Seattle's transportation malaise is nothing special

Seattle perversely prides itself on its transportation stalemates, as if they're part of our brand. Alas, thinking locally, defying regional scale, and torpedoing big governmental projects is a grand American tradition, widely shared.
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Shenzhen, China. (Wikipedia)

Seattle perversely prides itself on its transportation stalemates, as if they're part of our brand. Alas, thinking locally, defying regional scale, and torpedoing big governmental projects is a grand American tradition, widely shared.

I recently spent a week in Shenzhen, China, a place that was a small fishing village in the 1970s and is a megapolis that numbers between 8 million and 12 million people today, depending on whom you ask. Even for China, Shenzhen has a reputation for building infrastructure at warp speed. Since my last visit there 14 months ago, Shenzhen had completed an intercity high-speed rail system, a major bridge, and a couple of freeways.

Meanwhile, back in Seattle, it's been two months since the defeat of Proposition 1, and state and local leaders are already divvying up the transportation pie into smaller and more localized projects. The 520 bridge over Lake Washington remains overloaded, and the Alaskan Way Viaduct totters precariously. Lamentation continues about this region's seeming inability to get anything built.

The contrast between Shenzhen and the Seattle region is striking. But before we get too envious, remember that Shenzhen is a place with a different history, a different economy, a different culture, and different politics. And Shenzhen's current transformation is nearly the opposite of where greater Seattle wants to be - car ownership is skyrocketing, parking garages proliferate, and gleaming new skyscrapers rise into a haze of smog.

The real lesson here is how much regional transportation systems reflect local conditions and a broader national history. Shenzhen was China's first free-market experiment, established in the late 1970s to tap into the wealth and trade networks of neighboring Hong Kong. In the years since, it has become the place where a vast number of consumer goods are produced, from toys to clothing to Xboxes. Populated by migrants from other parts of China, with a cityscape whose oldest neighborhood is just 25 years old, Shenzhen can get things built fast because of its lack of firmly entrenched local institutions – and its commitment to making money.

Similarly, Seattle's current transportation stalemate is very much the product of American political institutions that favor local fragmentation over regional governance and minimal spending on infrastructure. Seattle's situation also reflects a history that has bred some justifiable suspicion about large transportation projects.

People here understand this historical legacy, but as a relative newcomer to Seattle I've noticed that it tends to be considered as a uniquely Seattle sort of problem. Despite perpetual self-criticism, however, this place hasn't behaved all that differently than most other American cities in its regional antagonisms, its skepticism about big projects, and its reluctance to pay for them. There isn't a special "Seattle malaise."

Basically, regional and multi-nodal transportation solutions, as well as regional governance in U.S. cities, must work against three national historical trends:

  • All politics is local. American history, since the earliest days of settlement, has been defined in good part by ingrained localism. Suspicion of big cities - as centers of crime, unruly populations, and political corruption - dates from the earliest days of the Republic, causing cities to be cordoned off from the surrounding affluent suburbs and states. By the mid-20th century, localism and anti-urbanism had become firmly embedded into public policy.

    From Philadelphia to Chicago to Denver to Seattle, tax, zoning, and infrastructure policies of the past half century have supported physical and political atomization into highly localized entities and interests - at the expense both of regional political unity and economic equity. This has allowed for efficient delivery of high-quality public services to some places with a favorable tax base. But atomization has shrunk both the tax base and the political constituency for big regional transportation projects.

  • The ghosts of highways past. The history of many American cities is littered with grand plans for roads and transit that never were built, and the hangover from these earlier efforts suffuses regional transportation debates of the early 21st century. By the mid-1950s, nearly every mid- to large-sized U.S. city had plans on the books for extensive grids of in-city highways, along with major urban-redevelopment schemes, designed to counter urban economic decline and modernize the city's core. In some instances, these highways got built, improving transportation efficiency but forever altering the neighborhoods that ran beneath them. In many other cases, citizen opposition blocked construction.

    In Seattle, projects like the R.H.Thomson Expressway, which would have run a north-south course through the Arboretum, were stopped by citizen lawsuits, protest marches, and the city's eventual lack of political appetite for the project. If all the highways planned for Seattle in the 1950s and 1960s had been built, today's traffic woes would be diminished. But many of the city's neighborhoods would be considerably less pleasant places to live.

    Building roads - and transit, for that matter - tears up the urban fabric and taxes our patience while construction continues. Given the track record, sometimes it's easier, and wiser, to do nothing.

  • Make no big plans. The general consensus on Prop 1 seems to be that the initiative's fatal flaw was its bigness. By combining roads and transit in one large package that had something in it for everyone to hate, Prop 1 ran up against the dislike of big plans and large government that is another fundamental characteristic of the American political landscape.

    Our relative historical closeness to the major government expansions and interventions of the 20th century - the New Deal, the G.I. Bill, the Interstate Highway program, Medicaid, and Medicare - can obscure the fact that these were all exceptional policies spurred by exceptional events. The majority of the time, American public policy has tended toward the small and the devolved. Most of the time, the public sector gets the private sector to actually do the work, from building railroads to defense contracting to home mortgage lending to applied research. The stealthy nature of many government programs leads us to underestimate their daily impact, and helps doom very large public initiatives to failure.

Even so, haven't other American metropolises been able to overcome this common history and do a much better job of transportation than Seattle? The rail systems in Atlanta or San Francisco or Portland may not be perfect, but at least they have something, right?

Well, yes - but. In nearly every place, localism and political fragmentation (not to mention deep-seated racial anxieties) have constrained mass transit from becoming truly regional systems. Cars are still the preferred mode of transport, roads are still clogged with traffic, and suburbs extend further outward as families search for affordable housing.

Also keep in mind that few U.S. cities have the geographical and geological hurdles of Seattle when it comes to building railways, burrowing tunnels, and bridging bodies of water.

Meanwhile, there are many things that the Seattle region does much better than others. It's a big place, but small enough that all of the key city and county officials can meet in one room to work out strategies around economic development, environmental protection, roads, and housing. By contrast, many other American metropolitan areas, particularly those of the Northeast and Midwest, have histories and geographies that are fractured by race and class, and their city limits are political fault lines that stand in the way of effective planning. The Seattle region has considerably less of that history with which to contend. Moreover, this is a prosperous place that promises to stay that way for some time, thanks to new-economy powerhouses, highly educated people, and natural amenities.

Here as elsewhere, the fate of city and suburb are inextricably connected. It's just that our political system is not structured to make us understand that, and our political history makes Americans reluctant to think big and spend big. American history also shows us that sometimes a "no" vote ultimately turns out better than voting "yes." Perhaps that will be the case with Prop 1.


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