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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sue Lani Madsen: Taking transportation back to the future

Sue Lani Madsen (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The Horizon 2040 Spokane Metropolitan Transportation Plan identifies Spokane County’s transportation challenges for the next 22 years. Cataloging infrastructure maintenance is easy compared to forecasting changing technology, unpredictable human behavior and fighting the urge to read personal preferences into the tea leaves.

Predicting the future accurately is impossible. Government planning is doomed to fail, according to Randal O’Toole, author of “The Best-Laid Plans.” He points to comprehensive plans “obsolete before they were published because political, social, and scientific realities changed faster than the planners could write.”

Still we try. Bureaucracies require it.

Even for cynics, the planning process can be a useful exercise if it drives a community conversation. Every public comment is cataloged and gets a reply. Unfortunately, only a handful of people responded, according to Staci Lehman, communications coordinator for the Spokane Regional Transportation Council.

And when she said handful, she meant literally five. Five out of a population of 499,072 after presentations to 19 boards and clubs, booths at eight community events, flyers in English and Spanish, and at least eight pieces of earned media coverage. A response rate of 0.001 percent.

Commenters submitted more than one comment apiece, most focused on current issues. One questioned the lack of bus service to Five Mile. Three comments raised concerns about plans to reduce lanes on Monroe Street. Five identified specific safety issues. All valid concerns, but not part of long-range planning.

One asked for more planning coordination with Kootenai County. According to the Horizon 2040 plan, 23 percent of Spokane County workers commute from outside, coming from every adjacent county (Pend Oreille, Stevens, Lincoln and Whitman) as well as across state lines.

And this is where comprehensive planning crashes into arbitrary boundaries and individual freedom to choose. The Horizon 2040 plan acknowledges the challenge of planning across jurisdictions, yet remains limited to Spokane County. Current planning orthodoxy assumes people will increasingly choose to live in urban areas and reduce work commutes.

But will they? A survey underway of the 3,051 Lincoln County residents with cross county line commutes is leaning toward “I make more money elsewhere but it’s worth it to live in Lincoln County.”

Then there’s disruptive technological change. Automobiles displaced real horsepower, then replaced railroads with pavement. Autonomous vehicles may be equally disruptive.

Eve Nelson, Senior Planner for the SRTC, acknowledged the unknowns. Self-driving cars could actually increase vehicle miles traveled per capita. “If people no longer have to do the driving, will they choose to commute farther?”

With self-driving technology, theoretically the capacity of each roadway would increase as minimum safe following distance decreases. But that vision requires all vehicles to be converted, a question of affordability, acceptability and time.

Technology timelines are difficult to project. Nelson pointed out it took 50 years for washing machines to be universally adopted but only nine years for cellphones. Transportation is far more complex.

Demand for parking lots could increase, equipped with ubiquitous charging stations and displacing the corner convenience store/gas station. Or drop-off zones could replace parking lots at workplaces, with autonomous cars returning home to recharge but driving two round trips daily instead of one. Or autonomous vans conveniently linking mass transit to individual destinations might effectively compete with the freedom of private vehicles, expanding the area served outside the city core.

Horizon 2040 describes a vision of a city that “lies on both sides of the Spokane River, in the center of a district of great agricultural richness” with spectacular falls which furnish renewable “waterpower for numerous manufactories, for the electric lighting of the town, and for its system of cable and electric tramways” and where a network of long-distance mass transportation routes diverge.

Except that description of Spokane isn’t from a 2017 government plan. It’s straight out of the 1893 Baedeker’s travel guide to the United States. Cable and electric trams along with the railroads supported the first wave of suburbanization. People will choose to live where they want to live, work where they have to work, and use whatever transportation is available to make it so.

The last transportation disruption replaced cable and electric trams with cars, but it didn’t change the desire for choices. Some patterns from the past will hold.

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