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Light rail is growing Capitol Hill.

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I don't mean, "Light rail is going to lead to even more development on Capitol Hill!," although it's definitely going to do that. Expect bigger buildings to go up on top of, adjacent to, and in the blocks surrounding the Link Light Rail station opening at Broadway and John later this week. (And that is a good thing.) What I mean is... the opening of Capitol Hill's light rail station is going to grow the neighborhood geographically; it's going to grow the neighborhood horizontally. Light rail is going to expand Capitol Hill's boundaries—its psychological boundaries—by shrinking perceived distances between Capitol Hill and its adjacent neighborhoods, particularly those to the south.

I can best illustrate the point I'm trying to make with a map...

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That's a small chunk of the north side of Chicago—my home town—and the straight red line on the map follows the two miles from the Sheridan Road 'L' stop to the Fullerton 'L' stop. ('L' is short for "elevated train," Chicago's rapid transit system, although some people prefer "El.") There are two 'L' stops between Sheridan Road and Fullerton: Addison and Belmont. Those two miles of elevated track run through a section of Chicago known as the "Near North Side," which consists of three somewhat distinct neighborhoods: Wrigleyville, Boys Town, and Lincoln Park. (Wrigleyville and Boystown are arguably two halves of one neighborhood called Lakeview; and I call them "somewhat distinct" because boundaries are blurry.)

Anyway...

While Wrigleyville, Boys Town, and Lincoln Park are three neighborhoods technically, they're one neighborhood psychologically. The 'L' effectively shrinks the distances between these three Chicago neighborhoods and, consequently, people live, work, eat, and play in Wrigleyville/Boystown/Lincoln Park as if they were one biggish neighborhood, not three smallish ones. Wanna have dinner at a restaurant on Addison before seeing a movie at a theater near Fullerton? No problem: Just jump on the 'L.'

My older brother Bill, who has lived within three blocks of the same 'El' stop all his life, put it this way in an email: "Mass transit is like an accordion that expands and contracts: it expands your neighborhood by contracting the time and trouble it takes to get to a different neighborhood." (Billy prefers "El.")

And the contraction effect works even if you don't always jump on the train. If it's a nice enough day and dinner at the place on Addison was quick, you might say to your friends, "Let's walk to the theater on Fullerton—it's just two 'L' stops away."

Okay, here's another map:

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From the light rail stop at Broadway and John to the light rail stop in the International District: less than two miles. I've lived on Capitol Hill for most of the last 25 years (!!!) and the ID has always seemed not just like another neighborhood entirely, but a far-flung one at that. It's someplace we go once in a while, almost always by car (don't want to ride back up that hill after eating/drinking out), and then only when we're feeling motivated to schlep ourselves "all the way" to the ID. But if I lived at the corner of Fullerton and Clark in Chicago, the restaurants at Irving and Sheridan wouldn't feel so far away. They would feel like places on the edge of my neighborhood, not places in some other neighborhood. And once Capitol Hill's light rail station opens on March 19, the ID isn't going to feel so far-flung anymore.

In Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, city planner and urban designer Jeff Speck contrasts light rail systems that work (Portland's system) and light rail systems that don't (Dallas's system). The most important factor determining whether light rail works in a given city: neighborhood structure. (Speck defines success—roughly speaking—as a system used by enough residents to up the overall percentage of trips being made on public transit in a given city.)

"Neighborhood structure refers to the presence of real neighborhoods, which are technically defined as being compact, diverse, and walkable," Speck writes. "A true neighborhood has a center and an edge, and contains a wide variety of activities in close proximity within an armature of pedestrian-friendly streets and public spaces. A traditional city is composed principally of these neighborhoods..."

Compact Portland has real neighborhoods, sprawling Dallas does not. Portland's system works, Dallas's system doesn't.

Speck also cites urbanity—along with pleasure, clarity, and frequency—as a key component to a successful mass transit system.

"Urbanity means locating all significant stops right in the heart of the action, not a block away and, God forbid, not across a parking lot," Speck writes. "This is the 'problem of the last one hundred yards' that haunts so many a bus or train station. Riders should be able to fall into the [train] from a stool at a coffee shop.... [Without] true walkability on both ends of the line, your system is a non-starter."

True walkability may not exist at every stop along our light rail line (not yet), but true walkability absolutely exists outside the Capitol Hill station, the International District station, and the three stations in between. Starting this Saturday we will be able to fall into trains from stools in Capitol Hill cafes and fall back out in Westlake Center, Pioneer Square, or ID, where we can land in a seats in movie theaters, on stools in bars, or in booths in restaurants. For the first few months—or the first few years—it's going feel like we've left one neighborhood and gone "all the way" to the International District (or the U-District or Beacon Hill), but soon enough Seattleites will come to regard going from Capitol Hill to the ID the same way Chicagoans regard going from Sheridan Road to Fullerton. We won't be going from one neighborhood to another, but from one end of a neighborhood to the other. (And Beacon Hill—2.9 miles away—is going to feel like the next neighborhood over, not some other planet entirely.)

A lot of people feel like they're getting squeezed out of Capitol Hill. Well, here's some good news: Capitol Hill is about to get a lot bigger.