There are other ways to get from A to B.
Jane Hadley - Seattle Post-Intelligencer - February 8, 2006
Paul Joseph Brown
Bike commuters share the road with cars during morning rush hour at the light on Dexter Avenue at Denny Way.
Steep gas prices.
Flabby bodies cruising for diabetes and heart trouble.
If the pitfalls of automobiles aren't already enough to make you think about chucking your car for other ways of getting around, consider the growth that is in store for Seattle.
In the next 19 years, the city expects 22,000 new housing units and 50,000 new jobs.
Assuming the same percentage of people continued driving alone to work, the city estimates it would have to build 20 city blocks of 10-story parking garages downtown.
"Nobody wants to do that," says Patrice Gillespie-Smith, chief of staff of the city's Department of Transportation. "We are very motivated to offer incentives to get people out of their cars."
In 2000, 61 percent of all Seattle work trips were by someone driving alone. By 2020, the city's transportation strategic plan wants to knock that down to 55 percent. People tend to become more interested in shifting out of their cars if gas or parking prices escalate, and if alternatives to the car are reliable, affordable and convenient, experts say.
But it often takes something unusual to inspire or shake people into the awareness of those alternatives, said David Allen, senior transportation planner for the city.
A city program called "One Less Car Challenge" aims to do just that, Allen said. The program encourages people to give up use of one car for one month, offering commuters tips on getting around by bus, bike or foot and also providing the free use of a Flexcar when needed.
Of the 86 people who signed up initially in the fall of 2003, 20 percent decided to give up a car and the rest have vowed to drive less, Allen said. "It proved people could do it," he said.
And the city is hoping to encourage people to use cars less by making it more difficult to find places to park.
Last March, Mayor Greg Nickels announced plans to reduce the number of parking spaces housing developers will need to provide in the Capitol Hill, First Hill, Pike-Pine and University District neighborhoods. The city's Department of Planning and Development now wants to eliminate the required minimum altogether for both housing and commercial developments for those neighborhoods and around light-rail stations.
Not only will the initiative reduce the cost of housing, planners say, but it may encourage transit ridership.
Here are some of the trends affecting non-car options for getting around:
Nearly 10 percent of work trips in Seattle are by bicycle or on foot, and in the city's "urban villages" that rises to 20 percent to 25 percent, says Peter Lagerwey, Seattle's bicycle and pedestrian coordinator. About 4,000 to 8,000 bicyclists commute daily, the city estimates.
"We're talking real numbers here," he says.
The Cascade Bicycle Club, a politically active group with 5,000 members, keeps the city informed about what bicyclists want.
The city's Department of Transportation boasts that "Seattle consistently has been rated one of the top spots in the country for bicycling."
Still, things could be better, says Peter Hurley, senior policy analyst with the Transportation Choices Coalition. Seattle lacks the well-connected network of bicycle paths and routes that Portland has, Hurley says, although he sees a network coming together here.
For the past 15 years the city has focused on developing rail and utility corridors into trails that bicyclists and walkers can use.
These include the Burke-Gilman Trail in northeast Seattle, the Interurban Trail now under construction in northwest Seattle, and the last piece of the Mountains to Sound Trail on Interstate 90, which is about one-third designed. The Chief Sealth Trail, which follows a City Light right of way in southeast Seattle, will open next year. Two missing pieces of the Duwamish Trail in southwest Seattle are either in design or about to begin construction.
This month, Lagerwey says, the city will start on a comprehensive bicycle master plan, a major goal of which is to connect the network of bicycle trails and routes. Among the steps will be evaluating all Seattle streets to consider putting in bike lanes, wider curb lanes or shared bicycle-vehicle lanes.
"The theme will be connecting it all together," Lagerwey says.
By summertime, Lagerwey says, the city will begin installing a comprehensive bicycle route sign system.
Already, the city's bicycle program is the most visited page on the city Department of Transportation's Web site and the city publishes 15,000 copies of its bike map a year.
Now the city will be adding more signs and paint on the streets to help with finding the way, Lagerwey says.
The city also has a 16-year-old bike rack program that provides a free bike rack on public property to any business that requests it.
Under a new rack initiative, the city is leaving the posts from some old parking meters that have been replaced by new parking stations. The city is working with a local manufacturer to produce bike racks to fit on the old posts. Sound Transit and Metro have been moving to bike racks on the front of their buses that can carry three rather than two bikes. Seattle's new light-rail system will have two racks for bicycles on board each rail car. All eight of its light-rail stations outside downtown will have bike racks and bike lockers.
Seattle is generally considered above average in its treatment of pedestrians, says David Levinger, executive director of Feet First, a pedestrian advocacy group. But there are still some things the city isn't doing that it should be, he says.
Lagerwey brags that two years ago the city had the nation's lowest rate of pedestrian fatalities for cities of more than 500,000 people. But that could be partly because the city has such good trauma care, Lagerwey says. Sometimes what would be fatalities elsewhere are injuries here.
Lagerwey cites three reasons for the low fatalities. One is the city's ongoing program to evaluate all its marked crosswalks. The second is the large number of pedestrian signals. The third is the city's low standard speed limit on arterials of 30 mph.
The city deserves credit for all three, Levinger says.
Seattle used to put in traffic signals strictly to assist cars.
"Now we're putting in signals because we want to get pedestrians across the street," he says.
The city's 2006 budget has money for sidewalks for the first time in two years, and officials are thinking more about pedestrians when it comes to land-use planning.
"Land use is extremely important," he says. Encouraging mixed-use development in neighborhood centers is a good thing, as is the policy to increase the allowable size of grocery stores in neighborhoods. Building housing around transit is another.
A model cited by both Levinger and city transportation planners is the new Seattle Housing Authority project at High Point.
"High Point is wonderfully designed," Levinger says. The developers have taken what were winding suburban-type streets and created a traditional street grid, making it easier for people to get from one place to another within the neighborhood. The design is attractive and at pedestrian scale.
"The streets are as narrow as they could get (the city) to sign off on," he says.
Located next to the development are a grocery store, library and health center.
Under a city program to give pedestrians priority on some streets and enhance the walking experience, 18 streets in the city are designated as "green streets." They might feature street furniture or other amenities, while allowing vehicles to use a narrower portion of the street.
Green streets are planned for the Northgate, Eastlake, Denny Triangle, South Lake Union and Denny Regrade neighborhoods, among others.
Existing examples are on Vine Street east of Elliott Avenue West, at Fifth Avenue and Bell Street, and the Alcyone apartment project at Minor Avenue North and Harrison Street. The city also plans to develop Terry Avenue North near Ninth Avenue using green-street principles, as well as Taylor Avenue North between John Street and Denny Way.
The city is largely dependent upon private developers using city development incentives to pay for the street and sidewalk enhancements. Thus green streets will be completed over time as buildings are constructed or redeveloped.
The city also has an active sidewalk ramp program. Any disabled person can call the city and ask for a sidewalk ramp to help them go where they need to go. The city has put in 2,000 of them this year.
"Ninety percent of us will be disabled at some point in our lives," Lagerwey says, whether through a broken foot or old age or other disability.
"We really want Seattle to be known as one of the best places in America to live if you have a disability."
There are some things the city is not doing that pedestrian advocates would like to see.
Levinger would like to see the city introduce raised crosswalks at some key locations, such as the Pike-Pine corridor. These are essentially speed humps inside a crosswalk.
Only housing developments of six or more units are required to build sidewalks in the city. Levinger would like to see that requirement extended to all housing developments.
He notes that most city streets north of 85th Street still have no sidewalks. And despite some progress, he says the city's traffic signals remain "car-centric." More sophisticated signals would allow pedestrian "hot buttons" to change a signal instantly when pushed during periods of light traffic, for example.
The Pike-Pine neighborhood also is interested in turning one of its side streets into what is known as a "living street," similar to Pike Place, where there are no curbs, and cars and people mingle in the street. The city has resisted the idea, Levinger says.
Though the city is about to embark on a bicycle comprehensive plan, there is no pedestrian master plan, Levinger says.
Feet First likes new proposals that would allow photo enforcement of red-light running and of speeding near schools. People are driving faster and more aggressively than they used to, Levinger says. The city is going forward with the red-light program but not with the speed enforcement around schools. "We would like to see that," he says.
Seattle's experience with car sharing, which has long been popular in Europe, got started when a company called Flexcar formed here in response to a King County Metro initiative.
In six years, Flexcar has grown to more than 15,000 members in the Seattle area. By the end of the 2005, Flexcar was to have abut 200 cars in the Seattle area, including about 130 inside the city itself, says Lance Ayrault, the company's president and chief executive officer.
Another company, Zipcar, based in Boston, says it plans to expand its business to Seattle.
Flexcar members pay a base rate of $9 an hour to use a Flexcar vehicle, a fee that includes gas, insurance and maintenance. Members can buy volume discounts on usage.
The vehicles are scattered around the city - often no more than about a two-minute walk from any point downtown, Ayrault says. After a phone call to reserve a car, a customer waves a key card to unlock the door, gets the ignition key out of the glove compartment and enters a PIN to activate the ignition. After using the car, the driver returns it to its parking spot and walks away.
Flexcar started out marketing to individual consumers but then started talking to businesses. Today it has contracts with more than 400 businesses in Seattle, including Starbucks, Swedish Hospital, the University of Washington, several large downtown law firms and others.
The UW gave away free Flexcar hours to anybody willing to give up their parking spot, Ayrault said. Some businesses offer Flexcar hours as a "work amenity," he says.
People who can use public transportation or van sharing or car pooling to get to work regularly and don't expect to drive more than about 12,000 miles a year will find Flexcar a cheaper way to go, Ayrault says.
The company currently offers mostly Honda Civic and Honda Civic hybrid cars. It has also added the Honda Element (four-wheel drive) and Honda Odyssey minivan, the Mazda Miata sports car and Toyota Tacoma trucks. The company soon will add more makes and models, says Ayrault, who expects nothing but growth.
Van pooling and ride sharing
Higher gas prices have driven many former solo drivers to Metro's van pool and car pool programs. Metro reported that it had more van pools than ever - 720 - on the road in October.
"The number of van pools that formed in October are the kinds of numbers we would shoot for in a year," says Metro spokeswoman Linda Thielke.
But use of Metro's ride-sharing program really zoomed off the charts. The number of customers seeking ride-match services rose 60 percent from 7,500 to 12,600 between October last year and October this year, Metro says.
Metro has been at the van pooling and ride-sharing game about 20 years. Online technology has been a major boost, says Cathy Blumenthal, Metro's ride-share coordinator.
The average van pool cost is about $70 a month. The average van pool roundtrip is about 55 miles, and most van pools travel more than 30 miles round trip.
Metro operates rideshareonline. com, where people can find car pools and van pools that match their routes and schedules. They can then e-mail those car pools or van pools, asking for more information or to join. About 15 other agencies from around the state also pay to use the Web site, helping to offset the cost.
"People seem to prefer getting access or information online," Blumenthal says, estimating that about 75 percent of people sign up that way rather than by phone or in writing as they used to.
"You can be done with all of this in about three or four minutes and be on your way to finding somebody," she says.
About three years ago, Metro started what it calls VanShare, a program to provide vans to people who arrive at a ferry terminal, bus transit center or Sounder station and need a way to get from there to their home or work place.
Metro has a little more than 100 VanShare vehicles operating now.
An employer recently called Blumenthal to say that he had employees who worked until 9 p.m. and couldn't find good bus service at that hour from the company to the Bellevue Transit Center. Blumenthal suggested the company start a VanShare that could make that connection.
That means the vehicle sits at the company during the day and at the Bellevue Transit Center overnight. Metro may try a new demonstration project next year that would allow the public to sign up to use the van during those hours when it's just sitting there.
The city has long had a strong bus system, which is operated by King County Metro. But the city plans more growth in population than Metro plans in increased bus service.
The city acknowledges that "funding remains a challenge" for its transit service needs.
Metro's budget was clobbered by Tim Eyman's Initiative 695, a $30 car-tab initiative passed by voters in 1999. But Metro has since made up some of the ground with an earmarked 0.2 percent sales tax.
In 2002, the county's Regional Transit Committee projected that service would remain relatively flat over the next six years - less than 1 percent growth a year - with most of the new service hours going to East and South King County.
Seattle officials howled that Seattle's buses would be overflowing while buses in suburban areas would run virtually empty.
Since then, the news has only gotten worse, says Victor Obeso, who is in charge of service planning for Metro. The recession kicked in and projections for added service hours are even lower. Instead of the 165,000 additional service hours projected for the six-year period, Metro now projects 99,000 hours - about a half a percent per year growth. And Seattle is entitled to only 20 percent of that increase.
Meanwhile, Metro ridership grew 7 percent between September 2004 and September 2005, compared with typical growth of 2 percent to 3 percent. Obeso believes that's likely because of higher gas prices and the recovering economy.
The city says about 38 percent more service hours will be needed by 2030 to meet expected demand.
Obeso acknowledges that the projected addition of service hours is not close to that. The problem is money. Relief could come if the region decides to ask voters for more taxes for transportation and includes bus service. Some relief also could come when new light-rail service allows the city to redeploy some existing bus service to other areas.
Another possible source of money could be the private sector.
The state Legislature just changed the law to allow business improvement associations to spend money on buying transit service for their area. The city has just presented that idea to the Northgate Chamber of Commerce, but it's too early to gauge the chamber's interest, the city says.
The city, meanwhile, is focusing some of its transportation dollars on making it possible for buses to maintain speed and schedule reliability on major routes, such as Lake City Way Northeast and Aurora Avenue North.
The city will spend a $5 million state grant on new sidewalks and a transit lane on Aurora between North 145th and North 137th streets. The plan is to widen the road to include four travel lanes, two transit lanes, a center median, curb, gutter and sidewalks with landscaping and street trees.
On the horizon for bus riders are some technical advances that should make riding the bus easier. Metro is working on upgrading its radio system, GPS and automated vehicle locator systems so that it can provide customers with real-time information about where a bus is and when it is really expected to arrive at a stop. That could happen sometime between 2008 and 2010, Obeso said.
Sound Transit and six other transit agencies are working on a Smart Card that will make it easy for riders to transfer seamlessly between different transit systems, including ferries, rail and buses. That's expected some time in 2007.