The dream sold to us for the last 60 years hasn’t been leather seats, sickening acceleration, cup holders, or a spacious trunk. It’s been free movement. Cruising at 65 mph, there’s not another vehicle in the camera’s sight, and the driver has complete autonomy. The watermark around them suggests a low-interest payment scheme and gas mileage that will keep it from becoming a financial stressor. This fantasy usually seems to apply to camping, but hasn’t in daily life since the automobile was adopted en mass, no matter how many neighborhoods are torn up under the premise that adding lanes to our highways will bring it to reality. Experiencing gridlock is claustrophobic, painful, confining, and part of the daily chores of most Americans.
With the right weather, lock, bodily abilities, and infrastructure (that’s far smaller, cheaper, and even more likely to be inadequate today than roads), bicycling offers the exact same feeling of freedom through a reliable guarantee of efficient movement. In the real world of the United States, the deadly lack of infrastructure overwhelms most people who have other options, especially women, leading to a 75% male gender makeup. Warped cycling demographics don’t exist in countries with adequate infrastructure; encouraging people of all classes, ages, and genders to travel in a healthier and more sustainable way.
Photo of Capitol Hill Station by SounderBruce
Mass transit is the same. When well designed, there is a certain magic to the guarantee that within minutes of arriving to a well-lit area with understandable signage, you’ll be affordably taken wherever you need to go, with dedicated right of way reassuring no delays. There’s no need to hunt for parking or to think about whether your car will remain intact left there. Coming home, you’re given a safety net that puts no morbid responsibility on your cognition. Generations-lasting public infrastructure creates a cozy and secure relationship with your city and has you interact with the people of it outside just your social bubble. As Kathryn Robinson at Seattle Met describes, “It transforms our relationship with our city, whose far reaches now become familiar, whose liveliest districts we no longer have to rule out because of parking, whose crosstown residents begin to feel like neighbors.”
Freedom of mobility comes from our trust in not having to think about it, and presently in Seattle, no all-encompassing mode of transportation earns it. You can feel the energy of what can be on Link’s platforms and trains. Just getting started, it’s made the worry-free neighborhood reach of people from the University of Washington, International District, and Rainier Beach all cross paths.
Sound Transit 3 is the greater Seattle area’s 25-year plan to greatly expand mass transit, and it’s the last item on the area’s November ballot as Proposition 1. Along with new BRT lines and Sounder Commuter rail improvements, it builds 62 new miles of Link Light Rail over new 37 stations, bringing access to 84% of Puget Sound residents, making the system comparable to Washington DC Metro in mileage and station density.
The reliability of car travel, and thus most bus travel, is at a breaking point. For example, in order to have a 95% chance of arriving in Seattle from Overlake on time during commute hours, a trip that would take 13 minutes without traffic, you must leave 60 minutes ahead of time. A 10-minute trip within city limits would require 27 minutes to be trusted. From 2014 to 2015, the average resident’s annual time spent in traffic increased by 3 hours, or 5%. Even without ST3 passing, Sound Transit predicts public transit ridership in the region will nearly double as the population grows. Those riders will face either constantly deteriorating bus service side-by-side with and caused by car commuters, or 69% of transit trips on the zero-emission, zero-congestion, 3-minute frequent Link Light Rail, offering trusted arrival times and a worst case rush hour scenario of standing room only, compared to the entrapment of endless idling between freeway exits. The difference between the two worlds in quality, reliability, and speed of transit would be immense. Between existing users and car-converts, ST3 will save 51,000-67,000 hours of people’s time every single day, an economic impact in lost working time, and more importantly, an immeasurable impact on lost time enjoying life. ST3 will take the current 70-minute average Bellevue to Ballard bus commute down to a trustworthy 36 minutes on trains.
Looking at every world city, building a climate controlled, safely engineered room around every single commuter with one hour of daily utility simply doesn’t scale up. Building more lanes and parking destroys the value of the communities we’re trying to get to, and doesn’t succeed at reducing congestion. The phenomenon of induced demand has been observed every time higher capacity roads are built, to a perfect 1:1 ratio. Car infrastructure development makes relying on it a more attractive option until the awful homeostasis is inevitably restored, offering no new freedom. It’s been observed to work in reverse, too. Remove lanes, and fewer people will drive. Seoul, for example, tore down a 168k vehicle/day highway to only positive repercussions.
Developments spread far enough out to eliminate the possibility of congestion causes each individual to take on the economic and environmental responsibility of more pipes, wires, roads, and resources spent on moving goods. This ungridded pattern also prevents walking, cycling, and transit from being options, adversely affecting the disenfranchised. Even in a suburban Omaha neighborhood of $1.8m McMansions, the tax base couldn’t sustain their own roads, resulting in the city converting asphalt to dirt. This directly correlates to environmental impact: people from dense places like Barcelona have 1/6th the individual carbon footprint of those from sprawling Atlanta, and New York City is the greenest place in the US. Inevitably, the people who live in far-flung sprawl still want to experience the culture and opportunities of a city, and funnel in as traffic. This leads the Puget Sound region to a dismal 14% transit usage share, despite Seattleites’ impressive 52% non-driver figure. ST3 makes a commitment to accommodating our growing population in a more sustainable fashion through following Puget Sound Regional Council’s VISION 2040, “an integrated, long-range vision for maintaining a healthy region – promoting the wellbeing of people and communities, economic vitality, and a healthy environment”.
One of the greatest issues facing cities is the growth of suburban poverty: as urban areas are gentrified with attractive amenities, the poorer former residents that benefitted most from walkability, local social services, and transit access are forced to decaying suburban sprawl, essentially requiring car ownership or causing them to lose a lot more of their day to commuting. Driving is second only to housing as a living expense: $10,000 a year for an item that spends 23 hours a day just occupying real-estate. ST3 addresses this with a plan to sell the excess land at new stations to developers on the condition that they build mixed-use, walkable communities with 80% of housing units dedicated to and affordable for people making below 80% of the area median wage. $20m of the package is immediately allocated to affordable housing. The simple solution to the issue of high quality transportation causing gentrification and displacement is to build enough of it for everyone, something we can only do with a package this large.
Opponents claim that ST3 will be spending 25 years building obsolete technology no more efficient than what Google, Uber, and Tesla are cooking up. Autonomous cars will likely spend a good chunk of time on our roads completely empty, picking people up and doing circles to get more people going the peak direction. Currently, 1,600 vehicles holding an average of 1.1 passengers each make it through a lane of I-90 during commuter peak, always facing congestion, compared to a zero-congestion capacity of 20,000 passengers in a lane of Link. Meeting the capacity of mass transit would require a vehicle a lot closer to mass transit than the Tesla Model X carpool Elon Musk envisions. They may allow us to reclaim a huge amount of urban space in the form of obsolete parking, but it’s likely that an increase in zero-occupancy vehicles, smoother acceleration, productivity encouraging longer commutes, and parking bases outside of the expensive city will overwhelm the supposed congestions benefits of self driving cars. Additionally, bigger facilities allow for seamless and high quality ADA compliance and accessibility, as well as safety in numbers. Electric vehicles may achieve minimal operational emissions, but Tesla’s plans still fundamentally rely on resource-intensive lower density infrastructure. Concrete production alone accounts for 5% of greenhouse gases, making the concept of achieving a suburban, Whole Foods-shopping, EV-owning world for 7 billion people more of an environmental nightmare than appears at first glance. Link’s prevalence and reduction in diesel bus and private car use will save nearly 800,000 metric tons of greenhouse emissions each year, equivalent to leaving 4,224 railcars of coal unburnt. This 9% reduction in total regional emissions will improve both our respiratory health and climate footprint, another reason to remember that there are costs to not building. Transit is also an investment: every dollar spent building brings in $4 in economic returns.
In addition to being wonderfully more environmentally friendly, highly populated transit corridors encourage engaging in your community (which can have higher quality public spaces from the density and larger tax base), a healthier level of walking and bicycling, and places cozier than strip malls. Old main streets sprouted from the railroad station, and most people consider them cuter than the sea of asphalt in front of every modern store and house, the anti-pedestrian inset strip mall design that’s required by law in many municipalities. Transit Oriented Development is a concerted effort to build a new sense of place and reverse the course set by car maker-benefitting regulations. We can once again build freedom of movement into growing up, restoring the kind of design that allowed half of children to walk or cycle to school (compared to today’s 13%).
The development pattern we’ve adopted (left, by Infrogmation of New Orleans) makes it look like cars are the species the public space is built for, not humans. (right photo by Ian Freimuth)
Many ST3 foes point to Bus Rapid Transit (what RapidRide aspires and fails to be) as a faster, better solution, knowing local routes don’t cost in the billions to deploy. However, the capital cost is not inherent to rail and trains, but to the things that make it typically faster and better than a bus: exclusive right-of-way, high quality stations that offer accessibility and information understandable to visitors, platform payments and multiple entryways to speed boarding, etc. All things that cost just as much to give rubber-wheeled transit, but are harder to sell the public on than trains, and easier to dwindle down and delete with swinging political will. Considering this, rail ends up cheaper, with vehicles that last about double as long and require less maintenance, the cheapness of our zero-emission electricity compared to diesel, and 7x the number of passengers per driver in a 400’ train versus a 60’ articulated bus. Link’s fare will recover 38% of costs, compared to 28% on the BRT lines of ST3. Meeting the max capacity of Link with BRT would require 14 second frequency, which is impossible considering load times.
Other criticism has come from Seattelites, including myself, unimpressed with the plan’s suburban heaviness. ST3 spends nearly double West Seattle Link’s budget on the Issaquah line that will achieve a quarter the ridership, accompanied by a Park-and-Ride that will never scale to meet demand. When Sound Transit was established, before Seattle boomed, regional anti-transit politicians forced a “sub-area equity” policy where projects need to be funded by the area they serve. They assumed that Seattle, where suburban commuters need to get to, wouldn’t be able to pay for its own urban subway, sabotaging the whole network. It’s completely backfired on them. Since suburbanites largely flock to Seattle for work and culture, but not vice versa, all subareas will pay for the second downtown Seattle subway proportional to their ridership, but unless commute direction flips, Seattleites won’t be subsidizing the less efficient projects outside its lines. With Link fulfilling the need, Metro will shift bus resources away from getting neighborhoods to and from downtown on highways. King County’s 2040 masterplan based on ST3 passing builds a grid of frequent routes connected to Link stations, bringing east-west connections currently severely lacking. With the combination of Link, an alphabet worth of bronze BRT RapidRide (with much improved speed from the current lines), and most other routes becoming frequent and running longer, Seattle will one day have a truly fantastic system capable of getting you anywhere in good time.
ST3 would be paid for with a 0.5% sales tax increase (bringing us to 10.1%), $0.25 increase per $1,000 in property tax (totaling $9.52), a motor vehicle excise tax of 0.8%, and a rental car tax of 1.372%. These figures keep Seattle’s sales tax under Vancouver’s 12%, and our property taxes would remain well below Portland’s ($11.62) and San Francisco’s ($11.74), cities that all have the income tax we lack.
This vote is the decision of our generation. ST3 would make up for the grand mistake that was voting down Forward Thrust rapid transit in 1968, building the system we lost to Atlanta and more. With ST3, we’ll have one of the highest quality transit systems in the country, finally getting to Portland and Vancouver’s levels that have allowed them to be more livable than Seattle. If the vote comes out a no, the best we can hope for is a smaller package delivered later on that will fail to bring all-encompassing freedom of mobility to Puget Sound residents. Gridlock would continue to grow with the population, and unorganized attempts to escape it would build more unsustainable development. Voting yes on Proposition 1 is a no brainer and absolutely essential for all who have the option, the last box on the November ballot. We don’t know what 2024 and beyond will think of Clinton or Trump, but we have the concrete choice of letting it inherit a better city.