King County Turns Green: Cars out, Transit in

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Light rail around Lake Washington will be complete by 2030 as part of post-earthquake revitalization efforts.

Only after an earthquake ten years ago did King County successfully address its car-dependency through the creation of a revolutionary regional transit system. Before the M7.2 quake, cars clogged commuter routes on I-5 during rush hour with horns blaring and tempers flaring. Traffic on Mercer in downtown Seattle was at a standstill between 3 and 7pm. Parking in urban areas was an impossible feat. Meanwhile, public transit struggled to keep fiscally afloat and meet the service demands of its ridership.

This story is a work of fiction, including all names and quotes, written by WWU DRR students for public education purposes. Site design by Dr. Scott Miles.

Today, only one-third of city residents own a car. Before the earthquake over half of Seattle residents drove alone to work according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A majority of households owned cars. Because of the earthquake many vehicles were destroyed collapsing structures, telephone poles or trees and simply were never replaced.

In the aftermath of the earthquake the Transportation Policy Board of the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) amended its Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP) to incorporate a transportation redevelopment and revitalization plan for each of the four counties it represents. King County’s plan was nicknamed “Access King.” Access King involved planners from multiple jurisdictions and transit authorities within the county and encouraged public participation in the planning process.

Implementation of a regional transit redevelopment plan required extensive funding to meet the high expectations of planners and the public. In addition to disaster-related funding from FEMA, county transportation plans secured funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) under the Job Access and Reverse Commute Program. The PSRC was also allotted additional transportation funding by the federal government to cover the costs of the redevelopment.

Planners had a unique opportunity to completely redesign the city’s transit blueprint and jumped at the chance to address deep rooted flaws in the system. The Access King plan completely reimagined urban and inter-urban transit. With widespread damage or destruction to roads and bridges, public transit vehicles, and the power lines many city buses operated on, planners had the opportunity to design transportation infrastructure from scratch.

“Ten years ago we had some real issues with public transit, it was a broken system, really,” said Robert Nelson, a planner for Sound Transit. “Everyone wanted a perfect and high-functioning public transit system but they didn’t vote to pay for it. The result was single-occupancy personal vehicles everywhere.”

Access King institutionalized bike transportation and expanded public transit within cities and between urban and suburban areas by both bus and light rail. Bus routes were improved and service increased to underserved urban areas. Service was also expanded along major commuter routes. Bus service between Seattle and Bothell, for example, has tripled since 2015. Light rail service connecting major cities around Lake Washington will be available by 2030.

Bike lanes were added to every reconstructed arterial road in urban jurisdictions, and the plan mandates that every road be retrofitted to be bike accessible by 2030.

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After the earthquake, there are now bike lanes throughout downtown Bellevue.

 

“This transit design built upon an existing culture of green living in the Northwest. People had wanted this kind of transportation system for a long time, but felt like it couldn’t practically be achieved by adding on to the existing system. This time we had a clean slate, we were building from the ground up, and we wanted to get it right,” said Nelson.

Access King not only proposed a more expansive, efficient and sustainable transportation system, but a more socially conscious one. The plan specifically sought to increase transportation access to low- and moderate- income areas with the aim of connecting residents to job centers and spurring development in neglected parts of the city. There is ongoing debate on whether the plan has driven up housing costs in newly connected neighborhoods.

King County has made impressive strides in building bikeable roads and overseeing the redevelopment of bus lines. In Seattle, many bus routes have been extended further into the south end of the city where bus service was weak before the earthquake. Inter-neighborhood connectivity has improved significantly and ridership is at an all-time high. On the east side of Lake Washington, many residents who did not bus in the past are now utilizing the city’s new transit system on a regular basis.

“15 years ago our bus system was a mess. Buses were never on time, they were crowded and sometimes unreliable,” says rider Mary Sung, a Renton resident. “That’s why I drove to work every day, from Renton to Bellevue. It was expensive, sure, but certainly more reliable than the bus…The new system is amazing, it’s a complete change from what it was. Most routes come every 15 minutes and they’re on time. It’s a true transformation.”

Bicyclists also have reason to celebrate. Every reconstructed road has been built with innovative bike amenities with signs for raising cyclist awareness of the new infrastructure. In 2013 fewer than 5 percent of Seattle residents biked to work. Today the figure is closer to 20 percent. Access King not only opened up main city roads to cycling but expanded interurban access where possible. The Burke-Gilman, which connects Seattle to Woodinville, was expanded to allow for more bike traffic.

Bill Cameron, a Seattle resident who works in Kenmore took up cycling soon after the Burke Gilman was expanded and has since lost around 20 pounds. He is one of the many “poster” faces of Access King advertisements seen on the side of buses. To Cameron, a transit system produced by disaster was life-changing:

“I used to drive to work every day and then sit at my desk for eight hours. When they expanded the Burke-Gilman, I thought I’d give biking a shot. Well one day turned into every day, and here I am seven years later in the best shape of my life.”

Residents formerly geographically isolated from urban centers are increasingly mobile and better suited to find employment. Small cities in the region have seen rapid growth as a result of increased connectivity between urban areas, and with so few cars on the road, the region is considered one of the greenest in the country. Access King started as a reconstruction plan, but will undoubtedly leave a much greater legacy.