Why Can’t We Do It?

Over the weekend I visited a friend in Bangkok. It’s exotic and interesting, but that isn’t what I left there thinking about. My real take-away is about transportation. I have two primary points of reference for traffic – one is Seattle and the other is Saigon. Both are traffic nightmares; Bangkok is not.

Bangkok’s population is officially listed as 9,100,000, about the same size as Saigon and five times the population of the whole of King County, Seattle’s home. The streets of Bangkok are wide and traffic flows normally for a major metropolis. At rush hour things slow down but at other times they flow fairly smoothly. Saigon’s 5,000,000 motorbikes make the traffic chaotic, unpredictable and sometimes outright dangerous. Motorbikes share the streets and sidewalks with bicycles, cars, pedestrians, cyclos, and pushcarts. There is some kind of protocol, but it’s difficult to figure out. In Bangkok there are only a few bikes and motorbikes. What is the difference?

Here it is: Bangkok has a mass transportation system. That’s the difference. The BTS Skytrain and the MRT Underground move huge numbers of people swiftly through the city in comfortable air-conditioned cars at reasonable prices. They also leave the streets free for automobile and bus traffic. Why is it that Thailand, ranked #30 in the world in GDP can move people more efficiently than #1 ranked United States? I don’t know the answer, but I think we deserve one.

In 1953 Seattle built a double-decked elevated roadway through downtown, and in 1963 the Evergreen Point floating bridge was built to connect Seattle to the eastern suburbs. Now, 50 years later both of them are falling apart and need to be replaced and there is no mass transit anywhere (Light rail is a very short joke). Seattle is infamous for its “process.” Everyone must be heard and heard and heard, but nothing gets done. Seattle has been arguing over both the viaduct and the bridge for more than 10 years. Finally, last year a “consensus” was arrived at and we decided to build a tunnel to replace the crumbling old elevated eyesore through downtown. It was a struggle but the tunnel won out and it was agreed that the solution would also create a beautiful San Francisco-like waterfront that would attract locals and tourists alike as well as move traffic efficiently. But, now the “process” is grinding us down again and someone has collected the required number of signatures to bring the matter to another vote on the ballot in 2011. For some reason it seems more important to stop doing things in Seattle than to do them.

Why can’t we have a beautiful waterfront, a functional bridge system and, yes, a mass transit system too? If #30 can do it, why can’t #1?

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