The city of Seattle is a crowded place. Anyone who sits in traffic (in a bus or a car) on I-5, Denny Way, Spring Street, or any of Seattle’s numerous other bottlenecks knows that. People want to be here because there are great jobs and culture, diverse and fascinating people, and lots of fun things to do. To take advantage of those strengths of the city, people put up with the congestion and delays we see every day on city streets.
But people are only willing to wait so long. Eventually, as the wait gets worse and worse, people peel off one by one to live, work and play elsewhere. There is a certain level of congestion and delay beyond which each person is unwilling to go, both because the loss of time begins to cost too much and because quality of life begins to suffer. And you can’t increase the acceptable level of congestion by fiat. How much congestion each person will tolerate is an individual decision. So reducing transportation capacity doesn’t usually increase congestion. Instead, it usually causes people to avoid the area where capacity was reduced.
Having lots of people in the city (whether they live here, work here, or just visit) is most of what generates and keeps jobs in the city. People in the city buy goods and services from local businesses and create innovative new businesses of their own. Without as many people, all those local businesses’ market would shrink, and the city would lose jobs. In other words, each person who decides not to live, work, or play in the city because it’s too congested is costing jobs in the city. To keep and add jobs, we have to keep people coming into, and moving around, the city.
The road network in the city is at capacity. The most dramatic evidence of that: an oversupply of parking exists in downtown Seattle, yet parking-lot operators can’t fill more spots by reducing prices. The reason is that more cars simply can’t get into the city. It’s not a single roadway that is at capacity; it’s many of them, throughout the city, as any bus rider or driver knows. It would take tens of billions of dollars, and result in untold destruction of buildings and city neighborhoods, to expand the road network sufficiently to allow a significant number of additional people to drive into and around the city with the current level of congestion.
Since it’s extremely difficult and destructive to add roadway capacity, and you can’t increase the level of congestion in the road network (or people will just leave), the only remaining way to get more people into and around the city is transit. (Building more housing also helps get them in, but doesn’t help them move around.) And transit, even gold-plated transit, is far cheaper for a given amount of capacity than roads built through the middle of cities. Many more people can move through the same space if each one is not surrounded by 15 feet of steel. That is why all medium-size and large cities — even ones built with far more car capacity than Seattle — heavily subsidize public transit systems, and see transit as vital to economic development and jobs. Transit capacity, in a very concrete way, determines the potential for economic development in any developed city. And actual transit ridership correlates very heavily with actual economic success.
Here in Seattle, Metro has the bulk of public transit ridership. In 2012, Metro carried 115 million passengers in King County, while Sound Transit carried approximately 28 million passengers in the same period, over a much larger service area. (Other public transit agencies serving Seattle carried negligible numbers in comparison.) Both Metro and Sound Transit are essentially at capacity, especially during peak hours, when many of the busiest routes are regularly leaving people behind. We have no other way to replace even a small part of Metro’s capacity. Reduce it by 17 percent, and people — along with the jobs they bring — will leave. They won’t keep jamming themselves into car traffic, because the resulting congestion will be too much for them. Instead, they’ll just go somewhere else, which is the worst outcome for all of us.
Passing Prop. 1 will keep these Metro riders, and the jobs they bring the rest of us, in the city. The sales tax and license fee Prop. 1 imposes, while imperfect, are a small price to pay for that benefit. Please mail your Yes ballot by April 22.