Before visiting my brother in Chicago last week, I asked him if I should rent a car to get around his city. He reacted as if I'm some kind...

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Before visiting my brother in Chicago last week, I asked him if I should rent a car to get around his city.


He reacted as if I’m some kind of rube. “You can get a car, but it will sit in front of the house the whole time you’re here. This is a city — don’t you know what that’s like?”


No, I’m from Seattle.


Sure enough, the first things you notice in Chicago are the trains. They’re barreling everywhere, along freeways and the lakeshore, radiating straight out from downtown like spokes in a wagon wheel.


In six days in Chicago, we almost never drove. And we could go most anywhere, without much waiting or hassle.


About 750,000 riders travel daily on two above-ground train systems through greater Chicago. Another million ride buses. The system is subsidized by sales taxes and is industrial and old and kind of noisy.


Yet Chicagoans love it. They build shiny new condos near it. They’re expanding it, at great cost to themselves and the feds.


How, I wondered, did this city do what my city cannot?


The cities have little in common, from geography (we’re hilly, they’re flat) to population (they’re four times as large). But there are a few things we could learn from Chicago:


• They embrace the obvious. If there’s a rail track in a populated area, they run commuter trains on it. They don’t rip it up and install a hiking trail, as is proposed for a 47-mile track along our I-405.


• They keep it simple. Most trains run along freeways and huge arterials, where they disrupt neighborhoods less. People come to the stations, not the stations to the people.


• They’re utilitarian. Some stations are just wooden steps to a roofless deck. There’s no high-speed elevators to glass plazas 10 stories up, as planned by the monorail. Or stations 15 stories down, as Sound Transit is building on Beacon Hill.


• They don’t wring hands if it’s not all seamless. If you have to walk a few blocks to transfer from one rail line to another, well, tough, you walk.


• And Chicago gets the main point of rapid transit: That it be rapid! They don’t put trains on streets or share tunnel rights-of-way with buses, à la Sound Transit. They don’t have five right-angle turns in a half-mile, à la the monorail.


I say kudos to Sound Transit for canceling that 215-foot-deep monster of a station on Seattle’s First Hill. In Chicago they wouldn’t build that dubious $2 billion light-rail tunnel at all — they’d put an elevated train along I-5 and make everyone on First Hill and Capitol Hill walk or bus to it.


I voted for both of Seattle’s trains and still support building both. But both ought to be dramatically simplified.


The famed Chicago planner Daniel Burnham advised to “make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.”


He didn’t say plans had to be fancy or complex. Just big. In mass transit, Chicago-style big means no-frills fast travel covering many miles.


By that standard, our plans are pricey, yet still somehow little. It’s a deadly twining that may result in no plan at all.


Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.