The Will to Transit

Think tanks and activist organizations such as Sightline are doing great work to fight archaic assumptions in civic thinking. Retrograde zoning ordinances are a perfect example of obsolete thinking which creates obstacles to nimble neighborhood and city planning. Parking space requirements are one of the most egregious ways in which a city shoots itself in the tire.

Traditional planning theory about alleviating congestion through increased capacity is also being discredited. Research has begun to show that additional lanes and additional roads lead to additional trips and additional congestion. Anyone who has lived in Los Angeles is well aware of this problem. The good news is that statistics become incontrovertible after a certain threshold. The very bad news is that policy making can take decades to respond to demonstrable facts.

Far worse, however, is how county and state voters turn partisan politics into hostage-holding. These are strong words, but transit deals (or failures thereof) deserve them. Urban voters welcome mass transit, but that infrastructure lags because exurban commuters have a vote, too. People have the right to protect their ways of life, to a point. But a political dynamic that cuts off the nose to spite the face is obviously broken. At a certain point, people will have to admit that the way forward requires a change in ways of life. Roads are not a human right, they are an abusively costly luxury which taxpayers continually shirk paying to maintain.

Meanwhile, urbanistas may need to prepare to accept less sexy forms of mass transit. Light rail is great for city brand and great for feeling a sustainable future feeling. But light rail is an enormous infrastructure investment. It is that dangerous realization that has earned Enrique Penalosa a place on the speaking circuit. As mayor of Bogota, Colombia, Penalosa made international headlines by axing a massive highway project and replacing it with a citywide BRT system running on exclusive lanes. Ridership is now well over 1 million daily.

The genius of the move was that it required almost no new infrastructure and aggressively went after discretionary driving by significantly reducing automobile infrastructure. This kind of thinking doesn’t happen in the progressive Northwest, because city-dwellers want to have their cake and eat it too. Nobody can stomach the idea of making real sacrifices about the way we get around on a daily basis. Many European cities forbid non-residents from driving in the city center. Meanwhile Seattleites are stuck on keeping options open, repeatedly shooting down visionary thinking of the sort necessary to change transit 20 or 30 years from now.

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