Monday, November 8, 2010

No Streetcar Suburbs Here

Seattle's young transit lovers cherish certain holy relics, occasionally removing them form their velvet wrappings to flash their glory upon us, and among these are "streetcar suburb", a reference to suburban development originally reached by streetcar. Seattle supposedly shows traces of this development, but it ain't necessarily so.

The early transportation in Puget Sound was by water. In other regions, railroads drove development, or rather, overdevelopment, that built a fine mesh of lines around every major city. In Seattle, and especially after the coming of the cable cars to Lake Washington and West Seattle, suburban commuting usually involved a boat. As a region, Puget Sound went directly from the ship to the automobile without a streetcar interregnum.

The areas which we perceive today to have been "streetcar suburbs" were actually infill, the original wave of suburbanization having passed early to the shores of Lake Washington. The Wallingford area is more convincingly of the "streetcar and land" developer mold, but no argument is made that development there would not have occurred if the streetcar had not been built.

They say "you can't miss what you ain't never had", but you could plainly see, driving around in Seattle 25 years ago, that Seattle was vitamin deficient, or even severely anemic, in the quality of buildings that weren't built on streetcar lines. The buildings built on the lines had that extra quality that person puts in the building when it is expected to last. They were the kind of building you want to see in your city.

On another level, planners today are still flying on instruments. Because water transport is so diffuse, and requires so little investment on the land side of the business, the change from the ship to the automobile left most of the region as small and very poorly connected communities. What to make of all this? Planners survey needs, whether perceived or projected, and then attempt to design routes that meet those needs.

In the case of the eastward extension of Link, the planners are trying to justify the route with references to daily boardings, and the easiest way to do that is to run the rails past the park'n'rides, and assume you collect all the riders from those buses. The rails become a tool, not for making communities work, but for making the park'n'ride system work.

But the park'n'rides are inherently sprawl inducing. They were built in low-density locations (to cut costs) and exist to serve people who use cars for the first part of their commute. In allowing the location of park'n'rides to determine the route, we lose a major opportunity to shape our community.

This loss, indeed, is not noticed, because the same thing happened the last time we changed transportation systems. For fifty years we've been building highways on the projections that people will come, and indeed they have come, but does anyone seriously believe they would have come if the roads had not been built? Leaving the pattern of this development to the random mutation of financial DNA among real estate developers had been a total disaster.

It may be too late to create an inspiring past, but there's still time left to create an inspiring future.

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