This week we learned that the Alaskan Way Viaduct will close permanently on January 11 of next year, with a three-week gap between the closing of one highway and the opening of another, the long-delayed deep bore tunnel connecting SoDo and South Lake Union. We’ve known this has been coming for a very long time, and the anticipated increase in congestion as 90,000 daily trips that currently utilize the freeway blocking our city from its waterfront find another route or mode.

The viaduct coming down was one of the main impetuses for the One Center City planning process, a meeting of the minds at the regional transit agencies. The outcome of that process was mainly the status quo, and so as we hurtle toward what is anticipated to be a major weeks-long traffic jam, it’s worth noting what tools the city is utilizing to prepare for this event.

The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) posted an update to its blog after the announcement of the viaduct closure this week: “Here’s what we’re doing to help you get around downtown.” In it, the department lays out its five strategies for getting people around the center city:

  1. Transportation system monitoring and real-time management.
  2. Investments in transit.
  3. Reducing drive-alone trips downtown.
  4. Managing construction projects in the public right-of-way.
  5. Working with commuters, employers, visitors, and Seattleites on their commute.

But it’s clear that pretty much the only tool in the toolbox at SDOT under Mayor Jenny Durkan is trying to move more vehicles, mostly with one or two people in them, though our limited downtown streets at the expense of those who chose alternate options.

The post does not mention any additional resources for people who might want to switch to walking or biking. A proposed bike lane on 4th Avenue was cancelled early in the Durkan administration for this exact event: the potential to carry more cars on that street apparently outweighed the number of people that could be carried by a bike lane there. No bicycle facilities will be planned to help get people through downtown for this extreme traffic event.

As for the first item on the list, “transportation system monitoring and real-time management,” it’s not hard to find an example of what that looks like in practice. For the most part, it is a prioritization of cars above other modes, namely people on foot. The Mercer corridor currently gets a high level of scrutiny from the municipal tower traffic center, to the detriment of people just trying to walk there. Having a 24/7 operations center constantly finding ways to get cars through as many intersections as possible is a fool’s errand.  And once again, the focus here is on what can be done to move more cars, as opposed to what can be done to move more people.

Seattle’s bus system is due for a big impact with the closure of the Alaskan Way viaduct, to be sure. SDOT touts added trips coming in September as a result of transportation benefit district funds, but added trips won’t do much good if they are stuck in traffic, and a lack of dedicated right-of-way for most bus routes means fewer trips than we could be providing as service hours sit in stop-and-go. 

The RapidRide C, once it shifts to surface streets from the Alaskan Way viaduct, will have an extra 10 minutes added to its scheduled time between downtown and West Seattle, increasing from 25 minutes to 35 between 3rd & Pike and Alaska Junction. Increasing that time even further due to congestion will make that trip noncompetitive with driving, increasing the cycle of congestion. SDOT has added a bus lane to 4th Avenue S in SoDo that doubles as a turn lane, but routes elsewhere lack even this.

The 3rd Avenue bus corridor, now that it is transit-only all day, should be a safe haven from congestion delay, but SDOT does not mention enforcement on the busiest bus mall in the country. Instead, they state that SPD officers will be on hand to, you guessed it, help drivers: “We’re coordinating with the Seattle Police Department to deploy uniformed police officers at key transit intersections–prioritizing transit and helping drivers get through.” Prioritizing transit in a general purpose lane, of course, means prioritizing all traffic.

SDOT also says they intend to restrict construction closures of certain streets in the downtown core during the three-week SR-99 closure in order to maintain car lane capacity. Imagine if the same policies were in place around sidewalk closures in downtown, including developments like the Rainier Tower project that removed a sidewalk in the middle of downtown on both 4th and 5th Avenue, forcing pedestrian traffic to the other side of the street.

With no added emergency bus lanes, and no additional places for people to safely bike, and even no guarantee of safe walking infrastructure, the period of “maximum constraint” remains a missed opportunity to chose not to attempt to cram as many vehicles onto Seattle’s downtown streets during the middle of a climate crisis. It remains to be seen exactly how effective the city’s strategies for dealing with this challenge will be, but whether they luck out or don’t, we won’t be any closer to realizing the city that we wish we inhabited.

One Center City Is Now Imagine Downtown

8 COMMENTS

  1. A little anecdote: at 830 it typically takes me 40 min to ride the 8 from Madrona to the Pacific Science Center, door to door that makes my trip 50 min. When you add in my commute home my round trip time is about 90 min and costs $5.50. Driving takes me 20 min in the morning and going from “door to door” turns out to be about 25 min. Driving round trip is about 55 min and costs me $9 ($8 parking, $1 gas). Biking takes me 30 min door to door but then it takes me another 10 min to rinse off/change so my overall morning commute is 40 min. Round trip my commute is 75 min and is free. So let me ask you this, given the three choices below, which would mode would you use:

    a) The bus, where your round trip commute time is 90 min and costs $5.50

    b) Driving, where your round trip is a 55 min commute and costs $9

    c) Biking, where your round trip is 75 min and free.

    Ryan, hopefully above illustrates why many of us still choose to drive our car even when we have three options available to us. Outside of saving me 20-35 min on my daily commute, driving also offers me much more flexibility after work to run errands or meet with friends/family. Also as the weather here begins to turn from our gorgeous summer days to these rainy, dark, dreary ones, the choice to bike my commute becomes much less attractive.

    • I don’t think the point of this article is to convince you or anyone else not to drive. I think part of the point of Ryan’s article is that people like you, who are choosing to drive, are clogging up the streets for other people who are choosing to take other modes of transport.

      If driving infrastructure were pared down and ROW reconfigured to equitably benefit all users (wider sidewalks, queue jumps, bus lanes, PBLs), I bet it would take you less than your 55 minute “drive time” to take the bus; and similar with adequate cycling routes.

      The goal of a lot of “urbanists” is not to **make** everyone ride a bike or walk or bus. It’s to make ROW facilities more equitable for all users and move away from the car-orientation that only benefits the “less than 30%” of center-city commuters who get to work by SOV [source: Commute Seattle].

      It is truly and literally unjust to watch packed busses, filled with 50+ people languish in traffic behind a line of 20 SOV cars that are blocking the throughway.

    • Not to nitpick, but I’d point out that the $5.50 is not necessarily accurate if you have a monthly pass, which would dramatically reduce the effective per trip cost if used each or most workdays. Use of the pass for other events would dramatically lower that per trip cost even further and passes can often qualify for income tax reductions. When I paid for a regular adult pass, the effective cost was closer to $1 per trip.

      With that said, you’re projecting your personal values here (and no judgement on that, you can set your values any way you want). Many people, however, would see the same situation you laid out and come to a very different conclusion on how they choose to get around. A very wealthy person might skip all of the above scenarios and choose to use ride-hailing services. I’d still take the bus over driving in the same scenario and most of it has nothing to do with dollars and cents.

      But as Owen noted below, Ryan’s focus here is not on the fact that people choose to drive. It’s that the city is doing nothing to actually facilitate people to take transit, walk, or bike–and in some cases is literally taking those options away intentionally and without merit. For people already driving, that means that their commutes will worsen even further by inaction in those areas while ironically “prioritizing” people driving to their own detriment. We’re all in this together and the city has walked away from keeping the city moving.

    • Two additional things to note:

      1) Many people (maybe not you, but many) have employer-subsidized or “free” Orca cards. This makes their commute $0.00, so then the scale is do I pay “$9.00” to drive or pay $0.00 to take the bus.

      2). Your $9 driving estimate does not include many factors. How much did it cost to buy and maintain your car? Tabs? Parking at home? Etc. The math is more like this: commuting 5 times per week, or 240 times per year. You buy a $25,000 car, good for 10 years. That’s $10 per commute. Then there are tabs, $500+ per year, that’s $2 per commute. Then if you are a driver, you must have purchased a home with parking, rather than a home with no parking. How much did that cost? $100,000 is about average for a fully-built parking space. Over 25 years that’s $17 per commute. So, really the cost to “drive to work” is $8 for parking + $1 for gas + $10 to buy the car + $17 to store your car + $2 to license your car, or $38 per commute.

      Sidenote. Yes you pay $38 per commute and also get your car for everything else like shopping and day trips, etc. Still also not saying car ownership and use is bad. But it isn’t something everyone can or should afford. And relegating those of us who can’t pay $38 per commute to a slogging bus ride is not the form of social equity that many of us would like to see in our city.

      • A few things:
        1) I don’t get employer subsidized transit so unfortunately my bus commute is $5.50, not free

        2) There’s ample street parking in front of my house so you can scratch that $100k cost right off your list

        3) I use my car for much much more than just commuting to work…. adding up how much I spend on a car – the car itself, gas, insurance, tabs, maintenance – then divide it by the number of miles I drive, I end up spending around $0.33 a mile. This makes it an attractive alternative for running errands, going to the gym, visiting friends/family, and yes, commuting. I’d personally prefer to take the bus to work however, I’m not willing to sacrifice an additional 2.5 hrs of my life a week in commute time when there are better options for me out there.

    • Brian, I think you lay it out pretty well. Your 90 minute bus commute home is due to the decision to prioritize queuing I-5 traffic over the heavily, heavily utilized 8 bus. Sure, we have installed a new bus lane but it’s a far cry from what it will take to truly prioritize that route, just one of the many we’re talking about here.

      If the “period of maximum constraint” does that for every bus, and there are not emergency measures to prioritize the modes that are truly moving the most people for the amount of space they take up, we will be in a truly bad place.

      Thanks for sharing your story!

    • If I were making this trip every day, I would lean towards doing it on an e-bike, which provides all the benefits of biking, without the drawbacks. Madrona to Pacific Science Center is quite hilly, and I would expect the electric assist to easily save about 10 minutes each way, plus eliminate the sweating-induced rinse/change overhead, making the bike option basically as fast a driving, but with greater reliability, since you won’t get stuck in traffic.

      I commute on an e-bike, and it’s about 40 minutes each way from the UW all the way to Kirkland. And it’s the same 40 minutes every day, regardless of traffic, headwinds, or how tired I am. Door-to-door, this roughly comparable to the 255 or 540 bus on a good day, in spite of the bus being a freeway express that runs much, much faster than 8.

      Of course, if the bike you already own is a pedal bike, switch to an e-bike won’t be free. But, the $9/day saved in parking costs alone would pay for an entire $1,800 e-bike after just one year of everyday commuting, not even including the gas/wear/tear.

      If you just want to try out the e-bike experience without making a huge financial commitment, I’d suggest doing the commute on a Lime Bike once or twice, and seeing how it goes. A round trip on Lime-E would cost basically the same as the gas+parking you’d be paying anyway to drive. If you like it, switch to buying your own e-bike – you’ll save money in the long run, and end up with a better bike.

      Agree that the #8 bus is a joke.

      • Thanks for the tip! I’ll definitely give ebikes a shot, could solve a lot of the gripes I have with my biking commute.

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