By Josh Feit
Urban Seattle is an offset for the rest of King County.
People who choose suburban lifestyles may frown at Seattle’s density, but their preference for roomy yards, loping streets, and low density creates a disproportionate, negative impact on our region’s infrastructure—utilities, energy grids, roads and highways—that’s only possible thanks to dense neighborhoods like downtown Seattle. And Capitol Hill. And Chinatown. And the Fremont, Ballard, and University District neighborhood cores.
When urban dwellers make transit-oriented, low-impact housing choices, the adjacent suburban areas such as sprawling Bellevue, isolated Bainbridge Island—and yes, Seattle neighborhoods like Laurelhurst—reap the environmental benefits. These suburbs and low-density neighborhoods would be irresponsibly unsustainable without the jumbles of urban Seattle that give our shared ecosystem a slight breather.
Apparently, our lawn-locked neighbors aren’t just passively benefitting from our green choices. They’re also dropping by a lot to take advantage of density’s perks. Judging by Seattle Department of Transportation parking data, the city’s densest neighborhoods are also the region’s most popular. Appropriately, due to this high demand, SDOT charges for parking in these neighborhoods.
Spots like Capitol Hill (where hourly parking costs $4.50 in the evenings) and the University District ($4.50 in the afternoons) are popular destinations because—thanks to the underlying zoning for mixed-use and dense housing—they have a concentration of businesses, services, restaurants, and exciting entertainment options. You can identify the same consistently popular destinations, by the way, from light rail data: Capitol Hill and the U District are among the system’s top four stations.
A better program, call it Sustainability Pricing, would remake congestion pricing by supporting affordable housing.
Paying $4.50 an hour to park in the city hardly covers the full value suburban visitors get from visiting Seattle’s urban landscape. Just as the state puts a price on our beautiful parks with the Discover Pass (“more than just a parking pass, it’s your ticket to unlimited access to millions of state managed lands across Washington state”), Seattle should be compensated for maintaining and managing density.
To do that, Seattle could take inspiration from last month’s exciting news out of New York City, where the feds approved the nation’s first-ever congestion pricing program, allowing the city to charge drivers for entering midtown and lower Manhattan. A similar congestion pricing system has been on the books in London for two decades—fulfilling its goals of decreasing greenhouse gases, increasing transit use, and reducing congestion. The Durkan administration briefly considered congestion pricing in Seattle, but predictably, they ended up doing nothing.
Three cheers to Manhattan for leading the way by bringing a necessary dose of environmental logic to the U.S.
Not only should Seattle follow suit by charging people to drive into our busiest neighborhoods—with exemptions for low-income drivers, including downtown service workers—we should go bolder than the Manhattan model. A better program—let’s call it Sustainability Pricing—would revamp congestion pricing in a few key ways.
First, as I just noted, Sustainability Pricing Zones would apply not just downtown, but in every dense Seattle urban hub.
Second, unlike in London and Manhattan, where the proceeds go to transit, the money would instead fund affordable housing.
And finally: Those housing dollars should flow right back to the communities whose drivers are “bridge and tunneling” in.
Not only should the revenues go predominantly to fund affordable housing, but they should go back to the drivers themselves in the form of subsidies for new, affordable housing in the neighborhoods where they live.
Here’s why: Many people are priced out of urban hubs. It’s the result of an intransigent resistance to zoning changes (more density) from both the suburbs and from single-family homeowners in cities themselves. Perversely, this anti-density pathology turns dense, transit-friendly zones into exclusive, expensive real estate. Sharing the density region-wide (and citywide) is a smart way to address a lot of problems caused by cordoning density into a tiny slice of Seattle, including sky-high city rents and suburban car dependency.
So, let’s send the Sustainability Pricing dollars back to the drivers themselves. Or more precisely, let’s channel the money back in the form of subsidies for new, affordable apartment buildings in their neighborhoods. In the long term, this would help create region-wide density, easing the environmental burden on today’s disproportionately dense urban hubs. If certain communities don’t want to upzone to allow multifamily housing—hello, Upper Queen Anne—the dollars could revert back to Seattle transit funding.
I realize downtown Seattle is struggling right now, and it seems counterintuitive to charge people to visit (at least by car). But an urban version of the Discover Pass isn’t only about downtown. As I’ve pointed out many times: The pandemic changed Seattle by igniting urban hubs throughout the city. The now-popular, citywide outdoor seating program is one example of how our city is sharing urbanism. By making all our dense neighborhoods a source for supporting even more density, we will be both acknowledging that the old downtown model has changed, and that Seattle can help its neighbors do the right thing by embracing that change.