The Puget Sound's transportation problems abound, but possible fixes remain unresolved. As planners and civic leaders sit down to develop long-term plans, the question of the hour: what will the region look like 10 or even 50 years down the road?
In March, Hallenbeck presented his top forward-looking considerations to the Transportation Futures Task Force. His presentation – incorporating data from an in-depth paper prepared by research firm Community Attributes – identified the biggest factors that will influence transportation demand for the next 25 years. True transportation wonks can watch a video of the presentation here.
On the eve of Crosscut’s transportation-related Community Idea Lab, we sat down with Hallenbeck to flesh out some leading factors he believes will shape the region's transit future.
1) Growth will be inward, not outward
In the next 25 years, the expectation is 1.2 million more people in the Puget Sound region, Hallenbeck said, but "the growth that we’re expecting will show up in different ways than the growth we’ve seen for the last 60 years.”
The trend for the past six decades has been to grow outward, or “sprawl.” Building houses further from urban centers has created longer commutes, and often encroached on nature and open space. For better or worse, this trend is slowing down.
In 1985, King County adopted an “urban growth boundary line,” intended to limit growth to areas with existing infrastructure and capacity for services (more details can be found here). At the same time, people are becoming less enamored with the suburbs, often due to the sorts of commutes that come with living there.
“Growth,” he explained, “will have to be accepted in areas where growth already exists.”
2) We have no option but to encourage public transit
As more cars are added to the area, roads are running out of room, and commuters are hunting for alternatives to lengthy commutes. In some cases, this leads people to re-think their housing priorities: “How badly do I want that lawn?” Hallenbeck asked hypothetically. Further, it is driving increased use of public transit.
Building a transportation system that fits both grid types – suburban and urban – is no easy task. Suburbs are disconnected from job centers and encourage car use, while urban areas are conducive to alternatives like walking, biking or mass transit. That use of alternatives needs to increase elsewhere. Data shows the trends are heading in the right direction, a trend that Seattle's massive Move Seattle levy proposed by the mayor hopes to encourage.
3) Demographic changes present a challenge and opportunity
Younger people are changing overall trends in travel behavior. In a 2015 study by the American Community Survey, participants were asked what piece of technology is most important to their lives. The younger working population (ages 18-35) answered they would prefer to lose access to cars over their phones.
“Don’t take the phone! It’s what I live by!” joked Hallenbeck.
Phones aside, data shows that it's the older population who value their cars the most, preferring them over buses. Though Seattle is considered a youthful city, its population is nonetheless aging. In 2010, the 65+ demographic made up 12 percent of the region. By 2040, they'll occupy 21 percent of the region’s population, according to projections. Getting the middle-aged and above to use transit at the same rates as the young is crucial. Furthermore, the degree to which young people alter their transit preferences as they age – whether they begin to prefer cars over mass transit – remains an unanswered question.