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  • Marie McKinsey

When It Comes To Transit, Think Small

Updated: Nov 19, 2022

Think Small VW ad
The "Think Small" ad campaign for the VW Beetle is a classic in advertising history.

Think Small. This simple ad, which ran in the 1960s, was part of one of the most successful campaigns of all time. It was clever. And it worked on many levels.

Back then, people drove big cars. Wherever you looked, there were spacious sedans with sleek fins and long, low profiles. The all-American family car was a big, boxy station wagon.

Then things started to change. These little cars began to show up on local streets. Critics called them ugly. Said they were death traps. They were foreign cars!

And yet, those "bugs" became wildly popular. They were reliable, inexpensive, easy to drive, and you could park them just about anywhere.

For many young Americans at the time, the Volkswagen Beetle was their first car. For others, it was the only car they could afford. Those low-glamour, no-frills vehicles filled a niche that Motown missed altogether. By thinking small, Volkswagen made personal transportation possible for many people who would otherwise be left out.

I thought about this the other night, when I was reading Sound Transit's Draft Environmental Impact Statement, as it pertains to the future West Seattle light rail extension. There is a lot of detail in this study, and multiple alternatives are considered. But it is hard to visualize the true impact that this massive project will have on our neighborhood. When it is complete, will it be what West Seattle, 10 years in the future, will need? I found myself feeling overwhelmed.

Then it occurred to me - what if we have been approaching this whole transit thing backwards? Maybe, instead of going big, what we should do is start small. I mean, really small. As in, immediate neighborhood small, and work our way up from there.

For example, I live at Alki Beach. It's a beautiful place to live, but it isn't easy to go car-free down here. For groceries and most of our needs, we have to go up a steep hill to get to the Admiral business district. It isn't practical to walk or bike to the grocery stores from here, even though the stores are not that far away.

We have limited transit service. The two city buses that serve Alki, the 55 and the 56, have just one stop - at 61st and Alki Ave. Those buses will take riders up the hill, and bring them back down to the same stop. The roughly two miles from that stop, along Alki Ave. to the bottom of California Avenue, has no city bus service.

The only transit along that stretch of Alki Ave. is the Water Taxi Shuttle, the 775, which takes people to the dock at Seacrest Park, then up to Admiral. It runs in the mornings, Monday through Friday, from 6 a.m. - 9:30 a.m. - but there is no service after that until around 3:30 p.m. It ends service for the day at 7 p.m. The shuttle does not run on Sundays. Although anyone can use it, the shuttle is designed for Water Taxi riders, not the neighborhood's transit needs.

But what if we had a simple, local transit system - a mini-bus service that ran a continuous loop along the beach front, up the hill, and back down to the beach? It would follow the Water Taxi shuttle route. Water Taxi people could hop on and off, at the bottom of California. Hours could be expanded until 10 p.m., so people can enjoy evening hours in either neighborhood. Service would be available 7 days a week.

The mini-bus would hold a dozen people or more. It would have a lift gate, or a low low-floor entry for easy access, and room enough for strollers, bicycles, wheelchairs and personal shopping carts, to roll on and off.

The location of stops along the way, and modifications to the route, would be determined by input from residents and Water Taxi passengers. The stops would be closer together than regular city bus stops, in order to accommodate more people. The location of the stops, the frequency, the hours of operation - all would be set according to the needs of the community.

Hyper-local transit would benefit other underserved niches throughout West Seattle. This is a large, hilly neighborhood and without practical transportation to get up and down the hills, people are going to use their cars. Many would drive less - if they had a choice.

There are many advantages to small, local transit.

  • In our case, it would reduce the number of car trips up and down the hill.

  • It solves the hill problem for cyclists and walkers who can't easily make the climb.

  • Families with young children at the top of the hill can bring their kids, and gear, to and from the beach without taking a car.

  • Residents up the hill can come down to the beach for dinner and enjoy an extra glass of wine because they aren't driving.

  • No one has to search for a parking space at either end.

  • People may actually get more exercise using local transit because when they get to a business district, they will walk from one place to another, instead of moving their cars to different parking lots.

  • Local transit is the answer to the question of what to do about that "last mile" connection to city-wide transit. Buses and light rail can move a lot of people to and from designated stations, but if someone lives more than a mile away from a station, how do they get there? Local transit can be designed to address that. No need for extra parking lots.

  • Smaller, simpler systems are more flexible than big city-wide programs. Need to add a new stop? Modify a route? Change hours? Add/subtract a vehicle? As long as the local residents are involved and allowed to implement changes, the system can evolve to meet the neighborhood's needs.

  • Ultimately, individual hyper-local transit systems could be linked, via the larger King County Metro bus system, to create a West Seattle Transit system. There's no telling what possibilities that system might open up for employment, access to arts and entertainment events, new business opportunities, more business for existing companies, and easier commutes. Plus, more people using transit means reducing CO2 emissions. And fewer people will be competing for parking spaces.

  • Once we have a West Seattle Transit system, it will be easier to see where and how it can be plugged into the regional system.

  • Electric mini-buses are starting to show up on city streets around the world. (Note that the bus in this example is low enough that a ramp or lift gate is unnecessary.) If we had an electric fleet, we can cut CO2 emissions even further.

How will we pay for this? Well, Congress just passed a huge infrastructure bill, which includes funds for transit. Some of that federal money can be used to fund pilot programs to test the feasibility of this idea. Talking to residents and deciding routes, buying a few mini-buses, and hiring some drivers will cost next to nothing, compared to the multi-billion dollar projects proposed by Sound Transit and the Washington State Department of Transportation.

If the plan doesn't work, we sell the mini-buses and call it good. If it does, we might just transform our neighborhood in many wonderful ways.

When you build a transit system from the ground up, you have public support all along the way. When you think small, you take small steps, get local input, readjust, then take the next steps. Because you fine tune it along the way, people understand it as it grows. But attempting a giant leap, like the West Seattle light rail extension, overwhelms people. And reading the comments in local social media, it appears that support for the project is eroding.

We can't predict what the next 10 years will bring, but in that time, we can build a robust peninsula-wide transit system. Who's in? How could a good hyper-local transit route benefit you and your neighbors?

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Sep 17, 2023

the route you're describing was literally served by the street cars that existed in West Seattle in the past. they were gutted in favor of cars, resulting in your experience today. imagine having a dedicated right of way from Alki to each junction. better than a looping bus on roads and affirming the status quo.

Marie McKinsey
Sep 17, 2023
Replying to

What mode of transit do you propose? Running rail everywhere today is cost prohibitive. What alternatives can you suggest?

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