Congestive Failure

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s announcement that she wants the city to come up with a plan for “congestion pricing,” to toll surface streets in downtown and South Lake Union, is only the latest in a growing tradition of city policies that are meant to sound and feel good, but that are deeply delusional and throw Seattle’s working poor under the bus – in this case, literally.

As with many of these policies, the general goal of Durkan’s edict sounds laudable – to get more people out of their cars and using public transit, thereby reducing the carbon emissions that contribute to climate change. As Durkan notes, the last four mayors have been trying to reduce Seattle’s carbon output, but it has remained basically stable over that time. That doesn’t mean past efforts have failed – on a per capita basis, they’ve had impressive success. But explosive population growth, both in the city and in our region, has offset the per capita reductions. Durkan wants more.

Okay – but at what cost, and to what benefit? Seattle’s contribution to national carbon emissions, let alone global ones, is miniscule. In absolute terms, reducing it by ten percent – which would be a lot, given that Seattle’s population growth isn’t expected to slow any time soon – just doesn’t matter much. It does allow Seattleites to feel smug about ourselves, and it would help to shame a somnambulant federal government, if Republicans were capable of shame. But by itself, it won’t do much to actually slow down climate change.

Seattle is even unlikely to influence other American cities, several of whom have already considered and rejected congestion pricing. Most famously, New York City has had several such proposals to toll access to Manhattan in the last decade. No US city has actually enacted such a plan. The best-known examples of congestion pricing are European: Stockholm, Milan, and especially London, the first major city to implement it.

But as we should have learned with bicycles, homelessness, and any number of other issues, Seattle is not Europe. Our geography (especially the sprawl) is different. Our levels of poverty and our social safety net programs (such as they are) are different. Even our hills are something that regularly cited bike-friendly models like Copenhagen and Amsterdam don’t have.

In this case, cities like London can use congestion pricing to reduce car usage because they have a well-established public transportation system that people can and do use instead – especially rail, which takes people off the streets entirely and is more carbon-friendly than buses.

For example, Greater London, with 14 million people, has not only a robust passenger rail network, but its subway system – The London Underground, or The Tube – has 11 lines, 270 stations, 250 miles of track, and 1.3 billion passengers annually. Metropolitan Seattle, including Pierce and Snohomish Counties, has a quarter of London’s population – but Link Light Rail has only one Seattle line, with 16 stations, 20 miles of track, and 23 million passengers annually. That’s less than two percent of London’s ridership, or eight percent of its per capita ridership. And, of course, Link light rail’s one line doesn’t even serve most King County neighborhoods, with the next expansion – the relatively modest four mile extension from UW to Northgate – not due to open until 2021, the same year Durkan wants congestion pricing to start. Assuming no delays, the first stations on a second, Eastside line will open in 2023.

Metro buses are also a problematic option to replace car usage. Every year recently has seen record ridership, but for years Metro funding hasn’t kept up with demand. Voters approved a record $930 million transportation levy in 2015, but the city is quietly getting ready to announce reductions in the projects that levy was meant to fund, due both to escalating costs and the predictable loss of federal funding under the Trump Administration. Some projects will be hit harder than others – particularly the projects, like the proposed seven new Rapid Ride lines, that were expecting to rely heavily on federal funding. Without those new lines, bus options won’t be much better in 2021 than they are now, with central city routes already frequently at capacity during precisely the same hours as the vehicle gridlock that congestion pricing will supposedly address.

At this point, congestion pricing resembles nothing so much as Seattle’s current approach to homelessness, which is to dismantle most emergency shelters and social support services in favor of funneling the homeless into permanent affordable housing that does not exist, at least not in anywhere near the amount needed to meet the demand. A similar dynamic awaits those who decide to turn to public transportation rather than paying to drive downtown. After decades of political leaders using transportation money to fund vanity projects and real estate development schemes, Seattle doesn’t have the public transit infrastructure a city our size should have – let alone one that can accommodate our projected future growth, let alone our ambition to, uniquely among US cities, get people out of their cars.

And beyond all of that, congestion pricing, like so many of Seattle’s other revenue sources, is extremely regressive. Someone who can afford a downtown condo or rental won’t even notice downtown tolling – but someone who works downtown but has been forced out to Kent, Lake City, or some other outpost in search of slightly less outrageous housing costs faces a light rail system that’s irrelevant and a bus system that’s frequently packed in rush hours but doesn’t even serve many areas well on nights or weekends. What are they supposed to do? If they’re driving because, like in most American cities but unlike the rest of the world, there are no practical alternatives, it doesn’t make sense to force them out of their cars until those alternatives are in place. Having to choose between increased driving costs and, say, rent or food seems pointlessly cruel – but people in that situation are precisely the ones who will be impacted by most variations on the type of plan Durkan wants.

But, as with the homeless waiting in vain for alternatives, the city’s policies doesn’t really much care about the working poor. Instead, Seattle simply hopes they’ll go away, in this case in service of a largely symbolic goal. It hasn’t worked with the homeless, and it won’t with this, either. It will simply place more burdens and misery on the lives of people far removed from the eco-friendly confines of City Hall. Most good Seattle liberals would be mortified by the comparison, but there’s something positively Trumpian about city leaders that make policy decisions based on the city they imagine, rather than the one that actually exists.

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