Marmot Lake, following a car-assisted hike. Photo by Sara Bernard

Do Urbanists Have a Wilderness Problem?

Density foes argue the whole point of being in Seattle is the ability to get out of it…with a car.

This summer, Citizens for Livability in Ballard filed an appeal protesting the Seattle 2035 comprehensive plan, arguing that Urban Villages, which don’t have any minimum parking requirements, ignore inevitable traffic impacts on the neighborhood.

The homeowner group’s specific argument for parking requirements in the city? Wilderness.

“Residential parking demand is determined by one factor—auto ownership,” the authors write. That ownership is not impacted, they say, by how people get around the city, but rather, how they get out of it: “One of the attractions of the Pacific Northwest is a variety of year-round recreational opportunities. Many of those opportunities . . .are only accessible by automobile.” (Hat tip to Erica C. Barnett, who first reported on the appeal.)

The authors go on to cite various articles and studies in defense of that position, such as Seattle Times columnist Gene Balk’s number-crunching from 2014 that found the number of cars going up in the very places in Seattle you’d expect them to go down—the most walkable, transit-friendly neighborhoods. (Balk even quotes a Capitol Hill resident who describes herself as a “nature nerd,” saying she bought a car because “not having a car sometimes made me feel like I was stuck in the city.”)

The Ballard residents’ appeal highlights an oft-overlooked factor in our debate over urban planning and transportation: the widespread desire to transport away from urban settings altogether. It also presents a particularly thorny question for those who would like to see car ownership diminish in Seattle. While there are ever-growing options for ways to get around town—buses, light rail, Car2Go—options for getting out of town can still feel wanting. For example, Seattle-based blog Backpacking by Bus describes ways to get to various back-country trailheads via public transportation, many of which could include “a sequence of perhaps five or six buses” and then a hike of 10 or 20 miles from bus stop to trailhead.

“Oh yeah, definitely, it’s a pretty typical argument,” says Owen Pickford, executive director of The Urbanist, who over the years has had many, many conversations about urban density, and therefore parking and car ownership. “I had a friend who told me that they lived out here for a few years, and they thought it was fine, but ultimately purchased a car, and only after purchasing a car did they fall in love with Seattle” because they could more easily get out of it, he says.

But Pickford is here to say that a car-free existence doesn’t have to mean an outdoors-free one as well. Lest the word “urbanist” suggest a lack of sympathy for wilderness enthusiasts, Pickford says that he lives in Seattle because of the amazing wilderness opportunities surrounding it. He “would probably live somewhere else if it weren’t for the access to the outdoors here.”

And he hasn’t owned a car for 10 years.

How does Pickford do it? He rents. He was a Zipcar member for a year or so, but found it to be too expensive; and sometimes, sure, he links up with friends who have cars, but that’s a fraction of the time. Mostly he and his girlfriend rent from places like Enterprise, and he estimates that in a year of taking at least two dozen weekend trips, the cost is under $1,000. Compared to the estimated costs of car ownership, that’s a pittance.

Pickford isn’t the only Seattle urbanist who walks the walk. There are the bike enthusiasts, such as Seattle Bike Blog creator and anti-car urbanist Tom Fucoloro or family bike expert Madi Carlson, both Seattle residents who frequently journey to the forested outlands by bike alone (and in Carlson’s case, with two kids in tow).

There’s a meetup group called Seattle Transit Hikers with nearly 3,000 members whose express purpose is to utilize what transit exists to get outside (though those hikes are, naturally, closer to the city than many hardcore peak-baggers might like).

But while there are buses and bikes for the hardcore, it seems that car sharing might be the most reasonable short-term solution—and the sooner companies like Zipcar and ReachNow bulk up their high-clearance, forest-road-ready vehicle fleets, the better. According to city data from 2015, 14 percent of car-share members got rid of their cars after joining the service, and half of those specifically credited car-share for it.

As shown by the appeal by the Ballard group, the stakes here are high. Urban-density advocates have long bemoaned the huge amount of money and land devoted to parking, which could otherwise go toward fitting more people into a city. But with people moving to Seattle for the outdoors, is there any hope the 120,000 more residents Seattle expects to welcome by 2035 won’t own cars? Lots of people are trying to answer that question—not only the city, but a slew of local nonprofits, too. Forterra, for instance, is offering a chance at free tickets to Bumbershoot for millennials who fill out a Livability Survey (deadline August 29). The survey hopes to gather information about these very things: car ownership or lack thereof, and appetite for the wilderness.

Caleb Heeringa, deputy press secretary for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign in the Pacific Northwest (speaking for himself, not for the organization), says that he falls absolutely into the category of people in Seattle who own a car almost exclusively to get out of town on the weekends—something that gives him pause. He also asserts, like Pickford, that “even hardcore urbanists are not going to say that car ownership is completely gonna be wiped off the face of the earth.” But Heeringa, for one, “bristle[s] at the idea” that car ownership should ever be “the primary guiding force for our land-use decisions.”

Perhaps the fundamental connection among density, parking, cars, and wilderness, though, is this: Wilderness exists because of urban density. We can’t have it both ways.

Washington is fairly unique in its laws that limit urban sprawl: Since 1990, the Growth Management Act has explicitly required cities and counties to develop comprehensive plans that both concentrate urban growth and protect the wilderness. Without that, Seattle could be Houston.

“The irony of anti-housing advocates lobbying for parking spaces over homes, in the name of wilderness access,” says Sightline’s Serena Larkin, “is that building more homes . . .is exactly what helps to prevent us sprawling into those very same wild places they love.”

In other words, if we put down a parking lot instead of a housing development, we might as well pave paradise, too.

sbernard@seattleweekly.com


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