Oct 10, 2016

Uniquely Positioned To Take The City Forward: A Conversation With Seattle City Council’s Rob Johnson

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Photo Credit: Sound Transit. Used with Creative Commons License


Rob serves as a Seattle’s first elected councilmember from the newly created Council District 4.  He chairs the city’s land use, planning, and zoning committee, is the vice-chair of the transportation committee, and serves on the affordable housing and budget committee.  Regionally, Rob represents Seattle on the Sound Transit board (Seattle’s regional transit authority) and chairs the Transportation Policy Board for the Puget Sound Regional Council (the Seattle area MPO).  Rob has a lifelong passion for the intersection of land use, transportation, equity, and politics. Rob holds a BA in Politics from Willamette University in Salem Oregon and an MA in Urban Planning with a concentration on transportation from the Luskin School at UCLA. With over 20 years working in politics and transportation, Rob most recently worked as the Executive Director for Transportation Choices Coalition, Washington’s largest public transit advocacy organization. When not combing through comprehensive planning documents, researching TOD best practices, or riding the region’s light rail system, Rob can be found chasing his three young daughters around Seattle’s parks, reading a novel from his local bookstore, or enjoying one of Seattle’s great craft breweries.    

We spoke to Rob during the NACTO Designing Cities conference in Seattle during the week of September 25. Rob’s move from transit advocacy into Seattle government opens another chapter in the People’s History of Recent Urban Transportation Innovation, the TransitCenter account of the key role played by activists-in-government.    

You were elected to the City Council in late 2015. It seems like you entered public life at perhaps the best of times for transit in Seattle: bus service increases, stations opening, rail and bus ridership climbing together. What’s that like for you as someone who worked on all of these issues from a public advocacy role?

For my career here in Seattle for the last dozen years, it’s been really about how to build a strong coalition of social justice advocates, business community members and politicians to achieve a set of pro-transit objectives. We’re fortunate that we had the right set of leaders in all of those positions who understood the value of public transit, to lift people out of poverty, as an important mobility tool for employees and to be a lower cost investment than highway expansion. So I give a lot of credit to the political establishment, but I also think the coalition building strategy that we had at Transportation Choices Coalition provided us with that winning environment. It’s incredible to move from the advocacy side to the policy-maker side, because it gives you a real ability to inject political muscle into issues you feel aren’t getting enough attention, and also really support folks who are pushing for progress in a different way.

How about personally, seeing all of this manifest after a decade of work?  

It’s incredibly humbling and powerful. My career has been really interesting insofar as in 1996, when we had our first light rail ballot measure here in the city, it was my first opportunity to vote — I was eighteen years old. In 2008, when we had our second light rail measure pass, I was running the campaign to get voters to vote yes. Now in 2016, I was fortunate enough, with my little girls and my family, to cut the ribbon to open the new Husky Stadium station. It’s incredibly powerful for me to watch how quickly that has been embraced by the city. We knew when the two new stations opened on Capitol Hill and Husky Stadium, two of our denser areas, that we were going to see a jump in ridership. But I don’t think anyone expected our ridership to double overnight. And that’s before we’ve even gotten into our busy season at the University of Washington. So it’s been a really wonderful thing to watch transit, especially the light rail, be so wholeheartedly embraced by so many folks in the city.

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We like to tell these stories, about Seattle’s success generally, and about people like you, because so many working on these issue around the country feel they contend with extremely tough if not intractable situations: trying to move issues, trying to win the intellectual debate, position issues politically and find the ways to win the right investments. How did it feel to you in your early days at Transportation Choices?  

I think you have to take a long-game perspective. All infrastructure in this country requires that approach. We are building a new floating bridge in Seattle, connecting the East Side to the city. We started talking about its replacement in 1998. We’ll probably finish construction in 2026. So you have inherently to think about transportation over the long run. The challenge is: how do you identify short wins throughout that long-game process, that allow you to demonstrate progress? Generally we have a big ballot measure for light rail about once a decade — a really important milestone. But in the intervening years, to find small victories, either at city councils to eliminate parking minimums and set parking maximums, or work with small jurisdictions on complete streets policies or to fight for local bus service around the region or the state. Those smaller wins make you feel like you’re building a real groundswell, and gives you the wind at your sails at a small organization like TCC who does incredible work with $650,000 a year and six employees. That kind of momentum makes you feel like you’re on the right side of history.

You mentioned the transition from advocacy to government. A lot of people ask: is it jarring, is it a big reality check? But some who have experienced it note that as an advocate, you already have some view into how it works inside, before you become a public official. How was it for you?

One of the interesting things is, as an advocate you can think that an elected official can make policy change happen within an institution with a snap of the fingers. In rare instances, that is true. But what has been a real reminder for me as I’ve gotten into this job is how important it is to build alliances within the bureaucracy to achieve long term objectives and to set yourself up for success. Asking for a lot and being able to deliver a little sets you up for failure. So I’m a big believer in incremental change resulting in larger long term success and long term change. That’s what we’ve been able to do in the city and in my role as a Sound Transit board member. There are folks who get frustrated by that incrementalism, but I also think that it’s incumbent upon us to be realistic as elected officials. I get really frustrated when I see people who are constantly promising something they will never be able to deliver.

So I am really enjoying the job because I feel we can continue to get incremental victories. For example, as an advocate I spent eight years trying to get a minor set of changes to bus service in Seattle that primarily affected low income communities and communities of color. We watched elected officials here at City Hall push for that, but without any real teeth behind it. In the first three months here on City Council, I was able to effectuate that change. Those small things where you feel like you can put a lot of pressure and get an accomplishment that been sitting on the sidelines for a long time — that’s where you really feel good about the job.

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Photo Credit: Sound Transit. Used with Creative Commons License

You’ve been able to assemble a really impressive portfolio in your first year in office, chairing the land use committee and taking a seat on the Sound Transit board. It really \really encompasses the field of urban development and sustainable transportation. How is that   all fitting together for you?

I’m an urban planner by training: a card-carrying Shoupista. I have a “I’m with Shoup” button in the corner. So for a guy who’s spent his career focused on land use and planning, this is the perfect intersection. As the chair of the city’s planning committee, and a member of the Sound Transit board, I’m uniquely positioned. I’m standing on the shoulders of some really incredible work: we had a stakeholder group here in the city called the housing affordability and livability agenda committee — the HALA committee — if your readers are not aware of it, I strongly urge them to look at it. It’s a 65-point action plan for how we can eliminate barriers to housing and create more affordable housing, including a whole suite of reforms around parking and transportation, as well as a lot of changes to the land use code. It’s an incredible document. My job as the planning committee chair is to shepherd those recommendations through the City Council.

One of the biggest successes we’ve had so far this year is mandatory inclusionary zoning. Every new development in the city from here on out will be required to pay into a fund at the city to build affordable housing, or build a share of units in their project that must remain affordable for 75 years. No off-ramps, no loopholes: everybody’s got to do one of those two things. To accomplish that in the first nine months as an elected official is incredible. And we’re going to implement major changes in zoning throughout the city next year to allow for a lot more dense development, particularly around light rail stations. Combine that with all the work that we’ve been doing to build out the next phase of our light rail system. Which if voters vote yes in November, will make Seattle’s light rail system the same size as Washington D.C.’s Metro system. It’s an incredible time to be an urban planner in local government in Seattle, and I feel really fortunate to be in the job that I’m in.

How has the public and the official understanding of that density/transportation/congestion dynamic changed over the arc of your involvement in these issues?  

I give a lot of credit to younger people coming up in the urban planning world, and also just generally to the Millennial generation. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to, regardless of what job they’re in now, whether they’re baristas, or programmers, who talk to me about urban planning with a high level of sophistication. Urban planners are having our moment in the sun. There’s a Broadway play about an urban planner! And it’s successful, they’re touring the country right now. Capitalizing on that momentum was a really important thing for me last year in running for office. In a five person race, there were two of us that were really pro-development, and we were the two that made it to the general election. I think that’s a statement about where the city is right now, in terms of wanting to see more aggressive development in ways that is rational and responsible. That is very different than the environment 10 or 12 years ago, when I was the only person showing up at City Council meetings to call for eliminating parking minimums, and pushing for maximums. We’ve gone from having no voice in the room to having a very strong YIMBY voice. The YIMBY movement taking root here, and in San Francisco, New York and other places is very powerful, and is growing.

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Photo Credit: Seattle Department of Transportation. Used with Creative Commons License

Congratulations to the Council and the entire city for enacting lower speed limits just this week. It seems like there will be a real adjustment coming for some Seattle drivers. At what point do you see the city (broadly speaking) getting over the idea of wide open capacity for car commuting, and biting the bullet on some of the road space? That seems like a live issue now, especially downtown.  

For us the move on neighborhood streets from 25 to 20 miles per hour, and in downtown and on arterials from 30 to 25 was about safety. The message that speed kills really resonates. That graphic that says “if you’re hit by a car at 40 miles an hour, there’s a 90 percent chance you don’t make it out alive, versus if you’re hit by a car at 20 miles an hour there’s a 90 percent that you live,” is really powerful and has moved the needle. The frustration for me is that we have a lot of work to do in order to have that implemented outside of our downtown, where actually we have the highest number of collisions and traffic deaths. Implementation of lower speeds outside of downtown is going to take longer than I want it to.

The other big challenge is of course design. We’ve spent 50 or 75 years in local, state and national governments investing in roads that are way over-designed, we have way more pavement than we actually need. We are building a movement in the city that is taking back a lot of that street space for people, and the great thing about Seattle is that we have a traffic engineer who is able to tell a great story: when we take back that space for people, we not only make the roadway safer, but we actually increase capacity, and efficiency. There’s better reliability for drivers, there’s safer places for people who are walking and biking, there’s often times better reliability for transit riders. So it’s a win win win for everybody, and that message is taking hold in our neighborhoods.

To close, any burning issues we haven’t covered?

As I contemplated the move from advocacy to elected official, I had a lot of fear and trepidation, particular for somebody who’s got three kids under the age of six, to get into a job where you feel like you’ve got a lot of responsibilities as an official but you also want to be married and have a young family and be a present parent. I want to encourage people to take that leap. Get off the sidelines and get into the fray. Run for local political office. It is a challenge, it is a lot of hard work. But I’m so glad that I did it, and I really want to see more folks doing it.

Just this week I met with a young guy who’s on the Ann Arbor City Council who is a planner, who is working hard on a lot of small changes to their land use code, like the ability to build accessory dwelling units and backyard cottages. We need that kind of leadership to counter the traditional NIMBY environment. It’s there regardless of where you live — in a liberal city like Seattle, we still have strong Bernie Sanders voters who don’t want to see development in their neighborhood. We need more urban planners, more advocates to get into positions of power in local government. Run for office, get appointed to your planning commission, work really hard and get a job as the public works director or deputy director. That’s going to make the difference for cities in America.

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