Over the past decade, we’ve upzoned the hell out of Seattle, and “More density!” has become our city leaders’ mantra. In the process, we’ve sacrificed tree canopy, urban streams and green space — not to mention views of the Space Needle, Puget Sound and mountains — and demolished several thousand low-income units for denser development. It’s all been done under the banner of getting people out of their cars, curbing sprawl and saving the planet. But has it served these purposes?
Since 2000 the city’s population has grown, and we have record levels of new residential construction. But according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau the percentage of those working in Seattle who actually live here has fallen from 49 percent in 2000 to 37 percent by 2012. In effect, more people who work in the city are living in the suburbs, commuting longer distances.
Conversely, the data also show an increase in Seattle residents reverse-commuting to jobs in the suburbs. As commutes lengthen for more households, the environmental impact grows, regardless of whether commuters drive or take mass transit. Adding costly infrastructure to carry them longer distances consumes vast resources of energy.
Further, there’s evidence that few folks in the city have given up their cars. A 2012 poll by public relations firm Weber Shandwick indicates that 64 percent of all Seattleites say they now drive alone to work or school. And a national traffic and information services group ranks Seattle and its metro area as the eighth-most congested metro region out of 100 nationwide, with 81 percent of us still driving to work.
So what’s going on here? Census data show that Seattle’s growth is primarily due to a younger population of smaller households with higher disposable income moving into more expensive, smaller sized housing units — the ones we’re now building at record levels. Younger professionals who work elsewhere also want to live in Seattle for the urban experience.
Meanwhile a lot of long-time residents are getting out of Dodge, escaping the congestion, the noise, the rising prices and increasing chaos that go with runaway growth. Perhaps they hope to find a few more trees, a little more green or, God forbid, a parking space. Maybe they can even afford a single-family home, raise kids and live out the good ol’ American dream.
Others have joined the exodus to the suburbs involuntarily, as excess development destroys our existing affordable housing stock and displaces a lot of low-income retail/service workers, blue-collar families and minority households. In fact, about 700 to 1,000 units of affordable housing stock that have lost each year give way to new, much more expensive development.
Seattle’s increased density accounts for only about 12 percent of the increase in population in King, Pierce, Snohomish and Kitsap counties since 2000, with growth occurring on the region’s fringes at a much faster rate. Most of these people commute to work and shop at centers far from light rail or downtown Seattle, Bellevue, Everett and Tacoma.
Yet these areas lack resources for anything besides the private automobile. As long as most of the region’s transit dollars are swallowed up by a fixed light rail system that at best will serve no more than 3 to 5 percent of the region’s commuters, most suburbanites will have to drive. We could increase zoning capacity around rail stops until we could accommodate the population of Manhattan, but it would do nothing for more than three million people now living and working outside Seattle in surrounding counties.
By contrast, setting reasonable limits on Seattle’s growth and promoting a multicentered growth model would respond to these suburban and exurban trends. We’d have to redirect more transportation dollars from rail into smaller, more cost-effective, energy-efficient transit centers with buses, carpools, vans and bikes moving along corridors to and from other regional centers.
This would mean city and regional land-use policies that respond to and encourage a more even distribution of jobs and housing into other existing activity centers or transit routes constructed to serve these centers. A multicentered growth model holds a real prospect that more of the region’s commuters will get out of their cars in favor of other modes of travel.
There’s nothing green about increasing density in Seattle. Along with putting money into developer’s pockets, increasing density accelerates regional growth trends that are not sustainable either for Seattle, the region or the globe.