A Seattle Times column yesterday lamented a change in the way the city wants to assess how Seattle’s transportation infrastructure is performing. The city wants to gauge how well the streets serve people rather than just how streets serve vehicles. Specifically, instead of using the traditional volume/capacity measure (i.e., how jammed are the streets with cars?), the city wants to use a “mode split” measure that rates our infrastructure based on how many people are driving alone; a control that will distill exactly how people are getting around and, in turn, inform policy that can help decrease reliance on single occupant vehicles. This makes sense because the only solution for poor performance under the traditional measure would be to build more street capacity. But given basic geometry, you can’t do that. What city planners can do is make the streets and public right of way we’ve got more efficient.

The new comprehensive plan proposal, released this month, explains: “By shifting travel from drive-alone trips to more efficient modes, Seattle will allow more people and goods to travel in the same amount of right-of-way.” And the city reveals its bias toward the mode that serves the most people at once, buses. “Because buses are the primary form of transit ridership in the city and buses operate on the arterial system, the percentage of trips made that are not drive-alone also helps measure how well transit can move around the city.”

Case in point: While prioritizing bus rapid transit lines such as Madison BRT—$15 million is earmarked for Madison BRT in the recent levy—may not nudge down congestion rates in a traditional volume/capacity ratio, it will move more people; 30,000 people a day take transit within a half mile of the Madison core.   

This change is more consistent with state and regional development policy goals, which prioritize a multimodal approach for moving people rather than prioritizing throughput of single occupant vehicles. The Times is angry about a “war on cars,” but given that the majority of people— 57 percent of work commuters to Seattle’s urban centers don’t use SOVs and 67 percent of nonwork trips taken by Seattle residents don’t use SOVs—the Times’ own preferred approach seems to be a war on people.

The line in the Times piece that made it clear columnist Brier Dudley didn’t get the basic concept of how a city works was this: “Congestion also hurts Seattle’s cultural vitality. Arts organizations are losing patronage as people give up trying to drive and park in the city.”

 To which I say: There is no road big enough (nor will there ever be enough parking) to accommodate a Beyoncé concert.

Beyonce photocredit robin harper h8wl2j

By which I mean: A) Congestion is a “symptom” of a healthy city and B) with 662,400 people (and another 120,000 expected in the next 20 years), we can’t continue to build our infrastructure around single occupant trips. It isn’t feasible—or sustainable. In that sense, city planners and Club DJs are trying to answer the same questions: How do I make this a great place to be and how do I make it last?

I’m sticking with the arts analogies here because I agree with the Times that the health of a city’s arts scene is an excellent measure of how a city is doing in general; a line around the block for a concert is a win for any city.

And on that score, the Times editorial seems to think we’re losing. But are arts organizations actually losing patronage as they report? (Anecdotally, the last few things I went to—I walked from work to a Seattle Symphony concert at Benaroya Hall, I biked from my apartment to a DJ show in Denny Regrade, and I stumbled onto a rock show in the back of an art gallery on a Tuesday(!) night—were all packed. And I’m going to another sold out reading tonight.) But don’t judge by my experience. I’m not sure what data Dudley is using to make his claim about declining patronage, but a recent study funded in part by the Seattle Foundation reports that: “The net attendance to arts, cultural, and scientific organizations in the current study rose 11 percent over the level reported in the 2009 ArtsFund Economic Impact Study. The total attendance to these organizations increased from 10.5 million to 11.4 million (a gain of 8.7 percent.)”

There’s also this finding (which jibes with my jaw drop at a packed show on a Tuesday night)…there’s a lot more events going on these days:

 “The number of productions/exhibits shows a sharp rise—from 5,709 to 9,031. This increase was sharpest in theatre and visual arts organizations. The average percentage of capacity was stable for theatres (72 percent vs. 71 percent), while it increased for Dance (from 61 percent to 71 percent) and Music organizations (from 66 percent to 75 percent.)”

To be fair, the study does note that people who are going out to shows less lately “mentioned traffic congestion frequently.” But given the fact that attendance is actually increasing right now, it’s more germane to listen to the respondents who are going to arts events. Among their answers: “Moving from the Eastside to Seattle has made more activities accessible” and “Living in downtown Seattle, close by.” This seems to belie Dudley’s other claim that “There aren’t enough close-in residents to support all the arts, clubs and eateries. They must draw people regionally.” The data showed that arts organizations’ income remained stable between 2009 and 2014—at about $455.6 million, but “earned income”—ticket sales as opposed to contributions—increased by about four percent.

Just as having to wait in line at Century Link for Beyoncé or at Town Hall for Lindy West is a sign that you’re living in a vibrant, successful city—waiting in traffic is also a sign of a vibrant, successful city. Rather than paving our way to an all green light and top speed future with more roads (the only solution that goes with the Times’s logic), let’s redo the pavement we’ve got by making sure more people, not more cars, can make it to the show.  

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