City could broaden definition of transportation

Biking, walking, buses also may be counted as
‘person trips’


Photo by Paul Moore.

With WTA ridership up more than 30 percent, new amendments could include bus routes in its concurrency calculations.


To some, transportation is planes, trains and automobiles. But to many Bellinghamsters mired in the gas crisis, transportation has taken on a broader definition that includes the city bus, a bicycle and even their own two legs.

If new amendments to the city’s Transportation Concurrency Management Ordinance are approved and executed, the city of Bellingham will also alter what it considers transportation.

When planning for future development, the Washington State Growth Management Act requires that transportation facilities, such as city streets and parking lots, must grow concurrently with development. For the past 14 years, Bellingham’s official policy has been that cars and related facilities were the only things worth measuring.

On Aug. 7, however, the Bellingham Planning Commission heard a presentation on amendments to the concurrency ordinance that would broaden the city’s definition of transportation facilities to include pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, bike lanes and high-frequency bus routes. The conversation is set to continue at the next planning commission meeting on Sept. 4.

Chris Comeau, transportation planner for Bellingham Public Works, said Bellingham’s transportation network is multimodal and the city needs to account for that.

“The old system only measures vehicle trips so all we get is the capacity for vehicles,” Comeau said. “If the city were to continue to only measure vehicle trips, roads within urban villages and the downtown core would have to be expanded to account for as many cars as there are people in a high-density commercial/residential area.”

Comeau said if the city were to start measuring “person trips” instead of just vehicle trips, they would find a lot more commuter capacity in these high-density areas.

“We’ve got tons of capacity here,” Comeau said.


The past: Cars, cars, cars

In 1995, Bellingham adopted “level of service” (LOS) standards for its city streets based on a vehicle volume-to-capacity ratio in an effort to comply with Washington state’s Growth Management Act.

Whenever any proposed development entered the permitting process, the city analyzed how much vehicle traffic it would attract compared to the street’s LOS standard. If the development pushed the level of service below the standard, either the city or the developer would be forced to increase the capacity for vehicles or else the development could not be approved.

Then in March 2006, the Growth Management Act required a Transportation Concurrency Management Ordinance designed to ensure development did not cause excess congestion; the city continued to only measure vehicle trips, however.

One year later in March 2007, Bellingham Public Works presented its 2007 Transportation Report on Annual Concurrency, which advised that “LOS standards based solely on vehicle-to-capacity ratios are not likely to allow the level of infill development called for in the Land Use Element [of the Bellingham Comprehensive Plan] and that the Transportation Element calls for the development of multimodal LOS standards,” according to the Aug. 7 Planning Commission staff report.


The future: Bikes, buses and feet

Comeau said the Transportation Element of the Bellingham Comprehensive Plan must ensure the feasible execution of the Land Use Element.

“We have to look at local circumstances in our adopted comprehensive plan and create a recipe for how to achieve that,” Comeau said.

Comeau said the current concurrency methodology does not fit with the city’s infill goals because developers do not want to pursue projects that will come with the additional burden of widening a street.

“If we switch to person trips, it would allow for that level of infill in urban villages and allow developers to pursue development in the downtown core without running into barriers,” Comeau said. “We need to implement goals and policies in the system that promote infill.”

Comeau said it is just unrealistic to think that 100 percent of people are traveling in cars.

“A great example is the tremendous increase in transit ridership with Whatcom Transit Authority, but the reality is that we are not accounting for that,” Comeau said.

Rick Nicholson, director of service development for the WTA, said the agency has seen a 35 percent increase in ridership over this time last year, and requests for additional service have been “going through the roof.”

Nicholson admitted that some of that jump has to do with additional services brought online in the last year and a new universal bus pass for Western students. However, Nicholson said high gas prices are a big factor.

Even when Western is out of session, Nicholson said, WTA is seeing a 30 percent increase in riders.

“When we have had a fuel spike in the past, there has not been such an increase,” Nicholson said. “So you know there is a new dynamic going on.”

Nicholson said he has been working with Public Works for a long time and is excited about a new concurrency methodology.

“Anything that encourages alternative transportation helps WTA, and taking into account not just vehicle capacity but person trips is very beneficial,” Nicholson said.

Infill, Nicholson said, promotes mixed uses in high-density urban villages, and having mixed uses on the same bus route reduces the need for trips because everything is in one area.

“When you have residential, commercial and even educational facilities all on one route, those buses fill up the most,” Nicholson said.

Nicholson also said that if WTA is considered part of the concurrency process then developers could potentially give some kind of subsidy to WTA to mitigate concurrency issues instead of widening a road or building a parking lot.

The current methodology measures how long a vehicle would sit at a stoplight, but Nicholson said there could be a half-empty bus at that light that is not being accounted for.

“A model that recognizes unused capacity is a more accurate way to look at the bigger transportation picture,” Nicholson said.


The present: Still needs some work

Mary Dickinson, governmental affairs director for the Building Industry Association of Whatcom County (BIAWC), spoke to the Bellingham Planning Commission at the Aug. 7 meeting in general support of the amendments to the concurrency ordinance but raised some concerns about how the new methodology will be calculated.

Dickinson said most concurrency plans are designed with automobile traffic counts in mind, which are easily tracked, but in the amendments there is no explanation of how the city will track concurrency accounting for alternative transportation forms.

“We hope that the city further refines in this ordinance what types of calculations it intends to develop to allow an applicant certainty that his or her product can achieve concurrency,” Dickinson said to the planning commissioners on Aug. 7.

Dickinson also noted in the BIAWC’s statement how the draft amendments rely heavily on WTA, an independent entity, as the main form of alternative transportation.

“We are not certain how an applicant could achieve concurrency under this plan as the levels of service that WTA can provide may be altered or reduced without regard to the city’s rules or regulations,” Dickinson stated.

Overall, Dickinson said the city has done a realistic job balancing all the elements of concurrency.

“I think the city did an excellent job at looking at what is realistic for the future,” Dickinson said.

Tom Barrett, chair of the Bellingham Planning Commission, echoed some of BIAWC’s concerns about the vagueness of how concurrency would be calculated under the proposed amendments.

“We thought it was logical, reasonable and very important,” Barrett said. “But it is still very theoretical in terms of how this will be measured.”

Barrett said he not only wants to know how this will apply in urban villages but also in the rest of the city.

“It sounds great but we need to know what is going to happen on the ground if this takes effect,” Barrett said.

Related Stories