As a kid in the 1980’s, I would occasionally see news footage that showed masses of people in China riding bicycles as their main form of transportation. The message that I heard was that people in dense, undeveloped China rode bikes, while we Americans were advanced enough to drive cars.
There are historical and economic reasons for that gap, but the idea that automobiles (and Americans) are inherently “better” is bupkis.
Cars, bikes, airplanes, covered wagons, the Space Shuttle; these are different types of transportation technology. And technology exists to solve specific, human problems. The Boeing 787 is a great airplane. It’s more complicated and more technologically advanced than a car or train, but not generically “better”. It doesn’t help my family get to View Ridge for Sunday evening dinner at Gramma’s.
Many people in the US see their choice of transportation technology as part of their identity. Maybe that’s you and I, as cyclists decked out in Spandex. Or it’s the car guy from work with a 3-car garage in Federal Way. Or just how defensive some Seattle folks are about on-street parking. It seems some people’s embrace of certain tools reflects or defines “who they are”.
For most people though, it’s not about identity. It’s about solving a specific transportation problem. What’s the cheapest and fastest way to work? How should we get to the Sounders game tonight? How do I get the groceries home? How do I pick up the kids from school, take one to sports practice, cook dinner, help with homework, clean the kitchen, and get everyone to bed on time? Thanks to nearly 100 years of government investment, the automobile is often the best solution.
A very short-sighted solution.
We’ve since realized that designing our cities, our streets, our communities around cars is literally killing us. More than 35,000 people a year are killed directly in cars and by drivers. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other “natural causes” are strongly correlated with parts of the country where people are forced to the drive the most. And climate change, with extreme weather and eventual sea level rise, is coming.
Beyond all of that, Seattle and the US keep growing. In 1980, there were 226 million people in the US and 494,000 in Seattle. Now, 326 million in the US and roughly 724,000 in Seattle. More people in the same space. On the same roads, in the same cars. It’s not hard to understand why traffic congestion (and housing affordability) has become so bad. The question is, what do we do about it?
The fact is the US and Seattle are changing. How we manage this change will determine how safe and prosperous our city can be during the next 40 years of growth. It’s time to recognize that cars cannot be our primary transportation solution for a Seattle that is coping with climate change, inequality, and density. Cars aren’t going away; they are too useful of a technology. But we can reduce our dependence on them.
Seattle has already made great strides, with community activists like Seattle Neighborhood Greenways and Cascade Bicycle Club pushing the city to build its nation-leading bike infrastructure. But if we are going to manage the change that is coming, Seattle needs to catch up with the Danish and Dutch world-leaders of cycling infrastructure, circling back to that bike-dominated-China I saw as a kid. As a candidate for Seattle City Council, I have some thoughts on this.
First, the City Council must pass legislation that requires the current and future Mayors to prioritize Vision Zero for a safe transportation system. SDOT should explicitly measure their success, not by car volume, but in people and freight traveled.
Second, we need to open our wallets to bicycle infrastructure. The Basic Bike Network needs to be built, and I’ll champion its completion. Then, we need to connect the rest of the city to that network, starting with physically separated bike lanes connecting the U-District on Eastlake Avenue.
Third, our neighborhood arterial streets remain unacceptably dangerous places for people not in cars. Rainier Avenue, 35th Ave NE, and every arterial repaving project must rebuild streets to prioritize people’s safety over drivers’ convenience. Nothing delays a car more than an accident. Nothing unravels a family like a traumatic injury.
Bicycles and walking. What was once old, is new again. Seattle must choose its transportation technology wisely, and subsidizing automobiles is no longer safe or wise. It’s sticking our heads in the sand, while the tide comes in.