This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.
David Brewster thinks outside the box. But first, he plays a little fast and loose with density numbers:
The general rule is that only cities with densities of more than 10,000 people per square mile pass the threshold for extensive use of public transportation systems. That qualifies only New York and Chicago, which account for a large percentage of all public transportation in America. Seattle’s density, for its urbanized area, is about 3,000 people per square mile. Moreover, public transportation becomes dominant only in the downtown business districts of these cities.
As we’ve noted, Seattle’s density does put it within striking distance of effective rapid transit. Even so, he can’t account for Washington DC, where the density is far lower than New York or Chicago, but which has the second-highest percentage of transit use in the country.
Brewster does advance three “awkward” theories about why rail is a good idea: it attracts wealthy riders, it spurs real estate development, and it helps planners build compact, transit-oriented neighborhoods.
The first theory is counter-intuitive. He claims that light rail use in the Rainier Valley will be “disappointing,” because it’s not affluent, but that doesn’t really jive with the fact that bus use in such neighborhoods tends to be very high.
The second and third arguments are basically the same thing: the reason rail lines spur real-estate development is precisely because they concentrate growth along the alignment. When you create pockets of land that are very desirable for people to live, work or shop, those pockets are going to become valuable.
That latter argument is most compelling. If we start to clump our housing and employment centers in the right areas — Downtown Seattle, Bellevue, Overlake, Northgate, etc. — we can induce transit use. It doesn’t have to be the New York or Chicago all-trains-into-downtown-and-back model. A decentralized model that moves people among several nodes (think London or DC) could be just as effective.
We’ve gone over the basic arguments for rail so many times (buses get stuck in traffic, buses can’t carry nearly as many passengers as trains, buses will never be as fast, etc.) so many times that I don’t want to rehash them. But if I wanted to offer a slightly awkward case, to complement Brewster’s list above, it would be this: rail is romantic. Bus systems just don’t inspire T-shirts. There’s value in that: real, quality-of-life, this-is-a-great-city value.