The winter blanket of clouds finally slid over the Pacific Northwest this week, and as we head indoors this year, it’s worth lighting a candle for some of the good news that Cascadia’s cities continue to deliver themselves—and hopefully shine out into the rest of the world.
As urban policy wonks may have noticed, we’ve been doing quite a lot.
1. Portland just approved one of North America’s biggest-ever shifts of downtown road space away from cars
Last week, the city council of Portland, Oregon, unanimously voted to repurpose 1,000 curbside parking and loading spaces for dedicated bus lanes, a protected bike lane network, and better crosswalks. (Various passing or turn lanes will be reallocated, too.) As we wrote last week, it’s the city’s most important bus infrastructure investment in 40 years, and its most important bike infrastructure investment in 20.
Though that’s only 4 percent of Portland’s central-city curbside spaces over the next 10 years—hardly a revolution—it’s still a transfer of precious land from parking to sustainable transportation on a scale no other modern US city has attempted yet. (Many US cities are filling in protected bike lane networks, but almost always by removing excess passing lanes. Portland, blessed with the narrow streets and short blocks that make its downtown one of the country’s best for walking, didn’t have as many passing lanes to spare.)
And it’ll be politically viable thanks in part to the trifecta of parking reforms Portland completed in August. If on-street parking spaces do wind up scarce in part of downtown, meter rates will gracefully rise a bit to meet their value, ensuring convenient access for people who genuinely need motor vehicles.
Portland’s shift in street space will greatly increase the capacity of the affected streets and prove to cities everywhere that more sustainable streets are not only compatible with a thriving economy but an ingredient of one.
“For millennia before the invention of the combustible engine, streets were used for a variety of uses,” Portland’s new transportation commissioner, Chloe Eudaly, said in last week’s council hearing.
Eudaly, the former owner of a little downtown bookstore that had a bike lane out front, is right. It’s a simple historic fact, but it’s inspiring to hear an elected leader say it out loud.
2. Vancouver, BC, just re-legalized duplexes citywide
For decades, Sightline has been documenting the massive growth of British Columbia’s most important urban area. Few major metros in the rich world have been dealt a harder hand when it comes to keeping up with migration: between 1986 and 2001, for example, Greater Vancouver added residents faster than the metro areas of Jakarta, Cairo or Rio de Janeiro.
Fortunately for everyone involved, Vancouver has turned this pressure into a world-famous demonstration of the benefits of what happens when a mid-size metro grows upward and inward instead of outward. By sending up steel and glass towers around its transit lines and leading Cascadia’s ever-deeper embrace of secondary cottages, it’s imported some of Asia’s best practices for transit-oriented development.
In September, Vancouver took the next logical step and ended the failed experiment of banning duplexes from most of the city. Almost every residential lot in Vancouver can now have two full-size homes. It’s the first city in the US or Canada to make the change, but it seems unlikely to be the last: Minneapolis and (if proponents can once again show their support next year) Portland already seem poised to follow. Watch our site over the next year for more coverage of Vancouver’s work to end exclusionary zoning.
3. Seattle is proving, again, that urbanization works
But a lot of people already know about that, as they should. And for all the good decisions Seattle has made to dedicate public funding and road space to its buses, a big reason for its transit success has been oddly under-mentioned: Its equally remarkable housing success.
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Even more than Vancouver has within its region, Seattle has embraced urbanization like no other city in its metro area and no other big city in the country. It’s opened its riches to 114,000 more residents since 2010 by adding 53,000 more homes. More than almost anywhere in the modern North American West, it’s built those homes in the center of the city, not in sprawling exurbs. Thanks in part to falling parking requirements, those homes have been disproportionately built along transit lines.
There have been deep problems along the way, of course. Seattle has failed to keep up with roaring post-recession job growth, in part because of the huge drop in homebuilding from 2009 to 2012 and in part because of exclusionary zoning that’s prevented growth in many well-off neighborhoods and suburbs. That’s driven prices up and driven uncounted thousands away, scarring the city’s social fabric.
But the news this fall is that at long last, Seattle’s construction boom is paying off in ways tenants and homebuyers can actually feel. Not only have home prices stopped rising despite continuing job and income growth, they’ve now dipped $80,000 from their peak as vacancy rates and unsold inventory finally rise. Average rents are flat to down as landlords of older buildings try to prevent tenants from grabbing bargains in new, higher-end buildings.
That’s not enough to house all the Seattleites who live in poverty; only public funding will do that well, and Seattle is tapping its fast-growing tax base to do that, too. But Seattle has once again proven that, unlike its nightmare-scenario tech counterpart in San Francisco, it’s capable of building enough homes to block an ever-upward price spiral for the middle class.
And in the long run, the billions of dollars now pouring into Seattle for urban homebuilding will lay a foundation of prosperous, sustainable urban life for the next few generations of Cascadians of every income.
When Northwest drizzle turns icy and winter nights swallow our afternoons, it can be hard to remember and savor the pieces of good news that are so big that they don’t fit inside day-to-day life. That’s exactly why it’s good to take some time to give private thanks for victories and for the chance to struggle for the next.