Guest Post Series: Rough Seas, But Finally Righted

by GREG NICKELS, Mayor of Seattle and Chair of the Sound Transit Board

Probably Central Link O&M Groundbreaking
Probably Central Link O&M Groundbreaking

After the passage of Sound Move on November 5, 1996 it was time to get to work. The RTA needed to ramp up from a 22 person planning staff to an entity capable of building a multi-billion dollar capital program and operating multiple modes of transit service. This is a step virtually every new transit agency struggles with and leads to a phenomenon known as “growing pains”!

The Board began to make dozens of decisions (PDF), from rebranding the agency as “Sound Transit” to vehicle purchases to route decisions. Environmental Impact Statements were begun, policies were developed, fares with other transit agencies were “integrated”, ground was broken and hearings were held.

In September 1997 the first Regional Express bus service began, in June 1998 I led the Board’s effort to identify Union Station as Sound Transit’s permanent headquarters and Sounder commuter rail between Tacoma and Seattle debuted in September, 2000. Tacoma’s Link streetcar began service in August, 2003.

Due to its size, federal funding and all new right-of-way; the most complicated aspect of the program was Link Light Rail. A very difficult period began toward the end of 2000 as tensions mounted and the Board ordered a halt to negotiations over a contract to build a very long, deep light rail tunnel under Portage Bay. The Board was concerned that the cost and risk of the proposed contract was unacceptably high and a reassessment was in order. This led to staff changes (Joni Earl became Executive Director) and eventually a reengineering of the project (splitting it into the initial Airport segment and the University segment extension) to reduce the risks.

Extraordinary political drama ensued including the last minute signing of a Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA) on the final evening of the Clinton administration and light rail becoming the focus of the very close 2001 Seattle Mayor’s race. But the Board persevered, Joni restored confidence in the agency and eventually the project was back on track. In fact in February, 2003 Link’s initial segment received the highest rating of any project in the nation from the Federal Transit Administration. This was repeated recently with the University Link extension. Ground was finally broken for the initial Link light rail segment on November 8, 2003.

Guest Post Series: In 1996, A Second Chance for Light Rail

by GREG NICKELS, Mayor of Seattle and Chair of the Sound Transit Board
rta01Following the defeat of the March 14, 1995 RTA proposition, things looked bleak for mass transit in Metro Seattle. Despite a relatively close outcome, the votes were not evenly distributed – Seattle, Lake Forest Park and Mercer Island were the only jurisdictions that passed the measure – the rest of King County and both Pierce and Snohomish Counties voted no. In Everett, Light Rail was slightly less popular than Prohibition! There was no requirement that the plan pass in each separate county (just the overall district), but politically it was necessary to show broad support, not just from a Seattle dominated electorate.

Given the math, how could a majority of the RTA Board be convinced to put the measure on the ballot? To make matters worse, the RTA, which had been given revenue from the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax for planning, no longer had any income and no legislative support for additional dollars in Olympia. Could the agency even survive until the measure was resubmitted?

Critics often bemoan the absence of leadership in our civic affairs, but I would argue that our regional leaders responded to the defeat of the first RTA plan with creativity and courage. I was approached after the election by two respected political professionals: John Engber and Don McDonough. They quickly convinced me (and ultimately the rest of the Board) that the key to success was to place a revised plan on the Presidential ballot in 1996. The reason? Younger voters would be a much larger proportion of the electorate. Younger voters believe they will be around for a while and therefore are much more likely to vote for a transit plan that may take years to complete (the defeated RTA plan took twenty years to build out).

The problem with November of 1996 was the twenty-month wait. How could an agency with no assets and no revenue survive? And what would it do in the interim?

rta02It began with a listening tour, asking voters why they had rejected the plan. Was it opposition to the entire concept or to certain aspects of the specific plan they rejected? The Board laid off most of the staff, keeping just 22 folks to reduce expenses to a bare minimum. Operating funds were borrowed from King County. The original Executive Director, Tom Matoff, resigned to give the Board a clean slate moving forward (Tom was a light rail guy with little interest in express bus or HOV access). Planning director Bob White (one of the original Metro staff) replaced Matoff.

Snohomish County Executive Bob Drewel took over as the Board Chair despite the terrible showing the proposition had in his county. Work soon focused on some basic concepts – a smaller initial phase (somewhat ironic given that this was the big reason for Everett’s opposition) with a shorter timeframe and more investments in express bus service and HOV access projects. This was an attempt to respond to concerns raised in our listening tour. Among the issues we heard were accountability for such a huge program from an agency with no track record and that there was nothing in the plan for many parts of the RTA district for many years (if ever).

In the end the phase one plan the Board put on the ballot, now called Sound Move, was reduced from $6.7 billion to $3.9 billion (1996 dollars) and Light Rail scaled back to a line from the UW to Sea-Tac (with a door open for Northgate if additional funds were secured). Added were park and ride lots, access ramps to HOV lanes and a concept called “sub-area equity”, the concept that funds should return to the county or sub-region in rough proportion to what they had paid. The time frame for completing phase one was pegged at 10 years. The election was set for November 5, 1996.

The campaign again was hard fought, but this time the proponents were less defensive. We focused more on grass roots support and less from “opinion leaders”. It worked, voters in all three counties approved the plan, 58.8% in King County, 54.4% in Snohomish and even Pierce voters gave a 50.1% nod to the yes side.

At last it looked like smooth sailing for a Metro Seattle mass transit system!

Guest Post Series: Sound Move, The First Try

by GREG NICKELS, Mayor of Seattle and Chair of the Sound Transit Board

CPSRTA Election Pamphlet (also note the old agency logo on the train)

With just over ten weeks until Sound Transit Light Rail opens, this is my fourth installment on how we got here.

After the three County Councils agreed to place the RTA plan on the ballot, the RTA’s first actual service began on January 28, 1995. Called TRY Rail, this demonstration of commuter rail service carried passengers between Tacoma and Seattle for a few weeks and then between Everett and Seattle. In total, 35,000 passengers rode TRY Rail. Commuter rail was one of the elements of the ballot measure.

The first vote to decide Mass Transit for King County in 25 years (and the first ever for Pierce and Snohomish Counties) was scheduled for a March 14, 1995 Special Election. In addition to commuter rail, the plan contained a mostly surface light rail system connecting Tacoma to Seattle, north to Lynnwood (actually 164th St SW) and east across Lake Washington to Bellevue and Redmond.

The campaign in favor was called “Citizens for Sound Transit,” and the opponents, “Families Against Congestion and Taxes.” Early polls looked favorable with some 60% of respondents likely to vote yes. According to the Pro campaign FAQ:

There are basically two opponents: Ed Hansen, the Mayor of Everett and Kemper Freeman, Jr., a Bellevue developer. Mayor Hansen opposes this project because it doesn’t include light rail to Everett – in other words, it’s not enough. Freeman opposes this plan because he thinks it’s too much.

The campaign was nasty and the proponents often found themselves on the defensive, responding to FACT’s charges that the ($6,700,000,000) cost was too high (compared with buses and freeways), the ridership numbers inflated and it would not put a dent in congestion.

Despite carrying King County 50.3% to 49.7%, getting 61.7% in Seattle and winning in Lake Forest Park and Mercer Island, the measure got only 42.8% in Bellevue, lost Pierce County and did so poorly in Snohomish County (especially Everett) that Prohibition looked popular in comparison. It went down RTA district-wide 46.5% yes to 53.3% no. The region rejected mass transit. History repeated itself – mass transit was once again treated by many politicians in Olympia and the region as political roadkill. It looked like another dead end for rail transit.

The mayor’s previous installments: Counting Down to Link, Light Rail’s Beginnings, 81 Days

Guest Post Series: 81 Days

Sound Move Plan

by GREG NICKELS, Mayor of Seattle and Chair of the Sound Transit Board

With 81 days until the opening of Sound Transit LINK Light Rail, here is the third of my posts on the long road we’ve traveled.

The first meeting of the eighteen member Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority (RTA) Board took place in September, 1993. I remember very well taking my seat at the table amidst much excitement and high expectations (I am the last of the original RTA Boardmembers still on the Board). King County Councilman Bruce Laing (R-6th) was elected the first RTA Board Chair. A former Hearing Examiner, Bruce was known to all as the epitome of the “honest broker”.

Following the 1988 Advisory Ballot and through the planning process (JRPC) a core of Metro staff formed the backbone of the effort. With the creation of a new, independent government it was time to expand and hire “permanent” staff to conduct the environmental and engineering work necessary to place a measure on the ballot (the State legislation contained a number of requirements to be met prior to going to the ballot, including engaging an “Expert Review Panel”).

The first hire was to be an Executive Director. The RTA Board chose Tom Matoff (former General Manager of the Sacramento Regional Transit Agency) because of his experience in developing Sacramento’s initial light rail project. Tom was a true believer in light rail and felt that a successful, inexpensive  start would pave the way for future extensions, earlier rather than later. This came into conflict with the aspirations of many Boardmembers, particularly those from the outermost parts of the three county district who wanted any plan to include them (this turned out to be quite a drama later).

The emotions were high, the debate heated, but in just over a year (on October 28, 1994) the RTA Board adopted a $ 6.7 billion, phase 1 (based on the JRPC Plan) rail and bus proposal to send to the ballot. The three County Councils were required to vote on whether to continue as part of the RTA and therefore send it to the ballot. After weeks of hearings the three Councils all voted affirmatively in December. The region’s voters would soon be deciding on a Mass Transit plan – for the first time in 25 years!

The mayor’s previous posts: Counting Down to Link, Light Rail’s Beginnings

Guest Post Series: Light Rail’s Beginnings

by GREG NICKELS, Mayor of Seattle and Chair of the Sound Transit Board


With about three months to go before it opens, this is the second installment of my recollections on the long road travelled to build our Sound Transit Light Rail line.

After the November 1988 Advisory Ballot victory, it became clear that the public (at least 70% of them) were far ahead of the politicians in envisioning light rail mass transit. The issue was taken up in the Metro Council (in its Planning Committee). Metro, then known as “Seattle Metro”, was a separate government until 1993. Its federated Council included a variety of local elected and appointed officials who oversaw the bus and wastewater treatment systems in King County.

Initially the issue was popular with Democrats and Republicans on the Metro Council. Republicans like Bruce Laing, Lois North and Paul Barden (along with local officials like Seattle Councilman Paul Kraabel and Mercer Island Mayor Fred Jarrett) joined Democrats Cynthia Sullivan and me in advocating for mass transit (some Eastside elected officials were reluctant to use the words “Light” and “Rail” in the same sentence even after the vote). About this time the idea of using Burlington Northern tracks for commuter rail was gaining traction as well.

It became clear fairly early that the planning needed to expand beyond just King County.

Fortunately there also were champions in the legislature like House Transportation Chair Ruth Fisher (and later Representative Ed Murray). State funding was secured to study the concept (I’m not kidding, State funding). In 1990 a body called the Joint Regional Policy Committee (I was a member of the JRPC) was established to expand the work from King County to Pierce and Snohomish and the legislation included local taxing options to pay for building a system.  Between August of 1990 and July of 1993, a $13.2 billion Regional Transit Plan was developed and legislation authorizing creation of a Regional Transit Authority was passed in Olympia. In July of 1993, the three County Councils voted to join the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority to advance the plan. And thus Sound Transit was born.

The mayor’s previous post: Counting Down to Link

Guest Post Series: Counting Down to Link

by GREG NICKELS, Mayor of Seattle and Chair of Sound Transit Board


There are those who say the debate over light rail in Seattle began in November of 1851, with the landing of the Denny party at Alki. Most, however, point to the defeat of the 1968 and 1970 Forward Thrust mass transit bond issues (did you know Seattle’s federal match went to Atlanta to build MARTA?) as the time when political courage failed and mass transit first became political road-kill for a generation.

My involvement began in 1988, when two young County Councilmembers (Cynthia Sullivan and me) sponsored an advisory ballot asking King County voters whether we should plan for, finance and build a light rail system with construction to start in 1995 and the first stations to open in 2000. That November nearly 70% of the voters said yes and broke the political logjam created with the defeat of Forward Thrust in 1968 & 1970.

Following the 1988 election the Times ran a Brian Bassett cartoon showing a forlorn figure on a hand pump rail car with the name “Light Rail Planning”. The forlorn figure is saying “Well…It’s a start” – I purchased the original from Brian and have posted it here.

The long awaited (!!!) line that began with the 1988 Advisory Ballot opens this summer. Sound Transit opens Tukwila, Rainier Beach, New Holly, Columbia City, Mount Baker, Beacon Hill, SODO, Stadium District, ID, Pioneer Square and 2 Downtown Stations in fewer than 100 days!

To celebrate this history making milestone I will be posting frequently with facts, figures, a little history and a few photos (maybe even a map or two) as we count down to opening day.

Hooray and Halleluiah – Maybe?


Congress, in a bold stroke of progressive thinking, has quadrupled the investment in High Speed Rail (HSR) to 8 Billion. The funds will be doled out by the FTA on a competitive basis, and with just 12 HSR corridors in the nation to date, our own Cascade Rail Corridor, using existing Talgo tilt trains is in line for a huge chunk – Maybe?

1/12th of 8 Bil. Is 666 Mil. – but I’m not naive enough to think we’ll out compete California and other large states for a full share. As I have advocated here before our state is in a very competitive position to capture the needed funding to accelerate progress towards making the dream a reality.

We have many of the pieces in place. You can learn more about the latest plan from the WSDOT here.

Many of these projects, such as the Ft Deviance Bypass and Vancouver, WA rail yard bypass are or will be shovel ready. This makes sense on so many levels: Consider a trip from Seattle to Portland via car, plane or HSR.

• Car Travel: 144 miles @ 60 mph takes 2.4 hours, costing $70 (IRS 50.5 cents/mi)
• Plane Travel: About 3.3 hours, costing $70. (LRT to/from airports, 1 hour security and boarding, and a 50 minute flight)
• HSR Travel will take under 3 hours, and cost about $30. For the business traveler who can use the time on the train as billable hours, it’s a no brainer.

Greenhouse emissions are much lower for trains than planes and all but a few cars. Fuel efficiency is a hands down winner for rail!

Using and “Incremental Approach” to funding our HSR line adds train sets, more frequent trips, and increases train speeds to 110 mph along sections of the line. On-time performance is increased from 60% to 97% Ridership will nearly double over 10 years, and the entire corridor, when fully built, could be operated at a profit.

I’m referring to our adopted state plan for Option 3, costing $537 Mil. The report concludes that thousands of jobs will be created, and benefit cities all along I-5 in the billions.

With the Feds now aiming to pressure freight railroads to reduce or eliminate slow orders and improve on-time performance to 80% or greater, now is the time to look towards the future.

Again, the support STB has given to rail transport is appreciated. I hope you can find the time to encourage our elected leaders to grab this low lying fruit. Thanks.

Why We Don’t Need a Parking Maximum


A few months back, Erica C. Barnett of Slog and our own Andrew called for parking maximum mandates for new construction in Seattle.  Now, I can understand the appeal of parking maximums.  After all, parking-induced sprawl ranks with pollution as one of the worst effects of cars.  But I’m more than skeptical of such maximums – not only does the evidence show we’re making good progress without them, I suspect they’re downright counterproductive to the mass transit cause.  Surprised? Read on…

Continue reading “Why We Don’t Need a Parking Maximum”

Op-ed: High Speed Rail – Seattle to Portland


Our economy is in shambles, infrastructure rotting away, global warming hanging over our heads and $5 or $10 a gallon gasoline not far off again. Sounds pretty gloomy, but soon, Congress will enact a stimulus-funding package to bootstrap our economy out of the doldrums.  The question is:  What do we do with the money?

It has to be for “projects ready to go”, and will likely be for only a 2 year period. Why not spend a large chunk of Washington State’s share of the pie on working towards high-speed rail, along the I-5 corridor, between Bellingham and Portland?

Continue reading “Op-ed: High Speed Rail – Seattle to Portland”

Some things “Bad” are quite Good


So I was reviewing the new Sound Transit site Andrew pointed out, and it reminded me of a thought I had earlier, which is loosely, and with tongue in cheek, that “everything bad is good.”  Specifically, the transit life includes a few attendant concerns which some would scoff at, but which I revel in.  For example, rarely I’m on a schedule or on the edge of a knife and it’s necessary for me to run to catch the bus.  Some would say “what trouble,” but I know I don’t run nearly enough, and every bit helps.  Then, and at the vast majority of times when I don’t have to run, I, like Sumit, very much appreciate my walks.

Likewise, someone with limited interests might be frustrated with 30 minutes or an hour of transit time, which would otherwise be consumed with focus on the bumper ahead of you, but I, like Pat and her “golden hours,” revel in it.  I haven’t come close to exhausting the different concerns I’d like to investigate.  For example, aside from reading I’ve been known to watch feature films in 20-30 minute increments. To me this is a treat: something which calls back to the days of the serial radio broadcasts, where instead of hearing “listen next week to find out…,” I get to wonder throughout the day what’s in store, until I return.

I definitely detected this seemingly optimistic attitude in the videos I saw: in Sumit’s walk, and in Pat’s “me time.”  Does this mean that transit is particularly fit for the optimists?  Or rather that, as Esther says, “We can make our lives as easy or as difficult as we want,” with us on the easy side (given our circumstances)?  For what it’s worth, the other Pat‘s initial, temporary reticence, his concern before he knew enough to be won over, seems to support the latter.

Overhead Lines: A step beyond hybrid


A little technical tidbit came up at the aforementioned Link tour which hadn’t occurred to me.

We were looking over the trains, which by the way are quite handsome, and I was wondering about regenerative braking, such as is done with hybrid cars and buses and such. Specifically I asked the question, based in the context of hybrids, of “where are the batteries?”

The answer, obvious in retrospect, is that there are no batteries, no need for them. When you’re tethered to the network of electrical lines, the power recovered on braking is simply fed out into the network.

This strikes me as a beautiful detail of these systems. That this power flows in and out of the movement of Link, the trolley buses, and back out into the system, to feed your alarm clock, your lights, your water heater. Meanwhile, it dispenses with the need for the complex chemicals associated with creating and disposing of batteries, and may raise the efficiency of the storage and retrieval, moving from the chemical process to the electrical.

Anyway, to dampen the moment of zen, and while we’re on the subject, I have to wonder: why can’t we design overhead lines for the trolley buses which reliably stay put? Any ideas? Do buses elsewhere get their ties knocked off occasionally, as here?

Amtrak Cascades: Families & Discounts


A few follow-ups to points raised in the comments to the previous post:

K said…

You’ve heard of these groups of more than 2 people called “families”, yes?

Yes of course! I was one of 7 myself. First of all, as you might expect, Amtrak maintains discounts for children 15 and younger, fully 1/2 off:

Child 2 – 15 50% Up to two children per paying adult. Children must travel with adult.

1, 2

Infant Under 2 Free One infant per paying adult. Infants must ride on adult’s lap.

Also, as Steve points out in the comments, Amtrak maintains an off-season discount program from November to May which offers free companion travel (2 for the price of one) for trips from Seattle to Portland. Fully half the year! This ends on the May 23rd, but is something to keep in mind for your spring travel next year.

But my point extends to any number of people, discounts or no. It all comes down to how much your time, the environment, &c., are worth to you. Some are better off driving and some not, but in order to know who is which, it’s necessary to look at the numbers, to help overcome our natural biases.

I’ve extended the calculator to take these options into account here. Simply adjust the size of your party, the cost of tickets, or the MPG of your car, to get personalized information of what the costs are.

Anonymous bellevue said…
I wish they would offer a multi person ticket rate, I like taking public transit but I’m never alone so the cost just does not work out.

See the above points about discounts and such.
Again, I’m not saying rail makes sense for everyone everywhere. I do think that people (even transit-savvy people) underestimate their options when it comes to Amtrak, though.

So even if you’re skeptical, please do check out the updated calculator and fill in your info, to get a real sense of the costs and how it compares to driving.

Amtrak Cascades: A Better Value Than You Might Think


Your local ex-motorist finally had his first rail trip last weekend, down to Portland and back, and I’ve some thoughts on the process, which I’ll be sharing over my next few posts.

The first question, for the many who have never taken regional rail or thought much about it, is why take rail? What does Amtrak have to offer, compared to the other options: the road-trip or the short distance flight?

I’ll skip over flights here because they’re easy to dismiss, particularly if you’re paying for them. They’re almost 3x the cost ($159 vs. $56), and while they’re faster in flight, when you count travel to and from the airport and security clearance time, the advantage wears down.

Cars on the other hand, you may see as your old, trusted companion for these trips, when perhaps they shouldn’t be. It may seem obvious to you that the $60 round trip cost of a train ticket is more expensive than driving yourself, but it’s as often false as true. One of our natural human biases is that we often ignore costs which accrue over time, if we’re not confronted with them directly. For example, as I mentioned in an earlier post, depreciation costs thousands a year, but you think more about this cost if you’re confronted with it each year than if you buy the car outright. This is despite the fact that the salable price for your car continually declines, so the economic cost is the same. Likewise, a roadtrip may feel like a liberating, low-cost experience, while the cost of the Amtrak ticket may seem high, when in fact the out-of-pocket costs are the same (for a single traveller, with the fuel efficiency below). You might think differently because paying the cost of fuel isn’t a precondition to starting your voyage, the costs come up after you’ve committed to the trip, and are thus easier to dismiss.

I put together this calculator to quantify this point. Note that you can edit the calculator values to put in your own car’s fuel efficiency, for example.

Now, this shows Amtrak and driving costs (for the single traveler) are essentially equal, on average, but there are qualifiers on both sides of this comparison. First of all, fuel costs are by no means the full cost of the car trip. Other costs include depreciation from the mileage you’re putting on your car, the potential cost of an accident, and the cost of your time in the car. Just like busing it to work, in the train you can work, read, or watch a film, while you can’t do the same in a car, and this has real value, as we’ll see.

Finally, the train is much more fuel-efficient than your car. While it’s difficult to say exactly how much more, wikipedia puts the figure somewhere between 1.25x and a whopping 20x the efficiency in the train. Note too, that the unimpressive lower figure is dubious, and more likely to be in-line with other rails systems, at 6x or better. Naturally, a train which uses less fuel also emits less pollution, to a similar extent. Adding to this effect is that rail, as point to point transport, encourages walkable, dense cities, rather than the highway system’s sprawl, so your use has long-term effects even beyond the benefits of the ride.

On the other hand, to be fair, cars do offer you greater flexibility, in timing, destination and route, and, importantly, the fuel and depreciation costs are fixed, while the rail costs are per-person. So you can pile 5 people into a car and travel at a fraction of the cost of the multiple rail tickets you’d need to buy. So there are legitimate reasons that it may be reasonable or necessary to take a car.

But even these points may not be as clear as they seem. While 5 people splitting the costs may be a clear win, 2 people is much more common scenario, and isn’t necessarily clear-cut. Even though the rail costs are now twice as much, this extra $60 over the cost of fuel has to then be weighed against the value of your free time. That $60 works out to just $5/hr of time ($60/(2 people * 6hrs round trip)), and as I mentioned, rail time is computer/book/movie time, while car time is often just that. Now, I’m not saying one is always and everywhere a clear win over the other, but along with the environmental and city benefits, one might think that paying $5/hr to be free to work or to write may be well worth it. Put another way, even at minimum wage, it takes fewer hours of work to earn those costs than the time over which you enjoy the benefits. At a standard wage (WA median household income / (52 wks * 40hrs) = roughly $30/hr), you’re each working for an hour to liberate yourself for 6.

So there you have it, for 1 person it’s a clear win, and for 2 or more, or for last-minute, higher-cost purchases, you should weigh the time and environment you save against the costs you pay. The point here is not to say that we should never need or use a car, but to give these things their appropriate measure, and have them coexist. So for your next trip to Portland or Vancouver, consider leaving the car at home and checking out Amtrak.

Update: I’ve got a follow-up post on Families and Discounts, in response to some questions in the comments.

Making the Transition


Regarding my previous post, nickb asks:

My question is how did the transition happen. Was it more just a matter of you stopped using the car and started using just public transportation?

In a sense, yes, it was as simple as using transit instead of a car. However, it takes some actual effort to discover that it is possible to get where you want without that car you’re used to. For me, it was a process of migration and discovery, each step intentional, encouraged by the reasons I described earlier, but also testing the waters to ensure that I wasn’t choosing the path of martyrs. Happily, I can attest I was not.

The important benchmarks in my transition, which may be helpful in making yours, were:

1) Using Transit as a Commuter
As I wrote, busing it to work was a given, and it served the important role of introducing me to transit here. This was a significant step for someone whose transit use was previously non-existent as a child of the suburbs, and in Austin limited to my weekend use of the E-Bus (aka Drunk Bus) which runs between the University of Texas Campus and 6th Street (infamous for its numerous bars & venues).

But then, if you’re reading this blog, you’re already familiar, so we may as well go on to step two…

2) The arrival of Google Transit
Don’t get me wrong, the King County Trip Planner is pretty good. But Google Transit (previously mentioned) does it much better, because it allows you to interact visually with your options on Google’s draggable, zoomable maps. This is a matter of night and day for anyone as visually-driven or memory-challenged (where was that street again?) as I.

Better still, it recognizes and accepts far more place names and address formats, so you need not hunt around for the address or answer questions about whether you really meant PL instead of Place. It’s free and highly recommended. To use it, you can either use the link above, or from any Google Maps directions page, click the “Take Public Transit” link in the upper left, once you have your destination plotted.

3) Taking the One-Less-Car challenge
The one-less-car challenge (also mentioned previously) offers incentives for those who commit to not using their vehicle for a set amount of time. The program isn’t active yet for 2008 (we’ll update you when it is), but you don’t need the program to get its most powerful benefit, which is the commitment itself.

Like others who have used this program, it was taking this challenge that pushed me to go out and try the other ways of getting around which I wasn’t used to; to rent a Flexcar even though I had my own car out on the street, or to take a bus to a seemingly out-of-the-way place. Only to find that the experiences where painless.

So look for the return of the challenge, or, if you’re able and willing, simply challenge yourself to go without your own car for a while. You may find it easier and more liberating than expected.

4) Renting my first Flexcar (now ZipCar)
For the foreseeable future, there will be parts of Seattle that aren’t well-traveled by transit, where either there is no route when you need it, or there is no direct route. Sometimes, those place happen also to be your destination for the night. My first Flexcar rental was also my first trip out to the (AFAIK) sleepy and suburban Mercer Island.

It was a pleasant trip, and easy to manage, in the time of computers (to find & reserve the car) and cell-phones (to extend the reservation if necessary).

I’ve since taken out a ZipCar, and the experience was the same, but a bit friendlier. For example, I find their web experience more intuitive, and there’s never a need to carry around the car’s key, because your card always does the locking.

5) Taking a bus out into the Unknown
Or in this case, Greenlake. All my time here, I’d traveled to and from my friends’ place in Greenlake via auto. But finally the aforementioned commitment pushed me to check out the other options (found via Google Transit), and I found them quite pleasant. The point being, just because you’ve never taken a bus over that way, doesn’t mean it’s inconvenient to do so. I’ve since traveled as far as Everett without incident.

A Step Not Yet Taken: Put the Internet in my pocket
The next big enabler I see in my future, which I’ll suggest to you all as an option, is the extra ease which will come once I have the internet in my pocket, via a web-enabled phone. Both for transit and ZipCar, a certain small amount of planning is necessary, to minimize waiting time and to know the route, or to find and reserve the car. Having the internet available from the street means that no matter where I am, or what I’ve been doing that day, if it comes up that I need to get somewhere unexpected, I can pull up these sites and find my way. Thus I’m a little more free, which of course is the goal.

So after all of these, I’ve made a successful transition. Everyone’s needs are different of course, or as they say, your mileage may vary, but I’ve found these steps are a sensible way to try things out.

The Ex-motorist


Thoughts from my own choice to give up my car:

Thoreau said that freedom was not only a situation apart from ourselves, from which a person could be plucked or into which one could be thrust, but also could be a consequence of our choices, the things we volunteer ourselves into, for our own reasons or on behalf of society.

In particular, he contrasts the lifestyles of the native peoples, whose simple habitations were easily constructed, with the farmers who would spend decades of work to pay off the mortgages on their homes. The farmers may have seemed better off, but at the same time they were bound to this heavy burden, which drove them to work the land rather than write, as Thoreau did, or simply live more simply. I don’t mean to romanticize the state of the natives, but there’s a legitimate question to be asked here: how free were the farmers, really? Had they unknowingly chosen to punish themselves because that was “the right thing to do” in the society they lived?

This concept of the unacknowledged burden became quite real to me recently when I unloaded myself of a burden which had once been, and remains to many, a symbol of freedom: my car.

I’ve been living in Capitol hill for the past year and a half. My drift away from the car started immediately; first it was obvious that the bus was an easier commute than my car, because on the bus I had my time to myself, and it spread from there. I’ve since read books, watched films, learned a fair amount of French and even done a bit of work on the bus. In fact, I largely wrote this post on the bus.

Over time, I built up a pretty clear case for giving up the car, which I share here because some of the arguments can be subtle, and may have been missed. I’ll try not to cover the obvious reasons, (i.e., the inconvenience of parking and the cost of gas and insurance), just 3 oft-ignored costs.

The Inconvenience of Maintenance
One cold night, a friend and I went to take my car out. It’d been a few weeks since I’d used it, but it had always been dependable, so imagine my surprised when the engine refused to turn over. No problem, it had just been out for a while and the battery had discharged. A jump from a helpful friend later, and I’m on the road. Perhaps I only need to drive a little while and the battery will be charged back up and good to go.

Wrong. Only after a month and a hand-full of attempted jumps, including one from a re-neg-er who said “um, this is taking longer than I expected, I’m gonna go back to my house” (5 minutes in and half a block away from her house) did we make it back to be fixed. The battery had gone bad.

All told, this event required hours of time, $200 in the cost of jumper cables and a battery, and the priceless aid of friends and passers-by, to be fixed. Time, money, inconvenience.

But beyond that, upon checking the car for the battery problem, the mechanics came back with a laundry list of concerns, adding up to thousands of dollars in potential maintenance, of questionable necessity.

Driving home the point that I didn’t have time for maintenance, one of their suggestions was that I replace my wiper blades, which were in fact bad. Apparently, they had failed to notice that I had a fresh pair in the backseat, which had been there for months but I’d never had the time to put in place.

The Cost of Depreciation
Yes, depreciation: the difference between what you could sell your car for last month and this; the value that your car loses over time. In my case, I drove a distinguished but not flashy two-door coupe, bought it for $9000 and two years later could sell it for around $6000. $3000 dollars over 2 years, and this for a 10 year old car!

This is not the cost you see flowing out of your wallet, but it’s the true economic cost. It exists, it’s substantial, and it’s an amount you should account for when comparing alternatives.

The Goal of Density
I’ve an appreciation for density for one important reason: cultural diversity. A major part of what determines whether a certain obscure genre can be represented in an art gallery, music venue or bar is the quantity of patrons willing to make the trip out to support that establishment. Greater density means more people within a given radius and thus a greater likelihood that enough people will be willing and able to travel to and support this establishment, keeping it alive.

This is one reason rural and suburban areas are so often cultural wastelands. Institutions can’t muster the support they need when their potential patrons are so spread out. You can’t have a gay bar and a metal bar and a indie bar and so on when you have a handful of each.

And spread out why? For the sake of lawns and parking. If there’s one thing which prevents a place from effectively becoming more dense, it is the roads and parking lots needed to support the car-only lifestyle. A one-car-per-person society has a hard limit on how dense it can become, and thus typically a practical limit on how culturally diverse it may be. But if we make the choice to minimize our own footprint, we open the door to greater density and all the attendant benefits.

So, when I finally relieve myself of my car, I not only save money (by relying on public transit and zipcar), lessen my impact on the environment, clear my mind & schedule by offloading the concerns of maintenance to those I rely on, and give myself time to read and to write, but I also help support a society in which it is possible for minority ideas & establishments to flourish in the support of their nearby constituents.

This is the liberation I’m finding as an ex-motorist.