Mobility = Mobility (Part 2)

June 02, 2014

The previous entry from the Runstad Fellows looked at how an innovative city in Colombia – Medellin – has remade itself through a series of mobility-centered design interventions. The result of these interventions has created a well-connected city, provided better access to jobs, and decreased violence.

Seattle doesn’t have warring neighborhoods or broad swaths of informal settlements, but with the current transit funding gap, a recent proposal for gondolas, and debates about equity in Seattle, Medellin provides more parallels than one might initially think. So what could a Medellin-style mobility strategy look like for Seattle?

Seattle developer's proposal for gondola connecting Waterfront and Convention Center  Photo: Great Western Pacific

Seattle developer’s proposal for gondola connecting Waterfront and Convention Center Photo: Great Western Pacific

For one, it likely would not include reduced transit service. The residents of King County have spoken in the recent Proposition 1 vote, and they have chosen not to bridge the funding gap that King Country Metro has said is necessary to continue transit service at its current levels. This creates a scenario that has disproportionate effects on low-income and disabled citizens. For example, suggested night service cuts won’t affect a large number of people, but it will affect those who rely on public transit to work a night shift. Elimination of routes and reduction of frequency can be mitigated by some through the use of services like Car 2 Go and Lyft, but these aren’t affordable options for some in the city. Furthermore, as more people turn to cars in lieu of public transit, Seattle can expect more congestion on its roadways, which leaves less time for working and living life. Increasing transit routes and frequency allows people to have better access to jobs, spend less time in traffic, and spend less income on transportation. Medellin has made a concerted effort to improve transit access through a variety of options (light rail, BRT, gondolas, bus, etc.), and its residents have benefited from this investment.

Increased mobility would also change the dynamics of Seattle’s housing discussion. Currently, the discussion centers on providing affordable housing in close proximity to good jobs – Downtown and South Lake Union. This is a noble goal, but it requires spending precious affordable housing dollars where land and construction costs are most expensive. Because this money pool is finite, dollars spent on affordable housing Downtown do not go as far as they do in a place like Roosevelt or Beacon Hill. One of the fellows points out that this strategy is like feeding 2 friends with filet mignon as opposed to 8 friends with roasted chicken. A Medellin-style mobility strategy would open the possibilities to creating housing outside of these high-cost areas while still providing excellent access to jobs. The dynamics of housing (affordable and market-rate) change when a city has access to high quality transit and does not have to fight for well-located land. Would an investment in transit create net savings for a city when accounting for the cost of housing? That is a blog post of its own, but it is a question worth exploring. Any data nerds out there?

Finally, another mobility issue facing Seattle is working with what we have…or don’t have. In Medellin, effort was made to allow existing neighborhood centers to integrate with new transit centers. For example a new gondola station integrated with a new public library project, and both were located within a preexisting neighborhood commercial center. In Seattle, investments in infrastructure often miss the opportunity to overlap with existing neighborhood centers. Take the Columbia City Light Rail Station for example. The station is blocks from the true heart of Columbia City. This doesn’t make the station useless, but it does miss opportunities for synergy that were evident in Medellin. It also makes for a lot of incomplete neighborhoods. This means transit centers (i.e. Beacon Hill Station or Northgate Transit Center) often lack essentials like jobs, grocery stores, childcare, etc., while neighborhood centers, which have many of those things, often lack mobility. It takes all of these to have a truly complete neighborhood. Obviously, there are hurdles with developing new transit centers in existing neighborhood centers – namely, purchasing the Right of Way, but as Seattle looks at future reorganization and/or expansion of its transit network, it should view transit centers and neighborhood centers as one in the same.

Seattle and Medellin are not exactly identical twins, but there are still many similarities when it comes to transportation and mobility. When it comes to building a world class city that is livable and accessible for all, Medellin provides some great examples for Seattle to follow. If done right, Seattle could one day have the type of transit-rich, interconnected city the Fellows saw on our trip to Colombia.