Chokepoints for Effective Transit: The Example of Seattle

Seattleskyline1cropped In December, Alex Steffen wrote a provocative article at Worldchanging proposing that Seattle aim to become North America’s first carbon-neutral city.  I’m not an expert on carbon-neutrality as a whole, but I can certainly comment on the transport dimensions of it.  Here are some reasons to bet on Seattle, in particular, as a place that might get closer to carbon-neutrality in transportation than most other North American cities.  Ultimately, all of these are about geography.

Sustainable Power Supply

Seattle runs on hydropower.  Dams are destructive to natural landscapes, but once you’ve built them and accepted the resulting ecosystem changes, they’re a sustainable power source.  Electric trolleybuses are a good sign of a city’s confidence that electric power would always be cheap and abundant.  You’ll tend to find them in hydropower-driven cities, such as San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver.

Density and Mixed Use

Density drives transit demand, but even more importantly it drives walking, which is the only transport mode that requires no inputs from emissions-compromised sources.

A Hard Edge = A Clear Political Identity

Seattle whole city If you’re going to do something that works best in the dense pre-car urban fabric, you need both a name for that area and a political unit that can focus on it.  The City of Seattle is close to being such a unit.  Seattle is bounded by major bodies of water on the east and west sides.  Only to the north and south do the city and its suburbs flow together, raising some uncertainty about where one ends and the other begins.  Among major North American cities only a few (San Francisco, Vancouver, and arguably New York City) have a better alignment of natural and political geography for this purpose.

At the opposite extreme, the City of Los Angeles is a bizarre shape that includes a great deal of postwar suburbia and omits a great deal of older urban fabric closer in.  I often want to talk about a “core” part of Los Angeles that is high-density and urban in character, but there is no word for this area, and thus no political concept, a real disadvantage for sustainability thinking in that city.


If you want a real focus for sustainable transport improvements, however, look for chokepoints.

A chokepoint is anywhere in the transport network where many different trip paths have to go through the same point to get past a geographic barrier.  Bridges and tunnels are chokepoints, so are mountain passes.  Wherever a steep hill is right next to a body of water, the little ledge in between them is a chokepoint, as it often only has room for one road, or a road plus a single track of rail.

No North American city has more chokepoints than Seattle.  The city itself consists of three peninsulas with narrow water barriers between them.  Further barriers are created by steep hills in most parts of the city.  Nowhere in Seattle can you travel in a straight line for more than a few miles without going into the water or over a cliff.

Seattle’s geographical isolation from its suburbs, of course, means it is also surrounded by chokepoints.  There are only two bridges across Lake Washington to the east.  To take your car across Puget Sound on the west you have to use a car ferry, which means your trip will be no faster or more frequent than that of a transit passenger.

Transit planning is frustrating in such a place, but road planning is even more so.  Ultimately, Seattle’s chokepoints have the effect of reducing much of the complex problem of mode share to a critical decision about a strategic spot.  If you give transit an advantage through a chokepoint, you’ve given it a big advantage over a large area.

Seattle qah For example, here’s a Google Earth shot of Seattle’s Queen Anne Hill.  Downtown is on the south edge of the image.  The gridded area at the center of the image is the hill itself.  Many of these streets are steep, and only a few of them connect to surrounding areas, so these limited hill-climbing opportunities are chokepoints for access to the hill.  More importantly, the hill generates chokepoints all around it.  Southwest and northeast of the hill are narrow “ledge” spaces between the hill and bodies of water.  These ledges are chokepoints in themselves, and they also lead to more chokepoints further north: bridges over the Ship Canal.  Since Queen Anne Hill is adjacent to downtown on the northwest, the chokepoints around it are a dominant transport reality for the whole northwest quadrant of the city.

The high cost of transport capacity through Seattle’s chokepoints makes it relatively easy to imagine congestion pricing.  (Correcting the price signals that currently favor cars would be a crucial step toward carbon-neutrality in any city.)  Americans tolerate toll bridges, in part, because bridges are obviously expensive to build and maintain.  You can’t go far in Seattle without crossing a bridge, so there are many opportunities to expand on the existing understanding about toll bridges to create a broadly acceptable congestion pricing regime.  I’m not saying this would be easy, but the geography certainly makes it easier.

Transit Infrastructure?

What Seattle doesn’t have is a lot of transit infrastructure.  Its first rail rapid transit line opened just last year, though the downtown subway that the line uses is almost 20 years old.  Other than this, its speed and reliability infrastructure (as opposed to the power supply infrastructure of trolleybuses) consists of bus lanes.

Seattle is used to feeling inferior on this score because Portland is just down the road, and Portland has a huge light rail network extending three directions from downtown, in addition to its much-imitated and expanding streetcar line.

Yet bus-dependent Seattle has a higher transit mode share to downtown (transit trips as a percentage of all trips) than rail-oriented Portland does.

If you think that rail transit infrastructure, all by itself, will transform your city, read that sentence again.

The lesson of Seattle is that successful transit infrastructure responds to demand, and what drives transit demand is high overall travel demand plus serious barriers to driving.  In Seattle, a lot of the barriers to driving take the form of hassle and delay, due to limited capacity through chokepoints.  Congestion pricing would replace the hassle and delay with a monetary cost.  But one way or another, you’ll pay to drive into the core of Seattle, because there isn’t enough space for everyone to do it easily. Driving into downtown Portland, especially from the east where most of the population is, is easy by comparison.  (Downtown Portland has so many bridges over the river that none of them are especially onerous chokepoints.)

Seattle’s advantage, in short, is a natural scarcity of transport routes, which is the same as an abundance of chokepoints.   Because of this geography, even in the era when we were building roads everywhere, it just wasn’t possible to build an oversupply of roads connecting the various parts of Seattle.  So transit’s advantage remains.

Effective transit infrastructure aims for the chokepoints, and seeks an advantage there.  This is part of why various forms of Bus Rapid Transit have particular potential in Seattle: if you give transit an advantage through the chokepoint, you can achieve a lot of mode shift.  The bus services across Lake Washington (between Seattle and its eastern suburbs) on I-90 do well because they have preferential access through a major chokepoint.  East of the lake, they spread out to serve many suburbs directly, something buses do easily and rail does only with a required transfer.

Obviously, none of this is an argument against rail rapid transit, in Seattle or elsewhere.  Rail can provide higher capacity per unit of operating cost, and where the alternative is non-electric buses it has an obvious emissions advantage.  But it does mean that in Seattle, rail is about increasing the efficiency with which we carry people who already have a motive to use transit, and also building the capacity that will be needed if and when congestion pricing becomes realistic.  (London’s abundant transit, remember, was an important part of the case for its congestion pricing scheme.)  That means that rail and bus improvements both need to aim for the chokepoints, and win focused battles for capacity there.

This topic continues here.

33 Responses to Chokepoints for Effective Transit: The Example of Seattle

  1. EngineerScotty January 2, 2010 at 8:39 pm #

    Good to see you back in fine form, Jarrett! (Now, are you foolhardy enough to tackle the topic of Personal Rapid Transit?) 🙂

  2. EngineerScotty January 2, 2010 at 8:39 pm #

    Too bad you had to turn on the captchas, though. 🙁

  3. Cap'n Transit January 2, 2010 at 9:57 pm #

    Yes, these “chokepoints” are why it’s easier for transit to compete against cars in an archipelago like New York or Seattle, or a mountain valley like Pittsburgh, than in a big wide valley like Phoenix or a plain like Denver. That’s not to say that transit can’t work in an area without too many chokepoints (Chicago) or that you can’t have a car-dominated city with lots of chokepoints (LA). It’s just, as you put it, that the chokepoints give an advantage to transit.
    I described this phenomenon as the Magic Formula for Transit Profitability: if you can make it more difficult and more expensive to get through the chokepoint by car than by transit, you can actually have profitable transit systems, as you have with the buses in Lincoln Tunnel.
    But the key is that it’s all relative. If you expand road capacity by the same amount that you expand transit, or increase the cost of both by the same amount, then it neutralizes the advantage. If you expand road capacity more than you expand transit capacity, or increase the cost of transit by a higher amount, advantage cars. This is why it’s important to fight bridge widenings.

  4. Jarrett January 2, 2010 at 11:25 pm #


  5. Alon Levy January 3, 2010 at 7:41 am #

    Cap’n: bear in mind, those buses don’t pay their fair share of road maintenance, due to the fourth power rule of road wear. In fact one of the reasons American transit agencies switched from streetcars to buses in the middle of the 20th century is that streetcars were made to pay a disproportionate share of road maintenance, whereas buses didn’t have to pay anything.
    Jarrett: chokepoints might increase transit mode share on the margin, but I don’t know if they’re that vital – see e.g. transit mode shares in Toronto and Calgary. Chokepoints can be a problem for trains as well as for cars, because it’s harder to build rail lines across them.

  6. Michael D. Setty January 3, 2010 at 12:48 pm #

    Please, oh, please, Jarrett, DON’T say ANYTHING about PRT. You’ll attract the PRT obsessives and ruin what has been a very reasonable blog and set of intelligent commenters.

  7. Cascadian January 3, 2010 at 5:40 pm #

    As a Seattle-area resident, I’ve thought a lot about these choke points. I can’t remember the exact number, but the entire central core from just south of Boeing Field to the Ship Canal and excluding West Seattle is reached by something like 17 roads. There are six crossings at the Ship Canal (Ballard, Aurora, Fremont, I-5, University, Montlake), 3 over the Duwamish River, the intersection of East Marginal and Boeing Access Roads, I-5, the two Eastside bridges, and a few well-placed points in Rainier Beach at Henderson Street. With few exceptions, everything within those points is at transit-friendly urban densities. It would be easy and relatively cheap to maintain a congestion pricing system here.

  8. EngineerScotty January 3, 2010 at 10:43 pm #

    Jarrett appears to be taking note of the present goings-on at TTP. I apologize for one more hijack of this thread, but here goes…
    Some of the PRT ideas strike me as interesting, particularly as a way for improving transit outcomes in lower density areas that wish to remain that way. Of course, given the current expense of PRT (until several production systems have been built and there is an industrial track record, I won’t trust anybody’s cost estimate, and the figures given by some PRT advocates frankly don’t pass the smell test–that said, I’m not sufficiently informed to rebut them), it may well be a nonstarter, or require local subsidy to install. But if it could be pulled off, it would integrate better with transit than huge park-and-rides, and result in better environmental and land-use outcomes.
    That is a might big If.
    That said, the PRT flacks and fanboys that have descended upon Yonah’s blog like buzzards over a downer gazelle, are in large part peddling a line of argument is obnoxious in the extreme. Rather than making apples-to-apples comparisons, contrasting PRT with other commonly-used low-density mobility solutions–the personal car, taxis, carpools and rideshares, local bus service (including services enhanced via improved or reserved infrastructure)–instead PRT gets frequently compared to rail. And such comparisons are even made in the application rail excels at, moving lots of people quickly along a linear corridor. The basis of choosing PRT seems to be a) its cheaper, and b) no need to share a vehicle with the riffraff.
    I can only think of one good reason for this apples-and-oranges line of argument–PRT vendors and their spokesfolks have made the political calculation that the best way to make money is to divert capital funding from capital-intensive, big ticket urban transit projects (in particular, rail), rather than from roadbuilding and other transportation dollars already going to suburbia. In some areas, their political calculus might well be correct, and some of the more obnoxious “mass transit is dirty and smelly and full of unpleasant and dangerous people” arguments, which are specious at best and outright racist at worst, might win support in some locales. This is most likely true in places where the dominant consensus (especially among the powerful) is opposed to urbanism, publicly funded transit, or the urban demographic itself.
    (Even in New York City, where transit is ubiquitous and comprehensive and owning an auto is expensive, you still find scores of people who take taxis everywhere and wouldn’t be caught dead on the subway).
    The problem (for PRT advocates) is that at long as gas is cheap, the same city-hating suburbanites they think they can build an anti-rail consensus with, are not likely to give them the time of day, or will simply use them as a stalking horse. In the current climate, if dollars are to be taken away from inner-city (or suburban) rail, it will be to spend on other established transit forms, or more likely, on roads. It won’t be spent on something as (presently) exotic and politically risky as PRT. This may change in the future if gas gets really expensive, but then I expect to see more migration into denser areas, not more band-aids for a suburbia which no longer makes economic sense.
    If PRT could integrate with traditional transit, and be a reasonable-cost solution, I would be more interested. But the present “sales job” turns me off completely.

  9. M1EK January 4, 2010 at 7:54 am #

    This article is good in general but ignores one major difference between Portland and Seattle which also explains the huge difference in bus ridership (or, to be more clear, how much harder it was in Portland to get somebody who could afford to drive to ride the bus) – the historical inertia of downtown development (Seattle was much bigger much earlier).
    That’s why Portland is the example most of us try to use for “new rail” cities – because most of us are more like Portland was in the 1980s than Seattle was in the 1980s. Most of us live in urban areas where it’s free to drive downtown, and free or almost free to park downtown, and where downtown is still an activity center, but not with not quite the overwhelming gravitational pull Seattle still had in the 1980s.

  10. John January 4, 2010 at 8:09 am #

    Great post. I have one minor correction. The Central Link LRT line is not Seattle’s first rail transit line. They also have the South Lake Union streetcar and the Sounder commuter rail.

  11. Jarrett January 4, 2010 at 12:11 pm #

    @ John. I’ve inserted the word “rapid” to respond to your correction. I mean “rapid transit” in the technical sense of “both fast (unlike streetcar) and frequent (unlike Sounder)” Thanks.

  12. Dan Wentzel January 4, 2010 at 12:56 pm #

    I took the light rail from SEA-TAC to downtown Seattle over Christmas and I thought it was very well done. It was a smooth, clean, comfortable efficient ride.
    I like how the rail runs well in the downtown tunnel with buses using the same stops.
    In Los Angeles, there are many places that just won’t get grade separated rail for decades if at all. Streetcars running in transit-only lanes with buses may help mobility as a solution in the short-term.

  13. SpyOne January 4, 2010 at 11:48 pm #

    There is another tool besides tolls and congestion pricing that cities can use to encourage transit use, and I believe Seattle is already using it: parking.
    I had heard that Seattle had some very high parking fees, but I decided to look for some proof online. I didn’t find any specific proof, but I did learn that on-street parking goes for $2.50 an hour. Some neighborhoods have non-metered on-street parking, but these are limited to 2 hours or so unless you reside there ($45 per year for a vehicle sticker exempting from the time limit on a specific block).
    I could find nothing about city-owned parking lots or garages.
    Private lots I could find rates for charge about $6 an hour.
    The figure I had heard a few years ago was $10 a day to park downtown.
    I found a few references to validation, but all of them pertained to short shopping trips, so that is of little help to a commuter.
    At a site called “Virtual Tourist” that seems to be a collection of user-contributed comments to help tourists, on a page titled “Parking – Seattle Warnings”, I found this comment, “The best way to park in Seattle is to find free or cheap parking and then take an inner city bus to your destination.” So, this poster’s advice to how to park in downtown Seattle is “don’t”, or more completely “leave your car somewhere safe and cheap, and take the bus around the city.” One would assume residents have learned this trick already.
    I had also heard that Seattle used money from municipal parking fees to help fund their transit, which sounds like a dandy idea.
    Now, I’m still in the realm of rumor and conjecture here. I would welcome comments from Seattle residents about their experience, or even just from someone who’s google-fu is superior to mine who could share some links. But even if everything I’ve heard about Seattle is false, I think the principle still holds: make it expensive to park downtown, then offer a decent public transit service to (and around) downtown, and folks will flock to transit and leave their cars at home (or in convenient park-and-ride lots).

  14. Jarrett January 5, 2010 at 3:28 am #

    @ SpyOne. Yes, parking cost is the single most powerful revenue-positive lever that government usually controls, if the goal is mode shift. (Free fares are also a powerful lever, but of course they’re revenue-negative.)

  15. EngineerScotty January 5, 2010 at 12:06 pm #

    This is one reason why the fight over the design of the Columbia River Crossing between Portland OR and Vancouver WA is so acrimonious. Transit advocates in Portland not only want transit lanes (for rail and/or bus); but to not add any additional road capacity. Both state DOTs, and many residents of the Couv (which has a considerably more conservative polity, as well as lower density) want additional freeway lanes. Many Vancouver residents, who consider bridge tolls to be an unfair tax on them, want the thing built as cheaply as possible–and consider any transit-related design elements to be expendable.
    This is especially true since some Portland politicians have called for tolls on the new bridge–and on the parallel Glenn Jackson bridge several miles to the east–not just as a financing measure, but as a congestion control measure; yet there seems to be no desire among residents of the Oregon side to implement tolls on other existing inbound freeways, even though there are several chokepoints (US 26 between the zoo and the tunnel; I-5/OR99W between Burlingame and downtown, OR99E at the Milwaukie city limits) where geography makes tolling or congestion pricing practical.
    Whether or not such tolls would be permissible under US law is another matter–the US Government generally prohibits local jurisdictions from erecting tolls on interstate highways apart from major new construction (numerous legacy turnpikes in the eastern US which predate but are part of the Interstate system are exempt).

  16. Pantheon January 5, 2010 at 3:11 pm #

    Portland has several chokepoints – the bridges across the river. So why has Portland failed then as a transit city? Is it because there are not enough of them, or because transit has no advantages through these chokepoints?
    In any case, bravo for pointing out what I have long suspected. For transit to succeed, driving needs to fail. Transit advocates in the U.S. are soft and weak. They think that if they build enough shiny light rail and bus lines they will change their culture. But it is not enough.
    The only way transit will ever succeed in the U.S. is if there is an all out assault on the automotive culture. This would include but is not limited to: punitive gasoline taxes on par with Europe, congestion pricing or user-fees for roads, expensive parking, and opposition to freeway and road construction and widening. You could also change financial regulations to make it more difficult to lease cars.
    Gas taxes and financial regulations can be changed at the federal level, which allows you to bypass the irritatingly diffuse political structure in America. In other words, it doesn’t matter how conservative the state government is in Alabama – there will be no need for the state government to widen the freeway if gas costs $11 a gallon.

  17. Peter Schmiedeskamp January 5, 2010 at 8:06 pm #

    Hi Jarrett. Great post! I know you’re particularly Seattle-savvy, but you never cease to impress me with your knowledge of cities around the world.
    Being sandwiched between Lake Washington and Puget Sound does indeed have the benefit of making a nice linear corridor for light rail. I can hardly wait until the line is extended up through Capitol Hill and on to UW. Express busses seem to go very quickly and frequently from UW to downtown, but are often filled to capacity or a bit beyond.
    I hadn’t thought of things in quite these terms, but you’re right about the opportunity that choke points present. The ability to go point to point anywhere, anytime in a city was a large part of why cars were so popular in the first place. As route choice is constrained, cars lose that comparative “advantage.”
    I’ll also echo Dan’s assessment of the light rail. I too had the opportunity to ride from SEATAC to Westlake. The Link was fast, smooth, quiet, and easy.

  18. SpyOne January 6, 2010 at 9:47 am #

    Pantheon, you missed the one important assault on personal automobiles that’s already underway: purchase price.
    In 1970, a Ford Pinto could be bought for a bit over 1100 hours work at minimum wage, or 28 weeks at full time (40 hours a week). A High School kid working 20 hours a week could save enough to buy a new car in a bit over a year, and he wouldn’t be financing that car, he’d be paying cash for it.
    Today, 28 weeks at 40 hours a week at minimum wage comes to … $8120. Can you buy a brand new car for under $9000? (this point was a bit more obvious a few years ago, when 28 weeks at 40 hours a week came to under $6000).
    As cars become more expensive, they become inaccessible to a larger portion of the population.
    Add to that expenses of owning and operating a car (in 1970, an hour at minimum wage bought 5 gallons of gas, these days more like 2 or 3), and a minimum wage worker really can’t afford a car.
    (And if you think “Well, cars get much better mileage today so 3 gallons today will go as far as 5 gallons in 1970”, that Pinto got 25mpg city so it would get 125 miles on 5 gallons, compared to a new Chevy Cobalt (a $15,000 car) that seems to get about 30mpg (the manufacturer only wants to tell me the highway mileage) which works out to 90 miles on 3 gallons. So even if he has a car, today’s minimum wage worker cannot go as far for a hour’s pay as one in 1970 could.)
    Sorry if I got a bit ranty, but when I was a child and my brothers were buying their first cars, a good used car could be had for 2 weeks pay at minimum wage, and by the time I was buying a car they cost 5 times that. (Today 2 weeks at minimum wage gets you $580.)

  19. EngineerScotty January 6, 2010 at 12:00 pm #

    The increase in cost of a new car does have one enviro-unfriendly aspect–it drives more people to used cars which may pollute more or get worse gas mileage.
    One other aspect of owning a car (new or used) which has increased in price greatly (probably above inflation) is the cost of repairing one. Many repairs are now beyond the skills of home mechanics (or require expensive equipment to carry out); and an increasing subset of repairs require a trip to the dealer, either for parts, or for someone qualified to do the work. It’s not commonplace for auto repair bills to approach the cost of a replacement used car; and if the engine needs rebuilding or replacing, that nowadays can approach the cost of a NEW car.

  20. Alon Levy January 6, 2010 at 1:28 pm #

    SpyOne: your examples show that the American minimum wage has lost its purchasing power since the 1970s. If you use purchasing power as a baseline instead of the minimum wage, then car prices haven’t risen much: 1,100 hours of minimum wage work in 1970 had the same purchasing power as $9,813 today. If you use per capita income as a baseline, then the equivalent price in 2008, a recession year, is $16,750 (there’s no data yet for 2009). In addition, cars today last longer than they did in 1970, so there’s less depreciation. A Honda Civic costs about the same today as a Ford Pinto did in 1970 relative to average income, but it will last twice as long.

  21. Pantheon January 6, 2010 at 3:38 pm #

    Alon made the same point I was going to make, namely that the minimum wage hasn’t kept up with inflation. But few people stay on the minimum wage forever.
    Regardless, cars are like pets: the real cost of ownership is maintenance and use, not upfront purchase price. And making cars more costly to use is something government can control. It also ensures that those who choose to own cars will use them less.
    San Francisco is a great example of a city that has made driving prohibitively expensive. People happily pay the extravagant BART fares, because the toll bridges cost more. And good luck finding a parking space when you get into The City.
    So chokepoints are not only great places to give transit an advantage, but also to make driving more costly. Too bad the self-styled transit mecca Portland hasn’t learned that lesson.

  22. EngineerScotty January 6, 2010 at 5:14 pm #

    Where are the “natural” chokepoints in Portland?
    * At various river crossings (two across the Columbia, 10 across the Willamette within Portland, two more across the Willamette in Oregon City, plus the Canbery Ferry and the Boone Bridge in Wilsonville; two crossings of the Clackamas between OC and Gladstone, and about a half dozen crossings of the Tualatin).
    * Where roads pass through the Tualatin Mountains (the West Hills), in particular the Forest Park/Willamette Park corridor. A nice potential checkpoint exists betwen the northern edge of downtown Lake Oswego and the junction of OR43 and Terwilliger Boulevard.
    * The Springwater Corridor has few things crossing it.
    * Most of the freeways through town can serve as chokepoints for auto traffic, as most of them are trench-style freeways with relatively few overcrossings.
    Right now, transit takes advantage of few of these. Other than the MAX lanes on the Steel Bridge, none of the auto bridges in town have any transit accomodation. The proposed transit bridge for Milwaukie MAX will help; however the Streetcar Loop crossing on the Broadway will be mixed-traffic. The Roberson Tunnel is a major advantage for Westside MAX, bypassing the often-congested Sunset Highway. The LO streetcar project will bypass an often-crowded section of OR43, but in its current planned configuration, won’t be going to the right place to be useful.
    A few years back, the city (or the county) closed one lane of the Burnside Bridge for bicycles, and recently did the same on SW Broadway through PSU. But there are lots of small-ticket things that could be done to speed up transit that haven’t been advanced beyond the idea stage.

  23. Jarrett at January 6, 2010 at 5:34 pm #

    Although bridges are often chokepoints, downtown Portland has too many bridges for any to be a chokepoint. Inner Portland's most effective chokepoints are actually the passes through the west hills: Burnside, Canyon Rd., Hillsdale and Barbur.  Westside MAX was expensive to tunnel but uses a chokepoint situation very effectively.  I'm not opposed to Barbur LRT, but if I were I'd be asking wouldn't it be cheaper just to create a strong bus advantage through Barbur's chokepoint (i.e. to just west of Terwilliger) and then let buses fan out from there to cover various corridors (Tigard, Tualatin, PSU Sylvania, Garden Home etc).  Further out, of course, the Columbia bridges are major chokepoints, which is why the Columbia River Crossing debate is so challenging.

  24. EngineerScotty January 6, 2010 at 5:44 pm #

    One problem that Portland has compared to Seattle and SF, is a smaller industrial base. SF, like New York and a few other large, dense, expensive cities, is a “prestige” city that many businesses will pay a premium (and put up with a lot of inconvenience) to be near. Whenever Portland leaders take aggressive pro-transit stances, especially in ways that are auto-unfriendly, OTOH, business leaders often make veiled threats to relocate–which is one reason, I suspect, that Portland has more often deployed the carrot (new transit infrastructure that doesn’t inconvenience cars) rather than the stick.
    Interestingly enough, the Cascade Policy Institute–a local right-wing (libertarian, not socially), think tank with an established anti-transit agenda, on Monday released a position paper advocating tolling in Portland as a way of congestion reduction and highway funding. No doubt CPI views this as a way of improving outcomes for motorists (and/or taxpayers in general), and would prefer that not a dime of toll revenue goes to transit, but there you go.
    Even if there wasn’t a direct benefit to transit, such a scheme might provide an indirect benefit if the costs of driving are borne more by drivers than out of general fund dollars.

  25. EngineerScotty January 6, 2010 at 6:25 pm #

    What about mixed-mode rapid streetcar/busway? Is that doable? I seem to recall reading that mixed traffic Streetcar operation is safe up to speeds of 35MPH or so; I imagine a bit faster is possible if the only other traffic consists of transit vehicles, not the general motoring public.
    The Barbur corridor is supposed to connect out to Sherwood one day; however I can’t see that extending MAX beyond Tigard to be a wise use of transit dollars, at least in the near term. But for longer-haul routes to Sherwood and Tualatin, I prefer an extension of Milwaukie MAX through LO to the West Side, or bringing the Red Line down OR217 from Beaverton–essentially replacing WES. The former, especially, would be a useful bypass of downtown–and it would use a route unavailable for cars (a new Willamette crossing between LO and Milwaukie).
    Over at, I’ve had some recent discussions with Chris Smith on the possibility of the Streetcar and MAX sharing right-of-way on certain segments where the low top speed of the Streetcar wouldn’t interfere with MAX operations, but which are designed with the larger LRT vehicles in mind–such as the Transit Mall.
    Both types of vehicles use the same power system and gauge; the main technical obstacles once you factor speed and size out of the equation are platform alignment and signalling. The former (Streetcar vehicles are 8″ narrower than MAX, meaning a 4″ gap between Streetcars and MAX platforms) is probably addressable with platform extenders or guantlet track, not sure about the signalling issues. MAX and the Streetcar will eventually share the same tracks when the new transit bridge is built, but only for a short while.
    Chris seemed to think that there were significant political issues to more extensive shared operation. However, the proposed LO rapid streetcar route ultimately makes more sense if it runs on the Mall, not as part of the current line to NW 23rd–if for no other reason than you can longer trains, appropriate for a suburban connector as opposed to a downtown circulator.

  26. SpyOne January 7, 2010 at 10:45 pm #

    Alon said, “In addition, cars today last longer than they did in 1970, so there’s less depreciation. A Honda Civic costs about the same today as a Ford Pinto did in 1970 relative to average income, but it will last twice as long.”
    I couldn’t disagree more.
    Cars today are designed to be disposable, like Bic lighters.
    Most cars made in the last 20 years are junk within 10 years. Anecdotal evidence suggests that in the past buying a 30 year old used car was not bizarre. (Those anecdotes would include that my oldest brother’s first car was 30 years old (a 1948 Chevy in 1976 for $100) and the Beach Boys’ “Little Deuce Coupe” was about a 1932 Ford and written in the 1960s.)
    Of all the cars I have owned, the newest was 9 years old when I got it and the oldest was 23, and I can honestly say that the cars are getting progressively worse at surviving wear-and-tear: a 1970 Dodge Dart wasn’t really broken in until it had passed 150,000 miles, while the early 80s Reliants were famous for suffering fatal engine malfunctions beween 70 and 110,000 miles. My 23 year old 1974 Toyota was still solid, but my 10 year old 1989 Honda CRX had trim parts that had actually started to dissolve and the driver’s seat was worn through to the metal.
    Modern cars have longer warranties, but really seem designed to go directly to the junkyard when the warranty expires, whereas a 1960s American car was designed to pass through several owners during its useful life, each driving it for several years and for thousands of miles.

  27. Mike Orr January 8, 2010 at 11:45 pm #

    Three penninsulas? I had to look on a map to figure out what you meant. West Seattle is a penninsula. But the Ship Canal between north and central Seattle is not really two penninsulas. The canal was man-made in the 1910s. Before that was a small lake with land all around it. So to locals it’s really a single landmass with a canal cut through it.
    The paradox of the canal is, it was originally built for commercial ships. But commercial ships don’t use it anymore; it’s mainly pleasure boats. Which irritates drivers who have to wait when the bridges are up. “I’m going to work and I have to wait for a pleasure boat?” So the canal’s original purpose is obsolete, and its existence may end up benefiting transit as you say, especially when light rail crosses it in 2016. Wouldn’t that be funny.

  28. calwatch January 9, 2010 at 2:36 am #

    Not necessarily. Japanese cars made up to the late 90’s are still extremely reliable. Maybe it’s just your experience but you’ll find 10-20 year old Civics and Corollas fetching several thousand dollars. What is genuinely annoying nowadays about cars is the gradual up-sizing of vehicles, such as where a Corolla today is the sized of the Camry 10 years ago. They take up more space, use more gas than their predecessors, for not much more benefit.

  29. Jarrett at January 9, 2010 at 3:16 am #

    @ Mike Orr.  Thanks!  I stand by the description of Seattle as three peninsulas as it exists today.  Had I been describing 19th century Seattle you would of course be correct.  It is in any case a side issue.  The point is, Seattle is really chopped up with natural obstacles.

  30. Alon Levy January 10, 2010 at 12:55 am #

    SpyOne, the median age of cars in the US has been rising steadily – look it up on the Bureau of Transportation Statistics website.

  31. Jon Morgan July 26, 2010 at 12:04 am #

    How much more efficient does a new car have to be compared to a used one to be a net gain for the environment considering all the materials and energy that go into making and shipping a car?

  32. ajedrez April 24, 2011 at 11:44 pm #

    Just one thing regarding using pricing on cars to make transit profitable: I don’t think that raising the price to allow a car into the city should be used as a reason to unreasonably raise the fare for public transportation serving the same area.
    Using Pantheon’s example, I think the fact that BART’s fares are so high (because driving is even more expensive) is a good thing, because the people who have been using transit the whole time will also be forced to pay the high fares.

  33. Richard C. DeArmond March 2, 2012 at 2:37 pm #

    I grew up in Seattle and a fondness for its trolleybus system. I now live in Vancouver and also have a fondness for its trolleybus system. Seattle does have chokepoints. There is no question about that. I love the town and the way it is laid out. It is a beautiful and very interesting city. Even if you could get rid of the lakes eliminating most chokepoints, it would destroy the character of the city. No one who lives there would support such a drastic move. I’m happy to have endure the chokepoints keeping the city the way it is. My advice to anyone who drives there, don’t drive during the rush hour. Take transit and enjoy your ride. (I admit the car culture doesn’t see it this way). The light rail line built to the south is now being extended to the north which will help those who dislike chokepoints. I would like to create a way for transit to avoid the chokepoints and letting automobiles deal with them. Unfortunately, I haven’t come up with such plan–at least one that is not outrageously expensive.