Transportation Planning Pays Dividends

Grand opening of a new TOD. Official of King County Metro and government official of Bothell.

Grand opening of a new TOD. Official of King County Metro and government official of Bothell.

Ten years after the M7.2 Seattle Fault earthquake, King County’s transportation network is robust, resilient, and sustainable because of planning and investing in innovative transportation systems and transit-oriented developments. The county now serves as a model for post-earthquake transportation recovery for future disasters around the world.

This story is a work of fiction, including all names and quotes, written by WWU DRR students for public education purposes. Site design by Dr. Scott Miles.

The Seattle Fault earthquake in 2015 crippled the region’s transportation infrastructure to degrees that seemed insurmountable. The earthquake completely damaged 67 bridges and extensively damaged 17 more. The combined damage was nearly 10 percent of all King County bridges.

Other transportation facilities, such as highways, ports, railways, and airports, received varying degrees of damage. Collectively, 36 transportation facilities sustained complete damage, 5 were extensively damaged, 30 had moderate damage, and 216 showed slight damage. Only 21 transportation facilities received no damage at all.

At first damage to the county’s transportation infrastructure had adverse impacts on commerce, economy, social life, and many other areas. But, it subsequently provided King County and other counties in the Puget Sound region with the opportunity to implement pre-event plans to invest in more resilient sustainable transportation systems.

Fast-forward and King County and the surrounding region has expanded on old, existing transportation systems.

Over the years the region has experienced a large influx in new transit ridership and a decrease in personal automobile use. The region is considered a leader in smart growth because of its widespread network of transit-oriented developments (TOD). Transit oriented developments have helped create unique communities with resilient, localized economies.

TOD was already on the radar of several cities in King County in the years prior to the earthquake. One example is the Stadium Place development situated in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood. As TOD projects were just starting to take off in Seattle, such projects were difficult to pull off regionally in King County because of the required cooperation among the multitude of public entities and private developers.

It is safe to say most of the residents in King County before the earthquake did not know what TOD is, at least not by its acronym. At its most basic definition, a TOD is dense, mixed-use, walkable neighborhood designed around a transit station or stop of sort, usually situated within a half-mile radius. TODs are popular in some of the other major regions in the U.S. and Canada like Portland, San Francisco, and Vancouver, B.C.

The popularity of TOD in King County increased after the earthquake. King County’s citizens realized just how vulnerable and dependent they were when it came to bridges and highways, which reflected on their dependence on the personal automobile. They knew that they needed a change in the region and did not want to have to be totally dependent on their cars and automobile infrastructure anymore. King County saw this as the perfect opportunity and really pushed for the development of a vast network of TODs, not just in Seattle, but also throughout King County.

A Sound Transit board member said, “Everybody seemed to want TOD neighborhoods and it made my job and everybody else’s that much easier. Not only does TOD save people time and money but also it was more sustainable and reduced people’s reliance on cars. It was the right move.”

There were many difficulties transit planners and regular planners faced when designing for rail lines and transit stations where dense development could occur nearby. It did not make any sense to build a rail line or transit station in an area where there was no possibility for development around it. Sound Transit and King County Metro learned this lesson when the Link Light Rail was completed in 2009, where opportunities for TOD sites were too small in size and limited in numbers.

The board member expressed that it was no overnight project and that they are still in the works of completing planned TODs but a majority were finished and supporting a community. He said usually the rail lines have to come first then TOD will follow, but not always.

Another challenge that planners, developers, and citizens had to overcome was arriving at a shared vision for each TOD community. Planning is usually a long, drawn-out process but people were anxious to start seeing results as soon as possible after the earthquake. Fortunately, there were already several plans in place prior to the earthquake to build TODs in Seattle, which could be implemented immediately and serve as models for other developments.

There were not as many existing planned TODs for the suburbs around Seattle where the idea caught on after the earthquake. As a result, there was a lot of tension in planning meetings and community workshops. Using models from existing or planned TODs, as well as pre-event recovery plans, suburban stakeholders persevered to come up with visions that most could agree would work for their community.

Now, where King County has expanded its light rail system there are usually TODs next to the new transit stations.

A higher hurdle for expanding TOD was the funding to build the rail lines and key TOD amenities. At first, public-private partnerships were hard to form because most companies and developers did not know what their future had in store for them or what the future of King County was. After realizing that few small businesses and residents were backing down from the challenge to rebuild King County better than before, major companies and local developers were quick to jump on board the ‘train’. Developers jumped at the bit to invest in these places where they knew they would get positive returns on their investments.

There were already plans in the works to expand the regional light rail to Redmond to the Microsoft campus. With collaboration between Microsoft, Sound Transit, and King County Metro the plans were fast tracked and the rail line was completed four years before its original completion date. Microsoft was a large financial contributor.

A new TOD station near Microsoft campus in Redmond.

A new TOD station near Microsoft campus in Redmond.

A member of the Microsoft team said, “We knew Microsoft wasn’t going anywhere and since we employ around 40,000 people in the area, we had to show that we do care about them.”

With expansion of light rail towards Redmond, TODs have been springing up along the way where feasible. This has made it really convenient for Microsoft employees and other employees who commute to the ‘tech hub’ and has resulted in the decrease in car use. These developments have also increased multi-family living in and around the Microsoft campus.

Planners and developers have taken extra measures to ensure that these communities have not become gentrified, meaning the communities are not dominated by the affluent. Most, if not all of the new TODs, benefit the low-to-moderate income groups. A lot of people in these groups have had to rely on public transportation before, but now that it is within a half-mile from where they live it is more convenient for them.

Even the higher income families have saved thousands of dollars a year on fuel and car maintenance by using the easily accessible public transportation.

Following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in Northern California, San Francisco also acted on the opportunity to implement TOD on their waterfront. The 6.9 magnitude earthquake damaged the 70 foot tall Embarcadero Freeway, which cut off the city from the water that surrounds it. After much deliberation and a traffic study, the remnants of the Embarcadero were demolished in 1991.

Currently, the area functions as a waterfront transit boulevard, accommodating car traffic and iconic streetcars. Lining the street are dense multi-story residential and commercial units. This development has created walkable neighborhoods and living areas concentrated around and accessible to public transportation. To take advantage of the Embarcadero’s popularity, the city began Sunday Streets. During these monthly events three miles of the street is closed to traffic for walking, biking, and family friendly activities.

Light rail is not where the post-earthquake public transportation improvement ends. Expansive bus routes and, in some areas, the new Seattle trolley cars, are now linked up close to TODs. This network provides short, easy, and cheap service to any place a resident of King County would like to travel.

Darnell Johnson, born and raised in Bothell said, “I now live, work, shop, play and do almost everything all without a car or leaving my neighborhood, but when I do want to leave I can literally go anywhere on a moments notice.”

Of course, there was also a lot of effort put forth into rebuilding critical bridges and other surface, air, and marine transportation systems. As mentioned above, a lot of King County’s, and especially Seattle’s, roadways were damaged due to liquefaction.

The county facilitated various government agencies to assess and rank bridges according to the volume of daily traffic and the feasibility of rapid reconstruction. The bridges that served the most critical routes were built back first.

King County encouraged transportation agencies and construction contractors to salvage debris from damaged bridges and reuse or recycle this resource in the construction of new bridges when possible and recycle the debris when not. A majority of the new bridges are comprised of at least 30 percent reclaimed metals and still meet structural standards.

Similar to King County’s bridge transportation problems, the 1994 Northridge, CA earthquake left 10 bridges to be replaced due to damage. Although a seemingly small number, the bridges identified connected some of the busiest freeways in the Los Angeles area. In both scenarios, newly constructed bridges that were compliant with current code sustained minimal damage.

Most bridges that were retrofitted mostly fared well, however some of these older bridges moved in the earthquake differently than was initially predicted during their design. This caused the most damage to occur to older structures. Unfortunately, salvageable materials after the Northridge event were lost due to less than ideal technology. King County’s forward thinking on the recovery process made rebuilding less expensive and more sustainable.

At one point in time, transportation services looked grim for King County with a daunting prospect for recovery. But with pre-event planning and effective stakeholder engagement, the region’s transportation system has never been more connected to local communities. Old transportation facilities have been built back more resilient and sustainable. The increase in transit-oriented developments in the county has resulted in drastically lower use of personal automobiles.