Commonwealth Opinion: Sound lessons from Seattle

12 Oct 2017

By Kathryn Carlson, Director of Transportation at A Better City and Tim Brennan, PVPC Executive Director

Massachusetts is abuzz with talk about whether Amazon might choose one of our communities for its second North American headquarters. Just days after Amazon announced a nation-wide search for “HQ2,” we visited the company’s longtime home, Seattle, with a delegation of more than a dozen Massachusetts leaders.

This study tour – funded by the Barr Foundation to see how another region is approaching transportation – was an eye-opener for our group of civic, government, mobility, environmental and housing leaders.

What we learned in two full days of meetings with planners, transportation agency leaders, real estate developers, experts, and advocates in the Puget Sound region can be applied to our transportation and housing challenges in Massachusetts, whether or not Amazon’s HQ2 ends up in the Commonwealth.

Seattle is encouraging smart, sustainable, efficient and equitable transportation choices. We should be aggressively doing the same in Massachusetts because it’s the right thing to do for the businesses – and people – who are already here.

The takeaways are compelling, starting with the economic backdrop. The Sound region is booming: 9.5 percent population increase in the last six years and over 2 percent job growth in the last year alone. Fueled by growth – with a mix of startups and other large employers, such as Microsoft and Boeing – Seattle has embraced the challenge of moving millions of people every day, while focusing on improving the everyday experience of commuters, today and for decades in the future.

We saw some important similarities, and key differences in how Washington state and Massachusetts approach mobility challenges. Both states are economically driven by a major metropolitan area. Both have thriving coastal regions, with a history of water transport to complement roadways, public transit, biking and walking. Both states combine an embrace of technology with a tradition of industry, and have a culturally aware, diverse population from all over the country and the world.

We also witnessed severe traffic congestion problems across the Seattle region – sound familiar? Persistent gridlock in Seattle has motivated elected officials and residents to plan and pursue a bold new vision of their collective future.

Invest for tomorrow. No taxation system is perfect, but Washington is making its work for the future. Although there’s no state income tax, the state gas tax is more than 49 cents per gallon, (double that of Massachusetts) and the sales tax tops 10 percent in some areas. And Sound Transit has its own taxation authority. Together, the region is investing in mobility, whether through transit expansion, protected bike lanes, freight, and even their own Big Dig, the SR-99 tunnel.

Manage congestion. Seattle traffic can be horrendous. No region can pave its way out of gridlock, so Seattle is experimenting with variable pricing that changes with time of day or in reaction to real-time levels of congestion, while building out the public transit system to move the region’s workforce with sustainable and affordable transportation options.

Put equity on the front burner. The Puget Sound region is being transformed in a way that threatens to displace many residents because of housing costs and redevelopment. Maintaining affordable housing and transportation is critical, so the Growth Management Act provides protection, along with diligence by public officials dedicated to equity and advocates for equity and affordability, while an innovative low-income fare program (ORCA LIFT) aims to keep transportation affordable to those who need it the most.

Work together. Different units of government collaborate on services and solutions – city, county, regional and state. And businesses leaders, advocates and regional leaders are at the table. There will always be turf issues and political drama, but we witnessed a strong theme of collaboration to deliver results.

Experiment and innovate. Seattle embraces pilot programs as a way to learn and get results. A great example is its brand-new “dockless” bike-share program. After their station-based system collapsed, the city received unsolicited proposals dockless bike sharing. These were tweaked and approved, and in only six months, Seattle has the second highest number of shared bikes of any city in the United States, with three vendors competing on price, features and service. It’s also revenue positive for the city.

Viewed through the lens of housing, transportation, politics, and governance, there are some takeaways for Massachusetts in how we can better prepare for a strong future:

Plan for growth. The Seattle area has enormous demand for housing, and, like Boston, struggles to ensure affordability. We learned that the State of Washington’s  Growth Management Act (in law since 1990) compels a forward-looking plan at every level of government, so that the region’s housing, transportation, land use and service delivery have a framework for success.

Destigmatize transportation choices. Every type of person uses every mode of travel. And most use two or more in a typical day. People who choose bus, rail, cycling and walking represent a true cross-section of the public, because the options are generally reliable and clean. In transportation-speak, the Seattle region has many “choice riders” – for example, professional workers who commute by bus because it’s convenient, comfortable and efficient.

Promote safety. Vision Zero – striving for no traffic fatalities – is taken to heart. During a walking tour of Downtown, we saw how the Seattle Department of Transportation is adding miles of protected bike lanes, dedicated bike traffic signals, and is aggressively implementing the lessons of a comprehensive bike/pedestrian safety analysis, recognizing the urgency of safety upgrades when so many people compete for limited pavement.

Give voters a say. This past November, metro Seattle voters in the Puget Sound region approved a transformative $54 billion expansion for Sound Transit that will significantly build out a light rail system and express bus service to accommodate tomorrow’s needs. That’s not unique; many states offer voters the opportunity to direct tax dollars to local and regional transportation projects, so that the public is accountable for approving long-term investments.

Read the full Commonwealth Magazine opinion piece here

Continuing, Comprehensive, and Cooperative Planning Process

Average Annual Daily Traffic

American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials

Advisory Council on Historic Preservation

Americans with Disabilities Act (1990)

Average Daily Traffic

American Farmland Trust

Alternative Fuel Vehicles

American Heritage Rivers Initiative

American International College

Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations

Approval Not Required

American Planning Association

Aquifer Protection District

Air Quality Index

Air Quality Index

American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (of 2009)

Automatic Traffic Recorder

Average Vehicle Ridership

Barnes Aquifer Protection Advisory Committee

Business Improvement District

Bicycle Level of Service

Best Management Practice

Bridge Management System

Board of Appeals (or Adjustment)

Board of Health

Berkshire Regional Planning Commission

Bureau of Transportation Statistics

Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990

Commercial Area Revitalization District

Community Action Statement

Central Business District

Cape Cod Commission

Cooperating Colleges of Greater Springfield

Community Development

Community Development Action Grant

Community Development Block Grant

Centers for Disease Control

Community Development Corporation

Community Development Fund

Community Development Plan

Community Economic Development Assistance Corporation

Community Economic Development Assistance Corporation

Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy

Community Enterprise Economic Development

Citizen Housing and Planning Association

Community Housing Development Organizations

Capital Improvement Inventory System

Capital Improvements Plan (or Program)

Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program

Congestion Management Process

Central Massachusetts Regional Planning Commission

Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Area

Compressed Natural Gas

Carbon Monoxide

Council of Governments

Commonwealth Procurement Access and Solicitation System

Community Preservation Act

Citizen Planner Training Collaborative

Capitol Region Council of Governments

Community Service Block Grant

Combined Sewer Overflow

Department of Conservation and Recreation

Department of Environmental Protection

Division of Employment and Training

Department of Housing and Community Development

Direct Local Technical Assistance

Department of Energy Resources

Department of Revenue

Department of Transportation

Department of Public Works

Developments of Regional Impact

Executive Order

Production of affordable housing across a broad range of incomes 

Economic Assistance Coordinating Council

Economic Development Administration

Economic Development Council

Economic Development District

Economic Development Data and Information System

Economic Development and Industrial Corporation

Environmental Impact Report

Environmental Impact Statement

Environmental Justice

Environmental Notification Form

Economic Opportunity Area

Executive Office of Administration and Finance

Executive Office of Economic Affairs

Executive Office of Elder Affairs

Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs

Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development

Environmental Protection Agency

Environmental Site Assessment

Economic Target Area

Federal Aid

Functional Classification (of roadways)

Federal Housing Administration

Federal Highway Administration - An agency of the United States Department of Transportation that provides financial and technical support to each state for constructing, improving, and preserving America’s highway system.

Federal Highway Administration

Franklin Regional Council of Governments

Federal Transit Administration

Greenhouse Gas

Geographic Information System - A system for capturing, storing, analyzing and managing data and associated attributes which are spatially referenced to the earth.

Geographic Information System

Global Positioning System

Housing Appeal Committee


Holyoke Community College

Housing Development Support Program

Housing Innovation Fund

Home Modification for Individuals with Disabilities Loan

Highway Overlay District

Historic Overlay District

Homeownership Opportunities Program

High Occupancy Vehicle

Housing Preservation Grant

Housing Production Plan

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

Invitation for Bid

Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991

Intelligent Transportation Systems

Job Access and Reverse Commute

Jacob's Ladder Scenic Byway

Jacob's Ladder Trail

Joint Transportation Committee

Local Board(s) of Health

Limited English Proficiency

Local Housing Authority

Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program

Low Income Housing Tax Credit

Level of Service

Local Option Transportation Tax

Local Pavement Management System

Light Rail Vehicle

Local Technical Assistance

Massachusetts General Laws

Hazardous waste cleanup regulations

Uniform procurement law for local governments


Planning/comprehensive permits

Smart growth zoning and housing production

Smart growth school cost reimbursement

Subdivision control

Expedited permitting

Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century

Metropolitan Area Planning Council

Massachusetts Association of Regional Planning Agencies

Massachusetts Department of Transportation

Massachusetts Geographic Information System

Minority Business Enterprises

Massachusetts Development Finance Agency 

Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act

Massachusetts Geographic Information Council

Massachusetts Historical Commission 

Massachusetts Housing Partnership

Massachusetts Industrial Finance Agency

Municipal Incentive Grant

Massachusetts Municipal Association

Memorandum of Agreement

Massachusetts Office of Business Development

Massachusetts Office on Disability

Memorandum of Understanding

Metropolitan Planning Organization

Metropolitan Planning Organization

Montachusett Regional Planning Commission

Metropolitan Statistical Area

Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices

Martha's Vineyard Commission

Merrimack Valley Planning Commission

Massachusetts Water Resources Authority

National Association of Regional Councils

New England Association of Regional Councils

Non-Federal Aid

National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (as amended)

National Highway System

Neighborhood Housing Services program

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Northern Middlesex Council of Governments

Nitrogen Oxide

Nantucket Planning and Economic Development Commission

National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System 

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Transportation Safety Board

Old Colony Planning Council

Overall Condition Index (Pavement)

Open Space and Recreation Plan

Pavement Condition Index

Priority Development Fund

Purchase of Development Rights

Peak Hour Traffic (or Trips)

Payment in Lieu of Taxes

[Metropolitan] Planning Funds

Pavement Management System 

Primary Metropolitan Statistical Area

Pavement Management Users Group

Planner on a Disc

Public Participation Process

Planned Unit Residential Development

Pioneer Valley Regional Brownfields Cleanup Revolving Loan Fund

Pioneer Valley Transit Authority

Quaboag Valley Community Development Corp.

Rental Development Action Loan

Regional Employment Board

Regional Education and Business Alliance

Regional Economic Models, Inc.

Request For Proposal

Request for Qualifications

Request for Response

Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative

Roadway Inventory Files

Revolving Loan Fund

Regional Planning Agency

Regional Pavement Management System

Regional Transit Authority

Regional Technology Corporation

Regional Transportation Plan

Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users

Small Business Administration

Supplier Diversity Office 

State Implementation Plan (for air quality)

Sustainable Knowledge Corridor

Single Occupancy Vehicle

Special Permit

Special Permit Planning

Site Plan Review

Statewide Planning and Research Funds

Single Room Occupancy

Southeastern Regional Planning and Economic Development District

Springfield Technical Community College

Statewide Transportation Improvement Program

Surface Transportation Program

Targeted Brownfields Assessment

Transportation and Community System Preservation [Pilot Program]

Transportation Demand Management

Transfer of Development Rights

Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century

Tax Increment Financing

Transportation Improvement Program

The Literacy Project

Turning Movement Count

Traditional Neighborhood District

Transit Oriented Design (or Development)

Transportation Research Board

Trip Reduction Ordinance

Transportation Systems Management

Urban Growth Boundary

Urban Land Institute

University of Massachusetts

University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute

Unified Planning Work Program

Urban Revitalization Development Grant

U.S. Department of Agriculture

U.S. Department of the Interior

U.S. Forest Service

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

U.S. Geological Survey

U.S. Public Land Survey

Underground Storage Tanks

Vehicle Miles Traveled

Volatile Organic Compound

Vehicle Occupancy Rate

Ware Adult Learning Center

Weatherization Assistance Program

Women-owned Business Enterprises

Wellhead Protection Area

Western New England University

Water Quality Management Plan

Westfield River Watershed Association

Westfield River Wild & Scenic Advisory Committee

Water Supply Protection [District]

Westfield State University

Zoning Board of Adjustment (or Appeals)