Frequent Transit Service: One Man, Two Words

The most well known quote by military theorist Carl von Clausewitz is that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” But the inverse of Clausewitz’s formulation is no less true, that “politics is the continuation of war by other means.” There is little relationship between the tactics of winning political battles and making good policy. In Seattle, angry neighbors resisting growth have often distorted public process with brute force, creating outcomes that thwart the creation of more housing. A great example of how this is playing out in Seattle housing policy is the City Council’s inaction on problems with parking exemptions for housing built in areas with frequent transit service.

In 2011, then Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn started a process of regulatory reform that explicitly acknowledged the negative impact that many regulations have on new housing and sustainable growth. I had the honor of being on a panel that had wide representation to look at how we might reduce and redirect regulation to make more housing easier and less expensive to build. One proposal was a change in the land use code to exempt new housing projects from having to build parking. The memo supporting this shift said,

This proposal represents a continuation of trends in the City’s code development promoting smart growth, which include allowing the amount of parking provided in new development to be tailored to the needs of the intended residents or workers where dense infill growth is especially encouraged by the City’s growth management efforts, and similarly in other parts of the city where frequent transit service is within a 1⁄4 mile walking distance. This would help avoid parking oversupply and associated consumption of space that would be better used to accommodate new residential or non-residential uses in more efficient patterns. Because parking is expensive to build and can be an impediment to pedestrian-oriented design, this proposal will improve the financial feasibility of development and encourage new growth to occur sooner, including new housing resources and space for new employment opportunities.

So the Council passed this change and many new projects built in dense urban villages with lots of transit service were built, allowing more people to live in those neighborhoods more affordably. The elimination of parking requirements was a huge benefit toward sustainable and affordable growth because it allowed more density (a positive all by itself), and since parking is so expensive to build, reduced the costs of building new housing, meaning lower prices. The exemption worked exactly like it was supposed to. And of course, this irked neighbors opposed to change and growth near their homes.

It all comes down to two words, “average scheduled.”

As a result, in 2014, neighbors appealed a parking exemption to the Hearing Examiner. Their appeal was based on the strict definitions – or lack thereof – in the legislation enacted 3 years before. The way that the City implemented the new exemption was to take Metro schedules which are set about every thee months, and simply take the average headways of those schedules to create an easy to use map identifying areas covered by the exemption. That way, anyone whether a developer or homeowners or someone proposing a policy change could see, easily, exactly where the exemption applied.

However, the appeal was successful because it correctly pointed out that the law doesn’t say “average” headways – anywhere. The maps and the method of calculating frequent transit service using the average scheduled buses could no longer be used. The designation “frequent transit service” could only apply in areas where buses were actually scheduled 15 minutes or less during the entire 12-hour period established as the threshold in the code. If the schedule had gaps during that time, then the designation wouldn’t apply, and projects would have to build parking.

What would fix this? The Hearing Examiner made it abundantly clear in her decision:

Neither the director nor the Examiner has the authority via statutory construction to add the word “average” to the term “headway” in the definition of frequent transit service. Doing so would change the clearly stated meaning and the impact of the definition. This can only be accomplished through legislation (emphasis mine).

In what seems like something right out of an episode of “Yes, Minister,” the City bureaucracy was mobilized to figure out how to write legislation that would correct the problem but without using the word “average.” Seriously. For three years the housing community has been waiting for a proposal that would create the outcome the legislation intended, exemption from having to build parking where there is lots of transit service. We already know a Directors Rule won’t help the situation (it didn’t last time) and the Hearing Examiner couldn’t have been more clear.

Why not just draft up legislation that would add the word average?

Fear.

Councilmembers, including the Chair of the Council’s Planning Land Use and Zoning (PLUZ) Committee won’t touch the word “average” with a ten-foot pole. The politics are bad and the Council is terrified of the back lash it would get if it simply did what the Hearing Examiner said would work: insert the word average!

The situation has gotten even worse. Recently more angry neighbors emerged and appealed another project on similar grounds. This time the ruling even further attenuated the exemption. Not only does the transit schedule have to meet the 15 minute headway requirement, it has to do so in real time, that is actual bus service has to be measured to demonstrate there is no lag is service. Again, the appeal is yet another wily exploitation of the weakness in the underlying language of the application. As the Hearing Examiner points out,

While analysis of bus schedules might be sufficient in most circumstances, when presented with reliable data showing that bus service does not meet the definition of frequent transit service well over a third of the time over a period of months, the [City] cannot simply ignore such information

I don’t necessarily disagree with this assessment. Now what’s needed is another word, “scheduled.” Together, the words “average scheduled” would clearly convey the intent of the original legislation and it would make it easy to calculate consistently and predictably, avoiding having to count actual headways.

Am I angry at the angry neighbors. Not really. They’re  just protecting the equity in their homes which will rise as supply fails to keep up with demand. Am I annoyed that Futurewise board member Jeff Eustis keeps filing these actions on behalf of angry neighbors? Livid. But each of these players is just acting rationally given the circumstances.

There is one guy in town that can start fixing this: Councilmember Rob Johnson. But he simply won’t do it.

Back to Clausewitz.

Johnson knows the right thing to do is to simply draft the legislation and get it done. Let the angry neighbors make their noise. He should walk down the hallway on the second floor and work on his colleagues to persuade them using data and using whatever else is needed. Maybe he can read the opening chapter of Robert Caro’s brilliant Master of the Senate about how Lyndon Johnson passed civil rights legislation. Or maybe read about how Earl Warren managed to get a 9 to 0 vote on Brown v. Board of Education. In each case, the outcome was uncertain but decisive. In each case there were many reasons to fear angry mobs.

It’s called leadership. And it means standing up to the fear in yourself and in your colleagues. It means doing the right thing and bringing others along. Otherwise the brute force of angry neighbors wins the day; housing prices keep going up, more people drive and our City loses. It all comes down to two words, “average scheduled.”

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