Fixed Guideway Transit and Land Use Patterns, a.k.a: A Good Reason to Vote YES on Proposition 1

[ 1933 Seattle streetcar system overlayed on current urban villages, by leesroberts, via STB ]

One of the biggest benefits of expanding light rail in the Seattle area is the effect it will have on land use patterns. Because fixed guideway transit is a catalyst for focusing development in a bullseye around stations. In the words of the American Public Transportation Association:

“Fixed guideway transit investments are essential to creating energy efficient land use patterns which produce greenhouse gas emission savings far beyond the immediate benefit of increased public transportation use. …Experience has shown that once fixed guideway transit investments are committed and station locations set, the public and private sector can plan transit-oriented developments which produce dramatic reductions in vehicle travel and transportation-related emissions.”

But there’s more to it than energy efficiency: Without an organizing principle, development flails. When there is no reason to develop in one place rather than another, the resultant built environment will likely become one in which there is no reason to be in one place rather than another. In other words, random sprawl, which is not only inefficient, but also lacks the sense of place, focus of social interaction, and source of civic pride that have made great cities livable and memorable for thousands of years.

Created by leesroberts (via The Seattle Transit Blog), the map above shows the Seattle streetcar system in 1933 overlayed on a current map of Seattle’s urban villages. While the match isn’t perfect, most of the transit villages that grew up around the streetcar lines still constitute the core and identity of today’s neighborhoods. The streetcar system helped create a desirable urban form that has benefited the residents of Seattle for nearly a century. And that’s exactly the same long-term benefit we can expect from new light rail in Seattle.

There have been buses running down Rainier Ave. for more than half a century, but development over those years has been unfocused and highly car-dependent. The difference between buses and fixed guideway transit is that a decade from now the oceans of asphalt parking lot surrounding the McClellan light rail station will be gone, replaced by the mixed-use residential buildings and open spaces of a vibrant new urban village. Over in Bellevue we can expect to see a similar transformation in the Bel-Red Corridor if Proposition 1 passes.

Pretty much any time light rail is proposed anywhere in the U.S, people will impugn it by reducing the total investment to a cost per ride that sounds expensive. Left out of their equation, however, are long-term, systemic and transformative effects that are not easily quantified, but are substantial nonetheless. Others deride the “light rail faithful” for supporting a transit system that doesn’t provide the direct benefit of a stop right outside their own front doors. Similarly, what’s missing with this gripe is the insight to grasp that most light rail proponents recognize the big picture benefits, and are willing to be unselfish.

(UPDATE:  A comment over at SLOG made me realize that “unselfish” is a bad choice of words.  It’s not unselfish to act according to big picture benefits, because everyone wins.)   

The coming of light rail to Seattle transcends the physical train and tracks: It is an agent for paradigm shift in both transportation and urban form. It is the critical first step in showing people that there is an attractive alternative, as well as a badly needed demonstration that we can take meaningful action in this era of overwhelming environmental challenges.

In the long term, light rail will produce significant, tangible benefits that make sense for the future. But perhaps as important is the near term symbolic value, for symbols have always had the power to change the course of civilizations.

Oh, and did I mention that I think everyone should vote YES on Proposition 1?

6 Responses to “Fixed Guideway Transit and Land Use Patterns, a.k.a: A Good Reason to Vote YES on Proposition 1”

  1. Joe G

    I concure. Its seems that society today is very short sided and can not see the benefits of anything in the long run. This is to our detrimint and to the detriment of generations to come.

  2. tres_arboles

    “Similarly, what’s missing with this gripe is the insight to grasp that most light rail proponents recognize the big picture benefits, and are willing to be unselfish.” Nice!

    This thought so-characterizes my own transit values. In 1996, I saw Sound Transit 1 as a “seed” even as the anti-transit mob showered us with arguments like, “It won’t solve congestion, costs too much, and doesn’t go anywhere that matters.” At the time, I lived in West Seattle and wouldn’t have been served by any of the ST improvements even ten years later!

    But I voted for it anyways, because I believed if we sprinkled transportation choices around the region, including some clean, modern, sparkly rail lines and stations, we’d create the base of a better, more modern city. A place with smart growth, a magnet for smart businesses, and a city with cool “looks.”

    Now we live in Burien and see the end of the line coming to within two miles of our home (not out my door but perfectly good enough) and I feel like my faith in the idea is being rewarded. My wife has been phone banking for Mass Transit Now all month and we are pretty passionate about passing ST2. Thanks for joining the Seattle Transit Blog mantle, Dan, and carrying the issue in your own way!


  3. Sabina Pade

    At one time not so very long ago, even the Swiss were enthusiastically paving over trolley tracks to clear their narrow city streets for the automobiles their newfound, post-WWII properity was allowing them to purchase.

    By the 1980’s, the short-sightedness of their enthusiasm was becoming apparent : car culture, they discovered to their dismay, was destroying their urban heritage and their way of life. And the solution was equally obvious : restore the trolley lines. Today, Swiss cities from which trolley lines had been banished are once again served by them.

    May Seattleites prove similarly insightful and Seattle equally fortunate. Although urbanism in the US differs notably from that of old Europe, humans are humans just about everwhere, and walkable communities are consistently the healthiest. The staid, comfortable, weatherproof trolleycar is a community friend whose worth is best appreciated not in dollars per passenger mile but in civilization units that increase per service distance, frequency and hours operational.

  4. Steve

    I wonder whether any of Seattle’s trolley tracks are buried and capable of being restored. I know you can still see the curve of the old track as a crack in the pavement at 56th and Latona, but I have no idea whether a restored track there would still be usable.

  5. Dan Staley

    Let us not forget that folks are catching on and want to live near transit, and are willing to pay for it. Which is better than the distant single-fam are doing:

    Light-rail can turn into money train
    Homes near light-rail lines tend to increase in value
    By Margaret Jackson
    The Denver Post
    Article Last Updated: 10/29/2008 11:25:37 PM MDT

    Margarete Humphrey knows her bungalow near the Louisiana Station light-rail stop is in a hot neighborhood. But she was surprised to learn the value of her home has increased over the past two years as much of the metro Denver housing market has declined.

    Homes near light-rail stations along the southeast line, which opened in November 2006, have increased by an average of nearly 4 percent over the past two years, according to an analysis by Your Castle Real Estate. But the rest of the Denver market declined an average of 7.5 percent.

    “I know that it’s always been a good neighborhood, but I didn’t think it was like that,” said Humphrey, who doesn’t drive and frequently uses public transportation.

    The closer a home is to the station, the more its value increases, according to the Your Castle analysis. Homes less than a half-mile from a station increased an average of 17.6 percent, while those 1 1/2 to 2 miles away increased just 0.1 percent on average. The data varied widely among stations, however.

    Under its FasTracks program, the Regional Transportation District plans to create six new commuter-rail and light-rail corridors and extend three existing corridors by 2017, potentially creating other pockets where values are driven by proximity to rail.

    In other markets with rail lines, single-family home values have increased anywhere from 2 percent in San Diego to 32 percent in St. Louis, according to data gathered by the Regional Transit District.

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