Traffic studies are required as part of the Master User Permit application for many building projects in Seattle. One of their primary purposes is to inform the public what the traffic and parking impact of development on the local community will be.
Developers pay for these reports, which are prepared by third party engineering firms, and they’re reviewed and vetted by Seattle DPD.
Or so we’re told.
A problem with many of the traffic studies that we’ve looked at for projects in the east Green Lake community is their methods are so problematic and explanations so terse that it’s difficult for the community to have much confidence in them or believe that the city has done more than a cursory review.
Take the study conducted for Project 417 NE 73rd St, for example. 417 is a 6-story, 45-unit apartment complex with parking for 13 subcompact cars that is being proposed to replace the 19-stall parking lot behind The Great Hall currently used by patrons of Rosita’s Mexican Grill. Its impact will be two-fold: spillover parking that can’t be accommodated onsite and that instead will have to find a space on the street, and displaced Rosita’s patrons who will have to compete for the same scarce stalls.
The traffic analysis for the project was placed on the Seattle DPD website for public review on November 12, 2015, and can be found here. The three primary goals of this study, which according to the report were discussed and approved by DPD, were to provide:
- An estimate of project-related trip volumes, daily as well as in the AM and PM peak hours
- An estimate of the project’s peak parking demand, and the amount of expected spillover parking (the demand that won’t be accommodated by the on-site supply)
- An estimate of the number of vehicles using the existing parking lot; what is the peak volume and when does this occur? Where are these vehicles likely to park when they are displaced from this site?
Let’s look at how the study addressed two of these issues, beginning with #3. Here is the description provided for the parking lot study:
The site was observed at several times of the week for usage with weekend nights showing that all 19 stalls were occupied. Occupancy during the weekday showed partial usage typically 4 to 7 stalls occupied during the site visits made. Once the site is developed the clients using the lot currently would relocate to other stalls as available such as the metered parking on Woodlawn.
In case you blinked, that was just three sentences to describe the analysis that was done. If that doesn’t give pause, the claim that a credible statistical profile of the parking lot can be achieved with just a handful of visits should. The lot could be 95% filled 75% of the time from 5 to 10 PM seven days a week, and this study would never reveal it. It could be 75% filled from noon to 5 PM, week in and week out, and the study also would never know that. And, of course, it can’t provide any visibility into seasonality—a vital factor in the east Green Lake community where traffic congestion and parking demand are significantly greater during the nice weather months—since it was conducted over a brief period during the fall.
And then there’s that last sentence. The observation that the displaced Rosita’s patrons will have to find parking elsewhere is not particularly enlightening. What a study should be providing the community is a reasonably accurate assessment of what the effect will be on parking availability on nearby streets over the course of a day, weekdays and weekends, especially during the summer.
You could go on and on, including the total absence of any documentation, but in the end, the only conclusion about the analysis that really matters is that it provides the public very little useful information.
Seattle DPD correction notices are intended to catch flaws in project work and ensure that problems are addressed. On January 4, 2016, Seattle DPD posted a correction notice for the 417 traffic study. What did they have to say about this analysis?
Other, that is, than a reference to it in passing as part of an on-street parking utilization study they now wanted the developer also to prepare:
On-street spaces within 800′ of the project site should be included in the study area. Impacts should be documented during both the time period of peak residential parking demand, and the time period of peak parking demand generated by Rosita’s restaurant.
If Seattle DPD was happy with the results they received for the parking lot—and they must have been, since they couldn’t find a single ill word to say about it—you can imagine how well they screened other sections of the traffic study.
Which takes us to the second item on the list of issues the traffic study was supposed to address:
An estimate of the project’s peak parking demand, and the amount of expected spillover parking (the demand that won’t be accommodated by the on-site supply).
Here’s the developer’s answer:
The project parking requirements for the site are zero given its location in a Frequent Transit Network area. The site will provide 14 stalls as part of the design. The project will most likely attract tenants with lower parking needs. In addition, lower parking requirements can be supported through the application process to better regulate the lower demand for parking by notifying prospective tenants of the need for alternative transportation. The proximity to multiple transit routes including high frequency routes with bus service every 15 minutes supports the need to provide less parking.
Well, at least, perhaps, to another question. Because the response pretty much ignores the question above and doesn’t even mention peak parking demand or spillover parking. Instead, it pivots to residents with lower parking needs and using the application process to encourage, presumably, greater numbers of tenants who don’t own cars.
Encouraging carless tenants is all well and good, but east Green Lake is a vibrant community that attracts higher-income residents, and if 75% of its applicants have cars, the apartment certainly won’t be turning many of them away. The community needs plausible numbers, not platitudes.
So how did Seattle DPD respond to this in its January 4 correction notice? Once more, a reader would never know from the limp reaction that the developer had failed to address the question:
Please provide an estimate of the project’s likely parking demand, taking into consideration any strategies to reduce parking demand that will be incorporated into the project proposal.
Imagine your high school teacher cutting you this much slack for those class assignments.
Just to be clear, the real culprit here isn’t the developer or the engineering firm that performed the study. It’s Seattle DPD, first for failing to provide clear and comprehensive guidelines on acceptable methodologies and modeling practices, then for failing to catch and call out the not surprisingly subpar results.
Why should we care? First of all, because bad traffic studies invariably mean the real impact of projects on local communities isn’t being communicated to the public. It’s why, after 5 or 10 years of densification in an urban village like east Green Lake, on-street parking quietly disappears despite one upbeat traffic study after another.
The second reason we should care is because taxpayers expect oversight by Seattle DPD to be thorough and objective, especially since the studies involved are paid for by a party with a vested interest in their conclusions.
Anything less than that is an abuse of the public trust and misuse of taxpayer dollars.