The Best News I’ve Heard All Year

[ Graphic: Seattle Times; Source: City of Seattle DPD ]

Seattle has reached 50% of its 2024 housing growth target. That rocks my hugeasscity world. But as might be expected, this news has raised concerns that Seattle may be growing too fast. Pshaw!

The sooner we put more housing where it makes sense — in Seattle’s urban centers and villages — the better. It’s a win each and every time the demand for one housing unit is supplied in compact development rather than in sprawl. And the more housing there is available, the more likely this is to happen. (Not to mention that increased supply tends to decrease prices.)

Furthermore, the sooner higher housing densities are established, the sooner we’ll get serious about transit. As our history has shown, Seattle residents are not inclined to fund transit when driving is so much more convenient. As population density increases, it becomes easier to justify more frequent and comprehensive bus service. This makes riding the bus more convenient, which in turn promotes more ridership, which then justifies better service, and so on (e.g. bring on the dedicated bus lanes).

Concerns about public services and amenities keeping pace with housing growth are legitimate. But as noted by Erica Barnett over at SLOG, my sense is that in this case much of the concern is overblown. As quoted in the Seattle Times, Nick Licata offers no specifics about where he believes there are shortcomings caused by new housing. The only specific issue noted in the Times story is overcrowded bus service. But that is a relatively easy problem to fix, and as I pointed out in the previous paragraph, increased demand for transit instigates a virtuous circle for better transit.

The one component of our infrastructure that definitely will not keep pace with housing growth is roadway car capacity (see here and here). Nor should we expect it to. Nor should we in our right minds desire it to. It will be painful for many in the short term, but it will save far more pain for everyone in the long term.

8 Responses to “The Best News I’ve Heard All Year”

  1. Steve

    If I read correctly, these numbers include projects that have been granted a building permit as “in progress”, whether or not construction is actually on hold. So the actual number of housing units being built is probably a little lower than shown here. Still, this is definitely good news from a density perspective.

  2. dorian gray

    Licata had no specifics? what are the chances of that happening.

  3. Tony

    Your point about the virtuous circle in transit describes the way it should work, not the way it does work. First off, the voters of seattle are not anti-transit. The voters of seattle are desperate for transit and are more than happy to tax themselves to fund it. The problem is that the city of Seattle doesn’t provide transit service. Sound Transit and King County Metro do.

    Both of these agencies operate under a sub-area equity premise, which divides the region into 5 sub areas (snohomish county, seattle, east king county, south king county, and pierce county), but you knew that. Currently king county metro has a policy of placing only 20% of new transit service in seattle. This is political, not rational.

    Sound transit has to, by law, spend the same amount of money in the other five sub-areas as it does in Seattle, depite the fact that seattle is where the compact communities exist, and seattle is where the demand exists.

    Transit is the missing link here and without good transit, greater density just means greater traffic. Our governance structure however is not set up to respond to the explosion in demand for transit that this rapid increase in seattle housing is creating.

    I agree with you. It’s great to see this density developing. Now (actually 10 years ago), we need to get the transit in place to serve this new density and create the virtuous circle you are talking about, but that WILL NOT HAPPEN without governance reform.

    If we can tie the amenities, like parks, open space, community centers, schools, and by far the most important: transit, to the increase in density, then the public will welcome it, but until we can tie those amenities to the density, then we will continue to see a public backlash and the virtuous circle will remain only in our imagination.

  4. Bill

    Just a small question: What happens in 2024? Which lucky neighborhoods get the next wave of density (i.e. get destroyed/renewed?)

    Hopefully we’ll learn something from this round of foolish (dare I say huge-ass) mistakes…

  5. Matt the Engineer

    (standing ovation for Tony’s comment)

    What is often missed in creating transit systems for Seattle is that there is no transit system agency for Seattle. We have a county bus system, and a regional light rail system. But we have no mechanism to tax ourselves to build our own system, despite our strong desire to do so.

    I posted something about this here.

    Back on topic, I think we’ll see demand for this new housing exceed supply as people realize they can’t afford to keep filling their tank before driving in from the suburbs.

  6. dan bertolet

    Matt and Tony: what, other than people demanding better service, will bring change to the way Metro and Sound Transit are set up? They will change when density increases and enough people get pissed off. History has shown that they are not capable of changing in anticipation of density, and that’s because it’s much harder to justify politically when no one is yelling about it.

    Matt, regarding your Orphan Road post, the increased demand that will come with density will also help justify new rail service (not just bus service).

    And as I’m sure you both know, higher density also makes transit more financially viable, which makes it more likely that both politicians and the public will support its expansion.

    It sucks that we can’t have transit in place to handle the density when it comes. But it seems that we are incapable as a society of having the necessary foresight. So unfortunately our only option at this point is to bring the density first, and hope we get the transit sorted out as soon as possible.

  7. Matt the Engineer

    [Dan] But higher density is here. It took me 2 hours to get from my Seattle house to the airport using King County Metro the day I wrote that post – a 20 minute drive by car. Busses bypass stops because they’re so full, but the bus stops can’t handle any more busses – 3rd and Union has a line of busses waiting for curb space.

    The fact is that the county has no interest in building a high-capacity transit system for Seattle – and I don’t blame them. Their taxes are county-wide, and there’s no justification for spending county money in just the city.

    Playing things your way means not just waiting for even more density – it means waiting forever (or perhaps until they try some painful county-wide bus-based mass transit system).

  8. Steve

    Check San Francisco for a city feeling this pain worse than we do — they’ve gotten the density (well, they’ve always been dense) and their largely bus-based, heavily used transit system is painfully slow (I believe it averages about 5 mph where Metro averages about 12 mph).

    They’ve undertaken a bunch of studies on how to improve things and are now trying to get bus rapid transit-style improvements on some major corridors, as well as building a rail tunnel largely seen as a sop to Chinatown interests. But it hasn’t just come for free — it’s been a very painful process for the city.

    Of course, we can be smarter here, but to be smarter, we need to be sure we’re both pushing for more density and infrastructure improvements at the same time.

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