Saturday, February 7, 2009

Thoughts on Seattle

The Pacific Northwest is a different sort of place. Urban residents would tell you that Seattle, Vancouver and Portland make up a progressive triumvirate that does battle with the rest of the world. Rural residents would tell you that the Pacific Northwest provides the building materials the make the rest of the world possible.The transformation of a working class town into the heavy-hitter that Seattle has become was fueled by the software boom. The location and explosive growth of Microsoft outside the city lead to dramatic expansion of the suburbs which in turn, lead to vicious traffic problems.

Seattle was the first city to take recycling seriously, today they even fine those that don't play along. For many years though, they dropped the ball on transportation. They're stuck playing catch-up and are racing to improve their system.

The most visible improvement is the electrification of many of the bus lines. Power is amazingly cheap in Seattle and electrification certainly reduces operation costs, though overhead wires don't come cheap. They can be visually jarring, especially at a crowded intersection. And when buses fall off the wires, passengers are delayed.Overall though, electrification solves some of the biggest problems associated with city buses, especially their noise and smell. The improved atmosphere that is generated when a busy bus line is electrified is certainly worth the capital cost.

Buses need especially wide streets, the sort that dominate most cities. Seattle though, has made some space for smaller streets and alleys. These carefully designed spaces increase real estate value and since they reject cars, allow a vibrant pedestrian culture to thrive.Seattle seems to be full of these human scale places. A local business that has spread up and down the coast, ActivSpace provides artists, start-ups and hobbyists small units to get their ideas off the ground. We were lucky enough to stumble upon a free tasting at the smallest brewery I have ever seen.The human scale also had a strong impact on the design of some parks here. This one, located at the heart of the old downtown district, was full of character without taking up acres upon acres of valuable space.The inner pseudo-suburbs of Seattle have strips of commercial and residential areas that are fine-grained enough that at least some trips can be made without a car, though the density is totally insufficient to support truly pedestrian areas and quality public transportation. These are the sorts of places that inhibit movement towards pedestrian oriented cities.

They are a vast improvement over the suburbs, so real estate value is huge and neighborhood groups organize to preserve the "character" of the place. They have too much auto-centric inertia to allow much planned short term change. They are too spread out to support quality public transportation and I don't see any short-term path for them to move away from the automobile in any serious way.

Seattle is a cool place but I suspect it will stagnate until they find an adequate way to address the issue of mobility for their residents. Urban residents live in cities to experience the closeness of others. They don't live in cities for bragging rights or to sit in traffic jams for hours on end. Change will come eventually though, since neither the environment nor the economy seem keen on supporting our urban failures much longer.

No comments:

Post a Comment