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I-90 ‘carpocalypse’ largely avoided on first morning commute

Screenshot from Seattle Times story than ran on the front page
Screenshot from Seattle Times story than ran on the front page

It’s becoming a pattern. Every time a major freeway work project closes all or most the lanes, a media firestorm compares the upcoming commute to the end of the world.

All but one westbound lane on I-90 is closed as the state replaces aging expansion joints in the bridge between Bellevue and Mercer Island. Ahead of the work, The Seattle Times ran a front page story that suggested people just stay home (partly smart, but also somewhat defeatist). One particularly spastic radio personality got so worked up that he declared the road work a conspiracy by the state to force “every single person” in the region to get a Good To Go pass for paying the 520 bridge toll.

But when the day arrives — likely thanks in part to these apocalyptic media reports — it’s really more like a traffic jam that’s a little worse than usual. Today, many commutes took a little longer during the peak morning rush, but nothing terrible. For example, here’s a tweet from just after 8 a.m.:

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I_90Echannel_joint_replacement510The reason is that people are adaptable. People avoid making unnecessary trips or delay their trips until off-peak hours. Some people who typically drive decide to take the bus or ride a bike instead. Some people carpool with coworkers and others take other routes that can handle increases in traffic. And, of course, a lot of people just pay the toll to take the other bridge.

As we reported previously, the best way around the work is to bike. Biking and walking access will be available throughout the work. When workers move to replace the expansion joints on the trail, people will be escorted through the construction zone.

It’s not yet clear how many people took up biking as a way to get around the work, but there are at least a couple:

The first day is the easiest, though. As was the case with other major freeway work, people take the need to change their routine seriously at first. But when they see that traffic really isn’t so bad, they go back to driving (thus causing worse traffic). Mike Lindblom explains the problem in the Seattle Times:

“We’re hopeful that people don’t get too comfortable, and expect this tomorrow,” [WSDOT spokesperson Mike Allende] said. In previous, major highway closures, the opening day turns out to be fairly light, followed by a second-day surge. In the “Viadoom” closure of the Alaskan Way Viaduct in 2011, the fourth day was the toughest commute.

So keep it up! Keep biking, and be open to helping a coworker or neighbor give it a shot for the first time. They might even like it and never go back to the daily stop-and-go grind that defines a car commute in the Seattle region. Because these not-actually-end-of-times road work projects teach us something important: We are not quite as dependent on driving as people think.

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9 responses to “I-90 ‘carpocalypse’ largely avoided on first morning commute”

  1. […] Tom Fucoloro talks more about the adaptability of motorists to change their routines in order to avoid traffic at Seattle Bike Blog. […]

  2. Gary

    Yep, there was a early AM backup from all the folks trying to “beat the crowd” and thus becoming the crowd, followed by way less traffic than usual in both directions.

    Tonight’s West bound commute should be equally light which generally has a backup from the bridge back to the 156th flyover.

    As for bicyclists, I was running late but my take is that there were more than usual for a Monday even on a nice day in July. (Especially after a cooler weekend, the better the weather the day before, the more commuters I see.) Cascade had a table set up on the East side of the I-90 tunnel with maps and a helpful person for route finding. Met a couple of new riders. Here’s to hoping that a good day ride will inspire them to commute via bicycle more often.

  3. Josh

    Four times the usual number of bicycle commuters at my Mercer Island office today.

    Unfortunately, starting from a 0.2% mode share, that still leaves us under 1%.

    I believe several times as many people worked from home or took PTO.

  4. Gary

    Back to winter days commuting level via bicycle on the I-90 bridge. I think it must have been the thunder and the rain shower that passed over about 6:30am to 7:30 because there were hardly anyone on the trial this morning. In addition I noticed a major uptick in drivers heading East over the bridge. I expect the West bound commute tonight to be pretty bad for those drivers.

    As for me, after the first 1/2 hr of riding the rain was gone. Wet roads of course so I’m glad I put the fenders back on this morning before I left.

  5. Gary

    Another late winter level of bicycle commuters over the bridge. Yes it was wet early but by 8am the rain was pretty much gone. Cascade was back out again at the East side of the I-90 tunnel with maps, bananas etc.

    Traffic was slow but moving with the backup at about 130th (1/2 way between the 148th entrance and 405) It was at a complete stop there, but a “rolling” stop as in as cars came, cars left.

    One note, the signs on the bridge said that the bike lanes would be closed until 7/28 5am I’m assuming that means no bike lanes over the weekend? ’cause they have been untouched all week so far.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      From WSDOT:

      “The expansion joint over the bicycle/pedestrian path on I-90 will also be replaced. The path will remain open during the day. However, pedestrians and cyclists may experience delays of up to five minutes nightly from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.”

      1. Tom Fucoloro

        Found this more detailed explanation from WSDOT:

        “Replacement of the expansion joint under the cyclist/pedestrian path is scheduled to begin July 27. Work will occur weeknights from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. Cyclists may be required to stop and dismount. Both cyclists and pedestrians will be escorted through the work zone.”

      2. Gary

        The sign on the bridge deck itself says “closed the 27th thru the 28th at 5am. No mention at all about being able to walk through the site. Although from watching them do the work on the main joint, it wouldn’t be hard to slap a piece of plywood over the work and let folks walk over it.

  6. […] Footprint microhousing will open up in the next year in Greenwood, work is currently underway. The I-90 carpocalypse never really transpired, which isn’t so surprising because these things never do–people adapt. Hopeworks plans […]

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