Seattle’s light rail expansions likely won’t reduce road congestion

Jan 30, 2020, 11:17 AM | Updated: 12:10 pm

When funding for Sound Transit hangs in the balance, and yet Seattle’s light rail system continues to expand, one might want to ask: Will it really reduce road congestion?

KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross talked to Laura Bliss, CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She recently published an overview of how other cities have successfully, and unsuccessfully, built their own light rail systems over the years. Seattle’s Morning News thought it would be worth asking Bliss how we stack up.

Back in the 80s and 90s, federal funding for big urban revitalization projects waned, but cities across the country still wanted mass transit. They were just reluctant to commit to costly and extensive subway systems.

Light rail offered a sleek, cheaper alternative with the bonus, for politicians, of a more modern and exciting feel. City officials in Portland, Los Angeles, Vancouver B.C., and Atlanta promised car commuters less congestion on main roads.

“Often when cities or counties pass big transit referendums, one of the selling points that politicians make is … ‘you want this because it’s going to make your highway commute easier,'” Bliss said. “And those are really appealing sales tactics, because everyone wants an easier drive.”

But over time, this doesn’t pan out, Bliss said. It’s the same twisted logic by which adding a lane to a highway just means more people hit the road.

“In a growing city, what tends to happen is even if there is a successful transit system, the driver is not necessarily going to see a huge impact on the road because the population is growing,” Bliss said. “People are spreading themselves out across all these different modes of transit.”

If it doesn’t reduce highway congestion, is it worth it?

Well, Bliss said, it’s hard to measure how much worse traffic would be if the light rail system and buses didn’t exist.

“Even if traffic isn’t noticeably better, … transit is still making a difference in people’s lives in other ways that are totally measurable,” Bliss said.

Public transit helps people get to their jobs, to school, and to health care appointments, Bliss said. It allows people to travel in a way that’s carbon free. And a somewhat unexpected bonus of light rail in particular? The economic development and walk-able neighborhoods that sprout up around stations.

There are still a few key lessons Seattle has learned from the failures of other cities. In Los Angeles, for example, city planners built their Metro system downtown, and jutted lines out into suburbia like spokes on a wheel. But without efficient buses to take commuters to and from those outpost stations, the light rail served only a handful of houses already within walking distance.

“Seattle had done a pretty good job of connecting its light rail stations to the bus network,” Bliss said. “It does seem like where light rail exists, it is carrying a really large number of people that meets the capacity thresholds that planners say you really want to meet.”

Bliss is also a fan of the dedicated bus lanes downtown (although perhaps not as much as this lady).

“I know this is very controversial, but dedicating lanes to buses [keeps] them speedy so people can take those buses to the light rail system,” Bliss said. “Seattle is making, it seems like, very, very smart and strategic decisions about where it’s putting transit and how it is spreading out its investment across light rail and its bus systems.”

Listen to the Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5-9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

Dave Ross on KIRO Newsradio 97.3 FM
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Seattle’s light rail expansions likely won’t reduce road congestion