Part 1 of a series
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, questions about whether transit will thrive post-pandemic have been floating around. In our long term view, the human tendency to gather and the need for urban mobility has not gone away. While the pandemic has paused life for a while, and Zoom has made working from afar possible, none of that has changed human nature, or radically affected the tools we need to combat climate change.
Our species still requires connection. If history is any indicator, post-pandemic we will still have social events, shop in urban villages, and cluster where other people are. We will do these things because we are hardwired to value them. Not only does human nature point to this need for cities, climate science demands we double down on them. Don’t just take my word for it—let’s dive into a city doing it right.
The (thankfully) ex-First Lady likes to say “Be Best.” On transportation, we just say “Be Paris.”
In the 170 years since Haussmann built much of the city we see today, through multiple pandemics, depression and world wars—and with advances from the telegraph to telephone to television and the internet—has Paris ever stopped being Paris? Did Parisiens stop using the Subway? Paris as a city has flourished after every disruption, and continues to epitomize the sort of place most other cities wish they were. Around the world, have people stopped agglomerating together? Have humans given up on having community? No, we have doubled down on all of the above.
Like Paris, every C40 city (including Seattle) now says they want to be a 15-minute city. But we will be unable to do that holding neither Paris’ elegant approach to density nor Paris’ transportation network. Building Paris in Seattle is impossible if everyone is driving a car around, electric or not. Not only that, increased car volumes decrease community connections and quality of life. That’s why continued investments in an audacious and ubiquitous high quality transportation network are essential.
Disclaimer: When it comes to improvement in the realms of rapid transit and human scale density, Paris is a great example of what the Seattle region should aspire to. Although Paris has myriad problems, including many race- and class-based social justice issues, but the physical form of the city and its rapid transit system would be a significant improvement over what exists in the Seattle region. Paris is a failure by our standards of equity and inclusion, yet this city of 2.1 million still has only ⅓ the homeless population of the City of Seattle, even though Paris is three times its population). In the case of equitable housing, a place like Vienna is the model. Vienna is proof that a city with great mobility can also have an effective, equitable housing policy.
Finally, as people post-pandemic are not going to stay in their home 24/7, they are going to travel. How they travel matters. We live in a city where 62% of our carbon emissions come from road transportation—the largest single contributor to pollution and climate change. Meanwhile, transportation pollution in general isn’t going down.
The solution is—quite simply—cities. Households in dense areas of our cities tend to have carbon footprints about 50 percent below average. And only cities have the tools to improve on that stellar stat by increasing use of already growing electrified transportation options, plus biking and walking by way of becoming a legitimate 15-minute city.
To be like Paris (with respect to transit and housing) requires continued audacity to build out the arteries that connect such a corpus metropolitae. Many here agree, but argue the Pandemic changes everything. But did the last pandemic, that killed 50 million globally and 400,000-600,000 in America, ‘change everything?’ Transit ridership was highest in WWII, and the networks our City has envisaged over the past 110 years have changed hardly at all. In fact, it is the transit network that defines how the city grows, not the other way around. The destinations we are building to now are the same destinations CREATED by the streetcar and cable car networks of our city that existed from 1884-1939.
All these are reasons that we should not only continue to build smart transit expansion…we should double down on it. That’s why Seattle Subway will continue to push for ST3 to be built to standard with universal grade separation and continued commitment to every station and every line outlined in the voter-approved program. We have a decade to find the money to build some of these lines, and are currently in a more hospitable political climate to do so. But if we cut something now, we might never get it back. In this vein, this is also why we have been working for nearly a year on HB 1304 to provide the resources and local input necessary to help our march for more sustainable and equitable transit progress to continue.
Build. Connect. House equitably. Rejoice!