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Seattle Opens Up Neighborhood Streets for Kids to Play

Seattle launched its "play streets" program on Friday. Photo: Seattle Department of Transportation

Seattle launched its Play Streets program on Friday. Photo: Seattle Department of Transportation

At St. Terese Academy in Seattle last week, students held relay races on 35th Avenue. It was field day at the Madrona neighborhood school, and thanks to a new initiative from the city of Seattle, the kids had some extra space to stretch their legs.

The elementary school was the first to take part in Seattle’s new “Play Streets” program, which launched last Friday. ”Play Streets” will allow community groups to apply for permits to keep traffic off their block specifically to establish safe, temporary spaces for children to play.

Jennifer Wieland, manager of Seattle DOT’s Public Space Management Program, which oversees Play Streets, said the city was acting on numerous requests from residents. The city has for years operated a program for block parties, which allows neighbors to request a permit for a temporary car-free street. But Seattleites started to ask about scheduling car-free events with greater regularity and incorporating play equipment like swings and sand boxes.

“It’s about having that little extra bit of community speace to do something creative,” said Wieland. “It’s really out of people’s desires to build community and create great neighborhoods.”

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Washington DOT Chief: Seattle’s Big Highway Tunnel Might Not Get Built

"Bertha," the digging machine that was to help build a buried highway in Seattle is broken down and might never get running. Photo: Washington State Department of Transportation

“Bertha,” the tunneling machine that’s supposed to clear the way for an underground highway in Seattle, might never get up and running again. Photo: Washington State DOT

Nearly five months after coming to a halt beneath the city of Seattle, Bertha — the largest tunnel boring machine in the world — is still immobilized. It had barely begun to clear space for the underground highway meant to replace the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct when it broke down late last year.

Construction crews are furiously digging a second hole in the ground to access Bertha and fix it. What happens when they reach the machine is still uncertain. Even the state’s top transportation official admits theres a “small possibility” that the highway tunnel might never be completed, reports Erica C. Barnett at SeattleMet :

On conservative host Dori Monson’s show on KIRO radio earlier today, state transportation secretary Lynn Peterson sounded this wakeup call: She acknowledged, surprisingly candidly, that there is a “small possibility” that the deep-bore tunnel will never get built. The only scenario in which that might happen, she added, is if the contractor, Seattle Tunnel Partners, and WSDOT discover that “the machine is not going to actually be fixable.”

“I would say it’s a small possibility, but we want to make sure that everyone understands that it’s a possibility.”

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Anthony Foxx Kicks Off Nationwide Project for Better Bike Lanes

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx praised bike infrastructure as a way to get more value out of existing U.S. streets. Photo: Green Lane Project

Staring down a highway trust fund that he described as “teetering toward insolvency” by August or September, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Monday that better bike infrastructure projects are part of the solution.

“When you have a swelling population like the USA has and will have for the next 35 years, one of the most cost-effective ways to better fit that population is to better use the existing grid,” Foxx said.

Foxx made his comments to a gathering in Indianapolis of urban transportation experts from around the country, welcoming six new cities into the PeopleForBikes Green Lane Project, a two-year program kicking off Tuesday that will help the cities — Atlanta, Boston, Denver, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Seattle — add modern protected bike lanes to their streets.

“I know you are the vanguard in many was of these issues, and we at U.S. DOT want to do everything we can to be supportive,” Foxx told the crowd.

PeopleForBikes Vice President for Local Innovation Martha Roskowski singled out Indianapolis, the host city, as a particularly bright light in the constellation of towns using using curbs, planters, parked cars or posts to create low-stress streets by separating bike and auto traffic.

“This city is on fire,” Roskowski said. “You look at the Cultural Trail, you look at the other projects in the works. … You don’t really know that you’re at a tipping point until later.”

Roskowski praised Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, a Republican, for six years at the front of an Indianapolis transformation that has seen the city use better bike infrastructure “to be resilient, to be sustainable, to be competitive and to beautiful.”

“Five years from now we’re going to look back and say, we really changed how we thought about transportation in America,” Roskowski said. “Yes, we’re all going to drive cars still. But there are other elements to transportation.”

Six focus cities

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Green Lane Project Picks Six New Cities to Make Big Progress on Bikeways

Austin, Texas, built this beauty of a bike lane by the University of Texas campus while it was participating in round one of the Green Lane Project. Photo: The Green Lane Project

More than 100 cities applied for the second round of the Green Lane Project, the program that helps cities build better bike infrastructure, including protected lanes.

People for Bikes, which runs the program, announced its selections for round two today: Atlanta, Boston, Denver, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, and Seattle.

“The selected cities have ambitious goals and a vision for bicycling supported by their elected officials and communities,” said Martha Roskowski of People for Bikes. “They are poised to get projects on the ground quickly and will serve as excellent examples for other interested cities.”

Several of this year’s choices already have good wins under their belts. Indianapolis, Atlanta, and Seattle had protected bike lanes on People for Bikes’ list of the country’s ten best new protected bike lanes last year. And Pittsburgh, with its star urbanist mayor, seems poised to make big strides.

Beginning in April, the selected cities will receive expert assistance, training, and support over a two year period to build safe, comfortable protected bike infrastructure.

During the first two years of the Green Lane Project, the number of protected bike lanes in the country nearly doubled from 80 to 142, People for Bikes reports. More than half of those new lanes were in its six first-round focus cities: San Francisco, Chicago, Portland, Memphis, Austin, and Washington.

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Talking Headways Podcast: One More Freeway Without a Future

So, Bertha is stuck digging an enormous highway tunnel underneath Seattle. Jeff Wood and I ask the essential question: Does Seattle really need to spend $2.8 billion on a new traffic sewer, when traffic on the Alaskan Way Viaduct has been plummeting?

We also highlight this week’s public conversation about CNU’s big report calling out highways just begging to be demolished. After all, 2013 was the ninth year in a row that Americans drove fewer miles per capita, and some states are beginning to adjust their old assumptions that driving will grow steadily, forever.

We talk about all this and more on the 12th episode of Talking Headways.

And remember, you can subscribe to this podcast’s RSS feed or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes — and please give us a listener review while you’re at it. Join the conversation in the comments section.

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Traffic Plummets on the Highway Seattle Is Spending a Fortune to Replace

Traffic has collapsed around Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct. Image: Sightline

Traffic has collapsed on Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct. Image: Sightline

For months now, the largest tunnel boring machine in the United States has been broken down under the city of Seattle. Meanwhile, traffic on the highway that the tunnel is supposed to replace has plummeted, raising more questions about whether the project is worth the enormous expense.

The project to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a buried highway in Seattle is off to an absolutely disastrous start. Image: Wikipedia

The project to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a buried highway is off to an absolutely disastrous start, but there’s also a big upside to the new traffic patterns. Photo: Wikipedia

The state of Washington intends to spend $3.1 billion to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct — an elevated double-decker highway right by the waterfront — with an underground highway tunnel. But Bertha, the tunnel boring machine, is stuck a thousand feet into its path and will take months to get running again, if the state can get it running again at all.

Meanwhile, Clark Williams-Derry at regional think tank Sightline has made an amazing discovery: Traffic on the viaduct has plummeted by 48,000 vehicles per day in the last three years, or 44 percent, raising questions about whether this awesomely expensive undertaking is needed at all.

The reason for the traffic drop? A lot more people are taking buses. Some have avoided driving because of construction delays. Of those who are still driving, some have shifted to surface streets. Combine that with the fact that, across America, driving is declining in general — and maybe Seattle doesn’t need to replace this highway after all.

Williams-Derry puts it like this:

Nobody knows if Bertha will ever get moving again, let alone complete her job. But given these figures, maybe it doesn’t matter. Seattle has seamlessly adapted to losing the first 48,000 trips on the Viaduct. No one even noticed. No one even noticed that 40 percent of the Viaduct’s traffic just disappeared! Could accommodating the loss of another 62,000 be that hard if we, I don’t know, tried even a little?

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Talking Headways Podcast: Bikes of Ill Repute

Jeff Wood and I are back with episode 8 of the Talking Headways podcast. We talk about Los Angeles Metro’s decision not to extend light rail all the way to LAX (and what they’re doing instead), plus some analysis of what rail can really do in a city as spread-out as LA. Then we head east to Princeton, New Jersey, where we debunk the thesis that low sales of luxury condos somehow equates to a rejection of walkability. And finally, back west to Seattle, which finds itself with a similar problem to LA: how to bring more density to settled single-family areas?

You can subscribe to our RSS feed or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes — and please give us a listener review while you’re at it.

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Real Estate Trend: Parking-Free Apartment Buildings

A wave of new residential construction projects in places like Seattle, Boston, and Miami are showing that, yes, modern American cities can build housing without any car parking on site.

A rendering of the new Lovejoy Wharf 175-unit condo development, Boston's first car-free housing development. Image: ##http://boston.curbed.com/archives/2013/12/no-parking-boston-gives-green-light-to-carless-condo.php## Curbed##

A rendering of the new 175-unit condo development, Lovejoy Wharf, in Boston. Image: Curbed

Officials in Boston gave their approval last week to what Curbed called the city’s “first big-time parking-less condo,” a 175-unit project named Lovejoy Wharf. The “plan was met with disbelief in some quarters,” according to Curbed, but the city’s redevelopment authority approved it unanimously.

Portland developers have been building housing sans parking for a few years. Last summer, NPR reported that about 40 percent of Portland’s under-construction housing was parking-free. Portland’s zoning rules have allowed zero-parking developments since the aughts, but builders and lenders weren’t pursuing that type of project until recently, the Oregonian reports. Unfortunately, the city pulled the rug out from under parking-free housing this summer, responding to car owners who feared increased competition for curbside parking spots. Portland’s new rule requires some parking in apartment buildings with more than 30 units.

Meanwhile, other cities are marching ahead. In Seattle, parking-free housing developments are becoming more common. Mark Knoll, CEO of Blueprint Capital, led the development of a 30-unit building with no parking in one of the city’s “urban villages.” These designated areas, chosen for their walkability and proximity to transit, have special zoning rules that allow Seattle developers to forgo parking. These relaxed parking requirements were set in motion by Washington state’s Growth Management Act in the 1990s, which was intended to combat urban sprawl. Since the new zoning rules came online in Seattle in 2010, between 20 and 30 parking-free projects have been developed, Knoll estimates.

Car parking is expensive: Each space in a city garage costs tens of thousands of dollars to build and hundreds of dollars annually to maintain [PDF]. Eliminating on-site parking brings down the cost of apartment construction, Knoll estimates, between 20 and 30 percent. That makes it possible for developers to deliver more affordable housing. Knoll’s California Avenue development, for instance, is targeted at people making 60 percent of area median income, or about $15 per hour.

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As Lawmakers Fail to Fund Transit, Seattle May Lose 74 Bus Routes

If you’ve ever looked deep into the abyss of partisan gridlock and anti-tax paranoia and wondered where the bottom was — well, Seattle might be approaching it right now. Facing a massive budget gap — caused largely by the antagonism and negligence of state legislators — Metro Transit has announced a plan to cut spending 17 percent by eliminating 74 bus routes.

Bus routes in red are set to be eliminated; routes in gray would be changed. Image: Metro Transit

Metro’s plan, unveiled yesterday, would “delete” 74 of the system’s 214 bus routes. And 107 routes — fully half the current system — will be “changed,” mostly by reducing or eliminating nighttime service. Some buses will stop running as early as 7:00 p.m. The 33 “unchanged” routes will see changes too, Metro notes — they will become more crowded.

“Riders and communities across King County would feel the impacts: fewer travel options, longer waits between buses, more transfers, more-crowded and less-reliable buses, and increased traffic congestion,” Metro writes on its website.

This happens at a time when record ridership is already stressing the system. “There’s not enough buses,” says Seattle’s “bus chick,” Carla Saulter. “The buses are crowded. There’s not enough frequency. In every way, it’s just not meeting people’s needs.” According to Metro’s service guidelines, the agency should be expanding service by 15 percent. Saulter, a car-free mother of two, says her primary bus route — the 27 — is facing elimination.

“We don’t want to be cutting service — in fact, we should be growing here in King County,” Metro General Manager Kevin Desmond said in a videotaped message. “It would improve the quality of life and improve our economic future. But unless we find new revenue, we are looking, unfortunately, at having to reduce the system.”

That “unless” is key. Bruce Nourish, writing in the Seattle Transit Blog yesterday, noted that this “bloodbath” of cuts is avoidable.

There are two possibilities for forestalling this crisis. First, King County could form a countywide Transportation Benefit District and raise revenues that way. Seattle has its own TBD but since Metro Transit is run by King County, other parts of the county need to help fund it — including rural and semi-rural areas where extending transit service is extremely expensive and not cost-effective. So far, the county has opted not to form its own TBD.

Second — and more ideally — the state legislature could grant local jurisdictions the authority to enact — or at least, let voters decide on — a motor vehicle excise tax, or MVET. The city had one before 1999, when anti-tax zealot Tim Eyman spearheaded a statewide ballot initiative that turned a 1.5 percent tax on the value of cars into a $30 flat fee per vehicle. (For the record, $30 is equivalent to 1.5 percent of the car value if your car is worth $2,000.)

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Setbacks and Victories For Urbanism in Yesterday’s Mayoral Races

Mayoral elections broke both ways for livability in American cities yesterday: The results of some may slow progress on transit and street safety, while one-midsized city elected an executive who campaigned strongly on light rail expansion and bikeability.

John Cranley, who campaigned on stopping the under-construction Cincinnati streetcar, defeated Roxanne Qualls in the Cincinnati mayoral race yesterday. Image: Whistleblower-newswire

The biggest story was Cincinnati’s mayoral race, where Queen City voters backed Democrat John Cranley by a wide margin. Cranley campaigned on a platform of tearing out the city’s under-construction streetcar, even though stopping the streetcar at this point could be more expensive for the city than continuing it.

Cranley doesn’t have the power to stop the streetcar unilaterally. He will need council approval. But the Cincinnati City Council added three new members yesterday as well, and now a majority appear to oppose the project. Hopefully, reason and respect for public finances will still prevail in this case.

Cranley defeated former Cincinnati mayor Roxanne Qualls, who was vice mayor to outgoing Mayor Mark Mallory. While Qualls made it this far thanks in part to the political activism of streetcar supporters, her defeat was a blow to their cause.

Meanwhile, a champion of sustainable transportation in Seattle, Mayor Mike McGinn, fell to challenger Ed Murray, a state senator best known for crafting the state’s marriage equality law. McGinn came to the office as a political outsider after serving as the statewide chair of the Sierra Club and was known to ride an e-bike to political events. He presided over major zoning and parking reforms in the city, as well as some important street redesigns.

Ed Murray defeated incumbent Mayor Mike McGinn yesterday in Seattle. Will Murray be the "anti-bike lane mayor?" Image: The Stranger

Murray campaigned on a platform of uniting various political factions and making government work better. Last month, alt-weekly the Stranger wondered if he was also running to be the “anti-bike lane mayor.” Some of Murray’s fundraising came from groups who were upset about a recently-installed protected bike lane, the paper reported. On transit, Murray has stressed the importance of taking a regional approach and building collaborative relationships at the state level, but not necessarily the need for additional funding.

Seattle Bike Blog endorsed McGinn for reelection, as did the Cascade Bicycle Club. Seattle Transit Blog called his land use and transit policies “simply unassailable.”

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