Unless we take action to improve transit now, 2040 in Spokane will be like 2015 in Seattle

In 2006, true light rail was on the agenda for the South Valley Corridor from Spokane Valley to Liberty Lake. It would have decreased travel times, lessoned traffic, and spurred development. It’s time to resurrect the idea, along with others. (PHOTO: David Evans and Associates)

It’s time for some cold, hard facts.

Spokane is growing. By 2040, the region will have added roughly 165,000 people. In other words, by 2040, the population of Spokane County will surpass 625,000. That’s not an insignificant number. In fact, that would put Spokane County at roughly the same size as the City of Portland. Consider the implications of such growth. More kids in schools. More homes and apartments in development (70,000 more units). More jobs and centers of employment (68,000 more jobs). And more cars on the road.

Already we’re seeing the start of this wave of increasing traffic. Consider South Regal on a weekday morning, where the prospect of three new big-box stores is already complicating rush-hour commutes. Consider Five Mile or Country Homes, where traffic has increased and neighborhoods have grown by orders of magnitude without any semblance of mitigation. Consider Hamilton on any weekday afternoon, where an increase in student population is driving record traffic. Area drivers are complaining of increased commute times and lost patience. This traffic costs us precious dollars. The increased load weighs heavily on our streets, which must be more frequently resurfaced. The increased pollution caused by idling in traffic harms our environment. Perhaps most importantly, the lost working hours cost us millions of dollars every year in lost productivity. And there’s no sign of relief.

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Idea #15: A well-produced advertising campaign and manifesto

Portland has a clear, cohesive, and well-developed strategy surrounding its tourism and travel marketing. It’s an active, energetic campaign anchored by Portlandia-esque characters, a specific vision and brilliant visuals. More importantly, the campaign acts as a sort of manifesto for the city. You feel like you’re in Portland.

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Downtown Spokane’s parking surplus

Surface parking lots take up a considerable portion of downtown Spokane; seen here in red. Green represents Walt Worthy's under-construction Convention Center Hotel. (PHOTO: Google Maps)

Surface parking lots take up a considerable portion of downtown Spokane; seen here in red. Green represents Walt Worthy’s under-construction Convention Center Hotel. This is obviously an imprecise study. (PHOTO: Google Maps)

Look at all that space devoted to the temporary storage of vehicles. And that’s not even all of it! That’s just a small sampling of the surface parking lots located north of the railroad viaduct in downtown Spokane. I’m aware that I missed a few in West Downtown, but this paints a stark picture of an unfortunate reality. Surface parking diminishes urban vitality and wastes valuable space. Structured parking, while more expensive, is also more dense, and can allow for innovative first-floor retail and offices, or residences located above the parking.

In Spokane, speculative buyers have snatched up surface parking lots on prime development sites, knowing that their value will only increase in coming years. But this creates a problem: lots aren’t sold because the owners want too much for them, and developers wouldn’t be able to turn a profit at higher land costs. As a result, we get gridlock. Perhaps the issue could be at least partially solved by creating a public development commission or other authority with the power to buy up underutilized properties and sell them directly to the developers with the strongest and most realistic proposals for the sites. Portland has had tremendous success with this model, revitalizing neighborhood urban districts and breathing fresh life into its downtown area.

One site in particular that we’d like to see developed is the two-block surface parking lot centered at Spokane Falls Boulevard and Stevens (the lot between the Bennett Block and the Liberty Building). The Bennett Block is undergoing a major renovation, and the site seems prime for a residential mixed-use high-rise or two with abundant glass and perhaps One Lakeside-esque balconies. Who wants to make it happen?

What do you think? Does Spokane have too much surface parking? Could our city be better served by building out our parking lots and better economizing space? What about the idea of a public development commission? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter, Facebook, and in conversation.

Why not Streetcars?

Spokane’s streetcar grid was as extensive as any on the West Coast, and more extensive than some. It operated for years and years, but now is reduced to a mere memory…if that. (PDF: MetroSpokane)

Did you know that Spokane once hosted one of the most extensive streetcar systems west of the Mississippi? This graphic from MetroSpokane shows us just how extensive it was, extending all the way to 37th in the south and Francis in the north. And this was fifty, sixty, seventy years ago!

Imagine the possibilities of a revitalized streetcar line, even on just a few of these routes. Spokane Transit Authority is working on developing its high-performance transit network plan, but lamentably, the proposal will eschew streetcars in favor of electric trolleybuses in the Central City Line. Electric trolleybuses operate using overhead wires for electricity, but travel via wheels on pavement. On the other hand, streetcars require significant investment in rail placement in order to be effective. And that’s in addition to the wires, which are still required.

Complicating the matter further, the modern electric trolleybuses are not manufactured in the United States, which conflicts with federal “Buy American” standards. It could be years before European manufacturers ramp up a stateside production line, and by then we will have lost out on millions to billions of dollars in potential economic growth and investment related to these transit projects. Meanwhile, United Streetcar is manufacturing modern streetcars right here in the Northwest, in the Portland suburb of Clackamas, Oregon, and vehicular and transit use along the proposed Central City Line in Spokane continues to increase.

Perhaps it’s time we re-thought waiting. Who needs a modern electric trolleybus, anyway? They’re more unsightly (Seattle is thinking about removing theirs), they’re less exciting, and they don’t attract the same levels of transportation-oriented development investment. Let’s go big. Let’s be visionary. Let’s build a streetcar.