© Seattle Department of Transportation, Creative Commons License

The First Hill Streetcar in Seattle’s International District. (© Seattle Department of Transportation, Creative Commons License)

Today in Seattle, you can stand on Third Avenue between Pike and Pine streets, a few blocks from the convention center, and watch 200 buses an hour pass by during the peak. Local buses mix with the distinctive red-and-yellow RapidRide buses, which connect to six regional routes that prioritize frequent and faster service. Underground, a light-rail line linking downtown to the University of Washington and to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport shares the downtown transit tunnel with even more buses.

Seattle’s transportation transformation also includes changes to car parking policies, street management, and even employer/employee relationships. These advances serve today. In a world promising autonomous vehicles, rides on demand, and delivery by drone, they also bode well for the city’s ability to quickly shape and adapt to whatever new transportation technologies take hold.

For people using mass transit, new services have come in quick succession. Seattle’s first modern streetcar opened in 2007. Light-rail service began operating in 2009, and the first RapidRide route started service in 2010. In 2016 alone, a second streetcar line was launched, and three additional light-rail stations opened, increasing ridership by 75 percent.

Seattle residents have voted to tax themselves for urban transportation three times over the past three years. “It’s very exciting to be a mayor of a city that said yes to the largest increase in bus transit, and then we went back to the voters the next year . . . to build out our bike trails, to build out our sidewalks, and to repair our roads and the voters said yes again,” says Mayor Ed Murray of the 2014 and 2015 votes, in an interview with Streetfilms.

Fees on vehicles and a sales tax increase fund the expanded bus service. The street improvements come from a property tax levy, and the mayor plans seven new RapidRide corridors by 2024. In November 2016, voters in the region took another giant leap: they approved a $54 billion plan to complete the 116-mile (187 km) light-rail system, adding another 37 stations to the 41 already built or planned.

All signs indicate that Seattle is triggering the virtuous circle of urban transportation: better mass transit service leads to more riders, which leads to better service. The same can be said for improvements for walking and bicycling. In addition, city residents are letting go of car ownership. Since 2009, while the number of Seattle households grew by a respectable 8 percent, car-free living has shot up nearly 20 percent and families with only one car an astounding 27 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The virtuous circle, however, really starts to accelerate when jobs and housing are added to the mix.

Virtuous Circle and Land Development

Population growth is priming the urban development pump. Since 2010, the population of King County, home of Seattle, has increased by 175,000, of whom 100,000 are in-migrants. In just the last year, Seattle alone has added nearly 25,000 people.

John Hempelmann, chairman of Cairncross & Hempelmann, a Seattle-based land use, real estate, finance, and technology law practice, can count off the reasons why this virtuous circle should be happening in Seattle. Residents are surrounded by water, putting pressure on north–south highways that cannot be widened. Many residents pride themselves on a culture of environmental consciousness. Development trends follow the demographics of the tech industry, whose workers seek out urban living. Even so, he says, “I’m an optimist and even I did not expect this acceleration in the speed of change.”

Pine Street in Westlake Plaza, downtown Seattle. (© Seattle Department of Transportation, Creative Commons License)

Pine Street in Westlake Plaza, downtown Seattle. (© Seattle Department of Transportation, Creative Commons License)

From 2010 to 2016, downtown Seattle added 45,000 jobs and 14,440 residential units, with another 6,000 units to be delivered this year, according to the Downtown Seattle Association. Data collected at the end of 2016 by Commute Seattle shows that while downtown was adding jobs and residents, the drive-alone commute rate during peak hours fell from 35 percent to 30 percent of all commuters.

One light-rail line is not catalyzing this transformation all by itself. “All we had for a long time is a great bus system. It set the foundation and has been really important to the transit ridership increases we are seeing now,” says Patrick Callahan, long active in civic leadership and the chief executive officer of the Urban Renaissance Group, the fourth-largest manager of commercial real estate in the Seattle region.

In addition, Seattle years ago released its downtown from density restrictions on housing and allowed parking to be built “to market.” In 2012, when the city expanded the areas with reduced parking requirements, the relaxed regulations applied to places served by frequent bus or rail, generally defined as service every 15 minutes or better.

“What you want as a developer is to be in a city where the public policies allow you to be creative and build to the market,” says Callahan. He shares stories of new residential towers being delivered with parking well below one space per unit and using innovations in shared parking between offices and a hotel or offices and residential space. Analysis of city data published by the Seattle Times shows that since 2012, 30 percent of new apartment buildings near frequent transit have no parking. New apartment buildings with parking average only 0.73 parking space per unit.

Callahan believes that housing also is part of the virtuous circle. The thousands of new residential units in downtown make it easier to attract employers. “They can relocate knowing their workers will have the option to live close by and walk, bicycle, or [take] Uber to work,” he says.

The state’s Commute Trip Reduction law provides another policy tool. First passed in 1991 and renewed in 2006, the law sets goals for reducing drive-alone commuting and requires businesses with more than 100 employees to provide incentives and to report trends. The law has given employers and employees alike a wealth of experience on what works and what does not. It has also helped spur the formation of organizations like Commute Seattle, a public/private partnership created in 2004 by Downtown Seattle Association, the city of Seattle, King County Metro Transit, and Sound Transit. Commute Seattle’s mission has moved beyond simply helping employers comply with the law to improving access and mobility for all of the city.

“The development industry is almost stumbling over themselves—going way beyond trip reduction requirements—to embrace mass transit,” says Hempelmann, an observation given added weight since he also chairs ULI’s Transit-Oriented Development product council for the United States. “Even outside of downtown, at the new light-rail stations that will not open until 2021 and 2022, we are already seeing a building boom.”

In addition to parking policies, Hempelmann points to two accelerators: employer-provided transit passes and frequent transit service, including RapidRide. “Not having to wait more than ten minutes for a bus or a train makes an extraordinary difference,” he has concluded.

Opening day of the ULink light-rail extension in 2016. (© Seattle Department of Transportation, Creative Commons License)

Opening day of the ULink light-rail extension in 2016. (© Seattle Department of Transportation, Creative Commons License)

To the Streets

The downside of the virtuous circle is really the flipside of the upside: every square foot of land becomes even more precious. This is also true for the streets, something Scott Kubly, director of the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), knows well. “Street right-of-way is one of our scarcest resources,” he says.

The crowds of buses, bicycles, and pedestrians are demanding not grand gestures, but precise interventions such as dedicated lanes, queue jumps for buses, loading zones for passengers and goods, and adjustments to signal timing—all techniques that improve the reliability, safety, and flow of movement. For urban streets, “Sometimes, it’s the accumulation of small stuff—projects that, on their own, are only a couple hundred thousand dollars—that really make all the difference,” he says.

This new type of street management is part engineering and part craft, and its success often depends on understanding how a street interacts with specific buildings and their occupants. Kubly has experienced first-hand the benefits of literally walking a street with property owners and managers before designing a project. “We’re both in the business of building vibrant cities,” he says. “We can help one another meet our shared goals and individual business imperatives.”

Visiting Downtown

Government and institutions like Commute Seattle are working hard to make it easier for people to work or live in downtown Seattle without a car. Downtown, however, is still an urban-transport enclave in an auto-oriented region: many shoppers, clients, and visitors to its cultural attractions will—and need to—drive.

Commute Seattle and SDOT want to make it easier for visitors, too, but they have one request for those who drive: park in a garage instead of on the street. Despite surveys reporting that parking is a top barrier for visitors coming downtown, “parking occupancy studies consistently showed underutilized capacity in certain garages even during a busy weekday,” says Meghan Shepard, strategic adviser for SDOT.

Because the private sector owns nearly all of the garages in Seattle, encouraging off-street parking requires an extensive public/private partnership. The partnership leverages information technology and coordinated marketing campaigns, and it coordinates pricing so that garage parking can actually be cheaper than parking on nearby streets.

The first program, e-Park, was launched in 2010 with six garages and now includes 14 garages in four downtown districts. It provides real-time parking availability information via the internet and electronic displays at key entry points into downtown.

The massive Highway 99 tunnel project, which is replacing an aging viaduct along the waterfront with a two-mile-long (3.2 km) tunnel downtown, offered another opportunity to experiment with off-street parking. Since 2011, hundreds of on-street parking spaces serving the waterfront and historic Pioneer Square have been lost during construction. The Washington Department of Transportation had budgeted $30 million for parking mitigation.

The owners of six strategically located and underused garages agreed to set aside stalls for “low-rate” hourly parking in return for physical improvements such as new lighting and joining e-Park. Parking mitigation funds are also used to guarantee parking revenue, pegged to the early-bird flat rate. Expanding the experiment to the retail core, the owners of ten additional garages contributed their own funds to include a flat-rate parking program for evenings and weekends.

Both the low-rate and the flat-rate garages adopted pricing incentives and joint marketing. Brendan Lemkin, senior project manager for Commute Seattle, says, “We conducted a big umbrella marketing campaign with a common brand and worked to build a consistent user experience across garages managed by multiple owners and operators.” DowntownSeattleParking.com got 700,000 hits in 2016.

“All three programs have led to improved garage utilization,” says Shepard. “One of the low-rate garages saw transactions go up 45 percent per year between 2011 and 2015.”

Rain does not discourage people in Seattle from riding bicycles. (© Seattle Department of Transportation, Creative Commons License)

Rain does not discourage people in Seattle from riding bicycles. (© Seattle Department of Transportation, Creative Commons License)

Parking or Children

Seattle’s transportation transformation extends beyond downtown. The main campus of Seattle Children’s—a hospital—is in the residential Laurelhurst neighborhood two miles (3.2 km) northeast of Seattle’s University District. In 2010, the city council adopted Seattle Children’s major institutional master plan guiding the expansion of the 250-bed hospital to 500 to 600 beds by 2030.
The master plan also required that the hospital reduce its employees’ drive-alone rate from 40 percent to 30 percent by 2030. With a 72 percent drive-alone rate in 1995, the hospital had pulled out the stops to get the drive-alone rate down to 40 percent. In 2010, they promised to go even lower, despite a residential location served by only two bus routes and a light-rail station 1.5 miles (2.4 km) away.

Jamie Cheney, Seattle Children’s director of transportation, knows that getting to 30 percent will take innovation and leadership. “The low-hanging fruit is gone; the mid-hanging fruit is gone,” she says. Her zeal is not driven by state laws and city regulations—although those are important—but by the sobering reality that dollars spent on structured parking are dollars that will not be spent on restoring children to health. “Building surface parking is not the highest and best use of scarce land,” she says. For each year the hospital avoids building structured parking—at $60,000 a stall—they estimate a cost avoidance of $25 million.

Seattle Children’s opened the first phase of the expansion in 2013: 238,000 square feet (22,000 sq m) of clinical space with no net new parking. The second phase breaks ground in 2018 and will eventually add up to another 293,000 square feet (27,000 sq m) of clinical space with only 100 net new parking spaces. The hospital hosts up to 6,000 workers and 1,000 patients daily with only 1,400 parking spaces on campus.

Their all-hands-on-deck approach to transportation starts grounded in its mission: the families of their young patients do not pay for parking. For everyone else: if they drive alone, they pay to park. There are no exceptions. Also, there are no monthly parking permits: employees pay for each parking “event” separately, and prices vary depending on time of arrival. In addition, employees learn to expect that parking charges will increase every year.

Without alternatives, charging for parking can be punitive. Seattle Children’s offers workers free transit passes and runs its own free, and frequent, shuttle system that connects the hospital to transit hubs and its downtown research facility. The hospital buys additional Metro bus service and has worked with the transit agency on better routing. As part of the master plan, they improved the local streets for walking and bicycling and built a new connection to a nearby bicycle trail. Employees are eligible for free bikes and free tune-ups at the on-site, full-service bicycle shop.

The commute bonus is the added sweetener. For each day that commuters do not park, Children’s adds $4.50 to their next paycheck. The same computer system that tracks every parking event encourages employees to log into a commute calendar and drag-and-drop icons for bicycling, walking, taking mass transit, or vanpooling.

Five years in, the drive-alone rate has ticked down to 37.4 percent. Still, 85 percent of employees engage the commute calendar at least sometimes during the year. Just as important, “the hospital’s leadership is behind the effort 100 percent,” says Cheney.

Cheney is confident they will make it down to 30 percent, but she has her eye on one growing challenge. Hospitals employ a wide range of workers. Although future workers may be more primed to take the bus or ride their bikes, increasingly expensive urban housing may push more employees farther out into the region.

“We recruit from all over the country,” says Cheney. “Helping our employees find the best transit corridors to live in—even if they move farther out—will be part of the future.”

Future Mobility

Kubly also volunteers his concern about the problems involved in building a city—and a region—where people with different incomes have choices about where they will live. He ponders whether “Seattle’s housing affordability crisis isn’t really a regional shortage of walkable neighborhoods with great transit access to job centers.” Solving this problem is something neither developers nor transportation officials can do alone.

In many ways, Seattle is well positioned to handle the unknowns of future transportation. The difference between a dense network of frequent buses and fleets of autonomous vehicles offering shared rides on demand is incremental, not revolutionary. The financial feasibility of mobility-as-a-service, whether provided by traditional taxis and mass transit or by self-driving shuttles with cute names, requires a certain intensity of trips and the corresponding density of trip makers. The density thresholds may shift as specific business models go boom and bust, but the basic principle remains.

To summarize the Seattle playbook: In areas with frequent, cheap mobility-as-a-service, build density and parking to market while providing high-quality experiences for people walking and biking. Manage the use of streets with care and agility. For existing parking, take a coordinated approach to maximize its effectiveness and eventual contraction.

Expect lots of transportation diversity: Many will jump on board with the new mobility alternatives, while others will still need to drive and park. This diversity will affect not just large employers, but also the owners of a whole range of employment, shopping, and cultural destinations. Understanding and managing how people get to their locations will become a growing part of many businesses. UL

Sarah Jo Peterson is founding principal of 23 Urban Strategies, which provides research and consulting on transportation and land use. She publishes at Medium.com/@sjpeterson.