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What's Missing From Today's Front-Page McGinn Story

By Erica C. Barnett September 15, 2009


side_crankJosh is right—I do have issues with Mike Lindblom's story this morning. Wonky issues! Although Lindblom (a thorough, solid reporter) did get "both sides" of the debate, I'm disappointed that he didn't challenge some of the more spurious claims made by surface/transit opponents—the most ridiculous of which is the claim that their plan would dump 100,000 cars on the waterfront every day.

Lindblom quotes Mark Hallenbeck of the Washington State Transportation Center at UW: "I have no conception of any other place that would take out a road with 100,000 cars a day, with no alternative to that."

But that's not what surface/transit proponents are proposing. In fact, the surface/transit option would include alternatives. Don't want to cram onto the waterfront boulevard? You can walk, bike on new bike lanes, take public transit on new dedicated bus lanes, drive on improved and reconnected surface streets, or drive on an expanded I-5. To suggest that the surface/transit option offers "no alternative" is false, and Lindblom should have at least noted that.

A larger problem with Hallenbeck's claim (and a subsequent assertion by Lindblom that "Seattle has only the viaduct and I-5 to carry cars, buses and trucks through its downtown"), says original surface/transit supporter Cary Moon, is that it relies on the assumption that "mobility" means "moving cars," not "moving people and goods."

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"Hallenbeck’s statements are disingenuous. He’s using a metric that only counts cars on highways," Moon says. "Using his metric, Paris, London, and D.C. wouldn't work at all and we'd all be trying to be more like Detroit, which has plenty of car capacity."

The idea that mobility in cities should be defined as moving people and goods is not a radical one: the Washington State Department of Transportation, Gov. Christine Gregoire, Mayor Greg Nickels, former King County Executive Ron Sims, and a long list of downtown business leaders endorsed the concept after Seattle voters rejected a tunnel and a rebuilt viaduct in 2007—hardly a group of wide-eyed environmental extremists (like me). Moreover, later that year, a group of stakeholders who had spent months examining the viaduct alternatives endorsed the surface/transit option.

Lindblom's story also oversimplifies McGinn's view on people's ability to shift from driving alone to other transportation modes: "McGinn says people aren't crazy enough to sit in traffic, so most would use transit or find other routes." But the argument for mode shift and transportation demand management isn't that people aren't crazy; it's that if people are provided with alternatives to driving alone, and if driving alone carries greater costs (time stuck in traffic, rising gas prices, unreliable commute times, etc.) people will choose the cheaper/more reliable/less time-consuming option. (See, for example, this piece on the impact rising gas prices have on the amount people drive.)

That's just common sense. Yes, it can be boiled down to "people aren't crazy," but the larger point is that people are adaptive. They want to minimize the awfulness of their commutes, and if taking the bus is better than driving, people will. We've seen this effect again and again right here in Seattle—when the viaduct was closed after the 2001 earthquake, when I-5 was partially shut down for repaving, people adapted.
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