The pandemic upended Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Moraless morning commute, but now shes hopping back on the bus.
The pandemic upended Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales's morning commute, but now she's hopping back on the bus. HK

On a dreary Thursday morning, I tagged along for Councilmember Tammy Morales’s morning commute as part of the Disability Mobility Initiative’s Week Without Driving Challenge. By a happy coincidence, it was the same Thursday morning the council laid out budget items pertaining to the Seattle Department of Transportation. That morning the council presented 18 SDOT items, and Morales had sponsored a third of the proposals.

“I hate driving,” Morales said as we waited for the bus. “I really do. Traffic just makes me cranky.”

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Morales is a seasoned transit pro. Pre-pandemic, she and her daughter coordinated their commutes to City Hall and to elementary school, respectively. But when Morales started returning to work in-person a few days a week in the summer, she admitted that she just never got back on the horse – or, rather, back on the bus – when it came to her usual commute.

“I know that 49% of my constituents commute alone in their cars everyday, and it’s not necessarily that they prefer cars over transit or because they don’t want to use active transportation, it's because people get around with the method that’s most convenient to them,” Morales said in the budget meeting later that day.

Big scary challenge to take a bus

In collaboration with environmentalist groups such as 350 Seattle and transit advocates such as the Transit Riders Union, the Disability Mobility Initiative challenged elected leaders and transportation and transit agency staff to ditch their cars for a week. The effort aimed to get people in power to understand the impact of their decisions around transportation funding, policies, and planning.

Many local leaders participated in the challenge last week, though it's worth noting they were playing the game on easy mode: The City pays for Morales’s and other city employees’ ORCA cards, many have the option to work from home (it was raining on Monday, so Morales didn’t bother with her commute at all), and Morales said her husband did most of the errands that required a car.

Council President Lorena González posted her morning commute on the water taxi. Would have loved to have joined her; would have hated going to West Seattle to meet her.

King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay spent part of his week without driving in New York. Judging by his Tweet, it looks like he was a big fan of the challenge.

State Sen. Emily Randall posted an absolutely heinous route for her weekend trip to Saint Edward State Park.

Morales started her morning commute off at around 8:15 with the 50, and then she had a few options: light rail, or two buses that would get her close enough to City Hall. When I joined her Thursday, she let me pick. We almost missed the bus, but we hopped on the northbound 7 across the street. Morales said the 7 came very frequently, so she wouldn’t have been worried if we missed it. The evenings were another matter: She wears her comfy shoes to work, so if she got tired of waiting, she could walk part of the way home.

The 7 takes riders downtown via Rainier Avenue. About four stops north we encountered the first of many of Morales’s budget priorities for transportation: Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

Bumps on the road

Morales is not impressed with safety along MLK Way – it’s not a highway, but people drive as if it were one.

In one of her proposals, Morales asked SDOT to study safety options on MLK Way from Mt. Baker to Rainier Beach. It’s a statement of legislative intent (SLI) without a dollar figure attached, but she hopes it’s a start to figuring out how much money the City will need to fund a more multimodal MLK Way.

Right now, the City is working toward a more multimodal MLK Way in anticipation of the Judkins Park Station light rail station, which is set to open in 2023. The MLK protected bike lane project will add bike lanes to both sides of MLK, widen sidewalks and crosswalks, and give a bit of a face lift to the area between Mt. Baker Station and the future Judkins station to create safe conditions.

Morales wanted to bike to work during her week without driving, but she did not know how. She’s fine on a bike — no training wheels needed — she just didn’t know of any safe, flat routes from south Seattle to downtown.

A report by the SDOT showed that Seattle is coming up shy on its bike lane goals. By the third quarter of 2020, the City only completed 2.3 miles of protected bike lanes or neighborhood greenways despite its original plan to build 15.2 miles.

One of Morales’s staffers usually bikes a round-about route through Beacon Hill, Chinatown International District, and King Street, where he recently tipped over with his young daughter in tow as he swerved to avoid getting nailed by a car. He hasn’t biked since.

Morales was sure to point to King Street as we passed. Though the City designated the street as a neighborhood greenway, Morales said there is no meaningful pedestrian or bike infrastructure. In another SLI, Morales requested that SDOT investigate what infrastructure improvements would be needed to get the street up to snuff.

Morales on the job.
Morales dropping SLIs. HK

In yet another SLI, she said she wanted the department to explain just how much it relied on Seattle Police Department crash data, and to say how it could shift away from cops and a complaint-based model.

In terms of financial asks, she proposed directing $3.75 million in transportation funding to implement SDOT’s Home Zone projects, which aim to make streets safer without the time and money needed to build a ton of sidewalks. At the City’s current rate, it would take 1,800 years before all of Seattle has sidewalks, according to Crosscut.

But Morales isn’t a total sidewalk hater: She also proposed adding $2 million to SDOT’s Pedestrian Master Plan for sidewalks in District 2. Sidewalks can run anywhere from $350,000 to $800,000 per block. Morales’s figure could fund at most five blocks of sidewalks.

Feeling the buzz

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Theyre just like us.
They're just like us. HK

We got off the bus and walked uphill to City Hall. As of 2018, 37% of commuters to downtown travel by bus, making it the most popular mode of transit. Morales noted that transit gives her a different perspective of the city than driving.

“We see people suffering on the street, but we also see how vibrant the city is,” Morales said. “I like being a part of the buzz.”

In the budget meeting, though Morales really stole the limelight, other council members proposed ideas, too.

Councilmember Dan Strauss said he was all about a “vibrant neighborhood,” as he said when he abolished mixed-zoning in name only. To that end, he proposed making Ballard Avenue a permanent Stay Healthy Street so people can keep drinking $14 cocktails outside like Europeans / not catch COVID indoors. He also wanted $270,000 to help finish 30% of the project, which he hopes will serve as a pilot for the rest of the city.

Councilmember Debora Jaurez wanted $100,000 of the transportation fund to go to SDOT so they can conduct a pedestrian safety study of NE Northgate Way.

González suggested a $2.5 million proviso for the Citywide Integrated Transportation plan. The agency would only get $1 million until the department presented a work plan and community outreach plan. González hopes this plan will detail how SDOT will prioritize vehicle-less transportation and “pedestrian-ize” parts of the city.

During the meeting, Morales asked to add her name as co-sponsor to that proviso. She wants to see a Seattle with fewer cars, and to do that Morales believes we must eliminate the need for cars.

“If you want to change people’s behavior, you have to make it the easy choice,” Morales said.