Isn't it Weird That

Isn't it weird that ... The Seattle Displacement Coalition, which advocates for low-income people, has come out against new jobs in Seattle? 

You might expect a group that advocates for low-income people and Seattle workers in particular to want more jobs, not fewer, in the city, not only because jobs are good for workers but because businesses bring tax revenues to the city, which allows Seattle to fund things like social and human services and housing subsidies that help low-income people. 

Here's what SDC leader John Fox, who is also heading up efforts to form a new group, the Coalition for an Affordable and Livable Seattle, that's seeking a moratorium on new development in many neighborhoods, along with his colleague Carolee Coulter, had to say in their latest "Outside City Hall" column, arguing more broadly against "runaway growth" and upzones in places like South Lake Union and downtown Seattle, about job growth in Seattle: 

Even research done by the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), a developer mouthpiece, casts doubt on the notion that squeezing more jobs and housing in Seattle curbs sprawl or gets people out of their cars.

The DSA’s recent Downtown Employee Commuter Survey touted an increasing percentage of people taking mass transit and 37.5 percent driving alone — down infinitesimally from past years. This triggered banner headlines in local papers as if we were on our way to a carless future.

But buried in the fine print, the survey showed a whopping 80 percent of downtown workers commute more than 5 miles to work every day, meaning eight of 10 live outside the city.

Another recent DSA survey revealed that about one-third of the 60,000 units in downtown were occupied by people who also worked downtown. Since there are 220,000 working downtown by DSA’s count, that means only one of 10 downtown workers actually lives there. Census data from 2000 and earlier decades showed at least 15 to 20 percent of downtown workers living downtown.

A falling percentage of downtown workers living downtown or even in Seattle suggests pro-growth strategies to promote in-city living are not working.

Here’s another interesting calculation. Seattle has added 20,000 new downtown jobs since 2010, according to DSA figures. Now, take 80 percent of that increase (the percent of downtown workers commuting more than 5 miles, from outside the city) — that’s another 16,000 downtown workers living in the suburbs since 2010.

Even if only 37 percent of those commuters drive alone, that’s another 5,000 cars coming in and out of Seattle each day, meaning longer rush hours; more clogged streets, air pollution, carbon emissions; and more global warming. ... 

There is a far better and obvious solution: Locate more of those jobs out there in the burbs and closer to where these thousands now live."

Note that Fox and Coulter are talking only about downtown Seattle jobs—as opposed to the many thousands of Seattle jobs that are located in other neighborhoods, and doubtless feature much different commute patterns—so, for the sake of simplicity, I'll limit myself to downtown too.

Let's take a look at their argument point by point.

First, according to the most recent Commute Seattle report I was able to find, from 2012, just 32.7 percent of commuters to downtown neighborhoods drove alone, meaning that 67.3 percent got to work by some other method. But even assuming Fox's and Coulter's higher number, the fact that nearly two-thirds of downtown commuters are getting here by transit, bike, walking, or other means besides driving alone is in itself an impressive number.

And, let's be clear: That number is climbing. According to a report LINK issued by the American Public Transit Association this week, bus ridership in Seattle increased last year by 3.1 percent—hardly an "infinitesimal" increase. No one is suggesting the city is "on our way to a carless future," but the fact that Seattle has become a city where most people own cars and are choosing to get to their jobs without them seems like something to cheer, not ridicule. 

Second: According, again, to the DSA's own 2012 survey figures, 24.5 percent of workers in the center city said they commuted less than five miles (not 20 percent). More importantly, though, another 25.6 percent commuted less than nine miles, for a total of just over 50 percent of all commuters (including cyclists and transit users as well as drivers) commute relatively short distances. 

In an email response to my questions about his methodology, Fox (who's always game for a debate about density) said he's referring to five miles "as the crow flies"—a standard that puts all but a few neighborhoods in Seattle outside the five-mile radius, and thus in the suburbs. 

Needless to say, though, people don't fly to work. If you search for driving directions on Google, you get a route that allows you to drive on roads, not one that requires you to, say, fly across water. When survey respondents report a five-mile commute, they're talking about how many miles they actually drive or bus or bike to get to work, not the distance between their home and work via a straight line on a map.

To give a couple of real-world examples, the commute from Columbia City to downtown Seattle is about 5.5 miles; the commute from the heart of Roosevelt is about 6. No one would accuse Roosevelt or Columbia City of being the "suburbs." Using a five-mile radius drastically inflates the number of "suburban" commuters to downtown. (Fox responds: "We can quibble over [the distance from downtown to the "suburbs"] but if 5 percent of the downtown workforce lived in those largely working class and/or minority communities [like Rainier Beach and far Southwest Seattle] I'd be very surprised.")

However you define a "long" commute, the fact remains that fewer and fewer people are driving alone—from the suburbs or within the city. The idea that traffic will increase forever is a myth that is already being dismantled by actual evidence. LINK In Seattle, according to the state and city departments of transportation, traffic through downtown Seattle peaked in 1998 and has been declining steadily ever since.

Those 15 years of data are worth considering when reading arguments that increasing the number of jobs in the city inevitably leads to more traffic. We've been increasing jobs in the city for decades, and traffic has declined. Fifteen years isn't a blip, or even a trend; it's a pattern that helps predict what will happen in the future. 

Finally, the argument for "locating jobs in the burbs" instead of the city ignores the fact that cities depend on tax revenues to provide services—including the kind of proposals Fox and other density opponents want the city to pay for, like subsidies for tenants to buy up their apartments. Instead of encouraging businesses to go elsewhere, we should be providing them reasons to locate here, including a well-funded transit system that will enable even more workers to leave their cars at home. 

One thing Fox and I can agree on: A $15 minimum wage will help workers pay for housing in the city (and, I would add, be good for business, giving workers disposable income to spend on goods and services.) But, Fox adds, he doesn't think a higher minimum goes far enough. "Even at that wage, it's not enough to enable low wage and working wage workers to afford housing in Seattle in the face of uncontrolled runaway market forces," he says.

And we were getting along so well.