City Yesterday’s Mismatched Transit Debate
posted by October 23 at 11:53 AMon
A scene from the rally outside.
I rode my bike out to the University of Washington yesterday to catch the debate on Proposition 1, the mass-transit expansion measure, between Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and Bellevue land magnate Kemper Freeman. Freeman was so outmatched by Nickels on charisma, statistics, and general coherence, however, that it seems almost unfair to call it a “debate.”
Almost. This is the man, after all, who has poured more than $100,000 into the effort to kill Proposition 1; who put twice that amount into the campaign against last year’s roads and transit ballot measure; and who once, according to legend, refused to set foot on a bus that had been chartered to give him a tour of East King County—just, you know, on principle.
So—however doddering he seemed yesterday, however out of touch, rambling, and just plain inaccurate his arguments—it’s hard to feel too sorry for the guy.
Yes, that’s a weird bandage on his nose. No, I don’t know what it was doing there.
Freeman’s main argument seemed to be that light rail doesn’t serve enough people, and that buses and lots of new freeways would. (Never mind that he also supports Initiative 985, which would clog all those wonderful bus lanes Freeman envisions with single-occupancy drivers—or that freeways aren’t exactly cheap.) “This proposition is about one in 200 of us who are not using transit today using transit in the future,” Freeman said, a phony statistic he also pulled out at last week’s CityClub debate with King County Council Member Dow Constantine. “They are pretending that we can somehow solve our transportation problem with public transit, and in fact it is impossible.” Freeman even charged that the only way light rail will serve as many people as Sound Transit says it can—up to a million trips per day—is if “you hire people to shove people in like they do in Japan.”
Freeman also argued that because Seattle isn’t as dense as New York—an example he brought up half a dozen times—light rail won’t work here. “I’ve studied Portland… I spent three days in Portland … I saw buildings [along the light rail line] that were totally empty, that had gone bankrupt. I saw retail spaces that were totally empty.” It wasn’t the first, or the last, time Freeman would refer to his extensive (and expensive) work “studying” transit systems in other cities, only to find every single one of them lacking. Finally, he argued that light rail was a dirty technology because it runs on electricity, and “over 40 percent of the electricity in the US is made from burning coal.” Nickels quickly eviscerated that fish-in-a-barrel argument, pointing out that the Puget Sound region’s electricity is almost exclusively (clean) hydropower—something Freeman presumably knows.
On his game.
In contrast to the jumpy Freeman, Nickels appeared relaxed, comfortable, even funny. Maybe it’s that he really feels strongly about light rail, or maybe he just shouldn’t read his speeches, but Nickels was more on game than I’ve ever seen him. He noted, first, that light rail boosters aren’t trying to solve all the region’s transportation problems—they’re just trying to make it easier for people to get around during the busiest times of the day. “The trips that we’re particularly concerned about are the trips into and out of our major urban centers, like UW and downtown Bellevue and Northgate,” Nickels said. “This will not eliminate congestion. … What it will do is create the capacity for up to a million people a day to take light rail rather than get on the freeway in their individual automobiles.” Freeman, bizarrely, made the same point in arguing against light rail, noting that trips to and from work “are less than one fifth of our trips in this region. Our public leaders have been leading us down a wild goose chase and we can’t do that,” Freeman said.
But that, Nickels noted, was exactly the point: Transit is supposed to serve people at the most congested times. “The problem is that we all try to get to and from work and to and from the university at the same time every day,” Nickels said. “We wouldn’t have to put down another cubic foot of concrete if all those trips were spread out throughout the day and night.”
As for the ultimate number of people the system could serve, Nickels acknowledged that a million is on the high end. (Officially, Sound Transit predicts there will be about 300,000 light-rail boardings daily by 2030.) But, he noted, Nickels’s and Freeman’s car-dependent generations are being overtaken by younger people who want new ways of getting around. “As we shape our cities and our region around transit, and as young people replace those of us who grew up totally dependent on the automobile, I think that those models vastly underestimate what we’re likely to see happen,” Nickels said. “I expect that the actual use will far outpace what the models show today.”