Last Wednesday I rode Link light rail all the way out to the airport. I wasn’t flying anywhere – I transferred to a bus that took me out to my dentist appointment, in the odd semi-industrial semi-suburban netherworld between Burien, SeaTac and Des Moines. This was the first time I’ve ridden the whole light rail line in at least a year, and the first time since I got back from living in Copenhagen for four months last fall.
I spent a lot of time riding trains in Copenhagen. Their S-train network is equivalent to our light rail in terms of technology and transit function – with large stop spacing and lines that reach from the city out to the suburbs – but they’ve been expanding their network since the 1930’s. That network was developed in tandem with the “Five-Finger Plan” which was one of the earliest and best articulated transit-oriented regional land use plans in the west. It imagined dense development along five rail lines splaying out from the city center like the fingers of a hand.
As much as I love a good transit-oriented regional land use plan, it was the Danes’ tradition of high-density urban living which made such a goal feasible. Highly restrictive limits on urban growth in the early 19th century lead the population density of Copenhagen to rise to 129,500 inhabitants per mi² by 1850. Once the city dwellers were finally allowed to build outside the old walls a pattern of development that is quite dense by American standards (currently 18,000 per mi² in the city itself) seemed comparatively spacious.
As I was looking out the window of Link it was fascinating to see how different the landscape was than what I was used to seeing in Copenhagen. In general I noticed the massive extrusion of objects – trucks, containers, warehouses, cars, parking lots filled with cars, roads and highways cut through hillsides, apartments and offices in vast asphalt lots, the towering cantilevered glass and concrete Tukwila light rail station, and the gray beehives of the SeaTac parking garage – a massive box for the storing of many smaller boxes. I saw a few people – mostly getting on and off the train.
The Duwammish valley is one of the core industrial areas in our regional economy. This fascinating interaction between cities and factories, raw resources and energy, labor and capital, all connected by transportation infrastructure and flows of information produces an incredible abundance of goods. It is part of an industrial system rests upon assumptions of the pre-global warming era in which energy is cheap and CO2 emission is free. We’ve refined this system to such a degree of dazzling productivity that any change in its foundations would have immediate and unmistakable throughout the economy.
This system is especially good at producing the hard objects with which we’ve filled up the broad open spaces that once surrounded our cities. This spread-out metropolis is what our visions of the spacious and prosperous western frontier required, and in turn shapes the ways we live and what we have come to expect. Any serious change to adapt to the exigencies of the climate change era does indeed seem then to threaten our way of life.
I look out the window, I listen to an east African man talking to the two kids (his daughters? He doesn’t seem to travel with them normally… Other relations? perhaps shared custody parenting?) he has picked up from school and is travelling home with on the train, and I think about the chart on page 5 of The Carbon Efficient City. The kids aren’t used to riding the train but the man says he likes it. Just look at all those people stuck in traffic below us. We’ve built a world-class rail line that is giving people low-carbon options even in our sprawling unurban city. This is part of an emerging system loop which will hopefully gain strength and which we will be able lean on when we finally begin performing needed maintenance on the old. To really take hold, this will have to coincide with a shift in our vision of what kind of value we want from our economy and what kind of city we truly want to live in.