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?

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Let’s just try lowering speed limits now!

Seattle’s Department of Transportation (SDOT) put up a new speed limit map last week. Seattle had a couple of years ago changed local law so that default speed limits for arterials was lowered to 25 mph and non-arterials was lowered to 20 mph. But, it will take a long time to officially change all roads because the process described to me in email involved evaluating a handful of urban village streets per year. But after looking at the data a bit and confirming there are large differences in speed limits across districts, I think a better and more equitable process would be to just lower nearly all arterial streets (per the intent of the law), then measure speeds and impacts, and adjust as needed.

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Imagine Seattle Taking Action on Climate

It’s 2032. The Mayor of Seattle – in 2032 a woman of color being mayor will be almost unremarkable – stands before the city council and distinguished guests to announce the completion of a program that marks Seattle officially becoming carbon neutral. While Seattle couldn’t control all of its carbon emissions directly, we discovered that the vast majority were under our control and what little was left were fixed by state level action or by offsetting. Seattle, in 2032, led the nation in hitting its targets ahead of schedule, helping to make it more likely the United States as a whole would be carbon neutral by 2035 and allowing the world to hold the line to a difficult, but not disastrous, increase in global temperature.

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I 💚 bike share! Please don’t mess it up!

Seattle’s city council committee devoted to transportation issues received a presentation last week on our free floating bike share program and then passed an ordinance out of committee. The current bike “free floating” (park anywhere) bike share program is still technically under pilot rules. Lime Bike is apparently currently “winning” – I’m not at all surprised as I use a Lime bike at least a couple times a week and their pedal-assist e-bikes are just enough and I love them.

I do, however, have strong concerns about the proposed permanent rules. I’m writing this up really quickly in a blog but plan to extract a summary to send to my city council members and share it here so you, if you live or work in (or even just visit) Seattle have ideas for what you want to write. Other transportation options than carbon polluting and people killing heavy machinery are critical to a sustainable city (and even electric cars won’t be enough). We need to do everything we can to make bike share a success!

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Electric cars won’t make Seattle green

There’s still a window where we can limit global warning to 1.5 C rather than 2 C. As David Roberts notes in that article, that half a degree means saving hundreds of millions of lives, prevents inundations of some islands and coastal areas, not to mention the affects on the wider environment. That half a degree seems worth it to me.

What would it mean for Seattle to meaningfully contribute to hitting that number? The main thing we need to do is electrify everything, with the underlying energy generated in a carbon neutral way. In Seattle, our utilities are already pretty good. All but a few percent of our power comes from renewable or non-emitting sources. Transportation and building energy use our are “big” sources:


Half is due to passenger vehicles. This includes our diesel buses, but over 95% of our emissions are due to cars and trucks, not mass transit (see table 1 in this document). Clearly the single biggest way Seattle can help save hundreds of millions of lives worldwide is to drive carbon emissions due to passenger transportation to zero as fast as we can. How fast? Some folks say the United States needs to be carbon free by 2035 to have any hope of holding warming to 1.5C (and the rest of the world by 2050). What would it mean for “passenger transport” in Seattle to not pollute carbon by 2035?

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