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the future of Seattle

I recently appeared as a panelist at the University of Washington on the Future of Seattle.  Here are my talking points on the City and the Region – mostly oriented to environment, innovation and planning.

It’s the Seattle/Puget Region, not Simply the City

When we talk about Seattle, the City, proper, usually gets the attention. In fact the City contains only about one sixth of the Puget region’s population of 3.6 million people in several quite densely urbanized areas across 3 counties, with several dozen towns and municipal authorities like Sound Transit, Metro and the Ports of Seattle/Tacoma to boot. Importantly, some of the region’s largest employers, like Boeing and Microsoft lie outside the City. We need to think regionally; outside the Seattle City limits.

My Vision for the Region

Utopian Version:  I hope that Seattle will illustrate a successful experiment; where an innovative low carbon economy, supports an equitable standard of living, a fulfilling quality of life preserving biological diversity; more simply, salmon in the rivers and Orcas in the Sound.

Dystopian Version: I fear for a Seattle with a hotter climate, more sprawling development, beset with traffic jams, greater income inequality, homelessness, water shortages, fewer salmon, no Orcas.

In short the latter scenario sounds something like parts of California. With no offense to the Golden State, the Pacific Northwest shouldn’t be like this. Top it off with a major earthquake and it’s a grim picture.


One way or another we must put a price on carbon. It’s a global issue but we must do our part locally and more. This year the State will address climate related rule making initiated by Gov. Inslee and there will be an Initiative on the ballot to tax carbon. Regardless how the State addresses the issue, clean, carbon – limiting technology should be one of the cornerstones of our regional economy and it represents a great opportunity.


Transit is the framework that facilitates so many public benefits; a smaller carbon footprint, a chance to maintain a more historical climate, connections to affordable accessible housing and workplaces, efficient access to public services, less congestion, shorter commutes. Sound Transit 3 coming up in this election cycle is vital to achieving this objective. This is my top priority.

Prosperity and Economy

A vibrant economy is the engine that powers all things. If Seattle wasn’t prosperous I doubt a higher minimum wage would have been possible. Prosperity funds bond issues; public investments in infrastructure and education. If raising the minimum wage works for the cities of Seattle and SeaTac, why not for other adjacent cities; Bellevue, Kirkland and Redmond should be next.


Innovations often arise from taking something learned in one field and applying it to another field.  The coming de-carbonization of the economy represents a huge transformational opportunity for innovation.  In the Industrial Revolution, burning carbon laden fossil fuels, mostly coal, transformed the global economy. Seattle can be a leader in the market transformation away from fossil fuels. Here’s a few examples of the cleantech economy:

  • A Seattle startup, Impact Bioenergy, with a technology that takes food waste and turns it into electrical power and high quality fertilizer.
  • Another, Adaptive Symbiotic Technologies is using naturally occurring organisms to treat seeds for drought and heat resistance.
  • Community solar projects in Seattle on Capitol Hill and Beacon Hill sponsored by City Light partnering with community organizations allow people to participate in solar who may not own their homes or who live in apartments.
  • In Redmond, Helion Energy is developing nuclear fusion to create electric power.
  • Maker spaces are opening in conjunction with schools, colleges and other venues throughout the area, including UW.

Urban Environment; Trees, Parks, Walking, Biking

  • Walking Vast swathes of Seattle’s North and South End’s still don’t have sidewalks. This is a public safety concern and also disincentive to use transit. Many parts of Seattle have high walk scores, yet others don’t.
  • Biking: Geography hasn’t been too kind to Seattle’s cyclists but this is no reason not to optimize north/south routes in the City that tend to have gentler grades.
  • Trees Seattle’s trees, on streets, yards and in parks support healthy ecosystem. But it’s troubling that present tree cover is about 50% reduced from 40 years ago. The forest canopy provides vital environmental services; carbon sequestration, shade and surface cooling, habitat, water quality benefits. We need more trees and this shouldn’t require large investment.
  • Parks For a City so associated with the Great Outdoors Seattle’s parks lag a bit compared to other cities, Portland, Minneapolis, WDC, NYC and SF for several examples. Land acquisition is very expensive. One approach to mitigate the paucity of parks might be to make existing public spaces, like streets, more inviting and park – like. The other would be to offer development bonuses for creating publicly accessible open spaces.


Density matters. It makes transit cost effective, supports services, and facilitates affordability. Not everyone is going to like it but Seattle will continue to grow. As many as a million new residents are expected to arrive in the region by 2040. What is the alternative to density; wall to wall development to the foot of the Cascades and more two hour commutes? We’re moving in that direction now. That growth should occur in concentrated, well planned areas, offering transit and public services. For example, Bellevue’s created a high density housing district downtown and the town has begun to be real city rather than merely a high rise office park and shopping mall.


Here are some useful data points:

Population: Seattle city 662,000 est City of Sea, Seattle region about 3.8 million. Expected growth of about 1 million by 2040. Source Puget Sound Regional Council. http://www.psrc.org/data/forecasts

Transit Score: Seattle ranks about 10th in accessibility similar to Minneapolis. By comparison San Francisco ranks 2nd, after NYC.  Source Walkscore https://www.walkscore.com/WA/Seattle

Walk Score: Seattle 8th compared to SF at 2 and closer to WDC and Oakland. Source Walkscore https://www.walkscore.com/WA/Seattle

Parks Score: Seattle ranks 10th below Minneapolis is 1 with SF and NYC at 4 and 5, source Parkscore Trust for Public Lands http://parkscore.tpl.org/

Affordability: Seattle is an index of about 120 compared to SF/Silicon Valley at 160 and Portland at 110, Source Infoplease  http://www.infoplease.com/business/economy/cost-living-index-us-cities.html

GHG Emissions: Almost 65% of Seattle emissions from passenger vehicles and freight. Source City of Seattle Emissions Inventory http://www.seattle.gov/Documents/Departments/OSE/2012%20GHG%20inventory%20report_final.pdf

Trees: Seattle’s urban tree cover (canopy) reduced by 50% during the last 40 years. Source City urban forestry plan. http://www.seattle.gov/Documents/Departments/OSE/2012%20GHG%20inventory%20report_final.pdf

choice architecture and transit

I recently moved to the Seattle suburbs after living more than 25 years on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. My wife and I love the Pacific Northwest’s natural environment but we’re less enamored of the time we spend in the car; especially sitting in traffic. For Seattle, and most solvent big cities, traffic vies for a top spot among the most pressing metropolitan issues. The solution to traffic, we know, isn’t more lanes and freeways, but better transit, carefully planned higher residential density and more jobs within walking distance. Even so, this involves a lot of expensive infrastructure, difficult policy making and ultimately time – generally years. In the meantime while we’re grinding away on big infrastructure, what can be done more cheaply, easily and faster, that can still make a dent in traffic congestion?

This is where behavioral economics and choice architecture enter the picture. Behavioral economics examines the effects of social, psychological and affective factors on the economic decisions of individuals and institutions. The objective of choice architecture, which is basically an applied subset of behavioral economics identified by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, is to influence outcomes by the way a choice is presented to the the decision-maker. Of course this can work both ways. Advertisers and merchants use choice architecture to get us to buy more, and more expensive, stuff. But choice architecture can also be employed to help us be more healthy, more financially stable, and to increase social/environmental benefits, such as reducing traffic congestion.

Venture capitalist, Vinod Khosla, who has invested in a number of clean technology initiatives, has asserted that he is dubious of initiatives and technologies that requires people to change their basic behavior. Choice architecture’s premise runs counter to that. That is, with the proper presentation and framing of information people’s behaviors can change. In this case the change would be increased transit use.

For example, what if people’s choices about transportation were as carefully crafted as the way Amazon designs, tests and deploys the shopping process on its website? Amazon knows the impact of a menu button change on its sales volume, having previously tested proposed changes in side by side comparisons with existing pages. In the case of transit use, what modifications in the way transit use is presented to the public could result in measurable increases in ridership and concomitant reductions in traffic congestion.

As a prospective example of choice architecture, I received car registration renewal in the mail a few days ago. Along with the new license tags, came a letter from the local King County Metro transit agency offering me 8 free transit passes if I filled out a short form, put a stamp on it and mailed it back. This is a great promotion, but I wonder if the decision could have been presented in more compelling fashion. How many drivers take up Metro on this premium? The promotion is headlined “Free Bus Tickets.” Could another header such as “Save $20″ (the value of the tickets) have been more effective? What else can be done to improve transit use by framing transit choices more effectively, without adding another bus or paving another lane. Should the tickets have been included with the offer; should a postage paid envelope been included? There are a lot of soft variables impacting choices that could ultimately result in less congestion, more productivity, and cleaner air.

the priority for sustainable cities

I was recently asked what could be done to advance the concept of a sustanable city. I replied that as much as I like cars as interesting mechanical devices, ultimately, and at almost every scale, demography and  geography a city that can reduce its reliance on private automobiles will be a more livable place – with a better chance at sustainability.  Short of concerted measures to the contrary, in the future most cities of any size will ultimately face grid lock due to private automobile use if they have not arrived at that troublesome destination already.

It’s an unavoidable fact that cars facilitate personal mobility up to a point, and are an aspiration for millions – now billions of the world’s inhabitants. This said, over and above their energy and climate ramifications, the infrastructure to accommodate cars simply takes up too much space, money and ultimately results in too much valuable time lost in traffic congestion.  

Therefore, if I had a few billion dollars to distribute to cities around the world for sustainability I would put them into schemes to reduce reliance on cars. I would distribute funds to commuter rail and trolley systems, better transit plans and bicycle infrastructure. I would also encourage land use schemes that integrate working and housing and promote congestion pricing and subsidies for public transportation.  Fewer cars would also deliver ancillary benefits, including cleaner air, safer streets, not to mention a quieter environment.


We develop and market energy efficiency strategies and technologies. We focus on the building and transportation sectors, which account for more than two thirds of the energy budget.