You hear it all the time, Seattle drivers are ‘Just The Worst.’ They’re terrible at navigating around the ubiquitous traffic circles. They’re incompetent on the highway. They’re unable to control their giant land yachts. “I’m great at driving,” people will say, “but all these other whack jobs can’t figure out how to move through a tight neighborhood street.” There was even a Ballard Driving Academy skit on Almost Live years ago. It was all about dangling seatbelts out the door and weaving at seven miles per hour. 

It’s all a lie. Seattle’s drivers are too passive to be the worst. It’s all polite waves at four way stops and slow pulling into turns. Which is bad because it’s unpredictable. But Seattle doesn’t rise to the level of terrible because drivers here are so damn slow.

Cities with really terrible drivers don’t need to talk about it so much. You wouldn’t hear them anyway over the dragging rear quarterpanel. Among all of the metrics that suggest truly terrible driving – collisions per driver, uninsured drivers, DUI’s – Seattle is in the middle of the pack if not on the better side. On national clickbait surveys, Bellevue actually gets ranked as one of the safest cities for driving. Being chauffeured around on the Microsoft Bus, or just chauffeured, probably helps.

Trying to claim the title of worst driving is just one bit of the myopia Seattleites revel in. So many discussions of the town try to saddle Seattle with some superlative. Seattleites talk about Seattle all the time, and if Seattle can’t be the best, Seattle has to be the worst. 

Just a few Seattle Worstisms you hear: The city has the worst looking new buildings, boxy loafs in boring colors. That just conveniently forgets the miles of tract housing being built in the Sunbelt. Lumen field is so loud and the worst place for opposing teams. So long as Philadelphia exists, that’s a lie. Seattle is the worst place for renters because it’s so expensive. Is Manhattan on the same continent? Seattle barely shows. Compared to places that really rank as rank, our worst is just kinda blah. 

The city’s terrible Mexican food is legendary, in our own minds. Really, it’s mostly just pedestrian. Seattleites guard their knowledge of the few good Mexican food trucks hidden behind Starbucks and transit passages to flavor as if they’re secret eaters for Michelin. Like if the name Carte De Oaxaca is spoken aloud, it will be replaced by a MOD Pizza. The coyness lets Seattleites believe they are holders of some sacred secret when they’re just being antisocial jerks.

The remaining Mexican food around town is too boring to be bad. Oh no! Taco Time does not serve authentic sea bass and limon so we have the worst of all Mexica fast food! Nonsense. Their fish taco is a perfectly passible, almost tasty when you put enough peppers on it. And anything they’ve peeled off the floor is still better than the non-PNW version of Taco Time (Not NW) which literally puts taco meat on a burger roll. That is adventurous enough levels of disgusting to be truly awful. 

The appalling Taco Cheeseburger from the non-Seattle Taco Time chain, that fortunately has no locations closer than Yakima. (Taco Time)

The delusion of ungrandeur spreads into urbanist circles. Replacing The Viaduct with a waterfront highway was stupid and short sighted. The finished result is a parody compared to the illustrations sold to the public. But it’s not the worst, regardless of what some circles (us included) will suggest. Son of Viaduct is a horror show compared the useful, beautiful, connected waterfront that it could have been. But it’s too boring to be terrible when one considers cities that are replacing highways with wider highways or leaving them as open trenches

We’re too yielding to even get segregation right. Shaun Scott’s excellent Planning to Fail article over at The Stranger reads like it wants to find the festering nucleus that sits at the center of all Seattle’s planning ills. But there’s no one there because folks spent all their time getting out of the way. In the end, neighborhood redliners got their wish and defanged any density and transit improvements by simply dawdling for six years before approving a library of faux-historic neighborhood plans. Seattle’s Urban Village plan is the land use version of waiving everyone else through the intersection out of politeness. Not a car wreck, just no one moves.

The meaningless own dragging takes a toll. Overstating the worst-ness of dumb stuff about Seattle is self-defeating because it cloaks the times when real numbers suggest Seattle may actually be the worst at something. The city had the world’s worst air quality multiple times over the last five years, but it’s a talking point among a ton of overstated ills. Choking atmosphere over the city just means the mayor jets off to an environmental conference

Even Ronald Reagan, then Republican Governor of California, was moved to pass environmental laws when Los Angeles suffered under the nation’s worst smog. In Seattle, breathing air that’s spicier than our Mexican food is now just a season, and our officials can’t be bothered.

Space Needle shrouded in wildfire smoke
Smoke from Oregon and California forest fires blew north inundating Seattle in a cloud of particulate pollution. (Credit: Mark Ostrom)

There’s a connection between Worst Seattle language and elected’s lack of progress on even the most basic positive initiatives. On one hand, it makes everything look insurmountable. On the other hand, it lets segregationists and redliners heap fixes to fake problems on any initiative in an attempt to stall it. The Everything Is Awful perspective generated the milquetoast proposals for the revised comprehensive plan. The Mayor’s office couldn’t figure out how to make everyone happy, so they torpedoed options that fixed anything. Worst Seattle allows paralysis through boredom. 

Forget this dull, provincial, everything is awful sleepiness. Seattle should actually try to be the worst at something. Because that wouldn’t be boring. Something besides post-season baseball, where we do very much suck.

Perhaps show all those wannabe terrible Seattle drivers what a difficult commute really means. We could absolutely aspire to be the worst city for driving, instead of just getting accused on it by KOMO based on a clickbait “survey.” Take away all those downtown one-way streets, and the curbside parking too. Prohibit any right-turns-on-red. Reset all those timed traffic lights that speed evacuees from the offices. They were slightly justified as pollution reduction, but with everyone getting EVs, that’s no longer necessary. Expand all the crosswalks to have equal time to the cars at the intersection. Close the express lane out of Downtown for anything except bikes and buses. Every road gets a bright red Freight and Transit lane. It could be truly Hell to drive in Seattle, a city-wide taco cheeseburger.

Seattle is a better city than we let it be, and it deserves to have something legitimate to complain about. Not this “oh, things are sooooo bad” mincing from Will in his inherited Wallingford cookie cutter house. Not the “it was better when I lived there” hate posts from Marcie in Marysville on the Queen Anne Facebook group. That’s boring, and it’s holding us back. We deserve the best. And by the best, at least for once, that means the worst.

Article Author

Ray Dubicki is a stay-at-home dad and parent-on-call for taking care of general school and neighborhood tasks around Ballard. This lets him see how urbanism works (or doesn’t) during the hours most people are locked in their office. He is an attorney and urbanist by training, with soup-to-nuts planning experience from code enforcement to university development to writing zoning ordinances. He enjoys using PowerPoint, but only because it’s no longer a weekly obligation.