I have been riding Seattle’s new light rail a lot the last couple weeks. There are three thoughts I have about light rail. The first one is a personal reflection and the second and third are about what I think it will take to make the light rail work in for the three counties it will serve. 

First a personal reflection: I’m amazed. Not at the wonders of the technology of light rail but that the thing ever got built at all. My own experience with Seattle’s light rail story goes back to the original proposals laid before the voters across three counties back in 1995—and the ups and downs that ensued. The project jumped from full-speed ahead to reverse to stalled and finally to a long, steady stint in low gear.

The 1995 proposal failed but an alternative proposal was put on the ballot and passed in 1996. Similarly, in the Puget Sound region, light rail was discussed and rejected numerous times.

  • And just because it passed in 1996 didn’t mean it was a done deal. There were 8 more years of wrangling about the alignment, mitigation, and whether the line would be at grade or in a tunnel—among thousands of other details. One set of advocates pushed for the tunnel to run through the Rainier Valley to bring jobs and economic development to the area. Then, once the choice had been made to put it there, another group called Save Our Valley arose, demanding that the line be put underground or canceled. They feared that the construction would ravage neighborhoods and the rails would slice communities in half. They sued Sound Transit—the agency that was created by the voters to make light rail happen—and put up signs throughout the proposed route that said “Tunnel or Nothing!”

    In February of 1995, I moved to an apartment on Beacon Hill and got involved in neighborhood planning. A group of dedicated people pushed hard for a station on Beacon Hill even though Sound Transit, at the time, said a station there would be too deep and too expensive. The group persisted and finally got a station worked into the plan. Shortly after that group collapsed from exhaustion, a new group arose on Beacon Hill opposing the station claiming that it would destroy the character of the neighborhood.

    So you can see why my first reaction had more to do with sheer amazement than anything else. Like many others, I witnessed first-hand what it took to get this train on track.

    Now what will make it work as a solution for the Seattle area’s transportation challenges?

    One ticket for solutions is smart land use policy. Lots of ink and pixels, including Sightline’s own, have been spent discussing what mode and technology is best to address the city’s transportation problems. But as I wrote a while ago my inkling is that the mode itself—monorail, bus or light rail—is less important than creating the demand for transit through compact communities. Much of our own work on sprawl is based on Newman and Kenworthy’s findings that densities of 40 people per acre make transit, walking, and biking economical and convenient for people who live in those communities.

    We have written before about legislation  introduced earlier this year, HB 1490 commonly called the TOD or Transit Oriented Development Bill, which would result in more housing being created around transit stations. This is good public policy and would take advantage of convenient, new transportation infrastructure. Trying to refight the battle against light rail by opposing up zones that would increase density around the stations would be wasting a great opportunity. The benefits of compact communities are many including reduced per capita CO2 emissions and better health for residents.

    And this brings me to my final point about how to make light rail work. Local government also needs to keeppolicies that encourage and support ridership. One recent study conducted by Larry Frank at the University of British Columbia found that “increased provision of transit service and policy incentives that favor transit use can support a physically active lifestyle.” More transit service and subsidies for regular riders of transit can contribute to making those people more healthy.

    Another study recently published in the Journal Transportation Research found that service frequency and fare levels have a significant influence on whether people use transit. Two take key points from these studies: keep investing money in transit operations and support incentives to take transit. These investments and policies support a more sustainable use of resources and healthier people.

    So, now is not the time to hold back on changing zoning to create compact communities around transit nor is it the time to begin reducing incentives for people to ride transit including, as the Frank study shows, supporting programs that encourage employer sponsored transit pass programs. 

    Light rail all by itself won’t create a more sustainable use of resources and reduce the impacts of driving; it’s just a train after all. But land use policy that creates density which in turn creates demand for transit, as well as more transit service (including bus routes that feed light rail) and incentives like encouraging employers to support their employees with transit subsidies will be crucial to the success of light rail—in Seattle and elsewhere.