Monday, May 15, 2006

Road-clogged Seattle and transit-friendly Portland -- a tale of two cities

   Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington.  People outside the Northwest tend to think of them as twins –- two pleasant cities nestled among green-glad mountains, under thick clouds, inhabited by a caffeine-buzzed, computer-oriented citizenry.  But there is one aspect in which the cities are almost polar opposites: transportation.  Portland holds perhaps the nation’s most effective public transportation, with buses, light rail, and streetcar options that make it seem among the most European of American cities.  Not by coincidence, Portland is also one of the most densely populated metropolitan areas in country.
   Seattle and surrounding Kings County, on the other hand, holds some of the worst traffic in nation.  The lack of effective public transit is exacerbated by the lakes and bays, which funnel cars into overloaded freeways and surface streets.  In response, the Kings County Executive recently proposed a referendum on a sales tax increase for a greatly improved bus system.  Some Seattlites are enthused, while others, such as syndicated sex writer Dan Savage, point out that in-traffic buses simply aren’t an effective way to move people around a sprawling metropolitan area without dedicated bus lanes.  I agree with Savage –- dedicated bus lanes provide a unique form of efficiency and speed, without the colossal capital costs of trains.  The most famous exemplar is the Brazilian city of Curitiba.  A perceived drawback of dedicated bus lanes is that they impose some burdens on automobile drivers –- lanes are removed from traffic and signals give buses priority.  Do Seattlites, who are famous for complaining about their traffic, have enough of a commitment to public transportation to accept this priority for buses over cars?

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