Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Streetless in Seattle

From the excellent City Journal:
The mayor of Seattle imposes a diet on cars
Ethan Epstein
Autumn 2011
Mike McGinn, the mayor of Seattle, won office in 2009 after making transportation policy a centerpiece of his campaign. He catapulted himself over his establishment-friendly opponents, including the incumbent, by vigorously opposing the construction of a multibillion-dollar highway tunnel beneath the city’s waterfront. McGinn also gained fame for bicycling to and from campaign events. And he promised to put Seattle on a “road diet” in which car lanes on many busy multilane roads would be converted into bike lanes. The city’s paper of record, the Seattle Times, has called McGinn “philosophically anti-car.” A former Washington State Sierra Club chairman, McGinn likens autos to in-laws: “You want to have good relations with them, but you don’t want them to run your lives.”

Sure enough, when McGinn became mayor, he began pursuing anti-car policies. He’d like to levy an $80 fee for registering a car in Seattle, and he has raised taxes on parking in privately owned garages. He now plans to raise parking-meter rates downtown to $4 an hour from $2.50, which would make it costlier to park in Seattle than in any other American city except Chicago. He also supports maintaining the so-called head tax, which docks businesses $25 annually for every employee who drives alone to work.

But McGinn’s road diet, which went into effect in July, is probably his most audacious idea. As the centerpiece of the city’s $240 million “Bicycle Master Plan,” which mandates the construction of 118 miles of bike lanes and 19 miles of trails by 2017, the diet will convert 3 percent of Seattle’s car lanes into bike lanes. Even major freight routes, including one that leads to Boeing Field, will see car and truck lanes converted to bike-only use.

The plan has generated fierce resistance, with civic organizations springing up in opposition, posting signs and circulating petitions. McGinn, meanwhile, has courted controversy for his cozy relationship with local cycling groups. In May, he bestowed a $95,000-a-year city hall job on his friend David Hiller, who heads the Cascade Bicycle Club, an advocacy group. The perceived cronyism has spurred a campaign, led by Seattle activist and businessman Michael Cornell, to recall the mayor. It’s clear, however, that the recall campaign is about more than McGinn’s relationship with Hiller. McGinn’s policy, Cornell says, “is a war waged on people who drive cars.”

Factors both meteorological and topographical make Seattleites unlikely to forgo cars as their primary means of transportation. Rain falls more than 150 days a year in this famously gloomy city, rendering cycling both unpleasant and unsafe. And Seattle’s ubiquitous steep hills make San Francisco look like Des Moines. It’s hardly surprising that, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation, a mere 2,600 people—out of a total downtown workforce of 230,000—commuted downtown by bicycle in 2009...

McGinn hopes that his reforms will lead to fewer cars on the streets. But a devastating 2004 report from the Federal Highway Administration found that road diets did nothing to alleviate congestion; indeed, they made matters worse. “For road diets with ADTs [average daily traffic] above approximately 20,000 vehicles,” said the report, “there is a greater likelihood that traffic congestion will increase to the point of diverting traffic to alternate routes.” Then again, that may be the point. Road-diet advocates freely admit that one of their goals is to “slow traffic,” and congestion is certainly one way of doing that...

Ethan Epstein is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.

And City Journal on San Francisco's Pension Crisis