“A subway in Seattle? Surely, you jest!”

“No, I’m not joking, and stop calling me Shirley!”

My apologies to the old “Laugh-In” TV show, but a subway in Seattle is just as ludicrous as the skits in that old show were. 

There is a reason why cities like Los Angeles and San Diego have not invested heavily in subway systems: They are in earthquake country. And so are we.

You likely saw in the July 3 edition of the Queen Anne & Magnolia News that there is an organization that wants to see a subway proposal on the ballot in 2016. I don’t know if they are car-haters or simply living over a radon deposit, but the idea has more leaks in it than the bluffs above the beach in West Seattle.

San Francisco did go underground, but of the more than 100 miles of BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), only about one-fourth of that is underground, and with good reason, given the city’s tectonic history.

Not only is Seattle prone to “the big one” fairly soon, we have the added problems of water from above and below and sliding hillsides. The idea of boring large holes under the hills of Seattle is an engineering nightmare.

I highly recommend that Seattle residents hold off on any commitment of billions of dollars on a subway system until we see how the big dig under Seattle goes in an effort to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. I personally expect that project to be grossly over-budget and behind schedule as crews navigate through the landfill, rock and underground rivers as they worm their way under the city.

Refuting data

I’m not opposed to mass transit, although everything I read indicates that the most successful of mass-transit systems only carry about 20 percent of the commuters; the rest continue to drive their cars. So the idea that somehow a subway, buses, trolley cars or the horribly expensive light rail will rid Seattle of its traffic woes is far-fetched, but, of course, it has the construction industry drooling.

You will find numbers in poorer countries — Russian and China, for instance — where many people can’t afford a car; these countries are in the 40- to 50-percent ridership range, but it drops rapidly after that. Japan, with perhaps the most highly developed and sophisticated system in the world has only 19 percent riding daily, and another 17 percent at least once a week.

People don’t want to give up the independence and flexibility that a car provides. Mass transit typically takes you from point A to point B; you can’t suddenly decide to change directions. Who wants to dress up and hop on a bus or subway to go to dinner and the theater, especially if they are some distance apart?

There are a few — fortunately, very few — who advocate for punishing drivers financially to force them from their cars to mass transit. Have we learned nothing about the American psyche? We know how well Prohibition worked and other draconian laws that people simply thumbed their noses at. If it’s even possible, mass transit will need to try very hard to mimic the privacy and flexibility that comes with owning an automobile.

Another specious argument presented to the public is that we are ruining the environment by driving alone in our cars and that mass transit is good for the environment. That argument usually assumes we are driving alone, but statistics indicate that the average is almost two people per car.

More interesting still is data from the Department of Energy’s “Transportation Energy Data Book,” which indicates the automobile Btu per passenger mile in 2010 was 3,447, while the bus Btu per passenger mile was 4,118, so it would seem the mass-transit advocates are playing fast and loose with the facts. Simply put, a bus that has a capacity of 40 people or more but is carrying an average of 10 (national average) is less efficient than the family car. 

A better solution?

Looking at Seattle, we have three options for mass transit: underground, which seems to me to be lunacy; on the ground, which only adds to an already-congested commute; and above-ground with structures designed to withstand earthquakes and that do not impede automobile traffic.

We blew it when we killed the monorail. Admittedly, the committee responsible for the funding plan blew it, but then they had few options since the government at every level — city, county, state and federal — turned their backs on the project, refusing to provide monies.

Understand that, unless forced to do so, Sound Transit, Washington State Department of Transportation and King County Metro aren’t about to share their money pie with some upstart, new transit project, and a subway will suffer the same fate.

We need a comprehensive transit plan that includes a flexible and rapid mass-transit system, while also recognizing that 80 percent of the people will still drive their cars. Our leaders need to stop fighting cars and the public, and develop a true plan that serves all the citizens of our city and surrounding cities.

When will our cities join with the automobile industry and those with expertise in mass transit to find a better solution?

To comment on this guest column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.