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How Seattle Turned Into A Parking Lot

Warning: If you live in Seattle, this might break your heart.

Once upon a time, Seattle was a pioneer in transportation planning.

City officials thought in terms of economic expediency and asked themselves, how could we get our residents around as quickly as possible? Thus, at the beginning of the 20th century, the streetcar system was born.

“We had an extensive network,” said Leonard Garfield, executive director of the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle.

“You could get anywhere in this city on the streetcar. You could get downtown, you could make all kinds of connections. You could get as far away as Tacoma or as far north as Everett and beyond to Bellingham in really just a matter of hours without ever really having to change transportation systems.”

The streetcars encouraged neighborhood centers to flourish – a legacy that carries on today.  

But then came the automobile, rendering those streetcars obsolete. The car allowed Seattleites to spread out and move away from those urban centers and streetcar lines.

“It was the rise of the car, the rise of privatized transit, the notion that not only did every American deserve a comfortable home and a job but they also deserved an automobile,” Garfield said. “When you give every household an automobile, suddenly you lose that density, you lose that importance of a central center, and you begin to lose the efficiency of a mass transit system.”

The last streetcar closed in the early 1940s. The cars were scrapped, literally, and in some cases burned.

“We replaced them to some extent with the bus system, but it was a system that was much more fluid and far less centralized than the streetcar system had been,” Garfield said.

In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, ballot measures were floated to revive public transportation in Seattle. But plans for light rail and mass transit were routinely voted down.

Why? Price.

“They were very, very expensive, and the compelling need for it really wasn’t there in the voters’ minds,” Garfield said. “They had a home perhaps in the suburbs. They had a workplace that maybe wouldn’t be reached by these mass transit lines, because the region was becoming much broader and less centralized.

“We simply didn’t have either the density of New York or Chicago, but we also didn’t have the voter will that saw mass transit as absolutely essential to the long-term quality of life.”

Garfield said he hopes Seattle will lean increasingly toward mass transit rather than the car.

“It really has to be for a whole lot of reasons – economic, environmental and really just quality of life.”  

A map of the 1933 streetcar routes in Seattle:

[asset-images[{"caption": "", "fid": "119550", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201507/Seattle1933.jpg", "attribution": "Credit"}]]Produced for the Web by Isolde Raftery.

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