Word has reached us in here Flyover Country that Seattle is having another argument about mass transit.
Sound Transit plans to extend rail to West Seattle, but the Mole People are insisting on tunnels, while folks with higher aspirations—and a willingness to face economic reality—argue for an elevated train, which would be cheaper and faster to build. False comparisons of elevated structures to the hellish Alaskan Way viaduct muddy the debate, as does seeming ignorance of the way that Elevated trains work just fine in cities like Chicago—and even, if my memory of my last trip to SoDo from Sea-Tac is correct, already works just fine in parts of Seattle.
I grew up in Chicago, a city structured around elevated trains, and El trains are more than just methods of travel: they enable the urbane as well as the practical, they create sensual and emotional pleasures, and they allow art to escape museums and galleries.
Chicagoans define themselves by which line they ride downtown, and which El stations they habitually use. Our sense of being part of a city is knit up with the El. For me, as a child, it was Loyola, then Morse, when I rode past downtown for high school; then back to Loyola, and recently having moved to the remotest edge of the city, Howard. But for all my life, thanks to the El, I have never been more than a ninety minutes from any place I needed to go: school, work, museums, restaurants, bars, theaters, and music venues—all the places that make city life worth living. The system's far-flung stations created my mental map of the city.
Like subways, elevated trains reduce traffic congestion, get you where you need to go quickly, and enable you to read or relax instead of marinating in talk radio and road rage.
Some of these benefits apply to other forms of mass transit, but not equally. Sure, buses are cheaper, but buses aren’t rapid transit because they’re stuck in gridlocked traffic. (Buses are traffic.) Compared to subways, elevated trains will be cheaper and faster to build. It's estimated that the cost of putting trains in a tunnel to West Seattle alone—never mind Ballard—will add $700 million to the cost. Recent Seattle experience should remind people that tunnels always run into “unexpected” delays and vast cost over-runs, so that $700 million will surely metastasize into a billion dollars or more.
But even if final costs were identical to estimates (never happens, but for sake of argument), building above rather than below is better, because elevated trains, well, they're better. Elevated commuter rail transforms communing into a restorative part of everyday life—hell, tourists in Chicago routinely pay to take no-destination train rides around the city just to enjoy views residents are treated to every day. Elevated trains, well, they elevate the experience of traversing the city from a mere daily routine to an aesthetic pleasure.
With multiple elevated lines, Chicago’s El riders get to choose the commute that is most beautiful. I regularly go from one end of the city to the other—from the Chicago's far Southwest Side to the most northeast corner of town—and when not biking, I take public transit. The fastest route is the 95th Street bus to the Red Line’s southern terminus and then the length of the Red Line to Howard. But two-thirds of that route is either an at-grade expressway median hellscape—about as pleasant as a root canal—or dull-as-underground-dirt subway. So, instead, I budget a little extra time to take the Kedzie bus to the Orange Line, which swoops into the Loop, offering spectacular views all the way.
Then, I transfer to the Brown Line to circle the Loop, cross the River, and head north, before finally transferring to the Red Line for the final few miles. Elevated all the way. As the train speeds up or slows down, there's always something to look at out the windows. The whole history of the city appears: closed factories, newly built condo complexes, ghost signs for long-defunct local newspapers, the latest nightlife neon. The El lets you see the city's present moment as well as its past and, with some imagination, its potential futures.
The El engages other senses as well: its sound is the romantic call of the rails, the pulse of the city’s energy. For anyone who hasn’t entirely bought into the American obsession with automobiles and the allure of the allegedly open road (cough, cough, gridlock), the clatter and rattle of train cars over rail joints and the crescendo of a train picking up speed as it leaves a station or slowing down as it arrives fills the heart with peace. Modern rail technology mutes this sound to a large degree, but not entirely, and the sonic signature of the elevated train lets you know you’re in a real city.
About the noise: critics of elevated trains worry that the noise will be a nuisance—but if anything, modern trains are too quiet. The elevated part of the light rail from Sea-Tac to downtown Seattle is barely audible. And even with the noise of the old rail structures in Chicago, people not only choose to live close to the El, developers rush to build high-density buildings immediately adjacent to stations. If the noise was unbearable, the almighty Real Estate marketplace wouldn’t be putting condos along El lines all over Chicago.
And what about people who aren’t on the train? Even from the ground, the El offers delights that subways or surface lines don’t. In Chicago, bars and restaurants that have a view of the El are considered their own invaluable urban-bar-genre, especially those adjacent to stations. The sound of trains passing overhead punctuates the time and conversations, a jukebox played by the organizing forces of the city itself. And as you sit at that bar near the El looking out the window, waiting to meet your sweetheart on their way home from work, seeing their usual train arrive at the station and then picking them out from the crowd of strangers and neighbors pouring out of the station . . . well, it beats the hell out of a rendezvous in a parking lot.
Yeah, construction would be a pain for a few years—but not as many years or as much of a pain or as costly as a tunnel. And, yes, property immediately adjacent to the rails might lose some value at first — but patterns in Chicago and elsewhere suggest those values will quickly rise as people get used to, and then embrace, elevated trains. Ironically, the perception that it’s not ideal to live next to elevated tracks would provide Seattle with an opportunity to build more affordable multi-unit housing in a metropolitan area that desperately needs it. Do it quickly, though, before people catch on and property values along elevated lines begin to rise.
Finally, the fear that El trains would create concrete walls that would divide neighborhoods just shows lack of experience and imagination. Those concrete embankments and viaducts aren’t walls: they canvases, just waiting to be covered with murals and mosaics. There are many El stations in Chicago (Morse on the Red Line, 18th Street on the Pink Line leap to mind) where it is literally impossible to board a train without first taking in some terrific public art—art approved by city officials as well as works created by artists who didn’t wait for permission or grants. Even people who never ride the trains experience walking through their neighborhood as a colorful gallery stroll rather than a grim trudge.
Folks in Seattle who want to reduce their carbon footprint, make their commute more predictable and pleasant, and transform their neighborhoods by connecting them to the rest of the city should campaign for elevated trains. They’re cheaper and faster to build than subways and elevated trains make a city a more interesting and aesthetically engaging place to live. Anyone who’d care to come to Chicago for a tour, get in touch and I’ll show you around. Fly into Midway, and we can start on the Orange Line.