Seattle has much to celebrate from the 2009 elections. Few large U.S. cities have been blessed with anything like the progressive political lineup the City of Seattle now boasts. In a time of enormous change and many conflicting goals it is not always clear what it means to be progressive. Following are seven principles that move Seattle toward more progressive trajectories by changing the way we do business:
1. Convert the Deep-Bore Tunnel to Transit Use (in 30 or 40 years)
If we are committed to reducing the number of cars on the road, the city and state should commit to changing the deep-bore tunnel to transit use after car tolls have paid for it in thirty to forty years. This is a win-win. We know that we want fewer cars on the road and we know that we will need tunnels for subways and high-speed rail in the future. Since tunnels last 150 years or more the deep-bore tunnel has the life to satisfy near-term and long-term needs in very different ways. The principle: capital projects that support single-occupancy travel short-term should support transit long-term.
2. One Hundred Year Plans
Think long term. Twenty and thirty year plans don’t make sense in an era where we are looking to create long-term sustainability. Rebuilding most of our infrastructure and buildings every generation is not going to save energy. Let’s decide what we want our cities to look like and build to last. Long-term planning will help us avoid whipsaw policies and the backlashes wrenching change often creates. One hundred year plans make it easier to set seemingly impossible goals the vast majority of citizens will view as reasonable, such as reclaiming shore lands and wet lands.
3. Inventory and Prioritize Assets
Every asset we enjoy – environmental, cultural, and human – can be measured and prioritized. Unfortunately, we neither account for or care for most of our assets. Trees and historic properties are two examples of assets that are frequently subjects of dispute. Other examples abound. The first step to preserving assets is to inventory and prioritize their importance. Prioritizing all assets will help us decide how to utilize funds and prevent last-minute asset-protection processes from being utilized to stall change. The second step is to set up a long-term process for updating our inventories and priorities every five years or so. The internet is a perfect vehicle for finding out what citizens and subject-matter experts think is important – but inventories place the responsibility of prioritizing and preserving our most important assets where responsibility belongs – on our political leaders.
4. Limit Words in the Law
Seattle should limit the number of words in sections of law such as the zoning code. There is no end to word inflation and confusion among contradictory provisions. Today, exposing contradictions only creates more confusing clarifications. Make no mistake – every additional word costs the city and citizens money. If politicians and bureaucrats are forced to take one word out for every word they put in they will choose their words more carefully and look for simpler ways of achieving objectives. The resulting simplicity will save everyone time and trouble. Ultimately, we need a complete rewrite of many sections of city code.
5. Base Building Permit Energy Review on Passive Use
How do we define the city’s interest in energy conservation? The current codes examine the theoretical performance of a building and its mechanical systems as a unit. Our current approach creates many buildings that are relatively useless or even unsuitable for occupancy without very substantial energy inputs. The resulting buildings are often complex in ways that shorten their useful life. For economic and security reasons the city should support the construction of buildings with useful lives of hundreds of years and that are habitable with no energy inputs – very possible in temperate Seattle. By reviewing buildings primarily on their passive performance we ensure that buildings we erect today will be useful in fifty or one hundred years. Taxing energy or carbon is a better way of influencing the efficiency of climate-control systems. Many energy-consuming systems are unnecessary and will not be installed if owners are required to invest first in operable windows and floor plans that allow for cross ventilation and natural illumination.
6. Require Density to Match Infrastructure Investment
The City of Seattle failed to up-zone land around our new light rail stations proportionate to our investment. This profound failure of Seattle leadership threatens our future ability to fund transit and create dense neighborhoods. Cheap, throw-away spec single-family housing was and is being built in the shadow of light rail staions. This error is not something that can be fixed retroactively – our investment is already depreciating. Ridership is like compound interest – if the density isn’t in the bank it can not compound. Looking forward, we should not invest in infrastructure without enabling density first. New infrastructure investment should lead to new areas of density, not just reinforce existing land use patterns.
7. Pedestrian Primacy (see previous post)
In the current election, all Seattle City Council candidates elected pledged to “support war on cars”. (The Bus has you on tape.) We don’t need a war, we need Pedestrian Primacy. Pedestrian Primacy means putting the interests of pedestrians ahead of automobile drivers – converting streets to exclusive pedestrian & bicycle use (not just adding sidewalks), expanding auto-free zones, measuring pedestrian & bicycle commute times and improving the quality of pedestrian & bicycle paths (and ten other ideas explored in the previous post).