'Ramps to Nowhere': Erasing Seattle's pro-transit past

How the doomed "Ramps to Nowhere" led to somewhere: a better Seattle.
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Ramps to snowhere

How the doomed "Ramps to Nowhere" led to somewhere: a better Seattle.

"Somebody has to fight the freeways. There are powerful lobbies representing the highway construction industry, the automobile, truck, tire and cement and construction equipment companies and some labor unions who push for freeways. There is no one to point out the disadvantages to our way of living."

R. H. Thomson Expressway opponent Maynard Arsove

I was not surprised, but was sickened to hear that the "off-ramps to nowhere" are slated for demolition.

Not surprised because the 520-expansion project is grinding forward and the folks who build freeways and bridges are not happy in preserving much of anything, let alone their past mistakes.

Sickened because those ramps are unofficial monuments to a time when Seattle's urbanist sanity prevailed over the conventional mid-century urbanist wisdom. They were the remnants of Seattle's great Jane Jacobs moment of saying "no" to more cars, more freeways, and neighborhood-chomping growth.

The ramps were unfinished business for road builders. They would have connected 520 to the planned R.H. Thomson Expressway, which would have been part of a massive ring-road system circling the city — some said, strangling it. Worse, the system would have devastated many neighborhoods, including Montlake and the Arboretum, the Central District, Pioneer Square and others. Opponents of R.H. Thomson described it as a "concrete dragon."

It took years to stall, then defeat it; to sway public opinion from the post-war car-centric vision of Seattle. Seattle's green, grassroots activists won the fight, like St. George with his sword. The ramps were a trophy and a statement: This is a city that speaks truth to power, that can say "no" to blind ambition.

You think Mike McGinn started a war on cars? Baloney. It was underway long before Mike McGinn even moved to Seattle. He's just in line with a city tradition of eco-activism. Battles were fought against R. H. Thomson, the I-90 expansion, the 520 bridge, the Bay Freeway and ring-road system which would have blasted through Pioneer Square and South Lake Union, the slicing of Seattle in two by I-5. All this before the downtown tunnel/Viaduct controversy. Seattle has a pro-transit, car-skeptical past that tends to get forgotten, partly because many of these battles were lost, partly because we like to think we enlightened moderns invented the wheel — at least the bicycle wheel.

But Seattle had modern, even enlightened, urban ambitions before multi-family housing, density, bike lanes, trollies and walkable neighborhoods became exemplars of 21st century urban progress. They were at various times exemplars of 19th and early 20th century progress as well.

King County voters are often bashed for having defeated mass transit, but in fact we passed it with over 50 percent of the vote. Still, it needed 60 percent. Seattle wasn't anti-mass transit, it was pro-mass transit. But the opportunity of the 1960s and '70s was lost. It was a minority of voters who held it back.

But the R.H Thomson reversal — it was going to be built, but a popular uprising defeated it — was one of the great Seattle moments of the last 50 years; a signature of progress as sure as was preserving the Square or the Pike Place Market. They stood as potent ruins of another vision for Seattle that put parking lots ahead of density, that put freeways ahead of neighborhoods.

And like good ruins, they aged well over time. They became platforms for swimmers, divers and sunbathers, they grew moss and bushes, they sheltered the homeless, and they raised questions. Newcomers to Seattle often ask about them and those who know the history could tell them the story of how Seattle said "no" to the kind of urban planning that blighted so many cities in the '50s, '60s, and '70s. I love looking at them, much as I enjoy the 18th century drawings of Piranesi showing the remnants of ancient Rome overgrown with vines, absorbed into the new cities, sheep grazing in the old temples and arenas.

I think it's a mistake to remove all vestiges of the ramps, even to gain trails. Something of the ramps should be preserved to carry this rich history and message. Sad to think that half a century after they were built, the hubris of those times is not only being forgotten, but being repeated as 520 expands to carry more cars and as our state transportation policy remains too auto-centric.

The off-ramps to nowhere — maybe one can be installed at South Lake Union Park next to the new MOHAI. They're a big part of our modern history, of a path not taken that has made Seattle a better city.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.