Over at Crosscut, David Brewster has an article on transit-oriented development. There are parts of it I agree with so much that I wish I’d written it myself. To wit:

…simply finding the bus transit routes that are most promising, and where people are already committed bus-users, and then doubling down on those routes. More frequent service. Faster service with more express buses. Better amenities at the bus stops, and maybe some modest stimulus for more development of housing and workplaces at some of those stops.

Such an approach is more gradual, more widespread, and much less costly.

Yes. Yes. And yes.

This stuff isn’t rocket science and it’s not expensive. Most of Seattle’s best bus routes are already over-subscribed standing-room-only affairs. Many of these routes serve areas that are adding many new residences. And the easiest way to serve in-city residential growth—and to encourage even more low-cost transit-oriented development—is simply to add more bus service in the places where it’s working best.

It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that. Yet uncomplicated improvement does not seem to be a hallmark of Seattle transit planning.

  • To take just one example that I think is telling, Sound Transit’s Central Link line replaced Metro’s 194 and 174 bus service to the airport. What used to be a 30 minute trip from downtown to SeaTac on the 194 now takes 38 minutes and costs more at the fare box. (Never mind the billions spent on building the rail itself.) By the same token—and to be horribly parochial for a moment—plain vanilla express bus service from central Ballard to downtown Seattle now takes 27 minutes at rush hour. But last time I heard anything about it, the planned RapidRide line will actually lengthen travel times on that segment. (Metro won’t publish a timetable until mid-September.)

    It’s not that rail and BRT don’t have some advantages, it’s just that better bus service is cheap, readily available, and may actually serve transit riders better in a lot of cases. I’d argue that incremental investments—in low-cost, un-sexy, no-ribbon-cutting bus service—are probably the smartest dollars we can spend to encourage transit riding and greater urban density in Seattle. So kudos to Brewster for nailing it on the importance of better bus service.

    Yet I think he overlooks the other half of the equation for fostering transit-oriented development: zoning.

    In a word, you can only build what and where you’re allowed to by law. Without zoning policies that support transit-oriented development, you won’t actually see any transit-oriented development, no matter how well-intentioned everyone may be. Seattle and other cities in the region are making halting progress toward better zoning, but there’s more to be done to provide the kind of housing that consumers want (and can afford) in transit-rich areas.

    With those two ingredients alone—better bus service and better zoning in bus-rich areas—Seattle and other cities really create transit-oriented development on a budget. As Brewster notes in the comments thread:

    …bus stops are, in practice, not very moveable at all. Just ride Metro in Seattle and you will see residual commercial nodes from way back at the current bus stops. Such stops develop a constituency of users and development that makes them very hard to change. The great majority do very nicely in shaping land use.

    A lot more could be done to make them even more permanent. Encourage nearby coffee shops to mount signs that give the countdown times for the next bus to arrive, for instance. Provide safe places for kids to wait, out of the rain. More services for bus drivers at the end of their routes. Better kiosks.

    I’ll say it again: yes, yes, and yes.


    Post-script: I can’t keep myself from picking one nit in the piece. Brewster writes:

    …the usual fight between those who want [transit-oriented development] and those who want transit stations to create amenities and open space, keeping traffic out and keeping property values low.

    That doesn’t make much sense.

    As a general matter, you don’t keep prices down by suppressing supply. Housing affordability can be complex, but it’s almost certainly not the case that zoning transit centers for open space keeps property values low. Instead, by reducing the supply of housing, it probably just confers a property-value windfall on nearby incumbent property owners.

    It’s a point that Brewster almost acknowledges later when he writes, “housing around transit stations is normally not high-end, in part because the market attracts those who can’t afford cars.”

    That’s not quite the way I’d phrase it, but the point is basically there. Transit-oriented development, when done right, can be part of the solution to Seattle’s affordable housing problem.