It’s Time for an Urban “Discover Pass”

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 decadesfulfilling 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.

15 thoughts on “It’s Time for an Urban “Discover Pass””

  1. Citywide outdoor seating is fine on private property. The moment it is on public property, it has no business getting in the way of the orderly flow of pedestrian traffic. Businesses can build their own seating on their own property, plain and simple. Same with taco trucks. If they aren’t paying a by the hour parking fee in addition to all the others they currently pay they shouldn’t be blocking the spot. A parking spot is a better use for it at that point.

  2. As a Belltown resident, I often find myself nostalgic for quarantine. Our neighborhood was far more pleasant, peaceful, and safe before the cruise ships and suburbanites came back. I like your proposal, Josh. And never let anyone get away with saying our urban neighborhoods somehow depend on these outsiders. Is extra business good? Sometimes. Does it make up for the noise, pollution, litter, and aggressive policing? No. We don’t even need to speculate because we lived through it.

  3. Oh Josh, you still don’t get it! Capital Hill has historically been the “Gay Capital” of Washington State. That’s been a draw for outsiders to come in and spend money by the bucketfuls. Outsiders, people coming to the neighborhood, are what make a City work. Without suburban cash flowing in…. City businesses would simply die off. Don’t believe me? Head on down to any gay bar on Capital Hill and tell them you’re going to try to jack cash outta suburb folks for visiting the neighborhood and spending money. You’ll get laughed at.

    Listen, without those big cruise ships docking, without tourists, without people spending money in Seattle who don’t live there, Seattle would turn into a big dump.

    1. It all sounds like the musings of an urban hipster after an unsuccessful stage dive off the bar at the Comet. Ouch.

      1. Tacoma. But what does that matter? I’m inviting you to T-Town. Please come see our city! Have fun and spend money. We love visitors. Everybody is welcome in Tacoma.

        One more time. If Seattle didn’t have outside money rolling in, it would be a different, much sadder City. I don’t need Josh telling me I need pay extra to visit his f****** precious Seattle. It’s a free country buddy!

      2. I lived on First Hill for about a year, Capital Hill for 12 years. I did short home sharing stints in Wallingford & Queen Anne. I am now in Ballard, Home of the Blues (Not!).

        I also lived in Queens (Saint Albans) NY & Manhattan (Washington Heights).

    2. @Tacomee, people ALREADY pay extra to visit Seattle, whether it’s higher food prices (higher min wage), more for parking, or the inconvenience of traffic/trash encampments…I doubt a few more dollars will move the needle much (I also doubt it will ever happen given the logistics required and the optics of taxing folks to drive through a neighborhood). What puzzles me is why outsiders hang around these forums and weigh in on Seattle policy. Tacoma is its own beautiful and underrated city, why do you care what Seattle does? You are living the urban dream of vibrancy and natural beauty at much more affordable prices. Enjoy your city!

      1. For the record, I love Seattle. I visit there often. The difference between Josh and I is I don’t judge people and I have no intention of restricting people’s movement or freedom in any way. Josh thinks “suburban outsiders” are getting a free ride in “his” City and they need to pay extra. How about we charge “Black outsiders” more? How about those pesky out-of-Staters? Foreign born? Josh opens a door to all kinds of bad ideas here. He needs to say he’s sorry and close that door. Freedom of movement is the law in America. Period.

      2. @Tacomee, ahhh Gotcha.

        Congestion pricing won’t happen in Seattle, but it does make higher parking rates look comparatively more reasonable, perhaps that’s what Josh is going for.

  4. Or, you could collect the budget to buy out land instead at market prices. Hate those bastards in North Seattle and their damn houses? Suck it up, stop trying to do an economic taking to screw them and just buy their land, block by block at market. The benefit of that is you can plan the where and how, thus allowing for transit planning to coincide with the redevelopment. You can actually get the $ back for the fund by auctioning off the cohesive land blocks once you have applied the needed affordable and density requirements. Picture the neighborhoods just outside of Roosevelt, and it’s transit station bought out by block with a midrise and affordable requirement. By buying at market you skip the pushback that an up zone economic taking inspires.

  5. I think Josh needs to get his cloistered New Urbanist ass off of Capitol Hill and head on out to Bellevue Square (or Downtown Bellevue, for that matter), Downtown Kirkland, and Totem Lake Mall to see just how vibrant and successful the Eastside actually is – because it is. For that matter, you might even consider checking out University Village – which also has ample free parking and lots of folks actually spending money.

    I suspect Downtown merchants who rely on customers who occasionally drive to visit their stores would have a very different take on this fantasy land/punish drivers crapola.

  6. Just charge market rates for car storage and publish (via the web/some app) where parking is already constrained. Congestion pricing could be done but limiting parking might solve the problem of too many people driving in and the colossal waste of land taken up by asphalt car storage lots that could house hundreds of families. People will drive or not, based on if they can pay to store their vehicle. I never drive between the U and the stadiums unless I know I can park (like at REI, ironically). It’s Metro all the way.

    And not everyone lives in the ‘burbs for the big houses and looping streets…we live where we can afford. If I move closer to the city (between the U and stadiums is the city, the rest is suburbs: fight me) I have to either drive or take Metro to get to my job. So more expensive housing costs *and* a $5/gallon or $5/day transit cost?

    On congestion pricing: I noted that UK people driving to Europe have to display placard on their vehicles denoting their emissions class, for pricing and access to low emissions areas. No reason why we couldn’t do that here, just like have the good to go pass. The DMV can handle that, bringing us pretty close to the Urban Discover pass. At the state level, classing vehicles by weight and assessing a fuel tax based on class would have people rethinking their choice of vehicle. We don’t do emissions inspections anymore but we could be taxing vehicles at the other end, with a tax based on weight (like OTR trucks pay) and fuel consumption.

    1. “People will drive or not, based on if they can pay to store their vehicle.”

      While I appreciate the sentiment, this is actually not at all true. People will drive or not based on whether alternatives make sense for where they have to go. The problem is buses are mostly still reliant on the same roads which are clogged with more and more cars each year, and will simply never be an adequate replacement. And with even the mayor getting into the light rail delay and downsize game (“too disruptive/more last minutes studies needed/because my rich donors say so”), combined with Sound Transit’s inability to use the word “no” to the mayor’s largely unreasonable demands (the time for new alternatives past years ago), there is simply no other option on the horizon on any time frame.

      Forcing people to look harder at the alternatives doesn’t seem to be working. I don’t see Metro ridership rising after years of making getting around the city by car harder; people are just acquiescing to higher prices and lesser convenience. The alternatives are simply nowhere near adequate enough, and making everyone angrier about that (“the beatings will continue until morale improves”) isn’t changing the situation.

  7. This is a lot of spin to say that government would start charging you to drive around. I get the need to raise revenue in the form of public transit ridership and affordable housing, but this is going to hit people with inability to pay. Higher wages draws in folks from more affordable neighborhoods to work in more expensive denser ones, and people have complicated lives with daycare schedules, multiple jobs and other personal obligations. Higher income folks are more likely to be working from home or already living in the dense areas. Just feels like more squeeze. If this really happens, I’m pushing hard for exemptions to lower income folks, mobility impaired. Also why only apply to cars if the true reason is use of a neighborhood?

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