Morning Crank: The Common Canard

1. Perhaps emboldened by the Queen Anne Community Council’s successful effort to delay a proposal making it easier for homeowners to build backyard cottages, a group of Phinney Ridge homeowners plan to appeal an environmental ruling allowing a four-story apartment building on Greenwood Avenue. The attorney for these homeowners, Jeffrey Eustis, also represented the Queen Anne council and homeowner Marty Kaplan in their effort to shut down the backyard cottage rules.

livable-phinney

Image from livablephinney.org

I reported last year on the intense furor over the building, which would add 57 new studio apartments to a commercial stretch of Greenwood. The project has already been through a nearly unprecedented four design reviews, after neighbors objected about details like the lack of washers and dryers in each unit, the fact that the units will lack air conditioning, and the lack of onsite parking for residents. Neighbors also objected to the modern style of the building and the fact that the people who rent there would be “forced” to live in tight quarters.

In a letter addressed to “friends and neighbors” of the development, the group writes, “Our appeal will tackle a major error in the city’s environmental policy code that allows developers to impose the impacts of their no-parking projects on the surrounding homeowners and small businesses that depend on street parking for their customers.  Even the error-filled parking studies submitted for this permit prove that there is NO MORE CAPCITY [sic] for parking cars within blocks of the site.  Those of you who commute by the #5 bus also know that the bus is already OVERCROWDED.  We need to challenge these developments until there is adequate transit and parking provided to meet the new demand they create. That is fair growth.” [Bold in original]

The appeal asks the Seattle hearing examiner to reject the development on the grounds that it violates the State Environmental Policy Act by creating an adverse environmental impact on the surrounding area. Put more plainly: Among other claims, it charges that homeowners and small businesses will be inconvenienced because it will become harder for them to park their cars. This assumption rests on the common canard that everyone in a city must own at least a car or two, when in reality, people who live in tiny studios on bus lines in cities are far less likely to drive than, say, homeowners who live in large houses with driveways and capacious parking garages.

2. Learn to trust the Crank: Yesterday, I reported that Seattle Public School director Stephan Blanford was considering a run for the Position 8 city council seat being vacated by Tim Burgess next year. (Several candidates, including former Tenants Union director and erstwhile Burgess opponent Jon Grant, have already filed for the November 2017 election). Yesterday, Blanford got back to me to confirm that he is “giving serious consideration” to running. “After 3.5 years on the school board, I have many factors to weigh, but my progressive values and ability to bring people together to work on tough issues like Seattle Schools’ opportunity gaps leaves me feeling like it might be a good fit,” Blanford writes. “I’m working through my process now, and looking at all of the options before me.”

3. Two nights ago, in a unanimous vote, the Mercer Island City Council decided to sue Sound Transit and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), alleging breach of contract over a 1976 agreement that granted Island residents the ability to drive solo in the I-90 high-occupancy vehicle lanes. The lawsuit seeks to halt Sound Transit’s plans to close one of the island’s three single-occupancy access points to I-90, requiring Islanders to do what everyone else in the region does when they want to drive alone: Drive to the entrance to the freeway and sit in traffic. (The new rail station provides an excellent alternative for commuters, and people who choose to carpool or take the bus will still be able to use the HOV lanes).

Yesterday, Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff responded to the lawsuit. In a statement, Rogoff said:

“Legal agreements dating back to before the I-90 floating bridge was even built dedicated the center lanes for public transit. More than eight years ago regional voters approved the funding to build the East Link light rail project on those lanes. It is highly regrettable that the City of Mercer Island is now attempting to delay the project in mid-construction. Neither the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) nor Sound Transit are empowered to reverse the Federal Highway Administration’s decisions regarding access by single-occupant Mercer Island traffic to the new HOV lanes across Lake Washington. These lanes are on schedule to open in June, enabling us to stay on schedule constructing light rail. While Sound Transit remains ready to reach solutions through negotiations, the agency will take all legal actions necessary to avoid delays or increased costs to taxpayers in fulfilling our promise to voters to complete East Link. Building fast and reliable light rail service across Lake Washington is not only a commitment to the residents of Bellevue, Redmond, Mercer Island and Seattle but to every resident of the Sound Transit District. Delays to the East Link project pose significant risks of increased costs to regional taxpayers and significant delays to opening the project in 2023.”

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! 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 substantial time I put into it 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: “We Are the Dakota Access [Pipe]line Tribe.”

Last night, the Mercer Island City Council voted unanimously to sue Sound Transit and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), in part, to preserve the right of island residents to drive alone in the westbound I-90 HOV lanes.

The island has been fighting to preserve this highly unusual privilege for decades, despite the fact that the original agreement granting them special access to carpool lanes, signed in 1976, anticipates a future when transit lanes, or fixed-rail transit, will supplant some freeway lanes and require island residents to give up their access. (Mercer Island also wants its residents to be permanently exempt from tolls on I-90, to restrict parking at the Mercer Island park-and-ride serving light rail to Mercer Island residents only, and to prohibit bus transfers on the island, keeping the people who ride buses from deboarding in the wealthy enclave.) The lawsuit seeks to force the state and Sound Transit to grant all these privileges, which, as Zach Shaner at Seattle Transit Blog has noted, would be “completely unique to Mercer Island.”

If you weren’t following along last night, I Storified all my tweets here.

2. Jan Angel, a conservative Republican legislator from Port Orchard, has introduced a bill that would prohibit cities from passing laws barring landlords from discriminating against tenants based on their source of income—a proposal that would, if passed, slap down Seattle’s new law that says landlords can’t refuse to people because their income comes from sources like Social Security or unemployment, and requiring them to rent to the first qualified applicant. (The Seattle law also prohibits landlords from offering special deals to employees of specific companies, such as Amazon.)

That Angel has introduced such a bill is hardly news—in recent years, the conservative Republican has proposed drug testing for welfare recipients and business-friendly changes to the workers’ compensation system. What was surprising is who showed up to testify in favor of the anti-Seattle bill: Smart Growth Seattle lobbyist Roger Valdez, who once worked for a liberal environmentalist think tank, the Sightline Institute, and a liberal city council member, Peter Steinbrueck.

“At a time when demand for housing is outpacing supply, producers and operators of housing have faced an ever-expanding gauntlet of rules, regulations, fees, fines, inspections, infringements, and limitations that are confusing for both housing providers and consumers,” Valdez said. “It’s time for the state to take back the control. … What’s also important is that the mayor and council have pursued this improvisational regulatory spree with no consultation of housing developers, property managers, or anyone in the housing business whatsoever. None. That’s true. They have not talked with us at all. That’s why this was a problem.”

Sen. David Frockt (D-46) pointed out that developers were very much represented on the Housing Affordability and Livability Committee, which worked to create many of the rules Valdez was opposing so vociferously; in fact, supposed overrepresentation by developers is one reason many neighborhood groups and anti-development liberals oppose HALA. In a testy back and forth, Frockt challenged Valdez, who eventually allowed that the city did give developers a seat at the table, but that “sitting in the room on a large committee is not consultation.”

Historically, anti-discrimination laws have come from cities first before being adopted by the state; it is unprecedented for the state to adopt renter protection laws before they have first emerged at the municipal level.

3. Crank hears that another candidate may soon be jumping in the race for City Council Position 8, the citywide seat that Tim Burgess will vacate next year: Stephan Blanford, a Seattle Public School director who has focused on closing the achievement gap between black and white students in Seattle schools. Blanford, who was endorsed in his 2013 school board run by local Democratic groups and elected officials as well as the political arm of the Chamber of Commerce and former King County Executive Ron Sims, would join a crowded race that already includes 2015 Burgess challenger and tenant organizer Jon Grant and Washington State Labor Council policy director Teresa Mosqueda.

Grant sent out two job announcements this week seeking a campaign manager and an organizer; his campaign will rely heavily on the city’s new Democracy Voucher program, which provides $100 in vouchers for Seattle residents to donate to the candidate or candidates of their choice.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! 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 substantial time I put into it 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: Not an Act of Bravery

mike-o-brien-feb-10

1. City council member Rob Johnson caught flak last week from anti-density activists like John Fox, of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, after questioning self-identified liberals who say they welcome immigrants and refugees and oppose zoning changes that would create more housing. Speaking at a forum sponsored by the Transportation Choices Coalition, which Johnson directed prior to his election in 2015, Johnson said, “[I]t’s really disturbing for me when I hear … somebody talking about how glad they were to see the neighborhood district councils stand up for single-family zoning and then, in the next breath, disparage the president for wanting to build a wall between the US and Mexico. I see those two things as actually linked.”

Fox, along with fellow activist Carolee Coulter, wrote that Johnson’s comments were “intensely insulting and polarizing, not to mention wrong. He should be ashamed of himself.” Fox and Coulter compared Johnson to Trump; others who emailed me or made comments on my original post have complained that Johnson is comparing them to Trump supporters, the kind of people who chant “Build the wall!” at his Nuremberg-style election rallies. One Johnson constituent who wrote me called his comments “outrageously inflammatory and insulting”; another called it “a divisive and totally clumsy comparison coming from a white man of considerable privilege.”

I called Johnson Friday to see if he wanted to elaborate or clarify what he said last week. Speaking from a crowded bus on his way home to Northeast Seattle, Johnson doubled down. “We are a city that wants to welcome people of all races, all different economic statuses, and all different immigration statuses,” Johnson said. “If we’re truly going to be welcoming to all those different folks, we need to create more housing.”

Does he regret using the metaphor of Trump’s border wall? Not at all: “When we talk about zoning, we need to recognize that zoning is a metaphorical wall around communities. We need to talk about that. We also need to make sure that we understand the ramifications of the decisions that we make—when we choose to either rezone areas or not rezone areas, both of those decisions have real impacts.”

2. The Seattle Department of Transportation came to week’s transportation committee meeting armed with charts and stats showing that the city has made huge strides toward increasing the number of people who bike, walk, and take the bus to jobs downtown; a report from Commute Seattle last week showed that while the city added 45,000 jobs downtown, the number of car trips only increased by about 2,400 per day.

But SDOT staffers were confronted, first, by a disturbing litany of pedestrian injuries and deaths from Johnson and committee chair Mike O’Brien, who noted that even as the city has reduced the number of people who drive to work alone, it has not made similar strides toward eliminating pedestrian fatalities and serious injuries. In the past five weeks, O’Brien noted, six pedestrians have been seriously injured or killed by drivers. If that many people had been killed in the same period by gunshots, O’Brien said, “we would be convening task forces and committees to figure out what we need to do. And yet somehow, when it’s folks walking across the street or biking between jobs, it gets kind of buried in the news and we just go on about life.”

Noting that the city has committed to “Vision Zero”—that is, zero pedestrian deaths or serious injuries—O’Brien said he was asking SDOT to come back to the council in early March with a list of specific short- and long-term recommendations to address the city’s lack of progress. “We should have a city where, whether you’re walking to work or biking to go to the park or walking across the street to get groceries or go get a cup of coffee, that’s not an act of bravery but an act of daily living.”

3. Another number that jumped out at Friday’s briefing: 11 percent. That’s the percentage of Seattle residents who are eligible for a low-income transit pass, known as ORCA Lift, who have actually taken advantage of the program. In our conversation Friday, Johnson said the city should consider enrolling people in the ORCA Lift program when they sign up for other income-limited programs, the way the Seattle Housing Authority now enrolls tenants in the city utility discount program when they rent SHA apartments—or the way King County signed people up for the program when they signed up for the Affordable Care Act last year. “It just goes to show that we have a lot of work to do, not just in our marketing program—as I’m staring the side of the bus, there’s a huge ad for ORCA Lift—but in making sure that that marketing is getting through to the folks that need it most.”

Morning Crank: The Right Side of History

Peter Rogoff

In the spirit of last Friday’s Morning Crank, here are five things I heard at the Transportation Choices Coalition’s New Year’s transportation forum, held last Wednesday at City Hall. I moderated the panel, which included city council member Rob Johnson, TCC advocacy director Abigail Doerr, King County Council member Claudia Balducci, and Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff. In truth, the statements I’m quoting are from Rogoff and Johnson, whose comments dealt specifically with the political situation in Seattle; this is not an attempt to silence Doerr or Balducci, the two other women on the panel, whose thoughts on Metro, transit on the Eastside, and the future of transportation advocacy were cogent and valuable. For my Seattle politics site, though, I’ve focused on the remarks specific to Seattle politics, and encourage you to watch the whole event yourself on the Seattle Channel website; the whole thing runs about an hour.

1. Johnson, on what it will take to ensure that Metro’s expansion of Rapid Ride bus service throughout the city will be true bus rapid transit, not just express buses stuck in traffic: “We need to connect with individuals on the ground about the rationale for why [we’re building Rapid Ride]. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a conversation with somebody who articulates their strong environmental values and in the same breath talks to me about how important it is for people to have more parking spaces in the city. We need to do a much better job connecting the values of our city around sustainability, the environment, and race and social justice with the importance of capital facilities like bus-only lanes.

“The 44 is a critical bus route that runs, basically, from the very tail end of Ballard all the way through Fremont, Wallingford, and the University of Washington, and I believe we should be expanding that as a Rapid Ride corridor and running it all the way to University Village. When we do, we’re going to receive opposition not just from the community but from business owners who will say, ‘Taking away a parking space hurts my business. My argument would be that everyone who gets on and off a bus has a wallet too, and they could be spending money in your business.”

“It’s really disturbing for me when I hear somebody talking about how glad they were to see the neighborhood district councils stand up for single-family zoning and then in the next breath disparage the president for wanting to build a wall between the US and Mexico. I see those two things as actually linked.” – City Council member Rob Johnson

2Rogoff, on the long history of collisions, many of them fatal,  between light rail trains and pedestrians in the Rainier Valley—a lower-income area, populated largely by people of color, that is the only part of the regional system where light rail runs primarily at street level: “This is not just a light or rail grade crossing safety risk. It is also, quite frankly, more prominently a pedestrian safety risk. There’s a tendency for people to be walking on the streets looking at their devices with earbuds in their ears and it’s killed a whole bunch of people. It already did. There’s only so much we can do, frankly, for someone who insists on walking singularly focused on their device, with music playing in their ears, when our warnings, our available warnings, in addition to putting down gates to actually block [the crossing] is lights and alarms.” (Rail crossings in the Rainier Valley, it’s worth noting, do not include physical barriers between pedestrian areas and the tracks.)

3. Johnson, on the possibility that the city and county will lose federal funds in retaliation for remaining “sanctuary” jurisdictions that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration crackdowns: “We will fight back against those cuts. There is a strong argument that we can make that says you can’t cut our transportation dollars because of a decision that we make on immigration, but we also are prepared to lose every single penny of those federal funds to make sure that we are a welcoming city.

“The biggest concern for me is watching the appropriation process on an annual basis, making sure that the federal funds that have been allocated to us as a region actually get appropriated to us.”

4. Rogoff, on the possibility that the Trump Administration could cut federal funding, to Sound Transit (Trump is reportedly taking its cues on transportation from the Heritage Foundation, which advocates eliminating federal funding for public transit, and his transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, is a GOP insider who is closely affiliated with the foundation):  “[Trump] said a lot of things, actually throughout the campaign. … There’s a lot of upticks that come with [transportation budget] proposals in some administrations and downticks that come with proposals [in] other administrations, but often Congress levels out the upticks and downticks quite a bit. Congress is going to have to consent to the budget presented by the White House. … I would just say, watch this space and see if their proposals will be as draconian as expected.”

Rob Johnson

5. Finally, Johnson, bringing down the transit-loving, density-friendly house on the contentious University District upzone, which Johnson’s Planning, Land Use and Zoning Committee will discuss tomorrow morning:  “This is about making sure that the council members that represent those districts where we’re going to see long-term investments are also going to be willing to stand up to single-family homeowners who are saying,  ‘Don’t turn my single-family home into a place where you can build a duplex or a triplex.’

“I feel, as the chair of the committee, that it’s my responsibility to make sure that we’re a welcoming city for everybody, and it’s really disturbing for me when I hear … somebody talking about how glad they were to see the neighborhood district councils stand up for single-family zoning and then in the next breath disparage the president for wanting to build a wall between the US and Mexico. I see those two things as actually linked. I see us, as a city, really needing to build more housing for more people, because we’re adding 40 people per day but we’re only building 12 housing units per day, and that’s creating an economic circumstance where lower-income people and middle-income people are being forced out of the city, and I think we need the political will for folks to step in that space and create change for more density around those stations. I firmly believe that. It may result in me only having this job for four years, but if that’s the case, I feel like I’ll have gone down on the right side of history.”

No, Trump Won’t Be “Good For Cities”`

TrumpPointing

Over the last few days, I’ve seen a number of urbanists claiming that even if Donald Trump does deport millions of undocumented immigrants, ban abortion, eliminate health care coverage for 20 million Americans, and devalue the lives of women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and religious minorities, at least he’ll be “good for cities.”

After all (the argument goes), Trump is a developer, and a New Yorker—which makes him fundamentally urbanist, right? I mean, check it out: Not only did he help build the biggest, most urban city in the nation, he made a promise to “rebuild America’s inner cities,” which could definitely use some sidewalks and pothole fixes. And he vowed to spend $1 trillion on “rebuilding America’s infrastructure”—which can only be good news for mass transit, sidewalks, and crumbling city streets. (Finally, a Pothole President!) And just think: By clearing away local and state regulations that hamper housing production—like environmental laws that keep housing away from freeways, and zoning restrictions that draw borders around developable areas–President Trump will clear the way for a new urbanist renaissance.

Bullshit. Trump would be a disaster for cities, and not just because his ascension represents a total rejection of the diversity of thoughts, ideas, opinions, and people that makes cities great. He would be a disaster for cities because every policy he has espoused is (like his largely rural support base) profoundly anti-urban—and if you believe, as I do, that Trump means what he says, then it’s time to take a gimlet-eyed look at what Trump has said he will do in, and to, cities. Urbanists must stop indulging in the fantasy that there is a “real” Donald Trump who supports investments in public transit, urban housing, and programs that will give poor people in cities opportunities to succeed. There is only one Donald Trump. Here is what that Donald Trump seems likely, based on his own words and actions, to do.

Cut federal funding for mass transit.

When Republicans talk about transportation “infrastructure,” they mean, first, big highway projects, and second, roads and bridges in rural areas. The GOP platform adopted this year says this quite explicitly. “One fifth of (trust) funds are spent on mass transit, an inherently local affair that serves only a small portion of the population, concentrated in six big cities,” it says. “We propose to phase out the federal transit program.” Sound Transit 3, which voters overwhelmingly adopted Tuesday, relies heavily on that transit program–it includes $5 billion in matching funds from the federal government—as do most of the transit funding measures passed by urban voters across the nation last week.

Privatize roads, highways and bridges–and leave those that can’t turn a profit to crumble.

If you think a President Trump will not only renege on his party’s promise but reject it wholeheartedly then you haven’t looked at his infrastructure plan. In effect, Trump’s proposal would privatize the nation’s roads, bridges, and highways by providing tax credits to subsidize $1 trillion in private investment in infrastructure. Companies would make their money back for charging people to drive on those roads, bridges, and highways, and any project that doesn’t pencil out—that is, that doesn’t turn a profit for investors—won’t get built. (On Friday, Trump announced his pick to head up his “transportation and infrastructure” team—literal asphalt lobbyist Martin Whitmer.)

This will lead not only to a widening gap between poor counties and cities and wealthy ones, but a disinvestment in inner-city transit infrastructure. (picture wealthy exurban homeowners driving on pristinely maintained toll roads while overcrowded buses ferry carless city dwellers through traffic-jammed, pothole-riddled streets. Rail and express-bus lines that serve the suburbs will be able to pay for themselves through higher user fees, but public transit, which relies heavily on federal funding as well as local subsidies, won’t. (Think about it: Even if King County Metro raised bus fare to, say, $10 a ride—about what it would cost absent other funding sources—the vast majority of riders would be forced to stop riding, making the system unprofitable. Oh, and there’s that whole equity and social justice thing.)

Privatization also creates a perverse incentive for builders to cut corners and endanger public safety, by saving costs on bridge reinforcement, for example, or using less-reliable or less-durable materials. It also means that cities whose citizens can’t afford to pay for improvements  themselves—say, struggling citizens of Flint, Michigan poisoned by lead in their water pipes, or parents in low-income school districts with school buildings that are unsafe and out-of-date—will be left behind. Inner cities aren’t the crumbling, post-apocalyptic hellscapes Trump made them out to be on the campaign trail—far from it—but his privatization plans would send them spiraling in that direction.

Eliminate some federal housing subsidies, and abandon commitments to fair housing made by President Obama.

Trump hasn’t yet said who he’ll appoint to head up the Department of Housing and Urban Development,  and in fact, the issue of housing—particularly housing for the homeless, a population that has boomed in cities even as the economy has recovered—didn’t really come up during the campaign. That’s a shame, because it would be instructive to know how Trump plans to address the growing crisis, which has led three West Coast cities (including Seattle) and Hawaii to declare an official state of emergency.

Seattle, in response to HUD policies under Obama that direct federal funds into “rapid rehousing” vouchers, recently released a plan called “Pathways Home” that reflects this approach, but if HUD dramatically changes direction, reducing the federal subsidies on which cities like Seattle rely or relying on privatization schemes like the one Trump has proposed to pay for other kinds of infrastructure, cities could find themselves trying to dig out of an ever-deeper funding hole. (That’s assuming that those cities that have declared themselves “sanctuary cities” for immigrants, including Seattle, still receive any federal funding at all).

Trump’s family, famously, was accused of discriminating against African American tenants in New York City in the 1970s, when Trump was president of Trump Industries. (A New York Times investigation uncovered “a long history of racial bias at his family’s properties, in New York and beyond.”) On the campaign trail this year, Trump vowed to overturn a rule adopted by the Obama administration called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, which requires local jurisdictions that receive federal housing funds to address housing segregation and other disparities in housing access, in part by encouraging affordable housing development in more affluent, whiter neighborhoods. Right-wing outlets and pundits, from the Daily Caller to the Daily Sturmer, effusively praised Trump for his promise to reject Obama’s efforts to, as one alt-right site put it, “force ‘diversity’ on white neighborhoods.”

One day after the election, Mayor Ed Murray said he would consider floating another levy (in addition to the $290 million housing levy voters adopted earlier this year) to address the city’s homelessness crisis. As the impact of Trump’s presidency sets in, we’ll see how serious he is about that idea.

• Adopt policies that make the homelessness and addiction crises worse.

Last year, the One Night Count of the homeless counted about 10,000 homeless people living in King County, about half of them sleeping unsheltered. (Service providers suggest doubling that amount to get an accurate figure). Reducing that number will require funding not just for housing but for drug and alcohol treatment, mental health care, and job assistance.

Trump hasn’t said anything specific about dealing with those root causes of homelessness, but his health care plan consists of repealing the Affordable Care Act, which will leave some 20 million Americans, most of them lower-income, without health care. That includes mental health care, including treatment for addiction. Meanwhile, Trump’s only public statements about drug addiction have consisted of wonderment that an opiate epidemic could exist in America’s beautiful rural areas (“How does heroin work with these beautiful lakes and trees?”), and a promise to build a wall with Mexico to cut off the flow of drugs, War on Drugs-style. Neither of these statements bodes well for reducing the addiction epidemic, or for helping people who are homeless because of addiction get housing and health care.

This is far from a comprehensive list of reasons urbanists, and those who love cities, should be alarmed about the next four years—there’s also the promised crackdown on religious and sexual minorities, the prospect of mass deportations, the rejection of climate science, and the imposition of a 1950s good-ol-boy culture that is fundamentally provincial, anti-intellectual, and conformist. The next four years will reveal how much of this vision Trump manages to inflict on America, and how much cities react by pulling up the drawbridges and becoming not so much urban archipelagos as urban islands.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! 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 substantial time I put into it 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.

Amazon Drive-Thru Conflicts With City’s Sustainability Goals, Requires No Public Process

project x

Amazon is, by all accounts, planning to open a new drive-through grocery store at the corner of 15th Ave. NW and NW 51st St. in Ballard, the site of the now-shuttered Louie’s Chinese Restaurant. Site plans for a mysterious “project X” describe a “new model of grocery shopping in which orders are placed online at the retail business, and the goods are assembled for the customer to be picked up [sic] at the retail business.”

The plans continue: “When placing an online order, customers will schedule a specific 15-minute to two-hour pick up window. Peak time slots will sell out, which will help manage traffic flow within the customer parking adjacent to the building. When picking up purchased items, customers can either drive into a designated parking area with eight parking stalls where the purchased items will be delivered to their cars or they can walk into the retail area to pick up their items. Customers will also be able to walk into the retail room to place orders on a tablet. Walk in customers will have their products delivered to them in the retail room.”

The drive-through store will include 13 or 14 parking spots, according to the site plans, which also detail the interior plans for the retail store and storage facility. (The plans refer to both 8 and 9 customer pick-up spots; the other five spots would be for employees).

Unlike the seemingly endless process by which density opponents are able to delay, say, four-story apartment buildings, this new auto-oriented business in one of Seattle’s most rapidly densifying areas will go through with no public process at all.

The drive-through grocery will be inside the Ballard Hub Urban Village, a place where the city expects to see growth in both jobs and residents over the next 20 years. The site is also a few blocks from, but not inside, a pedestrian overlay area, where drive-through businesses are prohibited.

According to the city’s comprehensive plan, the city’s goal in urban villages and urban centers is to “promote densities, mixes of uses, and transportation improvements that support walking, use of public transportation, and other transportation demand management (TDM) strategies, especially within urban centers and urban villages.”

zoning

Auto-oriented businesses promote the opposite. They encourage people to drive to an area, and to leave that area without getting out of their cars and exploring the cafes, parks, and small retail businesses that characterize dense, walkable neighborhoods. Worse, they make sidewalks more dangerous and uninviting for pedestrians, who have to navigate cars and delivery trucks driving in and out of a driveway designed for maximum convenience for automobiles, not people. Imagine walking through the drive-through line at McDonald’s: You can do it, but the people who have priority are the ones in cars, and it’s up to you to navigate around them at your peril.

Surprisingly, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation and the Office of Planning and Community Development, the new drive-through grocery store will require no formal review process, and the city is providing no avenue for people to submit public comments on the proposal. SDOT said the agency would likely do a traffic analysis of the project in the future, but the proposal does not have to be approved by the agency before moving forward. OPCD spokeswoman Wendy Shark says since the project is merely a change of use (from a restaurant to a retail space), it’s allowed under the current commercial zoning and won’t trigger the design review process or a review under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). Which means that unlike the seemingly endless process by which density opponents are able to delay, say, four-story apartment buildings, this new auto-oriented business in one of Seattle’s most rapidly densifying areas, which defies the city’s own stated goal of creating human-scale, pedestrian-oriented urban villages, will go through with no public process at all.

Ironically, because the new drive-through is on a site with access to frequent transit service and is in a designated urban village, Amazon will be able to take advantage of an exemption to minimum city parking requirements and get by with just 14 (or 13) parking spaces. When light rail comes to Ballard, the drive-through site will also be within walking distance of the Ballard station.

A while back, I argued that the city should consider a moratorium on all auto-oriented businesses, but especially those (like the drive-through-only Starbucks in the shadow of the Othello light rail station) located in areas with frequent transit service. The city has said it wants those parts of the city to be transit- and pedestrian-oriented, rather than catering to cars. In allowing new drive-through businesses like the new Amazon grocery store, the city is embracing a very different set of priorities.

 

ReachNow Launch Falls Short

Back in 2013, when Daimler launched its Car2Go carsharing service in Seattle, I lamented the fact that the Car2Go service area (the boundaries where cars can be parked and left for the next customer) stopped short of serving West and Southeast Seattle—two areas with diverse populations and, tellingly, more lower-income people than the Central and North Seattle neighborhoods Car2Go did serve first. At the time, I expressed some incredulity that Car2Go considered neighborhoods like Mount Baker and Columbia City “new and developing areas,” which struck (and strikes) me as code for “places that aren’t mostly white yet.”

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Car2Go eventually expanded its service, and in 2015, the city adopted legislation that increased the number of “free-floating car share” permits that also required all new carsharing services to expand their service areas to include the entire city within two years. The implication was clear: If the city is going to give your members the right to park your cars in any legal parking spot at no charge, you have to serve the entire city, even the parts that may be less white—and less lucrative.

BMW’s new ReachNow service launch shows the wisdom of that rule. ReachNow, which costs 49 cents a minute (to Car2Go’s $0.41), has an initial service area virtually identical to Car2Go’s, excluding all of West Seattle and Southeast Seattle and stopping just a couple of blocks south of I-90, at S Lander St.  ReachNow has two years to expand its service area to include the whole city.

Reach Now CCO Sandra Phillips says the company launched “with an initial fleet of only 370 cars [according to the city, 363-Ed.] and a more compact home area to ensure that our members have access to a vehicle when they need one,” and said they’ll expand once they get a larger fleet. She did not respond to questions about why ReachNow’s “compact home area” extends all the way up to Northgate while excluding the entire southern half of the city.

Read more at Seattle Transit Blog.

 

Republican Anti-Tolling Bill has One Democratic Sponsor: Bellevue’s Sen. Habib

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A Republican bill to eliminate two of the four express toll lanes on I-405; eliminate tolls in the evening and early morning hours; and get rid of all HOT lanes on 405 in two years if they fail to maintain a speed of 45 mph 90 percent of the time, has a single, somewhat surprising Democratic sponsor: Sen. Cyrus Habib (D-48), a Bellevue resident who also happens to be running for lieutenant governor.

Habib (who prefaced his email response, “I was wondering when I would be asked about that!”) says he’s backing the bill because his “district is directly affected, and so I decided it was important for me to have a seat at the table as we take a look at what works and doesn’t work with the current express tolling dynamic there.

“I likely wouldn’t vote for the bill in its current form, but I do think we need to revisit how the program is being implemented. I hear more about this from my constituents than any other issue,” Habib says.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Andy Hill (R-45) in the senate and Rep. Mark Harmsworth (R-11) in the house, was introduced in response to a rash of complaints by 405 drivers about the amount solo drivers must pay to use the HOV lanes (up to $10 at peak hours), and about the perception that the lanes haven’t reduced congestion on the freeway.

“[HOT lanes are] not working; anybody who drives that corridor will tell you that,” Hill told the Senate transportation committee at a hearing for the bill yesterday. “People are very, very upset. They are experiencing increased congestion, despite what any stats might say.”

Read more at Seattle Transit Blog.

 

New TCC Director: “For Our Movement to Succeed, We Need to Build Power.”

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At a few minutes after eight on election night, November 3, Shafali Ranganathan, deputy director at Transportation Choices Coalition, was a bundle of nerves. Standing behind a pool table set up with computers and a projector in an upstairs room at the Belltown Pub, Ranganathan and about 100 supporters of Move Seattle, the biggest transportation levy in Seattle history, had their eyes glued to the screen at the back of the room, where TCC staffer Carla Chavez was updating the “results” page on King County Elections’ website every few seconds. 0.00. 0.00. 0.00.

TCC and others who had worked for months on Move Seattle considered the measure a tough sell, and many told me they expected to end the night several points in the red. As if to emphasize that point, many in the room had been in the process of getting loaded since earlier that afternoon. But Ranganathan was the quiet, focused center of the room, and when the results came in–57 to 43–the 5-foot-tall deputy director issued a surprisingly fierce roar of victory, then quickly composed herself and went off to face the cameras.

Another winner that night was Rob Johnson, TCC director, Ranganathan’s boss, and, as of next January, council member for Northeast Seattle’s District 4. After the election, I called Ranganathan one of the major victors that Tuesday night, not only because her group prevailed on Move Seattle (a victory that can only help the Sound Transit 3 ballot measure in 2016), but because the win solidified her position as the “heir apparent” to Johnson at TCC.

On November 12, TCC announced that Ranganathan would be the group’s new director. A few days later, I sat down with her to find out what the leadership change will mean for the group, how TCC plans to shift its focus in the future, and what it means when a mainstream transportation organization is run almost entirely by women and people of color.

The C Is for Crank [ECB]: Rob has been at TCC for more than a decade, and has obviously made his imprint on the organization. How will the organization change under your leadership, in terms of strategy or mission?

Shefali Ranganathan [SR]: Things have been shifting gradually over the years for us. A few years ago, we did some work where we really looked at, what is our theory of change? What are we trying to get at? And it became really clear for us that in order to be really effective, we had to really dial in on the transit element of our work.  That’s not to say that we won’t do bike/ped, but it’s sort of a clear recognition that there are other advocacy groups that do that kind of work. If you really want to shape and serve communities, then you have to give people a really great option to get around that’s frequent, that’s fast, that’s reliable–and that’s transit. What you will contain to see is the refinement of that focus.

The other thing that has changed for us in quite a dramatic way is our focus on transit justice and really solidifying these partnerships that we’ve had with Puget Sound Sage and with OneAmerica over the years into what we’re calling our Transit for All coalition. For our movement to be successful, we need to build power, and it’s not just in the environmental communities but in those communities where transit is a lifeline, and that’s where we have focused on building these partnerships. And it’s borne incredible fruit. We’ve been able to really shift the county’s thinking on service guidelines, in terms of: Where are you putting current transit service and future transit service? How are you making sure that we are planning for service that meets the needs of a community and are not just lines on a map?

I’ll give you an example. When the bus cuts were happening, we did some mapping to see where service would be lost. But we didn’t do it in terms of, where do all the poor people live and where are the cuts coming? We asked questions like, How long does it take you to get to a community college on a bus? How long does it take you to get to health care? Where can you get in 30 minutes? And then that was where you started to see some of the disparities emerge in south Seattle and in south King County. These are transit-dependent communities that don’t have great transit service. So our focus is really pushing policy makers who are not the transit nerd, transit planning types to really think of it like, if I care about education, am I inadvertently cutting people off from transit access with cuts in service? That’s actually how ORCA Lift emerged.

ECB: TCC has often focused more on getting measures passed than on overseeing the implementation of those measures, sometimes to the detriment of specific projects. For example, TCC didn’t really intervene when Sound Transit deferred the Graham Street Station, or when Sound Transit decided to build the Federal Way alignment along I-5, or when Asian Counselling and Referral Services convinced Metro to continue investing in bus routes like the 42 which were redundant as soon as light rail opened. Do you think that’s a fair critique, and do you have any plans to focus more of TCC’s efforts on actually getting good projects on the ground?

SR: I think it’s a fair point. The 42 stuff, interestingly enough, was an opportunity to see [the routing issue] from someone else’s vantage point–not from a transit planner’s perceptive or an advocate’s, but as a daily, everyday user who now has to transfer two times. It also allowed us to build some credibility with groups that I think viewed us with, I wouldn’t say suspicion, but at arm’s length.

With Federal Way, here’s the lesson learned. We’re a staff of six and I think our challenges are always around resources. The Federal Way one was a hard one for us. because we were very vocal advocates for 99 and when it became clear that the board decision wasn’t going our way, we had two options. One was, okay, let’s make a real stink about it, which happened. But you know, the other option was to say, how can we make this not-so-great alignment actually work and be functional for Highline [Community College] and the other communities that were using it? The outcome’s not perfect, but it’s a much better outcome compared to what would have happened [if we hadn’t worked on improving the alignment].

“There are parts of MLK that suck to walk on. We have to activate these spaces and create places where people want to be. I think Sound Transit has gotten much better about that, but I think we still have to push the cities on it.”

The lesson learned from that is, with the Federal Way-type issues, can we address them sooner rather than later? I worked on East Link for five years. The Bellevue drama was insane. There were lots of supportive council members, but we had plenty of challenges getting there. So it’s like, can we work with Sound Transit to create some clear expectations so we don’t have those fights around alignment happen so late in the game that it’s too late anyway and it’s exhausting to the advocacy community?

With ST3, we’re setting some expectations, and you’ll see that Sound Transit is looking at what non-motorized access looks like, which allows us to make more informed decisions long before the EIS process, because you see how these different alignments shake out on the ground. That’s also the benefit of having Central Link in operation–how do we make sure that that we’re going good land use planning around it? There are parts of MLK that suck to walk on. We have to activate these spaces and create places where people want to be. I think Sound Transit has gotten much better about that, but I think we still have to push the cities on it.

Read the rest of my interview with Shefali at Seattle Transit Blog.

“Diversity of Ideas” Is Not Enough

Last week, after grumbling my way through a Seattle Times “Livewire” panel that took on the region’s transportation problems through the frame of “gridlock” (a framework that, among many other problems, erases the non-driver perspective) I posted on Facebook about what I saw as another glaring omission on the panel: The presence of anyone who was not a white, middle-aged, upper-middle-class man. Under the caption, “Hairline diversity, at least,” I posted the following photo:

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Onstage, from left to right, are: Seattle Times editorial board member Thanh Tan, a young woman of color; Human Transit author Jarrett Walker; INRIX president Bryan Mistele; Washington State Transportation Center director Mark Hallenbeck; and Seattle Department of Transportation director Scott Kubly. Here’s a better image of the foursome, from the Times’ event website:

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A few minutes later, I followed up with a couple of paragraphs about how difficult it can be to be a female writer who writes about traditionally “male” subjects—politics, land use, and transportation—when the networks that promote writers and thinkers and doers in those fields is so overwhelmingly dominated by men. As any woman who writes about “hard” issues undoubtedly knows, the bro-dominated world of blogs and think tanks and panels and radio appearances can be a neverending feedback loop—you write something and I’ll push it out to my readers and they’ll push it out to their Facebook friends and one of them will invite you to their event and you’ll meet another guy who wants to publish you and so on and on, ad masculinum.

There’s even a tumblr dedicated to the phenomenon I witnessed the other night: “Congrats, You Have an All-Male Panel!” In it, readers are invited to “Document all-male panels, seminars, events, and various other things featuring all male experts.” Each all-male panel or event gets a “Hoffsome” seal of approval. For example, this all-male panel focused on “empowering women”:

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Closer to home, a panel of men discussed “the role of women in technology: the male perspective” last week, because it’s high time men were given a voice in this important issue, as opposed to–and I am not making this up, it’s right there in the panel description–holding the “conversation about advancing women in technology … in isolation.”

Anyway, given that the all-male panel is such a ubiquitous phenomenon that it’s now a meme , I wasn’t too surprised when my Facebook feed filled up with sympathetic “likes” and comments such as “What is this, a forum on what it means to be a rich white man?” I was a little taken aback, however, when two Seattle Times higher-ups—editorial board member Tan and editor Kathy Best—jumped into the comments to defend their decision  to pick only well-off, white, middle-aged men to discuss the issue of transportation, an issue that arguably hits women, people of color, and low-income people closer to home than a demographic that has the greatest access to convenient transport.

Their defense will sound pretty familiar to anyone who’s ever slapped their head in an all-white-male space and muttered, “How could they not have NOTICED that?”: They look for a diversity of ideas, rather than, you know, diversity diversity, when choosing which people will represent different points of view. You’ve probably heard this one before, albeit in a different context: Of course we’d love to hire [women/black people/low-income people from non-Ivy schools] but we have to go with the most qualified people!

My colleagues tried very, very hard to get experts of color and gender diversity on this panel. I, too, wish we had been successful,” Best wrote. “We will keep pushing for diverse transportation sources. But diverse viewpoints are just as important. And we will continue to seek those out, as well.” And Tan wrote: “This conversation was not just about diversity of panel’s makeup, but also about diversity of ideas.”

Obviously, I’m not arguing that only monochrome ideas should be represented. But a monochrome panel has implications that are more significant than just appearances. In addition to the feedback loop described above (I love Mark Hallenbeck, but I’ve seen him quoted about eleventy million times since I started covering transportation in Seattle back in 2001), there’s the fact that diverse experiences often lead directly to those “diverse viewpoints” Best and Tan and all the people who plan these all-white events say they’re looking for.

Let me give you just one example. Imagine if last week’s “Gridlocked” panel had included an expert who also happened to be a woman of color, with children, who frequently uses transit (or used it in the past). That person would almost by definition understand more about the safety needs of female transit riders, particularly at night; the realities of trying to run multiple errands on a bus system that isn’t built for easy transfers; what it means to be not just annoyed by heavy traffic, but to lose pay because of it; and the challenges of traffic for those who use the roads for caregiving and family work like driving kids to school and soccer practice, as opposed to those who merely drive in to downtown in the morning and back out again at night.

I completely agree with Tan and Best that finding people who combine diversity of ideas with actual diversity is harder than just calling the usual white, male pundits who have been making the rounds for decades. It’s easiest to do what’s familiar. It’s hard to find and amplify new voices. But the thing is, sometimes hard things are worth doing even if they’re hard. And the more that incumbent power brokers like the Seattle Times take the trouble to find and amplify the voices of women, people of color, low-income people, and other groups we don’t ordinarily see onstage discussing major issues, the more a new feedback loop will start to materialize, in which those voices amplify each other and it becomes a little easier, and a little easier, to identify them and invite them to the table.

Importantly, this doesn’t just apply to panels and theoretical discussions. It also applies in other male-dominated spaces—from which bloggers’ posts get shared widely to who gets to run for office to the makeup of a city council member’s staff. We’ve got to start thinking of diversity as a goal in itself, rather than assuming that homogeneity is just the order of the universe.

This is why it’s called affirmative action—it has to be affirmative (a conscious decision to elevate someone who doesn’t fit your default idea of “pundit”) and it has to be action. Maybe you don’t get Scott Kubly—maybe you go for someone one or two rungs lower, who can represent SDOT’s views just as accurately and compellingly as Kubly but who doesn’t have the shiny title and the reputation for reliability that comes with a decade of pontificating in front of audiences. Maybe instead of an expensive, high-profile transportation futurist, you find someone who’s writing on the same issues, and at the same level, as White Guy No. 17 on your pundit list but who hasn’t won the awards and accolades and book deal yet. Maybe you ask around to see if there is anyone other than Mark Hallenbeck at the UW who also studies transportation policy. And then, maybe, you get a more diverse panel and more diverse ideas.