The decline and asymmetrical resurgence of American transit: a case study of Seattle

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Novsam, Jason N.
Welch, Timothy F.
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Public transportation projects are some of the most complex and costly components of urban development. While urban sites may develop naturally through the combined and only partially coordinated efforts of countless private groups, they inevitably reach a critical mass which requires the development of a shared infrastructure. While this problem is not unique to the modern era, the size, density, and intensity of modern urban uses demands a level of advanced and extensive transportation infrastructure that is unprecedented. The extreme costliness and impact of this infrastructure makes its design and implementation a difficult and controversial matter, particularly when divergent strategies are possible. Mass transit is not the predominant mode of travel for most twenty first century Americans. Before the automobile era, however, transit modes of all types graced the country’s cities, providing a level of service unmatched by most modern transit systems through high frequency and dense routes. This research investigates the transportation history of Seattle, a prominent but relatively young American city, to determine the critical cultural, political and social factors which led that city to redevelop its transit systems successfully after their initial dismantlement during the early car era. The research will focus on the unique trends which allowed Seattle to avoid the transit stagnation of other cities in the mid to late twenty-first century. Seattle’s contemporary transit conditions are summarized through the use of spatial and survey data and compared to transit conditions from the peak of the historic streetcar era. Contemporary transportation planning documents and processes are considered to yield insight into the unique transportation planning culture of the Seattle region. Finally, the region’s urban and transportation history is reviewed to identify and track the processes most responsible for the city’s relative success in developing modern transit when compared to similar cities.
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