Where we are today.

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.

116 Replies to “Thinking About Transit”

  1. The “Jetpack” argument has been bandied about a lot lately (“it’s the technology of the future and always will be”), but counter argument might be the personal computer. The famous Cliff Stoll article in Newsweek (from 1995: http://www.newsweek.com/id/106554 ) where he pooh-poohs almost all the technology that we use and love today (web, social media, blogs, online banking…). So, the Jetpack Argument is a double edged sword. It’s not that technology never changes, it’s just that its a gamble as to what technologies become available when.

    So, of course we all have different opinions. For instance, I believe that sufficiently auto-piloted cars will be available in 10 years. It’s not an idle speculation, it’s based on my reading of the current state of the technology, and an appreciation of computer and information technology.

    Then too, there are the assumptions. If you assume a return to “cities” then you will make an argument for centralizing technology like rail. However, if, like myself, you see a positive vision for Agraria — a post-urban, low density vision — then no, you are in favor of personal transit, not mass transit.

    What I thoroughly dislike though, is a person who puts himselve “above” argumentation, but throwing out limitations on what can be discussed (Jetpack Argument, Science is Setttled argument). If you’re talking about a 100-year timeline, then look at how much has changed in 100 years! Could you seriously plan anything in 1910 if you weren’t factoring in computers, satellites, telecommunications, high speed travel and so on?

    1. Your idea of “Agraria” is nothing resembling actual Agrarianism and is more in line with Howard’s Garden City concept or Bellamy’s collectivist notion of a low density and compact agrarian society divorced from the perceived faults of high density city living. It was and always has been a socialist concept that promotes self-reliance and independence as a means toward fostering successful socialism and communal living.

      Beyond that, you also neglect to acknowledge that more often than not (and most certainly in Bellamy’s case), these agrarian concepts often relied heavily on high capacity transit on the belief that a high capacity system that did not require the use of a personal conveyance and would connect various agrarian nodes to larger cities that chose not to dismantle for the sake of import, export and distribution of certain commodities (port cities, for example).

      Of course, this all meshes well with your idea that discounted or stale ideas can still be good ideas, especially considering agrarianism sprung out of theories that have been around for thousands of years.

      1. I define Agraria here:


        “It is the next phase of housing.

        Americans will move back to farms…minifarms.

        These will be 2 acre plots with a large country house and enough growing room to feed a family of four with organic produce.

        The family may hire a “gardener” to tend it for them.

        They will use wind and solar to generate hydrogen.

        WiMax connects them to all media and telecommunications.

        Agraria takes us beyond Exurbia and decouples us from the urban center. It loosely couples us to an energy grid.”

      2. Unfortunately, spreading people out like that stops them from innovating. Attempts to do this in the past have resulted in generations simply losing the technical knowhow to farm effectively – as they aren’t under pressure to innovate, they aren’t competing with city jobs.

      3. That doesn’t really make sense.

        People in Redmond are in low enough density that they don’t interchange ideas the way people in Seattle do. As a result, you don’t see innovative new businesses in Redmond nearly as much as you do in Seattle.

      4. Now I know there’s an open bottle of Seagram’s near your keyboard.

        Seattle more innovative than Redmond!?!


        Go and play your kids’ Xbox 360 for a while and then come back and write some sense.

      5. Yes.

        What innovation Redmond produces is a result of the artificial city that is the Microsoft Campus. Innovation comes from having many smart people working in close proximity to each other, where they can bounce ideas off each other and build off one another’s progress.

        Not to mention Microsoft draws in people first from around the world, but then they settle around the area, not just Redmond. Seattle provides the anchor that Microsoft feeds off of (and in return contributes to).

        Do you honestly think Microsoft would be in Redmond if it weren’t for Seattle?

    2. I see two main issues with auto-piloted cars.

      The first is the network effects issue. At the current state of technology, self-driving cars only work if the other vehicles on the road are also self-driving. Assuming an auto-piloting system is developed that can deal with the roads as they are today (including people and animals suddenly darting into the road), those auto-piloted cars are still going to work best where pedestrians, cyclists, and animals are kept away, and everything around them is automated.

      The second issue is an auto-piloted car doesn’t really solve many of the issues of the personal automobile. Congestion will still happen. People will still need to store them somewhere. They will take energy to build, to move, and to recycle. They will still cost money, they will still have to be maintained. The infrastructure they use will also have to be built and maintained.

      At best you see some reduction in congestion, some energy efficiency gains, and a reduction in carnage.

      1. 1st issue: Network effects

        A recent implementation has promoted the idea of “car train” where a cars would follow behind a lead car. I think of this as current technology which will soon be superceded by independent autonomous…autos.

        Here’s my research so far:


        2nd issue:

        Infrastructure can be reduced because with auto-pilot cars there can be more personal taxis. Want a car? Use your cell phone and it comes to your door. Then it optimally picks up 3 other passengers. Such a system would be lower cost than even today’s bus and train systems.

        3rd issue:

        Roads. In Agraria, off road vehicles can truly be that. Rural roads are much easier to maintain.

    3. The personal computer was never an issue of physics.

      You’re not moving around objects of set size in a computer – you’re moving around representations. So the technology you can use can be anything (!) as long as you get a result.

      Auto-piloted cars have been “ten years out” for a hundred years. Yes, really. Auto-driving cars on “wires” were piloted in the 1890s when electric cars were all the rage, using electromechanical systems. We’re not much closer today, because the issues with it aren’t technology issues.

      If you see a positive vision for Agraria, let us know when Agraria creates job growth and new startups, and let me know when Agraria doesn’t have to suck at the federal teat just to get electricity, much less fast internet.

      1. “The personal computer was never an issue of physics.”

        The point here is there was a long period of speculation and clunky prototypes before a feasible one was ever built. Part of it was technology…but another part was mindset. When Steve Jobs/Wozniak rummaged through Homebrew and cobbled circuitboards together to make an Apple, there was no technological breakthrough preventing anyone else from doing the same.

        >>Auto-piloted cars have been “ten years out” for a hundred years.

        So too have “Battery Cars”, but that hasn’t stopped Seattle’s current Government from going ahead and building Charging Stations.

    4. It’s easy for someone in North America to envision “Agraria” but the fact of the matter is that Europe and Asia are so dense, many more of their people will have to come over here in the next few decades, meaning higher densities. Last time we had that type of world, there were less than half a billion people in the world, how could earth handle 9? 10? 11?

      1. Many countries in Europe are in the top 20 of density….America is around 225th, it is true.

        However, even here in America, most of the people are squeezed together into a small subset of livable land because of the old technologies of wires, roads and offices.

        My point is that the city is obsolete. Wimax can deliver Internet from a tower miles away. A hydrogen-solar-wind economy can be built anywhere. Jobs can be performed anywhere. We don’t all have to be crammed together into 30 metro areas to live in the modern world.

      2. People squeezed together into a small subset of livable land because it’s more efficient period.

        LOL – the city is obsolete? Then why is urbanization INCREASING?

      3. It is interesting that the inner west remains so empty. I’ve always heard it’s the lack of water that prevents large cities from forming.

    5. Then too, there are the assumptions. If you assume a return to “cities” then you will make an argument for centralizing technology like rail. However, if, like myself, you see a positive vision for Agraria — a post-urban, low density vision — then no, you are in favor of personal transit, not mass transit.

      Your vision of “agraria” runs counter to the trends of history. Humans have been building cities since the time of the agricultural revolution. The trend over time has been for those cities to become larger and larger with a greater share of the population residing in cities. This has only increased since industrialization. Indeed in developed countries 70-80% of the population resides in an urban area (yes, this includes the suburbs).

      Reducing the cost of transport seems to only make cities larger. The largest cities all are at the center of large well-linked and efficient transport networks.

      It is rather the height of arrogance to assume the urbanization trend of the past 10000 years of human history is suddenly going to reverse itself.

      What I thoroughly dislike though, is a person who puts himselve “above” argumentation, but throwing out limitations on what can be discussed (Jetpack Argument, Science is Setttled argument). If you’re talking about a 100-year timeline, then look at how much has changed in 100 years! Could you seriously plan anything in 1910 if you weren’t factoring in computers, satellites, telecommunications, high speed travel and so on?

      It’s a hard call, but generally decisions about infrastructure and to a lesser extent land use planning tend to last for a long time. Look at water and sewer systems, railroads, metro systems, bridges, tunnels, dams, and powerplants. In many cases these are well over 100 years old and still in service today.

      For that matter some roads in Europe still follow the old Roman roads. You can even find sections with the original paving stones. Even more impressively some of the old Roman Aqueducts were still in use up to the modern era.

      For a more recent example simply look at the New York subway system or the London Tube system. Both of those networks have sections that are over 100 years old and yet those oldest sections are some of the most heavily used mass transit lines in the world. For another example look at the PATH system which was built to carry railroad passengers across the Hudson to Manhattan from stations on the New Jersey side of the river. The original purpose is largely gone (though NJT commuters still come in on PATH from Hoboken and Newark) yet it is still heavily used today.

      1. One of the fundamental problems is the sales tax. It has in some ways encouraged the commercial sprawl we see today. Another is poor land use planning over the past 30 years, favoring expansive subdevlopments built on cul-de-sac’s. Again allowing little through traffic through the neighborhood, something almost all old neighborhoods have yet still maintain the “neighborhood” feel to them.

      2. “Your vision of “agraria” runs counter to the trends of history. Humans have been building cities since the time of the agricultural revolution.”

        American History has been the opposite. Americans have been constantly fleeing the high rents, the taxation, the religious restrictions, the political establishment. We broke from Europe to found colonies. We fought a war with England to avoid taxes. When Bostonians and Philadelphians became to staid and oppressive, we moved to the midwest. When Chicago bankers gobbled up the money we moved out West. And when our IBM jobs all got too humdrum we moved to California and built software empires and sang beach songs.

        Now that all the Rotton Urbs including Seattle have become as oppressive as a European monarchy, it’s time to move back inland or to the spaces within them.

      3. While your prediction of the future is fascinating (really–you should write scifi), even the US has had an urbanization trend for roughly 150 years. A lot of the city growth is from immigration, of course, but small towns and rural areas have also been losing population.

        My first real job was for a small ISP serving small towns with… wireless Internet: http://www.iocc.com/wireless.php , before it was cool! By the way the access point towers do require backhaul, so the local phone company better have fiber nearby-ish. These places are charming: old main streets, etc. But for the most part they’re either full of retirees or shrinking, because there are no jobs in small town America. (There was also very little entertainment, few shopping options, and the restaurants were terrible.) There are bits of talk every now and then about fixing this.

      4. Urbination Trend?

        Come on! America was 90 agricultural at the beginning of 1900!

        Changes in Government agricultural policies forced people into the Big Cities, not any desire or natural trend!

        And by Agraria I don’t mean just farms. I think that 19th Century small town America was probably one of the high points of our culture. I’d like to see us re-examine it.

        In my Agrarian vision, there would still be clusters, but maybe no more than 100,000 to 50,000 per…exurbian type cities and lots of them, not just 30 Rotton Urbs sapping up the revenues for archaic infrastructure.

      5. Most countries in the world are urbanizing, even with wildly differing agricultural policies.

        You seem to have a dogma and you’re trying to get the facts to fit it.

    6. Autopiloted cars will never be available — well, not until we have intelligent robots.

      Why? There are fundamental problems. The main problem cars have is not staying on the road in good conditions (easy) but spotting traffic signals, pedestrians crossing, cars swerving in front of you, black ice, finding the road in a blizzard, et cetera. This is pattern matching of the sort which is a *very hard problem* for software programmers. It’s always going to be cheaper to have humans do it.

      Autopiloted trains? No problem! The tracks eliminate many of the problems, the block signalling system eliminates many more, fencing eliminates most of the rest, and we’re left with grade crossings (which are then eliminated, obviously).

      Fundamentally it’s so much easier to make functional autopiloted trains (existing NOW) than autopiloted cars that we won’t build autopiloted cars. Autopiloted cars with grade crossings removed…. are just trains on rubber tires, which is silliness and wasteful.

      In other words, your appreciation of the current state of tech is poor. I know that we can run autopiloted cars on test courses, but we’ve been able to do that *since the 1960s*. The main virtue of road vehicles over rail vehicles is that they can deal with bad, unexpected conditions — “off-road” driving, basically — and autopiloted cars can’t.

      That said, we may actually see some success for PRT-like systems — personal train vehicles — in place of cars. They’re no good for mass transit, of course, but they’re safer than cars for low-density transit, so very rich places may choose to build them, and they may get cheaper until very rich places can afford to build them.

      We will have electric cars, of course. (And frankly we *actually had* them in 1910, and only the availability of a cheap alternative, oil, prevented them from taking over.)

      1. You bring to mind that we can’t even figure out how to make an accelerator pedal work well all of the time. Trusting a computer to avoid a child when he chases a ball into the road won’t happen in the near future.

      2. Another view:


        “So I’m refirming my view that self-driving cars will come to us moderately soon. The technology is very near, and the case is so compelling. In spite of interesting speculations about personal rapid transit, or virtual right-of-way or other items in my transportation category, this is the likely winner because it requires no new infrastructure, and if we let it, it can grow from the ground up.

        I’m talking cars that can drive today’s roads, and are better at avoiding people and other cars than we are. They do it on their own, though they cooperate where it makes sense to do so but don’t have cooperate to work.”

      3. Yeah, the fact that you really think this is fantastic at marginalizing your opinion. I’m a software engineer. We can’t even get software not to crash all the time, much less prevent deaths when it’s operating a 4,000 pound vehicle.

      4. I’m a software engineer. We can’t even get software not to crash all the time, much less prevent deaths

        Mmmm, 30 years ago DEC released TOPS20 (a multi user OS) that didn’t crash all the time. Maybe you should be looking more at what happened in the last 100 years that trying to program what happens 100 years from now.

      5. “Maybe you should be” is really irrelevant – we all know how to write code that doesn’t crash AND does all the things you want it to do, but it’s too costly to do so. That would not change much for software for a car – the costs are astronomical.

        TOPS20 couldn’t, say, play video games, or support a thousand different kinds of hardware. The requirements for software today are radically different.

      6. I suggest y’all watch DARPA’s self-guided vehicle challenge … I think Discovery or TLC aired it a while back.

        From that show you would plainly see that we are about 0.1% of the way to having a self-guided car that works about 30% of the time and costs $11 million a copy.

    7. The simplest response to your sneering post is that “Jetpack Technology” is Newtonian in scale (as is all transportation) while computers are quantum. No one has ever proposed that Moore’s Law applies to concrete and steel.

      1. No you didn’t. Maybe CompuServe or Telenet, but not the internet. ARPANET didn’t even switch to the TCP/IP protocol until 1983, the first university networks sprang up around 1985, and the technology wasn’t available to commercial interests until 1988. So unless you worked for the DOD or the national laboratories it’s doubtful that you used the internet in 1982.

      2. Well to be fair he could have been on an ARPANET mailing list, BITNET listserv or USENET in 1982, but I doubt it. Very few were, even people who had access to computing resources at a major university.

        I feel like a bit of a gray beard simply for having started with some listservs and mailing lists along with USENET in 1988. Yes this was in the days before HTTP, or even gopher. Really the only way to move files around was FTP and there were a few information services you could TELNET to. Though we did have chat in the form of BITNET RELAY and IRC.

        I remember using the first primitive text-only www client from CERN and thinking this “web” thing will never amount to much. Then I saw NCSA Mosaic and I realized a revolution was on its way.

      3. It was probably (D)ARPANET.

        My friend Brian showed it to me at the Computer Center at Princeton.

        We could chat with people in other Universities.

        And now…nearly 3 decades later…

      4. And your having seen Darpanet at Princeton in 1982 has what to do with your complete lack of understanding why computers have gained the power that they have in such a short time span?

        “Some of my best friends are computers.”

    8. “if, like myself, you see a positive vision for Agraria — a post-urban, low density vision ”

      “Your idea of “Agraria” is nothing resembling actual Agrarianism and is more in line with Howard’s Garden City concept or Bellamy’s collectivist notion of a low density and compact agrarian society divorced from the perceived faults of high density city living.”

      Calling the exurbs Argraria is quite misleading. It may theoretically be possible for all those exurbanites to build gardens and farms in their yards, but in practice hardly any do. Agraria implies substistance farming or at least some kind of farming, and for that you’re better off in a rural area like Skagit County, Eatonville, or Vashon Island.

      In any case, the local-food movemement is bringing vegetable gardens back to the cities, and I expect there will be more of those in Seattle and south King County in the next decade. There are also designs for multistory indoor gardens in office buildings, with a restaurant and produce market on the bottom floors. Hopefully we’ll get a pilot project for one of those.

      As for the Garden City and Bellamy, I’d say office parks are the most direct descendants of the Garden City. I’ve only read Bellamy’s “Looking Backward”, and it did not seem anti-urban.

      For a defense of cities, see Jane Jacobs’ “The Economy of Cities”, which I’ve written about before. She says agriculture began in cities, as did practically all innovations. A city’s vibrancy is directly related to how many new kinds of exports it produces. (New products, locally-produced products that were previously imported, and tourism/culture/education destinations.) Cities have the creativity nexus to invent these. Rural area and exurbs don’t. Inventions have come from rural areas only to the extent that they’ve adopted some city-like features (e.g., telecommunications).

      1. I love “The Economy of Cities” – and I’m finishing up “Cities and the Wealth of Nations”, a later book that ties a lot of “Economy” into modern examples.

  2. Well stated Ben.
    On the one hand, I have to chuckle a bit reading some threads digressing into minutia as if the world turns on the outcome, while others state as fact lofty opinions that can’t be verified for decades to come.
    In general, this is a pretty high class operation compared to reading the comment section of the Times with the usual suspects having little do to but express the same drivel over and over. I rarely read them anymore.
    The 100 year time frame is a good perspective, but as I grow older I find myself thinking about transportation options that can be deployed sooner, rather than later and ones that have near term positive results. This is especially important now that I’m ‘scared to death’ we have literally driven our ecosystem to the breaking point. I find myself wanting to measure results in years, not decades.
    I don’t think this makes you or me or even Mr. Bailo wrong. We just have different perspectives of success.

    1. Yes I agree with this – that some of us like to see what can be done in years, not decades and especially as we get older. We don’t have the luxury in our middle age to think about what we might enjoy in 100 years time but would like to see changes now that are going to effect our quality of life in the next few years.

    2. Mike, I think we need both perspectives – we need to have that long-term time horizon in mind, but you also need to be able to show progress on the ground. While the naysayers will continue to talk about LINK’s monthly ridership, etc., there’s a whole other group of folks who will see the trains and be intrigued. Those folks then vote for more expansions, etc. Obviously I’m oversimplifying, but you get the idea.

  3. Great topic, and I believe most disagreements around here come down to different starting assumptions, and there are many logical but different viewpoints expressed on this site.

    I similarly take the long view, but with the added belief that peak oil will help change our world quickly. In such a world the more efficient and pleasant end point is a dense city where the need for transportation is minimized. Due to our population we’ll likely need a few sattellite cities, but anything sprawl-like will be unpleasant and expensive to live in (even more so than now). Any new sprawl we build until then is a waste of precious resources – both economic and environmental. My views don’t change much if peak oil doesn’t come right away, since our real enemy is climate change (and I see peak oil as a good thing).

    Oh, and I think [Mike] is dead on with respect the writers and generally the commenters on this blog. And with his attitude toward quick change. A dollar earned today is worth much more than a dollar earned in 50 years, and the same is true for a pound of carbon saved.

    1. Unfourtunatly our whole economy is based around oil fuled transportation. it will be difficult to get away from that. Oil prices will have a lot to play, if you have a sum of money sitting around i’d invest in railroads like Mr. Buffet. But since so much of our housing is sprawl based, i’d be willing to bet there will be an explosion in demand for P&R lots, and high capasity transit services from them in the next fifty to sixty years. And with people driving electric or extremly efficent hybrid automotibles to/from them.

      1. “Unfourtunatly our whole economy is based around oil fuled transportation.”

        Our society depends on oil for a lot more than that. Things are going to get very difficult in the US if gas goes to $5/gallon and stays there. In the food industry, oil creates the fertilizer, transports it to the farms, transports the corn to silos, and food to the supermarket. Corn is an energy-intensive crop, but the corn subsidy has made it the main crop in the US. Pharmaceuticals, vitamins, and perfumes are also made from oil, unless you get the more expensive ones made directly from plants.

        Urbanites will be ripping out lawns and concrete patios and replacing them with vegetable gardens. Run-down suburban office parks will return to the farms they were just 50 years ago. (Hopefully the soil won’t be too toxic.) Exurbanites will be abandoning their homes to live someplace where they don’t have to drive as far for everyday needs.

      2. And that’s assuming such a transition will take place peacefully and orderly. Panicking, riots, looting and rouge militias are not part of a future that I want.

      3. I think there is a lot of room for food prices to increase without causing chaos. In much of the even developed world the percentage of income spent on food is much higher than in the US. Even in the US 40 years ago the average person spent nearly three times as large a share of their income on food as they do now.

      4. Oran,

        Cross-dressing militias? What colors do they prefer? I myself lean toward a frosted peach melba look in rouge.

      5. Actually, I began to question my statement over the weekend. Canada and Europe have had $5/gallon gas for years, and that did not prevent the sprawl around Vancouver (Surrey, Richmond, Steveston) even if it did provide more comprehensive transit.

  4. Nice post, Ben. One thing I would like to see this blog consider at greater length—in terms of broadening the discussion—is the need to address social and economic justice concerns in neighborhoods where transit improvements like Link will lead to densification and gentrification. There’s no doubt Central Link will profoundly impact how Rainier Valley looks in 10, 50, and 100 years. How do we develop dense, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly urban villages along this corridor while preserving the neighborhood’s character and at least some of the economic and racial/ethnic diversity that renders the valley so unique in Seattle? I agree that it is good to think about the shops that will be there in 100 years, but I also want to ensure Tammy’s Bakery and the African-American barbershops in Columbia City can afford their rents and actually have a clientele to serve five and ten years from now.

    On another note, what of the built environment surrounding transit stations—can we do more than merely up-zone? Should we consider options (even prescriptive building codes) to ensure that what is built is not only dense but meaningfully engages with the street to create vibrant and worthwhile urban spaces?

    Some of this certainly falls near the periphery of a transit blog’s purview. But if one of Link’s fundamental purposes is transforming development patterns, then discussing the nature of that transformation seems germane to STB’s mission.

    1. You cannot separate land use/zoning and transportation/mobility issues. We’ve tried to, because these two issues developed separately. To the degree that some are disappointed in the what’s been realized under the Growth Management Act, it’s partially due to the fact that our transportation system is governed separately from our land use regime. Both transportation and land use regimes are highly fragmented, something historically seen as a civic GOOD around here. PSRC has been trying to tie the policies together for 20 years, but it runs into resistance. Local control and all that.

      Good piece, Ben. Will be glad when I have time to read more.

      1. The danger and the fear to creating a mega-transportation and land-use agency is that control of the planning and the money will be captured by narrow interests who will then push an agenda that favors them.

        For example if such an agency was run by Kemper Freeman and people who think like him we’d get lots of roads out to rural areas and lots of low density sprawl built there. Transit would be something only for the old, the young, the disabled, and the poor. Anything built anywhere would have massive parking requirements.

        On the other hand rural folk fear that if the cities have the upper hand they will be forced to treat their land as a giant park with no changes or productive uses allowed. See the rancor the King County Critical Areas Ordinance caused for one example.

        Both extremes are certainly exaggerations of the reality that would likely occur, but the fears are somewhat justified. Things such as hanging the millstone of massive freeway expansion around the neck of the second phase of Sound Transit (roads+transit) or people proposing agency mergers because they want to get their hands on Sound Transit’s taxing authority in order to spend the money on roads.

      2. Then, Chris, you can’t complain too much about the status quo. It has it’s faults, but as you illustrate, it also has it’s utility. My hope has been to establish a new set of performance measures to sort of push people into the way we want them to go, without the uber-agency, which proved just too much for people to accept.

        I’m curious, though. Would you feel the same about the uber-agency thing if it were ST that were running everything? Wouldn’t your arguments about one-size-doesn’t-fit-all still apply?


      3. I don’t think there’s anything magic about ST that would make it better at building roads. Right now people come to work for ST and serve on the board because they care about building rail projects. If ST becomes the road agency too a lot more people will be showing up there to advocate for roads.

        The beauty of the current system is that the region’s transit capital account (ST) is kept separate from its operating account (Metro, CT, PT), on some high level.

        If there’s anywhere I’d like ST’s power to expand it’d be in zoning policies around station areas. However, I think that would cause people to argue for a directly elected board, which I think would be a mistake.

      4. I think Martin hits it on the head here. If Sound Transit was given responsibility for roads then there would be a lot of pressure from those who benefit from road building to build more roads. Not to mention that if ST also had to run local bus services (Metro, PT, CT) there would be a huge temptation to raid the capital accounts to fund operating shortfalls.

        Perhaps the best way forward would be to give the PSRC some more teeth on both transportation and land use planning. For the most part I haven’t really objected to what they come up with.

    2. I know the big huge vacant property at the SW corner of MLK & Othello is owned by the Seattle Housing Authority, with a big low-income (and perhaps mixed-income) apartment project planned there. Does anyone know if the retail spaces on SHA properties are also for small, local, lower-income businesses?

      1. As I said in the piece – that doesn’t work. We haven’t figured out how to do it, and I don’t think we’re going to anytime in the near future. It’s *good* for us to have business competition, we just have to provide buildings that will age.

        If you build subsidized business spaces, you get crappy construction, under the way we do things now. In a hundred years, you’ll have to replace it with something new, and it won’t turn into a neat small long-term business.

    3. Jason,

      I think there are some interesting things that can be done at the margins, with subsidies and construction requirements, to ensure that some low-income and existing businesses remain.

      Beyond that limited scope, though, the Rainier Valley is either going to be a nice place to live or not. If it has good schools, good transit service, and low crime, prices are going to go up and force out some of the people that live there. People don’t like to push for bad schools and more crime, so it’s good transit that sometimes takes the hit.

      There is a bit you can do by loosing zoning restrictions to create an oversupply of housing. That reduces rents in the long run, but in the short term it increases the value of all property and may force existing residents and businesses out.

      1. I largely agree, Martin. If you double-check my post above, I only asked how we could preserve “some” of the neighborhood’s economic and ethnic diversity. My main concern—beyond requiring a certain percentage of below-market residential units—is that staying in the neighborhood at least remains a viable option for some meaningful percentage of working lower-mid and middle-class families.

    4. One of the goals of society should always be that of uplift and trying to move people upwards socially, economically and financially. I don’t see a problem with gentrifying the Rainier Valley so that it becomes nicer for people living there and visiting it. I would rather stop off and visit interesting shops and stores than I would pass through and see endless teriyaki restaurants. I remember once when I was volunteering for the monorail project that 60% of the properties needing to be condemned or bought were going to be teriyaki restaurants. I don’t think that the character of a neighborhood can be defined or end up being lost by these. There are just too many of them to cling to any one as defining a neighborhood. Having parks and neighborhood defined art as well as well lit and landscaped roads are a far better way of defining a neighborhood’s character and power. Too often economic diveristy and ethnic fabric are euphemistic words of preserving poverty and I don’t think that preserving poverty should be a goal and if Link can uplift the areas it travels through by a rising tide of upzoning, then so much the better all around.

      1. Tim, I honestly can’t tell if you’re disagreeing with my comment above or not, but I don’t use economic diversity as a euphemism for anything. As someone who has had solid middle-class family forced to leave neighborhoods they loved because of gentrification, it is (obviously) not about preserving poverty, but about trying to ensure that at least some of the upstanding, working-class people who have raised families in the area for decades (and supported the neighborhood by joining block watches and myriad other community groups) have the opportunity to experience their neighborhood’s revival.

      2. Jason, I am not sure either! I get confused with the structure of the posts as to what I am replying to half the time and where my comments end up. Sometimes they are far below the original post.

        Basically, if you like gentification and upzoning then you agree with me, but if you don’t then you don’t agree with me. I would far rather see nice light well landscaped boulevards with safe parks and well maintained shopping centers than the current pattern of beaten up lots, graffiti, trash and poorly maintained shopping centers.

        With reagrd to MLK, there has been a lot of nice housing being built down there and I hope that their residents feel so much the better for it. I would hate to look out and see a squalid lot next to me whose owner can’t be bothered to keep it free of trash and graffiti and who is so obviously holding out hope for the next best offer which may never come. This is capitalism and the American dream at its worst.

      3. Jason,

        To the extent that these “working-class people” own their own homes they can absolutely enjoy the improvements in their neighbohoods. They can either stay and enjoy those improvements or reap the windfall.

        if you’re a renter, you’re basically SOL.

      4. Hmmm, then I guess I don’t understand the nuts-and-bolts of property tax valuation/assessment here. In other places I’ve lived and places where I’ve looked closely at development patterns, gentrification caused property taxes to spike well beyond the means of long-time homeowners already in the neighborhood—causing mass sell-offs of not only SFHs but also beautiful vintage two-flats and three-flats, all of which were uniformly torn down for ugly lot hogs (which don’t even increase density) or cheaply-constructed condos. Looks like I have some really boring reading to do this weekend.

      5. Jason,

        You’re too kind; I totally neglected property tax. It’s true that valuations tend to lag the actual rise in value, but it’s true that some HOs truly on the edge will be driven out by tax increases.

      6. Long time home owners will have a much lower mortgage payment which will more than offset the increased property taxes. Any mass sell offs are people cashing in the the equity they’ve built up in the home. Peoples needs and desires change over time. A family who’s kids have grown and moved out no longer cares as much about the school district, a big yard with a swing set, 4-5 bedrooms, etc. A low maintenance condo with golf and minimum age limit might sound a lot more appealing. While some fixed income elderly do get priced out of their home it’s a combination of rising costs on everything and not just property taxes. Chances are the property taxes are far less than a comparable rental. If the house is paid for a reverse mortgage can pay the taxes and generate income. Keep in mind also that property taxes pay for many of the essential services necessary to live in you’re home (like fire protection). If the older houses haven’t kept pace with new developments taxes will be essential only on the value of the land. A perfectly good house can be valued at next to nothing if a developer is going to bulldoze it. In this situation the fancy new homes are paying the lions share of the taxes in that neighborhood. Only if the neighborhood has become a complete ghetto would taxes remain at the same low rate for 20 years and that situation certainly doesn’t favor the home owner.

      7. You know, teriyaki restaurant can represent a lot of blood sweat and tears on the part of its owners. For many of the often immigrant owners their dream is to own a family business. Note that the same thing can be said about convenience stores, nail salons, and a number of other businesses frequently started by recent immigrants. Furthermore I don’t think teriyaki restaurants would be such a common and successful business as they are if they weren’t popular with the public.

      8. I dunno but seeing many teriyaki and other restaurants sure looks better than a ton of chain stores. Teriyaki has become so popular in Seattle and developed a style of its own such that the NY Times ran a story about it.

      9. Yes, it is capitalism and not necessarily the best side of it – make a fast buck the fastest way you can in anyway you can. Sorry, but I believe in the Olmsteds of this world and the city beautiful movement and I don’t believe in endless small stores that so often end up as urban blight because their owners are just rich enough to keep them going but not rich enough to make sure the areas around them are kept free of trash and graffiti.

      10. You know I’d rather have “endless small stores” than endless big boxes or chain stores.

        For the most part the owners of small retail businesses are very concerned about the condition of the area their stores are in.

      11. I don’t agree with that – if graffiti and trash hang around stores, it is generally the case that it is the smaller stores that do next to nothing to remove the blight.

        Ben, I believe in tons of stuff but I also get disillusioned about tons of stuff and I have to make sure that I keep it all in balance, but sometimes one side tips into the other. Don’t forget I volunteered for the monorail project and what did that get us – five votes and a failed project. I think that just about sums up everything I both hope and get frustrated about!

      12. You’re wrong. It really is the case that small businesses are more involved in their community than big businesses.

        A small business owner cleans up the graffiti and the trash because he’s invested in the community.

        You need to solve your frustration problem. We’re over here building light rail.

  5. If that is really your thinking, Ben, then you’re not so much a transit supporter or activist as a futurist or a regional planner.

    That’s nice and all… but it’s not a very practical foundation for some of the arguments that occur on this blog and in forums all around the region. Many folks need more transit service now (or even yesterday). They need to get to jobs this morning, feed their families today, and pay their bills tonight.

    If admittedly less perfect solutions can be implemented sooner, sometimes that’s the better choice. This is why we can’t start targeting future investments into rail only. Or tear down all the old buildings to create new Transit-Oriented Developments.

    Cities that we look to with the best transit systems have often taken well over 100 years to get to where they are today. And I can promise you that their planners at the start were not envisioning what the cities would look like today.

    1. Looking towards the future doesn’t mean you can’t do anything now. It just means that anything you do now needs to easily added to/upgraded/etc so that as we develop you don’t have to rip it up.

      1. Anc – exactly.

        Ben – nice piece to get us out of the “150 comments on a Jetta-Link accident” rut. There are far bigger fish to fry – Thanks!

      2. Whoops, wrong reply to! Don’t know how that happened – should be located below this to Adam’s post.

      3. Yes, so that means we can still build a floating bridge with HOV lanes that in the future can hopefully be converted to Light Rail once someone has a plan for where it is supposed to go east and west of the bridge.

      4. We’re going to write about that more soon. Those lanes would never be converted to light rail, because that’s not a good place for light rail to go.

      5. I think getting light rail across 520 is far more feasible than building an additional floating bridge.

        At this point I really don’t want to see any major new bridges built without the capacity for some sort of rail across them. While the 520 corridor isn’t the best alignment for reaching downtown Seattle it would tie in somewhat decently with an E/W corridor between Ballard and the UW. Extending East it should be possible to more or less follow the route of the 271 to Issaquah. This also gives the Issaquah trains somewhere to go rather than just being shuttles to the S Bellevue P&R or Redmond.

        The big dance is to ensure two things:
        1. That any capacity for the new 520 bridge to take light rail tracks not be used as an excuse to further delay East Link.
        2. That the funding is done in such a way that if an exclusive transit corridor of some sort is eventually put across the bridge it not have amendment 18 issues. (to whit that the gas tax can only be used for “roads”)

      6. Chris, getting light rail across 520 isn’t the problem.

        Getting light rail TO anywhere from the ENDS of 520 is not cost effective. On the west side, you have to cross the arboretum and a rich neighborhood. On the east side, you empty into nothingness.

      7. Actually on the Eastside it would be very easy to tie into Eastlink via the South Kirkland P&R. The BNSF ROW passes the P&R and goes under 405 and 520 to the exact spot where Eastlink will be leaving the BNSF ROW to head up 116th to Redmond. It would only amount to about a mile of track from the P&R to Eastlink, and then a few miles to the bridge. The east side alignment could probably be built for less money than they’re spending on lids. The west side alignment’s a different story, but you’ve got to start somewhere.

      8. Ben,
        I’m sorry, but given the cost of bridges, not to mention the huge fight trying build one on a new alignment across Lake Washington would be, I don’t think using the 520 bridge and ROW would cost more.

        Face it anywhere along the lake there is going to be a rich neighborhood who is going to be touchy about anything that might impact property values. Montlake is likely to be one of the easiest areas to get rail through compared to Laurelhurst, Windemere, Matthews Beach, or anything on the Kirkland or Medina side.

        Sure, any possible rail line across the 520 bridge is a ways off, maybe never. But at the point I-90 was planned for rail it wasn’t as if anyone had any idea some day it might be a reality.

        I think it would be the height of stupidity and arrogance not to plan and build a 520 replacement bridge without both the physical capacity to add a rail line in the future as well as the legal framework to make it possible. Furthermore it is a good idea to ensure nothing on either the East or the West approaches is done to make it difficult or impossible to build rail in the corridor in the future.

      9. I agree, as Ben said earlier, we are building for the future. Just b/c some people can’t see a clear use for it NOW doesn’t mean there never will be. Unless adding rail would be prohibitorily expensive, I don’t see any reason NOT to put rail on it.

      10. Guys – Zed, Anc, Chris – if we’re building for the future, we’re not going to put trains over 520. We’re going to put them where they make sense, which is much more likely via Sand Point to Kirkland.

        This whole “we won’t build a new bridge” commentary applies doubly to trying to get light rail through the Arboretum.

        I really want you all to stop, go “how would light rail get from the UW to the bridge”, and consider the environmental impacts and the impacts on the homeowners there – and the giant fight that would bring.

        Plus, I’m not convinced that a “new bridge” would be any more expensive than adding to 520. We’re not going to put light rail in the center lanes with buses – what are you going to do, build flyover ramps that put the train in the middle of the bridge? You’d have to widen the bridge…

      11. Well, that’s certainly a charming idea- another bridge across Lake Washington.

        How do you get light rail from the UW to the bridge? Just put it where the cars are. The tracks don’t need to connect with Link, just run them west to Ballard and let passengers transfer.

      12. I think it would be far more difficult to build tracks from UW to Sand Point than it would be to get from UW to 520. Look at the opposition that some in Laurelhurst put up to the Children’s Hospital expansion—and that’s for critically needed hospital infrastructure, not a train running through the entire neighborhood. Even if we can’t build a bridge/tunnel crossing the cut today, I do think that a stop where the Montlake flyer stop is now could work, particularly if the 44 was extended a bit to terminate there.

    2. Think about it like a chess game. Your end goal is to win but that doesn’t make any of your moves pointless. You just have to make you moves with the long term goal in mind. That might mean that you have to trade queens, etc. However if your goal is to not loose any pieces you certainly will lose.

  6. I consider mass transit a fundamental travel mode. Mass transit users are first of all walkers, walking being another fundamental travel mode. Bicycling is closer to walking than travel via automobile, thus bicycle-specific infrastructure ought to be integrated into pedestrian infrastructure rather than roadways. These modes of urban/suburban travel suffer a severe impediment with any level of automobile traffic, an impediment should be considered a constitutional inequity. When automobiles dominate, even travel by automobile fails to function optimally.

    As for how metropolitan areas may develop, my starting point is to assume cars (as we know them today) will become a thing of the past, their common use diminishing to perhaps 10% of today’s level. In the future, a lot more of our daily activities will be conducted without driving across the county or the neighborhood. What essential cross-county travel remains will occur mostly via mass transit. Along these lines, I imagine not a few mega-cities, but rather metropolitan regions laid out much as they are today sans automobiles. Parking lots become prime development property. Big Box retail buildings are mostly demolished. Neighborhood circulator bus lines connect conveniently to regional rail and BRT line stations. Arranging these sort of transit connections should be bandied about in our discussions today. The Vision Line reduces the cost and impact of Link LRT by relying upon a transfer system to downtown Bellevue. You guys refuse to give any thought to what I mean by that.

    The deep-bore tunnel replacement for the AWV is idiotic.

    1. This is a good big-picture look. It seems pretty obvious that, if we survive, in a hundred years almost everyone will walk or ride a bike to transit. People will look back on the time we used two tons of car to move with the same amazement we have remembering beer wagons pulled by Percherons.

      And, given the loss of agricultural capacity we already know will happen because of AGW, population density will probably have to increase, to reclaim productive land near cities.

      Considering that 90% of the world’s peoples haven’t even entered the automobile age, this could all happen a lot faster than you think.

    2. “The Vision Line reduces the cost and impact of Link LRT by relying upon a transfer system to downtown Bellevue.”

      This is an argument for the Vision Line?

      We do know how cities developed and thrived in the streetcar era. That’s pretty much what you’re describing. A string of medium-density settlements along transit lines, with a few large cities here and there. But in all cases, the trains stopped in the center of town, with residences and grocery stores within walking distance, and a frequent bus that took you within walking distance of the other residences.

      The Vision Line would not give you that. At best, there may eventually be development alongside and over 405. Maybe the east-west “moving sidewalk” will someday become a streetcar from 100th to 116th and beyond. In the meantime, it’s a possible but inconvenient walk to most of the destinations in downtown Bellevue.

      All successful transit systems build to the existing neighborhood centers. They may also have some stations in open land to encourage future development. But they don’t bypass neighborhood centers in order to serve an expansion station.

      1. And only the rich had isolated houses accessible only by car. But many of them also had a residence in the city; they didn’t commute from their country estate every day.

  7. Exactly. Good Article. We need to start planning for the future. More road lanes and highways are a useless, and a waste of money and time.

    We need to start looking into a vast Seattle Subway System, an I-5 bullet train, and a future of rail-oriented urban planning.

  8. Good post, Ben and a great starting point.

    I believe that taking the long term view is a great starting point with which to get voters and shakers and stakeholders interested in mass transit and what it might be able to do for their kids and grandkids and generations after that. And yes, it is a good idea to look beyond the car, but unfortunately, we are over-democratic in the United States, elections are held too frequently and sometimes for the most pointless of positions and reasons and only go to show the vacuum of leadership that runs throughout the democratic system. Our elected ‘leaders’ are constrained by a system that means they have to go before the voters way too often and the public refuses to empower them when they get there. Initiatives and referenda further constrain the ability of our system to operate efficiently and effectively and fear permeates the whole. We also operate in an environment where funding sources are inadequate and revenue streams are inconsistent and the net result is that no one is allowed to look at the long term but only the short term. We also elect leaders who are about themselves more than their plans because they never ran on one in the first place. There is no consistent or strong Democratic or Republican platform on which anyone runs, but instead they run on what works for the streets in which they live.

    So, we have a set up where we spent years arguing about alignments until everyone is happy until they then are not and mavericks like Kemper Freeman and Tim Eyman come along and ruin the whole because they think they exist outside of the electoral verdict and system.

    We are constantly checking the pulse of the voters and so therefore the fifty year vision becomes impracticable as a way of organizing our thoughts and actions. Even ten years is too long because it creates an outcome/result vacuum that allows undemocratic ‘leaders’ like Freeman to run in and try and rearrange the dining room furniture after a banquet has been laid and the guests have arrived. It also allows for tedious initiatives to be promulgated by unscrupulous people who think they know exactly what the people want and need.

    What is the result of all this? We have a Light Rail alignment down the Rainier Valley that is clearly a flawed design, we have another across the Eastside mired in conflict and disagreement, streetcars whose alignments are also mired in endless discussion, vital road projects that are underfunded, buses in Pierce County and Snohomish County that are underfunded, Sound Transit projects that move towards completion slower than we can see a glacier move down a hill, a monorail project that could have been built by now between West Seattle and Ballard that has been cancelled because of over votes and just a general lack of overall integration. Oh, and lets not forget underfunded trains! Nothing is integrating and yes, you are right about the lack of overall vision, but to think that we can move to that is impracticable for the reasons outlined above – the electorate has too much power and the elected too little and to compound both, funding sources that are inconsistent, and until the whole is brought back into balance, we won’t really have an alternative to how we do things today – tinkering here, pushing a little there, funding some projects in part before we have the whole, scraping for dollars in pots too small or otherwise too big for the meager pennies and cents that exist in them. Everything is out of balance and until it becomes more so, the ultimate vision will always appear out of focus and illusory to those whose job it is to see it clearly – i.e. those we supposedly elect to make the leadership decisions that we so quickly deprive them of or second guess them on.

  9. Well, this is clearly a discussion that this blog might profitably have more often. It’s an interesting compendium of where people are coming from.

    Most of you are entirely too upset about what is a simple fact of history- cheap gas. Be interested, be informed, but there’s no point in being worried or angry. It is what it is and it will end when it ends.

    When it comes to energy efficiency, there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit in better designed and insulated buildings. Every year, sad to say, a lot of housing in the US should be replaced, but the pain of that process could be eased by replacing it with low-income housing on transit corridors. Almost all government buildings and publicly owned facilities could be located intelligently, and even private schools and clinics could be encouraged to locate there. This, of course, would have the follow-on effect of cutting miles-traveled by quite a bit.

    Alternately, we could hold the world at bay with our nukes, take the oil at gunpoint, and cook the planet like an egg. I hope we make the right choice.

    1. That sounds like good advice!

      I like discussions like this too – we often get bogged down in minutiae and lose touch with the bigger picture and how it dovetails in or not with what we can achieve or not in the short term.

      Unlike Ben, I don’t think that cars are any more doomed unfortunately than we can say with certainty that trains will be any more here in 100 years than they are now – that is in terms of moving folks around.

    2. Thanks, serial catowner. Unfortunately in 2003 “we” did decide to shock and awe the world with our amazing military. We can certainly hope 2008 is the new direction, but I don’t think it hurts anything to work for change to happen sooner rather than later.

      1. The US Supreme Court CONservative majority has decreed international corporations have the right to influence US elections. Their executive directors don’t care who is enslaved or dies while they make a fortune from the spoils of Oil Wars. They’ve wrecked the US economy and are busying themselves with self-contained retreats far from the collapse and ruins of the 20th Century. Their cruise ships will occassionally dock in Seattle. They’ll visit their Chiluly museum. Trah-lah-lah.

      2. That ruling had little effect on local elections. We were already less restrictive.

      3. My point, Ben, was not that our elections are a mockery of justice, but rather that wealthy, powerful leaders of trans-national business and industry consider themselves internationalists and as such beyond loyalty to country and fellow citizens. Globalization is colonialism and wage-slavery. It creates economies that can be easily undermined when our overlords determine us commoners need to be taught a lesson. Bill Gates expects more than a full return on his supposed benevolence.

    3. “Most of you are entirely too upset about what is a simple fact of history- cheap gas.”

      Europe had cheap gas too. But they went in a fundamentally different direction after the 1970s oil shocks.

      “Almost all government buildings and publicly owned facilities could be located intelligently, and even private schools and clinics could be encouraged to locate there.”

      Interesting thing about public schools. They were forced into non-walkable locations by laws requiring a minimum size stadium and sports fields.

  10. There has to be balance though. Homelessness and urgent social ills don’t wait. People who need affordable housing now need it now.

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