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SDOT Director calls BS on the “war on cars,” has ideas for more resilient transportation system

Kubly introduces himself, from Seattle Channel
Kubly introduces himself, from Seattle Channel

Incoming SDOT Director Scott Kubly continues to make a strong introduction to Seattle, and he recently dove deeper into his views on Seattle’s transportation challenges with Ansel Herz at the Stranger. Kubly explains why a growing city needs more transportation choices and pretty much puts to shame the entire idea that making streets work better for transit, walking and biking is somehow a “war on cars.”

Below is my favorite bit of should-have-been-obvious perspective Kubly brings to the Seattle transportation conversation. This is the framing we should use to make all our regional and city-wide transportation decisions, but it is far too rarely used. Kubly via Slog:

You’ve got a city that’s growing tremendously fast. You see it in all parts of the city. That’s a really good thing, but what it does is it puts stress on the transportation system. And this transportation system is pretty fragile. You can have one incident that sends the entire system into gridlock if it’s in the wrong place in the network.

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This is exactly why investing in better transportation choices is so important. If someone crashes on I-5 or 99 anywhere within a handful of miles or so of the city center, our regional and cross-city transportation network collapses. And, of course, the mangled body of somebody’s husband, daughter, or grandmother is often the cause of the city-stopping delays. We pay a huge social, emotional and financial cost to keep this fragile car-dependent system moving.

Kubly comes to Seattle after working for forward-thinking transportation departments in Washington DC and Chicago, and he sees a city growing quickly that depends on a fragile highway system that cannot grow any further. So when he talks about investing in transportation choices like transit, walking and biking, he’s talking about finding ways to allow more and more people and goods to get around without needing to relay solely on the highway system. Again, from Slog:

But I don’t think there are many people satisfied with the level of congestion downtown. So I’d like to move it faster. Fundamentally, what it boils down to is choices. So in city after city, when you provide people choices that are walking or taking transit, biking or carpooling, people wind up taking those. DC has done a great job of investing in transportation choices, whether it’s bus or train or bike or walking or the pedestrian environment. They’ve added 75,000 residents over the past 15 years and car registrations have dropped by 3,000.

And Kubly fully rejects the idea that changes that make it easier to bike, walk or take transit are somehow attacks on people who drive:

So, I think the War on Cars narrative is not unique to Seattle. You see it in a lot of different cities, that kind of rhetoric. I think it may have been coined by Rob Ford. And I’m being serious, I think it was coined by Rob Ford [laughs]. But I don’t think it reflects the reality of what it takes to have a transportation system.

That’s right, Rob Ford. (Technically, Ford didn’t invent the term, but Sightline research shows he played a big role in popularizing the term)

And as for a radio shock jock using the phrase “war on cars” to describe the city’s temporary ban on right turns at Dexter and Mercer, Kubly made it clear that safety is his top priority:

In my first two weeks on the job, I looked out of my office and there was a fatal crash where a pedestrian was run over by a truck turning right. And there was a near-fatal crash where a bicyclist was run over on Spokane—another truck turning right. And the person was trapped under the vehicle and they had to jack up the vehicle to get the person out from under it. And I also had a staff person sent to the ICU, crossing the street as a pedestrian, hit by a truck turning right. Okay?

Safety, for every department of transportation, is going to be the number-one priority. And we should not accept a fatality as a byproduct of our commute.


So far, Kubly is saying all the right things, and he seems to have strong political backing from the mayor and City Council. But the hard part is still yet to come: Making it happen.

Oh, and what does he think about the pending launch of Pronto Cycle Share?

I think bike share is one of the smartest investments a city can make in transportation.

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14 responses to “SDOT Director calls BS on the “war on cars,” has ideas for more resilient transportation system”

  1. Ben P

    Even though I personally think we should have a war on cars (rocket launchers anyone?), I completely agree with Kubly’s sentiment. The car traffic in this city is appalling. About once a month I end up behind a wheel. Last time it took me 2.5 hours for something I could have done in one on my bike. As far as I can tell, driving is way too cheap. Think about it from an opportunity cost perspective. As someone who pulls in a measly 12$/hour, it’s worth 18$ to me to have less traffic to make my car time comparable to my bike time. Why don’t we charge for roads in the same way we do parking. For parking we charge the amount determined to optimize the full to empty ratio. If we set up tolls to optimize the road carrying capacity, I would happily pay. Maybe with all the extra revenue coming in, we could reduce the 2.6% Seattle sales tax.

  2. Erik Busse

    Additional self-serving myths that keep being perpetuated:
    – Cyclists are scofflaws, above the law, an somehow worse behaving than drivers.
    – Cyclists are free riders who don’t pay for the infrastructure they use.
    – Cyclists should be licensed and insured like drivers.
    – The City of Seattle can spend its way to improve roads such that traffic woes are solved, only if the those darn cycling and advocacy groups would stop ruining it.
    – Seattle residents don’t want improved cyclist and pedestrian safety.

    Not only to they reduce progress towards improving cyclist safety they endanger cyclists as they create animosity among some drivers.

    1. Mike

      I keep looking for Cascade Bike Club to do some PR campaigns to help with this problem.

    2. clark in Vancouver

      It’s amazing how the myths are the same in most cities that are transitioning. It’s almost like there’s someone behind it all (conspiracy of auto/oil industry or example.) but it’s more likely that it’s just that the experience of car culture is the same in the same built environment. Now as people are working to change it, from their perspective they feel they’re losing something or are scared of change.
      I’ve heard/read identical sentiment in Vancouver and other cities. It’s eerie.

      It’s important to counter the myths immediately and move the discussion to larger issues of what’s really important. It’s natural to want to “fight back” and attack car culture but it’s the wrong approach and ultimately just creates more enemies than allies. Better to just state that they’re mistaken and explain how. Another approach is to ask them just how something would work. If we’re all forced to drive cars, where will they all go?
      On a related note, recently a friend, who has lived for 20 years along a nice pretty street that recently became an even nicer greenway was complaining about the new greenway and said “it’s so hard to drive in this town” and that “it’s the mayor’s fault” for what he sees as the mayor’s hobby. I mentioned that these things are what make his neighbourhood so nice. That if we hadn’t stopped the highway expansion in the ’70s, his building would have been torn down and become a highway on-ramp or something. People just need to have things put in perspective. I don’t think that it’s possible to have the ability to drive quickly (as if on a highway) *and* have a nice neighbourhood. Pick one or the other. If you want a nice neighbourhood you have to learn to love the inconvenience of driving in it. That the same circuitous route that you have to take also prevents non-residents from using your street to speed down to somewhere else making your neighbourhood not so nice.

      1. Phil Davids

        “It’s amazing how the myths are the same in most cities that are transitioning.”

        Occam’s Razor. If most cities believe that bicyclists are scofflaws, it’s probably because bicyclists are scofflaws.

      2. jay

        I think you may be a bit confused about the principle of lex parsimoniae.
        “People are scofflaws” has fewer implied assumptions than “Bicyclists are scofflaws”. Well, sure “bicyclists” are, with very few exceptions, a subset of “people”, so I guess it is not really much simpler (but it does have 4 fewer letters)

        Here is something that requires no assumptions, it can be proven mathematically: 1/2 * 2000kg * (13m/s)^2 > 1/2 * 100kg * (6.5m/s)^2

      3. Erik Busse

        Phil Davids,

        If you took a step back and looked at drivers you’d say the same thing about them. It’s a no win argument to say one group is worse than the other.

      4. Cheif

        How many tens of thousands of Americans are killed annually because of “scofflaw bicyclists”?

  3. Jonathan

    It’s not just the level of car congestion downtown that’s appalling. I recently moved to Lake City (to be closer to work), and am rather amazed to say on most afternoons I can bike home as fast or faster than I can drive… even with hills to deal with. Since we have no room to build/expand roads (regardless of how you feel about that as option) the only logical choice is to use the space we have more efficiently and discourage the single-occupant vehicle commute.

  4. Doug Bostrom

    “…we should not accept a fatality as a byproduct of our commute.”

    Which is where sleepwalking has taken us. The apocryphal but so apt story of frogs being boiled comes to mind; we’ll get used to anything, seemingly. Kubly’s words are a healthy slap in the face to wake us up.

  5. anthony

    It’s not a war on cars, its a War on bikes. Until we identify the problem correctly we won’t get any feasible solutions worked out until it’s too late and critical mass has finally taken over.

  6. Gordon Werner

    I don’t have a car. I don’t have a bike. I take the bus or I walk all over the city.

    EVERY SINGLE DAY … I am threatened by cars at crosswalks … when crossing the street with the signal… with people running red lights … with people illegally entering intersections when they cannot clear them … people blocking the crosswalks with cars … people illegally parking on sidewalks, on curbs, on crosswalks, etc … cars ignoring left turn arrows or right turn arrows … cars failing to actually stop behind the stop line on the street and almost hitting me … cars driving on the wrong side of the road BECAUSE THEY SHOULN’T HAVE TO WAIT FOR THE BUS TO MOVE … cars failing to stop at crosswalks with flashing lights and signs telling them to stop …

    it goes on and on.

    Not ONCE have I had a problem with a cyclist in the city. One time a cyclist yelled out “on your right” and I moved to the left so they could pass … never was my life in jeopardy like it is daily from drivers

    So, no. It’s not a war on cars. It is a war on non-drivers being perpetuated by the narcissistic self-involved, self-important asshole drivers in our city.

    1. clark in Vancouver

      So true. Bicycles are mostly just an annoyance whereas cars can kill.
      Most anecdotes about “being plowed down” or “almost killed” turn out to be embellished. When telling the story and saying that “they” did the unforgivable thing of “brushing past too close” or “startling”, they don’t have a case so they have to embellish and change it to “almost killed me”. Then the tar brush comes out and somehow all other people who cycle are equally guilty.

      It’s all so tiring when there are some real issues to work out.

  7. Emily

    Since the plural of anecdote is data, here’s my story. While walking to work one morning several years ago, I got hit by a car. I was crossing 45th and Brooklyn in the U-district. I was in the cross walk with the green light. The driver was turning left and not thinking about pedestrians. She was almost stopped when she hit me, so I wasn’t hurt, but still…..

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