OUTSIDE CITY HALL | Workers flee to suburbs despite density push

Over the last decade, we’ve upzoned the heck out of our city. “More density!” has become our city leaders’ mantra. 

In the process, we’ve sacrificed tree canopy, urban streams and greenspace (not to mention signature views of the Space Needle, Puget Sound and mountains), and demolished several thousand low-income units for denser development. 

It’s all been done under the banner of getting people out of their cars, curbing sprawl and saving the planet. But has it served these purposes? 

Escape or pushed out?

Since 2000, Seattle has certainly added population, and we’re at record levels of new residential construction. But, according to federal “Journey to Work” data and “American Community Survey” (ACS) data, the percentage of those working in Seattle who actually live in Seattle has fallen dramatically from 49 percent in 2000 to 37 percent by 2012. 

In effect, more city workers are spreading out to the suburbs, commuting longer distances. Conversely, the data also show an increase in Seattle residents reverse-commuting to jobs in the suburbs. As commutes lengthen for more households, the environmental impact worsens, regardless of whether they drive or take mass transit. Adding costly infrastructure to carry commuters longer distances — whether by roads or by rail — is extremely energy-consumptive. 

Further, there’s evidence that few folks in the city have given up their cars. A 2012 poll by public relations firm Weber Shandwick indicates that 64 percent of all Seattleites say they now drive alone to work or school. And INRIX, a national traffic and information services group, lists Seattle and its metro area as the eighth-most-congested out of 100 nationally, with 81 percent still driving to work. 

So what’s going on here? Seattle has grown, but Census data shows that’s primarily due to a younger population of smaller households with higher disposable income, moving into more expensive, smaller-sized housing units — the ones we’re now building at record levels. Younger professionals who work elsewhere also want to live in Seattle for the “urbanista” experience. 

Meanwhile, a lot of other longtime residents are “getting out of Dodge.” 

For some Seattle residents, moving out of the city means escaping the congestion, the rising prices, the noise and increasing chaos that go with runaway growth. Perhaps, they hope to find a few more trees, a little more green or a parking space. Maybe out there, they can even afford a single-family home, raise kids and live out the good, ol’, traditional American dream.

Others have joined the exodus to the suburbs involuntarily, as excess development destroys our existing affordable-housing stock and displaces a lot of low-income retail-service workers, blue-collar families and African-American and other minority households. In fact, about 700 to 1,000 units per year give way to new, much-more-expensive development. 

Notwithstanding Seattle’s recent growth, it accounts for only about 12 percent of population added in the four-county area since 2000, with an increasing amount occurring out on the edges. 

What’s more, most of these people commute to work and shop at other activity centers far from light rail or Downtown Seattle, or even Bellevue, Everett or Tacoma, for that matter.

Yet, these areas lack resources for any form of mass transit: buses, vans, carpools — anything besides the private automobile. As long as most of the region’s transit dollars are swallowed up by a fixed light-rail system that, at best, will serve no more than 3 to 5 percent of the region’s commuters, the vast majority in the suburbs will have no choice but continue to drive cars. 

We could increase zoning capacity around rail stops to accommodate Manhattan, but it would do nothing for more than 3 million people now living and working outside Seattle in surrounding counties.

Responding to reality

By contrast, setting reasonable limits on growth in Seattle and promoting a multi-centered growth model would respond to these real-world suburbanization and exurbanization trends. 

It would mean redirecting more of our transportation dollars from rail toward creation of more cost-effective, energy-efficient, smaller transit centers with buses, carpools, vans and bikes moving along corridors to and from other regional centers.

This would mean city and regional land-use policies that respond to and encourage a more even distribution of jobs and housing into these other existing activity centers and along now-nonexistent transit routes serving those centers — rather than vainly trying to squeeze most of our region’s growth into Seattle or along rail routes serving Seattle. A multi-centered growth model holds a real prospect that more of the region’s commuters will get out of their cars in favor of other modes of travel.

There’s nothing “green” about adding still more density in Seattle, and it’s time to shelve such a fraudulent narrative. We’re accepting more than our share now. 

And other than putting money into developers’ pockets, it’s simply accelerates regional growth trends that are not sustainable for Seattle, the region or the globe. 

JOHN V. FOX and CAROLEE COLTER are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition (www.zipcon.net), a low-income housing organization. 

To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.

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