Twitter and Facebook reveals that the hashtag, and a handful of the posts, were mostly picked up by the social-media accounts of several city of Seattle departments—which, of course, report to Durkan.

2. The council got its first look at the budget this past week. And while this year’s discussions are shaping up to be more muted than 2017’s dramatic debate (which culminated in a flurry of last-minute changes after an early version of the head tax failed) council members are asking questions that indicate where their priorities for this year’s budget lie. Here are some of the issues I’ll be keeping an eye on, based on the first week of budget deliberations:

• Golf 

Did you know that Seattle has four taxpayer-funded public golf courses? (The city of Houston, whose population is more than three times that of Seattle, has six). The city is worried about its ability to sustain so many courses, which are supposed to bring in profits of 5 percent a year to pay back the debt the city took out to improve the golf courses to make them more attractive to golfers. (Guess that saying about spending money to make money doesn’t apply to sports with a dwindling fan base?)  This year, the city moved the cost of paying debt service on those upgrades out of the general fund (the main city budget) and into the city’s separate capital budget, where it will be paid for with King County Park Levy funding, as “a bridge solution to address the anticipated [golf revenue] shortfall for 2019,” according to the budget. The city is also considering the use of real estate excise tax (REET) money to pay for debt service on the golf course improvements.

All of this puts the future of municipal golf in question. Parks Department director Christopher Williams told the council Thursday, “We’ve got a sustainability … problem with our golf program. We’ve got a situation where rounds of golf are declining and the cost of labor for golf is increasing. … The policy question is, to what level should we subsidize public golf?

Council member Sally Bagshaw reminded Williams that affordable-housing advocates have suggested using some portion of the golf courses for affordable housing—they do occupy huge swaths of land in a city that has made all but a tiny percentage of its land off-limits to apartment buildings—but Williams demurred. “We feel we have an obligation to explore some of the more restorative steps that ask the question… can we sustain golf in the city? And does that come down to, maybe we can’t sustain four golf courses. Maybe we can only sustain the two most profitable golf courses in the city ultimately. But we don’t feel we have enough information to be in a place where we can make a compelling case that golf courses should become places for affordable housing.” The department is working on a fiscal analysis of the golf courses, which a parks department spokeswoman told me should be out in mid-October.

Budget director Ben Noble said the city is looking at alternatives such as carsharing and sharing motor pools with other jurisdictions, like King County and Sound Transit, to reduce the number of cars the city needs.

• Shrinking the City’s Car Dependence

During her budget speech and in an executive order that accompanied her budget, Mayor Durkan proposed reducing the city’s vehicle fleet, over an unspecified period of time, by 10 percent—a reduction that would mean getting rid of more than 400 city-owned cars. Lorena Gonzalez, who lives in West Seattle and is one of two at-large council members who represent the whole city, had some concerns. “Sometimes my office has to be way up in District 5 or way down in District 2 or over in District 1, and getting there and back in an efficient amount of time using a bus is pretty difficult, so we rely a lot on the motor pool, and I think that’s true of a lot of other departments throughout the city,” Gonzalez said.

“Certainly we try to encourage our employees to ride public transit into the city of Seattle, and I think one of the benefits of doing that, and one of the incentives for doing that, is that if an employee needs to get somewhere during the day, they have a motor pool car available to them.” Budget director Ben Noble responded that the city is looking at alternatives such as carsharing and sharing motor pools with other jurisdictions, like King County and Sound Transit, to reduce the number of cars the city needs.

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• Fort Lawton

The former Army base next to Discovery Park has been mothballed for years, awaiting the end of hostilities over a plan to build affordable family, senior, and veteran housing on the grounds. (The Army owns the land but offered it to the city for free more than a decade ago in exchange for an agreement to build affordable housing on the property. The city has been unable to hold up its side of the bargain due to ongoing challenges to its plans for housing.) While neighbors squabble over whether to allow low-income people onto the  high-end peninsula, squatters moved into some of the vacant buildings on the property, and the Army decided it was tired of paying to keep them out. That’s how the cost of securing Fort Lawton fell to the city‚ and ultimately, how a line item for hundreds of thousands of dollars in “Fort Lawton Security and Maintenance Costs” ended up in this year’s city budget.

Gonzalez was the one who noticed the eye-popping number—the Office of Housing and the Department of Finance and Administrative Services are each responsible for about $167,000 in 2019 and $172,455 in 2020—and asked OH director Steve Walker about it. “Throughout 2018, the city took responsibility for maintaining that property, as opposed to the Army maintaining that property, and that was part of the Army’s way of saying, ‘You guys are taking a long time and it’s costing us a lot of money. If we’re going to extend this window of opportunity for you, we want you the city to own those costs,’ and we agreed to do so.” Budget director Noble said the city isn’t in a great position to ask the Army to take on more of the costs to secure the property, given that the city was supposed to build housing there years ago, but added that if the city does manage to reach a deal to develop Fort Lawton, the Seattle public school district—which hopes to purchase some of the property—would be on the hook for some of the costs that the city is incurring now, so “we may even get a rebate.”

“We have two bike lanes in Seattle in District 5 that aren’t even used —125th and, barely, Roosevelt. … Some neighborhoods just don’t need bike lanes—it  just doesn’t make sense to have them.” —District 5 city council member Debora Juarez

• And—What Else?—Bike Lanes

Council member Debora Juarez, who appears to view bike and pedestrian safety improvements as a zero-sum game, sounded frustrated when her colleague Sally Bagshaw talked about the need to connect bike lanes in her downtown district so that people will feel safer riding bikes. (Last year, the percentage of commuters riding their bikes downtown actually declined.)  Juarez said she had “a different take on bike lanes than council member Bagshaw.” Then she unloaded on the idea of spending money on bike lanes in her North Seattle district when many areas don’t even have sidewalks. (This is a perennial complaint about North Seattle that stems largely from the fact that the area was built without sidewalks and annexed to the city in the 1950s.)

“We have two bike lanes in Seattle in District 5 that aren’t even used —125th and, barely, Roosevelt,” Juarez said—a claim that was immediately refuted by North Seattle cyclists on Twitter. “So I’m going to ask you to be accountable to us, to tell me how you’re justifying those bike lanes and their maintenance, particularly when I heard some numbers about … how much are we spending per mile on a bike lane… Was it $10 million or something like that?” This misconception (and it is a misconception) stems from the fact that the city’s cost estimates for bike infrastructure also include things like total street repaving, sewer replacement and repair, streetlight relocation and replacement, sidewalks, and other improvements that benefit the general public. Although bike lanes make up only a fraction of such estimates (a fact that should be obvious, given that simple bike lanes involve nothing more than paint on a road), many opponents of bike safety improvements have seized on the higher numbers to claim that bike lanes are many times more expensive than their actual cost.

Juarez continued, noting that her constituents have griped that bike lanes do not have to go through a full environmental review under the State Environmental Protection Act (a review intended to determine whether bike lanes are bad for the environment). “If you’re just putting them in to slow down traffic, then tell us you’re putting in something to slow down traffic,” Juarez said, adding, “Some neighborhoods just don’t need bike lanes—it  just doesn’t make sense to have them. In some neighborhoods, it does make sense to have them. I wasn’t around when the pedestrian bike plan was passed, but I am around now, and I do have a base that … are still scratching their heads [avout] why there are particular bike lanes and what their costs are.”

The council will hold its first public hearing on the budget at city hall (400 5th Ave.) at 5:30pm this Thursday, October 4.

Afternoon Crank: Public Land Sale Materials Tout Restrictive Zoning, Barriers to Homeownership; Details on Bike Lane Mediator’s Campaign Contributions

1.The official request for proposals for developers interesting in buying the so-called Mercer Megablock—three sites that total three acres in the heart of South Lake Union—includes some revealing details about how the city is pitching itself (via JLL, its broker) to potential property buyers. Alongside standard marketing language about the city’s booming economy, growing tech base, and wealth of cultural and natural assets, the Megablock marketing materials tout the fact that Seattle has restrictive zoning and “high barriers to entry for homeownership,” along with some of the highest and fastest-rising rents in the nation, as positive assets that make the city a great place to build.

From the RFP:

This area is also one of the most dynamic real estate investment markets in the country, benefiting from a combination of strict land use planning, topographical constraints on supply, and employment growth that consistently ranks above the national average. Favorable “renter” demographics, positive job numbers, strong population projections and a low unemployment rate, together with high barriers for entry in home ownership, also position the region as a strategic market for multifamily investment gains.

 

What, exactly, constitutes “a strategic market for multifamily investment gains”? A pull quote in the RFP puts a finer point on it: “Housing prices have grown at the fastest rate in the country for the past 17-consecutive months. The 12.9% year-over-year growth is more than double the national growth rate. Multifamily rents increased by 3.1% year-over-year and vacancy is just 4.2%. ”

Obviously, when you put artificial constraints on housing supply (such as zoning laws that make multifamily housing illegal in most parts of a city), housing prices increase. Usually, we think of that as a bad thing, because it means that all but the wealthiest renters (and those who can afford to buy $800,000 houses) get priced out of neighborhoods near employment centers, transit, and other amenities. But the city’s marketing materials turn this idea on its head: Restrictive zoning, “high barriers” to homeownership, and spiraling rents make Seattle the perfect place to buy one of the city’s last large parcels of public land—a parcel which, if housing advocates had their way, would be used for affordable housing that might help address some of those very issues.

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2. After I reported yesterday on the city’s decision to hire a mediator with the Cedar River Group to facilitate a series of conversations  with groups that support and oppose a long-planned bike lane on 35th Ave. NE, architect/intrepid YIMBY Mike Eliason dug through the city’s elections website and discovered that the mediator, John Howell, has given money to both Mayor Jenny Durkan (who directed SDOT to initiate the mediation) and onetime city council candidate Jordan Royer (who, along with attorney Gabe Galanda, is representing the Save 35th Avenue NE anti-bike-lane group in mediation). Howell, who is a principal and founder of Cedar River Group, contributed $275 to Durkan last year and $250 to Royer in 2009.

Rules adopted after the passage of Initiative 122 in 2015 bar contributions from contractors who made more than $250,000 from city contracts over the last two years; according to the city’s contractor list, Cedar River Group made $399,757 from city contractors between 2016 and 2018. However, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission last year dismissed a similar case involving contributions from Paul Allen, who owns a large stake in City Investors (the real estate arm of Allen’s Vulcan Inc.) , concluding that restricting Allen’s ability to donate to local candidates would violate his right to free speech. The “rationale,” according to SEEC director Wayne Barnett, was that “giving a campaign contribution is protected speech under the First Amendment.”  I asked Barnett if that finding might also mean that (under Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruling that unleashed unlimited political spending by corporations) that the contractor contribution restrictions themselves were unconstitutional. Barnett said that was an interesting legal question but that it hasn’t been tested (yet).

 

More Delay for 35th Ave. NE Bike Lane as City Hires Mediator to Facilitate “Conversation” Between Pro- and Anti-Bike Lane Groups

The C is for Crank has learned that the city has hired a mediator, at an estimated cost of nearly $14,000, to facilitate a series of “conversations” to “explore areas of concern” between opponents and proponents of a bike lane on 35th Ave. Northeast, which has been a part of the city’s bike master plan for years but is at risk of being derailed by neighborhood activists who say it will harm businesses in Northeast Seattle. A spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office says that she and city council member Rob Johnson decided to add this extra step to the process because “more than 3,400 people have contacted the Mayor’s Office regarding this project.” The goal, the spokeswoman says, is to “bring people together to facilitate conversations and work toward finding common ground.”

At the mediation sessions, which began earlier this month, representatives from each side of the bike lane issue will sit down separately with representatives from the mayor’s office, the Seattle Department of Transportation, and John Howell, a facilitator from the Cedar River Group, “to discuss their interests and concerns about the project in hopes of finding areas of common agreement as the project construction proceeds,” according to a mediation outline obtained by The C Is for Crank. The outline continues: “There are different perspectives in the community about the potential impacts from the project (mostly regarding the bike lanes). The Mayor’s office has agreed to convene parties representing those different perspectives.

The debate over the proposed protected bike lane, which would run along 35th Ave NE from Ravenna to Wedgwood, has been going on, unresolved, for years. Recently, though, the rhetoric from bike lane opponents has escalated dramatically to include allegations that those advocating for the bike lane are classist, racist, ageist, and ableist. At the same time, bike lane proponents have reported being publicly and privately threatened, and vandals have repeatedly damaged equipment used to measure speed and traffic volumes along the street. Just last month, someone planted fireworks in construction equipment that was being used to repave the roadway, prompting a response from the city’s bomb and arson squad. (Save 35th Ave. NE, the group opposing the bike lane, has disavowed and denounced the attack.)

The city’s official Bike Master Plan has promised a separated bike lane on 35th since it was last updated in 2014, and the project was supposed to be completed this year. The latest progress report on the bike plan, which SDOT is presenting to the city council’s transportation committee this afternoon, notes that the project will now be delayed until 2019, so that the city can participate in “an ongoing dialogue with the communities impacted by these projects.”

According to the project outline for the mediation, the anti-bike lane community will be represented by attorney Gabe Galanda and Pacific Merchant Shipping Association VP Jordan Royer, two men who also happen to be the campaign manager and top-listed officer, respectively, for a new PAC, “Neighborhoods for Smart Streets,” that just formed last week. The purpose of the PAC, according to the Save 35th Ave. NE newsletter: To “mobilize around transportation-related causes like Save 35th and candidates for local office who are not ideologues when it comes to local transportation planning.” Galanda, readers may recall, is the lawyer who argued that bike lanes only “serve Seattle’s white privileged communities, and further displace historically marginalized communities.” I responded to some of those arguments—particularly the claim that marginalized communities don’t want safe places to bike—here.

It’s unclear what the mayor’s office, and Johnson, expect to accomplish by adding a new mediation step to the process of building a bike lane that was approved after a lengthy process several years ago. According to the mayor’s spokeswoman, the goal of the mediation process is “Finding common ground on improvements in the corridor”—presumably improvements that are unrelated to the bike lane at the heart of the conflict. But why mediation, a process usually reserved for conflicts between two people or entities with a legal stake in the outcome of a dispute? Neither side of the mediation is a formal party to the decision, and no one is suing to stop the project. Save 35th Avenue NE, however, has been explicit about what it hopes to get out of Durkan—a “unilateral” decision to kill the bike lane. In an email late last month, as mediation was getting underway, the group encouraged its members to  “Contact Mayor Jenny Durkan” and tell her to kill the bike lane, because “In the final analysis, SDOT reports to the Mayor of Seattle. Mayor Durkan halted work on the First Avenue streetcar project. She can likewise unilaterally stop the bike lanes proposed for 35th Ave. NE.”

That email, written less than two weeks before the first mediation session, hardly sounds like the work of a group that is open to “compromise” and “common ground.” And there is plenty of other evidence that the anti-bike lane activists aren’t coming to the table in the best of faith. So far this year, Save 35th NE has claimed that single mothers do not ride bikes; asserted that SDOT “did not actually view streets such as 35th” before proposing bike lanes there; accused city council member Rob Johnson of lying to constituents and denigrating elderly and disabled people in his district; and accused Johnson, based on a single out-of-context email, of organizing an opposition group called Safe 35th Ave. NE.

The project outline for the mediation process doesn’t say how long the mediation will take,

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider supporting the site with a one-time or sustaining monthly contribution! This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for  your support.

Morning Crank: Mariners Giveaway, Bike Lanes Downtown, and Public Land for Housing People

Image via Wikimedia Commons; photo by Cacophony

1. King County Council member Jeanne Kohl-Welles withdrew her support yesterday from legislation that would dedicate up to $190 million in proceeds from the county’s hotel/motel tax to Safeco Field, proposing an amendment that would instead direct almost all of that money to affordable housing instead. The Mariners are demanding the upgrades as a condition of signing a new 25-year lease on the stadium.

King County Executive Dow Constantine has insisted that the hotel/motel tax proceeds must be spent on purposes related to tourism, including improvements to the stadium, but the legislation that authorized the tax actually does not limit the percentage of proceeds that can be spent on affordable housing, nor does it require that any money be spent on tourism at all. Instead, the law says that at least 37.5 percent of the hotel/motel tax must be spent on arts and affordable housing, respectively, and that whatever money remains after that can be spent on tourism. Kohl-Welles’ proposal would increase the affordable housing expenditure to 52.5 percent, leaving about $25 million for stadium improvements.

One thing worth noting as this debate plays out: Mariners owner John Stanton, a billionaire telecom executive who has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Republican Party and conservative causes, maxed out to just one candidate in the 2017 primary and general elections. That candidate? Dow Constantine.

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2. The city council passed a resolution Monday urging the Seattle Department of Transportation (i.e. Mayor Jenny Durkan) to complete the downtown bike network, after interim SDOT director Goran Sparrman informed the council that the city planned to delay the construction of a long-promised protected bike lane on Fourth Avenue downtown for three years while construction projects downtown (including the demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the construction of a new Washington State convention center) reduce the number of lanes available to car commuters.

Mariners owner John Stanton, a billionaire telecom executive who has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Republican Party and conservative causes, maxed out to just one candidate in the 2017 primary and general elections. That candidate? Dow Constantine.

Council member Teresa Mosqueda, just home from a trip to Minneapolis where she met with members of the bike equity group Tamales y Bicycletas, added language to the legislation emphasizing the importance of creating safe bike routes for low-income people, communities of color, and women. The resolution now says that although the Center City bike network itself is located downtown, “connecting routes to surrounding neighborhoods, and between neighborhoods, particularly in historically neglected communities with higher needs of safety improvements for pedestrians and cyclists, must be a focus for the city in making connections with the Center City Bike Network.” The verbiage, along with language about the city’s historical disinvestment in low-income communities and communities of color, serves as another rebuke to unsupported claims that bike lanes “displace the underprivileged” and kill minority-owned businesses in neighborhoods like Wedgwood, in north Seattle.

But will the resolution matter? SDOT is already trying to dampen expectations that the downtown bike lane network will be built within 18 months, as the council resolution demands. And the agency is still figuring out the details of its planned  “reset” of the $290 million Move Seattle levy in response to higher-than-anticipated construction costs and lower-than-expected (or entirely absent) federal funds for Seattle projects. Late last month, council transportation committee chair Mike O’Brien told me that “there’s nothing we see right now [in the resolution] that’s a deal breaker,” but added that he hadn’t heard much from the Durkan Administration about whether they planned to move forward on the council’s recommendations, which include new bike lanes from 8th Avenue in Belltown down to 12th Avenue South in the International District. “My sense is they are still getting up to speed on a lot of things,” O’Brien said. “I think the bike capacity in Mayor Durkan’s brain has been spent on the Burke-Gilman trail [completion] and 35th” Ave NE, where anti-bike activists are fighting a bike lane and road restructure. “I don’t know that there’s a ton that has been done on this.”

3. The council also adopted legislation that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, giving Seattle City Light the ability to sell its properties to nonprofit housing developers who agree to build housing affordable to people making less than 80 percent of Seattle’s median income. Currently, the city requires property owned by its electric utility to be sold at fair-market value, thanks to a 2003 ruling striking down a fee City Light imposed to install and maintain streetlights. However, a bill passed by the state legislature last year, House Bill 2382, gives state and local agencies the right to transfer land to affordable housing developers at little or no cost, giving the city new ammunition if it faces a legal challenge the first time the legislation is tested.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Bike Lanes Are For Everyone: Fact-Checking Claims that Only “The Privileged” Want Safe Cycling Infrastructure

Transportation Twitter is buzzing today about an anti-bike lane op/ed in Crosscut that argues, among other things, that new bike lanes in the overwhelmingly white neighborhood of Wedgwood will hurt minority-owned businesses; that the only people who ride bikes are a vaguely defined group known as “the privileged”; and that bike improvements that have dramatically reduced traffic violence in the Rainier Valley represent an imposition on a neighborhood that did not ask for and does not need those improvements.

(The piece, by Latino Civic Alliance board chair Nina Martinez, might as well have been ghostwritten by local attorney Gabe Galanda, who has been making almost word-for-word identical arguments against bike lanes in the Rainier Valley and Wedgwood on his Twitter page.)

Instead of arguing the issue on Twitter, I decided to fact-check the piece line by line to show why bike advocates are so worked up about its central claim, that “Seattle’s bike lobby needs to check its privilege,” and by the suggestion that low-income people and people of color don’t want or need safe places to ride. The text of Crosscut’s article, in its entirety, is in italics.

A downtown bike lane once estimated to cost $860,000 is now $12 million per mile.

The biggest inaccuracy in Crosscut’s editorial, and the easiest to fact-check, appears right in the very first line of the piece, which claims two things: A bike lane downtown was going to cost a total of $860,000, and now costs $12 million a mile.

Let’s take those two things in turn. Was a downtown bike lane supposed to cost just $860,000 total?

No. In fact, it doesn’t take much digging to realize that this is false on several levels. Go just one layer past the frothing, error-riddled Danny Westneat column linked in Crosscut’s editorial and you learn, via Times reporter Mike Lindblom, that “Actually, the city didn’t promise downtown bike lanes for only $860,000 a mile. Nor did it overrun budgets by a factor of 14. That figure is an average that includes much cheaper locations.” Whoops. So not only was there never any specific bike lane that was supposed to cost a total of $860,000, the $860,000 per mile figure that Westneat cites is actually a citywide average for all bike infrastructure.

As for $12 million a mile : The Times also reported that a huge percentage of that $12 million figure are costs that have nothing to do with bike lanes. In fact, Lindblom makes that abundantly clear early in his story, noting in the first few paragraphs that “There’s more to a project than paving a bike lane.” The $12 million per mile cost includes things that have absolutely nothing to do with bikes and that are in fact largely for the benefit of other roadway users, such as new sidewalks, repaving the entire roadway (not just the bike lane), adding new streetlights on both sides of the road, and replacing the subsurface sewer infrastructure. The actual cost for a representative $3.8 million, 4.5-block bike lane project on Seventh Avenue, once all the non-bike-lane portions of the project are factored out? $136,020.

The cost of the Burke-Gilman “missing link” in Ballard is now pegged at $23.5 million.

This, like the “$12 million for a bike lane?!?” figure, is misleading because it includes many expenditures that have nothing to do with bike lanes per se. The total cost of the “Missing Link” now includes many extra goodies demanded by industrial businesses in the vicinity of the trail, who have dragged the project out for years (and years) (and years), so that now, the bike path itself only makes up 30 percent of the cost of the trail extension, according to SDOT.

In fact, the Burke-Gilman “trail” extension has become more of a full-corridor project, thanks to those concessions to businesses, and now includes repaving part of NW Market Street, adding an brand-new intersection for freight access at 54th Avenue NW and Market, funding transit improvements on Market, adding signals that will make it easier for freight traffic to cross the trail, and rebuilding freight businesses’ driveways up and down the trail. These are not bike projects; they are car and freight mobility projects, and including them in the cost of the “trail” is highly misleading.

The city is removing small and minority-owned business parking in Northeast neighborhoods like Wedgwood and Roosevelt. The average Seattle taxpayer should be infuriated.

No citation is given for this claim that business owners in the Wedgwood and Roosevelt neighborhoods are largely “small and minority-owned,” but here are some demographics that help paint a picture of the part of town Martinez is talking about. The ZIP code that includes both Roosevelt and Wedgwood, according to the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey,  is 81 percent white, 4 percent Hispanic or Latino, and just 2 percent African American. That’s much, much whiter than Seattle as a whole, which is 69 percent white and 7 percent Latino/Hispanic and African American, respectively. In comparison, the ZIP code that includes much of Southeast Seattle, 98118, is 35 percent white, 10 percent Hispanic/Latino, and 27 percent African American. I believe we can safely assert, based on those figures, that neighborhood businesses owned by local residents in Wedgwood are less likely to be owned by minorities than neighborhood businesses in other parts of the city.

Moreover, businesses on 35th Ave have been complaining about street parking being removed for bike lanes for much of the past five years, since the 2014 adoption of the latest version of the city’s Bike Master Plan. (The claim that the Businesses complain about parking every time bike lanes are proposed in a way that will remove free on-street public parking for cars. They complained about bike lanes on 65th Ave. NE, on 75th Ave NE, on Nickerson Street, on Stone Way… and they will complain about the next bike lane just as loudly.

(Incidentally, SDOT’s survey of parking utilization in the area around the planned bike lane found that on-street parking was never more than 50 percent full within a block of the project, demonstrating that removing a small number of on-street parking spaces on one side of 35th Ave NE will not significantly impact drivers’ ability to find parking near neighborhood businesses.)

 

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Bottom line: This isn’t about minority-owned businesses—it’s about business owners who feel, contrary to what the law actually says, that they own the public streets in front of their establishments. Business owners are free to provide parking for their patrons; what they are not free to do is claim that the public street right-of-way, which we all pay for, belongs exclusively to them and their car-driving customers.

I am concerned about the proliferation of bike lanes for another reason: because they displace the underprivileged and reapportion to the privileged, public monies that should be dedicated to mitigating our city’s homelessness crisis, income inequality and neighborhood gentrification.

There is no evidence whatsoever that bike lanes themselves are somehow “displac[ing] the underprivileged.”  As for the rest of the claim, it’s a standard canard used for any number of issues: Why are we spending any money on X, when we should be spending all our money on Y?  The fact is that the city has had a bike master plan since the Nickels Administration, and that bike safety has been a longtime priority for Seattle (at least in theory) for many reasons, among them: Making it possible for people who don’t own or can’t afford cars to get around the city safely; decreasing carbon emissions that disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color; improving safety for all roadway users, not just cyclists; reducing the number of people who are killed and injured by drivers on our streets; improving public health and reducing obesity in the city; and reducing car dependence so that people of all ages, incomes, and abilities can get around the city comfortably and safely. In any case, the ten-year Bike Master Plan adopted in 2014 clocked in under $100 million; even if all of that money had been allocated to “mitigating our city’s homelessness crisis” alone (leaving aside the other goals of fixing “income inequality and neighborhood gentrification”) it would scarcely make a dent in the need. (In contrast, the recently overturned head tax was projected to raise about $75 million a year). And more people, including people of color in neighborhoods where cyclists are forced to share street space with zooming automobiles, would die as a direct result.

For all of our progressive political ideology, Seattle is one of the most racially hegemonic cities in America.

Fifty years after city law was changed to declare housing discrimination illegal, historical neighborhoods of color like the Central District, International District and Beacon Hill are now some of the most desired areas to live in our city. Those neighborhoods have been gentrifying over the last 30 years. But the people of color business owners who were once segregated into these neighborhoods — by further adverse housing practices like “redlining” in the 1970’s — are being priced out of those same neighborhoods today. 

This is accurate. And has nothing whatsoever to do with whether business owners in Wedgwood get free parking, or whether bike lanes benefit communities of color.

And the challenges of small businesses in our city are not limited to those historically disenfranchised neighborhoods. Seattle ranks first in the country for small business growth. Yet Black and Latino residents who together comprise 15 percent of our city’s population, for example, own less than 5 percent of businesses citywide. It remains a real struggle for people of color and immigrant members of our community to realize the American Dream of small business ownership.

Again, this is true enough, but what does it have to do with businesses in wealthy, white neighborhoods who think city taxpayers should subsidize free parking for their patrons? It’s like writing an op/ed trashing Mayor Jenny Durkan for her policy on homeless sweeps but making every other paragraph about the problems facing women in STEM fields.

What is missing from Seattle’s governance and infrastructure planning is honest discourse about these difficult issues — about our checkered racial and socioeconomic history, and about how past and recent development decisions in City Hall have displaced and still displace historically marginalized communities and small businesses. Instead, city planning officials too frequently pay homage to the special interests of the privileged, like the small but loud bicycle lobby. 

You’ll get no argument from me that we need to talk more about our checkered racial and socioeconomic history—particularly Seattle’s history of redlining people of color out of “desirable” single-family neighborhoods and then perpetuating that formal segregation in the post-Jim Crow era with zoning rules that effectively bar low-income people and people of color from buying or renting homes in the vast majority of the city even today. The idea that the “bicycle lobby” is “privileged,” however, is straight out of the business lobby’s playbook. Remember when “Save 35th Ave. NE,” the group that is pushing to preserve parking for cars at any cost, put out a dog-whistle tweet suggesting that low-income “single moms” don’t ride bikes? Not only did single moms quickly disabuse the group, en masse, of that sexist, classist notion, they staged a protest ride to make the point that single moms, moms with partners, and women in general can and do ride bikes all over the city. The notion that “techbros” are the only people out on bikes is quickly dispelled by walking or riding on the Burke-Gilman Trail, much less in any neighborhood where biking is actually relatively safe—which makes the case for more bike infrastructure, not against it.

A 2017 SDOT survey found that only 3 percent of trips to local businesses are made by bicycle, as compared to by foot (40 percent), car (35 percent), or transit (18 percent). For small business owners, brick and mortar and customer access are vital, as is their workforce. Yet Seattle continues to spend tens of millions of dollars to replace parking spots with bike lanes, for the benefit of the privileged few.

Well, yes. People tend to walk to neighborhood businesses, because, well, they’re located within walking distance. People tend to bike for slightly longer distances. And they tend to drive when they have to carry things home with them, or run errands with kids. But wouldn’t it be great if neighborhoods were safe enough that some of those people who are running local errands by car felt comfortable cycling to local businesses instead? The fact that a lot of people currently drive isn’t actually an argument that our transportation system should or will always be this way, it’s evidence of the fact that we have spent the past 100 years designing a transportation system for the past 100 years for cars, and we’ll have to work just as hard, on a much faster timeline, to make our streets welcoming places for cyclists and other road users as well.

As for “the privileged few”: It’s a common canard that only rich, white men need, want, or benefit safe bike infrastructure. It’s also patently false and, in light of the actual demographics of bike riders, paternalistic and insulting to the many low-income people, women, and people of color who ride bikes. As a former Southeast Seattle resident who gave up riding to work because Rainier Ave., the most direct and least hilly route to downtown or Capitol Hill, is so demonstrably dangerous, I am an avid advocate for safe bike infrastructure. But let’s not rely on anecdotes from one person who commuted from Southeast Seattle daily for years, taking her life into her own hands. Let’s look at the numbers.

• Biking is rising fastest among people of color, particularly African Americans and Asian Americans. Meanwhile, Latinx people ride bikes more than any other ethnic or racial group.

• People of color are also more likely than other groups to say they ride bikes for transportation, rather than recreation, belying the claim that bike commuting is for rich white people only.

• Although most Americans say they would like to bike more often than they do, people of color are most likely to say this, and to say that protected bike lanes, in particular, would make them more likely to make them get on a bike.

• Latinx cyclists are the group proportionately most likely to die from traffic violence, followed by African Americans, giving them a direct stake in improving bike safety in their neighborhoods.

• Finally, the lowest-income Americans bike far more for recreation and transportation than people in the highest income brackets, largely because many low-income people cannot afford to own a car.

Access to safe bicycle facilities is thus a racial and social-justice issue. To pretend otherwise by relying on lazy stereotypes about Spandex-clad bros on racing bikes is to willfully ignore the facts about who’s riding bikes, and why.

“Bike Lanes Are White Lanes” author Melody Hoffman explains that the emergence of bike lanes in once segregated and now gentrified neighborhoods sends a clear message to those who live and own businesses there — that their voices don’t matter. She urges “urban planners and bike advocates who are planning this infrastructure to not just bring projects into neighborhoods.” Instead, bike lane projects should be “community-driven.” Hoffman calls out the privilege we are seeing here: “For the white middle class person, they feel that their one barrier is they need a protected bike lane to feel safe, but that is not the lived experience of all people.”

In fact, the very lengthy process for bringing protected bike lanes into the Rainier Valley was spearheaded and championed by a community-based organization called Rainier Valley Greenways, which led the charge for a series of “road diets” on Rainier Ave. S that have reduced crashes in the corridor, which has long been known as “the most dangerous street in Seattle” for the literally hundreds of injuries and fatalities caused by car crashes every year. After years of work that included a protest march in Columbia City and countless meetings with community members and city officials, the group finally won changes that have resulted in dramatic (95%) reductions in aggressive speeding, a 41% reduction in the number of people injured while walking and biking, and no significant delays to bus or car traffic driving through the corridor. According to the owner of one Columbia City small business, quoted by KING 5 in 2016, “The benefits far outweigh the downside.”

Seattle is at a crossroads. We are the fastest growing U.S. city. But we also have major societal problems caused by the unprecedented insurgence of wealth. As a city we must decide how to spend taxpayer dollars responsibly and equitably, ensuring that we are also serving and protecting small businesses. It is unacceptable for city officials to impose a bike lane agenda on neighborhoods like those proposed throughout the Rainier Valley without bothering to stop, look around and listen to peoples’ life experiences.

Again, the changes that have been made in the Rainier Valley, specifically, came from the community and would not have happened without strong advocacy from within the community—a community that was tired of seeing its residents maimed and killed by cars and trucks speeding down a street that was originally designed as a highway for cars traveling between Seattle and Renton.

Mayor Jenny Durkan and the Seattle City Council must now hit the pause button to allow transparent community development conversation to occur. Until then, there will only be more discord — with underrepresented communities still feeling that nobody in City Hall cares what they think.

I understand that this is an editorial, and that sometimes editorials aren’t fact-checked as assiduously as reported stories. However, even editorial opinions are stronger when they’re based on facts and data rather than opinions and innuendo. In this case, those opinions lead to some startling and problematic conclusions of their own. Asserting, contrary to evidence, that only privileged white people ride bikes, for example, is a way of erasing the people of color who are endangered every day by terrible or nonexistent bike facilities in their neighborhoods. Suggesting that Rainier Valley residents had bike lanes and road diets shoved down their throats erases the Rainier Valley residents who volunteered their time for years in the fight to get safe bike facilities on at least a small stretch of the most dangerous street in Seattle.

Ultimately, I think people who pit bike lanes against other priorities (bike lanes or solving homelessness; bike lanes or fixing income inequality) know that defunding safe infrastructure for cyclists won’t mean more money for homelessness or stopping gentrification or anything else. They just see “bike lanes” as a froufrou, unnecessary expenditure that benefits rich white guys in Spandex. It’s up to news outlets, including Crosscut, to examine the facts and determine whether that claim holds water. I hope they will follow up and do so.

* This story initially misidentified local attorney Gabe Galanda as Galanda Broadman, which is the name of Galanda’s law firm.

Morning Crank: Another Interim Head for SDOT, More Streetcar Fallout, A Victory for Burke-Gilman Trail Advocates, and “Tolling to Make Congestion Worse.”

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1. The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has been headed up by an interim director, Goran Sparrman, for nearly seven months, since controversial director Scott Kubly left the position last December, a month after Jenny Durkan was sworn in as mayor. Durkan extended Sparrman’s tenure as interim SDOT chief by two months at the end of May, when the SDOT director publicly announced that he planned to leave at the end of August. At the time, Durkan’s office announced a national search to replace him, and put out a call for input from the public on what they would like to see in the next SDOT director.

Sparrman will reportedly be taking a job with the HNTB Corporation, a consulting firm that has a large contract to do the engineering work on Sound Transit’s Ballard to West Seattle light rail line and also has numerous open contracts with the city of Seattle.

Sparrman’s departure date is rapidly approaching, and Durkan has not announced his replacement, nor, apparently, does she plan to any time soon. Instead, The C Is for Crank has learned, will announce yet another interim director—reportedly Genessee Adkins, SDOT’s current chief of staff—and put off hiring a permanent director until this winter, possibly as late as January, according to sources close to the department. The ongoing lack of permanent leadership at the embattled agency, which is dealing with fallout from cost overruns on the delayed downtown streetcar as well as a vocal backlash from bike and pedestrian advocates over Durkan and Sparrman’s decision to delay implementation of the long-planned Fourth Avenue protected bike lane until 2021, has reportedly damaged morale at the agency and contributed to a sense of an agency in turmoil. Compounding the lack of leadership at the top is the fact that all four of SDOT’s deputy directors are also serving on an interim basis, as is the current chief of staff (Adkins is currently on leave), creating an org chart headed up almost entirely by people serving on an impermanent or contingent basis. (The org chart itself, unusually for a Seattle city agency, only includes the names of the seven people at the very top, followed by the general functions each of those people oversee.)

Sparrman will reportedly be taking a job with the HNTB Corporation, a consulting firm that has a large contract to do the engineering work on Sound Transit’s Ballard to West Seattle light rail line and also has numerous open contracts with the city of Seattle. Sparrman reportedly accepted his new private-sector position several months ago. I asked Durkan’s office whether it was a conflict of interest for Sparrman to be negotiating on behalf of SDOT with agencies that could soon be his clients. Her spokeswoman, Stephanie Formas, responded by referring me to the city’s ethics rules regarding former employees, which restrict current employees’ ability to be involved in their future employers’ “dealings with the city,” and restrict former employees’ ability to participate in certain activities, like bidding for contracts, for the first year or two after they leave the city, depending on the activity.

 

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2. Mayor Durkan issued an “update on the Center City Connector” yesterday that confirmed some of what city council member Lisa Herbold was talking about a full five days ago (when I was on vacation; sorry!): The vehicles the city ordered for the indefinitely postponed First Avenue Streetcar are wider and longer than the existing South Lake Union and First Avenue streetcars, suggesting that they may not be compatible with the existing systems the Center City Connector is supposed to connect.

Durkan, to the consternation of some transit advocates, has been lukewarm on the proposed downtown streetcar ever since initial operations cost estimates turned out to be off by as much as 50 percent and the cost to build the system ballooned by tens of millions. A long-awaited independent financial analysis of the project has been delayed because, according to today’s statement from the mayor’s office, the review “was much more complex than initially expected.” One question that could be deal-breaking is whether the new, larger vehicles are even compatible with the gauge of the existing streetcar lines, which run from Pioneer Square to First Hill and from Westlake to South Lake Union.

Formas, the mayor’s spokeswoman, says that it’s possible the lines will still be able to connect—the existing streetcars, for example, are built to slightly different specifications but can still run on each others’ tracks—but the episode brings to mind what happened with the downtown transit tunnel, whose original train tracks, installed almost as an afterthought in 1993, had to be torn out and replaced in the mid-2000s, resulting in additional costs of more than $45 million.

“We shouldn’t be tolling that and making our city streets free. We should be doing it the other way around. We should say, ‘Look if you want to drive [past downtown], take the tunnel, but if you come downtown, we’re going to charge you.”

3. Advocates for completing the long-delayed “missing link” of the Burke-Gilman multi-use trail in Ballard won a small victory last week, when a King County Superior Court judge dismissed a complaint by the Ballard Coalition, a group of businesses that opposes the completion of the trail as proposed by “missing link” advocates, charging that the city hearing examiner who approved the final environmental statement for the project had a conflict of interest. The Coalition argued, essentially, that because then-deputy commissioner Ryan Vancil was up for a promotion when he determined in January that the city’s environmental analysis of the project, which took five years and cost $2.5 million to complete, was adequate. The decision was a significant victory for trail advocates.

In its complaint, the business coalition argued that Vancil violated the appearance of fairness doctrine, which requires public officials to conduct business in a way that appears fair, by applying for and obtaining a promotion from deputy hearing examiner to chief hearing examiner while the city of Seattle had a case in front of him—specifically, the “long-running [Burke-Gilman] dispute.” In his ruling rejecting that argument, Judge Samuel Chung noted that if he were to assume that anyone who applied for a promotion within the hearing examiner’s office was biased in favor of the city, it “would impose a presumption that would taint all virtually all decision making by that body. Every hearing examiner is presumed to be fair and impartial, and an advancement within that office under these facts do not form a basis for an appearance of fairness violation.”

4. Deadlines prevented me from giving my full attention to a resolution the city council passed last week vowing to build out as much of the planned downtown bike network as possible while the Fourth Avenue protected bike lane remains in limbo, but I didn’t want to let one comment from council member Mike O’Brien, who sponsored the resolution, slip by. O’Brien made the remark while we were discussing the “period of maximum constraint” between now and roughly 2021, when construction projects and the closure of the downtown bus tunnel and the demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct are expected to jam traffic downtown.

O’Brien, who opposed the Alaskan Way tunnel project, pointed out that everyone who now uses the viaduct to get to points downtown will drive instead on surface streets, and even people going through downtown will use surface streets to avoid the tunnel, contributing to traffic jams during the “period of maximum constraint” from roughly now until 2021, when construction and demolition projects are expected to make downtown traffic worse than at any time in recent history. The day before we talked, O’Brien said, the Washington State Transportation Commission had approved tunnel tolls ranging from $1 to $2.25. “We shouldn’t be tolling that and making our city streets free,” O’Brien told me. “We should be doing it the other way around. We should say, ‘Look if you want to drive [past downtown], take the tunnel, but if you come downtown, we’re going to charge you.” Instead, O’Brien said, Seattle is going to have “anti-congestion pricing—pricing to make congestion worse.”

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