We had the future, then came the car

Writing for Crosscut, Leonard Garfield:

By 1890, Seattle’s streetcar system was electrified, linking and creating neighborhoods throughout the city.

Among the first successful routes: the Seattle Electric Railway line from industrial South Lake Union to downtown, built under the guidance of 28-year-old Luther Griffith and completed in just five days. In the following decade, streetcar lines to Ballard, Greenwood, Rainier Valley, West Seattle and other “streetcar suburbs” criss-crossed the city.

By the early 20th century, the streetcar system had scaled, consolidated first by the precursor to Puget Sound Energy and then acquired by the City of Seattle in 1918. By 1936, the city’s Municipal Street Railway system operated 26 electric routes, powered by the nation’s first municipally-owned hydroelectric system.

The parallel growth of a network of street railways – connecting Seattle to Tacoma, Renton, Everett and other population centers – put a seamless transit system within easy and affordable reach of nearly every Puget Sound resident.

At the same time, Seattle built two major rail hubs: King Street Station in 1906 and Union Station in 1911. They served thousands of passengers and handled enough freight to catapult Seattle to the largest economy in the Northwest.

But it wasn’t just about rail. Other civic innovations targeted different ways to increase mobility and economic growth through transportation.

The dramatic leveling of the city’s hills allowed the city to easily expand the transit system – while city engineers lay a complementary network of boulevards and bike paths (built with the upcoming century of growth in mind). And on the water front, civic engineers began building the Lake Washington shipping canal in 1911, which aimed to connect the region’s growing industrial economy with Pacific trade.

In each instance, Seattle leaders bet on the efficacy of engineering and the value of transportation innovations.

An electrified transit system facilitating rich and poor alike. What happened?

The rise of the automobile, federal investment in a national interstate highway system, and the growth of suburbia combined to render Seattle’s pre-War transit system less cost-effective and, for many politicians of the time, less attractive.

The emphasis on highways made short term economic sense: the extraordinary financial burden of maintaining the existing interurban rail system had vexed both the city and private operators almost from the beginning. By the early 1940s, the last streetcars had been pulled from service, scrapped and often replaced by trackless trolleys and buses.

The damn car!

I recently saw Elon Musk introduce battery storage (Powerwall and Powerpack) to an enthusiastic audience. He mentioned, somewhat in passing, that 100 million cars and trucks are produced each year across the globe, which is now home to two billion automobiles.

Since the mid-1930s, Seattle destroyed its urban, rail-based transit system in favor of individual cars and paved roads, inducing populations to scatter far and away from downtown. The result for us now is an antiquated, polluting, clogging car culture that drives a fossil-fuel-based economy, without which there would be no Mariners telecasts.

In response, Seattle is desperately seeking a solution it already had 75 years ago. And you think humans are smart.