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Seattle is busy building the city.  Over the past year construction cranes have once again dotted the neighborhoods surrounding the urban core, building apartments and office buildings.  There are four city blocks under construction within two blocks of my South Lake Union office.  Local and national media have jumped on the trend.  Nationally, multi-family housing starts have ranged from one-sixth to one-third of the total over the past several decades.  How has the ratio of single-family to multi-family housing starts varied in the Seattle metropolitan area?

The Puget Sound Regional Council publishes such stats, so I was able to make some charts.  The first chart below shows total housing starts (in King, Snohomish and Pierce Counties) and City of Seattle multi-family starts, over the past 20 years.

During the 1990s, Seattle multi-family averaged at 9% of the total metro housing starts – a pretty small slice of the pie.  During the 2000s, the Seattle multi-family average increased to 23% of the total, and to 30% of the total since 2007.  When the recession of 2008 hit, housing construction tanked.  But single-family construction tanked worse than Seattle multi-family.  And now Seattle multi-family is roaring back to life, while suburban single-family plods along.  The chart includes projections of Seattle multi-family construction based on these articles: it appears that by 2013 multi-family construction in just the City of Seattle could nearly equal 2009 total metro area housing charts.  If suburban home construction continues at the same pace, nearly 50% of the total metro housing starts in 2013 would be apartments in the city.

Below are pie charts breaking down the annual housing starts for the Seattle metro in 2006 and 2010.  Notice that the overall pie in 2010 is about half the size, while the Seattle multi-family slice has grown.

Data Source: Puget Sound Regional Council

Data Source: Puget Sound Regional Council

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Best Buy, the U.S. electronics retailing chain, recently announced the locations of 48 stores to be closed.  The chain has been struggling for a while, and strategically plans to reduce their store sizes and shift towards a new line of storefront shops specializing in mobile devices.  This could be a symptom of the End of Retail.

However, based on a google map evaluation of each store slated for closure, I found that they are:

  • 50% are in exurban and small town locations
  • 39% are in suburban areas and small cities
  • 13% are in central cities.

Looks in line with the End of Exurbia meme instead.

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On Friday I rode all the rail transit in the Seattle metro area.  It is possible to do this in one day (weekends only) due to the reverse-commute Sound Sounder runs.  Here’s the itinerary:

You can read my running commentary on the trips in my Twitter feed for August 5, 2011.  On the basis of my rides on Friday, I developed a rating matrix of the six rail transit modes, plus Swift BRT.  Three of the vehicles were waiting for me when I arrived at the station: the SLU Streetcar, Central Link and Tacoma Link.  If I hadn’t been so lucky, they would have lower ratings for frequency.   Swift, although it is bus rapid transit not rail, is included as well.  Bus transit, whatever other benefits it provides, simply cannot compete with rail in terms of ride quality.  My return trip from Everett to Seattle via bus was by far more exhausting than the commuter rail trip to Everett.

Service

Frequency

Experience of Speed

Ride Comfort

Ticketing Convenience

Transfer Convenience

Monorail

4

8

7

2

3

SLU Streetcar

6

3

7

6

4

Tacoma Link

8

5

7

10

8

Central Link

8

6

7

7

7

South Sounder

3

9

8

8

7

North Sounder

1

7

8

8

5

CT Swift

3

7

4

7

4

Below is a quantitative comparison of the six rail modes, plus Swift BRT. The surprise to me was the high ridership and frequency of the Monorail – it is actually the best performing rail service in the region. But then, it is by far the oldest (most mature) rail service in the region. Rail is still in its infancy in the Seattle region.

Service

Frequency
(Peak/Base/ Evening)

Average
Speed (mph)

Length
(miles)

Fares

Weekday
Ridership/ Mile

Year
Opened

Monorail

10/10/10

36

1.2

$2.00

3,400

1962

SLU Streetcar

10/15/15

7

1.3

$2.50

2,200

2007

Tacoma Link

12/12/24

12

1.6

Free

1,600

2003

Central Link

7.5/10/10

25

15.6

$2.00-$2.75

1,500

2009

South Sounder

25/–/–
(9 trips)

48

47

$2.75-$4.75

120

2000

North Sounder

30/–/–
(4 trips)

36

35

$2.75-$4.50

20

2004

CT Swift

10/10/20

22

17

$1.75

200

2009

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I have created another map of Seattle’s population density, using units of gross households/acre.  This a measure of the built environment rather than of population, since household sizes can vary with time and between neighborhoods (maybe I’ll make a map of that also).  Net housing units/acre is a commonly used measure in land use planning and zoning, which excludes roadways and non-developable land from the area calculation.  This map is of gross density, incorporating all land, resulting in at least 40% lower density values.   

Only a few hotspots, such as Capitol Hill and Belltown, exhibit greater than 50 units/acre gross (red on the map).  At this level of household density most trips can be taken on foot or via mass transit.  The controversial state bill promoted by Futurewise would have mandated zoning average >50 units/acre net around high capacity transit stations.   A broader section of Seattle’s core has a continuous household density greater than 10 units/acre.  This level of households is associated with robust local bus transit combined with lots of trips via foot or bicycle.  In fact, the orange area on this map corresponds well with my personal experience of the zone in which you can catch a bus on a moment’s notice to go to the next neighborhood, without extensive pre-planning or OneBusAway use.  You are always within two blocks of a bus stop, and a bus is usually coming within a few minutes.

There is a wider swathe of Seattle with 5 to 10 units/acre gross, which generally represent the portions of the city with sidewalks.  While predominately single family homes, these neighborhoods were developed in an era of streetcars and small lots.  Unlike central and north Seattle, the south half of the city is rather inconsistently developed, with a patchwork of low, medium and highly developed areas.

Data sources: U.S. Census Bureau, King County GIS, WSDOT

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Next up in my series on the Census 2010 results is a population density map for the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area.  The GMA urban growth area (UGA) boundaries are shown for King and Snohomish counties (I’d love to also show the Pierce County growth boundaries, but alas, their data sharing policy is c. 1998).

A few points that jumped out at me from the map:

  • The Puget Sound region has succeeded at keeping higher population densities within the Urban Growth Boundaries (i.e. nothing but blue outside the lines).  There is still too much blue inside the lines, however, so we have room to grow.
  • Population in Snohomish County clusters around Highway 99 more than I-5, all the way up to Everett.  All the more reason to build North Link light rail along 99 instead of I-5, as I have argued earlier.
  • Our industrial areas are far too unpopulated.  The largest blue areas within the UGA are Paine Field/Everett Boeing Plant, the Duwamish and Green River industrial valleys, and the Port of Tacoma/Puyallup Nation.  This extreme form of monoculture land use is unsustainable, forcing people to live a minimum of several miles from their jobs and requiring duplication of retail services.  There are shops in the industrial areas only used during the day, and shops in the residential areas primarily used in the evenings; neither are very profitable.  Residential urban villages at a few locations in industrial areas would liven things up with minimal impact on industrial land availability.

Click here for the full-size pdf of the map.

Data sources: U.S. Census Bureau, King County GIS, Washington State Department of Transportation and Snohomish County GIS

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Below is a map of the population density of King County (the home of Seattle) based on the recently released Census 2010 data.  The map is drawn at the level of Census Block Groups (smaller than census tracts).

A few comments:

  • The three suburban areas most consistently populated are the 99 corridor in SW King County, the Soos Creek Plateau east of Kent in SE King County, and the Bellevue/Crossroads/Redmond area of the Eastside. 
  • The only population hotspots outside of Seattle are in the Crossroads area of Bellevue.
  • The population dead-zones in King County are the Green/Duwamish River industrial area, Sea-Tac airport, and the Bridle Trail area between Bellevue and Kirkland.
  • King County has lots of room to accept new people.  There is no reason develop virgin forest or farmland on the urban fringe, until this map has a lot more yellow.

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, King County GIS, WSDOT

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I have finally learned enough GIS to create maps from the recently released Census 2010 data.  Below is a map of the population density of the City of Seattle.  The map is drawn at the level of Census Block Groups (smaller than census tracts).  The five most densely populated census block groups in Seattle are:

1. 80.01 Group 5 (Belltown): 110,810 ppl/sq. mi.
2. 80.01 Group 4 (Belltown): 67,489 ppl/sq. mi.
3. 74.02 Group 3 (Capitol Hill): 65,855 ppl/sq. mi.
4. 53.01 Group 1 (U District): 64,672 ppl/sq. mi.
5. 53.02 Group 1 (U District): 61,854 ppl/sq. mi.

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, King County GIS, WSDOT

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