Does Seattle Need to Go to Transportation Fat Camp?

The city wants us to treat our cars like pizza: an occasional treat, not a staple. Knute Berger muse
Knute Berger  |   March 2012   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION

I came across an ad in The Seattle Times from 1962 touting the advantages of going to Portland by train instead of car. “More fun and a lot safer,” reads the ad. “Only $4.95 Seattle to Portland Round-Trip.” And the kicker: “Costs less than a tank of gas.” Fifty years later, in an era when a tank of gas can easily cost $60 (and that train ride will set you back at least $70), we’re still trying to convince people to take rail.

Much is made about the war on cars, but it’s not so much a war as a change in diet. There are those in Congress who defend the right of school lunch programs to classify pizza as a “vegetable,” yet we know it’s the kind of vegetable that will kill us if we eat it all the time. Driving is now falling into the same category: For the sake of our planet, we are being urged to drive more selectively, to turn cars from our daily bread into the occasional slice of pizza.

Seattle has been developing a transit master plan that steers us in this direction like a nutritionist maneuvers one toward leafy greens. It views city driving as a kind of last resort, its intent being to “reinforce walking, biking and riding transit as the preferred modes of travel for in-city trips.” The plan is full of tactics, including expanding in-city bus service and building a couple of new “super” streetcar lines that will link Roosevelt with South Lake Union, and Loyal Heights with the International District. It envisions a future for our old electric trolley buses, and streets redesigned to better accommodate cyclists and pedestrians. It isn’t so much a war on cars as a shifting of their place in the pecking order.

The plan requires a major retooling of the city: beefing up dense development along transit and rail corridors, filling the urban villages with services within walking distance. It also means getting people to walk more, which doubly benefits fitness and health. In fact, when you look through the city plan, you might come away with the idea that our transportation future involves turning Seattle into an urban fat camp.

The plan doesn’t assume this will be easy; diets never are. We’ll have to pay more. Bus and rail services are expensive to run, especially on top of all the billions we’re already sinking into new projects like the downtown tunnel, a revamped waterfront and an expanded S.R. 520, none of which are fully funded. Last fall, voters gave mixed signals about their willingness to pay for improvements, defeating an anti-tolling initiative, but also turning down $60 car tabs.

Part of the plan’s sales effort suggests putting mileage markers everywhere to remind us of how walkable or bikeable some destinations are, and organizing walking tours. It cites the “Ten Toe Express” program in Portland, which promotes guided urban group walks, as an example to emulate.

If walking helps traffic congestion and the planet, so does staying at home. The city has also launched an experiment to spread high-speed fiber optic Internet service to the University District and Pioneer Square. The notion is that it will help students, researchers and businesses. It’s also a step toward the promise of the Information Superhighway Bill Gates talked about before the turn of the century. Why commute in a car, bus or train when you can work in your pajamas at home?

Seattleites, of course, are masters of selling and branding; unfortunately, we’re mostly famous for selling coffee, microbrews and fancy cupcakes. I suspect we’re better at fattening people than at slimming them down. Getting people to do what’s “good” for them is much harder than selling pizza by reassuring people it’s a wholesome veg. Walking tours might work, but I bet we’ll demand double mochas with whip on the way.

 

Write editor at large Knute Berger at knute.berger@tigeroak.com. His Mossback column is at crosscut.com.

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