Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat was out with a piece yesterday – “At Last, Seattle Loves Its Light Rail” – ($) that describes Link’s 83% ridership jump as a tipping point from our “recalcitrant” Lesser Seattle instincts to our inevitable Big City future. It’s a good piece, and I encourage to read the whole thing, but here are a couple key passages:
But there’s something deep-seated going on, too. Back in the early days when we were debating this system, I wrote a story about Seattle’s cussed resistance to rail, unique among all big American cities.
A tipping point has been reached, it seems to me. The train is no longer an academic urbanist talking point, or something like broccoli that we know is supposed to be good for us. The recalcitrant city now is embracing rail with a zeal that seems to have startled even Sound Transit. It took damn near 50 years of arguing about it. But we finally love it.
Is Westneat right that a major cultural shift is happening, or have we simply unleashed demand that was there all along from our dense neighborhoods and major institutions? Or maybe a bit of both?
I resist the idea of Seattle as a recalcitrant “bus city”, as our failure to build rapid transit over the last 3 generations seems more procedural than principled. Forward Thrust earned a majority ‘Yes’ vote, but stupidly required a 60% supermajority. Citizens were so desperate for rapid transit that we spent nearly a decade trying and failing to build it ourselves. Then we created an agency (Sound Transit) that nearly imploded from mismanagement, but that has since recovered to do damn good work.
So I’d argue that Link isn’t necessarily converting principled holdouts that had been holding us back all along, but rather simply that we’re finally reaping the inevitable dividend that comes with serving dense areas with fast, reliable transit.
Yes, we’re slow. We have always required quality for our systems, to the clear detriment of quantity. We built a bus-only subway in the late 1980s when no one else was doing so. And we rightly resisted the temptation to lay down low-quality, low-frequency light rail that would have won us unearned and misguided praise as a ‘rail city’. So are we seeing unprecedented excitement? Sure. Are the naysayers wrong? Mostly, yes. But a massive cultural shift? I’m not sure that gives previous generations of advocates enough credit.