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Against Park and Rides

[ 109 ] August 24, 2015 |

On the handful of times I’ve used BART to get somewhere besides the urban core, I’ve been dismayed by the land use choices at some of the outer stations–extremely valuable land in an area with an acute housing shortage, devoted to nothing but the subsidized storage of cars. This staggeringly inefficient land use choice is often defended, as newishlawyer does, as a half-measure; better to get people using transit for some of their commute than none at all. Jarrett Walker makes the case against park and rides well here. (Walker, by the way, is not the kind of wonk who chooses journalism over politics–he’s an active transit consultant who’s been involved in transit reform in many cities, and is well aware of the politics involved.) I’ll summarize and add a few thoughts of my own. There may be some cases in which this is true, but as a general rule the problem is, as usual, that this ignores the ‘scarce resources’ problem in two ways and contributes to perverse incentives in two others. First, the scarce resources issue.

1) Land. If you’re doing high-speed, high-capacity transit right, it dramatically increases the value of the land within the walkshed of the station, by declaring it to be for nothing but car storage, without seeing what other uses people are willing to pay for. By taking dense development and economic activity off the table, you diminish the potential for economic growth, and the potential to take some of the market pressure for housing, offices, etc off San Francisco. Of course, one way to alleviate this is to build parking garages, which use less land to store more cars, leaving more left over for potential TOD. The problem with this, of course, is that parking garages are expensive to build, and it generally falls on the agency to build them. Which leads to the second scarce resources problem:

2) Dedicated funding for transit. Every time in my life I’ve had the opportunity (and having spend most of my voting years in Seattle this is a bunch of times) I’ve voted for higher taxes in exchange for funding more and better transit. In every case, the taxes I’ve voted to authorize have been insufficient to meet the transit needs they’re aiming to meet. At no point is the level of service great enough, the funding for capital improvements to improve service sufficient. On the other hand, there’s lots and lots of government spending on roads and other amenities for cars, most of which I never get the chance to vote against. We’re often too quick to assume this is a reflection of what people want, rather than a reflection of greater power for interests who enrich themselves with road construction than those who enrich themselves with transit construction. If we had train and bus manufacturers in every state, things might be different. Certainly in Washington state, transit does better at the ballot box than roads do, and there’s some evidence to suggest that WA voters not alone in that preference. But whether the imbalance is driven by our preferences or by our politics, it’s something we have good reason to be frustrated with from a variety of perspectives. So when pressure is used to take some of that too-little money we have available to subsidize transit and is used to subsidize car use instead, we have very good reason to push back against that.

On the perverse incentives:

1) It’s easy to understand why suburban communities gifted with a high speed high capacity transit option might think the demand for a park and ride is a reasonable one to make. It’s only a few miles away, after all, so from an environmental perspective it might seem reasonable–creating a structure that allows people to drive 3 miles rather than 23. The problem, of course, is that when park and rides are constructed, they don’t just offer a place for people in town to park. They offer a place for people who live even further out to park, if they get up early enough. In an effort to provide low-carbon transit for people 30 miles from downtown, you up providing medium to high carbon access for people 55 miles from downtown to park, if they don’t mind getting up at 4:00 AM to get them. (I’m not sure about other agencies but in the case of Sound Transit, because it’s a regional authority it’s not allowed to build municipality-restricted facilities. The towns themselves could acquire station-adjacent land and build something only for their town’s residents, but of course then they’d have to spend their own money, which is a great deal more difficult politically. The expectation that parking should be free really is at the root of the problem here.) So park and rides supported to incentivize low-carbon commuting and local access end up incentivizing ever longer commutes, and getting up really really early.

2) The above scenario–teasing suburban residents with the sweet free parking next to the train station, only to be taken away by the early risers, leads to a fairly predictable political demand–more free (or heavily subsidized) parking. Why wouldn’t they? This cheap, convenient solution to their transportation dilemma is already there, we just need a little more of it! Of course, there are other ways to get them to the station: walking, busing, biking, cabs and kiss and rides. And these can be better or worse. If we didn’t tease people with the illusion of free, convenient parking right next to the station, we might incentivize them to put political pressure on their local governments to improve local transit, or maybe better bike access, to the transit center. What they’re probably willing to pay for car storage almost certainly couldn’t compete with what people are willing to pay for other land uses for that extremely valuable land, if forced to compete. If they were exposed to the real cost of car storage, the personal and political efforts to find a good way to access the station would be directed more productively from the start.

I’m not a dogmatist. I know that some political projects require sub-optimal elements to generate sufficient initial political support, at least initially. But that doesn’t make it good policy. If we’re going to build park and rides, they should at least be priced according to demand, rather than a willingness to get up really early. (I’d say that means charging enough that there’s generally still some spaces available after, say, 9:30.) Newishlawyer is concerned we need to better “sell” urbanism and density before we make a policy change like this, but I disagree. There are places where urbanism and density arguably need a better sales pitch; I happen to live in one of them. But in much of the country, including most places where serious mass transit investment is likely to be made now, it’s already in increasingly high demand. We need to legalize building more of it, so people who aren’t extremely wealthy or winners of the low-income housing lottery can live close to their jobs, and whenever possible stop using limited transit dollars to subsidize ever greater sprawl.

Weekend transit links

[ 110 ] August 23, 2015 |

What I’m reading lately, public transit edition:

Jarrett Walker has a thoughtful, inconclusive post on the issue of transit agency integration (reflecting on the excellent SPUR report on Bay are transit). Like Walker, when I first encountered and tried to use transit in regions with confusing and poor integration (Bay Area, late 90’s) I assumed integration into a mega-agency was the right answer. Like Walker, I’m much less sanguine about that view now. One potentially attractive solution in balancing one of the potential shortcomings of integration–municipalities in a larger agency who want to have greater than average levels of service (and are willing to pay for it)–emerged out of necessity in Seattle/King County last year. The County-wide agency avoided cuts during the recession by postponing capital investments, cutting recovery times down to the bone, spending down its rainy day fund, and an emergency 2 year $20 car tab. Facing inevitable cuts last year in light of those choices, they went to the voters in an April special election with a $60 car tab and .1% sales tax increase, and lost. Seattle politicians, noting that the measure passed handily in the city, and on the urgent need to preserve and expand transit there, put together a Seattle-only version of it for the November ballot, where it handily won. (In the ensuing months economic forecasts improved such that many of the previously proposed cuts wouldn’t have been necessary anyway, meaning that the additional revenue could expand service within Seattle–a fact that if anything probably helped the measure pass.) This doesn’t bring back Seattle Transit as an independent agency, it just means the KC Metro has a baseline level of funding and service (and, since 2010, clear service revision guidelines governing the geographic distribution of service), and municipalities within the county can purchase additional service from the agency. The model is now there for other cities who might wish for more service (Mercer Island has in a very limited way taken advantage of this model for a new shuttle, and may purchase more additional service). This model doesn’t address all the problems mega-agencies present, but it seems like a potentially useful model for at least one of them. It recognizes the need for a route around regionalism without abandoning regionalism altogether.

Parking shortages: perception vs reality.

The first so-called “Dutch Intersection” in the US, went live in Davis earlier this month. In the near future we’ll see them in Austin, Sacramento, Boston, and Salt Lake City.

No, Frank Blethen, you fear-mongering, dog-shooting asshole, Eastlink isn’t going be dangerous.

A helpful road diet explainer. When done well, road diets improve safety and access without increasing congestion.

Houston’s ambitious and significant revision of its bus network just launched. It’s cost-neutral, but embraces the principles and practices transit wonks are constantly imploring agencies to adopt–fewer lines, straighter, more frequent, simple and legible. I’m generally persuaded by this vision, but acknowledge it’s mostly theoretical at this point. What happens with Houston ridership in the near future is well worth watching, and very important data point for reformers (if this goes well) or their legacy-route protectionists (if it doesn’t).

…..a few more:

Jeremy W. in comments has a good link on the right wing war on the MBTA in Boston.

I’ve written before about the leveling off of vehicle miles traveled overall (which means a per capita decline) and the refusal of DOTs to recognize it. The most recent numbers show that trend may, lamentably, be starting to shift back to growth, leading to some unseemly gloating from the FHWA. Doug Short takes a closer look at the numbers, which are rather more ambiguous than the FHWA would suggest. (It occurs to me, in looking at data like this, to wonder how many VMTs restrictive, exclusionary zoning, which prevents people who might want to do so from living closer to their jobs, adds to this total.)

Speaking of the clusterfuck that is the deep bore tunnel project, the estimated completion date is now 2018, and WSDOT is no longer even pretending to believe Seattle Tunnel Partners estimates. And when it does go online, it’ll probably screw up bus service and create congestion for people actually trying to get downtown, that place where the jobs are and the tunnel doesn’t go.

Times Square

[ 69 ] August 22, 2015 |

One doesn’t generally expect to side with Andrew Cuomo against Bill de Blasio. But de Blasio’s apparent openness to his police commissioner’s terrible idea to tear up the Times Square plazas and turn them back into car sewers deserves serious pushback and Cuomo is right to give it. Kimmelman:

It’s hard to grasp his calculus. One of Mr. de Blasio’s big initiatives, Vision Zero, aims to improve pedestrian safety. Ripping up the pedestrian plazas in Times Square, restoring cars and forcing millions of people to dodge traffic again, runs headlong into his own policy.

As an exasperated Tim Tompkins, the president of the Times Square Alliance, put it on Thursday: “Sure, let’s tear up Broadway — we can’t govern, manage or police our public spaces.”

“That’s not a solution,” he added. “It’s a surrender.”

The Times Square plazas were devised by the former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and his transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan. Not for the first time, Mr. de Blasio is creating a peevish impression that, even now, he is running against his predecessor when he needs to be running the city. After the plazas opened in 2009, pedestrian injuries dropped 35 percent, and injuries to drivers and passengers in cars fell 63 percent, according to city records. Skeptics forecast calamity for retailers and commercial real estate. Business boomed. Surveys reported leaps in satisfaction by residents, workers and tourists.

Sometimes public spaces can be messy, and difficult to govern. I don’t have any particularly strong views about how the costumed panhandlers and their ilk should be addressed, or even how much of a ‘problem’ they actually are. But I do know that responding to this kind of challenge by giving up and turning public spaces into deadly car sewers isn’t a progressive position, and de Blasio shouldn’t be entertaining it.

The NIMBYs of Nickelsville

[ 37 ] August 18, 2015 |

File:Nickelsville at T-107 Park 01.jpg

Erica C. Barnett has a gift for writing about NIMBYs that parallels Edroso on wingnuts: a light touch on the commentary with an eye towards the absurdity of it all, while not getting in the way of them hang themselves with their own words. (Great examples here, here, especially here.) The most recent NIMBY outrage is the overwrought reaction to the planned location of a homeless encampment on a block of city property in Ballard. (Danny Westneat, of all people, explains how unfounded the fears are here; more background here, on the charge that such places increase crime in the neighborhood see here) Barnett says what very much needs to be said here:

No one, including the few (mostly homeless, formerly homeless, or homeless advocates) who spoke in favor of the encampment, called the opposition “classist”–that, along with “racist,” is the third rail of Seattle’s white progressive politics–but whatever possible conclusion is there when a group of mostly upper-middle-class, mostly white, mostly homeowning residents gang up on a group of disenfranchised people sleeping on park benches or in their cars and say that they, as a class, are shiftless alcoholics and drug addicts (as if addiction was a choice) who contribute nothing to society and instigate crime and the loss of property values?

How else can we describe parents who say they don’t want their children exposed to a less-fortunate class of people, whose basic humanity is suspect because they haven’t pulled themselves up by their bootstraps into the middle-class existence so many of those wealthy homeowners received as their birthright? And what are we supposed to make of people who literally say they can’t be anti-homeless because they once took an individual homeless person into their home, just like your racist friend who says he can’t be racist because he gets along just great with the black people who serve him?


As someone who has often recieved a fair amount of pushback for suggesting that people’s stated desire to restrict to housing supply in their neighborhoods is motivated at least in part by classism, I can’t help but feel a little bit vindicated here. The mask slips a bit more often when it comes to homeless people, rather than ‘low income’ people generally.

On jargon and humanities scholarship

[ 227 ] August 17, 2015 |

Murc, in the Foner thread:

Every important, highly technical endeavor has highly technical jargon that’s pretty impenetrable from the outside, but I’ve noticed for some reason only the humanities seem to get flak for it. Nobody gets pissed off when MD’s or engineers or physicists speak to each other in their private professional language, but a philosopher starts dropping words like “hermeneutic” or “epistemology” and suddenly lips curl and the sneering begins, usually accompanied with the implication that the people using them there made up words and fancy book larnin’ are big old frauds.

So I’m usually prepared to accept and defend “jargon” until specifically proven otherwise.

He’s got a point, and there is a double standard at work. However!

He’s replying to an example–engineers talking shop about trains–that’s an example where jargon has clear intragroup communication advantages, to be weighed against the limitations it imposes on communication with those outside of the group. The community in question has little incentive or need to communicate effectively with those outside the group–they’re just talking shop. Historians obviously have a different calculus here; there are good reasons to wish for better communication with those outside the group. (Individual historians may just want to sell books, but there are also good civic reasons to wish for historians in general to communicate effectively to a broader audience.) But it’s worse, I think, in some humanities-oriented fields, where there’s significant career pressure to come up with something *really profound* to say, and jargon provides a tempting shortcut, as well as a shibboleth for who identifying true insiders who properly belongs in the conservation. (An important part of my own graduate training in political theory involved being told in no uncertain terms to try again, stating my claims and arguments more clearly and directly, with less jargon. On some happy occasions, the result was much clearer thinking and better prose. On less happy occasions, I was forced to abandon the original claim on the grounds that it turned out to not mean much of anything at all.)

The particular example Foner uses here–replacing the specialized, ‘insider’ language of “bourgeois revolution” with the more accessible “capitalist revolution”–turns the claim into a specific one, about the particular consequences of the civil war, rather than one that tied the claim up in the verbiage of Marxist theories of revolution. “Is the Civil War a bourgeois revolution in Marx’s sense?” is perhaps an interesting question for a certain kind of person (of which I am one), but it’s as likely to be a distraction from giving a clear account of the relevant history here, with little added value for most potential readers. Whether that was the intention or not, referring to it as a bourgeois revolution rather than a capitalist one narrows the audience in two ways–first, to those familiar with the specialized terminology, and second, to those inclined to view history in more or less Marxist terms. There’s no notable or obvious analytic advantage to the choice, so the narrowing of the audience is really all it’s accomplishing.

History is different, of course, but I think a crucial part of good work in my own field of political theory involves vigilance against the temptation to lean too heavily on jargon. Some of the best and most sophisticated work in political theory is perfectly accessible to most intelligent and careful readers (the linked article, among the most influential in political theory in the last 20 years, can be taught to college freshmen with little or no background with relative ease.) We can’t always achieve that goal, but much of the time our lack of writing skill, not the sheer complexity or profundity of our ideas, is to blame. This isn’t always the case, of course, and some of the anti-jargonism really is just anti-intellectualism–but by no means all of it, and Foner’s example offers a good example of the kind of situation in which avoiding jargon widens the potential audience at virtually no cost.

TL/DR: Jargon can provide specificity and precision, but it also serves other, less admirable purposes, including gatekeeping, signaling, and obfuscation. Being vigilant about what particular uses of jargon are doing in particular cases is an important part of doing historical and other forms of humanities scholarship well, and shouldn’t be lumped in with general anti-intellectualism.


[ 54 ] August 12, 2015 |

The Tinder twitter feed’s overwrought, whiny, self-important meltdown over the Vanity Fair article is amusing, but it’s no defense of the piece itself, which is mostly lazy and content-free. It’s not much more than a collection of quotes designed and arranged as perfect clickbait to shock and titillate the kind of people looking to get unseemingly worked up by moral panics and jeremiads about how Kids These Days are doing everything wrong and it’s going to destroy the world. A considerably more interesting, and enlightening, approach would be to try to make sense of the rise of technologies like Tinder in light of empirical findings from research on generational sexual behavior; which strongly indicate millenials are having less sex, with fewer partners, than the previous two generational cohorts.

Bad anti-housing arguments

[ 186 ] July 24, 2015 |

In the San Francisco housing thread below, Steven Attewell points to this post by Robert Cruickshank that complicates the most simplistic version of the claim that some portions of ‘the left’ in San Francisco oppose housing. Cruickshank, accurately, points out that a number of recent leftist politicians and mayoral candidates ran on platforms with thoughtful, progressive plans to increase supply, with a strong focus on affordable housing. I don’t doubt this is true, but I don’t think that entirely rebuts the central claim of Metcalf’s central argument; namely, that ‘the left’ has unwittingly contributed to the current housing shortage and attendant affordability crisis. I don’t doubt the sincerity or wisdom of Matt Gonzalez and others’ housing plans, but the rubber meets the road when that faction is forced to choose their second best option amongst the following:

1) New housing built, with significant units set aside for affordable housing

2) New housing built, with relatively few units set aside as affordable housing

3) New housing not built.

The problem isn’t that the left favors (1), it’s that they have repeatedly agitated for (3) over (2). The case that adding more housing to our cities positively contributes to a significant array of progressive goals seems pretty much unimpeachable to me. Martin Duke lists the benefits, in the context of Seattle; most apply just as well to San Francisco:

  • Fewer vehicle miles traveled, resulting in less energy usage, air pollution, and run off into the Sound.
  • Less farmland and virgin forest destroyed for new housing.
  • More legislative representation and better treatment of urban issues in Olympia.
  • More time in congested central cities, where vehicle speeds make fatalities rare.
  • Less competition for existing affordable units.
  • More economic activity both in construction and in the businesses spawned by new units
  • A larger tax base for large capital projects (like light rail) that benefit everybody, as well as social programs

And this is true even when the new housing is expensive, because it takes the pressure off older housing stock by taking rich people out of the bidding for it. But significant portions of the left in San Francisco have worked very hard to convince themselves that (3) makes a greater contribution to progressive policy outcomes than (2). This leads them to make some pretty strange and embarrassing arguments. Since it was linked in the thread below and I saw some anti-housing NIMBYs in Seattle circulating it on facebook a few weeks ago, let’s take a look at Tim Redmond’s effort on that front:

The people with high disposable incomes who fill those condos or luxury rentals will spend money in town, creating a demand for jobs – restaurant workers, grocery clerks, cops and firefighters, bank tellers … and those people will also need a place to live.

(Sup. Scott Wiener notes that the city’s police force hasn’t kept up with the population growth. Perfect example – bring in 5,000 new wealthy residents, and the city faces pressure to hire more cops to protect them. Those cops cost tax money – but they also need places to live. And that puts pressure on the housing market).

So according to the study, by Keyser Marston Associates, every time the city allows 100 new high-end housing units, it needs to build between 20 and 43 new affordable units – just to keep the housing balance the way it is now. Put the affordable units in the main complex and the impact is lower (because fewer millionaires move in). Built them, as is common, somewhere else and the impact is greater.

In summary, for every 100 market rate condominium units there are 25.0 lower income households generated through the direct impact of the consumption of the condominium buyers and a total of 43.31 households if total direct, indirect, and induced impacts are counted in the analysis.

If the city demands 15 percent affordable set-asides, then every market-rate building adds more demand for affordable housing than it supplies. That means every new building makes the housing crisis worse.

This analysis has a rather obvious empirical flaw, so obvious one would think it hardly needs to be stated: refusing to build a luxury unit will not dissuade its would-be wealthy resident from moving to the city. It’s not like they’re moving to the city because they really liked that one particular condo. They’re almost certainly going to come anyway, and bid on some less-nice unit, denying some less-rich person, quite possibly a long-term San Francisco resident, for those worried about displacement, from living in a city.

But the obvious empirical flaw in this argument is trumped by an even more terrible normative flaw: namely, that it’s a good and progressive policy to prevent jobs, including some good middle class jobs, from being created. In the context of 2015, less than a decade after a massive job destroying recession, followed by many years of anemic job growth, which has pushed many thousands out of the job market and harmed the economic well-being and security of the middle class, this is particularly grotesque, simply because the city doesn’t want to go to the trouble of allowing for enough housing for them, should be seen as appalling immediately.

Another thing–there’s plenty of potential for new housing with minimal displacement in the city, simply be liberalizing some of the rules that strangle development in single family zones. One example, which had some success in Vancouver and Portland, and is now being proposed in Seattle, is to change the incentive structure and rules regarding the construction of backyard cottages:

Adding tiny, freestanding structures behind single-family homes across the city would increase density while preserving neighborhood character, proponents say. This would go a long way toward satisfying the city’s official policy of “infill development,” putting more housing on existing underutilized land. But first, the city would have to tweak existing building regulations tailored to mid-20th century lifestyles.

The trend is catching on, with small apartments popping up in urban backyards across North America. Like attached “granny flats” within existing buildings, backyard cottages are smaller dwellings, tucked away off the street — typically 200 to 800 square feet — with little aesthetic impact.

But remarkably, San Francisco seems stuck in a 1950s zoning mentality, mandating single-family dwellings with large backyards across nearly two-thirds of the city’s residential land. Backyard cottages are nearly impossible to construct within city limits, due to a combination of zoning laws, labyrinthine building codes and a lugubrious review process that grinds development to a halt when just about anyone protests.

This isn’t a silver bullet–nothing is–but it’s an obvious no-brainer. Each unit contributes to affordability twice, once for the renter and again for the homeowner, making it easier to make the mortgage. While the linked article overstates the potential here, it’s a good idea that costs the city nothing, is more likely to produce relatively affordable units than luxury construction, and has the potential to help out strapped homeowners, all while distributing density in a low-key way.

Veto points and democratic theory

[ 61 ] July 21, 2015 |

I wasn’t going to post this, because of the obnoxious policies of academic publishers that would normally prevent me from providing an open link, but I’ve learned that Cambridge has opened the gate to the June Issue of Perspectives on Politics for the month of July. So for any interested parties, Scott and I have an article that addresses some themes we occasionally address here. (If you are reading this 10 days or more in the future, the link presumably won’t work anymore, but feel free to contact me for a copy of the paper if you want one.) We begin with the increasingly widely acknowledged problems with the “countermajoritarian difficulty” framework for thinking about judicial review in democratic systems. The problems are familiar to many of you: judicial review is rarely particularly countermajoritarian in practice; legislatures fall short of the mark as a majoritarian institution for all manner of relatively predictable reasons, and democracy and majoritarianism aren’t synonyms to begin with.

This critique is correct, but it doesn’t really tell us much about the democratic legitimacy of judicial review, beyond rejecting a particular kind of argument about it. In a paper we really should have cited, Michael Dorf points out that this line of work actually creates an additional set of questions about the legitimacy of judicial review—if it’s just another majoritarian institution, what’s the point? (We reject the most common strategy for answering this question, which roughly takes the form of “We need judicial review to be a bulwark against X, so therefore it’s legitimate.” We reject it because we’re looking for an institutional answer, not a virtue-based one about how judges ideally ought to behave.) Our answer, in a nutshell, is that in focusing on judicial review narrows the frame excessively. Judicial review is an example of a larger phenomenon, namely, a veto point. Veto points are things contemporary democratic systems invariably seem t have, so unless we’re doing a particular kind of ideal theory not well suited for institutional analysis, we can’t simply declare veto points undemocratic and be done with it. So rather than ask “is judicial review democratically legitimate?” we need to take a set back and ask “What makes a veto point more or less democratic, relatively speaking?” The rest of the paper is our first take at playing around with this idea: we propose a not-intended-to-be-exhaustive list of five desiderata for relatively democratic veto points, and give a quick and dirty speculative assessment of judicial review’s relative merit on each count, contrasting it with a few other veto points along the way. Our conclusion: not perfect, but not bad. One idea we play around with that I expect to be controversial is that judicial review may be a more democratic veto point than bicameralism. I’d pretty strongly defend that in the context of the US, given the obvious democratic shortcomings of the senate. A reasonably democratic legislature is a much tougher call.

In addition to its present incarnation, this is also part of an in-progress book manuscript we’ll be workshopping in a few months, so any thoughts, observations, feedback, etc would be welcomed.

[SL] I should probably mention that this paper is something of a sequel to one we published a few years ago laying out our basic argument about the uselessness of the “counter-majoritarian difficulty” framework. If you’re considering perusing both it probably makes sense to start with this one.

Single family zoning: social engineering

[ 17 ] July 10, 2015 |

I’ll have more to say about it next week, when we see the final version, but a leaked draft copy of the mayor’s task for affordable housing in Seattle caused a pretty big splash this week. It was leaked to the Seattle Times, where Danny Westneat turned the pearl-clutching sensationalism up to 11. (Alex Jones’ website ran with the headline “Is Seattle Doing Away with Single Family Homes?”) What was proposed was quite a bit more modest, but was a set of very good ideas, as Erica Barnett explains:

according to a draft plan leaked to Westneat, recommend doing away with the label “single-family zoning” and replacing it with the more inclusive “low-density residential zone,” which would allow more flexibility to build backyard cottages, duplexes, and other very low-density (but not exclusive single-family) housing types.

I’ll make the urbanist/affordable housing/environmentalist case for these changes in another post; the case on all three fronts is very strong. Affordable housing in Seattle will require a great deal more than this, of course, but this matters, and it’s both cheap and easy for the city. But aside from all that, the notion that it’s appropriate for the government to limit development and housing styles in over 2/3’s of the available land in the city in such a way that promotes a particular style of living over all other arrangements should still trouble us. Whatever the virtues of living in nuclear family units may be, they’re not so obviously superior to other alternatives that the state should encourage it in ways that substantially limit other options. This story makes clear why: Want to build a home designed for your large multi-generational family? Get lost, hippie.

In May of 2013 I took the Preliminary Design into Seattle’s Department of Planning and Design (DPD) for an over-the-counter zoning screening. After disappearing for 20 minutes to consult with his colleagues, the reviewer declared “It’s a single-family house!” and with that settled (or so we thought) we continued developing and engineering the design


In January of 2014 just prior to submitting the permit application to DPD I met with Jess Harris, Director of the City’s Priority Green program, to see if the house could participate in the program. Jess passed along the floor plans to several compatriots in zoning review at DPD. A week later I recieved a carefully crafted letter from DPD saying that they had “discussed this most recent design with our in-house counsel who has advised us that it would be extremely difficult for us to defend permitting this structure as a single-family dwelling, as it is currently configured.”

Everyone we talked to, including multiple zoning reviewers on up to DPD Director Diane Sugimura, Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee chair Councilmember Mike O’Brien, and Kathy Nyland and Robert Feldstein (Director of the Office of Policy and Innovation) in the Mayor’s Office as well as several members of the Seattle Design Commission, all agreed it was a great project and that Seattle ought to support this kind of housing, however no one wanted to stick their neck out to give the project the green light.

The irony is they were able to complete their project in Shoreline, a “city” carved out of unincorporated King County that’s about 97% suburban sprawl.

William Bloomquist

[ 23 ] July 4, 2015 |


Two days ago, the Seattle Mariners designated William Bloomquist for assignment, replacing him with Chris Taylor on the active roster. To me, as a Mariners fan, this is something of a relief; not because this move is likely to make a significant difference in the Mariners 2015 season, but because Bloomquist serves as a painful reminder of the current front office’s poor choices in allocating resources. Bloomquist is 37 years old, and has been on a major league roster in every season since 2002, accumulating over 12 years of total MLB service time. If this is the end of the line for Bloomquist as an major league player (and I wouldn’t be surprised if it isn’t) he will have played in 1055 games, accumulating 3136 plate appearances. He logged 200 innings as a first baseman and over 2,000 innings as a shortstop, the other five non-catcher positions he’s played between 600-1000 innings. Curiously, he started two games as a designated hitter. When he collects the 1.5 million dollars the Seattle Mariners owe him for the remainder of 2015, he will have earned, by my count, just shy of $18 million dollars as a major league baseball player.

What has Bloomquist been worth to his employers? He had one legitimately outstanding baseball skill, as a baserunner and basestealer. He overall success rate at stealing bases (133 steals, 51 time caught) is solid, but has been brought down considerably by a lower success rate the last six years, and perhaps underestimates his skill in this area, given his fair number of high-stakes, everyone knows your running SBs as a pinch runner. Looking for clear positives on his resume beyond this gets a bit murky. He can legitimately claim defensive flexibility as a positive, but that positive value is limited somewhat by his inability to play any position particularly well. He made contact well enough, keeping strikeouts reasonably low and putting the ball in play, resulting in a generally respectable batting average. His utter and complete lack of power and low walk rate combined to make for an offensive skill set you can live with from an elite defender at a premium position, something Bloomquist was most decidedly not. His career ISO of .073, despite his ability to occasionally stretch singles into doubles and doubles into triples with his speed, is remarkably low.

What does it all add up to? Depending on which system you prefer, he’s been worth either exactly 1 win above replacement, or 1.9. There’s a decent case to be made that his defensive flexibility might make him more valuable in terms of smart roster construction. He makes the most sense on a team with a few excellent hitters who are poor baserunners and defensive liabilities. “Arguably a non-stupid way to fill the 25th roster spot on some teams” is pretty much the tagline you’d expect for a replacement level player. But how many replacement level players get to enjoy such long careers? Very few, I’d imagine; since they’re pretty much interchangeable, once you’re on the wrong side of 30 it becomes tempting to go with the younger player, who could still plausibly become something better. Most shuffle around the minors, getting maybe a couple of full years, and a handful of other short stints after injuries or trades until fading away by their early 30’s. Yet Bloomquist didn’t just get jobs, he consistently stuck on the major league roster all year, and got guaranteed major league contracts, including multi-year contracts on three separate occasions.

There are lots of potential explanations for his career; he a classic scrappy white guy who works hard, managers like both his attitude and the flexibility his skill set affords him, etc. But I want to flag another possible explanation: September 2002. Even as the Mariners playoff hopes were fading, he played very well. In 38 plate appearances, he walked five times and hit 11 singles and 4 doubles. That was good enough for a 455/526/576 slashline. That single month constitutes less than 2% of his career, but it’s responsible for either 38% or 70% of the WAR value of his entire career. It also served to convince the Mariners, who are as an organization very good at convincing themselves of dubious things they want to believe, that he held real potential. Now, obviously anyone who understands the role of chance in short-term outcomes in baseball would extrapolate no lessons whatsoever from those 38 plate appearances, but that’s now it worked out. As I’ve watched his career chug along, I’ve often wondered what his career might have looked like, had he merely performed at his true talent level in September of 2002, or worse yet had a bad month. That his ground balls were twice as likely not to find a fielder’s glove as they usually were for a month may very well have given him a career, and been worth  10-15 million dollars to him. To many fans, Bloomquist represents how far someone can go with hard work and a positive attitude; to me, he represents the staggeringly large role luck and random chance play in the outcomes of our lives.


Civil Disobedience?

[ 135 ] June 26, 2015 |

I really do wonder what precisely Huckabee has in mind when he’s talking about civil disobedience here. Form a human barrier to prevent gay people from entering the county clerks office? Unsurprisingly, it’s a bit tricky to conceptualize a resistance strategy for a law that doesn’t require those opposed to it to actually do anything. Of course, he seems to suggest that Abraham Lincoln was engaged in civil disobedience against the Dred Scott decision, so he may not be too clear on the concept.

Scott Walker: not good at this

[ 57 ] June 3, 2015 |

One of the basic tasks a Republican politician who hopes to be elected president must master is the ability to play both sides on abortion–to be pro-life enough for the primaries and the base, but not so pro-life as to turn off some needed moderates on election day. As far political needle-threading goes, it’s not the most difficult task a Oval Office seeking Republican must master; there’s a pretty successful template available that involves vagueness, liberal use of the federalism dodge, and the occasional dog whistle. It’ll be nonsense under any serious scrutiny, but this is a presidential campaign we’re talking about so that’s not necessarily a problem. It is becoming increasingly clear that Scott Walker is not just remarkably bad at this. He’s not screwing up in the ordinary ways but finding creatively appalling new ways to do it. I’ve long suspected that Scott Walker is a bit more like Rick Perry 2012 than conventional wisdom recognizes: he checks a lot of boxes, on paper, but at the end of the day he just may not be ready for prime time.

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