Crossing Curves

Empires fall, and other empires rise…and sometimes, if you’re very very lucky, you get that messy democracy that so frightens those who wish fervently to think of themselves as a natural eilte. The “Best and Brightest,” for example, who brought the world to the brink of economic dissolution, or the pollutocrats who feel that piling just a few more bucks on top of their already Himalayan mountains of cash is worth compromising your health, and your children’s children’s health, unto the proverbial seventh generation. Sort of like “Bowling for Dollars,”‘ but with you and me as the tenpins lined up at the end of the alley….

…And, of course, the ignorant baboons who seem truly to believe that cars grant freedom (which they do—freedom from family time, community, and nature), support the economy (which they do, the economies of oil states and job-killing bigbox oligarchs), and pay their own way (which they…don’t, as numerous analyses amply illustrate.)

Nevertheless, like the intuitive belief that the Earth is flat (which it isn’t, as even the ancient Greeks knew), faith in the car as a sacrament of modernity is fading away. The decline in driving is significant even in the United States, the land most wedded to the car and the delusions of elitism that it fosters; Vehicle Miles Traveled have dropped for nearly a decade, though the population has grown.

Now comes a report from Seattle, which is busy digging itself into a literal as well as metaphorical hole with its plan to replace yet another “aging freeway” with a replica of Boston’s Big Dig boondoggle. The hapless city, perhaps overstimulated by too much coffee, is planning to spend $3.1 billion (not counting the usual cost overruns) to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with an underground expressway.

But the gods seem to be dropping the city a hint, as the giant expensive tunnel boring machine has broken down a thousand feet into the dig.

Meanwhile, as Streetsblog reports, traffic on the expressway has dropped nearly 50% in three years.

And no one even noticed. No ill effects to the surrounding communities from this precipitous loss of speeding motor traffic. As writer Angie Schmitt notes, quoting local analyst Clark Williams-Derry, “Seattle has seamlessly adapted to losing the first 48,000 trips on the Viaduct. No one even noticed. No one even noticed that 40 percent of the Viaduct’s traffic just disappeared! Could accommodating the loss of another 62,000 be that hard if we, I don’t know, tried even a little?”

And as the PIRG report noted earlier opines, a good deal of that traffic has been replaced by bicycling, as well as transit of course; bicycling in particular is up in over 85% of the biggest US cities.

Experience in San Francisco and Portland shows that converting freeways to multi-modal greenways boosts not only livability but a city’s economy. Seattle, if it can take off its smog-tinted glasses, could do well, as Schmitt and some commenters suggest, simply by dumping the very idea of a freeway of any sort along that route, and building a commerce- and community-friendly surface promenade instead.

And that could be yet one more lesson to the vast and obstinate city to the south, our own Los Angeles.

Should we ever decide to stop saying “Na na na na na” with our fingers in our ears….

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