Seattle: A grim transportation warning for Austin

COST Commentary: Seattle has been long time leader in public transit use for newer western cities. Until a couple of years ago, Seattle used only transit buses and a very expensive commuter train. With its bus-only system, it achieved one-third greater ridership for work commuting than Portland, the “Mecca” of light rail transit. Seattle’s (King County) transit work trip ridership percentage is more that triple Austin’s (Travis County) 4.8%. Austin’s transit percentage is only the fourth most used commute mode, behind drove alone, carpooled worked-at-home and just ahead of other; but transit receives almost 50% of the transportation funds allocated by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization

Three years ago, Seattle opened a light rail line from downtown Seattle to the Airport south of Seattle. This 14 mile light rail was the most expensive light rail built in the US at an average of about $285 million per mile or a total cost of almost $10,000 per Seattle City hosehold. Four years ago a short streetcar line from just north of downtown Seattle to Lake Union, a little further north of downtown was opened. Similar to a number of other cities, Seattle is planning major, high cost light rail expansions as traffic congestion continues to grow.

This is a remarkable opinion editorial in that one could change the name Seattle to Austin in much of the article and it would still be accurate. Austin is years behind Seattle but on the same transportation path. The article articulates Austin’s future tragedy and the major negative ramifications of its increasing trend of “making things worse by spending disproportionately on transit, which has minimal effect on getting people our of their cars–.”
The Seattle Times, Editorials / Opinion, May 1, 2012

Region’s transportation and land-use policies have little effect on traffic congestion

The Puget Sound region, already with some of the worst traffic congestion in the country, is making things worse by spending disproportionately on transit, which has minimal effect on getting people out of their cars, says Wendell Cox, principal of Demographia.

By Wendell Cox
Special to The Times

Traffic is stacked up on Interstate 5 near 92nd Street in Seattle.

THE Seattle region faces big challenges in the future. The metropolitan area already has some of the worst traffic in the nation. To the extent congestion interferes with job mobility — the ability to take the best job available in the metropolitan area — economic and employment growth is reduced.

Opportunities, especially for lower-income job seekers, are diminished. While house prices are lower than in coastal California, housing is still too costly and it has become harder for middle-income households to make ends meet.

Important keys to a prosperous future are transportation investments and land-use policies that sustain and improve the standard of living not just for well-paid professionals working in downtown Seattle, Bellevue and Redmond, but also for the hundreds of thousands of households for whom the region’s higher cost of living is daunting. The reality is that neither present transportation plans nor land-use policies are up to the challenge.

Part of the problem can be traced to Washington state’s Growth Management Act. That law requires local jurisdictions to adopt long-range plans that supposedly ensure transportation infrastructure will be built to accommodate planned growth. That’s a fine goal, but it isn’t turning out that way.

As we can see in the Puget Sound Regional Council’s (PSRC) 2040 plan, local jurisdictions have assumed an unrealistically large share of growth will occur in urban centers while residential growth in outlying areas has been curtailed by urban growth boundaries. Just as gas prices rise when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries limits oil production, house prices rise when new development is prohibited in large swaths of land. This means home prices relative to incomes are 50 percent higher than before.

This experience was limited to metropolitan areas like Seattle, with excessive land-use regulations. Where such regulations did not exist, house prices rose somewhat, but nothing like in the Seattle area.
One of the principal purposes of growth management is to increase population densities — a witch’s brew for greater traffic congestion in a metropolitan area that relies principally on cars (as all do in the United States).

If the forecasts in the PSRC’s 2040 transportation plan are accurate, Puget Sound area residents can look forward to much worse traffic congestion on regional arterials because of its disproportionate spending on transit, which, ironically, has minimal effect in reducing traffic congestion.

PSRC officials propose that much more of future spending be on transit than is justified by its small share of travel. As would be expected, the reward will also be minimal, with transit’s share of trips optimistically expected to rise from 2.9 percent to 4.9 percent.

Again, however, PSRC labors under a state burden, which requires substantial reductions in how much people drive. The law, intended to reduce greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions, was ill-conceived from the start. In fact, improved vehicle technology and cleaner fuels are far better ways to reduce GHG emissions without materially reducing driving.

A law that targets travel, rather than GHG emissions, suggests a greater interest in behavior modification than GHG-emission reduction. Such misguided state requirements could drive businesses to locate in states without such burdensome regulation. The travel and GHG emissions will still occur, but in other states.

What is missing from all of this is objective and effective economic analysis. A less mobile metropolitan area will have less economic growth. With all that it has going for it, the Puget Sound region should do better, much better.

Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international urban-policy firm headquartered in the St. Louis metropolitan area. He will keynote Washington Policy Center’s annual transportation lunch in Bellevue on May 3. For more information, visit

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