If you’re reading this, there’s some year in which you became very interested in Puget Sound area transit services. For me, that year was 2006, and I found Jim Kershner’s Transit: The Story of Public Transportation in the Puget Sound Region to be a concise, readable, and richly illustrated overview of all that has gone before.
Unlike other books ($) in this genre, this work starts all the way at the beginning, with horse-drawn streetcars, and takes us to the ST3 vote and beyond.
Seattle’s streetcar system began as an amenity common to all modern cities, and entered a period of public ownership in 1919. The system ultimately collapsed due to poor fiscal judgment among city leaders, the apparent superiority of auto ownership at Seattle’s mid-century wealth and population level, and even competition from “jitneys” — the Uber and Lyft of their day. For a work targeted at transit fans, Kershner is admirably clear-eyed about the system’s weaknesses. Partially legitimate critiques of modern streetcars were doubly so for their poorly maintained, always-stuck-in-traffic forebears.
Worse yet, the system’s original sin was the City overpaying to buy the network in 1919. The resultant fear of big price tags would sabotage decades of plans to think bigger in the book’s second section. A precipitous decline in transit ridership coincided with isolated victories in building the bus tunnel and extending decent service to the suburbs via the formation of Metro.
The region finally emerged from its funk in the 1970s, beginning a period of ridership growth headlined by Sound Transit. The last segment of the book takes us through Sound Transit’s difficult path to the present, where the future of rapid rail transit is assured. The book is particularly strong in explaining the contribution of key people like Joni Earl and Greg Nickels to the survival of Sound Transit. Readers interested in understanding why these are monumental figures of our late transit history will find this part satisfying.
A richly illustrated book under 200 pages long has to make tough decisions about what stories to tell. It is quite strong on the various organizations, voter sentiments, and leaders that have shaped our transit history, although the Seattle Monorail Project gets less attention than some other failures. What it is not is a history of Seattle’s routes. With isolated exceptions, this is not the book to tell you how specific routes have evolved over time, how Seattle Transit and Metro evolved their service allocation principles, or to firmly connect the transit system to the larger economic and land use context of the day.
There are a few irritating mistakes that made it through editing. The Center City Connector is not yet under construction, and one chart shows ST3 passing in 2018, not 2016. Nevertheless, Transit is an accessible explanation of why things were the way they were whenever you got to Seattle. Aside from its informative value, it’s an attractive volume for your living room, for thumbing through on a rainy weekend or making a statement about your passions.