I lived in New York City for about a year and a half. I found that people my age came in one of two types. One was that you earned enough money to live, but didn’t have any time. Or two, you had enough time, but didn’t have enough money to live. I was the second type. Every month, I kept one paycheck for myself and gave the other to my landlord. What was left, I spent on frozen orange chicken from Trader Joe’s and watery $5 beers at Brother Jimmy’s.
When I moved back to Seattle, people often asked me what I missed most about the city. Half-joking, I replied: the subway. There are a lot of things about New York that I miss more than its hot, crowded, steamy subway system—bagels, for one—but it’s just so dang easy to get around there. For about $2.50 and 30 minutes, you can get just about anywhere you want in the city. As someone who didn’t have much money, the subway made New York City accessible.
My experience with public transportation in New York has made me excited for the extension of the light rail in Seattle. Granted, our system will never offer the convenience of New York’s, which began construction 100 years ago with cheap labor. But the light rail could provide the backbone for diverse transportation modes.
Seattle could learn something from the transportation network from Nairobi, which also has high barriers to implementing rail lines. Nairobi has an informal transit system made up of matatus (minivans) and piki pikis (motorbikes). Matatus run on informal routes around the city. A driver drives, while a conductor swings open the sliding door and collects cash from riders—sometimes 16 people are crammed in a van. There are loosely designated stops that matatus stop at, but often you just flag one down as it drives by. When you want to get out, you simply tell the conductor. Piki pikis tend to hang out on corners and in front of shops—generally you can’t go more than a couple blocks without seeing a group huddled together. Walk up to one, ask them to take you where you’d like to go, haggle a bit about price, and you’re on your way.
If Seattle’s formal transit system adopted the aspects of Nairobi’s informal system, you might see higher transit participation. Imagine a system of Metro minibuses (or motorbikes) zooming about Seattle. You’re walking along the street, turn your head, and see one coming along. You flag it down and ask the conductor, “Heading near Safeco?”
“Yep,” he says, and you hop right in. Three bucks. Venmo is fine.