Guest Opinion

Don't Pause, Double Down on Seattle's Transportation Progress

As a national model of smart transit policy, Seattle needs to embrace its success.

By Jon Orcutt June 28, 2016

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This week, board members from eight transit agencies across the country will converge on Seattle. They are the inaugural class of an exciting new training program from TransitCenter, a New York-based foundation staffed and governed by several generations of transportation experts. The organization fosters research and advocacy to improve and expand public transportation across the United States.

The idea behind the board member training program is simple: transit agency boards are pivotal in creating the policies that lead to stronger and more useful transit systems. Often, however, board members have little or no transit or urban-planning expertise, instead taking cues from staff in a conservative industry that in many places is suffering from long-term stagnation or outright decline. TransitCenter’s training program exposes participants to clear examples of planning useful, high-ridership transit and leadership-driven policy reform. 

Why Seattle? Because the evidence is clear: Seattle is a city on the move, a city where transit improvement is both an immediate fact and a long-term public policy. Over the last five years, you’ve had the fastest-growing transit ridership of any large U.S. city. You’ve opened effective new rail extensions, reshaped bus networks to provide more frequent service, and designed streets to move transit more efficiently. Where most American cities–even growing ones—are shedding bus riders, Seattle is gaining them in droves. And of course, you are debating (and now scheduled to vote on) a funding plan that will shape the next several generations of transit investments and influence regional development for the remainder of this century.

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TransitCenter chose Seattle as a showcase for other cities not just for its leadership in building more transit, but also because the city has shown that transit service can be made better with subtle adjustments to existing infrastructure. Walkability is a critical determinant of transit use. That explains Seattle’s commitment to bring 72 percent of homes within a 10 minute walk of frequent transit service in the Move Seattle plan. Additionally, Seattle’s Vision Zero policy and programs to redesign city streets are building a walking environment that encourages pedestrian access to buses, streetcars, and rail stations—and improves urban vibrancy more generally.

These factors add up. While the city has grown at one of the fastest rates in the country, daily traffic volumes in Seattle have fallen. According to the Seattle DOT Traffic Report (2015), Seattle added nearly 100,000 people in the decade from 2004-2014, while average daily car traffic in the city fell by some 60,000 trips over the same period. The travel demand created by population and job growth is being absorbed by the transit system—exactly the transportation trend booming cities need and should seek to achieve. New residents are not filling roads with cars, they’re filling buses and trains because the city and region planned for it.

TransitCenter is delighted to bring its first class of transit board members to witness and learn from Seattle's great example. Ironically, however, we arrive in Seattle just as some in the region are hesitating to celebrate or even acknowledge your success. The Seattle Times, for example, recently called for the region to "pause" in planning and seeking funding for future transit expansion. SDOT’s design for its early Rapid Ride+ corridor on Eastlake/Roosevelt has been watered down from the proposal voters approved last year. The city has also backed off its earlier plan to create protected bike lanes throughout downtown and adjoining areas, another policy that would complement the transit network. And the Pronto bike share system is stuck in limbo—at once too small to provide useful transportation for appreciable numbers, but also seen as too troubled to warrant expansion.

The Seattle that TransitCenter intends to show off is the ambitious version, not to be daunted by nay-sayers. As small a gesture as our visit might be, we hope Seattle's leaders will see it as an indication not to slow the city’s transit plans, but to double down on them. Regardless of the mix of projects in the ST3 package, the city can continue to write its own future. The bus system should continue to increase high frequency service, the foundation on which the ridership boom has been built. The city should leverage its investment in streetcars by transforming the streets on which they run into dedicated rights-of-way, as is standard on high-ridership trams in Europe. The city should also return to the agenda it promised to voters who approved last year’s Move Seattle measure, and continue to steadily but thoughtfully transform city streets to accommodate high-efficiency networks of busways and bikeways.

Seattle has quietly become a leader among American cities in creating a transportation system that truly moves the masses—and does so far more sustainably than the highways that many cities continue to build. But to continue on its enviable path, Seattle needs even more transit capacity, walkability, and bike-friendly infrastructure in its fast growing urban core.

All of these elements of urban design work together, and they’re a core reason Seattle has become one of America’s premiere cities. We need more urban success stories like yours. Don’t let us down.

Jon Orcutt is Advocacy and Communications Director for TransitCenter. As policy director for the New York City Dept of Transportation from 2007-2014, he was a leader of the team that delivered major design innovations to NYC streets. He managed the creation of the CitiBike bike share system and development of the ambitious Vision Zero approach to traffic safety. For more on TransitCenter’s work, please visit or follow @TransitCenter. 

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