Seattle Aims for the Drive-Alones

IN 1980, around half the people employed in Seattle drove to work alone in a car. By 1990, the number had risen to 59 percent. Carpooling and bus use have fallen, and residents fret about chronic traffic congestion.

The time is right, local leaders say, to confront the dreaded SOV, single-occupant vehicle.

``We've at least got to offer viable alternatives,'' says Seattle City Council President Jim Street.

A key question is what role railroads will play in the Puget Sound region. A century ago, rail service helped develop the area as a source for timber. Train cars carrying goods and long-distance passengers still rumble along the tracks, but local travel is now done by car or bus.

While rail advocates want everything from a 464-mile, British Columbia-to-Oregon route to ``light rail'' streetcars connecting Seattle with its suburbs, skeptics wonder whether the population is dense enough for these multibillion-dollar ideas to make financial sense.

Critics argue, moreover, that today's economic geography revolves less and less around ``hub-and-spoke'' delivery of workers into city centers. The fast rise of computer-enabled ``telecommuters'' working at home, of people who live in one ``edge city'' and commute to another, and of nonwork errands (which now accounts for around three-fourths of road travel) exemplify the trend.

Car culture

Nationwide, the percentage of households without cars has fallen in half, to 9 percent, since 1970.

``The reality is that today's resident and consumer wants a lot of choice and ... mobility,'' says James Hebert, president of Hebert Research Associates in Bellevue, Wash.

All this does not mean Puget Sound voters will reject commuter-rail proposals this time around, as they did back in 1968. But it does help explain why the Regional Transit Authority, a three-county agency created last year, is scaling back its local rail goals from a $9 billion to a $2 billion investment.

One relatively easy step would be restoring rail service between Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett, which are the dominant cities in the three Transit Authority counties (King, Pierce, and Snohomish). These counties account for half the state's 5 million residents.

``It's something that could be up and running very quickly,'' says Preston Schiller of the Washington Coalition for Transportation Alternatives.

The sooner the better, he notes, since a stadium renovation is pushing the Seattle SuperSonics basketball team to Tacoma next year, burdening the already slow southerly commute from Seattle on game nights.

Light rail will likely be another part of the package that the Regional Transit Authority plans to present to voters a year from now.

For about $2 billion, or a rise of 0.4 cents in the local sales tax, streetcars could ply key routes alongside cars, perhaps easing gridlock on Lake Washington's floating bridges that connect Seattle to booming East Side towns such as Redmond. A dash of technology could allow the cars to get green lights all the way down their routes.

Rail does not come cheap

Whether light rail makes economic sense is a matter of debate.

While systems in other cities have trouble even covering operating costs, boosters say alternatives do not come cheap, either. Other West Coast cities such as Portland, Ore., and San Diego, Calif., have gone ahead with the idea.

Many observers say people must be weaned from the polluting automobile by making its full costs felt. Four-tenths of the $74 billion spent on roads in 1990 came from revenue sources unrelated to driving, an Environmental Protection Agency study found.

One idea is ``congestion pricing'' during peak hours. This can now be done using small transponders on cars so they can be assessed a toll electronically without slowing down.

``If there isn't a lot of citizen involvement,'' Mr. Schiller warns, the idea will ``be shot down just like it was in Oregon last year.''

Seattle is not ignoring low-tech alternatives. Mayor Norm Rice hopes that, by encouraging development of mixed-use ``urban villages'' within the city limits, more people will walk to work or shopping. He hopes to see bicyclers and walkers double their share of commutes to about 19 percent. Later this year all buses in the city will have a rack for up to two bicycles. ``That's been a long time coming,'' says Bruce Kendall of the Northwest Bicycle Foundation.

Mr. Rice also wants to expand bus service, partly through the cleverly acronymed LINC, or local initiative for neighborhood circulation. This test program would use vans with flexible routes and schedules to shuttle people. The mayor's growth-management plan calls for a public transit rise from 16 percent of commutes to more than one-fourth by the year 2010.

* Yesterday: Seattle fights urban sprawl.

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