Traffic is now going critical, changing the way we live, wasting a tremendous amount of time and fuel, and will soon cause Seattle's decline as a viable place to work and live. As someone concerned about global warming, reducing the fuel-wasting traffic is an issue I care about.
Some of these problems are due to the growth of Seattle and our geographic restraints, with the city surrounded by water on two sides. But a significant part of our traffic woes are unnecessary, the result of misguided and problematic decisions over the years.
This blog will examine some of the problems and what might be done to address the growing grid-lock of the city and region.
The Current Situation
One can get a good idea of the situation by using the historical traffic maps available on the google maps website. Below are the average traffic summaries for 8:25 AM (left) and 5:30 PM (right) for Wednesdays. Green is free flowing, while reds indicate serious traffic. For both commute times, the main freeways (I5, 520, I90) are heavily congested (red) and most of the major arteries in the city are slow (orange). You can click on the images to make them larger. Of course, this is the average traffic; when there are accidents and construction, the situation can get much worse. And because
most of the arterials are already slow, the system is not robust or resilient, i.e., there is little spare capacity on arterials to pick up the slack when a major road is clogged by an accident or construction.
1. Road Diets
During the past decade, the city has drastically reduced the traffic capacity of major roads throughout the city, such as Rainier Avenue, Nickerson St, and NE 125th. Such "dieting" often took four lane roads, with two lanes in each direction, and altered them with one lane in each direction with a turning line between them. The city did this to slow down car speeds, reduce accidents, and to create bike lanes on the sides.
There is no doubt that road diets cut down on accidents, by slowing traffic and reducing opportunities for lane-change accidents, but they reduce the maximum throughput of a road and force all traffic to move at the speed of the slowest vehicle. A good example of the bad effects of road diets is NE 125th. Before the lane reduction, it was one of the fastest ways to move east-west across north Seattle, but after the diet, the traffic often gets very slow during commute time (I have experienced this personally). Google maps at 5:05 PM on an average Thursday shows the congestion clearly, with slow traffic from Lake City Way to Roosevelt Way, where the diet ends. Bad diet.
I could go through the other Seattle road diets with you using google maps, but the conclusions are the same: dieting has promoted congestion and substantially reduces maximum throughput of the road. Just as small blood vessels can assistant blood flow when major arteries feeding the heart are clogged, preventing a heart attack, road arterials with excess capacity stand ready to take over some of the traffic load when major roadways (like I5) get clogged. And Seattle is deliberately reducing this valuable resilience. A big mistake.
Worse than that, some in Seattle want to do more of it. One road that is still often running realitively freely is Sand Point Way NE (see google maps above), a road providing a fast route from NE Seattle to the UW, Children's Hospital, Magnuson Park, and the city. There is now a proposal to put Sand Point Way NE on a diet, described here. If you don't like the idea, you might email the Mayor or the director of the transportation operation division, Mark Bandy (Mark.Bandy@seattle.gov) . I have emailed Mr. Bandy and he seems interested in feedback.
So recommendation number one is to reverse the road diets and stop doing more.
2. Poor Road Conditions
Many of the roads in Seattle are in very bad shape, causing cars to slow down and tires to fail. Bad roads discourage bicycle commuting and are extraordinary dangerous for those cycling for commuting or recreation. I did a blog on potholes...they are everywhere. Seattle can find millions for silly bike rentals, ineffective streetcars, and other frills, but can't keep its roads in decent shape.
|Seattle Pothole Map|
A Washington D.C. research firm, TRIP, found that 45% of Seattle's roads were in poor condition and our roads were the 12th worst in the entire nation. It might be nice if Seattle Council members paid more attention to the traffic-producing bad roads than kayaking out to oil platforms destined for Alaska.
|A major intersection near Northlake and Boat Street has remained in axle-breaking condition for years|
3. Too Many Openings of the City's Bridges
Seattle has a number of bridges that are opened for boat traffic. But when the bridges open they can (and do) cause massive traffic jams, delaying hundreds of cars and buses and sometimes thousands of people. The bridges do not open during central commute time (7-9 AM, 4-6 PM) but Seattle commute time extends way beyond that in Seattle (more like 3-7 PM) and traffic is heavy outside of the commute period as well. These bridges open a lot--5500 times in 2016 for the Fremont Bridge, for example. Often a bridge opens for a single sailboat. Does it seem reasonable to mess up traffic for 15 minutes or more and inconvenience hundreds of people (or more) for the sake of pleasure sailing? I don't think so. For the University Bridge, the traffic sometimes extends 1/2 mile north to University Village.
Non-commercial traffic should not be able demand bridge openings at any time. Perhaps there can be three openings between 6 AM and 9 PM each day (say at 9:30AM, 1:30 PM, and 7 PM). The Coast Guard controls the waterways, so the City needs permission for such restrictive openings. If the Coast Guard is not reasonable, the City should ask for the help of our representatives in Congress.
Seattle and the Puget Sound region desperately needs rail service to move folks efficiently around the urban corridor. In addition to the slowly growing light rail system, there are the Sounder trains that run on commercial rail tracks.
These trains only run during commute times and there are no weekend trains. There are a relatively limited number of departures. But a real issue is that mudslides often cause several-day train cancellations between Edmonds and Everett. This problem has been going on for years, with the problem limited to a mile or so stretch with bluffs near the train track. You would think that in this modern age we could figure something out--stabilize the slopes or move the track towards the Sound. With infrequent departures, lack of reliability, and perhaps lack of organization/PR, the Sounder trains are often half full or less. Something is wrong.
4. Increasing Accidents from Connected Drivers
Traffic accidents are increasing nationwide and our area is not immune from this trend. One accident on I5 can inconvenience and delays thousands or tens of thousands of people. There have been a number of studies suggesting that drivers playing around with smartphones and other electronics is a major contributor to the recent uptick in accidents. How many times do you see folks texting or dialing phones while they are driving? I do all the time. How often do YOU do it?
Seattle and the State of Washington needs laws that will make texting or dialing a phone or putting in navigation information, either directly on a phone or through the car's electronics, illegal while the car is in motion or waiting for a light, with a very substantial penalty. Could drivers be required to provide their phone for inspection after any serious accident? Laws to restrict electronics use while a car is in motion would save lives and clearly help the traffic situation.
5. Fix the Sound Transit Light Rail Achilles Heel
There have been many stories in the media about the surge of ridership on the Sound Transit light rail system and the complaints that it is being built at a glacial pace. But there is something that has not been talked about much, the achilles heel of the system...the street grade part between Seattle and the airport. It takes forever to travel that segment and sometimes the trains get into accidents with cars. Some folks refrain from using it because of this slow segment (driving takes half the time or less)
So why not fix this problem? Run a fast spur line from downtown to the airport using the I5 right-of-way? (see illustration, the red line is the addition) The cost should be modest and it would substantially shorten the trip for those coming from the airport and south Sound.
A major mistake for Sound Transit's light rail is the lack of parking at the stations. Folks need a place to park if they are going to use the train (many either don't want to use the bus or don't have a convenient feeder bus route). There IS one station with lots of parking: the UW Stadium station. I was shocked that light rail parking wasn't planned for that location--in fact, there isn't even a place to drop folks off or wait to pick them up. A major deficiency. But it is not too late--the UW has a huge lot, much of it empty, and an entrance could be created from the NE (by the driving range). One can park at the huge UW lot for $6.00, but a lot of folks don't know that.
The University Station is not car friendly.....a mistake.
6. Dangerous conditions on bicycle commuting routes
I commute by bicycle. While there is a lot of talk about the importance of bicycle commuting, major routes such as the Burke Gilman trail are not properly maintained, with root heaves, holes, cracking asphalt and other threats. There is no safe, totally protected route into the city from the north. The only safe way to commute is to be totally separate from cars, not the side lanes of the "road diet" streets.
There are a number of other problems I could talk about, such as continuing lack of bus service, but the above represents a start. Let me end by noting that some out-of-the-box vision and leadership is needed for Puget Sound area transportation. Here are two ideas:
1. Seattle is surrounded by water and commuter ferries...a modern version of the old mosquito fleet... could have a major positive impact. Impact a boat that went from Lake Union to Ballard to the UW, the Magnuson Park (lots of parking there) to Kirkland, then Madison Park, and the back to Lake Union? It would be heavily used. Other boats could go to Edmonds and Everett, or down the Sound towards Federal Way and Tacoma. Another could go from Lake Union to Bellevue and Renton. San Francisco has the Sausilto Ferry--we could do much better than that!
2. Big buses going down major arterials are ok for a start, but you need go the last mile between home/office. Why not use small vehicles (even cars) to pick up real-time, on-demand car pools or ride sharing? Uber and Lyft are already experimenting with ride sharing in some cities. So if it is 9:30 AM and you want to ride to the University light rail station, just use your smartphone app and you could choose between your own ride or ride share. Perhaps Metro could pick up your first 5 rides a month.
3. The city and the region needs to be much more aggressive with adaptive signal timing, which controls light change frequency and duration based on actual traffic conditions. This "big data" approach to traffic management has proven to be very effective when tried elsewhere. First place to try this should be the "Mercer Mess", in which the traffic has gotten worse with the large number of lights, many of which are poorly timed. There was some talk of doing this, but haven't heard much about it lately.
The bottom line is that increasing traffic and congestion is not written in stone. There are a lot of inefficiencies in the current approach and a lot of creative ideas that should be considered.
Help Determine Local Impacts of Climate Change
Society needs to know the regional impacts of climate change and a group at the UW is trying to provide this information with state-of-the-art high resolution climate modeling. With Federal funding collapsing, we are experimenting with a community funding approach. If you want more information or are interested in helping, please go here. The full link is: https://uw.useed.net/projects/822/home