CTA 7000-Series Train

7000-Series Railcars Are an Upgrade, But Next Time, the CTA Needs to Aim Higher

Originally published in Streetsblog Chicago on 4 May 2021.

On April 21st, the Chicago Transit Authority put the first of several hundred new 7000-series railcars into passenger service, prompting reactions from transit advocates, railfans, and the rest of the general public.

The new rolling stock includes a number of welcome innovations for passenger comfort and accessibility, including a self-leveling system to automatically match the floor height of the railcars to the adjacent platform, and on-board displays to indicate the train’s route. Combined with other improvements like new signage and train arrival displays at stations, the CTA has made great strides in terms of graphics and wayfinding, and deserves to be commended.

That said, the CTA’s approach to railcar design is long-overdue for a major overhaul. The 7000-series represents yet another round of incremental improvements to the “High Performance” family of railcars that were introduced with the 2000-series cars back in 1964. Mechanical and a few superficial cosmetic updates aside, the new cars share much of the same design DNA as cars that were rolling back when Richard J. Daley was mayor, and now look positively antiquated compared to newer stock on other transit systems. Hollywood studios know when a franchise has become stale and in desperate need of a reboot, and the CTA should do likewise for whatever generation comes after the 7000-series.

To be clear, this isn’t about a few isolated technical features or cosmetic window dressing, but about the thinking that goes into a design at a fundamental level. In the architecture world we refer to this as the design concept and we manufacture a lot of academic jargon to describe it, but it’s really just about having clear, consistent reasons why things are designed the way they are.

I don’t have any inside knowledge about the design process behind the 7000-series cars, but reading between the lines, the CTA’s thinking becomes pretty clear: “This is the way we’ve always done things and we see no reason for change. Public transportation is a form of welfare for people too poor to own cars, so only the bare minimum of dignity is required. We’re terrified that some people may vandalize these cars, so they need to be designed like dog kennels at a shelter.”

Compare this to what transit riders enjoy on numerous systems overseas and in Canada: Bombardier’s Movia series, the Siemens Inspiro series, and Alstom’s Metropolis series to name a few subway car families in common usage. Each of these companies have manufactured railcars and/or railcar components for the CTA at various times, so it’s not as if their design expertise isn’t available.

Bombardier Movia C30 train on the Stockholm Metro. Photo: Bombardier

In contrast, CTA railcars still look like hand-me-downs from a former Soviet Bloc nation in the 1970s. The CTA is capable of releasing slick renderings when new railcars are first announced, but it’s apparent that many ugly compromises have been made between concept and execution.

Critique is cheap without offering some constructive suggestions for improvement, so here are a few innovations I’d have on my wish list for future CTA train orders, all of which are already common practice throughout the world:

Open gangways

CTA trains are composed of “married pairs” of two 48-foot railcars that are semi-permanently coupled to each other, with total train lengths of up to eight cars, or 384 feet. Approximately 10 percent of this length is taken up by the outdoor space between cars and vacant operator cabs. Incorporating open gangways, now commonplace in Canada and overseas, allows for increased passenger capacity equivalent to an additional car, plus the ability for passengers to move freely and safely between cars to spread out [which would have been useful during the COVID-19 pandemic – Ed.] or in the event of an emergency.

Interior of a Bombardier Movia train with open gangways. Photo: Bombardier

Naysayers may insist this isn’t possible on a rail system with the CTA’s sharp curves, but it’s already been done: The North Shore Line’s famous Electroliner interurban trainsets and the CTA’s own 5000-series cars from 1947 were 3-segment articulated railcars with this feature. This is a case where the CTA needs to move forward by taking a page from its own history.

Modular Air Conditioning

Few things are more miserable than a hot train, especially during evening rush hour before a ballgame. New Yorkers know this pain as well, and when the MTA introduced their next-generation R142 subway cars back in 2000, one of several notable innovations was the introduction of modular rooftop air conditioning units, two per car for redundancy.

Air conditioning is more effective when it’s coming from above, and in the event one unit fails, the remaining unit still provides some relief. Once the train reaches the yard at the end of the line, the offending unit can be easily swapped out and repaired separately, allowing the train to quickly return to service with a fresh unit. As with the other items on this list, this is now a standard feature on most other rail transit systems.

This is also a safety issue; with the CTA’s current practice of locating all HVAC equipment in the undercarriage below the floor, the air filters have occasionally come into contact with the electrified third rail and caught fire. Putting the air handling units on the roof would eliminate this risk. (For winter heating, electric heaters remain located along the baseboards while the rooftop units provide air circulation.)

Additionally, rooftop units would free up space below the floor and eliminate the various doghouses that protrude into the passenger space from below, allowing for a more efficient seat layout. This leads us to my next item.

Interior of a 7000-series railcar. Photo: CTA

Seating Layout

This is a hotly-debated topic that risks blowing up my Twitter mentions again, but the CTA still has work to do here. CTA cars are only 8’-6” wide, compared to 10’-0” on modern subways like BART and the Washington Metro, so every square inch of interior space is at a premium. With the current design, passenger circulation is impeded by having an awkward mix of forward-facing and longitudinal seating. A lucky few people get prime forward-facing window seats while everybody else has to put up with a terrible interior layout.

The CTA experimented with aisle-facing longitudinal seating on the 5000-Series cars, but by using bucket seats instead of bench seating and with awkwardly-placed vertical stanchions, this effort was halfhearted at best. Is 100-percent longitudinal seating the answer? I’m not quite willing to die on that hill, but one possible solution would be to shift the forward-facing seats to the ends of each car, with longitudinal bench seating filling out the middle zone where standing passengers are most likely to congregate. This alone would also greatly improve circulation and wheelchair accessibility. Regardless, more time at the drawing board is clearly needed. The CTA isn’t the only transit agency that has faced this issue, and they shouldn’t be shy about incorporating successful best practices from other systems.

The Bigger Picture

Those are a few specific wish-list items, and I could add more, but speaking more broadly, the CTA needs to adopt a more enlightened approach to design beyond narrow-minded utilitarianism. A transit agency’s approach to design, consciously or not, conveys that agency’s thinking about its place in the civic realm, its attitude toward its customers and the general public, and its commitment to excellence.

The CTA’s own station architecture has evolved greatly for the better in recent years; the new Cermak GreenMadison/Wabash Loop ‘L’, and Damen Green station designs, are a welcome breath of fresh air compared to the banal prison-like facilities built for the Orange Line in the 1990s. Their design for rolling stock needs to reflect a similar evolution in thinking.

Regardless of whether we’re talking stations or vehicles, if public transit design respects the dignity of the public, the public will generally respond in kind. The Washington, DC Metro system, designed by famed Chicago architect Harry Weese, is a prime example of this enlightened approach. Likewise, if design preemptively treats the public like vandals and criminals, the public will also respond in kind. Witness the postwar era of CHA public housing tower blocks, now mostly demolished in disgrace.

Washington Metro. Photo: Sebastian Wallroth / Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons license)

It’s not just the CTA; American transit systems in general tend to be notoriously parochial and hidebound compared to their overseas counterparts, reflecting an attitude of transit as a reluctant form of welfare for people too poor to own a car, rather than as a public amenity and source of civic pride for everybody. And it’s not entirely their fault; most agencies are doing the best they can with the limited resources they have. The buck stops with our elected officials, and ultimately with us as voters. But we’re never going to eliminate automobile dependency and solve the global climate crisis until public transit is at least as convenient, comfortable, and attractive as driving.

Escalators at Canary Wharf station on the London Underground

Hey, Sound Transit: Escalators Are Critical and You Should Take Them More Seriously

Originally published in The Stranger on 4 June 2019.

The light rail stations at Capitol Hill and UW have had a transformative impact on mobility in Seattle. Sound Transit, the agency that runs them, has done an admirable job keeping them clean and well kept. Older stations in New York and Chicago feel like medieval dungeons by comparison. The UW station even won a national Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects last year.

But this isn’t to say there aren’t problems. One fundamental issue is the escalator configuration at each of these deep-bore stations. Each station was designed by a different highly capable architecture firm, and each design team presumably researched precedents of other deep stations around the world (if my assumption is wrong and they didn’t, then shame on them). But each station ended up with the same design flaw, so if Sound Transit didn’t insist on this configuration, they at the very least approved it.

At most deep-bore stations around the world, the long escalators to get down to the platform are grouped into banks of three, four, or more. This provides operational flexibility and redundancy in the event one or more escalators are out of service. At London’s Canary Wharf station, shown above, the escalators at the main entrance are grouped into a large bank of five units. Washington Metro uses a similar approach, as do numerous other systems throughout the world.

Escalators are machines, and machines break. Even if Sound Transit had specified the most bulletproof escalators available and maintained them with the most rigorous service regimen possible, the escalators would still experience occasional downtime. Parts wear out, electrical components fail, and shit happens. Nobody expects perfection. But Sound Transit built the Capitol Hill and UW stations as if each escalator would always be operating 100% of the time.

The UW train platform is accessed via two pairs of long escalators—one escalator at each end going up, the other going down. If one escalator stops working, half the station is essentially inaccessible. If more than one escalator fails, the entire station is functionally crippled, resulting in scenes like this past August, when over 200 people were trapped inside the UW station waiting to exit. If there had been a fire or other incident on the platform that required the station to be quickly evacuated, this would’ve been a disaster, requiring riders to locate (somewhat hidden) emergency stairwells.

Wherever long escalators are required to travel between the train platform and street level, redundant escalators should be provided. This could have been accomplished with a single bank of at least four escalators, or two banks of at least three escalators, etc. With a bank of four escalators, one escalator being out of service would be a minor inconvenience at worst. Even with half the escalators out of service, access to and from the station could be maintained.

Such a four-escalator configuration also offers operational flexibility to handle peak loads traveling in one direction, such as before and after sporting events or a big concert: Before the event, three escalators could be operating in the up direction and one operating in the down direction; after the event, vice versa.

Beyond the number of escalators at each station, there is also the issue of the escalators themselves. Broken escalators have been a near-constant bane to riders using the Capitol Hill and UW stations since their opening in 2016, to the point that Sound Transit is already planning to replace all 13 escalators at UW less than four years after that station’s completion.

Manufacturers offer a range of models for new projects, generally some variation of good, better, and best. At the “good” end of the spectrum, we have light-duty escalators for indoor applications and relatively low traffic volumes, such as department stores. At the “best” end of the spectrum, we find heavy-duty escalators designed for outdoor use, large crowds, and mission-critical operational needs. If you think the latter criteria describe deep-bore rail stations, you’d be correct.

But Sound Transit apparently felt differently back when planning the Capitol Hill and UW stations. According to a source familiar with the design process who declined to be named for this article, Sound Transit insisted on specifying medium-duty “better” escalators at these stations as a cost-saving measure, and then cobbled together a myriad series of customizations to bring them up to heavy-duty standards. As we now know, the reliability of these Frankenstein escalators hasn’t exactly been stellar, and Sound Transit will soon spend a fortune to replace them with more robust, off-the-shelf models. Some old adage comes to mind about how it’s better to do something right the first time than to do it over again.

A few years ago, I was the project architect for a high-rise renovation project in New York City while living in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood. During this period, I was also dealing with a torn labrum in my right hip that sometimes made walking on flat sidewalks excruciating, to say nothing of going up a long flight of stairs.

The subway station closest to my apartment was the 181st Street Station on the A train. Due to the Seattle-like topography of Upper Manhattan, this is a deep-bore station more than a hundred feet below ground. One end of the station is connected to surface streets via three large elevators, and the other end is connected to surface streets via three long escalators and a staircase.

The subway station closest to my office was the Broadway-Lafayette station in SoHo, and my train arrived on the lowest level. This is one of the 25% of subway stations the MTA bills as being ADA-compliant, but the elevators were frequently out of service and always smelled like excrement, and using them would’ve required walking more than a block out of my way. On days when my hip pain was somewhat manageable, I opted to slowly make my way up the two steep staircases to street level.

Since my project at work involved the renovation of a historic office tower, including the replacement of its many elevators, the elevator consultant and vendor were critical members of the project team. But on the rare occasion the elevator vendor’s representative bothered to show up for our weekly site meetings, he usually spent his time surfing Facebook on his iPhone while casually ignoring the meeting agenda, and on the rare occasion he engaged in the conversation, he’d grunt a few words blaming somebody else for any elevator-related issues on the project before turning his attention back to Facebook. After leaving the meeting, he presumably got into a luxury car and made a beeline for a house in the Hamptons. The rest of us at the meetings were left wondering how we had each picked the wrong major in college.

I won’t disclose the name of this particular elevator company, but I will disclose that they’re also a contractor for Sound Transit. Not that it really matters: Thanks to industry consolidation, only four major elevator and escalator companies now operate in the US, and they’re each in a position to name their price while providing substandard products and service. The owner of any public facility with two or more floors is at their mercy, especially during boom periods when lots of construction is happening.

My time in New York comes to mind whenever the subject of Seattle’s broken escalators comes up. Some transit advocates have proposed eliminating escalators from stations altogether, or reverting back to the era of shallow cut-and-cover stations like those found in much of New York. Neither of these ideas is remotely realistic. Seattle’s waterways and hilly topography make deep stations inevitable in many cases; it’s not as if Sound Transit builds stations a hundred feet below ground for shits and giggles.

Along with labor standards and construction technology, ideas about universal design and accessibility have also improved for the better. Elevators have a critical role to serve, and at low-traffic deep stations such as Beacon Hill, provide the only means for accessing the train platforms. At high-traffic stations like UW, though, with a major university campus and a 70,000-seat football stadium outside the station entrance, elevators simply can’t move that many people at once.

Ramps have the capacity to move large crowds, but they aren’t feasible for more than a few feet of elevation change; an ADA-compliant ramp serving the UW station would need to be nearly a quarter-mile long.

All these factors combine to make escalators the default workhorse for moving large numbers of people efficiently up and down large vertical distances, and they also serve people with mobility impairments who can’t easily handle stairs but who don’t necessarily require elevators. There’s a vast range of abilities between being fully able-bodied and a full-time wheelchair user. The percentage of people who will experience mobility impairment at some point in their life, even if just temporary, is approximately one hundred. Even somebody hauling luggage back from the airport is grateful for functional escalators.

Hopefully Sound Transit has taken recent painful lessons to heart in the design of future light rail stations. What needs to happen going forward:

  • Sound Transit needs to specify the highest-quality equipment from day one. This is not the place to pinch pennies. If budgets are running tight, find other things to cut instead.
  • Sound Transit must insist on ironclad service contracts with their vendors that include hefty liquidated damages for excessive downtime. Sound Transit’s legal counsel shouldn’t be shy about using litigation to enforce such contracts if necessary.
  • It may be too late for Northgate Link and East Link stations already under construction, but on future projects, Sound Transit should provide enough redundant elevators and escalators that a single point of failure doesn’t cripple the entire station.

These escalators aren’t fluff; they’re a critical part of accessibility and mobility for our transit infrastructure, which makes them a civil rights issue. They need to be treated as such.

South Fort Thomas Avenue in Fort Thomas, Kentucky

“Which School Did You Go To?” The Covington Catholic Incident Hits Close to Home

Originally published in The Stranger on 21 January 2019.

What school did you go to?

When people in New York or Boston ask that question, they want to know where you went for college. When people from Cincinnati ask it, they’re asking where you went to high school. Its ubiquitousness as an icebreaker in the region is practically an inside joke. And your answer tells the inquirer everything they need to know about your socioeconomic background, which side of the tracks you grew up on, and in many cases, your religious affiliation.

Covington Catholic is one of several parochial boys’ schools in this heavily Bavarian Catholic region, located in the leafy Northern Kentucky suburb of Park Hills. I grew up a couple miles to the east, in a very similar leafy suburb called Fort Thomas. Most of my grade school friends and extended family attended Highlands High School, the city’s only public high school and Covington Catholic’s primary arch-rival.

(As for me, my family moved away before I entered high school. When somebody from Cincinnati asks me where I went to high school and I answer with “Wolfson High School,” which is in Jacksonville, Florida, I’m inevitably met with a blank stare. Error. Does not compute.)

Fort Thomas is the quintessential streetcar suburb, with a photogenic downtown business district and a smaller secondary business district near the former namesake Army fort, which is now a large city park and Veterans Administration medical center. The main avenue through town roughly follows the top of a ridge overlooking the Ohio River, and the side streets are lined with tidy craftsman bungalows and Cape Cod houses with manicured lawns.

Prior to settlement by whites, the area now known as Fort Thomas was apparently the site of a major battle between Cherokee, Shawnee, and Miami bands of Native Americans in the mid-1700s. Roughly 600 graves of slain warriors have been uncovered in addition to countless other artifacts. My idyllic hometown, which looks as if it could be the setting for a 1950s sitcom, was literally built on top of a Native burial ground.

Like Park Hills and many other Cincinnati suburbs, Fort Thomas is almost entirely white, Roman Catholic, insular, and rabidly conservative. I never met a Black person my age until my family moved to North Carolina, and my only exposure to Native American history in school was the gross caricatures around Thanksgiving each year. Fort Thomas was reportedly a sundown town until at least the 1970s.

I still remember our music teacher at Woodfill Elementary School taking time out of his lesson to explain to us that a Jewish kid had enrolled in the school, as if it were some kind of scandal. A Jew, by his definition, was somebody who didn’t believe in Jesus. Imagine the shocked reactions of a room full of third graders, and that being their first exposure to Judaism.

Unlike most of my classmates, my family wasn’t Catholic, but our mainline Protestant tradition was no less conservative. Sunday school included regular exhortations about the evils of communism. My earliest political memory was my father taking us to a campaign event for Mitch McConnell’s first run for Senate in 1984, and my father still keeps a hand-written letter from Gerald Ford thanking him for his work on behalf the Republican Party.

After we moved away, I spent the rest of my childhood and teenage years in very conservative parts of the South, usually on or near military bases. Discipline at home was meted out at the end of a leather belt, especially when I was struggling in school due to an undiagnosed autism spectrum disorder and related issues of anxiety and depression. I was bullied nonstop because I was a quiet, socially-awkward kid who was perceived to be gay or asexual.

By now we’ve all seen photos or video of Covington Catholic junior Nick Sandmann and his classmates in full MAGA regalia taunting Vietnam veteran and Omaha elder Nathan Phillips at the Indigenous Peoples March in Washington, DC this past weekend. It wasn’t some random encounter during a school field trip; Sandmann’s cohort had been bussed to the nation’s capitol by anti-choice zealots to inflate numbers for March for Life, an annual event where misogynists gather to assert their desire to dominate and control women’s bodies.

This isn’t Covington Catholic’s first time in the media spotlight. Just last month, former Covington Catholic basketball player Jake Walter was charged with rape and sodomy after an incident in which he allegedly pinned a woman down and raped her until she bled. Others have recounted a culture of relentless bullying at the school.

Nor are these issues specific to Covington Catholic. Across the river in Cincinnati last year, students at Elder High School, another all-male parochial school, hurled racial taunts at a rival team during a basketball game. Incidentally, a large percentage of Cincinnati’s notoriously racist police force are Elder grads.

Tuition at these schools is around $10,000 per year, per student; these students aren’t the children of impoverished coal miners in eastern Kentucky. Northern Kentucky has some of the best public schools in the nation, so it’s fair to question the motivations of parents who nonetheless choose to spend that kind of money for parochial school.

And no discussion of this weekend’s incident is complete without acknowledging the Roman Catholic Church’s centuries-long, systemic brutalization of indigenous peoples throughout the world, in addition to institutional hostility to women, gays, and other marginalized groups. With its singular focus on individual piety, Western religion and philosophical tradition conveniently turns a blind eye to the evil that exists within our institutions and systems.

Nathan Phillips displayed far more grace and poise in the face of bigotry than I’d be able to muster over a thousand lifetimes, and it’s no wonder Sandmann and his MAGA friends found the mere presence of Phillips to be so triggering: Phillips was probably the first Christ-like person they’ve ever encountered.

In contrast to Phillips’s calm stoicism, Sandmann had the smarmy, self-entitled smirk of a brat who is utterly convinced of his own superiority despite all evidence to the contrary. We’ve seen the same dumb smirk on Donald Trump’s face a thousand times, and it’s the same dumb smirk we’ve seen on the faces of Martin Shkreli, Brett Kavanaugh, and countless other grifters and abusers of lesser infamy. As Esquire editor Dave Holmes tweeted, “To anyone who’s ever been any kind of other, the goofy malice in that MAGA kid’s eyes is instantly recognizable.”

I’ve seen the same smirk on the faces of the kids who bullied me in school, on the faces of former bosses who abused and cheated their staff, and on the faces of white people telling racist jokes. It’s the smirk that says they know they can get away with it because they face no consequences.

And, I’m ashamed to say, I’ve seen that same dumb smirk in the mirror on occasion.

Despite the bullying and the abuse, I bought into the Republican worldview hook, line, and sinker in my adolescence. It was literally the only reality I knew. I often listened to Rush Limbaugh on the radio and was convinced that my world was under attack by liberals and minorities I had never actually met. Change a few parameters of my early life, and I could’ve easily been a Nick Sandmann.

I can say from firsthand experience that the dumb smirk is merely a mask for fear. Fear that the days of America’s white male dinosaurs, as John Pavlovitz recently wrote, are coming to an end: “They’re all in a scalding panic, because they understand that their brief moment in history to have their way and impose their will is quickly coming to a close. The landscape is being renovated, the climate is changing, and as a species they are dying—which is why they will do what all frightened animals do when they are backed into a corner and realize the level of the threat: they will grow more violent than ever before.”

My views never really began to change until well after I started college. My family had moved to the Chicago suburbs after I graduated high school, and I eventually got my own apartment in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. For the first time in my life, I was living in a diverse neighborhood with a lot of people who weren’t like me. To be fair, Lincoln Park began gentrifying in the 1970s and wasn’t exactly a model of urban diversity when I lived there in the late 1990s. But it was still a million times more diverse than anywhere I had lived previously.

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, we were treated to dozens of thinkpieces in the New York Times and other outlets accusing urban liberals of living in insular bubbles, of being out of touch with the “heartland” values of Middle America. Rural areas and suburbs like Park Hills and Fort Thomas are presented as America’s default condition, while diverse, liberal cities are framed as the exceptions, the outliers.

Ironically, with skyrocketing housing prices and racist zoning policies, it’s becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy here in Seattle and some other cities. But what the thinkpieces miss is that that the suburbs and exurbs are becoming diverse. The urban core is increasingly becoming a gated playpen for affluent whites, while the suburbs and exurbs are becoming home to immigrants and minorities. I moved from Seattle to Bremerton this past summer, and it’s safe to say that my local Safeway has more ethnic and socioeconomic diversity than I ever saw at the Capitol Hill QFC.

It will take longer to happen back in my hometown and Park Hills and other places like them, but it’s inevitable. I can’t wait to see the shock on the old-timers’ faces in Fort Thomas when halal trucks start showing up in Tower Park.

And that’s exactly what has Nick Sandmann and his friends so terrified.

First Avenue in Seattle's Pioneer Square neighborhood

Seattle Would Never Elect Trump As Mayor, but the City’s Power Brokers Have a Trump Lite in City Hall

Originally published in The Stranger on 11 December 2018.

When I’m not writing occasional angry screeds for The Stranger in exchange for beer money, I work as a project architect for a mid-size architecture firm located in the Pioneer Square area. More specifically, our office is located smack in between two of the city’s biggest infrastructure projects: The Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement, and the Center City Connector. For the past two years, I’ve had a front-row seat to the city’s promises of renewal being usurped by missed opportunities of epic scale.

Directly outside our office windows is the Alaskan Way Viaduct, slated to be demolished starting next month. Its $4B replacement tunnel was sold to the public as a way to transform Seattle’s waterfront from an automobile-dominated wasteland to a green, vibrant pedestrian-oriented promenade. What we’re getting, though, is up to eight lanes of asphalt separating the city from its waterfront. The new crosswalks in front of the ferry terminal even have beg buttons: Pedestrians must push a button to request the traffic signals’ permission to cross the street. This is something you find on multilane highways in sprawling suburbs, not downtown streets in major cities. While much of this is WSDOT’s doing, the City of Seattle under Mayor Durkan’s leadership hasn’t lifted a finger to exercise its considerable influence in challenging the auto-centric nature of the proposed waterfront.

And then there’s the Center City Connector. For the past couple of years, I’ve watched construction crews rip First Avenue and surrounding streets to pieces in order to relocate utilities for the streetcar project. We were promised that all the noise, dust, and detours would be worth it because we’d soon have a new streetcar line to connect us to Westlake, Pike Place Market, King Street Station, and the International District. But recently, the pavement on First Avenue has been all patched up, the orange barricades removed, and the construction crews have quietly disappeared. The long-promised streetcar remains in limbo while Durkan spews falsehoods to gullible media outlets in order to discredit the project.

These missed opportunities extend far beyond the Pioneer Square area, and far beyond the realm of urban infrastructure. On issues ranging from bike lanes to e-scooters to police accountability to the head tax to municipal broadband to reforming Seattle’s segregationist zoning codes, Durkan pays vague lip service to progressive sound bites while dragging her feet or outright sabotaging actual progress. Add in some no-bid cronyism, and she’ll be remembered as Seattle’s worst Republican mayor since Ed Murray.

It’s becoming clear that the oligarchs who have benefited so handsomely from the status quo have installed a compliant puppet in the White House. Here in ostensibly progressive Seattle, our local oligarchs know they’d never be able to get someone with fascist characteristics like Trump elected to the mayor’s office. But they have the next best thing: a milquetoast moderate Democrat who has permission to mouth all the right platitudes about all the right liberal causes, so long as they govern like a compliant corporate stooge.

In case you haven’t been following the news lately, our civilization is doomed unless we make some radical changes fast. This past October, the United Nations issued a report saying that we have twelve years to limit catastrophic climate change. Not twelve years to think about maybe forming a committee to study the issue further, but twelve years to radically restructure our entire society. Our own federal government tried to bury a report from over a dozen agencies that echoed the UN report and warned of vast impacts to the economy and thousands of deaths if we continue down this path. Our world is drifting downstream toward a cataclysmic waterfall, and Durkan is doing everything in her power to not rock the boat.

Many Native peoples observe the Seventh Generation Principle, articulated by the Iroquois Confederacy in their constitution, which held that our decisions today should bear in mind the ramifications to future generations. By contrast, our society is currently operating like a multigenerational Ponzi scheme, where those who were lucky enough to be born first are actively plundering the futures of those who will come later.

Talk is cheap. But when it comes to Mayor Durkan’s actions, we need to ask ourselves: Are these the actions of somebody who is committed to building the best possible world for future generations, or somebody whose overriding concern is to protect the interests of entrenched powers at all costs? In that regard, Durkan has been governing like such a Trump acolyte that you’d think the Russians had hacked Cary Moon’s emails.

Grand Central Terminal, New York

Yes, We Should Preserve Our Historic Landmarks. But the Showbox Isn’t One of Them

Originally published in The Stranger on 5 September 2018.

Now that I’ve been living in the Pacific Northwest for a bit over two years, I sometimes reflect on the things I miss and don’t miss about living back east.

Things I most certainly don’t miss include the stifling humidity, the allergies (I’m literally allergic to the air in my own hometown), and the bleakness of winter when all the leaves fall off the trees and leave a barren landscape of brown sticks for months at a time.

Things I do miss include lightning bugs and crickets during the summer, proper bagels and pizza slices in New York, and the occasional drama of a strong Midwestern thunderstorm.

Perhaps more than anything else, though, I miss the architectural landmarks that help give various cities their civic identity. My hometown of Cincinnati punches far above its weight in that department, with nationally-renown landmarks such as Music Hall, Union Terminal, and the Over-the-Rhine historic district. My adopted hometown of Chicago is the birthplace of the skyscraper, with older landmarks by Daniel Burnham and Louis Sullivan sharing the skyline with mid-century classics like the Inland Steel Building and the John Hancock Center.

When I lived in New York City for a while, I’d go out of my way to pass through neoclassical palaces like the New York Public Library and Grand Central Terminal. One can legitimately be aghast at such colonialist chest thumping and simultaneously marvel at the public spaces it created. When you arrive on a train at Grand Central, there’s no question that you’ve arrived someplace that matters. Compare to the dungeon-like experience across Midtown at Penn Station, where the demise of that facility’s predecessor in 1963 lit a fire under the historic preservation movement nationwide. (In fact, I was so put off by Penn Station during a summer internship in NYC that I made it the subject of my grad school thesis.)

We don’t really have as much of that here in Seattle. The Pioneer Square district is a happy exception—it reminds me a lot of downtown Savannah, Georgia minus the Spanish moss. Pike Place Market is truly one of a kind, and there’s the Space Needle and the Monorail, which are unique for somehow having gone from being futuristic to historic without ever having been truly contemporary. The future certainly isn’t what it used to be. But King Street Station? All well and good, mind you, but it’s no Grand Central Terminal.

Which brings us to the Showbox Theater on First Avenue, which is currently threatened by a proposed high-rise tower on the site. I’ll admit I have mixed feelings about this one. Some of my favorite musical experiences have taken place in similar venues, like seeing King Crimson at the Park West in Chicago, and The Sun Ra Arkestra with Yo La Tengo at the Trocadero in Philadelphia. I also know what it’s like to lose a beloved venue: RIP, Chicago’s Lounge Ax and The Double Door. I’m not completely unsympathetic to those calling for the Showbox’s preservation.

But based on its architectural merits, the Showbox just doesn’t meet the threshold of a historic landmark. Its exterior is bland and nondescript—I lived on First Avenue a block away from the Showbox for over two years, but still had to look it up on Google Street View to remind myself what it looks like. It’s certainly not in the same league as grand palaces like the Moore Theater on Second Avenue or the Paramount on Pine. Its interior has been extensively modified over the years, which is typically a big strike against properties up for designation as landmarks. It’s also pretty safe to presume that the cost of bringing the Showbox up to modern seismic and ADA standards would be prohibitive.

That hasn’t stopped city council from springing into action. Let’s give the City of Seattle credit where due: when it comes to truly important things like addressing the housing crisis or public transit, the glaciers on Mount Rainier move faster. But watch the city government sprint with the urgency of Usain Bolt when given any chance to take a purely symbolic stand that requires no political backbone. This past month, city council passed a resolution that temporarily expands the Pike Place Market historic district a block east to include the Showbox.

Regardless of the Showbox’s merits as a historic landmark, this approach to preservation is like killing a fly with a Howitzer and seems to be driven more by misplaced nostalgia and anti-density fanaticism than by genuine concern for historic preservation. It smells a lot like what our friends down in the Bay Area are up to, where things like gas stations and laundromats can simply be declared “historic landmarks” because a bunch of wealthy neighbors don’t want new housing being built there.

What’s next, Seattle? “I once saw Pearl Jam at that theater when I was in high school, so we absolutely must save it. Also, I used to wash my Pearl Jam t-shirt at that laundromat, so yeah, we need to save that, too. And Eddie Vedder once filled up his car at that gas station. Boom. Historic landmark.”

And it’s ultimately counterproductive: If preservationists choose this hill to die upon, good luck pretending you have any credibility the next time a legitimate landmark in Seattle comes under threat.

Ironically, New York’s Penn Station shows a possible way forward for the Showbox. Sitting on top of Penn Station is the current incarnation of Madison Square Garden. Since 1879, The Garden has been home to concerts, sporting events, political conventions, and other events with far more historical consequence than anything that has taken place within the walls of the Showbox. The current facility is the fourth venue to bear the name Madison Square Garden, and nobody is going to argue with a straight face that it has the even slightest merit as an architectural landmark. Chances are good that within the next decade or so, Penn Station will be rebuilt again. At that time Madison Square Garden, along with all its cultural memories, will likely find its way to yet a new home.

And so it should be with the Showbox. Build the new tower, and carve out space for a new and improved Showbox within it. In time, nobody will miss the old one.

Rendering of Miller Hull's proposed urban canyon

The Miller Hull Partnership Proposes Turning a Defunct Seattle Tunnel Into a Landscaped Canyon

Originally published in Metropolis Magazine on 10 August 2018.

During the 20th century, it wasn’t uncommon for prominent architects to put forth bold visions for the future of cities. Frank Lloyd Wright presented his initial ideas for Broadacre City in 1932 and continued refining them until his death in 1959. During the postwar era, Buckminster Fuller proposed enclosing part of Manhattan under a geodesic dome, and Paul Rudolph famously proposed a Brutalist megastructure over the Lower Manhattan Expressway, still a glimmer in Robert Moses’s eye at that time.

Perhaps chastened by the reactions to such grandiose schemes, the architecture profession from the 1980s onward took a more conservative tack, generally preferring to pour its most ambitious efforts into corporate projects. At the same time, the automobile-oriented orthodoxy of postwar American urban planning began to be seriously questioned. Infrastructure that seemed visionary in the 1950s is now considered archaic and anti-urban.

In Seattle, the Alaskan Way Viaduct—built as part of a postwar expressway project that sliced the waterfront off from the rest of downtown in a manner that Robert Moses himself might have conjured up—is rapidly approaching the end of its life as a conduit for automobiles. The fate of one viaduct segment has been especially debated: The Battery Street Tunnel, which travels underneath six blocks of downtown Seattle.

While the Washington State Department of Transportation plans to fill the Battery Street Tunnel with rubble from the demolished viaduct, The Miller Hull Partnership has taken the lead in envisioning an alternative, innovative repurposing of the tunnel that would physically reconnect downtown Seattle with its waterfront and symbolically reunite the city with the stunning natural beauty of the Puget Sound region.

Miller Hull proposes removing the tunnel’s roof and creating an artificial canyon in the place of Battery Street that would connect Denny Park with Puget Sound. The bottom of the canyon, formerly the freeway road bed, would be excavated and converted into a creek with a salmon run. The creek’s shores would be lined with native vegetation (including towering Douglas-fir and western red cedar trees) and a variety of pathways and gathering spaces. The tunnel’s concrete ceiling beams would be removed and placed vertically into the ground, supporting a suspended pedestrian walkway through the new tree canopy.

The vision extends beyond Battery Street Tunnel: Miller Hull sees it as part of a larger push to create a continuous greenbelt around the downtown core. Existing natural amenities—Denny Park, the Lawrence Halprin–designed Freeway Park, and the in-progress James Corner Field Operations–planned waterfront—would be connected by pedestrianized streets such as the Battery Street Tunnel, University Street, and several avenues running north and south.

David Miller, the Miller Hull Partnership’s founding partner and professor of architecture at the University of Washington, explains that the project could be a game-changer for Seattle, putting the city on the map for urban design that’s rooted in the ecology of the larger bioregion. While pioneering projects like Miller Hull’s Bullitt Center may be familiar to architects and others in the design industry, a series of verdant artificial canyons in the heart of a major city’s downtown would catch the attention of the general public in much the same way the High Line, another piece of reimagined urban infrastructure, captured the imagination of New York.

The project’s biggest challenges aren’t technical, but political; it needs public leadership with the vision and determination to push it forward. A local advocacy group has formed to help that effort.

Miller was beginning his career in architecture while Buckminster Fuller and Paul Rudolph were proposing their own radical interventions in the urban environment. He says with a laugh, “My son is so sick of hearing me talking about the 1960s, but things like this remind me of those times. At the University, we’re trying to get students interested in thinking more about the city, being proponents of big ideas about the city, and about how to transform the city.”

Aerial view of First Avenue in downtown Seattle

Mayor Durkan Is Hell-Bent on Killing the Center City Connector

Originally published in The Stranger on 8 August 2018.

This past spring I compared Mayor Durkan’s decision to “pause” the Center City Connector with a similar idiotic decision by Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley in 2013.

Upon due reflection, I owe the mayor an apology—Mayor Cranley, that is. Jenny Durkan has proven herself to be far more dishonest and conniving than John Cranley could ever hope to be.

John Cranley, to his credit, at least made his intentions clear about what he planned to do to the city’s under-construction streetcar project if he were to be elected as mayor. He vowed to kill the project, and when he got elected, he did his best to do so. It was only a groundswell of grassroots activism that flipped two members of city council to a veto-proof supermajority in favor of completing the project. But for all of John Cranley’s faults, which are many, at least we knew what we were in store for.

Jenny Durkan, by contrast, is a master of Seattle-style passive-aggression. Her own campaign page—conveniently taken offline since I linked to it in my last column about the streetcar—touted the Center City Connector’s benefits. At campaign forums, she made sure to follow her consultants’ advice and at least pretend to be in favor of public transit and bike lanes.

Her actions as mayor to date, though, show where her true feelings about public transit lie, and it’s not a pretty picture.

When Durkan first paused the Center City Connector, she commissioned a study (with a six-figure price tag, no less) to determine why the project was supposedly running over-budget. That report, which was to have been made public no later than June 19th, still hasn’t yet been released to the public.

I can guess at its findings.

The cost increases are most likely due to scope creep—that’s when the city decides to build a streetcar and a dozen other city agencies use that as an excuse to add to the project their own new utility lines, street lights, and anything else that’s been sitting on their wish list for a while—and the fact that literally every construction project in the nation is facing rising costs due to labor shortages, Trump’s trade wars, and a construction boom. Contractors and their subcontractors are in a position to name their price because they have people breaking down their doors to build stuff. My colleagues and I are dealing with these issues on our own projects; it certainly isn’t limited to transit projects.

And the study most likely concludes that, despite these cost increases, canceling the project at this stage will cost nearly as much as finishing it—and cancelling it will also cause long-term damage to the city’s credibility when applying for federal grants for future transit projects. In other words, kiss light rail to Ballard and West Seattle goodbye.

Is it any wonder Durkan doesn’t want the study released to the public? If my educated guesses are correct, the study makes Durkan look stupid for pausing the project. And I’m pretty confident that I’m on the right track here—because if the study said the streetcar was a boondoggle that should never be built, Durkan would be shouting its findings from the top of the Space Needle and hand-delivering the study itself to every household in Seattle.

Instead Durkan went with Underhanded Plan B: Put out a press release saying the ten new streetcars the city just ordered are too big to fit the tracks and the maintenance barn. “We just need to find a media outlet credulous enough to report our press release verbatim without doing any independent fact-checking,” an aide probably said.

Seattle Times: “Hold my beer.”

Local transit advocates and bloggers jumped upon the Seattle Times story like flies on a pile of shit, digging up the technical specifications online and pointing out that the differences between the new streetcars and current ones are negligible.

Let’s take the track gauge, for example. Standard Gauge is 4 feet, 8 ½ inches (1435mm) between the inside faces of the rails, and it’s been that way since the British invented railroads during the Industrial Revolution. That’s why it’s called Standard Gauge. With only a small handful of exceptions, every transit system, every streetcar, every commuter railroad, and every freight railroad in the United States—and throughout much of the world—uses Standard Gauge tracks.

This isn’t rocket surgery. Durkan claiming the new streetcars are of a different track gauge is like the salesman at Home Depot claiming the electric appliances sold at Lowe’s don’t run on the kind of electricity in your home’s electrical outlets.

The Seattle Times eventually updated its story to reflect the technical specifications, but the damage had already been done. Fox News, ever eager to paint liberal Seattle as a bunch of incompetents, was on the story within minutes. (Ironically, it was Durkan herself who was made to look like the idiot.) As they say, a lie gets around the world before the truth can get its pants on.

As it turns out, Durkan had simply been following the script of another Cincinnati saga, one who took place long before Mayor Cranley ever assumed office. Back in the 1920s, Cincinnati was building a subway system. But inflation and materials shortages were causing costs to skyrocket, and a new administration took charge in City Hall. Before long, stories were leaked to gullible newspapers that the curves in the tunnels were too tight for the subway trains. Those stories live on as urban legend in Cincinnati today, but in reality, the tunnels were built to the exact same specifications as what is now the MBTA Red Line in Boston. But the lies worked, and two miles of tunnels and uncompleted four station shells now sit abandoned under Central Parkway just north of downtown.

The new mayor of the time, Murray Seasongood, is still looked upon as a “reformer” even as the Cincinnati area chokes on car exhaust. With Seattle now copying so many of Cincinnati’s past mistakes, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Jerry Springer become our next mayor. But then, maybe he’d be an improvement over Durkan.

Seattle’s Center City Connector has been through years of planning, design, public hearings, and Seattle Process. City Council has voted to approve it. Promises have been made, and federal grants have been approved. For Durkan to kill the project now, via a deceitful end run around all that public input, is so dictatorial a move that Trump himself would approve. (Memo to Mayor Durkan: Nobody gives a flying fuck how many photo ops you take with refugees on the Mexican border so long as you’re acting like a Trump surrogate here at home.)

If Mayor Durkan doesn’t want her mayoralty to be looked upon as an unfortunate mistake in Seattle’s history, she needs to resume construction on the Center City Connector post-haste. And if she won’t do it, a veto-proof majority of City Council needs to step in and provide the leadership that Durkan is apparently incapable of.

You can and should sign the petition demanding that the city build the Center City Connector now.

Let Them Eat Takes: On Housing, the Seattle Times Editorial Board is as Oblivious to Reality as Marie Antoinette

Originally published in The Stranger on 5 July 2018.

I wasn’t lucky enough to be born into money, and as such, I’ve worked my share of shitty jobs over the years in order to pay the bills. I was once fired from a Subway franchise because I called in sick one day, foolishly assuming that customers didn’t want their sandwiches infected with whatever contagion I had been carrying. I briefly washed dishes at a Sbarro Pizzeria franchise where the manager doctored my time sheets to cheat me on my meager hourly pay, and I was a cashier at a Winn-Dixie grocery store where the manager drank vast quantities of the house brand mouthwash because the corporate office wouldn’t let him drink hard liquor in the store. To his credit, he always had fresh breath.

By far the worst job I ever had, though, was right after I had finished grad school and already had over a decade of professional experience in the architecture field under my belt. I had moved to New York to take a job with a boutique firm that did a lot of high-end residential work, and I quickly realized that the owner of the firm was a trust fund sociopath with the attention span of a gerbil, not at all unlike a certain occupant of the White House. I was sending out resumes and calling recruiters before I had even finished my first week there.

One morning he threw a full-on temper tantrum in the office because a vendor in California wasn’t answering her office phone at 9:00 AM Eastern time. Another incident that sticks in my mind was when he berated me in front of my colleagues because I didn’t know the brand names of the high-end kitchen appliances I was supposed to be using as a basis of design for the custom cabinetry I was detailing. “You know: Miele, Sub-Zero, Thermador, Viking, Gaggenau,” he angrily rattled off, utterly incredulous that I didn’t somehow didn’t learn this stuff at boarding school.

Sorry, boss, but there are two things I’d like to point out in my defense: First, in the houses and apartments I grew up in, the kitchen appliances were brands that could be purchased at the local Sears store. And secondly, most of my prior professional experience until that point had involved working on transit projects, university buildings, and healthcare facilities. Those types of buildings don’t have $10,000 Sub-Zero fridges in the staff rooms.

That episode about the kitchen appliances came to mind when the Seattle Times excreted an editorial so tone-deaf and oblivious to reality that Marie Antoinette would’ve been embarrassed to read it. My heart bleeds for smart journalists like Mike Rosenberg who see their hard work sabotaged by hidebound and parochial publishers who can see only as far as the exclusive shores of Mercer Island.

For months, Rosenberg has been documenting Seattle’s housing crisis with exhaustive research and hard data. The editorial board ignored all that research, choosing instead to hype specious claims about “neighborhood character” — always the last resort of NIMBYs who have no other arguments — without bothering to define what neighborhood character actually means. Presumably it doesn’t involve neighborhoods that their staff reporters can actually afford to live in.

The editorial cites an unnamed city study for its figures, and then immediately contradicts those figures. One paragraph claims the modest proposal to allow accessory dwelling units in single-family zones will only yield “a negligible 0.4 percent increase in housing stock.” Two sentences later, the authors claim the zoning increase will triple housing density throughout the city. (If only!) How does that math add up? Maybe the Seattle Times should consider re-hiring some of those copy editors they’ve laid off.

Doug Trumm at The Urbanist does a good job of poking holes in the rest of the editorial’s spurious data, but it’s worth taking a closer look at the laughable claim that Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods provide opportunities for young people to buy “starter homes”.

For the sake of argument, I’ll use data from my own profession: A newly-licensed architect with a master’s degree and five years of experience can expect to make a salary of about $70,000 on the west coast. Assuming $500 per month in debt payments and an FHA loan that only requires 3.5% down, our young architect can afford about $283,000 worth of house. A quick search of Realtor.com yields exactly one single-family house within the city limits in that price range. Based on the MLS photos for that listing, I wouldn’t go anywhere near that property without a hardhat and bulldozer.

Even if our young architect friend is lucky enough to be married to somebody who makes the same salary, effectively doubling their purchasing power, they still end up more than $200,000 short of the average home price in the city. Starter homes in Seattle? Not since Pearl Jam was putting out music on cassette tape.

The Seattle Times editorial displays the kind of obliviousness to reality that can only be displayed by somebody who has never bagged groceries for a living: Somebody lucky enough to have been born into the Blethen family fortune and who literally lives on an exclusive island, and who can’t fathom why people sleeping in tents won’t simply buy themselves a nice “starter home” in Magnolia with a Sub-Zero fridge, or why urban neighborhoods in a major city should look any different than the verdant lanes of Mercer Island.

So, while the Seattle Times is pouring one out for the millionaire homeowners who are supposedly the true victims of Seattle’s housing crisis, pour another out for the poor journalists like Mike Rosenberg who work for such clueless trust fund babies.

When it Comes to Housing, it’s Time to Bring a Bit of the Chicago Way to the Seattle Process

Originally published in The Stranger on 6 June 2018.

Back in the mid-1990s, I was an undergrad architecture student at the University of Illinois at Chicago while working part-time as an intern at a large architecture firm in downtown Chicago. My family had moved to the Chicago area after I graduated high school in Florida, and after spending most of my childhood as a Navy brat moving around between various suburban, exurban, and flat-out rural areas up and down the East Coast, Chicago was the first city where I fell in love with the idea of living in a dense, vibrant urban neighborhood.

After a couple years of living with my family in the distant suburbs of Lake County and traveling into the city via commuter train, I rented a dilapidated 400-square-foot studio apartment on West St. James Place for $485 per month, which my friends considered outlandish at the time. A small grocery store was half a block away on Clark Street, and magnificent Lincoln Park was a half-block in the other direction. I had no need for a car; three ‘L’ lines and a multitude of bus routes where within a 10-minute walk, and the neighborhood contained a healthy mix of housing types as well as options for shopping and nightlife.

I barely had any money at that time in my life; my part-time job paid a meager hourly wage, and the rest of my living expenses were paid with student loans and credit cards, which banks began showering upon me the minute I registered for my first semester of classes. (Kids, do yourself a favor and throw those offers away. All that free money comes with a huge price tag.) When things got really bad, I’d sell off a few CDs from my collection to buy a roll of laundry quarters or some transit tokens. Despite the fact that the neighborhood had been gentrified since the 1970s, I was still somehow able to make a place for myself there, put food on my table, and keep a roof over my head. My neighbors ranged from multimillionaires to people with far less money than me, and somehow it worked.

One of the projects in my office was a new nature museum a short distance from my apartment in Lincoln Park. The museum was going to go up on the former site of a dilapidated Park District maintenance facility. Local neighborhood groups raised objection after objection to the nature museum. They cited all the usual suspects: traffic, parking, and of course, the free square in NIMBY Bingo, “neighborhood character.” The City of Chicago, while not exactly renown as an example of responsive government, had been painstakingly working with the neighbors for months to address their concerns.

Finally, the time came to demolish the old maintenance building and begin construction on the new nature museum. According to a former coworker, angry neighbors had one final objection: Apparently the site was home to a feral cat colony and the neighbors insisted that the city find new homes for the cats before beginning demolition. At around 5:00 the morning after the issue of the feral cat colony was raised, a Park District van pulled up to the facility. A man got out, pulled a chemical tank from the back of the van, and gassed all the cats. Demolition work on the maintenance facility began within the hour.

Thousands of tourists and school kids now visit Chicago’s newest lakefront museum each year, apparently blissfully unaware that it allegedly sits on the site of a feline genocide. As Jim Malone would say, that’s the Chicago Way.

I can’t personally vouch for the accuracy of that anecdote (also: I personally love cats and please don’t call my former employer), but it’s been in my mind lately as I watch Seattle struggle to address its housing crisis. The issue has taken on a personal dimension, as I begin the process of buying my first home after years of renting, and I face up to the fact that most of the real estate listings in my price range are in Bremerton and Tacoma.

Mind you, I’m one of the fortunate ones; at least I have options. My days of being a part-time intern are long gone, and I now enjoy a solid middle-class salary at a job I love and currently live in decent rental apartment downtown. And while I still carry a six-figure mountain of student loan debt, all those old credit cards somehow got paid off, and for the first time in my life, qualifying for a mortgage is no longer the stuff of fantasy.

I can’t even begin to imagine what this city must be like for somebody who washes dishes for minimum wage, or somebody whose health issues, skin color, or other circumstances make it difficult to have any options at all. But the rows of tents under the viaduct near my office and at other places throughout the city give some indication.

If the Chicago Way could be described as cracking a few eggs to make an omelet, the Seattle Process was described in a 1983 Seattle Weekly editorial as “seeking consensus through exhaustion.” And lately, our consensus is to do nothing while the city transforms itself into a gated playpen for the wealthy.

The city’s recent Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) confirms what many of us in urbanist circles have long known: Single-family zoning in the city is suffocating the supply of new housing in Seattle. While apartment buildings were once permitted throughout most of Seattle, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 saw the practice of redlining made illegal. Enter single-family zoning as a convenient way to keep minorities and low-income people out of your precious neighborhoods without running afoul of federal law. New census data shows that the vast majority of the city’s population growth has been shoved into a small sliver of its land area, while most single-family homeowners are now millionaires simply by virtue of having arrived here first. Brett Hamil’s Proximity Law of Seattle Politics comes to mind: Seattleites are happy to drive around in their Subarus with Bernie stickers plastered to the bumpers, but prepare to be shouted down by NIMBY thugs if you rock the boat by proposing, say, a modest head tax to fund new housing or the slightest change to the zoning code. Seattle’s political leaders are terrified to say to hate groups like Safe Seattle, “Sorry, but you’re dead wrong on this and we’re going to move forward. Eat it, swallow it, deal with it.” The result is civic paralysis at worst, or watered-down half-measures at best.

A few weeks ago I flew back to Chicago to catch up with old friends and wander around a bit in my old neighborhood. I was struck by the variety of housing: walk-up buildings with gracious courtyards, four-flats and townhouses, high-rise condo towers, and even a few single-family houses, all next to each other on the same streets. A quick look at Redfin shows a multitude of condos on the market in prime Chicago lakefront neighborhoods for less than $300,000. The cheapest condo currently on the market in downtown Seattle is listed for over double that. And with grand street trees, mass transit, and vibrant retail within easy walking distance, I’ll gladly take the “neighborhood character” of Chicago’s Lincoln Park or Lakeview over Seattle’s Wallingford or Phinney Ridge any time.

This isn’t to gloss over Chicago’s sins, which are many. The city remains corrupt and racially segregated, gang crime is rampant in some areas, and the Chicago Police Department was into brutalizing minorities decades before anybody knew what a hashtag was. An entire freeway and a university campus were built as barriers around black neighborhoods on the South Side. Andrew Diamond, author of Chicago on the Make, called the city “a combination of Manhattan smashed against Detroit,” and he wasn’t wrong.

But in certain cases, like not allowing a few angry cranks to dictate the city’s future, Chicago sometimes gets it right. Seattle needs to take a page from that book, even if it means—metaphorically speaking, of course—gassing a few cats when the need arises.

UPDATE: Yes, I’m aware that the population trajectories of Seattle and Chicago don’t make for a true apples-to-apples comparison, but it’s worth noting that most of Chicago’s population loss is occurring in the outer neighborhoods of the so-called “Bungalow Belt” and inner-ring suburbs; downtown and the transit-rich inner neighborhoods are doing just fine. In fact, Chicago has the second-highest number of tower cranes in the nation after Seattle. There’s obviously strong demand for new housing in certain areas, and it’s getting built.

We Can Have Nicer Things: How Seattle Can Still Get Transit Right

Originally published in The Stranger on 24 May 2018.

In my previous column I explained how American expectations for public transit have been on a decades-long downward spiral from the Great Society rapid transit systems of BART, MARTA, and the Washington, DC Metro system to the milquetoast light rail, streetcar, and “rapid” bus systems we struggle to build today. In short, we’re now paying far more money for far less transit than we did only a few decades ago.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when people complain about stuff without offering solutions, so in that spirit, this article will focus on things we can do beyond ST3 to ensure the Seattle metro area builds the world-class transit system it needs and deserves. A coalition of the Transit Riders Union, Seattle Subway, and The Urbanist recently published a list of priorities for ST3, and these suggestions are all worthy of consideration. Building upon that, here are some additional ideas to improve our regional rail system.

What BART, MARTA, and the DC Metro systems have in common is that they’re all heavy rail subway systems. Sound Transit’s Link system is light rail. The technical differences between heavy rail and light rail involve a lot of transit geek pedantry, but fundamentally, it’s not about the physical weight of the rails or the trains, but the overall passenger capacity of the system. This is dictated by how big the trains are, how fast they run, and how frequently they run. It’s also helpful to think of it as a spectrum rather than distinct categories; Portland’s MAX system would fall sharply toward the “light” end of the spectrum, while the Bay Area’s BART system would be at the “heavy” end. (For those who are actually interested in such minutiae, I wrote an article years ago that attempts to explain it all.)

Our Link system currently falls somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, but to ensure the best value for our tax money and leave behind a better region for future generations we should be doing more to push it toward the heavy side. This means building trains that can carry more people, and increasing the speed and frequency at which they run.

American transit agencies are notoriously hidebound and parochial, often ignoring proven best practices in other countries and insisting on reinventing the wheel with each modest innovation. A perfect illustration of this mentality involves a relatively easy step Sound Transit could take to increase capacity, a practice that is already commonplace throughout the world: open gangways. In their current configuration, about 20% of the length of each Link train is wasted by couplings and empty operator cabs between cars. Sound Transit insists that this configuration is needed for “operational flexibility,” but that excuse rings hollow when you consider how many other transit agencies throughout the world manage just fine with open gangways. Future maintenance facilities are being planned as part of ST3 and they should be designed with open gangway trains in mind, so the option of shifting to open gangway trains remains open in the future. The correct time to make that executive decision is now. Stop making excuses, Sound Transit. Just make it work.

Shortsighted design decisions made early in the planning of a transit system can have repercussions that last for decades. A century ago, New York’s first subway lines—today’s numbered routes—were built with small trains that were only 300 feet long and 8’-6” wide, similar dimensions as today’s 3-car Link trains. Newer lines built by competing companies—today’s lettered routes—were built for trains that are 10 feet wide and 600 feet long, the same dimensions adopted by modern MARTA and DC Metro trains. (BART trains can be over 700 feet long.) Stations on the older lines were eventually lengthened to handle 500-foot trains, but even now, it’s safe to assume that straphangers packed like sardines onto the 4, 5, and 6 trains under Lexington Avenue would greatly prefer riding the larger trains of the lettered routes if it was an option. New York’s MTA is now spending a vast fortune on a new Second Avenue Subway to relieve overcrowding on the antiquated and overstressed Lexington Avenue lines.

Unfortunately, it’s probably too late to consider larger trains for Link light rail. Modifying existing facilities to accommodate them wouldn’t be impossible, but it would be a substantial undertaking. However, if Sound Transit really wanted to be proactive, they would design new facilities in such a way that doesn’t preclude the possibility of larger trains in the future if needed. If Sound Transit designs ST3 merely for the needs of today, it will be obsolete before it’s even finished. ST3 and future expansions need to be designed for the needs of the next century, not the last one.

Link’s biggest hindrance, though, isn’t the size of the trains but their speed and frequency, thanks to grade-running segments in SoDo and the Rainier Valley. In these areas, trains must stop at traffic signals, operate at slower speeds, and endure conflicts with surface traffic. (Link trains also face similar issues in the downtown tunnel, but this will be resolved when buses get evicted next year.) To their credit, Sound Transit has apparently learned their lesson and decided that all new lines built as part of ST3 and beyond will be entirely grade-separated. But that still leaves us with grade-running segments in SoDo, the Rainier Valley, and one currently under construction in Bellevue. These will continue to be the weakest links of our transit network; even minor disruptions in these areas will continue to have ripple effects throughout the rest of the system, no matter how well future segments are designed. Long-term planning for Link must include the eventual conversion of these segments to fully grade-separated viaducts or subways.

On a similar note, I echo the sentiments expressed by The Urbanist, TRU, and Seattle Subway: Scrap this asinine idea of running the Ballard line on a drawbridge. Down in Portland, a rickety drawbridge across the Willamette River is the source of disruptions that routinely cripple their MAX light rail system. Only a tunnel or a tall bridge to Ballard will ensure reliable Link service to that area of the city.

If Sound Transit made no other changes, the mere act of fully grade-separating the Link system would allow for faster trains, more frequent trains, and far more reliable service. But it would also allow for the adoption of automation technology that Vancouver figured out thirty years ago. Fully-automated trains allow for even more frequent service—Vancouver’s SkyTrain system is capable of running a train every hundred seconds in each direction—and more flexible responses to changing conditions. A Mariners game goes into extra innings and finally lets out at 11 PM? Sound Transit could instantly put additional trains into service to handle the crowd by punching a few keystrokes on a computer. No need to call in additional operators and pay them overtime.

Even if we did all the above, it still likely wouldn’t be enough to truly get us away from automobile dependency. If our regional population keeps growing by 3% per year, we’ll have over 8 million people living here by the time Link light rail to Issaquah opens in 2040. That’s almost as big as the Chicago metro area today, and that region has had over a century to build out an extensive network of rapid transit and commuter rail lines. (And despite all that, many parts of Chicagoland still remain auto-dependent and traffic-choked.)

Light rail works best for distances of less than about 15 miles. New York’s longest subway line runs 32 miles from Inwood to Far Rockaway, and that’s mostly on express tracks with limited stops. Link light rail from Everett to West Seattle will cover the same distance, and the line from Tacoma to Ballard will be ten miles longer. Does Sound Transit really think those trains won’t be at crush capacity before they even arrive at Federal Way? Sucks to be you, Columbia City.

For a taste of Link’s likely future, ride the Blue Line in Los Angeles, the 22-mile light rail line that runs from downtown LA to Long Beach. Opened in 1990, the line is already bursting at the seams, even with parallel Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service on the 110 freeway. To avoid that fate, we’ll need to bring additional options to the table.

One option that’s been gaining traction elsewhere lately: Regional Express Rail (RER) service, a hybrid approach that combines the fast, frequent service of electrified rapid transit with the large, longer-distance trains of commuter rail. First developed in Paris, regional rail systems with RER characteristics can be found in SydneyPerth, and London. Toronto is in the process of converting its diesel-powered commuter rail network to RER, and New York’s Regional Plan Association has proposed similar upgrades to that region’s balkanized commuter rail system. Here in the Northwest, where the cost of electricity is comparatively peanuts, this seems like a no-brainer. Electric trains offer far superior acceleration than diesel, and with electric locomotives, our existing Sounder railcars could easily be adapted for RER service.

Momentum is building for a high-speed rail line between Vancouver and Eugene. A dedicated four-track mainline between Everett and Tacoma, with express tracks for high-speed trains and local tracks for RER service, would compliment Link service along the I-5 corridor while avoiding conflicts with BNSF freight trains. That conversation needs to be part of any high-speed rail study, and it needs to begin now.

None of this requires unproven, pie-in-the-sky technology like Hyperloop or autonomous vehicles; the technical solutions we need are already at our disposal. What we’re missing is the political will to implement them. We need to be proactive rather than reactive: The outer reaches of New York’s early subway lines were built through farmland in what is now Queens and the Bronx; their planners knew that dense, vibrant neighborhoods would naturally develop around those new transit nodes in time. Now we do it exactly backwards: We wait decades for transit demand to sufficiently grow (usually at the point where traffic is so bad that we’re finally willing to consider other options), and then try to jury-rig a bare-bones system to fit. And then, in defiance of all logic, we artificially limit the amount of density that occurs at the transit nodes we’ve just built at great expense. To paraphrase former Vancouver planner Brent Toderian, the way we currently plan regional transit is like determining the feasibility of a bridge by counting the number of people who swim across the river.

A modest proposal: Let’s rediscover our appetite for big ideas, and design our regional transit system in such a way that it becomes the natural first choice for travel, rather than a last-resort form of social welfare for those who can’t afford to own a car.