Seattle’s transportation system is fragile.
Decades of focusing nearly all major transportation investments on a few highways has not prepared the city to handle unexpected blockages. A single truck full of salmon overturned at the start of Tuesday’s evening rush hour, and the whole system collapsed. And this is not the first time.
When SDOT Director Scott Kubly was seeking his job, he told The Stranger’s Ansel Herz that one of the first problems he noticed about Seattle’s transportation system is how a single crash can bring everything to a standstill:
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.
Anyone who saw their commute take an hour or more longer than usual yesterday knows he is spot on.
But not only have Kubly and city leaders identified the problem, they also know how to fix it: Invest in more transportation options. And that’s the centerpiece to Mayor Ed Murray’s Move Seattle plan and transportation levy proposal. Here’s how the Move Seattle plan describes it:
What does reliability mean? It means life can be predictable — you to get to work on time, your kid gets to school on time, and you don’t miss the start of a movie. A key to building a reliable transportation system is to build a system that is resilient — a system that has enough alternate routes and modes for people that it isn’t paralyzed by a construction project, a stadium event, a crash or a bridge opening.
How do we get there? One part of the strategy includes investments in more and better transit service. This includes city investments in rapid transit infrastructure, like the plans for a rapid bus running its own lanes down the center of Madison Street. It also means supporting and passing a Sound Transit 3 vote to further expand regional high capacity transit service.
But another part of the solution can be realized much more quickly and much more cheaply: Build a connected network of safe and comfortable bike routes.
It became a recurring theme on social media during yesterday’s traffic jam: Bikes were the only way to get anywhere on time.
Buses on 2nd pic.twitter.com/PO2Wiq7gsb
— Dongho Chang (@dongho_chang) March 25, 2015
@dongho_chang bike lane looks clear.
— Michael C. Lindblom (@MikeLindblom) March 25, 2015
So glad I biked today pic.twitter.com/IuAHDmsmcH
— Mike Baker (@ByMikeBaker) March 25, 2015
It sounds like anyone trying to get out of downtown might want to swing by a shop and buy a bike. I’m not joking. #SEAbikes
— Seattle Bike Blog (@seabikeblog) March 25, 2015
— Ranger M (@ParkRangerM) March 25, 2015
Haha oh god. Why didn't I bike today? RT @SeattlePD "SR-99 traffic situation complicated by very large load of fish in overturned semi…"
— Ellie (@stellanor) March 25, 2015
And a lot people turned to Pronto. In fact, day pass Pronto sales during the evening rush were 380 percent higher than the same time period a week earlier and 1,500 percent higher than the same time period one day earlier.
— Joshua Trujillo (@joshtrujillo) March 25, 2015
After 1.5hrs and only 0.5mi traveled, I abandoned the car and hopped on a @CyclePronto. Next mile was only 5 min. Thanks, Pronto!
— Michael Knowles (@mapledyne) March 25, 2015
— Anne (@AeroGrrlWMU) March 25, 2015
The number of people who could count on biking as a way around traffic would dramatically increase if bike routes to and through downtown were complete and connected. The prospect of squeezing by on the car-clogged streets leading out of downtown is not appealing to whole lot of people. And more people could have used Pronto if its service area was expanded.
That’s why the city’s plans to build a network of downtown bike lanes can’t happen soon enough. It’s also why the Move Seattle levy needs to include bold funding to make serious progress on the Bike Master Plan, and why Seattle needs to pass it this November.
Depending on highways packed with cars (and in the way of buses) will not keep a growing Seattle moving. It’s already a broken system. Even people who drive are recognizing that multimodal investments are the way forward:
As anti-car as all this may sound — it will probably make driving and parking down here more difficult than it already is — it’s also by far the most cost-effective way to move more people through a congested city. The other options are even more radical, such as barring new development (goodbye Amazon), or building new road rights of way at incredible cost (hello Bertha).
Bigger cities are already taking back some streets from cars (Chicago, for one). It’s not about waging war. It’s just the math of the big city commons. Which is that they keep making more cars, but they can’t make more streets.
So something’s got to give. If anything it’s overdue that it’s finally the cars.