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If a truck filled with salmon can bring the city to a crawl, we need more transportation choices

Image compiled by KIRO Radio Traffic.
Image compiled by KIRO Radio Traffic.

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:

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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.

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.

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.

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25 responses to “If a truck filled with salmon can bring the city to a crawl, we need more transportation choices”

  1. Jack Nolan

    Great compilation.

    I bike commute to and from the Eastside, and I had no idea there was a major disruption yestrday.

    It was a bit wet, but that passed, and I made it home in the same amount of time that I always do.

    It is a fragile system. But unless people are willing to adapt, no amount of investment will change that.

    Great article.

    1. Gary

      Me too, and unfortunately rode the bus yesterday. Oh well, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it was for all those car drivers.

      Still riding the distance I do would not be possible without my office building having a shower.

      For what it’s worth, Amazon has excellent bicycle facilities. So being soon that 25% of the office space in Seattle will be AMZN, and if those workers chose to ride they will be supported by their company. Traffic shouldn’t be totally unbareable for them.

    2. jt

      “It was a bit wet, but that passed.” That about sums up the median Seattle winter biking day!

      I think people always respond to incentives. It just may take a while. If people regularly see 1.5-hour-drives to make it 5 miles home, and they hear from a co-worker that the bike ride takes only 25 minutes, on safe protected lanes, some fraction of them will come around. I know my wife would commute downtown in a heartbeat if there were a safe route from north of the ship canal.

  2. Ellie

    Yes to all of this.

    Without even the deep transit investments I want to see around here, we might get closer to this kind of future where anyone who is comfortable with a short-to-medium length bike ride could have a reasonable last minute, traffic-free commute when this kind of gridlock happens. If we combine light rail’s planned north expansions with comprehensive Pronto coverage throughout Seattle, then you could travel from almost any spot in the city to any other with a 0-5 mile east-west bike ride on each end of a ferry or train trip. (Outliers, of course–West Seattle to Beacon Hill station would not be very fun.)

    We’re not there yet though. Pronto’s limited service area was a bummer for me yesterday. I both live and work a few miles (or more) from the nearest stations, although I live about a mile from light rail. If Pronto were city wide I would have left my car at work, paid the overage fees, and ridden that heavy bike 10 hilly miles home.

    1. RossB

      I agree. It will be a long time (if ever) that we get a comprehensive subway/bus system that can provide fast, easy travel throughout the city. For example, when you do think the Central District, an area more suited for light rail than most of the city (because of its location and population density) will get light rail? It isn’t even being planned right now.

      But we can get pretty good light rail to bike interaction. Both Capitol Hill and Husky Stadium station are especially well suited for Pronto as well as big bike lockers. A year from now, the fastest way to get from Fremont to Capitol Hill will be to bike to Husky Stadium, then take the train. That will be faster than driving, even without crazy bad traffic. But we have to do the little things right, like make sure it isn’t a pain in the butt to get from the subway stop to the bike.

  3. Chad

    So happy to be commuting by bike and not being impacted by traffic problems!

  4. Andres Salomon

    Even The Seattle Times showcased how effective Pronto was yesterday: http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/transportation/seattle-police-overturned-fish-truck-ruined-everyones-day/

    2015: the year ST finally came around to realistic transportation solutions in Seattle?

    1. Hutch

      A few years of sitting in Amazon gridlock in SLU has softened them a bit, for sure. We’ll see if the rubber meets the road when the ed board takes a position on Move Seattle.

      1. RossB

        There is a huge disconnect between the editorial staff and the reporters. This is how it should be, but it is really irritating to read. Sometimes I wish the Blethen’s read their own paper.

        Westneat is a lot more independent, and lot more likely to say things that make sense. He isn’t afraid to say “our public transportation system sucks” and urbanists hammered him because of it. But he is right (it isn’t that good) and sometimes you have to mention that. Folks sometimes mistake criticism for negativity, and blind enthusiasm for support.

        Meanwhile, Jon Talton gets it right almost all the time. He understands the big things that are happening in the world, and our little place in it. While the editorial staff is often ridiculous, they at least get the social issues right (gay marriage, marijuana, abortion). They simply fail when it comes to fiscal issues (all taxes are bad, etc.).

  5. SGG


    I guess the water taxi had to turn people away there were so many people trying to use it.

  6. Urban birder

    MONORAIL! Rise above it all – remember?

    The other transportation mode that wasn’t impacted by a fish truck – walking.

    1. Peri Hartman

      Ah, that makes me sad to think about it. I have a monorail poster on the wall.

  7. Ted Diamond

    Last August, a motorcycle crash with a fatality on 99 tied up southbound traffic through the city. The judge officiating for my daughter’s wedding was caught in that, and was an hour late to the wedding. The wedding party and all the guests spent that hour thinking about this same exact issue — that a problem on one north-south artery stops traffic throughout the city.

  8. Kirk

    Yesterday was one of only two days this year I’ve driven to work downtown. OUCH! 1.5 hours to Ballard. It sure underscored for me why I love to ride my bike to work.

  9. Alkibkr

    Yes, more Pronto Stations. Extend the service area down to Spokane Street and across the West Seattle Bridge to, say, Spokane and Avalon or the last inbound RR C Line stop at Yancy. It’s only about 4 miles and mostly flat terrain along E Marginal Way or 1st Avenue. Then have more circulator buses inside West Seattle serving the neighborhoods.

  10. M

    The answer is bikes?? You’re going to fix this problem with bikes?

    You need all the tools in the tool box to fix this problem.

    1. Capitol Hillian

      Looks like you didn’t read the article. Let me help:

      “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.”

    2. Gary

      Yep, Bikes, simple, flexible and healthy. Two weeks ago there was a bad accident on Pike & Bellevue with a bus and scooter. Police had the whole intersection blocked off for hours. I rode around it in seconds.

  11. […] Tuesday’s salmon-induced traffic meltdown, Seattle Bike Blog argues for mode redundancy and transportation choices. While there’s no reason to be smug, it is nonetheless true that Link and Sounder were […]

  12. Alkibkr

    So consider this a disaster drill where you need to evacuate the downtown area. I think most people would gladly choose walking or biking over sitting trapped in a car or bus to get out of the gridlocked area. This is why we badly Need an extensive network of separated multi-purpose trails that cannot be clogged by cars and buses. And a more extensive bike share system. Even light rail can be blocked or damaged. So yes, bikes. And bike infrastructure.

    1. Andres Salomon

      Yes! Similar to the Disaster Relief Trials, every year the city can have a Salmon Evacuation Trials. Pick a random piece of infrastructure (highway, important public transit line, bike trail, etc), close it on a random day just before rush hour. The race starts from the opposite side of the closure area. Cars, bikes, public transit are all fair game. The goal is to get from the closure area to whatever is designated as “home”. Prizes awarded to the winner, to the most milage in the least amount of time, to the most creative solution for getting to the endpoint, etc. But most importantly, every participant agrees to document their journey in detail (or wear a gps tracker or something). The city can look at what works, what doesn’t work with our transportation system. Then they fix the broken stuff.

      So what’dya say? Council, Mayor, SDOT, can we do this? :)


      1. Peri Hartman

        Whoa you guys! There are similarities to disaster handling but a blocking during rush hour isn’t the same. The principle difference is that there is no disaster that people are evacuating from.

        In other words, apart from the blockage, people are trying to get to the places they normally do. In a disaster, everyone is leaving. There’s a huge difference in the effect on traffic management between the two situations.

      2. RTK

        So would this be Salomon’s Salmon Trials, it has a has a nice ring to it…

      3. Kimberly Kinchen

        Replying to Peri: Hurricane Sandy is an example of a disaster where most people in NYC didn’t evacuate but did have to go on trying to get to their job etc., and where bikes were indispensable both as tools in the relief response and offering a transportation alternative to the subway lines that were flooded for weeks or to car commuting, etc. Disasters aren’t defined by the need to evacuate, they are defined by massive disruption of regular life (I would argue). There are plenty of similarities.

  13. Steven Miller

    Most vehicles have only one passenger. Every time I visit Seattle, I-5 is severely congested. Only provide one lane for single occupant vehicles during rush hours. Traffic problem solved!

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