Outside City Hall: Seattle's density is Puget Sound's sprawl

In a recent New York Times column, “Seattle climbs but Austin sprawls: the myth of the return to the cities,” author Jed Kolko mustered data indicating the country is “continuing to become more suburban, and at an accelerating pace.” Contrary to what many planners assume, he argues, the prevailing land use pattern is “growing out, not up,” with the average density falling in 41 of 51 of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas between 2010 and 2016.  However, among the 10 exceptions, Seattle saw the highest rise in average density, up 3 percent over the period. 

While the city of Seattle indeed is growing up with a record increase in jobs, housing, and population (now over 700,000 and leading the nation in residential growth, according to a recent Seattle Times story), Kolko communicates a false notion that somehow we here in the Northwest have overcome sprawl and its trappings (longer commutes, automobile-dependency, and increased carbon emissions). Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Much of the Puget Sound basin has sprawled even faster than Seattle has become dense. This is painfully obvious to those who live and work out there where traffic congestion is worse than even the Interstate 5 corridor commute in and out of Seattle. For doubters, we dare you to take a drive at rush hour to Snohomish (as John does frequently to visit his sister), or any other smaller suburban city around the region.

When you examine this larger six-county area (including King, Pierce, Snohomish, and the three counties not included in Kolko’s analysis — Thurston, Kitsap, and Skagit), much of the growth is spilling into unincorporated areas far from any employment centers and even beyond set urban growth boundaries where growth is supposed to be confined. Moreover, this growth is occurring far from any form of mass transit service, whether bus or light rail.

In fact, from 2010 through 2015, according to data from the Puget Sound Regional Council, three-quarters of the four counties’ population growth occurred outside Seattle. And rates of growth in many smaller suburban cities rose at an even faster rate than Seattle’s 8.8 percent.  For example: Bothell 48 percent, Burien 46 percent, Kent 33 percent and Kirkland 71 percent. 

But then move out further to “perimeter cities”:  Snoqualmie, Gig Harbor, Roy and Port Orchard are each growing at a rate greater than 20 percent, Bonney Lake and Dupont over 12 percent, Auburn 29 percent, Marysville, Mill Creek, and Lake Stevens 7 percent. And it doesn’t end there.  “Exurban” cities in Skagit County including Mt Vernon, Burlington, Anacortes, and Sedro-Woolley grew by over 18 percent in the last decade. Simply cramming more growth into Seattle won’t safeguard the rest of the region from sprawl. In fact, the situation is just the opposite. As we pour more growth in jobs and housing into Seattle, Seattle then commands more of the region's scarce transit dollars for expensive rail systems that move people to and from jobs into and out of downtown Seattle or to and from a few other larger centers situated along these corridors. Rail sucks up most of the region's transit dollars only to serve about 3 percent to 5 percent of the region’s commuters.  Little is left over to provide any form of mass transit for the great majority of commuters moving to and from the rapidly growing outer suburbs.

Seattle elites demand, and get, more growth and more taxpayer dollars to serve this mono-centered model of regional growth, thereby depriving the rest of the region, where even more growth is occurring, of the dollars and resources needed get people out of their cars. Without mass transit among the suburbs and exurbs, we’ll continue to see land use patterns premised on use of the auto rather than housing concentrated along (nonexistent) rapid bus transit routes moving into and out of smaller (nonexistent) transit centers.

The urbanist vision of concentrating as much job and residential growth and density as possible into Seattle and moving people in and out of the core via light rail, ignores the reality of rapid suburban growth, spreading into areas lacking mass transit. To the extent this vision succeeds, the rest of the region will be doomed to automobile-dependency, with more long commutes, more carbon emissions and more global warming.

And how disingenuous to justify the call for runaway growth in Seattle on environmental grounds! Arguing incongruously that by turning over Seattle to developers, pouring more carbon-emitting concrete, covering more open space, removing more carbon-sequestering trees (but adding a parklet here and there) — by doing all this we will somehow prevent climate change… Bluntly, what a crock.