Seattle’s Traffic and the Urban Village

If you turn on the radio and listen to the local northwest radio stations, there seems to be a single conclusion about the region, and specifically Seattle’s future: profound economic growth. People are moving to the northwest in droves, some drawn in by the impressive array of job opportunities available, and others attracted by the sheer appeal of the region (even those without jobs at all.) However, there’s a problem with this rapid development, and that is traffic. While this may sound a little like that person who whines that ‘too many people like them,’ it’s not untrue, and Seattle’s infrastructure has been having an extraordinarily difficult time keeping pace with the region’s growth. The question remains however, why has Seattle had the difficulties it has? Part of this has to do with the bulk of individuals who are moving here, but it also has to do with the city’s design.

Seattle implemented a development strategy during the peak of the Microsoft era in 1994 to help keep urban development sustainable, which it called ‘Urban Villages.’  The idea of the urban units was to create a locus around which jobs and housing could exist. This would create small pockets where people would spend their money and live, theoretically restricting the inevitable strain on infrastructure that would come with such growth. This is not quite what happened in actuality. Parts of the plan have played out as expected, as seen by the fact that most new housing development in the city has occurred around these so-called urban villages, but most people aren’t deciding to work where they live. In fact, 60% of people who live within Seattle city-limits do not have a job in Seattle. This is a problem when planning has been made to provide services and infrastructure as if everyone lives and works in the same neighborhood because then the limited interconnections between urban villages become strained by people regularly moving between them (be it roadways or bus-schedules.) This was clearly seen by the near-comic paralysis of the entire city a few weeks back by a single overturned fish-truck, illustrated wonderfully by the Google maps screenshot below:

This plan, while elegant, has ignored two of the fundamental aspects of what drives home and job selection by individuals: preferences and transaction costs. The first reason is the most straightforward in that different people may want to live somewhere that’s inconvenient because they simply like that area that much more. Even though it might seem silly, driving for an hour to get home from work every day might be worth it if your job pays high enough that it offsets your loss, and your neighborhood has a wide array of services you like.

The second reason is a little more convoluted. Moving itself can be quite a costly endeavor. It costs you time to search for a new home, it costs you considerable effort or money to move in, especially if you have a lot of stuff, and it can occasionally be a downright unpleasant experience. With these costs of moving in mind, it might be worth it to choose to live in a neighborhood you like because the job at which you work won’t last forever and the future payoff to staying there outweigh the cost of driving the extra time to get to work every day.

These concerns may have seen themselves played out in another fashion, but the current plan seems to, from a transit perspective, stress the existing infrastructure. This is a serious problem for the area if the idea is to have some efficient mix of transit available. As of 2014, Seattle has the 4th worst in the country, and I can’t see that getting better without some major adjustments to the development strategies in place.

One Reply to “Seattle’s Traffic and the Urban Village”

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