Removing the West Seattle Bridge and not replacing the lost car capacity is the most responsible move for the climate and being prudent with resources. Transit should be our priority.

The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has said that the cracked bridge won’t be able to reopen until at least 2022. Expensive repairs would need to be done before traffic can be restored to the structure, and SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe has warned that those repairs could only buy the bridge 10 more years of life. The repaired bridge might even not be able to handle trucks or buses nor support its prior traffic capacity. 

We’re left in an awkward situation where a key transportation corridor has simply vanished. The drivers of some 100,642 vehicles who used to cross the bridge each day must fundamentally change how they get around for the long-term. This unprecedented change is far from ideal; vital connections will be slashed and the urban fabric of the peninsula will be greatly altered. 

“Everything has to be on the table,” said Councilmember Lisa Herbold, referring to the myriad of new ideas for West Seattle transit. Mayor Jenny Durkan has suggested creating new bus routes that connect with light rail and Herbold is proposing a citywide ballot measure to better fund buses.

Before pandemic cuts, King County Metro Routes 21 and 120 (future H Line) and RapidRide C Line buses already saw three- to five-minute intervals at rush hour, but they’re great candidates for even more frequency. We’ll beef up the King County Water Taxi and its free shuttles routes (Routes 773 and 775), too, knowing that it doubled its ridership during the viaduct closure. Commuters living in the northerly areas of West Seattle might prefer taking the Water Taxi while those living farther south would be better served by buses.

We might even kick things up a notch by interlining some buses with others heading towards Bellevue and Everett to better serve reverse commuters who normally drive over the bridge.

To handle increased bus service, our roads need to stay clear; we’ll keep the Spokane Street “low bridge” restricted to buses, trucks, and emergency vehicles.

From an urbanist’s perspective, this beefed-up mode share for transit is great. The West Seattle Bridge closure could give tens of thousands commuters that extra “push” to ditch their cars or decide not to buy them. The benefits are huge: less traffic, less pollution, greater equity…you know the spiel.

But there’s a caveat: of the many sources I’ve checked, including SDOT itself, all support replacing the bridge with a similar structure.

Imagine: a transit-oriented West Seattle, record-breaking bus ridership, actually meeting our climate goals…for two years. After that, the clock rewinds and we’re back to the car-oriented present.

I digress. 

But if we do choose to reopen the seven lanes of West Seattle Bridge, it will almost certainly cannibalize transit ridership. History has proven time and time again that adding new road capacity doesn’t reduce traffic or reduce commute times; replacing the West Seattle Bridge is simply a disaster waiting to happen.

So let’s preserve that new, transit-oriented West Seattle, along with its greater walkability, transit priority, and cleaner air, by demolishing the bridge and not replacing it.

Sure, removing the West Seattle Bridge is a peculiar instance of freeway removal, as we aren’t exactly replacing it with a new boulevard as is normally done. But we can think of our boulevard to be buses and light rail; they can handle the traffic boulevards usually do elsewhere. The Spokane Street bridges and other existing infrastructure fortunately allow for bus service to continue with minimal impact.

Not repairing or replacing immediately saves us money. Installing bracing on the existing bridge just to keep it from collapsing is looking to cost $33 million; the price to make the bridge traffic-worthy will certainly be many multiples of that. A replacement bridge would then cost our post-I-976 and coronavirus-ridden economy hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, more. Our money could be better invested into buses and light rail. Tearing down the bridge also opens up clean right-of-way for light rail to cross the Duwamish River.

Most importantly, a replacement bridge will likely be completely unnecessary. Studies suggest that temporary changes in travel patterns resulting from extraordinary events (bridge closure in our case) promote permanent shifts in travel patterns. 

The Duwamish River separates West Seattle from the rest of Seattle. (Photo by Alex Rosas via Unsplash)

A great example of this is in Santa Cruz County, California where carpooling was mandated following the Loma Prieta Earthquake. The Tsuchida and Wilshusen study surveyed commuters and found that 57% of respondents continued carpooling even after the mandate was lifted. Similarly, when public transport was temporarily prioritized in Sydney and Athens during their Olympic Games, ridership increased and stayed high even after the events and transit priority ended.

The key takeaway, then, is that while the current West Seattle Bridge is closed for repairs, commuters will have to use buses, bike, and telework rather than commute by car. These changes of habit then become permanent, which in turn eliminates the need for a replacement bridge. Furthermore, while the above examples lasted for a few months at most, our situation will last for at least two years, giving people even more time to settle into their new commuting habits.

Thus, we shouldn’t think of not replacing the West Seattle Bridge as a freeway removal project–that part’s already happened with the bridge’s two-year closure. Instead, we should be thinking of repairing and replacing it to be a freeway construction project. And more freeways amidst a climate crisis hardly seems like a good idea. 

Transportation was our state’s heaviest-polluting sector in 2017 at 43.5 million metric tons of emissions, with gasoline engines being the top source. A 2007 executive order from Governor Christine Gregoire requires Washington to reduce statewide emissions of greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020, 25% below 1990 levels by 2035, and 50% below 1990 levels by 2050.

But we’re still failing miserably. We haven’t made the 2020 target and emissions have risen by 6% since 2012. Although emissions have grown less quickly than our population and economy, these factors do nothing to remediate the environment. We need a plan to drastically reduce emissions–something Governor Jay Inslee has said we don’t have.

But removing the West Seattle Bridge could help get us back on course. 

So let’s not build another freeway. It will only turn the clock backwards. The West Seattle Bridge is our wake up call. It’s time to move on from the car-centric infrastructure of today and begin building the transit-rich city of tomorrow.

The featured image is courtesy of the City of Seattle.

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47 COMMENTS

  1. A lot of assumptions by (and about) this young writer. Assuming he is intelligent just because the idea is different….radically different, is not a path that should be entertained. It’s a dangerous precedent and is not held to the same standards many other civic leaders and contributors are when they diverge. In my opinion, the urbanist published the piece to get a reaction from the public. It’s done it’s job. Albeit, without much common sense. West Seattle is a peninsula but may as well be an island as the other avenues out of it, for the majority of residents, is not built to support the extra load. With road diets and the war on cars having brain washed kids like this into believing a family with kids could run their lives on public transit, it has become a farce beyond reckoning. The extra hours needed to plan a day, get kids from one event to another and take care of life is not realistic. Then you throw In cutting off a lifeline to the city for 1/5th of the population and it now has become criminal negligence.the first heart attack victim that dies because they didn’t make it to hospital in time due to the lower bridge being open, will start a chain reaction of lawsuits that will break Seattle long before the cost of a bridge would when it is proven that if the bridge had been replaced, they would have lived. Again, pie in the sky feel good does not weigh against real facts of needed infrastructure. My final argument will be this. Property values. See what happens when the city says “no replacement bridge” and makes it final. Property values will tank. Especially with no hospital in west Seattle, etc, tax revenues will go down like a rock and Seattle will lose much more than 3-400 million in revenue.

    • Hello lifelong West Seattleite. Sorry to disappoint you but this isn’t some “War on Cars” conspiracy to rile you up. We published Hyra’s piece because they presented an interesting case–one we’ve made for other urban highways across the city. Before we spend hundreds of millions pouring money into a crumbling piece of infrastructure, it’s fair to ask the foundational question and think about long-term plans and visions. To the best of my knowledge, Hyra got the facts right even if their interpretation about where they should lead us is controversial. Can’t say the same about your argument.

      You must have been around long enough to realize there’s a hospital in Burien. For much of peninsula, that was already the closest hospital before the bridge closed.

      West Seattle is not 1/5 of the city’s population. It’s closer to a tenth since were talking about ~80,000 people living west of the Duwamish in a city of ~750,000.

      Plenty of families already get by without a car. It’s not brainwashing to point out it can be done.

      A small dip in property values might seem like a nightmare, but for first-time homebuyers and tenants it could be a godsend–the recession might cause this either way. I doubt the effect on property values would be as dramatic as you fear, and there would likely to be a rebound once people realize the sky isn’t falling.

  2. I came to the comments section to see what actual West Seattle residents had to say about this. My takeaway based solely on residents’ comments is that West Seattle was built to be an extremely fragile place. It is entirely reliant on one single point of access, and cannot survive without that single connection to the rest of Seattle. That being the case, it seems like residents should be asking themselves how they can make West Seattle a more resilient neighborhood that isn’t destroyed when a bridge is forced to close. And I don’t say this to be cheeky, but this is an opportunity to recognize that apparently West Seattle has had an Achilles heel this whole time. Now is a great time to consider other ways West Seattle can become stronger that doesn’t rely on just rebuilding that same weak spot.

  3. This article is full of presumptions. First, that people here are travelling only to downtown. I was for a 6 months without car here and it eas a nightmare to commute anywhere. Additionaly to that public transport and downtown is dangerous. I was feeling threatened many times and once almost attacked in the bus (while travelling with my 7 months old daughter). First downtown and transit should be made safe for commuters! I dont want to leave my house not knowing if someone will stub me today. This is reality in Seattle now and i am not going anywhere without my car.

  4. When I first read the headline of this article, I have to admit I was mad as heck. Reading the article itself made me bristle with irritation for many of the same reasons that have already been pointed out.

    But then, I saw that it was written by a high schooler. I still vehemently disagree with the premise that the bridge (no it isn’t a freeway) shouldn’t be rebuilt, but I appreciate a young mind looking at big problems and trying to think creatively. It’s inspiring to see the hope of a new generation.

    Hyra- if you’re reading this, my advice is keep writing. Take the comments shared here to improve your persuasive writing skills so you can better account for folks who will disagree with you. For example, the ambulance issue is huge. Hopefully you are healthy and well, but spending time thinking about how the bridge closure would affect someone in poor health could have given you a chance to suggest ideas for how to neutralize that point. I believe in you – keep it up!

    • Really love the energy in your comment Hannah in keeping the discussion open and pivoting to say that it is encouraging to see a diverse set of viewpoints. Often, we may write off this article because it is written by a high-schooler if we disagree with its viewpoints.

  5. There are many residents of W. Seattle who need their cars for their work and/or can’t get where they need to go on the bus. We need both cars and public transit.

  6. This argument presumes that West Seattle bridge drivers are almost exclusively accessing downtown. Many commuters access different parts of the city, and non-commuters are traveling to all parts of the city and region. There are no viable options for a family trying to get kids to a soccer game in Green Lake or going to a community meeting in Rainier Valley. Even with no traffic on a Sunday morning, the 1st Ave detour adds 35 minutes to a trip that would ordinarily take 15 minutes (I’ve checked… that trip takes nearly an hour). Once social distancing is over, the situation will be much worse. There are not now, and will never be, transit options that serve these needs. Even if there were, it would take untold spending and time to implement.

  7. This is the way we *should* go. But it won’t fly, West Seattle is too wealthy and privileged. We have to aim at something achievable.

    Rebuild the bridge. Include light rail. Leave the low bridge restrictions in place.

    Obviously tolling is regressive. A much better solution (the best being to have a progressive, statewide income tax to play with) would be a levy district that allows West Seattle property owners to tax themselves to pay for the bridge, perhaps supported by a tax on parking at Alki (with the advent of the parking meters that use your license number it should be possible to allow WS residents using Alki to avoid paying that tax) and a surcharge added to the car fares on the Fauntleroy ferry to reasonably support the usage contributions of those particular institutions.

    If that won’t fly (I know zilch about local taxing authority), then toll in perpetuity. Index the toll to the cost of living and once the bridge is paid for, use the proceeds to support transit and pedestrian/cycling facilities.

    (This message brought to you by the killjoys who didn’t like the litter caused by signs hanging from the pedestrian overpass at the top of the hill and got the city to enforce the ban on those signs, thus killing any residual sympathy I had for the community where I lived for much of my 20s. 👋)

    • The doggone bridge is okay enough to drive on just like the viaduct was. This is just a control issue! Quit tearing down and taking away the things that we the community needs to get by. We need the bridge just like other changes that have been made. We are fortunate to still have the Smith tower still

      • I’m interested in your comment that the bridge is driveable. From the research I was able to do on the viaduct, you are correct that the viaduct was unnecessarily torn down – any needed structural support could have been retrofitted. Do you have any links, citations, or sources for your statement that the bridge is being unnecessarily shut down?

  8. Sure, lots of West Seattleites drive, but what about the thousands of commuters who travel from Vashon and Kitsap via the Fauntleroy Ferry? What about the Vanpools?

    Not providing a replacement bridge cuts those communities off from their jobs and forces Kitsap commuters to “drive around” on an already packed I-5

    • This sounds smart, except for the fact that there are passenger ferries that operate to Downtown Seattle for commuters from these communities, nevermind that Metro also has a connecting bus to Fauntleroy Ferry. As Hyra notes, transit service could be boosted. People who are set on driving can still do that if they want and it would still be faster to make the marginal loop across West Seattle to do it, which is basically negligible to SR-509 compared to Fauntleroy Way SW, than rounding around Gig Harbor and Tacoma. Nice try.

      • Who is going to pay for the extra ferries? How are they going to get built essentially overnight? Where are all those extra ferries going to dock? How are the extra docks required for the extra ferries going to get built essentially overnight, where are we going to put them and who is going to pay for them? Once people get off of all those ferries, how are they going to get to their destinations that are not served by transit in any efficient or timely manner? Repeat all those previous questions, but replace “ferries” with “buses.” Nice try. I support transit, but it’s not a miracle cure for a wide-spread region.

  9. I’m all for a transit-future for WS, but unless the economy collapses to the extent that we have zero marine traffic, buses, peds, and bikes will be plagued by frequent bridge openings. Having been commuting by one of those modes for years, I can assure this is not a solution that even the biggest transit fanatics can stand behind, particuarly when LRT is not coming to WS for another 10 years.

      • The Ship Canal bridges have special restrictions on openings during rush hours to keep traffic moving. So that’s how business and people in Fremont and Ballard “survive.” The Coast Guard (which controls these openings) has refused to extend this same courtesy to the Spokane Street Bridge (“Low Bridge”). It opens to marine traffic on demand at ANY time, including rush hour.

  10. Doesn’t seem real world. Not everyone travelling across that bridge is heading downtown. I drive my small work truck across it daily from February to September to service my accounts, for a small, family-owned garden supply business. Making mass transit the only option will not help me do that.

    • It’s not like the bridge is the only path, Jim. Surely you’ve used a GPS before. You might be surprised how many choices you do have!

  11. Clearly out of touch with reality. What about families? Personally I have 5 little kids. Typical night might include a soccer practice just across the bridge grabbing some take out, stopping by Costco then back across the bridge home. I’m all for environmentally friendly commuting and bike to work downtown rain or shine but it’s this type of radical idea that turns so many people off from taking environmental concerns seriously. One of government’s primary responsibilities is to provide infrastructure. We need a bridge…full stop.

  12. Well written by someone not of the community. Framing this disaster as some kind of planned social experiment, done purposely, as a great way to teach people new commuting habits, and build mass transit ridership, is insulting. It’s a disaster, plain and simple. Basically the argument being made, to the largest neighborhood in Seattle, is that West Seattleites don’t deserve the same access to emergency medical care, first responders, or other services, as other Seattleites. West Seattleites are somehow lesser.

    Claims that the lower bridge is some kind of answer to access to the rest of the City is ridiculous. Let’s talk reality. The lower bridge is much lower to the river than the Fremont or Ballard bridges are. It opens more often. River traffic has the right of way over road traffic at all times. Could some kind of exemption be granted, of course, but that doesn’t solve the “time problem” of opening and closing the lower bridge. The Fremont bridge deck raises in about 2 minutes, it can also make boats wait. Opening and closing the lower bridge takes about 10 minutes, each direction. A complete opening, sail through, and closing can take an easy 30 minutes–depending on the size and speed of the boat.

    Imagine a boat heading up the Duwamish. The tower gets the call and starts opening the lower bridge. Start the 30 minute clock. Someone has a heart attack in the Junction and needs to go to the ER. Bikes and buses aren’t of much use. The EMT heads out and gets to the bridge, do they wait for the bridge to close? Unlikely, instead the EMT races, lights flashing, down West Marginal to the 509 interchange. Let’s say the trip takes 10 minutes, 10 minutes to get to the point where they can begin the journey to the ER–north to First Hill or south to Burien. Without a high bridge to cross the river, it’s a 10 minute drive to South Park, to then drive another 10-15 minutes to a hospital. With the high bridge, 10 minutes gets a heart attack victim to First Hill, if not in an ER.

    Not all trips are to your favorite Pho restaurant. Some trips are about life and death.

    Is it time for Vashon to reconsider West Seattle as its portal to the world, and build a bridge to the peninsula?

    The failure of the high bridge is a slow moving medical and economic disaster for a community of 80,000 Seattleites. Suggesting that West Seattle should be abandoned so other residents can feel better about the City’s climate goals is sad. Cities are made of neighborhoods, bound together in a common purpose, a shared purpose. Abandoning West Seattle might make some feel better about the City’s climate goals and mass transit ridership–assuming it plays out like they envision. I rather we tackle a City wide climate goals as a City, and entire City sacrificing, rather than experimenting with the lives of one neighborhood.

    • In a discussion hosted by the Seattle channel, a SDOT official did note that police would not turn away emergency usage of the bridge by personal vehicles.

      This is not to take away from your other points, I completely agree that our city as a whole shoulder burden created by climate goals.

  13. I live in West Seattle. I use buses and water taxis all the time, but you have to be kidding me. What about during Winter? Too bad just stay home? I would love to live in a perfect world but that isn’t real. People have cars and they need to get around. You can’t banish an entire section of the city to have to commute through residential neighborhoods causing traffic and safety issues for all the residents because they are all trying to get to the one bridge that will allow them to access the rest of Seattle.

  14. The notion of squeezing productive people out of their private transportation in favor of inefficient dependence upon government handouts (Yes — transit is heavily/politically subsidized) doesn’t bide well with me. I’m happy to drive a solar-powered Chevy to better the air. But sustainable public policy isn’t Bus-N-Bike for all.

    • Pretending driving isn’t subsidized doesn’t bide well with me. Remember it’s the $400 million car bridge that is the handout in question here. It was heavily subsidized (see: the fond remembrances going round of Scoop Jackson bringing home the bacon) when it was built, and the offering is already going around again to keep the bridge from collapsing just 36 years later. If we toll the bridge to pay for it, I might begin to buy the self-reliant motorist narrative… But cars for all isn’t adding up for me.

  15. Clearly spoken by a person not living in West Seattle needing to use their car and disregards completely the impact on that community.. the article has some great points but it’s totally disrespectful suggesting you lock a community only to public transportation..

      • Removing the WSB essentially eliminates 75-80% of lane capacity (which was already maxed out) between West Seattle and the rest of the city and region to east and north. It’s not an idea to be taken seriously.

        And it would put transit at the mercy of a low bridge that opens frequently and has needed to be closed for repairs for an extended period of time in the past.

        Transit options to downtown are decent, but if you need to go anywhere else they’re close to terrible.

  16. We need to fix the bridge. Plain and simple. There is too much of a time gap, we will get to more envirommentally sound solutions with the light rail but we cannot try and look so far into the future that the only place our heads end up are in our rear-ends.

  17. I’d love to see a Tillikum Crossing style bridge that serves transit and maybe also freight up into Alaska Junction without having to navigate the mess at Marginal/Spokane/Chelan

  18. I keep thinking about the new ridership standards from Metro:
    – If only 12-18 people are allowed per bus (we will use the average of 15 per bus),
    – There are 100,000 vehicles across the bridge each day,
    – Assume one passenger per vehicle (yup, that’s low)

    So to replace typical daily bridge traffic with buses means 6,667 buses per day. If we do an amazing job of eliminating 50% of that traffic, it’s still almost 3,500 buses per day at full capacity.
    Then think about the fact that New York is the hardest hit place on the planet by COVID-19, largely because of their dependency on mass transit. The fastest any vaccine has ever been produced was four year for Mumps. And let’s assume we really do fully commit all resources (which every country in the world is doing) and we develop the COVID-19 vaccine in 18 months. In this scenario, the very best case scenario, we are in month three. Only 15 months left of social distancing.

    We are unlikely to have the Bridge repaired or replaced in 15 months. But please let’s emphasize just how desperate our situation is so that our leaders can redouble their efforts. This is a budding crisis. West Seattle need their voices to be taken seriously. We are not your social experiment.

    And to all of Seattle, we’re in this together, this is not just a West Seattle issue.

    • Your first and second point are likely mutually exclusive. If we are having social distancing in our buses, then most office workers are not commuting and the bridge traffic will be far less than 100K. By the time commute traffic will have returned to normal, bus capacity will also return to normal. Whether ‘normal’ is in a few months or few years is anyone’s guess, but we aren’t going to have severely restricted transit capacity and status quo commuting volumes at the same time. All of our corridors would be unable to function if we removed 80% of transit capacity and reopened all jobs, not just West Seattle.

      • Around the country, places are opening up, with social distancing. It is very likely that there will be social distancing on buses long after people start returning to work.

  19. “Thus, we shouldn’t think of not replacing the West Seattle Bridge as a freeway removal project–that part’s already happened with the bridge’s two-year closure. Instead, we should be thinking of repairing and replacing it to be a freeway construction project.” Good framing, very smart.

    I think there’s a strong argument for some additional road capacity beyond the current 2-lane swing bridge, but that could be in the form of another low bridge at a fraction of the cost of a new freeway. Here, the replacement “boulevard” would be to widen Spokane Street to 4 lanes (+ bike/ped) from the current 2 lanes to absorb the trips that cannot be served by transit.

    • How do you come to the conclusion that tearing out the existing 1.5 mile freeway and replacing it with:

      1) A new low bridge capable of opening ($$)

      And

      2) A new surface alignment with connections to SR99, Spokane St Viaduct, Delridge, Admiral, Fauntleroy, Harbor Ave ($$$$)

      Will be “a fraction of the cost” of replacing the 3 spans which total 1/4 mile at the mid point of the existing structure? It won’t save money. It’ll probably be 5x more when all is considered. And take 3x longer to complete.

      To be clear, a new West Seattle Freeway isn’t needed. Most of the existing structure is fine. Just the 1/4 mile segment built with an unusual construction method is failing. And portions of that such as the piers may be reused.

      All these ideas of materially changing the envelope of the existing freeway are going to be far more expensive and take much longer than a replacement of the damaged span.

      • If it’s just that single span that needs to be corrected, you are likely correct. Depends on how much of the rest of the bridge needs to be rebuilt.

  20. I appreciate the push to imagine a different future. The rush to replace 1:1 isn’t long-range thinking, and we can and should do better than the urban planning of the 1970s.

    Also, love to see smart, younger contributors on this site. Thank you, Hyra and the Urbanist!

  21. 7 lanes is excessive, but I think some fixed-span in its place is important. The swing bridge opens regularly and backs up bikes, freight, and now buses and ambulances for 10 minutes when it does. Even with 7% of regular traffic, the reroute already has a lot more traffic funneling into a neighborhood that’s one of Seattle’s most diverse, making the arterials harder to cross for pedestrians and increasing the pollution more than ever. It involves a lot of idling. And it severely impacts the necessary car commutes of people living in areas poorly served by bus routes – anyone whose best transit option is relying on the meager schedules of the 37, 57, and 22 – until those are made more frequent and restructured transit just isn’t an option for a lot of people. I’d expect that once traffic returns to 40% of regular volume it’ll be an hour and a half instead of 20-35 minutes to get to any other neighborhood in Seattle. Maybe one general purpose lane in each direction, a reversible commute lane, and the two rail lanes

      • The Ballard bridge opens on demand for vessels 1000t or larger no matter what time it is. The Duwamish sees much more traffic large enough to get an instant opening, and a lot of it needs to come and go at high tide even if that’s during rush hour, so even if you could talk the feds into approving a similar restriction it wouldn’t accomplish much.

        The high bridge needs to be rebuilt and will be rebuilt.

      • Right now, no such rule exists for the swing bridge (or the 1st Ave S bridge for that matter). The Coast Guard has historically refused requests that the bridge not be opened during peak commutes; apparently, a special rule exists for the Fremont and Ballard bridges. It’s not clear to me why they won’t grant a similar exception for Spokane, but my observation is that a lot of the river traffic is freight and commercial. I don’t know how that compares to the Ship Canal.

        • The Ballard bridge primarily serves small-craft recreational boating users. The Spokane Street Bridge serves exclusively large-craft industrial users. The same thinking cannot be applied.

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