Seattle city council falls short on affordable housing, again

South Lake Union concept art, from Studio 216.

As a part of the ongoing redevelopment wars going on in the South Lake Union neighorhood, Publicola recently wrote about yet another half-measure approved by the Seattle City Council, this time in regard to the fees developers pay for additional density. Publicola reports:

The city council, meeting as the special committee on South Lake Union, unanimously adopted a compromise incentive zoning plan for South Lake Union (for our extensive previous coverage, start here) this afternoon that would allow developers to build taller, denser buildings in the growing neighborhood in exchange for new, on-site affordable housing or payments into an affordable housing fund.  
The proposal the council committee adopted is most similar to a compromise proposed by council member Mike O'Brien that will require developers to pay $21.68 into an affordable housing and child care fund for every additional square foot of density above what's allowed under existing zoning rules. The proposal would increase the requirement, known as a "fee in lieu" of building affordable housing, annually according to the rate of inflation.

The mayor's proposal called for a fee of just $15.15 per additional square foot of density, a level that appeared much too low, given that "developers who've taken advantage of existing incentive zoning rules in South Lake Union and downtown have universally chosen to pay into the fund instead of building actual affordable housing." If the goal of the program is to incentivize construction of affordable housing, the $15.15 per square foot cost was clearly failing on that measure.

Councilmember Nick Licata proposed that we increase that fee to $96 per square foot, a level that effectively ensures any additional density results not in fees but in affordable, on-site apartments. This proposal was shot down, apparently because it was unrealistic that any developer would be willing to pay such a large amount.

My question is, why is that a problem? If the goal is for private developers to build more affordable housing--and they can build it more cheaply than the city, so it should be--it shouldn't matter if they always opt to build rather than pay the "fee in lieu". Assuming building affordable units in exchange additional building height/density is a profitable proposition for developers, it doesn't matter what the fee in lieu is set at. The fee should be set at a level that is less appealing than providing on-site affordable housing. It probably doesn't have to be $96 per square foot, but $21.68 is probably still far too low. And if developers are opting to not build additional density at all, then the incentive program has much more fundamental flaws than the fee in lieu amount.

This all goes back to the question of how committed the city council and mayor really are to providing affordable housing in Seattle. Last month the council passed up more than $10 million in funds for affordable housing in order to arbitrarily limit building heights in SLU to 160 feet, which will have the dual negative effects of reducing the number of affordable units and limiting the total available supply of housing in a fast-growing and highly desirable neighborhood. Now, working within the framework of those 160 foot heights, the council seems to have compromised with themselves yet again, to the benefit of no one, for weak-hearted incentive zoning rules as well.

What should light rail to northwest Seattle look like?

(An article about the merits of a streetcar to Fremont as a complement to light rail to Ballard was recently posted on Seattle Transit Blog, and I wanted to share it in addition to/as an alternative to my own thoughts below. Find it here.)

Before attending this week's Sound Transit/City of Seattle joint open house on high capacity transit to Ballard, I hadn't thought much about the route it might take to get there. I knew I supported it, and given the failings of the Downtown-to-Ballard Rapid Ride line, it was clear to me that it would need to be grade separated, but beyond that I was fairly unconcerned with the specific route it might take to get from A to B. There was a great interactive exhibit at the event that got me actually thinking more critically about this, and I've realized that it's actually a fairly difficult question to answer.

So let's take a look.

The exhibit was actually slightly different from the image below (this one is just more clear), but they used the same map and asked that you draw the path you'd like high capacity transit to take from Ballard to Downtown. This one, by comparison, asked people to put a green sticker where a frequent trip they take starts, and a red sticker where it ends. As you can see, downtown is by far the most popular destination, at least among those in attendance:

Trip start/finish map - green is start, red is end; image from Ballard News-Tribune.

Trip start/finish map - green is start, red is end; image from Ballard News-Tribune.

The routes people drew on the other map included 1) following 15th Ave NW to Elliott Ave then downtown, 2) traveling through Fremont then down Westlake to get downtown, and 3) everything in between.

The key concern for me (and one that seemed to be overlooked by most open house attendees) was that Ballard, Fremont, and Queen Anne all have very similar current populations and population projections over the next few decades--serving one or two of these neighborhoods with light rail while failing to serve any of the others would be unjustifiable.

Most people seemed to prefer a straight path along 15th Ave NW unfortunately, which is the Interbay "neighborhood," if you could even call it that, which has very little population and no plans for growth according to city estimates. Hopefully this just reflected the fact that many probably think an at-grade streetcar alignment is likely, and this would be the path of least resistance. I suspect many of those who supported this alignment would change their minds if they were told that a subway was the most likely option (here's hoping), making traffic and the paths of existing roads irrelevant to subway route considerations.

Working from the assumption that a line would need to serve each of these neighborhoods, drawing a single route to cover all three becomes pretty difficult. In the time I had to think about it at the open house, I ultimately went with the path below:

My first idea for a subway route, which I've since disavowed and am slightly embarrassed to have ever considered.

My first idea for a subway route, which I've since disavowed and am slightly embarrassed to have ever considered.

As you can see, the route is very indirect, traveling through the center of Queen Anne, northwest to Ballard (under Ship Canal), then looping back along Market, 8th Ave NW, and Leary to Fremont. I imagined one station at each of these neighborhoods plus maybe one in Belltown and another around Mercer St. and Queen Anne Ave (more than this many stations seems unlikely, given that even Capitol Hill only got one station).

At the time I liked this route because it allowed for an extension of the line to Stone Way, up to 45th St., then east all the way to the station that's planned at 45th and Brooklyn in the University District, all without transfers. Admittedly, I have a strong personal bias against transfers, and much of that is due to the relatively low frequency of most Seattle buses. A 10-minute-or-less light rail headway would make transfers much more bearable. To mollify the Fremont travelers I thought perhaps there could be some kind of dedicated line, either bus or streetcar, between the Queen Anne and Fremont stations. In retrospect I came to the conclusion that this is a mess and have since discarded this idea.

Seattle Subway, the group I think was primarily responsible for getting the planning for this line pushed onto a faster timeline, has another vision:

Cropped from Seattle Subway image.

Cropped from Seattle Subway image.

I appreciate the ambition of this proposal, but not the actual outcome. For one, if these were both subways the cost would be prohibitive for a single ballot measure with other parts of Seattle wanting their part of the action. I could get over that though. More importantly, the two alignments seem to be along 15th Ave NW through Interbay to Ballard, and along Westlake Ave to Fremont. I don't see many prospects for significant development along either of those corridors (nor do they, it would seem, for Westlake--they don't put a station along any part of it). I'm pretty sure this is just a concept on Seattle Subway's part, so I don't want to give the impression that this is their preferred solution or that they should be criticized for it. It's just one possibility for the purpose of illustration.

There might be a case to make for two separate lines to Ballard and Fremont, but I don't think it's a strong one on the merits and I think it'd be nearly impossible politically unless we were doing another line to West Seattle at the same time. Two lines for northwest Seattle while West Seattle remains stuck with Rapid Ride probably would not go over well.

Assuming we can only afford one subway line to the area in this time frame, I don't see much harm in detouring a bit from east to west to capture the largest population centers, and I do like the idea of including South Lake Union. SLU is already served by the streetcar, and a light rail station would make it largely obsolete, but ultimately this region is going to be a big part of the city both residentially and commercially and people will need/want to get to it without having to travel downtown, leave the station, and wait for a streetcar to take them the last mile. The streetcar is a local transportation solution whereas light rail is more regional--currently there are no great regional connections to or from South Lake Union.

Unfortunately, with one line you'd have a very difficult time including stations in Belltown, SLU, and  Lower Queen Anne. I'm going to illustrate a possible route in which Belltown is bypassed in favor of SLU, but I realize that that's a debate worth having in detail at some point. With that in mind, here's my current thinking on the best route for light rail to Ballard:

Red line represents subway route, black circles represent station locations.

Red line represents subway route, black circles represent station locations.

First, I'm no transit engineer so I have no idea what kind of turning radius these train cars can handle, but I tried to give the route fairly smooth turns--maybe they need to be even less acute, maybe not. Also, this is clearly not the most direct route to Ballard, but the benefits of capturing additional ridership along the way far outweigh the cost of several extra minutes' travel--remember, there's no traffic congestion underground. Beyond that, I'll break things down station by station:

  • South Lake Union: I chose the Thomas & Westlake location mostly for the sake of visibility. Thomas & Terry might actually be a little more functional due to the connection to the northbound SLU trolley, but I think locating on the arterial where more people are walking trumps that concern. It's also a bit easier to turn the tunnel toward Lower Queen Anne from this more western station location.
  • Lower Queen Anne: This station seems pretty self-explanatory at Mercer St and Queen Anne Ave. Everything is pretty accessible from here; plenty of bus routes travel through somewhat frequently, too. For those interested in getting from a more southerly location on the Link line out to the Interbay area or to north Ballard, they can transfer to the D line here. It might be nice to send the D line along Elliott Avenue--bypassing Queen Anne to speed it up--since light rail will have that area covered, but that ship may have sailed with the infrastructure that's already been put in place along 1st Ave and Queen Anne Ave.
  • Queen Anne: I'm least confident in this location since I know very little about the area. I just guessed at what I thought was probably one of the more densely populated parts of the hill, as that should obviously be one of the main considerations. Because of the size of the hill, station location will also probably be determined by what's technically feasible in terms of station depth, route grade, etc.
  • Fremont: I think the best location for this would be on the north side of 36th St, west of Fremont Ave. Fremont Ave isn't a very pleasant road to be a pedestrian or bicyclist on with its complicated intersections and relatively heavy traffic, so steering clear of it is probably a good idea. This station would be the place to transfer onto an eastbound train through Wallingford along 45th St toward the University District. (Hopefully that east-west route will end up on the next ballot with the Downtown-Ballard route so all of this can be implemented together.)
  • Ballard: Ballard Ave and Market St is probably pretty widely agreed upon as the core of the Ballard neighborhood, but I'm pretty ambivalent about this location. A few blocks to the east might actually be a better solution to serve the many people that live east of 15th Ave NW, but this general area gets the point across. There's a ton of development taking place along Market, and arterials that branch from it have seen quite a few new residential units as well. This growth is sure to continue whether light rail comes to Ballard or not, but as the population grows the case for high-capacity rail transit only gets stronger.

One key thing that was preventing me from seeing this as a viable option was the worry that, when leaving from Downtown, some trains would be branching off to the west toward Ballard from Fremont, while others would be headed east to Wallingford. If you showed up to a Downtown station at a random time, you'd have a 50% (i.e., random) chance of having to transfer in Fremont depending on your destination, and this would be pretty irritating to have to deal with on a daily basis.

The solution, I think, is that all trains to Downtown or from Ballard would only travel this route (the one pictured above), never branching at Fremont. This makes sense heading from Ballard in light of the fact that so many trips are to Downtown; headed north from Downtown it's a bit tougher to make the case decisively, but the greater population density of Ballard wins out for me, and helps to convey Downtown-Ballard as the north-south line and Fremont-University District as the east-west. 

I do foresee some problems this layout might cause for further expansion of the rail network northward, so I'd be interested to hear peoples' input. The Downtown-to-Ballard routing could potentially be abandoned later on if an extension was made northward from the Fremont station, effectively turning Downtown-to-Shoreline into the north-south route and extending the east-west route out to Ballard. By this point more trains would be running due to higher regional ridership, so transfers would be less of a concern.

You'll also notice that I've only marked one station for every neighborhood, and maybe more are justified. None of these neighborhoods really compare in population or density to Capitol Hill though, which only got one station, so I think it's unlikely. The Seattle Subway map in particular, with 5 stations between Wallingford and Ballard, plus another in Fremont, seems unrealistic even under the best circumstances.

I'm really interested to hear what people think of this plan, and especially what they might prefer instead. This is intended as a conversation starter, bringing up some of the salient issues so that we at least know where to start. Sound Transit and the City of Seattle are going to be planning this over the next few years, and if we want to contribute meaningfully to the process we should do our best to understand and consider all the possibilities, challenges, and trade-offs inherent in this type of project. Let me know what you'd like to see!

A possible solution to the SR 99 tunnel's projected tolling shortfall

As Publicola has diligently reported over the past several years, the downtown Seattle SR 99 bored-tunnel project has been an ill-advised mess from day one. Now, with tolling revenue projections cut in half (at least), the day of reckoning is approaching in Olympia, where rural, Republican, and other generally anti-Seattle lawmakers are making noises about Seattle needing to make up the difference. The state is already paying for $2.6 billion of the $4+ billion project, and the $200+ million tolling shortfall is our problem, the story goes.

The crux of the problem is that even small tolls will cause massive diversion onto downtown streets, defeating the whole purpose of the tunnel in the first place, and lowering revenue to boot. From Publicola again, state senator Curtis King (R-14, Yakima) complained that the committee responsible for updating tolling revenue estimates was too "Seattle-centric," and that it's no surprise that they're saying all of the tolling scenarios proposed by the state would lead to unacceptable diversion/congestion and that the state should pick up the difference--"you have an advisory committee that is all from Seattle. What else are they are going to tell us?"

He went on to say "So, the city of Seattle is concerned about diversion because they're the ones that are going to be affected," indicating that he thinks this is a choice between raising the necessary amount of money or accepting more congestion. Take some pain, but pay off your obligations, in other words. 

But while Sen. King can make all the political hay he likes out of this, the committee isn't wrong. Any amount of tolls will fail to raise enough revenue because of the diversion; one problem (of many) at the outset of this project was the fanciful expectation that people would be willing to pay for a trip through the tunnel when there are so many other free options for getting through the city.

This committee, the Advisory Committee on Tolling and Traffic Management, had a meeting in September where they discussed various tolling rates and the diversion this would entail. They produced a pdf presentation that includes some of those numbers, which can be found here. Unfortunately it only includes numbers for mid-day (1:30-2:30 pm) and peak period (3-6 pm), but those numbers are instructive. We'll focus on the peak period numbers because that's when a) the most cars use the tunnel, b) the tolls are highest and the most revenue is raised, and c) when the congestion penalty for choosing another route is largest. Let's take a look.

From the Advisory Committee on Tolling and Traffic Management.

From the Advisory Committee on Tolling and Traffic Management.

Combining both northbound and southbound traffic for the peak period, they estimate that there would be 21,800 cars using the tunnel with no tolls. 21,800 cars, zero revenue. Now let's add the smallest tolls, $2.25 for southbound travel, and $1.50 for northbound. This diverts about 30% of vehicles, leaving us with 15,300 using the tunnel and many of the rest using other city streets. We also want to know how much it raises compared to other scenarios, so just for the purposes of comparison we'll calculate revenue for the day, which equals $28,125. 

The high toll scenario raises $40,675, but results in almost 50% diversion, spilling over 10,000 vehicles onto nearby roads at the busiest time of day.

Maybe that's just the price we pay though, if we want to do the right thing and cover our $400 million share, right? Wrong. From the same report, even the high-toll scenario raises only $250 million (or as little as $210 million) in actual project funding--the low-toll scenario doesn't even warrant consideration because it doesn't raise enough to bond against:

From the Advisory Committee on Tolling and Traffic Management.

From the Advisory Committee on Tolling and Traffic Management.

So given the fact that no tolling scenario raises enough money (although I don't think the scenarios from this report are anywhere near optimal), the question then becomes whether the revenue differences are offset by other concerns, economic and otherwise. For example, there's a $40 million difference between the High Toll Benchmark and Scenario 1, but the HTB diverts an additional 1,200 vehicles just during evening peak. Is that money worth the decreased safety and the economic, environmental and psychological cost of increased congestion? If not, maybe we just eat the loss and come up with a different way to raise the money. This question actually suggests the beginnings of a solution.

The solution begins with accepting that the Washington State DOT is probably most to blame for the failed tolling projections. They designed the project and it's alternatives, and they created the faulty estimates from back before the tunnel was actually approved. eattle voted to approve the tunnel, yes. It was a huge mistake, no doubt, but the vote was undertaken with almost criminal levels of misinformation. So while Seattle voted yes, to say that they should be on the hook for a mistake a state department made would be incredibly unfair.

Instead, let's do this: to start, do a better job on these tolling scenarios. Just to start with, the high toll benchmark numbers seem like they should be switched for northbound and southbound. Diversion is way worse for southbound and yet it has a higher toll than northbound--reverse those and you probably end up with slightly more revenue and less diversion. The point is, it can and should be improved, and then those options should be reported to the state. Now pass the report along to the city and the state.

Upon receiving the new scenario plans, the city can choose which tolling regimen they prefer, but all revenue that falls short of the highest-revenue benchmark is covered by the city. The rest is covered by the state. In the case of the existing scenarios, this means that if we choose Scenario 1 with it's $210 million revenue in favor of the High Toll Benchmark revenue of $250 million, Seattle is on the hook for $40 million and the state pays the remaining $150 million to bring us up to $400 million total. 

This allows Seattle to decide for itself on the costs vs. benefits of higher revenue or worse traffic, but doesn't punish them for the original sin of WSDOT's awful tolling projections at the outset of the project. We take responsibility for what we could reasonably be considered responsible for, and the state does the same. Neat.

What would Seattle look like if Metro fares weren't subsidized?

There are a lot of people out there who consider it a waste to use taxpayer money subsidizing transit fares in urban areas. Obviously I'm not one of them, and my response to those people is usually to note that if all those people drove instead traffic would be (even more) unbearable, pollution and oil dependence would increase, public health and safety would suffer, and more space dedicated to parking in apartment units would increase rents as well.

This usually leads to an argument about how if I want to save the world then it shouldn't be on the car drivers' dollar, to which I respond that the majority of Metro's operating budget comes from sales tax*, which everyone pays (and the lower your income the larger the proportion of your income paid as sales tax), followed by transit fares, then federal and state grants for the capital budget. The total spent on transit by King County Metro is about $1 billion per year. Certainly some money comes directly from those who drive, for example the 2-year $20 vehicle license fee in effect right now that the King County Council approved to mitigate a 17% cut in Metro service last year. There are other things too, higher up in the state budget. But most people who use the bus also own at least one car. So round and round we go, point-counterpoint.

Where your sales tax money is being spent (source:

Where your sales tax money is being spent (source:

Lately I've been asking the question: what do you propose we do instead? These people seem extremely averse to spending money on mass transit, but especially in light of our growing population and a lack of room for any more roads, I don't hear many alternatives being offered. I'm all for directing more money toward maintenance rather than endlessly expanding our infrastructure (and therefore our maintenance liabilities), but it's obvious that simply maintaining what we've got is a recipe for a steadily worsening transportation system as the population increases. I've yet to get a straight answer from anyone on what they'd actually prefer to see (as opposed to "no more trains!" and "no more war on cars!"), so feel free to let me know in the comments what your vision is for the transportation system if you don't support subsidizing mass transit.

As a thought experiment about public transportation subsidies, here's what I think it would look like if we started demanding that everyone pay the full, unsubsidized cost of their fares:

First off, Metro fares are currently about $2.50 (up a dollar since 2008) in Seattle. We've got a roughly 28% farebox recovery rate, meaning that we recoup 28% of our operating expenses in the form of user fees. If we wanted to increase that to 100% we'd have to charge about $9 per ride and that's making the inane assumption that increasing fares more than threefold will not reduce ridership. So, to get to and from work we're looking at $18, and assuming five work days a week we've got about $360 a month spent just on the work/school commute. Add another ten trips during the month for various errands and we're up to $450.

Many bus riders could afford this, but would they choose to? Given that the vast majority of mass transit users own cars anyway, the question now becomes whether gas + parking (car payment, licensing fees, and insurance already being paid for) adds up to $450 per month, and the answer is almost certainly "no." So everyone who owns a car starts using it for almost all of their trips, even if they used to prefer using the bus or train to get around most of the time.

For those who don't own cars, the decision is a bit more difficult. They have to decide whether the cost of a car payment, licensing fees, insurance, gas, and parking are a better deal than $450 a month in fares. Personally, I owned a 1995 Camry for five years that cost me $5,000 to purchase and about $2,000 in maintenance over it's lifetime, which adds up to about $120 per month for 60 months. Add $50 for liability insurance (if you're over 24 and have a clean driving record, at least), $50 or so for various fees, and $100 for gas (optimistically). We'll ignore parking for now, but I'll get to that later. That adds up to $320 per month, far under the cost of a month of busing and much more convenient, too. So many people who don't currently own cars also start driving them to get around everywhere.

Who's left after that? Basically the very poor, the young, and the very old. In other words, the transit system falls apart due to lack of a constituency and we don't actually have mass transit anymore. Everyone drives everywhere, and those who can't due to age, ability, or income are left to fend for themselves. Even if we limited transit subsidies to just these people, they don't make up a large enough share of the population to constitute a real transit system and many of them already struggle with $2.50 fares, so instead we'd end up with a bunch of incredibly inefficient routes serving a relatively small pool of people. In our quest to end transit subsidies we end up with a system with a farebox recovery rate that is probably closer to 5-10%, subsidized to an even greater degree than before. If efficiency was the goal here we've failed miserably.

And what about all the people already driving as their primary means of transportation? Needless to say, traffic and parking get much worse, particularly downtown where a large proportion of transit trips begin and end. Less of their money is going toward transit projects though, and more toward roads. This does almost nothing to improve traffic in Seattle since there's no room for more roads, but maybe existing roads are kept in a better state of repair. Maybe not though, since all of those cars take a toll on the road, and since congestion has increased everyone is spending more of their time on the pavement. Pollution worsens; people walk around less and sit in traffic more, both of which are bad for physical and mental health; and although the full 1.8 cents of sales tax** that is devoted to transit is no longer needed, those savings are almost certainly eaten away--and then some--by the extra gas wasted sitting in the worsened traffic.

More of this. Right on.

More of this. Right on.

To make matters worse for drivers, with more people now reliant on cars parking in central Seattle will become scarce. This means two things: first, metered street parking rates increase drastically in order to maintain their target of one open space per block; second, as paid parking lots and garages begin to fill up and supply is saturated, demand drives prices for private parking up too. Likewise for parking rates in apartments, driving up effective rents. New apartments and condos built in the city will start including more underground parking (an extremely expensive form of parking infrastructure), adding tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of each unit. This general phenomenon would likely recapitulate itself in every neighborhood center, driving up parking rates not just in downtown, Capitol Hill, and South Lake Union, but Fremont, Ballard, the University District, Wallingford, Queen Anne, Columbia City, Eastlake, etc.

This would be a terrible outcome for drivers, particularly those who preferred to take the bus but can no longer afford it, but it's bad for the economy too. There are already people who avoid traveling to Seattle because of the traffic and lack of cheap parking. (Personally, I hated Seattle before moving here because my only experiences involved driving around in it.) If the buses disappear you can count on that sentiment getting far stronger, and a lot of business that comes in from outside the city will quickly evaporate. That means less business for just about every type of service- or retail-based company in the city, and reduced tax revenue as a result. So all that money we're saving by not sending the entire 1.8 cents of sales tax toward transit? It's at least partially offset by the loss of sales tax revenue from non-Seattleites who now avoid Seattle when they can. That's to say nothing of Seattleites themselves, who are now spending more on gas (or in the case of former busers, transportation in general) and have less money to spend on food, drinks, entertainment, rent, electronics, bicycles, clothing, etc. Once again, this means less revenue for the city, and all those sales tax savings are chipped away even further.

Have I made myself clear? Subsidized public transportation is not a luxury in a large urbanized city: it's a necessity. I made a point of glossing over the moral implications of removing these subsidies not because it's unimportant--it's vitally important--but because the economic argument is sufficient unto itself. By dedicating 19% of our sales tax toward public transportation we ensure that Seattle is able to function as the cultural and economic center of our region. Non-automotive options for getting into, out of, and around the city are essential if we're to retain that position, and our investment in those options more than pays for itself by keeping more spending local, restraining housing costs, and allowing us to remain a viable destination for those who come to our city by car, either by choice or of necessity.

*Fun fact: One-quarter of the sales tax collected for Metro goes toward capital expenses. If the entire 1.8 cent sales tax was directed toward operating expenses, user fees + sales tax revenue would exceed the operating budget.

**The 1.8% sales tax dedicated to transit pays for both King County Metro and Sound Transit.

Increased apartment housing in Seattle likely to stabilize rent prices

It's a common refrain among urbanist types who are savvy to land use issues that increasing the amount of housing in a region can lower rents, or at least slow their rise. The reasoning is straightforward: if you have more demand than supply, prices will increase; if you increase supply to meet or exceed demand, landlords will be forced to compete with one another for renters and prices will decline.

This sounds really great. When you combine it with all the other great things densely-built, transit-oriented development can bring (more walking, bicycling, and transit use; more efficient use of energy and infrastructure; greater diversity of shops, restaurants, and entertainment; more spontaneous interactions with other members of the community; etc.), it sounds even better. But is it true? Do rents really decline just because more units of housing get built? I wanted proof.

After reading this article at the Seattle Times on the boom in apartment building in the Puget Sound region and the effects it may have on rents, I felt like I was on the right track. Unfortunately, the most conclusive statement contained in the article in support of this idea was the following:

[T]he regional apartment-vacancy rate has stopped dropping, both Dupre + Scott and Apartment Insights say, and it should start inching up next year as a bumper crop of new apartment projects comes to market.
That means “rents will basically have to flatten out,” said Mike Scott of Dupre + Scott.

Great news! Not exactly a scientific proof, but I'll take it. Near the end of the article, however:

Even so, 73 percent of landlords responding to that company’s survey said they plan to increase rents over the next six months.

Okay, not so good news. Most of the 35,000 units planned for the next 5 years haven't opened yet though, so maybe landlords are just getting what they can while the gettin's good. Soon enough, the thinking goes, the balance of power is going to tip back toward the renters, and prices will moderate. And a good thing too, since in-city rents for 20+ unit apartments in Seattle have increased by almost 7.5% in the last year (most of that, 6%, in the last 6 months). Has this actually happened? Thankfully, the Times article led me to the answer.

In an article Dupre + Scott Apartment Advisors have produced to accompany the aforementioned survey, they clearly describe some of the trends in the region and break it down into sub-regions with some nice charts. I really encourage you to read the whole thing--it's not too long. But first, and most importantly, I'd like to show you the following two charts from the article:

What I hope you'll appreciate when looking at these charts is their opposing nature. When vacancies are low, rents go up; when vacancies are high, rents go down. That's right, they actually went down! Next time someone tells you it's not possible, and asks you how building new, usually more expensive housing will lower rents, just point them here. It works. And just to be clear, I believe these prices are in nominal terms, not inflation-adjusted, which would explain why prices tend to increase by higher percentages than they decrease. If you provide enough housing to affect vacancies (i.e., enough to meet or exceed demand), prices will go down.

Now I'd like to point out one more chart:

Note how many apartment units were opened in 1999-2002, and then take a look at the vacancy rate for 2001-2005 in the earlier chart. We built a lot of units in that time period, and it seems that this had a significant impact on the market vacancy rate. If you know of something else that accounted for this difference please let me know in comments, but for now I'm going to stick with the sensible conclusion that the supply increased beyond demand and we ended up with a bit of an apartment glut. Prices went down and all was right with the world (for renters, at least). Now look at how many units are planned for 2012-2015. Many more! I suspect that demand for urban living has increased since the early 2000s, but nonetheless this bodes very well for apartment prices in the coming years. And just to drive the point home, note that it took a year or two after the apartments started coming online for prices to start declining. That shouldn't be surprising since the first to open probably only served to soak up the existing unsatisfied demand for living in the regions--it took an excess of supply to actually start bringing prices down.

One more thing to look forward to, renters: besides the large addition of apartments we're experiencing, the real estate market is also improving. That means many people who were forced into renting, or delayed buying a house until they were certain the real estate market had hit rock bottom, are going to start exiting the rental market. So look for this to remove some of your competition as well, driving prices down even further.

So three cheers for providing more housing in Seattle! It's efficient, it's in demand, and it helps keep housing affordable. What's not to like!?

With bike share coming, can single-stop buses become viable?

As an infrequent--but aspiring--bicycle commuter living at the top of a hill (Capitol Hill) and working at the bottom of one (University of Washington), I've long dreamed of a way to bike to work without having to deal with the difficult, sweaty ride back home. Call me lazy if you like, or try to convince me that if I just got used to it I wouldn't mind so much, but the fact is that if I could ride my bike to work without having to deal with the hassle of taking it back on the bus I'd be much more likely to ride regularly. And I sincerely doubt that I'm alone.

About a year ago I was thinking of possible solutions to this and came up with the idea for a "Bike Bus" (honk honk), a vehicle operated either privately or publicly that could carry both people and their bikes from low points in the city to the high ones (e.g., UW to 15th & John at Capitol Hill and 65th and Roosevelt in Ravenna, or Pioneer Square to Queen Anne and First Hill), allowing them to easily ride on a flat or level path to their destinations once they got off the bus. This Bike Bus would have the added benefit of being much faster than the regular bus: it would only stop at the low point for pickup and the high point for drop-off, with two, one, or even zero stops in between. We could ride our bikes to work or school, get home without being drenched in sweat, and get a faster trip home than usual to boot! There'd also probably be quite a few bus riders who found this convenient, like a super-express version of their normal bus commute. Win-win-win-win!

This idea had some flaws. Operating privately would be incredibly difficult without some kind of agreement with Metro, for one, due to so many people (myself included) expecting their ORCA card to cover all transportation expenses. I already pay a monthly fee for the pass, why would I want to pay extra money just for this little convenience? There's also the logistical issue of how you actually carry so many bikes from one place to another. Do you get something like what's currently found on the front of buses, but bigger and pulled behind on wheels instead? A trailer with places to secure it inside? Find a way to get all the bikes inside the bus? None of these sound like very good ideas to me.  In fact, Jarrett Walker at Human Transit just wrote an article about the geometric impossibility of fitting more than a few bikes on a bus, among other things.

But the biggest problem by far is frequency. The locations where a Bike Bus would be useful already have 10-minute or less headways during peak hours, and the people who use those intermediate stops on the regular bus wouldn't be too happy to increase their headways to squeeze in some Bike Buses. After all, the bikers can still use any bus they want, but people who live somewhere in between are still stuck with the regular bus. And without a frequency approaching that of existing service (it could presumably be a little less frequent since the trip itself is faster), this simply won't be appealing to anyone. I couldn't come up with a workable solution to this problem, and combined with the other issues I just decided to drop the idea altogether. Oh well.

Enter bikeshare. Suddenly we don't need to worry about carrying everyone's bikes from point A to point B because there are already plenty stored at both. Since Puget Sound Bike Share is a non-profit we can hope that they'll be coordinating with KC Metro, and I'd be ecstatic if they integrated ORCA cards into the payment system. I know some of the guys at Seattle Transit Blog are big proponents of more and better distribution of ORCA cards, and bike share stations seem like a perfect place to dispense them from.

Frequency is still the big problem, but with bike share I think we get one step closer to closing the gap on this. Specifically, one complication with bike share is that inputs and outputs at specific docking stations are never exactly the same, so the operator has to employ people to truck bikes from overburdened stations to those with openings. Why not do double duty and pick up some people while you're at it? The vehicle could be a large-ish shuttle with a trailer behind for storing bikes, and once the driver has picked up the bikes they need from the area they could pick up passengers from a designated area and whisk them off to their destination. On the way back down the hill the driver can drop off the bikes where they're needed, then repeat. Frankly I have no idea how many employees a bike share operator would need to perform this function in a system of 2,200 bikes (the amount planned after all phases have been implemented), but it'd probably be several at least, and with a subsidy by KC Metro that could be increased since the passenger side of their activities would certainly cut into their bike relocation time.

I realize this is kind of an off-the-wall idea and far from completely worked out, but I think it's a good starting point for thinking about how we can a) encourage more people to use transit and get around on their own two feet (or wheels) more; and b) how we can make the best use of bike share when it comes. Much has already been said about how our infrastructure needs to improve for bike share to be safe and successful, but maybe we should also consider what we can do on the operational side to promote synergy between our transit system and bike share. I encourage any ideas related to the "Bike Bus" concept as well as any unrelated thoughts about how we might improve transit operation once bike share hits the street.