Blog post by Andrew Austin, policy director at Transportation Choices. Spokane is his “city in-law”, and he loves it almost as much as he loves Bellingham, where he grew up, and his home of Tacoma. When he isn’t at work, find him exploring the world by train, bus and bike.

How many times in our great state have you heard that transit is a Puget Sound or Westside only issue. As TCC’s Policy Director, if I had a dollar for every time a legislator told me, “we don’t have traffic like you all do in Seattle, we don’t need transit” or “people in my community don’t ride transit like all those Seattleites”, I would be a very rich man.

Believe it or not, Spokane, Washington in all of its Eastern Washington glory, is a transit city. Spokane, in the spirit of the East Side (that’s the East-East side, not the Bellevue Mall Eastside) is more rugged and  individualistic than the Puget Sound. Culturally it has more in common with Missoula, Billings, and Saskatoon than it does Seattle. Wild West culture and sentiment aside, Spokane is a community steeped in a transit history with a very bright urban future.

No place can become a city that embraces, rides, and celebrates transit without its very own transit heroes. I recently attended Futerwise’s Transit Zine launch party in the city’s hip Browne’s Addition neighborhood. The ever insightful Jarrett Walker headlined the event, but the local hero was Spokane’s own Karl Otterstrom. Karl, who previously worked for King County Metro and is the planning director at Spokane Transit. He is one of the smartest transit planners I have ever met. Under Karl’s (and the CEO Susan Meyer) leadership Spokane Transit has weathered the recession by accomplishing the seemingly impossible, growing transit ridership while trimming overall service hours.

This feat is more than a talking point for politicians who value government efficiency above all . Spokane Transit has made transit more accessible and usable for thousands of riders in financially constrained times through route consolidations, the creation of more high frequency corridors and stop reductions. If you are a wonk and want to learn more on the incredible planning STA has done, read on here and here.

I already knew Karl was a planning guru. What I didn’t fully know is how much of a historian and passionate advocate he is it comes to transit in Spokane. From his own words and research:

This week Spokane remembered the 125th anniversary of the Great Fire which wiped out the Central Business District in one fateful night. The destruction was swift and merciless. Some predicted that this would be the end of Spokane Falls, the original name of the upstart town. But as Jim Kershner pointed out in last Sunday’s Spokesman-Review, it wasn’t very long before people saw this catastrophe as a sublime opportunity. The opportunity to build a city. Not a village, not a town, not a suburb; but a complete city. 

And build they did. By the end of 1889 there were 500 buildings under construction around the city. In a years’ time, the value of property within the city doubled. Those properties were connected by public rights of way, infrastructure and transportation facilities. The tabula rasa that the fire provided, helped usher in new transit technologies. By the end of the year, electric streetcars and cable cars operated in Spokane for the first time ever and transit extended in about every direction.. Between 1890 and 1910, Spokane grew from a population of 19,000 to over 104,000, and transit ridership peaked at nearly 38 million passengers.

Karl’s eloquent talk went on to chronicle the subsequent “fall” of transit that mirrored every major American city between 1950 and 1980. The rise of highways, the bankruptcy of streetcars, and the post World War II car driven Suburbanization of the region. You know that sad American story.

The stupid years aside, Spokane’s growth and history is rooted in transit. But so is its future. Here are a few of my observations from spending some time and riding buses there:

  • For a city of its size, the transit service is really good. Last week, Walker roused the room of 70 to applause when he said he showsSTA’s high frequency service map to audiences all over the world as a model. Thanks to service cuts in the Puget Sound and smart planning, Spokane Transit is the State’s third largest transit agency by ridership with consistent growth since 1998.  *research note, the linked PDF is the most recent statewide chart from 2012 but Pierce Transit’s ridership, which peaked at over 15 million/year has dropped to below 10.5 million in 2013 mostly due to massive service cuts.
  • Transit culture is rising, but hasn’t quite arrived. Much like my home of Tacoma, transit culture and the urban agenda is on the cusp in Spokane. The 70 people who packed the room at the zine release were a cross-section of transit activists, bus riding die-hards, and the politically connected class who intellectually are in our camp. Thanks to a lack of congestion, sprawl, and cheap parking, the average middle income commuter is not thinking about transit as a viable option in their daily lives. But ridership is growing and polling indicates that citizens of Spokane value transit and want more options. Lastly, even if finishing the absurd North-South Freewayis the untouchable holy grail of Spokane transportation projects, the political class in Spokane is on board, with a pro-transit, pro-bike, pro-rational 21st century transportation system. Case and point, State Senator Andy Billig and Councilmen Jon Snyder.
  • Spokane benefits from its “central city” status. Compared to the state’s third largest city, Tacoma which sits in the shadow of Seattle, Spokane shines in its own light. The fact that it is the largest city between Seattle and Minneapolis cements it as a cultural center, perhaps even disproportionately so.
  • Parking is too plentiful and free. The city needs to aggressively rid itself of parking minimums for new development, incentivize the development of surface lots in its downtown, and increase its paid on-street parking program.
  • The recent asinine callby the downtown business community to move the transit plaza outside of downtown is hopefully just a temporary setback. As Jarrett Walker put it, Alaska Airlines could move their hub from Seattle to Wenatchee, and people would still use it, but it wouldn’t make any business sense and it would degrade the customer’s experience. Or at Luke Baumgarten from the Inlander NW points out, Spokanites (is that a word?) should encourage more people to loiter downtown, not less.

Spokane’s transit future is bright. They’re looking to build upon their rich past and preserve and expand their transit, propelling their city into a modern, walkable, inclusive future. Or in the words of Otterstrom:

As a student of Spokane, I have observed that Spokane as a city was defined by the intersection of river and rail. The river provided the power for all sorts of useful industry and the rail brought with it immigrants, commerce and ideas. But I think there is a broader definition of those two elements that exists today and should continue in the future. Spokane is at the intersection. The intersection of a river and place that compels us to act upon principles of ecological stewardship and conservation; and a transportation system and urban form that were designed around supporting a complete city. In another sense, Spokane is also at the crossroads of decisions: “Spokane Must Choose.” Does Spokane intend to be a suburb or a neighborhood or a summer villa for the wealthy? Or will it continue to be a city? If Spokane chooses to be a city it will embrace not only its past but also its future. It will embrace transit as the basis for connecting pedestrian oriented places. It will not only have complete streets but it will be a complete reflection of its people, its place and its most aspiring and inspiring values and visions. This I believe in and commit to. Thank you Spokane!

So next time you are in Spokane, as a visitor or a resident, walking around Browne’s Addition, biking on the centennial trail, or riding the bus from the plaza to your favorite neighborhood pub, just remember that today and into the future, Spokane is a complete transit city.

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