May 7, 2020

“Stay Healthy Streets”: Seattle Catches Up

Cities large and small are moving to create a network of streets for the same reason – as reported in the Seattle Times:

SDOT will evaluate streets based on whether they reach dense areas, allow people to stay close to home and keep parks from getting crowded, among other factors.

Seattle, some say, is following a movement of ‘open streets’ that started in Oakland.  Now it’s global.

But Vancouver, once a leader, is trailing. Council will have to decide on May 12 whether we will catch up

It may be the best pre-emptive move cities can take to shore up the barriers against another tide of Motordom – a return to vehicles, only more of them, being driven more often, to more places.   Confronted with congestion of their own making, many will want to have more road space to drive.

But if those same people experience the convenience and enjoyment of their own neighbourhood streets when they’re on foot and bike, they’ll fight to keep them.



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In September, Michael Anderson, senior researcher with Sightline Institute (Cascadia’s sustainability think tank), and Kiel Johnson, founder and operator of Portland’s Go By Bike (North America’s largest bike valet) visited Vancouver as part of a two-family touring holiday.

Anderson and Johnson rented a van to get to Vancouver because, well, kids and stuff. Plus, it was much cheaper and faster than the train. Whatever to do about that?

Gord invited the duo to write about their trip, and they did — in dialogue form.

Says Anderson: “I think we could have gone on for pages about things we saw and thought about the city, but Kiel rightly suggested keeping it pretty narrow.”

First impressions about Vancouver? How is Portland doing for cycling? What were the disappointments?

(Canadian spellings added for clarity.)

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In Review: The Quest for Commute Trip Reduction Part – I

In part one of this series, CTR was described as a collection of tactics designed to reduce commute duration and distance, as well as reduce the use of single occupancy vehicles in favour of more sustainable, healthier modes of travel. The primary responsibility for implementing CTR tactics falls on employers (typically ‘large employers’ with over 100 employees). State/provincial and regional governments typically have responsibility for encouraging or legislatively mandating participation by employers, and offering support, incentives, and/or disincentives/penalties. Apart from legislation, governments may also work toward CTR through trip reduction ordinances (TROs), regulations, policies and guidelines that apply not only to large employers, but municipalities, transport authorities, housing developers, building owners, among others.

At the time of this writing, CTR is not mentioned in any B.C. provincial legislation. CTR is not mentioned in Clean BC, despite its potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In Metro Vancouver, no municipalities appear to have adopted ordinances specifically for CTR, however, some plans and programs do support and reflect CTR-related principles, including:

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What is CTR?

Commute Trip Reduction (CTR), a facet of Transportation Demand Management (TDM), is a suite of strategies (i.e. programs/policies) designed primarily to do two things:

  1. Reduce long commute travel distances, and
  2. Encourage and enable alternatives to using a single-occupant vehicle (i.e. more sustainable, healthier travel alternatives such as walking, cycling, taking transit, and carpooling)

The responsibility for implementing CTR strategies falls on employers (typically ‘large employers’ such universities and hospitals), required by some form of government legislation.

Examples of CTR Strategies
  • Encourage cycling, walking, and transit instead of using a personal vehicle
  • Provide transit-oriented incentives such as pass subsidies or reimbursement
  • Provide subsidies or reimbursement for cycling and walking gear
  • Provide on-site cycling storage, and shower/change room facilities
  • Incentives and arrangements for carpooling/vanpooling to-and-from work
  • Allow employees to work full or part-time from home or remote/satellite offices
  • Strategically select or move the office location to a transit hub
  • Provide a Guaranteed ride home service

An example of a large employer recognized as having successfully employed CTR strategies is The Gates Foundation.The Gates Foundation has reduced their “drive-alone” rate from 88 percent to 34 percent by distributing a suite of transit benefits to employees, including free Monorail punch cars and free monthly Zipcar hours. It also disincentivizes parking: The company lot charges a daily rate instead of a monthly rate. The Gates Foudnation is estimated to employ over 1,500 people.

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. It’s odd that Vancouver, with its ongoing crisis in affordable rental housing, doesn’t pay more attention to Seattle – fast-growing, tech-boom city that it is – where the problem has been so much new rental stock available that the fear has been too many ‘ghost apartments.’  That’s changing, according to the Seattle Times:

The Seattle area is filling up new apartments faster than any region in the country, suggesting demand for housing is starting to catch up with the record construction boom — not a great sign for tenants hoping landlords get desperate and drop rents.

The new figures offer fresh insight into the years-long, multibillion-dollar experiment being waged by developers as they build more apartments in the city of Seattle this decade than in the previous half-century combined, betting on the long-term economic health of the region. Will enough renters eventually materialize to fill them, or will the city have a skyline of empty ghost apartments? …

(Market analyst Carl) Whittaker cited the region’s strong economy and foreign immigration pull for leading the country in drawing renters, as well as the fact that the metro is building more apartments to actually house them. Only three metro areas in the country — New York, Dallas and Los Angeles — built more apartments than Seattle last year. …

For a while it looked like developers might have been too aggressive with all those new units: Vacancy rates had been rising, recently reaching their highest point since the recession. Building owners struggling to fill up tons of new units all at the same time resorted to offering concessions like a free month’s rent or thousands of dollars in gift cards. The supply-and-demand equation flipped so suddenly that Seattle rents went from soaring at the fastest rate in the country to among the slowest.

Now, generally speaking, apartments in Seattle are filling up nearly the same rate as they are opening.

As PT has noted before, the fundamentals are beginning to shift in Vancouver too: falling house prices, increased supply in some areas, more to come.  While the housing crisis continues, it’s changing, and perception lags behind.

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It’s worth watching what happens in Seattle today: Its council will vote whether to allow taller buildings and denser construction in 27 neighborhood hubs and some other areas – affecting about 6 percent of land zoned single-family.

But the more interesting story is the zoning proposal that didn’t occur, as told in the Seattle Times:


It was July 29, 2015, and Seattle stood at a crossroads. A panel convened by then-Mayor Ed Murray had recommended buildings in neighborhood hubs and denser housing options everywhere, angering some homeowners who wanted to shield blocks of single-family houses from development.

So Murray made a decision still resonating today. City Hall would leave most of those blocks alone and move ahead with upzones of one or several stories only in and around the 27 hubs and along arterials, he said, sacrificing the more controversial proposal in order to protect a deal with developers that could yield thousands of apartments for low-income households.

The strategy may have paid off, because the council is expected to approve the targeted upzone plan while requiring developers to include some low-income apartments in their buildings or pay into an affordable housing fund. …

“It was the smart move, 100 percent,” Councilmember Rob Johnson said. “I learned an important lesson, which is to have a controversial element of your plan that you can surrender.”


The whole story is worth the read: so many of the issues Seattle is dealing with are similar to (hell, exactly the same as) Vancouver.  

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We really should pay more attention to local government in Seattle; they’re dealing with so many of the same issues.  And they have a city council structure which many would advocate for us as a replacement for our ten-member council (plus mayor), all elected at large.

The Council consists of nine members serving four-year terms, seven of which are elected by electoral districts and two of which are elected in citywide at-large positions; all elections are non-partisan.

It will surprise you not at all that their major issue is housing affordability, and that they too are struggling with the question of how much of the city should be rezoned for higher density – and whether neighbourhoods should be treated differently with respect to density and affordability.  Here’s the latest from the Seattle Times:

Some potential battle lines were drawn Friday as Seattle City Council members debated trimming a plan to allow denser construction in the hearts of 27 neighborhoods while imposing affordable-housing requirements on developers.

Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda and M. Lorena González, who represent the city at large, spoke out against attempts by certain district-based council members to reduce upzones proposed for some blocks of single-family houses. …

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