I grew up about a half-mile from Cynwyd Station, and as kids, my friends and I found the train to center city Philadelphia much more convenient than relying on our parents to cart us around to movie theaters, sporting good stores, and other attractions. But it wasn’t just those of us with youthful vigor who frequently hoofed our way to the rail stop, for every morning as I prepared to walk to school, I’d see a stream of business suit clad men lugging their briefcases down the street in the other direction, some of whom routinely walked to the station from more than a mile away.
These weren’t granola crunching tree-hugging hippies. These were doctors, lawyers, businessmen and other professionals who, weather and circumstances permitting, left their cars at home in the driveway most days, not because it was the right thing to do, or the less expensive thing to do, but because it was the obvious and natural thing to do. Why battle traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway each morning when the train was a 10 minute walk away?
The commuter suburb of my youth grew up around the station, not by accident, but by design. Built in 1886, this short spur of the Pennsylvania Railroad was as much a real estate development project as it was a transit line, and that rail-centric ethos survived at least a century, before SEPTA budget woes resulted in drastically reduced schedules. The point is, people didn’t take the train because they had to, but because they wanted to, and with parking always limited at the station, many were happy to walk a mile or more for the convenience.
So when I continue to read news reports about complaints over the lack of free parking around most stations on Seattle’s soon to be opened Link Light Rail, I can’t help but shrug my shoulders. Build it, and they will walk. And if the folks who live there now aren’t willing to hoof it, over time these neighborhoods will attract new residents who will.
Which gets me thinking about my own relationship to the Seattle light rail system I’ve so passionately advocated, and how far I’m willing to walk to use it. I’ve half-jokingly complained for years about the elimination of the Graham Street station from the final plan, which would have been a mere 10-15 minute walk from house, quite possibly close enough to bump up my property value. I’ve also wistfully talked about moving into Columbia City to be walking distance both to its business district and its light rail station. But I’d never actually measured the distances myself.
As it turns out, the little map app on my iPhone says that Othello station is about a mile away, only a quarter mile further by foot than the corner of MLK Jr. & Graham, so my dog and I decided to walk it today for ourselves. At a comfortably brisk pace we clocked 18-minutes there, and 20-minutes back (climbing the hill from Rainier Ave. on the way home), and we could probably have made it a little faster but for the need to obsessively mark the path with urine, and briefly stop to pick thistle from our paws.
So, will I walk to light rail?
Well, at least for the moment, I don’t commute, so it’s kinda a moot point in the context of this discussion, but if I were a commuter, and the rail line took me reasonably close to my workplace, yeah, I’d be willing to walk a mile in each direction, weather and circumstances permitting. If it was really hot or really cold or raining very hard, I don’t know that I’d be up for that hike, and if my afterwork plans took me inconveniently off-route, I’d probably take my car. But some days—perhaps most days—I find it a reasonable distance to walk.
Of course, if my circumstances were different, a daily walk to and from the train station would be more of a no-brainer. Before our divorce, we were a one-car family, and the opportunity to save the expense of buying and insuring a second car (let alone fueling and parking it) would make a walk+rail commute all the more attractive. But as a single father, going carless in Seattle isn’t as much of an option, and thus the cost savings of commuting by rail aren’t nearly as great.
As for my recreational use of light rail, the 2-hour parking restriction presents much less of a problem, as it’s only enforced 7AM to 6PM, Mondays through Friday, leaving the spots open nights and weekends for casual hide & riders like me. Meeting folks for drinks or dinner downtown? You can freely park your car near the station starting at 4PM, and make it downtown in plenty of time for happy hour. As a moderate drinker (even when Drinking Liberally), I’d likely choose that option over hiking it home late at night.
Opponents of light rail have long criticized it as social engineering, and to some extent they’re right. Like the commuter lines of the old Pennsylvania Railroad, the South Seattle segment is proving as much a real estate development project as it is a transit line, as evidenced by the massive residential redevelopment going on along MLK Jr. Way. Mixed income houses, townhouses, apartments and condos are being built for folks who want the convenience and economy of living a reasonable walking distance to a light rail station, and as these developments expand further out from the stations, so will the notion of what a reasonable walking distance is.
If anything, these quarter-mile restricted parking zones are too small, and neighborhoods will likely clamor for their extension when hide & riders cluster along the border. And after a while, the notion of healthily walking a couple miles a day to and from work, rather than driving to and from the fitness club for your daily workout, will become as commonplace around here as it was in the commuter-rail suburb of my youth.
And the best thing is, if you don’t want to be part of this new, socially engineered, walk & ride culture, there will always be plenty of Seattle neighborhoods without it.