Every day, when we discuss future transit options, how things are going, what we’re expecting, I see that a lot of us have very different metrics for how we determine success in our transit system. As a result, a lot of our discussions turn into debates about how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ something is today. I don’t want to discourage that – we need to understand what to do next and where the problems are today – but I want to encourage a broader discussion.
Let me start with a little about how I think about transit.
Almost all the time, I try to think on a hundred year horizon. I try to consider what we’re building for the next fifteen years, the PSRC goals for the fifteen years after that, and how other cities have grown in similar situations. I’m also thinking about not just Sound Transit 3, but ST4 and ST5 – how the city might affect what’s in those packages with their own investments, what our next north-south trunk might look like, and how we can change state priorities to help us build intercity rail.
To that end, or rather lack of end, I think we can create a better model for ourselves.
There are some who claim technology will suddenly change – and use that as an argument against investing in these systems. They have been claiming that for a century, and it is no more true with today’s self-driving electric cars and jetpacks than it was with the electric cars and personal helicopters of the 1910s. There are others who claim that these mass transit investments are expensive – and they’re right! What they don’t mention is that the path they’d like to lead us down is more expensive – much more, when viewed on a longer horizon.
In only fifty years, sprawl in this region has congested our roadways and now wastes our time and money every day, making us less healthy and less social, killing small businesses, and starving our transportation system for money for anything but more cars. In seventy years, the destruction of the streetcars has left us “more flexible” buses – that continue to run in exactly the same places, but cost more. In a hundred years, the buildings we built around those streetcars have become where our favorite cafes, restaurants and shops continue to thrive.
When I think about transit oriented development today, I am not thinking about the Urban Outfitters and Qdoba that will move in tomorrow. I’m thinking about the Elliott Bay Books and the Crumpet Shop that will be there in a century. That is how we get these businesses – the best of what we have today was built by fat cats a century ago, and such is how it will be for the next century, and the one after that, as it has been since we started building for more than one purpose. Our new places today become old, change, and it become our favorite places tomorrow.
When I think about transportation today, I am not thinking about how many cars use 520. I’m thinking about whether we want to dump cars into the city at all in the next hundred years – or even the next fifty. I’m thinking about a subway from Ballard to Kirkland via Sand Point, streetcars up and down Phinney, Greenwood and Roosevelt, and a bullet train where I-5 is today. When we know what our cars are doing to the atmosphere, our bodies, our social structure, and we know we have alternatives, building a new highway really is simply stupid.
So the next time you’re arguing about how many riders Link has today, or whether anyone has built next to Beacon Hill Station yet, or where a bus stop is, please step back for a moment, and maybe ask yourself the questions I ask myself: How does this fit in? Is this the argument I want to spend my time having? Where can we go from here?
Think long term. Ask for long term things. Do it for long enough, and others follow you – and it becomes what’s been planned all along.