The period of maximum constraint is an opportunity

Seattle’s Mayor, Jenny Durkan, announced a new interim director, for the city department of transportation (SDOT), Linea Laird. Urbanist twitter was aghast at this choice to lead SDOT as Laird’s most recent project was the state highway 99 replacement: a tunnel with no downtown exits is useless for freight or transit. “Why are we choosing a car focused person to lead SDOT during the period of maximum constraint? It must be because the mayor only cares about cars!” – urbanist twitter. Alternately, the mayor may have just picked someone competent without noticing the message it sends. But I take this as a chance to remind everyone what we should be doing, even if the mayor seems uninterested. Our constraints force us to make hard choices.

Picture of truck parked in turn lane on Weslake
Mode conflicts on Westlake Ave. Why do we have street parking here? What happens if the streetcar arrives and is blocked by a slow parallel park?

All transportation politics in Seattle is focused on the “period of maximum constraint”. Highway 99 (the elevated viaduct) soon closes for a few weeks while they switch over to highway 99 (the tunnel). Then we have years building out the new surface highway, err, street. Seemingly endless private construction projects erratically close sidewalks and streets. All buses soon leave the transit tunnel, requiring space on the surface, but Northgate Link light rail only opens in 2021. The convention center expansion has started.

We also have financial constraints. Voters are unlikely to approve new taxes. The city budget office projected revenue low enough that the mayor called for cuts. The federal government is slow walking funding projects depend on. SDOT is having trouble with the Move Seattle transportation levy with over-estimates of available funding and under-estimates of project costs. The construction market (and stupid trade wars) means everything is costing more.

That means we have tough choices.

The mayor’s choice for SDOT leader, as well as all the recent transit or non-car mode projects that are being slowed or halted, suggests her priorities are to maintain car mobility at all costs.

This is the wrong choice. We need to make different choices.

Long-term our most critical goal needs to be reducing carbon emissions. Everyone agrees. If we can’t prioritize that now in the near-term then when will ever? Will we when we don’t have constraints? When you don’t have constraints, you can spend on whatever you want. You can (try to) please everyone. That’s what Seattle’s been doing since I moved here (within the default car bias we have).

Now we don’t have the money or space to keep handing each mode its historic proportion of money and space. We have a period of opportunity and we must reset our expectations. At my last job (yes, Amazon), I took to heart the idea that if an organization has too many things to do and not enough resources then you have to choose what is most important and this helps you make better decisions. That seems so simple! But choosing is hard and groups are often bad at making decisions in the absence of constraint.

The next couple years are going to suck in Seattle for transportation. That’s inevitable. Maybe five years ago we could have been planned differently. The question now is whether, given our limited resources, we are building the best city we can long-term. That’s not going to happen by prioritizing cars over everything else. We’ve been doing that for literally a century. The best it can do now is keep us treading water. If we spend our limited resources on car mobility now, it won’t reduce congestion in the near term because it doesn’t encourage anyone to get out of their car. In the long term, it just increases carbon emissions.

But if we spend our limited resources on getting buses out of traffic, then in the near term we have a real chance to decrease congestion. But in the long term we will have built more political capital for prioritization of modes that move more people than private cars. When we have fewer constraints, the public will expect us to continue to spend more on that.

If we spend our limited resources on fast tracking every alternate form of mobility available (like scooters!) then in the near term people will discover ways to route around congestion. In the long term, we’ll have shifted the culture to expect a transportation system not dependent on the majority of people getting around in expensive personal cars that require one fourth of the land area of Seattle (no, that figure is not an exaggeration).

If we spend our limited resources on making the streets safer for people not in cars – for people on foot, in wheel chairs, on bikes, on trikes, on scooters and who knows what else – then in the near term we’ll encourage people to actually use that transit we’ve prioritized, as well as prevent deaths and injuries. In the long term, we change expectations about how we use public spaces: are streets for cars or are they for people?

Or we could just keep prioritizing cars with our limited resources just like we have for a century. Spending more to keep cars moving doesn’t actually get them moving. It only holds the line at current levels of congestion and road death. I’m hoping we won’t though. We should use this period of maximum constraint not as justification for stagnation but as an opportunity to radically change our priorities.