Monday, November 7, 2016

The Great Gridlock Groundswell

Seattle sees itself as the shining city upon a hill — seven hills, in fact, in a nod to the geography of ancient Rome. There are downtown inclines so steep that the parking decks must be shaped like right triangles. The hills of the northern and southern halves of the city are divided by Lake Union, which must be traversed by bridge (or, if you’re feeling whimsical, by ferry). And from multiple elevated vantage points in the city, you can watch the mass of cars inching slowly down Interstate 5 and feel the nauseating dread that comes when you take in the full scope of a massive highway traffic jam.

As Americans have repopulated cities in recent years, Seattle has undergone especially marked growth. It’s the fourth-fastest-growing city among America’s top 50, according to census data, and it has ranked in the top five each of the past three years. The Seattle region is home to powerful industry — Boeing to the north and south, Microsoft to the east, and Amazon less than a mile from the Space Needle — and there is no end to the city’s growth in sight.

But — and when it comes to city planning, there are always multiple, onerous buts — there simply isn’t enough space to fit all of these people and their cars on the region’s highways. Seattle has the second-worst congestion in America during the evening commute, according to a study by TomTom, second only to Los Angeles. Ask a resident to describe the traffic and you’ll hear phrases like “comparable to Southern California,” or “horrible after 4 p.m.,” or “a giant clusterfuck.” Everyone agrees that traffic is bad, and given the local government’s projections that 800,000 more people will move to the Puget Sound region by 2040, it seems doomed to get worse.

How to fix it, then? A coalition of government officials, environmentalists, transportation advocates, and tech giants are pushing Sound Transit 3 (ST3), a plan to more than double the region’s light rail system at a cost of $54 billion over 25 years. The plan will be voted on by residents of Seattle’s King County, as well as neighboring Snohomish and Pierce counties, on November 8 (there’s an election that day, too, you may have heard). And it’s not the only big transit project on the ballot. In all, more than two dozen cities and counties across the United States will be voting on transit initiatives on Election Day.

ST3, though, is particularly bold. It would lay 62 new miles of light rail across three Washington counties, running from Tacoma in the south up through Seattle and into Everett in the north, while also branching off into Redmond and Issaquah in the east. Thirty-seven new train stations would be erected across the region, along with affordable housing near some of the new transit hubs. The plan would make Seattle’s rail system about the same size as the systems in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. It would be one of the largest local transit projects in American history.

It’s also hugely controversial. Opponents say the plan is too expensive, that the government can’t be trusted to fulfill the promised timeline, and that there are more pressing problems worthy of tax dollars. These are classic gripes from those dubious of ambitious infrastructure projects that can easily mutate into “boondoggles.” (The Big Dig, anyone?) But the Seattle transit project in particular has brought forth an unusual new opposing argument: What about driverless cars?

Some think introducing autonomous vehicles to Seattle could make ST3 obsolete before it’s even complete. Instead of finishing the light rail system, there are those who would rather give up now with the assumption that driverless cars are the real transit future.

Ridesharing, driving-assistance technology, and fully autonomous vehicles threaten to fundamentally change how we navigate cities in the coming decades in ways that experts say are difficult to predict. Driverless cars are already shuttling Uber customers around in Pittsburgh and being tested by Google in the tech-centric Seattle suburb of Kirkland. How far will the technology have advanced by 2041, when Seattle’s proposed transit project would be finished? Will a sprawling, fixed rail system still be useful, even when some cities today are already experimenting with Uber as an extension of public transit?

No matter where you live in America, there’s likely a sense that public transportation is in a state of disrepair at best, or crisis at worst. Two of our nation’s biggest public transportation systems, in New York and Washington, D.C., are undergoing major repairs that will last at least a year and, during that time, will have to intermittently shut down major train lines. San Francisco’s BART is an essential need for the lower and middle classes, but is constantly wracked with delays that tech workers who glide to work on corporate buses get to ignore. Usually, we throw tax dollars at these sorts of problems, but a growing number of tech evangelists are claiming we can innovate our way out of highway gridlock and a reliance on century-old transit tech.

I visited Seattle ahead of its own decision on the matter to find out how difficult it is to travel around the city and to talk to experts about how different technologies could make moving around easier. Through four fateful rides, I learned a lot about not just the future of transit in Seattle, but how we may navigate American cities in the coming years.

by Victor Luckerson, The Ringer | Read more:
Image: Getty/Ringer