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.
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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.
Nice retrospective. Too bad Sightline’s record is utterly terrible, since I’ve enjoyed most of the content here over the years. Alan Durning made the classic mistake of taking seriously the bizarre rantings of one Emory Bundy.The notion that 70,000 lb diesel buses and bicycles can cure the climate crisis is downright idiotic. And I hope the latest monorail & foot ferry fiascos will put to rest the Sightline/Discovery Institute notion that “smaller, quicker, cheaper innovations” will deliver us to transit nirvana. Roger Valdez illustrates why it is good old-fashioned light rail infrastucture prevails over decades of ivory tower musings: it works. People like it. It helps reverse decades of “public-private” sprawl.Might not be the product of think tank theorists. But, it works.
Nice piece! A new website shows the current buses that go within two blocks of the stations, as well as over 275 locations near the stations (for future rides)…
I forgot the tell you that the website name is SeattleLightRail.net
I’ve been looking for places to rent in the south end. Any apartment near the Beacon Hill station (including some that are 10 blocks – 10 f***ing long blocks away) list that they’re close to the station. And if you visit they invariably mention the fact. One apartment manager had a much better take on how to effectively market. He simply said that he was excited that the station was close, that he was going to have fun. jA friend of mine who was very cynical about the light rail called me from a Vietnamese restaurant near the Othello Station. She was excited to be able to get on the train and be at a great asian restaurant in a few minutes and turn around and ride back to downtown. Stories like these will be repeated throughout our community. Their weight and the speed at which they will be viraled far outweighs any pundits or think tank studies. These, and similar stories about how it’s “fun / exciting / easy / an adventure / comfortable” are not what most foes, skeptics, fans, or supporters were expecting to hear. By virtue of their unexpectedness and clear emotional message, ie: “fun” they will influence the path of light rail in this city. A smart think tank would gather these stories. They are a vital complement to the analysis and data.
Good piece, Roger. I’m a recent transplant to Seattle from NYC, so I’m not very familiar with the light rail history/debate. Following on Dan’s comment, might zoning for compact residential communities around transit hubs aggravate economic divisions in the city—depending on where the rail line is underground or elevated? This seems to be a pattern that developed in NYC.
I know what my friend Emory Bundy says, and he never said diesel buses and bicycles can cure the climate crisis! When I went without owning a car for the past two years—just now ended, since, for one thing, I don’t choose to live/work near Link light rail stations—I learned that my experimental sacrifice was not a productive way for most urban people to meet the climate challenge. Get this: the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC, our official, government-mandated and -funded planners) and the best computer modeling that money can buy reveal to us since the late May draft plan release that 161 miles of light rail and road use fees on every expressway and arterial won’t let the region meet the State of Washington climate goal to reduce GHG emissions 25% below 1990 levels by 2035.Since PSRC after years of hard work is not yet able to come up with a 2040 transportation plan that gets the regional all-trips transit market share up above 6% even while investing the majority of available resources on transit, my rant is now this: Sound Transit, King County Metro, CT, PT, ET, Greyhound, Quick Shuttle, CanTrail, and Amtrak don’t have much to do with meeting the climate challenge. I’m now thinking that urban societies in the near term should save their discretionary local transportation improvement/investment money for something coming along that might work to bend the curve of GHG generation. What Emory Bundy and I would point out: the roads go everywhere … your home, my home, everybody’s home. Everywhere we want to go, the roads are already there. Can’t we better optimize the use of road networks against the criterion of GHG reduction?And since nobody has a plan to reduce motor vehicle trip share below 80%, isn’t changing what comes out vehicle tail pipes on the roads everywhere likely a lot more important than building train tracks to just a few places at hundreds of millions per mile?While I’ve got you churned up, read the new rip on transit-oriented lifestyle mandates from another friend/colleague Alan Pisarski in New Geography.Another good read for serious people on the transport-environment issue is the world famous PSRC Household Travel Survey, which describes how and why people travel locally.