Our region is losing the race against sprawl

New figures show that people are not moving to the regional growth centers anywhere near the rate that our 40-year growth plan predicts. It's time to craft some new approaches.
Crosscut archive image.

Metronatural Seattle. (Chuck Taylor)

New figures show that people are not moving to the regional growth centers anywhere near the rate that our 40-year growth plan predicts. It's time to craft some new approaches.

Because Crosscut carries such lively debate on issues of growth and the likely future of our communities, it'ꀙs time here for another look at the estimates on population change for counties and cities prepared each year by the state Office of Financial Management. The 2009 version is now available, and the news isn't good.

The numbers speak and they must be listened to. Once again they raise big doubts about whether Puget Sound Regional Council'ꀙs Vision 2040 strategic plan for plotting regional growth in King, Snohomish, Pierce, and Kitsap counties is uncoupled from what'ꀙs actually happening in the real world.

The new numbers do, however, contain some interesting surprises, one of which might counter Kent Kammerer'ꀙs recent and widely noted piece questioning the scale of Seattle'ꀙs prospects for adding new population. However, that article and the buckshot comments it drew suffered on all sides from seeing the fray as about Seattle, rather than about the Puget Sound region as a whole.

Also, while the easiest dismissal of the new numbers is that they are only a snapshot of an instant in a long-running game with plenty of time left on the clock, they cry out for more focus on two immediate issues of enormous importance to the long run.

One of these issues concerns the decisions being made by November as PSRC lays the keel, following Vision 2040'ꀙs lines, for her soon-to-be-launched sister ship, Transportation 2040. PSRC is now making the preliminary cut of projects for that big plan, which intends to guide transportation investments across the region for the next three decades. Is the right data about the region providing the backdrop for the discussion?

The second issue is the current crisis in funding for the bus transit agencies — King County Metro, Community Transit in Snohomish County, Pierce Transit, and Kitsap Transit. Cutbacks will be forced on bus service, much the largest share of future transit under any scenario. Decisions made now about how service must be reshaped will affect transportation in the region for years and decades to come. Population data of the kind contained in the OFM reports will be essential to good decision-making.

These issues will be presented in the midst of some intense election battles. In Seattle, two new and deeply unalike political faces will square off to talk about Seattle'ꀙs future. The Mayor's race should heighten the interest, not just in Seattle but also everywhere in the region. The stakes on these questions over the long term may be as high or higher than in the viaduct discussion.

After all, Seattle is just part of a regional economy, a regional geography, and a regional demography. Seattle'ꀙs downtown, its neighborhoods and its qualities of prosperity and styles of life are inextricably tied to the larger region. Across the entirety of Snohomish, King, Pierce, and Kitsap counties — central Puget Sound — only 16 percent of the population lives in Seattle, although about a quarter of the jobs are in the region's biggest city. That'ꀙs why there are many commuters, including lots of people living in Seattle who work at jobs outside the city.

If success for Seattle depends on success for the region, the reverse is equally true. Accordingly, the scale and pattern of regional growth matter profoundly. Our collective, regional future depends on whether all the region'ꀙs communities can achieve an enduringly prosperous economy while striking long-term balance with the natural landscapes and ecosystems that richly endow the Puget Sound region.

So what do we find as we look at the planner's regional blueprint? PSRC'ꀙs Vision 2040 for the region rests heavily on the prevailing orthodoxy of the planning profession: Density is good and sprawl is bad. The heretical blowback: Density maybe is not so good and sprawl maybe is not so bad. The back and forth of such simplified positions deprives us of deeper insights spawned by respect for real world complexity.

Digging into these issues, let's start with some observations about which there is little to argue: The more compactly we shape our human communities at the regional scale, the more efficiently will existing and new infrastructure connect our citizens. That applies to water and sewer systems and to expensive and energy-devouring transportation systems. Also beyond debate: The more compact the regional population, the less pressure will be placed by people on natural places that support the region'ꀙs basic hydrology and water quality and its plant and animal communities, and on the human-altered places that sustain gentler human uses like agriculture and forestry.

And that is why there is so much value in the new OFM estimates, which pinpoint where growth is actually occurring. They serve as a mid-course audit of progress on Vision 2040'ꀙs strategic blueprint for how the region should direct the distribution of its expected new population across King, Snohomish, Pierce, and Kitsap counties for the first four decades of the 21st century.

The new results from OFM are pretty disappointing, but not surprising. As in past years, they raise serious questions about whether the unfolding reality of where people are choosing to live and work offers much hope for the aspirations of Vision 2040's planners.

The numbers in the 2009 update that best underscore the problem bear on a central component of Vision 2040: Its emphasis on 27 designated Regional Growth Centers where it says development should be concentrated in the 2000-2040 period. These 27 growth centers are distributed across all four counties. Places like Bothell/Canyon Park, for example; Lynnwood; Downtown Bellevue; Overlake; Totem Lake; Redmond; Uptown/Queen Anne, First Hill/Capitol Hill, Downtown, and Northgate in Seattle; Federal Way; Overlake; Burien; Downtown Puyallup; Tukwila; Renton, Tacoma Mall, and Downtown Bremerton.

This plan predicts that growth should happen in key heart-of-the-suburbs locations as well as in core areas of the larger cities — with the promise that all will be well if that vision is achieved. It'ꀙs an approach closely tied to the density-is-good, sprawl-is-bad mantra. More specifically, the Regional Growth Center approach is aligned with many planners'ꀙ affection for the doctrines of New Urbanism. In PSRC'ꀙs words, 'ꀜCenters provide easy access to jobs, services, shopping, and entertainment. With their mix of uses and pedestrian-friendly design, they can rely less on forms of transportation that contribute to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Centers also provide community and economic benefits such as gathering places and robust locations of commerce and business.'ꀝ

One thing would quickly take the bloom of this rosy picture: What if the people were going somewhere else? Successful Regional Growth Centers can'ꀙt be empty stage sets!

Yet underpopulated stage sets are what we are getting. According to Vision 2040'ꀙs plan for the region'ꀙs future, it is important that the 18 cities in which they are located should together garner 53 percent of the region'ꀙs 40-year population growth from 2000 to 2040. But the estimates from OFM offer a bleak picture, at least for the years since 2000 as updated to 2009. In that nine-year span, the region as a whole has grown by 13 percent, adding almost 400,000 people. Yet, of the 18 cities housing the envisioned Regional Growth Centers, only two, Renton and Redmond, have managed even to keep pace with the average growth of the region as a whole when growth by annexation is netted out of the performance.

Over the past nine years, taking out gains from annexations, not one of the rest (Everett, Lynnwood, Bothell, Kirkland, Bellevue, Seattle, Tukwila, Kent, SeaTac, Burien, Federal Way, Auburn, Puyallup, Lakewood, Tacoma, and Bremerton) has managed a percentage rate of growth as high as the region overall.

It has not been a near miss. It'ꀙs a dramatic shortfall. As an entire group, including Redmond and Renton, these 18 cities together should be on track to gain 53 percent of new population in the region, according to Vision 2040. Instead, to date since 2000, they together have absorbed just 40 percent of the new regional population. And in Redmond, for example, one of two that has met the target so far, much of the new population isn'ꀙt in vibrant, pedestrian-friendly center Redmond, but up on Redmond Ridge. That's an area separated from the center — to say nothing of the bad access to freeways, caused by traffic backups that strangle every daily commute on narrow Novelty Hill Road, a New Urbanism nightmare.

The most interesting and perhaps positive news in the 2009 numbers is the year'ꀙs strong population growth in Seattle, of all places. Seattle appears to have added 9,200 new people from 2008 to 2009, actually matching (for this year) the share of new growth that Vision 2040 presumes over time for Seattle.

Right off, more detailed questions emerge. Where was this Seattle growth in last year? Did it include a mix of family and income types? Was it limited just to new high rises in Belltown and the Cascade neighborhood and otherwise to a dispersed monoculture in neighborhoods of in-filled townhouses, each crimped and cantilevered in precarious balance atop its tiny personal garage?

How does this surge of population square with the widespread reports of unsold condos and empty rentals? Does the 2008-2009 growth in Seattle show progress toward the larger goal of a more compact regional demography? Or is it simply an accretion of pre-nest young and post-nest elders masking a stagnant appeal of Seattle to families hoping to head to the out-burbs?

Seattle and its big-city counterparts (Everett, Bellevue, Tacoma and Bremerton) hold a special prominence in Vision 2040'ꀙs expectation. Just these five together, accounting for 30 percent of the region'ꀙs population in 2000, should take up a third of regional population growth out to 2040, according to Vision 2040. For 2009 Bellevue and Everett apparently managed only to keep pace with the overall percentage of regional population growth. Bremerton lost population. Tacoma grew only by 700 people, far below the rate that would match overall regional growth. Even with Seattle in the mix, for 2008-2009, these five metropolitan cities undershot the target. And a single year of good results in Seattle still leaves it far below the necessary trend line for the hoped-for long-term outcome.

And what about growth in the rest of the region? The region as a whole has continued to grow at a vigorous rate, even in the period of economic downturn. So low growth results for specific locations cannot be explained away simply as a corollary of the recession.

For the region, OFM'ꀙs estimates for 2009 showed a gain over 2008 of 41,800 people, an overall annual growth of about 1.15 percent. This was slightly less than the nine-year average since 2000, which has been about 43,400 people a year, and it was appreciably less than 2008 over 2007, which was about 51,000. Still, taking all the years together, the 2009 numbers leave the region dead on track to meet Vision 2040'ꀙs predicted overall gain of 1.7 million people between 2000 and 2040. That is the projection that foresees almost 5 million people altogether living in the four counties by 2040. In the most recent one-year snapshot of recession-period data, there is no suggestion that the challenges of growth are a bogeyman that simply will go away.

Alarmingly, in general a large share of the growth — much larger than Vision 2040 foresees — continues to be happening at the periphery of the region'ꀙs main population centers. Seattle'ꀙs performance to the contrary in 2009 was very much an exception. Among the 17 other cities, for example, only Renton, Kent, and Kirkland showed a one-year performance beating the regional average growth. Bellevue and Everett essentially just matched it. This is the best that can be said, over one year, in the direction of remedying the group'ꀙs failure generally to do so over the longer term of almost a decade.

Meanwhile, where in the regional picture did higher than average rates of population growth turn up for 2009? The winners, if that'ꀙs the right term, in the 2008-2009 population derby were cities generally at the periphery where high growth rates tend to correlate with development (sometimes in the worst manifestations of sprawl) that lengthens commuting distances and makes the region ever more dependent on its time- and energy-wasting long-distance highway corridors. Some of the cities with big growth rates were Gig Harbor, Bonney Lake and DuPont in Pierce County; Stanwood, Lake Stevens, Snohomish, and tiny Granite Falls in Snohomish County; Issaquah, Snoqualmie, and Maple Valley in King County; and Poulsbo in Kitsap County.

Even worse news comes from outside all the cities: For 2009 in Pierce County, well over half of the new growth that did occur was in unincorporated areas of the county. In Snohomish County, just over half of the new growth that did occur was in unincorporated areas. Not in the cities at all!

Another way to illustrate how growth is mounting fast at the periphery of the main concentrations of regional population is to look at Thurston and Skagit counties, from which commuters pour into the central Puget Sound region from north and south on I-5 and other choked commuting corridors. Each grew at a percentage rate higher than the average of the four central Puget Sound counties. Skagit and Thurston counties together added almost 6,000 new people in the 2008 to 2009 estimates, as compared to 8,200 in Pierce County and 7,700 in Snohomish County. We really live in a region were at least six counties are the basis of our future regional economy, demography, transportation, and land use patterns.

What should we take from all this? We should not scrap Vision 2040, much less adventure on a chart-less voyage to the future. We can'ꀙt just hold in blind faith to the courses Vision 2040 tried to lay down. We need to adapt, smartly.

One way to adapt is to think of the problem of growth less with the image of ripples widening out from dense cities and more in terms of corridors. Corridors in today'ꀙs planning-speak usually refer to where transportation is supposed to move between centers. But what if we thought of corridors, like Aurora North or Lake City Way or, in Pierce County, Pacific Avenue South, as boulevards where populations could grow by redeveloping strip malls and parking lots into more intensive and compact ribbons of retail and residential co-existence? Corridors of development could reinforce and enhance, not threaten, the values of surrounding neighborhoods, especially if these neighborhoods also have good schools and a good bus transportation network.

Next in this regimen of adaptive thinking, we need to be smart about the components of the Transportation 2040 plan. Disciplined short-term thinking is essential as PSRC attempts to identify by November the best-suited candidates for regional transportation investments — highways, transit systems, ferry service and bicycle paths. On top of the meager list of projects already committed to, what more should be added to make up the proposal around which to structure the final assembly of the Transportation 2040 plan?

One huge candidate is Sound Transit's mega-plan to carry on with connecting up more regional centers to rail lines, light or otherwise. Some of us were skeptical about the benefits of Sound Transit 2 in relation to its huge costs, at least in some parts of the region. We thought there were more cost-effective ways the money might have been spent for transit as measured by benefits to riders. Voters last November judged otherwise. It is, however, still foolishly premature to paint the most grandiose of Sound Transit'ꀙs ambitions into Transportation 2040.

So far all we know about the full expanse of the Sound Transit plans is that their (unfunded) cost would be on the order of $25 billion, before taking account of cost growth from inflation. If they were all carried out, their contribution to benefit by 2040 would be about 60,000 new boardings a day on rail transit systems on top of the 150,000 the rail systems would then carry in any case. In the picture of all transit that'ꀙs rail carrying about 20 percent out of almost 1 million daily transit boardings predicted for 2040 — including riders on new buses that we also don'ꀙt know how to pay for. That 1 million on transit compares to an expected total of about 19 million trips people would take every day on transportation facilities of all kinds, including streets and highways, that we also don'ꀙt have many good, or at least popular, ideas about how to pay for. That will be up from about 14 million daily trips now, according to PSRC.

This Sound Transit expansion now being pushed at PSRC makes, at least at first glance, a distinctly underwhelming demonstration of positive benefit in relation to cost. At least we should have more information on whether people will actually be served at the connected centers. And it would be a good idea to have to actual performance information on how Sound Transit'ꀙs newly opened light rail line starts to pan out. In fairness, Sound Transit is just one of the proposed transportation investments for inclusion in Transportation 2040 for which any decision should require better measures, that can be compared to each other, of expected benefit and performance.

Finally, the question needs to be faced of how to manage the current fiscal free fall of the bus transit system. King County Metro, Community Transit serving Snohomish County, Pierce Transit and Kitsap Transit are all in financial crisis due to their dependence on recession-depleted sales tax revenues. Yet, even without the benefit of all the coordination they probably should achieve, these systems together provide the region with what is arguably the best public transit service among all comparable regions of the country. Bus transit ridership today is at unprecedented levels.

With transit systems now facing critical service surgeries, there is no room for blunt remedies like the recent recommendation by the County Executive for 9 percent cuts for all Metro routes in King County. Where people actually live and most efficiently use transit has to be taken into account. This also best helps auto drivers who also pay sales taxes to support transit: filled buses conserve precious space on the roads for the rest of traffic.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Doug MacDonald

Douglas MacDonald

Doug MacDonald is a pedestrian activist who once served as the Secretary of Transportation for Washington state.