Danny Westneat’s latest column in the Seattle Times asks a bold question:
Why are we continuing with the same transit planning – as with future Sound Transit light rail segments – regardless of the fact that a third or more of the workforce may not commute- not be in the city center, or not move at all?
Westneat is reacting instinctively to Amazon’s recent announcement that it plans to halt work on expanding its offices in Bellevue: a total of six towers covering some 3 million square feet. The implication is that if a giant corporation like Amazon can’t bother to keep building office towers, then mass transit – as we know it – might as well be dead:
This sea change, if it continues, could cause cities to “stop transit” over time — to unravel their transit-centric, radius and hub-based development models, Stern predicts. Cities will stop focusing on building dense housing near transit lines, she wrote, and look to infrastructure to support remote working (like municipal broadband or smaller centers of “remote work” away from the former core business). Cities can adopt mixed-use zoning everywhere to give a taste of the old commercial downtown to residential neighborhoods (where so many people now “go” to work).
I will first recognize what is true in this assessment. There is already a broad consensus within the transit community and city planners that the new normal of remote working will undoubtedly impact future land use: central business districts will not will no longer have a regular “swell” of workers on weekdays. Very high skyscrapers reserved for offices are probably a thing of the past. And mixed-use zoning is definitely on the planning menu for non-CBD neighborhoods.
What I find much more debatable is this notion that “cities will stop focusing on building dense housing near public transit.” I’m not sure there’s a planner out there who actually believes that. Regardless of changing travel patterns, expanding the buildable TOD maximizes the return on transit investment. Housing and public transit can never be separated, no matter what remote working world we live in. In fact, it is the huge commuter park-and-rides at outlying stations that should be converted to developable uses rather than sitting empty.
Westneat expands on this argument by suggesting that remote work blunts the merits of Link’s continued expansion. I find this thought bizarre – Link was not and never was intended to be a commuter-centric system. If you look at a map of the ST2 and ST3 extensions, it’s clear that the long-term plan is to connect all PSRC regional growth centers by rail or BRT. There’s nothing in the plan that screams downtown focus.
I also mentioned earlier that the new normal of remote working also means less emphasis on expensive peak commuter-only services and more investment in all-day long distance routes. Coupled with a frequent regional rail network, a system like this would actually be well served by “mixed-use zoning throughout.”