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What we can learn from the tunnel vote loss

Well, our city has voted to invest an astronomical amount of money to build a tunnel for cars. It’s an investment in the past, in pollution and in continued, long-term motor vehicle use.

I can’t deny I’m a bit relieved at the thought that the debate, which had long been static, can move on (plus, there’s always the chance the tunnel plan collapses under its own bloated financial weight). But it’s hard to find a lot of positives in the vote.

The truth is, nobody was able to develop a cohesive, inspiring vision of what the city would look and feel like under a more innovative, diverse transportation solution. Maybe this is because the anti-tunnel camp couldn’t even agree themselves, with some supporting surface/transit/I-5 and others preferring a different highway project, like a viaduct rebuild. A group formed simply in opposition to someone else’s plan will always be weaker than a group fighting for a complete and exciting vision of their own.

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As a way of assessing mistakes and learning lessons for future campaigns, let’s imagine what a more successful campaign might have looked like.

First off, I’m not just talking about the Reject campaign formed earlier this year, I’m talking about the entire history viaduct replacement campaigns. I wish a campaign had just come out and said straight-forward, without double-speak, what we were actually talking about: Let’s remove an urban freeway.

Aurora Ave is one of the most dangerous roads in the city. Investing in a tunnel all but assures it will remain the dangerous, duct-taped-together pseudo-freeway it is today.

We should have had mockups of Aurora Ave with the much-maligned center concrete barrier removed. Replace it with a center turn lane. Put stop lights at select intersections and show people crossing from South Lake Union to Seattle Center at a stoplight at Harrison and Aurora on foot. Or show a family crossing from the Green Lake Trail to the Green Lake Farmers Market at N 66th.

Can you imagine being able to turn left off Aurora? Or imagine an active commercial core in the middle of Fremont where today there are mostly problem hotels and billboards.

Or picture the Aurora Bridge with four wider, more comfortable lanes instead of six. Nobody feels safe driving in the Aurora Bridge’s tiny lanes. Or what about having a cycle track and comfortable pedestrian walkway on the bridge. That would make many trips faster and more possible, especially for people heading to the tops of either Fremont of Queen Anne.

All this would be within the realm of possibilities if we had made the choice to remove the freeway downtown.

Maybe, even after seeing an inspiring vision of a reinhabited Aurora, the people of Seattle would still reject it in favor of a tunnel. We won’t know because voters were never presented with that image or given that choice. And without being able to promote a promising future, joining the anti-tunnel campaign was about as exciting as getting a fifth root canal.

So, as bicycle advocates, let’s learn from this city-wide loss. More and more people are choosing to get around by bicycle every day. If we want to gather a truly powerful popular movement, we need to clearly present the welcoming promise of innovative and safe bicycle facilities. Separated cycle tracks downtown, for example, would change cycling in Seattle forever, but we need to successfully show how they would make our downtown a better, more dynamic place for everyone.

It’s time to go for a ride, shake off this loss, and recenter our efforts on promoting a positive, efficient, fun and affordable option for getting around our city that supports the local economy and promotes equality: the bicycle.

If you have ideas on how we can develop this vision, share them in the comments or, better yet, start working on them.

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30 responses to “What we can learn from the tunnel vote loss”

  1. Slogan! “The Power to Turn Left”

  2. Todd Holman

    Look, I love this blog because it’s about bicycle advocacy and keeps me informed of the major issues in one single place. Kudos to Tom! It’s great. Therefore I know up front this site’s basic agenda: Promote the use of bikes and the rights of bicyclists — and keep them informed. I’m all for that. But I also don’t live in dream land nor any illusion that automobiles (nor phat Americans) are going to go away anytime soon. This means most decisions — and rightfully so — are going to be geared to the automobile. We are the minority. As long as we continue to improve safety and provide alternatives to the use of cars, I think it’s the best we can do — at least until gasoline becomes something out of the Mad Max Road Warrior movie series, and the average folk can’t afford it. That’s just the way it is.

    1. Allison

      We can slant things. And quite frankly, this was a City of Seattle vote – very progressive folks. We’ll see all kinds of analysis in the coming days that may confirm or deny my sense – but I think the fact that the turn out was *pathetic* had more to do it with it than the issue itself being unpopular generally.

    2. Allison

      I mean, Mayor McGinn was elected at least partially on his opposition to the tunnel.

    3. Charlie

      I disagree. It’s imperative that we keep pushing for the best we can get and try to get people to think about how to move themselves and not their cars around. Otherwise, you’re letting perfect be the enemy of good.

      Look, I’m no pie-in-the-sky idealist. I know that cars will continue to be paramount in this country for a long time to come. But, all due respect, we need to get away from the car-head thinking you’re spouting above. As Tom and others have said time and again, we have to think in terms of moving people and freight, not cars. Cars are machines. People control them. But if we acquiesce to their convenience and power and make decisions based on what’s best for cars rather than drivers, riders, walkers, we’re going to drown in a sea of concrete and exhaust.

      So I plan to keep pushing the city, county and state to think about how best to let me move around, not cars.

      1. Todd Holman

        Charlie, I don’t disagree with your rebuttal either. The way policy works in a democracy is analogous to a tug-of-war. Each side pulls until equilibrium has been reached with usually the strongest side winning. Again, I’m all for bicycle promotion but the key here is that we are not “idealists”. Without goals we can’t achieve them. But most people drive in this country and really have no desire to change. We can try to spearhead that change but when the rope breaks — I just hope we continue to see incremental improvements.

        Mad Max, where are you?

  3. Allison

    What we can learn from the tunnel vote loss: Don’t put progressive initiatives on midterm primary ballots. Those who turn out in midterm primaries skew older and more conservative, homeowners, higher income, etc. Much less likely to vote pro-transit, anti-highway (what do you call that political position?) than the average Seattle citizen.

    1. Gary

      No kidding.

    2. NickBob

      Well said, and quite right.

    3. Tom Fucoloro

      That’s true, and it’s probably reasonable to attribute some of the nearly 20-point spread in the vote to that effect. If it had been down to a hair, I would be right there with you, saying we should have put it on the Nov ballot.

      But let’s not kid ourselves into thinking this vote was not decisive. Even with an extra 20% turnout trending heavily opposed, Ref 1 would still have passed easily. Even if the pro-tunnel camp hadn’t pulled dirty tricks (like using images of buses and bicycles in their massive ad campaign, even though their plan does nothing to help either), I bet the Ref still would have passed.

  4. Gary

    Also if you read the comments over on the http://www.seattletimes. com on the tunnel articles they trash the mayor and bicyclists. They actively hate us for riding a bicycle, for the city spending any money on facilities for bicycles. They cannot imagine a future with energy prices that push them out of the middle class, or even out of their cars.

    As Americans we have been spoon fed a love affair with cars. When the future energy shocks come it’s going to be quite an eye opener. Oh and don’t think they’ll thank us for warning them. Nope, they’ll be angry to find that the dream of driving anywhere at anytime was a chimerical illusion. Of course we can hope that once they get back on their bicycles that the energy they’ll expend in moving their bodies around will dissipate the anger. But that may take a bit of time.

    Meantime we need to focus on “Safe routes to School!” Why? Cause who doesn’t love a cute kid? And kids who ride grow up wanting to ride. And there’s nothing sadder than a “flat kid” hit by a car. There’s no defense by the auto loving public. And when kids are safe riding, commuters will be safe as well. (And besides there are schools everywhere, so as along as we link these routes together we’ll win in the end.)

    1. Charlie

      Rule #1 of being a bicycle activist/rider in Seattle: NEVER read the comments on the Seattle Times. Those people are scary, most likely don’t live in the city and they’re probably trolls anyway. Reading and, worse, responding to comments on the Seattle Times is a great way to let your energy be sucked dry for no good reason.

      1. Gary

        Thanks Charlie. I’ll stay off those boards. Besides I think that many of the Trolls are paid hacks.

  5. Gary

    Oh and if you haven’t read it “Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities” by Jeff Mapes is an excellent overview of how we got where we are, and how to move forward.

  6. Charlie

    P.S. This is a great commentary Tom. Spot on. We, progressives in general, need to be better at selling our ideas.

  7. NickBob

    This is an excellent reflection. @Todd, progress entails moving from where you are to somewhere else, Tom’s laid out a modest vision while you seem to embrace the status quo. Sure, things could backslide into something worse but why not look for and attempt to build a better tomorrow?
    I’ve been thinking along similar lines regarding Lake City Way, 2 blocks from where I live. There’s a single crosswalk between 80th & 95th, and it too is a junior freeway. Imagine a streetcar line from Green Lake to Lake City using the middle of that thoroughfare. Likely, nothing like that will happen in the next 25 years, but if you had told anyone 15 years ago that someone would be using the Internet via hand device with video communication capability today, that it would be made by the most valuable company in the USA- Apple, they’d have hauled you to the looney bin. Dreams can come true.

  8. Sam

    This may be a tough pill to swallow, but here goes…

    There are a lot of people who, rightly or wrongly, see driving as the only realistic way they can get around. Maybe they live too far from a bus line, maybe they don’t see a bike commute as realistic, maybe they just have some ingrained belief that a car is the only sensible means of transport for them. Advocacy from bicycle groups related to transportation policy often takes the form of proposing or supporting measures that disfavor cars. People understandably perceive “road diets” as creating gridlock, see bike lanes as absurd in a town with crumbling roads, and have a hard time believing that light rail will ever become useful for them.

    We can’t just focus on a pretty vision of the future 10-20 years from now, or tell people they shouldn’t be driving a car that much anyway. Our advocacy needs to overcome the somewhat intuitive notion that cyclists and transit make life worse for drivers. It’s not just a matter of referenda outcomes, but also preventing anti-bike or anti-transit sentiment from providing a springboard to office.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      I largely agree, Sam. The absolute worst case scenario is for bicycle unpopularity to somehow become so popular that someone could get elected to office (all doubters, google: Mayor Ford Toronto bike lanes). However, even our most “conservative” city councilmembers tout the importance of supporting bicycling (even if they don’t do much to make change). Bicycling is very popular in this city, despite what Seattle Times comments might suggest.

      And I think our pretty vision is the inspiration for people to take control of their own lives by trying out bicycling. If people don’t see bicycling as a viable means of getting around, it’s our job to present it as such. Because it is.

      And safe streets advocates have been awful about presenting the values and goals of road diets (clearly, this includes me). All of our city’s favorite commercial streets have been road dieted. People like the results after they are done, but they fear change. Wonky stats about traffic flow are not going to work. We need to present the idea that road dieted streets support urban life and neighborhood economies, as well as safer walking, driving and, yes, bicycling safety.

      But I understand there are a lot of people who will probably never see the value in bicycling. Our goal should be creating an image of safe cycling so exciting that a wide base of people want jump on board and demand more from our government (and many already have).

      1. Sam

        Yup, Rob Ford is exactly whom I had in mind. His mayoral campaign focused on the suburbs of Toronto, and involved a lot of “those people” time comments about cyclists and mass transit users. Plenty of derp there, but he was very successful in pitting the outskirts against the overwhelmingly bike-friendly city center. Unless we can consistently articulate how transit and bike-friendly changes can help drivers, we’re not going to achieve much. “Share the road” should permeate both the way we ride as well as the way we advocate policy.

  9. I’m shocked – shocked that in all the comments there isn’t a single one yet with my point of view, which is that the tunnel is exactly the right thing to do. I just came back from a trip through Scandinavia, including Copenhagen, one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world. All the cities I visited had vibrant urban cores with one common feature: long, wide, car-free zones thronged with pedestrians and bicycles. The tunnel is a start at doing what Oslo long ago started doing: diverting the cars to tunnels and leaving the surface to pedestrians and bicycles. Yes, I know the Seattle plan doesn’t exactly promise a no-car zone on the surface, but at least the noisy, high-speed traffic will be where it belongs – out of sight.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      In fairness, Dan, I may have already alienated the pro-tunnel folks with my incessant writing about it…

      I think the vote also shows that wonky people can get into a blog bubble just like conservative talk radio and get a false sense of general public opinion.

      Anyway, thanks for the comment. I hope you’re right. I would love a low-traffic waterfront boulevard (though that’s not what the state’s traffic projections predict).

    2. Tom Fucoloro

      Also, love the Copenhagen post!


      I have heard this frustration with the pace of CPH cycling, too. I, however, love going super slow, so I wonder if I would feel the same. I guess there’s only one way to find out…

    3. Gary

      I’m not “anti-tunnel” It’s just that this is the wrong tunnel in the wrong place for the wrong reason.

      #1) built in Sand 80 ft under Yesler well below sea level

      #2) supports a dieing mode of transportation, gasoline fueled cars

      #3) The tunnel we needed is another Light rail tunnel to carry the train from West Seattle to Ballard. The current bus/tunnel once LINK reaches the East Side is maxed out.

      If we were going to spend all that money, we should have dug a tunnel that we needed for the future, not the past.

    4. Todd Holman

      Yeah I don’t think the tunnel really impacts us all that much — with the exception of more cars on the side streets. But with improvements coming along like the Ship Canal Trail and the Mercer Corridor, I can live with it. Again, it’s all incremental change — which I suspect is all we are going to see in our lifetimes — unless Mad Max comes along sooner than later. And if that happens, then we won’t need to build anything because they’ll just give us the empty streets.

  10. Doug Bostrom

    As Todd suggests, cars are likely not going to vanish, particularly given recent progress in dumping internal combustion engines. Establishing a precedent for shoving cars underground is perhaps not so bad, “going down the road. ”

    Tom’s post alludes to the fact that Aurora and I-5 undeniably share in common the feature of being cumbersome obstacles to living in Seattle. I-5 especially is mostly useful for people happy to work in Seattle yet too shy to live in the city, or those just passing through, while being simultaneously almost useless for reliably scheduled travel within town and a general hindrance to free movement for residents. Shoving the whole mess underground would help to return Seattle’s focus to providing optimal living space for actual residents.

    I wonder how much of I-5 could be lidded for $2 billion? Perhaps it’s time for another regrade, this time to reconnect Seattle where it was vertically transected by the acolytes of Robert Moses. Perhaps it’s time to look to the words of a Moses contemporary and announce,”We will bury you.” (ok, that’s maybe a tasteless quote but still a desirable goal, one way or another…)

    1. Gary

      If you think that electric cars are the future, time to upgrade the grid well before we even think about freeway lids. The power consumption of everybody trying to charge their car overnight is not available now.

      1. Jeremy

        I’m sure humanity will come up with enough coal natural fracked tar sands to tide us through those trying times until we have flying cars.

        In the meantime, there’s a Texas community spending $200 a day to irrigate a droughted football field with trucked water. Seems a sensible and sustainable energy policy to me.

  11. Leigh

    I actually find this whole blog polarizing and alienating. I ride my bike most of the time, but I also have a car, and am pro-tunnel. The articles on this blog, as well as the comments, suggest that cyclists and drivers are or should be against each other. In fact, the entire tone is full of dichotomies: bicycles vs. cars, urban vs. suburban, pro-transit vs. pro-highway…. The message also suggests that using a bicycle as transportation is a fundamentally political act and so for those of us who just see it as more useful, efficient way to get around lose rapid interest in the blog. Maybe the blog is only meant for a certain “type” of cyclist — I just wanted information about routes, construction, events, etc… Wasn’t looking for a homogenous forum to bad-mouth politicians or drivers.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Thanks for comment, Leigh. The site certainly is more than just a feed of construction projects and event calendars. That stuff is interesting and important, and I try to keep up. But the site is also based around the assumption that bicycling is a fun, affordable and healthy way to get around town. As such, it does have an advocacy goal to push the city to make our dangerous streets safer for people who want to ride bicycles. In order for that to happen, we need to pressure our city, county and state officials to pursue much-needed and sometimes controversial projects. Without pressure from the people, there will never be safe bicycle facilities downtown, for example. I intend to make the case that our city needs them, and I will be critical of any of our elected officials who give flimsy arguments against them.

      The only politician i have specifically bad-mouthed recently is Jean Godden. But she is up for reelection, is seen as vulnerable in the polls, and has repeatedly worked against needed road safety improvements around our city. I encourage people not to vote for her, since she does not place the level of importance on livable, safe streets that we need. Jean knows how this works and has doubled-down, fighting against transportation funding that does not go specifically to roads. That’s the stance she chose. It’s my job to point that out.

      Holding politicians accountable is part of a functioning democracy, after all. I don’t think Jean is evil or anything, she’s just not who we need on the Council.

      If you feel that the site is anti-driver, that’s something I have been trying to avoid. I appreciate the feedback. I am anti-aggressive driver, for sure. But I don’t think that defining a person by the mode they choose to get around is useful or effective. In fact, i have been trying to avoid the word driver, just as i avoid using the word bicyclist. We’re all people on the roadway trying to move ourselves and our stuff wherever we need to go. I also believe that with safer streets and encouragement, more people will choose to make more trips by bicycle, which would be better for individuals, the community and the city.

      So is encouraging people to make the choice to bicycle instead of drive “anti-driver”? Is encouraging the city to make streets safer for all users at the expense of a few seconds of increased travel time for motor vehicles also “anti-driver”? I don’t believe it is.

  12. Emma Baker

    I love your idea about Aurora- I can’t think of any other street in Seattle that is as dangerous or destroys community as much! I wish this plan had been thought of earlier; we could have taken a whole different route in figuring out the viaduct/waterfront. As always, love your blog! Keep up the good work.

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