Puget Sound's transportation future: Some key considerations

By Cody Olsen
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Commuters travel by bus in Seattle, WA.

By Cody Olsen

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?

Crosscut archive image.Mark Hallenbeck has a few ideas. As Director of the University of Washington’s Washington State Transportation Center and a Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and the College of Engineering at the UW, Hallenbeck has had an eye on Northwest transit for two decades.

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.

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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.

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A breakdown of the state population. Source: Washington State OFM, 2010-2030 Census Data, 2014

4) Economic growth is both the cause of many problems, and a big reason they need fixing

In Seattle, recent economic growth has largely meant an increase in white-collar jobs. Companies that are primarily blue-collar, like Boeing and its assorted aerospace affiliates, require factories and other big infrastructure, and are not easy to uproot. Hallenbeck notes that many of the jobs Seattle is adding in tech companies are “mobile” – the companies can succeed in a number of locations, and are held down only by their office space commitment.

For tech companies, attracting a talented employee base is the key to success. If the Puget Sound region becomes an undesirable place to live, such companies may start considering re-location. Consistently gridlocked roads, therefore, could factor into the area's tech economy growth, as well as the growth of foundational industries like the port and aerospace.

5) Tech innovation is a wild card

The biggest transportation changes usually come via government packages, which can proceed at a glacial pace on both the state and local level. Hallenbeck believes tech could enable the market to speed some fixes up, at least in targeted ways.

Business is booming for mobile travel services, particularly those that provide easy one-way trips from here to there. Hallenbeck pointed to the Ubers and Lyfts of the world, but believes we're only beginning to see the way tech will change things on the roads. The trends of tomorrow remain to be solidified, but Hallenbeck has a few sneaking suspicions. Among them: people of the not-so-distant future will start renting their parking spaces. You heard it here first.

Just as a single fender-bender can bring an entire bridge to a standstill, the region’s transportation system “breaks easily in many different ways.” The ideal transportation ecosystem is resilient, able to handle accidents, road closures, overpacked bus lines, and whatever else the population throws at it. The Puget Sound region, Hallenbeck says, is “the opposite of resilient.”

“We have so little spare capacity in this region that when things go bad," he said, "everything breaks."

Much of the fix comes down to money and investment, but he believes changing our perspective is also important. “There’s no free lunch,” he said, referring to the apathy of voters toward transportation projects beyond their own neighborhoods. If we stand a chance of building a heathy, "resilient" transportation ecosystem for the 21st century, he argues, Puget Sound residents must set their local lens aside, and start taking on the big picture.

Crosscut's June 17 Community Idea Lab will look at building a transportation system for the 21st century. To register or learn more, go here


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Cody Olsen

Cody Olsen was an editorial intern with Crosscut. He has a degree in Political Science from WWU, a passion for Journalism and a love for making movies on the side. This past summer he spent a few months traveling around South America and is now a bit of a travel junkie. He can be reached at cody.olsen@crosscut.com