As the population throughout the city of Seattle, and the greater Puget Sound region for that matter, continues to rise with increasing demand for housing, neighborhoods further densifying through up-zoning and older areas being redeveloped, traffic has quickly gone from bad to worse. It is no surprise that Seattle has the fourth worst traffic congestion in the country, behind Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, and 44th worst in the world, according to 2016 TomTom’s Traffic Index report.
While it is impossible to predict the future of the city, it is very possible to plan for its growth. And plan efficiently. “As someone who’s lived here all my life I’ve seen what sprawl has done to the region, and I recognize that the answer is a much greater public transportation system,” said Greg Smith, the founder and CEO of Seattle-based developer Urban Visions.
As someone who’s lived here all my life I’ve seen what sprawl has done to the region, and I recognize that the answer is a much greater public transportation system
Fortunately, Seattle can look to other regions that have also experienced significant population growth in short periods of time, and in many ways the Bay Area can serve as proxy for this region’s mass transit growth opportunities. According to a report from JLL published in 2015 titled, “Ridership Counts Continue To Soar; Future Stations Help Spur Submarket Activity,” the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and Caltrain have become necessary resources that combined count approximately 180 million rides each year (or nearly 500,000 rides per day). Without access to public transportation, interstates, highways and other main throughfares in the region would be gridlocked for hours making travel nearly impossible.
In May of 2016, Caltrain submitted findings from the annual onboard ridership count that showed the average weekday ridership (AWR) for 2016 is at an all-time high with 62,416 passengers, which is a 7.2 percent growth from 2015, an 83 percent increase since 2010 when AWR was at 34,120, and a 161 percent increase since 2004 when AWR was at an all-time low of 23,947 and the Baby Bullet service was later inaugurated, according to a statement from the agency. The Baby Bullet service is a morning and afternoon rush hour service that only makes stops at the stations that have the highest concentration of riders. In some cases it reduces the travel time by half, and their locations have increased real estate development activity and by extention value of that real estate, as well. The 83-acre mixed use Bay Meadows development in San Mateo is next to a Baby Bullet station, and Kilroy Realty developed a 334,000 square foot corporate headquarters building for cloud storage provider Box next to the Baby Bullet station in Redowood City.
These results of the ridership count were presented to the Caltrain’s Board of Directors to determine planning for future service improvements, allocating resources to address capacity issues and validating revenue-based ridership estimates.
Forty-four years ago BART came into operation, and after much heated debate it has become an essential asset to both the region’s infrastructure and residents’ daily lives. BART has a current capacity of around 440,000 passengers on a typical weekday and covers 104 miles in 21 cities and four different counties. As the local tech economy continues to spur growth, ridership for BART has increased by 96 percent since 2000, says JLL’s report. And in 2015, ridership hit an all-time high capacity of 158 percent.
The Bay Area continues to grow at percentage rates comparable to those of Seattle, as an additional two million residents and nearly 250,000 jobs are projected there by 2040, says Colliers International Senior Research Associate Bobby Shanahan in an independent report he wrote titled, “Light Rail: the Missing Link? Or A Road To Ruin?”
“It really comes down to geography, the San Francisco peninsula is a very tight area that is densely populated and has a lot of people working there,” Shanahan said.
Though BART was and still is considered unreliable by some Bay Area residents, Shanahan says it still acts as a steady source of transportation for those looking to commute to work from suburban neighborhoods. During rush hour 14,200 cars cross over the Bay Bridge, compared to 28,000 people per hour who travel under it through the Transbay Tube.
Stephen Jackson, a senior vice president and head of Capital Markets-Multifamily Investment Sales for JLL in San Francisco says after adding the cost of maintenance, gas and parking, owning a car can cost between $1,000 to $1,500 per month in the Bay Area. “We have the most expensive rental housing in the country, many employees are being priced out of urban living and are forced to look at the suburbs. For these renters, BART access is critical,” Jackson added.
According to a report by SPUR, the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, based on the current rates of ridership growth, BART’s ability to efficiently transport riders across the bay will be maxed by 2024. It is also anticipated that the growth will further impede access to a BART stations by car, considering commuter parking is already maxed out at most stations. The reports says that garages and lots throughout the BART system routinely fill up by 7:30 a.m. on weekdays.
For these reasons, Bay Area residents will soon face a similar decision as the one Seattleites will make in November regarding whether to expand light rail. Shanahan says “The Fleet of the Future” is a $3.3 billion project that will expand BART by another 330 cars. This is expected to increase capacity to 600,000 per day, which is an approximate 43 percent more passengers during peak hours.
At the same time, Caltrain will be electrifying its fleet of trains, which will allow faster service by making acceleration and stops faster, as well as reduce the time needed between cars, increasing capacity by not adding additional rails.
“BART is a really old system, it was built in the 1970’s, so they also want to do a lot of upgrades to it,” Shanahan said. “They’re looking to update all of the rail cars and rails, and to increase the capacity and efficiency. Light rail in Seattle was built more recently, so I think it’s more reliable.”
Shanahan’s report says that BART is expanding southbound to Silicon Valley, which will connect Fremont and San Jose to Santa Clara, Cupertino and Palo Alto, effectively creating a public transit loop around the San Francisco Bay when it connects with the Caltrain stops in Silicon Valley.
Just as millions of Bay Area residents have come to rely upon public transportation, so too will Seattleites also be forced to find other ways of commuting that will keep them off the city’s overcrowded interstates and highways. Smith says that public transportation is undoubtedly going to become more important to our region. However, he believes that it is also connected to wise land-use-planning.
“What this means is that public transportation with low density around transit hubs is actually worse, because an investment was made but the density is not there to support it,” Smith added. “We have to have the courage as government bodies to put a lot of density around these hubs and make it a priority, which we frankly haven’t done very well regionally yet.”
Densifying around public transportation hubs will prove to provide an economic benefit to the region, as well. According to another JLL report published for the Bay Area’s Mid Peninsula in May of 2016 titled, “Walk-to-Rail Versus Drive-to-Rail, Does It Matter?” states that walk-to-rail office buildings currently command the highest asking rents in the area, with an average monthly rent premium of $1.03 per square foot. Similarly, over 75 percent of all office development projects under construction are located within walking distance to a Caltrain staton, of which almost 60 percent is already pre-leased, says the report.
Sound Transit 3 sits on the table for residents to vote on next month, which will add an additional 62 miles of light rail and 37 new light rail stations to existing infrastructure. This addition is anticipated to move over one million people per day throughout the Puget Sound region, however, it could take another 25 years to build.
According to Shanahan, Seattle is one of the fastest growing cities in the country and is close to becoming a top tier city. Over the last year, Colliers has included Seattle as a top ten office market in its rankings, which he says hasn’t always been the case. “Seattle is definitely putting itself on the map, I think it could very well become one of the top major cities. With the way the population has been growing here, light rail may be a little too late.”