City Hall

People Don't Move to Cities Because It's Easy to Drive There

By Erica C. Barnett October 1, 2010

In a somewhat unhinged column at the PI.com today, Joel Connelly accuses Mayor Mike McGinn of driving Seattle residents to the suburbs. McGinn's crime? Proposing parking rate increases that would raise meter parking rates (to half of market rate downtown); eliminating an outdated policy of free parking on Sundays (originally intended to benefit people driving to church) and extending meter hours until 8:00 at night; and moving forward with projects like "road diets" and sidewalks.

Connelly, comparing McGinn to George W. Bush (!), foams:
McGinn is not seeking balance, as he claims, but governing to the benefit of a pedal-driven core constituency.

How else to explain a $13 million INCREASE proposed for alternative transportation while everything from parks to libraries to cops face cuts in the next two years? "Road diets" are not being put on a diet.

First, the funding for alternative transportation Connelly's referring to would come not from the general fund---which pays for all those parks and libraries and cops---but from an increase to the city's commercial parking tax and a new vehicle license fee. Essentially, drivers would be helping to pay for new bike and pedestrian facilities---a longstanding and largely uncontroversial tradition in which user fees fund infrastructure, like transit, that has widespread benefits to society (see: Sound Transit; the monorail).

Second, the "alternative transportation" Connelly's so worked up over includes everything from sidewalks to pedestrian lighting to bike trails; road diets are only a tiny sliver of it. Is Connelly, a resident of Seattle's Madrona neighborhood, opposed to upgrading the city's crumbling (or nonexistent) sidewalk infrastructure?

And third, "road diets" are not, contrary to what many in the press seem to think, a McGinn creation---they've been part of city policy since the 1970s, under then-mayor Wes Uhlman, and accelerated most quickly under McGinn's predecessor, Greg Nickels.

Mayors and city councils have long considered road diets, AKA center turn lane projects, good policy because they calm traffic, make roads safer for cyclists and pedestrians, and make it easier for cars to turn left, improving traffic flow for everyone.

Additionally, as a blogger from King County Public Health points out on McGinn's web site today, road diets are good for public health: They reduce crashes, make it easier for people to make healthy choices like walking and biking instead of driving, and increase the number of kids who walk or bike to school, which correlates with lower rates of obesity and diabetes.

None of those facts, of course, exist in Connelly's world, because he's so busy worrying that "dining-out customers" who would ordinarily eat downtown will instead drive to "the suburbs or exurbs."

"The restaurant guy, who feeds a lot of locals on Sunday, will be out their business. Big box stores will get more customers from Seattle neighborhoods."

This is an insult to Seattle residents. What Connelly's suggesting, essentially, is that Seattleites can't tell the difference between, say, Tavolata (or the hundreds of other restaurant choices you'll find in a dense city) in downtown Seattle and an Olive Garden in Issaquah---or between the mom-and-pop hardware store down the street and a Lowe's superstore in Northgate.

Not to mention that Connelly apparently thinks Seattle residents are so dumb, they think driving 40 miles to the big-box store---with gas prices above $3 a gallon---is free.

People choose restaurants and stores and bars and movie theaters and clubs based on much more than just cost; if we didn't, we'd never go out to eat (or eat only at McDonald's), only listen to music online, use Netflix instead of ever going out to see new movies, and make drinks at home instead of socializing with friends at the neighborhood pub. People are more discerning than Connelly's simplistic equation---cost defines behavior---suggests.

Of course, it wouldn't be a Connelly anti-bike column without intimations of social engineering:
Our voters are overwhelming[ly] "green". They want to leave less of a carbon (or garbage, or plastic) footprint. But there's going to be a reaction if zealots start throwing obstacles in the path of normal life and using deliberate inconvenience in the cause of behavior modification. Americans CHOOSE to do what's right.

Sure they do. All those roads and suburbs and cheap parking spaces and mandated parking minimums and streets without sidewalks and cul-de-sacs and big-box stores with massive parking lots? Those are "normal life," as dictated by the natural order; no one ever made any planning decisions that made them so. Charging $4 an hour for parking, however? THAT's anti-American social engineering, plain and simple.
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