Friday, July 15, 2005

Mass Transit and Urban History

This post on Lawyers Guns and Money has received a surprising amount of very interesting comments concerning the state of Seattle's mass transit. It made me think about why some cities have relatively advanced systems of mass transit and others are still in the dark ages with a good bus system all they can do (and some who can't even do that). I think that the present state of mass transit in various cities may have something to do with the development of each city's urban infrastructure in the pre-automobile period of American history. For instance, look at the cities that do have excellent mass transit--New York, Chicago, Washington, Boston, San Francisco, even Portland. These cities all had significant urban core development before 1910. Many of these cities already had effective and widely-used streetcar systems before the car transformed American urban life. Most of these cities are located in the east. But even the western cities with the best public transportation, San Francisco and Portland, are the oldest metropolitan centers in the West. These cities grew up not only with public transportation but also with the expectation of getting from one side of the city to the other in a short amount of time, whether by foot or some other means.

Seattle really has more in common with cities like Phoenix, Los Angeles, Houston, Jacksonville, and Charlotte than the other cities listed above. People don't remember this now, but Seattle was a second-rate city, even in the Puget Sound area, until well after 1900. Tacoma was the urban center of the Puget Sound before 1900 and Seattle was a backwater. This changed of course, really beginning just before 1900 and accelerating throughout the 20th century. But Seattle did not spend its early years as an important regional metropolitan center and perhaps because of this, it took a long time to develop the intensive urban identity that its residents see in it today. Really it's only in the last 15 years or so that Seattle has become nationally known as one of the best places to live--before that it was usually known as drab, dreary, and a really crappy place to be. It's easy to forget that history now.

This is only a theory of course but I really think that a city's historical sense of urban identity places an important role in its acquisition of non-automobile based modes of transportation. Seattle has a recently developed sense of urban identity but it may not extend into the suburbs or more importantly, to the tax base necessary to fund high quality mass transit. It's not the only reason and there's no good reason that Denver and Atlanta should be ahead of Seattle in creating mass transit. But I think it is an important point that helps us understand these differences.