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We have just proven that Seattle doesn’t need a highway tunnel or massive waterfront road

Do we really need all this?

So it turns out that when people across the Seattle region plan ahead and change their transportation habits, we can prove to ourselves that we don’t need SR 99 to go through downtown after all. After months of news stories about how terrible traffic would be once the Viaduct closed for good, traffic during the first couple commutes was not much worse than it was before.

We should be celebrating this accomplishment, because people all across the region had to work together to make this happen. It is empowering to know that we don’t need a new car tunnel or a nine-lane waterfront road, that we can change our habits to reduce our dependence on cars and burning oil. Cars are a major cause of preventable death and serious injury in our region, and transportation is our biggest source of greenhouse gasses. But it’s so easy to feel defeated because reducing driving just seems like an impossible lift.

These demonstrations are important because we have far too little faith in our collective ability to change, and that’s holding us back from addressing the massive challenges ahead of us. This pessimism led state Democrats to invest billions in a too-good-to-be-true car tunnel solution to the Alaskan Way Viaduct rather than investing in non-driving methods to move people and goods through the region. The same pessimism led Seattle voters to back that tunnel (well, the lack of a cohesive vision for an alternative didn’t help). A lot of people who care about addressing climate change still supported the tunnel because they just couldn’t imagine that our region could survive without two north-south freeways through downtown.

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Worse, leaders were so pessimistic about our ability to change that they allowed the Viaduct to remain in heavy use for 18 years knowing full well that it would collapse in an earthquake. We got lucky, but that was not a gamble worth taking.

So it’s not just important that traffic wasn’t so bad Monday and Tuesday, it’s important that the people of our region take time to recognize and celebrate what this accomplishment represents.

And this is not the first time we’ve done this. In fact, Seattle has proven this point several times before during extended Viaduct closures. The problem is that as time goes on, people tend to slip back into old driving habits, especially if the method they chose to replace their car trip proved not all that great. So if the past repeats itself, you should expect traffic to creep up over the next week or so.

But it didn’t need to be this way. Imagine how different things would be if we had fully invested in transit and a connected bike network rather than digging a massive car tunnel. Today, as people look for ways to avoid driving their typical SR 99 routes, they could have had light rail to West Seattle and Ballard, more express bus routes to more neighborhoods across the region and bike lanes to and through downtown that are separated from car traffic most or all the way. Basically, people across the region could have had so many more tools to work with when piecing together a new way to get around.

Instead, we chose the car tunnel. And we’re about to make another point cities across the world have proven many times before: Traffic will still suck once the tunnel opens. Because you can’t just bury car dependency in the ground. You need to rise above it with modes that actually fit in densely-packed areas: Transit, biking and walking. You also need to build affordable housing oriented around transit access rather than highways so lower-income folks aren’t simply pushed into the places with the worst traffic to bear the burden of dysfunctional car-oriented planning.

We don’t have a time machine to go back and change the tunnel decision. But we can learn from it and from this week’s demonstration that people can change their driving habits. The next generation of leadership in our city and state need to have faith in the people they represent and should ditch the pessimism of previous leaders. There are a lot of great land use and housing bills hitting desks in Olympia right now, and they could be a very good start. Seattle’s City Council is debating big city rezone plans right now, and they have a chance to believe in the people and push for the boldest options to create the most housing that is affordable for everyone. This is no time to water things down to appease people afraid of change. We know we can change when we need to.

Last year, Mayor Jenny Durkan and SDOT snoozed on a lot of opportunities to make sure bus and bike lanes were all connected and in place before the SR 99 shutdown began. But they can still take action this year to catch up. People this week have shown their eagerness for biking, walking and transit options to get around. Now it is on the mayor to deliver. She can’t go back and change major past decisions to invest in the tunnel or build light rail to West Seattle and Ballard more quickly, but she can paint key sections of the Basic Bike Network to help folks get from SE Seattle to downtown or from the Elliott Bay Trail to Pier 66 or from the Westlake Bikeway to 2nd Ave, to name a couple examples. And she can paint more bus lanes to make sure transit can get around major traffic pinch points.

The need for these improvements won’t go away when the tunnel opens. The shift away from driving is a longterm need for our region and the world. The supposed downsides to building better biking, walking and transit infrastructure is all in our heads. If we don’t need the Alaskan Way Viaduct flying cars over downtown, surely we can also get by without a lane here and some parking spots there.

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41 responses to “We have just proven that Seattle doesn’t need a highway tunnel or massive waterfront road”

  1. Jimmy Gay

    You are so radical on this issue it makes my head hurt. You all say Trump is Dumb, yet the most ignorant things come out of your mouths on a daily basis. You cant wait to jump on 3 days worth of data to prove something you know nothing about. Just put you little bag back over your head and put a helmet on top of that, and go bike somewhere. Leave the big transportation projects to the big boys and girls that know how to think ahead.

    1. Dave

      Calling people stupid is never going to win an argument. Please tell us how replacing the 6 lane viaduct with a 4 lane tunnel without downtown access is going to solve our traffic problems. We are all ears.

    2. Q

      Love this, a pro-trump anti bike troll post on a bike blog on a wednesday afternoon. Clearly Jimmy Gay is an Important Person with Relevant Things To Say.

    3. (Another) Tom

      Spoken like a guy that just got sold on a new car. (You been had!)

      So. So radical.

      “You all say Trump is Dumb”
      Actually I just did a ctrl+F to verify and you are the only one that said that…

      Have fun in traffic!

    4. Jack

      We’ll have 3 weeks of data soon enough. There’s also extensive data about how adding lanes to highways doesn’t change congestion.

  2. This part is so true:
    Cars are a major cause of preventable death and serious injury in our region, and transportation is our biggest source of greenhouse gasses.

    I wonder if there’s a way to compare crash/injury or GHG stats during the closure?

    1. foos_boo

      Hey, we need those preventable deaths! It’s already crowded enough here.

  3. Peri Hartman

    We’ll have the tunnel shortly, but what isn’t too late to change is the waterfront. If it’s true – and 3 days out of 3 weeks may not be enough to know – then let’s make a better waterfront.

    Most of the proposed waterfront is 6 lanes (not 9). Two general purpose in each direction plus one bus lane. There are probably turn pockets making this 7. And by the ferry terminal it balloons.

    Anyway, if we truly don’t need the capacity, let’s reduce that to one general purpose lane each way, one transit lane, plus turn pockets or a center turn lane. That would, in general, give an additional 20′ of park width. Could the city get behind this? Would it upset the schedule and budget?

    20′ may not sound like a lot but parts of the strip are skinny. It would make a difference. The fact that we will still have an arterial along the waterfront sucks. But if we can reduce it by 20′, it would be better.

    1. NickS

      There are some details in this article — https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/transportation/8-lane-highway-for-seattles-future-alaskan-way-challenged/ — about why we ended up with an absurdly wide waterfront highway vs. a pedestrian friendly boulevard. Here’s a couple of quotes of the most relevant bits:

      “Two general-traffic lanes each way are required by the Port of Seattle’s agreement to contribute $300 million to the $3.1 billion viaduct replacement, co-signed in 2010 by then-Gov. Chris Gregoire. King County Metro Transit insisted on a bus lane each way, to prevent delays for 30,000 passengers who use viaduct routes now. The state ferry system sought two left-turn lanes. And the grand total becomes nine, if you count the northbound parking-loading zone.”

      “Part of Alaskan Way — from the ferry terminal to Edgar Martinez Drive South — is technically Highway 519. The state Department of Transportation insists on four general lanes.”

  4. bill

    It is unfortunate a puerile troll called you out Tom, but in fact this post (and some posts that are appearing on facebook) make the cycling community look like simpletons.

    Federal employees are not going to work. How many cars has that taken off the road? The general community can change their routines for a short time, putting off some trips or tolerating unpleasant busses or even riding bikes. Two days is not a new normal. It is an accommodation to temporary disruption. People are going to return to their customary patterns, cautiously perhaps during the next three weeks, and more seriously when the tunnel opens — that will herald a new normal. Maybe we will see a permanent increase in bike commuting. I hope so. (Although the coming reconstruction of E Marginal will probably deepsix bike commuting from West Seattle unless SDOT does an extraordinarily good job of providing bike access.) But we are not going to see the tunnel go lacking for use.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      The post clearly says that these two days are not going to be permanent or “the new normal.” My point is that even if it proves to last just a few days or a week or whatever, we should recognize that we are capable of changing. It’s a demonstration of the possibilities, proof that it is possible.

      1. Steve

        There are a bunch of companies that are letting employees temporarily work from home; temporarily removing tens of thousands of cars from the road. The temporary change over the next couple weeks is not sustainable by the companies that are making sacrifices to keep the roads clear, and this does not indicate a permanent change is possible.

      2. Law Abider

        The temporary change over the next couple weeks is not sustainable by the companies that are making sacrifices to keep the roads clear, and this does not indicate a permanent change is possible.

        You’ve hit the issue right on the nose here. People’s commuting habits tend to be driven by their workplaces, which they have little to no control over. Most people will revert after Viadoom because they have to.

        While it may not be sustainable long term for a lot of the companies making concessions during Viadoom (working from home, modified work hours, etc), any company worth its weight is definitely taking notes to see if portions of the concessions can be permanently incorporated into standard practice moving forward, be it for employee moral or workplace efficiencies.

      3. Andres Salomon

        This stuff is perfectly sustainable. No one’s saying that every single person has to work from home or bike, but if we can get employers to let employees pick one random day of the week to work from home, that’s a 20% reduction in weekly traffic. Encourage them to bike or take transit at least one other day of the week (by paying them, or giving out free bikes & transit passes, or letting them come in later/leave earlier if the commute by transit/bike is longer, etc), that’s a 40% reduction in traffic. Seattle can do this, if our city government cared.

    2. The East Marginal Way Corridor Improvement Project (at 10% design) will be the game changer for West Seattle bike commuting to downtown. That, in combination with the protected bike lanes in the Avalon Way Paving Project (at 60% design) and the Fauntleroy Boulevard Project (ready to go out to bid but on hold) will create a fully developed, safe bike route from West Seattle’s fastest growing Urban Villages. Trail and greenways feed into this route. They all need your advocacy to get past the car-centric opponents of change.

      Please don’t obsess about the couple block section of Alaskan Way with 9 lanes — those are ferry holding lanes and bus lanes vital to West Seattle and beyond. Would you rather put ferry holding over water? Or tear down a block of Pioneer Square for vehicle holding? Or give up the wider promenade and landscaping?
      Better to focus on the Downtown Basic Bike Network and connections by bike to great routes to the Urban Villages.

  5. Tim F

    Another thing to watch for as the tunnel is opened is that the newly reconnected street grid near Seattle Center isn’t immediately given over immediately and entirely to driving. Those connections weren’t available to drive on for decades, so no one will miss them if they are used to make riding a bus, walking or biking practical and pleasant. In our neighborhoods that sometimes feel like one big off-ramp from a highway leading straight into a parking ramp, people will flock to streets that do better.

    1. Dave F

      Speaking of, what is the plan to reconnect the street grid over Aurora in SLU? If we haven’t demanded protected bike lanes as part of every new block stitching the grid back together, we have missed a huge opportunity. It would be so much easier to fight fears about ‘taking away parking’ if the parking didn’t exist yet.

      1. RossB

        There is no official plan. The general plan, though, is that Harrison is supposed to be for buses, while Thomas (or maybe John) is supposed to be a lot more pedestrian friendly. You can see that Metro has plans for using Harrison in the future, based on their long range plan (http://www.kcmetrovision.org/wp-content/themes/kcmlrtp/LongRangePlan/#). It would make sense to add bus lanes across Harrison (or one of those streets) because it wouldn’t involve “taking” lanes (since you can’t cross today). The only problem with adding bus lanes to Harrison is that it puts it close to the ramps for the new tunnel. To get from South Lake Union to southbound SR 99, you are supposed to cross on Harrison, and then loop around, via 6th (you can see that on this map: https://goo.gl/maps/YxfWWNywSNw). Obviously no one talked with the city or Metro about the tunnel. Likewise, no one talked to the city or Metro about the southbound ramp from the highway to downtown (from the highway part of Aurora, to the local street part of Aurora). It is on the left side of the road, making bus travel very difficult. Buses along Aurora carry somewhere are forty thousands riders a day, which is probably more than the tunnel will carry.

        Anyway, back to bikes. It would make sense to add bike lanes on Thomas or John (or both).

  6. Steve

    At my company alone, over 5,000 employees were given the ok to work from home for the visit closure. Not everyone too them up on it, but well over half of them did. I also know of teams at Amazon, Expedia, and Fred Hutch that are doing the same; also King County extended a work from home policy for people who can do it, and I’m sure other companies are doing the same thing. It’s not practical or sustainable for these companies to keep that up for long periods, and having tens of thousands of people work from home definitely skews any data regarding traffic congestion over the next couple weeks.

    1. Jeik

      Car commuting is not practical or sustainable for long periods. People literally die. The negative impact of telecommuting is…too many conference calls?

  7. kDavid

    I think to Tom’s point: if these companies and people can modify their behavior “temporarily” – why not permanently?
    Supporting alternate modes to commute or alternate [remote] ways to work should be hiring and retention advantages to the savvy company – not a temporary inconvenience.
    In this instance, #gobybike solves some real problems for people in a tangible way (congestion and commute times), let alone the other well documented advantages. The City of Seattle should embrace this opportunity 2000%!

  8. Clark in Vancouver

    I agree with everything you say here. The amount of money that just gets automatically assigned to motor vehicle infrastructure is astounding. All other travel modes get thrown scraps or get nothing at all.
    I think some people have gone all their lives using a car for every trip that they just cannot imagine any other way. They tend to also hold the idea that it’s the only way to have mobility.
    People need to get around. Expecting everyone to use a car for every trip indicates a dysfunctional system. Not giving choices indicates a classist society.
    Car culture has had half a century to find a way that all can benefit but it hasn’t. Things have only gotten worse. There are more and more cars bu still many people cannot get in on it. Many people who have got in on it find it’s not working for them but they have no alternative. We keep giving them more and more and they keep wanting more and more. We gotta set some limits and let some other modes get a bit too. Waiting until every motorist is satisfied means waiting forever. We can’t wait for them.

    My experience in Vancouver has been that cultural change naturally happens when you change the environment. People move here from a car-centric place and love the difference. During the 2010 Olympics many people didn’t drive to work for the two weeks and while many returned to driving after, many did not. They had discovered other ways and for some of them, for some of their trips they found that other ways are just as good or better. One of the coolest things is looking out the window on the Skytrain and seeing the traffic jams below while you cruise overhead at 90 km/h.

    So, about the tunnel. Sure, whatevz. They can have their little tunnel but please don’t get in the way of others who just simply want mobility as well. There should have been strings attached to the deal. No tunnel without a complete bike network. No tunnel without a BRT and light rail network.

  9. Mike

    Yes, I changed my “habit.” I’m leaving for work at 5:30 a.m. and coming home well after 7:00 p.m. It’s simply not sustainable or healthy. I appreciate the sentiment, but think you may be missing the mark on this one. BTW, I commuted by bike for years with 15-20 mile one-way commutes. My current job is not conducive to continuing this, nor did the many near misses make me want keep it up. Bottom line, there’s not one solution, and like another poster pointed out, I think you may be a little premature on your analysis.

  10. This. This is the article that I have been waiting for someone to write! So true. Yes there are many factors that are making this work right now, but that’s just it, we can make temporary things more permanent. This is the best evidence yet that biking, walking, and public transit are the answer. Let’s build infrastructure that gives options, is clean, healthy, and can handle large amounts of people.

  11. Bob Said

    If they said a hurricane was going to hit and services might be out for a few weeks and every one stocked up on food….Then some one might say we dont need grocery stores any more because no one went shopping for a week…lol

    Behavior change for a few weeks means nothing…Face it many many people dont plan to stop driving their car ever no matter how hard they make driving….

    People are playing nice now but Seattle would freeze up with out highway 99…..

  12. Southeasterner

    Great points and while it probably is premature to call out the tunnel it’s looking much more likely the waterfront is going to be significantly overbuilt, especially since we were sold on re-connecting the waterfront…not isolating it with nine lanes of roadway.

    If the Port does end up moving the cruise terminal to their property in SODO it will further alleviate any concerns on waterfront vehicle access.

  13. Tom, you hit the nail on the head with this one. West Seattle has been a transit utopia this week thanks to the additional buses + water taxi, improvements to the bus-only lanes, and the large number of people biking to work. The amazing thing is that the improved northbound bus route is better than the regular one which has an awful merge with SOVs to get from the high bridge to 99 N. Considering how bad of a bottleneck that merge is, it seems like it only required action from a couple hundred to maybe a thousand SOV drivers to make a dramatic difference. It shows how inefficient cars are as a mode of transit in a big city.

    Also, our elected leadership deserves a big kudos for the planning and execution of the mitigation plan. Their initial plans were a little weak but they responded to feedback/criticism, put in extra bus lanes in a few key spots (4th Ave S), and generally succeeded at preventing massive gridlock. I’m optimistic that the lessons learned will build momentum for other bike/transit projects that have recently stalled.

    1. Tim F

      “it only required action from a couple hundred to maybe a thousand SOV drivers to make a dramatic difference”

      Exactly! I heard somewhere that the difference between a lazy weekend traffic day and absolute gridlock is maybe 20% of traffic volume. If you have 5% bicycle mode share, you’re a quarter of the way there. 10% bicycle mode share would be half the slack between terrible traffic and a far more enjoyable experience.

      Transit and better housing policies can get far higher numbers of cars off the road, of course. But biking and other strategies (telecommuting, carpooling, flexible work hours, etc.) are able to handle quite a large chunk of the remaining trips.

      1. RossB

        That’s a really strong argument for congestion pricing. Charge to drive downtown, and people drive less. People switch over to biking and taking a bus. As a result, buses move faster as do the private vehicles that have no choice but go downtown (e. g. delivery vehicles). The money from the tolls would be used for improving transit and bike infrastructure, further improving the situation.

  14. […] Seattle Bike Blog looks at what the lack of “doom” in Viadoom tells us about the region’s need for major road investments. […]

  15. asdf2

    There is another solution to avoid commuting hell, at least for that can afford it, and that’s to move closer to work.

    Before the move, my commute was about 9.5 miles, and took about 40 minutes via e-bike, or 35-55 minutes by bus, depending on wait times and traffic. Now, it’s exactly 6 minutes of walking and I’m in the office – no matter the weather, no matter the traffic.

    I realize that this doesn’t work for everyone, but for those with the economic means to move close to work, it is definitely worth considering.

  16. RossB

    It is probably a bit much to say “See — we really didn’t need to do anything”. Many of the steps people are taking are temporary. But I don’t think that is what Tom is saying. More to the point, it isn’t what anyone proposed. If we had spent half the money of this tunnel on infrastructure that really moves people, then it would have been more effective.

    Consider how things will be in a couple weeks, when the tunnel becomes the new normal. There will be no downtown ramps for SR 99. No ramps at Western, either. To get from Aurora to downtown will require using a left hand exit. This will mean every bus that serves Aurora (and there are a bunch, carrying tens of thousands of riders each day) will have to move over several lanes. It will also mean that someone on the east side of Queen Anne, at say Aloha, will enter the right lane, then move over twice to exit downtown. This won’t suddenly ease congestion — the “fix” will be minor, and the congestion permanent.

    Meanwhile, the buses are being kicked out of the bus tunnel, with nowhere to go. Those who decided to try the bus this last week still find the buses crowded, while Metro lacks the funds to add enough drivers (and buses) to handle the demand. Rather than the virtuous circle of more demand, more frequent bus service, you simply have crowding. Yet there is no money for improving the speed of the buses, or adding more of them. All the while the city wastes time talking about a pointless streetcar, and can’t even build a simple bike network.

    The point is, it didn’t have to be this way. We could have spent money wisely, and things could have been a lot better. We could have spent money on things that we know actually work, instead of pretending that automobile improvements scale. They don’t. Induced demand is real. Add more lanes and people will fill it. Seattle will always have traffic. Spending money on transit and bike infrastructure would have been a lot more effective, and a lot cheaper.

  17. Mr Bradley

    The phenomenon of traffic improving when elevated highways in cities are removed has been proven multiple times. It’s because of Braess paradox – “The brainchild of mathematician Dietrich Braess of Ruhr University Bochum in Germany, the eponymous paradox unfolds as an abstraction: it states that in a network in which all the moving entities rationally seek the most efficient route, adding extra capacity can actually reduce the network’s overall efficiency.”
    By turning this on its head and removing capacity, as Seoul did in 2012, despite freak out predictions (just like in Seattle), traffic flow actually improved rather than worsened.

    Now, there are/were not enough forward thinkers in Seattle to make this kind of choice before the Bertha problems and cost-overruns when Mayor McGinn predicted and then was railroaded out of office for opposing the rebuilt highway through the city. So don’t worry, once the tunnel opens, you’ll still have your freedom to be stuck in traffic in your car for years to come all the while paying a toll for privilege!

  18. Dave

    A few things to keep in mind:
    What happens if I5 in blocked?
    What about concrete trucks? They have 45 minutes to make it to the job site. Scheduling pours is tricky, once started they can’t stop.
    What about delivery trucks? They could change to nights then residents trying to sleep would complain.

    1. When the viaduct was up, when I-5 was blocked it still caused big traffic problems. It didn’t have nearly the capacity to handle I-5 traffic.

      When the tunnel is open, when I-5 gets blocked it will still cause big traffic problems. It won’t have nearly the capacity to handle I-5 traffic and every time we try to fit lots of traffic through it the surface street backups near the portals will be massive.

      With neither, both in the short term and the long term, we’d adjust. In the short term we’re adjusting in temporary ways; in the long term we’d adjust in permanent ways. The bottom line in both cases: fewer cars in and around downtown. That would take a lot of pressure off the concrete trucks and the delivery trucks and all of us during an I-5 blockage!

  19. Simon Jester

    I’m surprised the tunnel hasn’t been named yet.
    Remember the Bertha naming contest?

    I propose calling it the Seattle Highway In Tunnel.

    Then we can ask, do we really need this SHIT?

    1. Kirk

      Alaska Airlines Highway 99 Tunnel.

  20. Gary

    Hey I tried. I worked on getting the Monorail project in the hands of voters 5 times to build out the West Seattle to Ballard link well before the viaduct was ruled to come down. Had that been in place there wouldn’t have been 90,000 cars on the viaduct. The economics of the tunnel would have not penciled out. We’d still have traffic on Alaska way but we wouldn’t have spent 3B on a tunnel. (and yes the management of Joel Horn et.al. should have been run out of town on a rail.)

  21. Dave

    Think ahead to 2020–just next year, Vantucky, I mean Vancouver, WA will be squeezed in a slightly similar way when the Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River is partially closed for repairs. There is no part of King County that’s half as car-dependent as Clark County. 20+ years ago during a similar closure and before the Cascade train there was extra Amtrak service between Vancouver and Portland; it was well used and enjoyed.
    Wonder if the same thing could happen next year?

  22. bill

    Besides the hell West Seattle commuters have been experiencing since 99 shut down, Friday’s bus fire illustrates why Seattle needs a redundant N-S arterial for I-5. The tunnel may be an unfortunately expensive choice, but it is needed.

    Friday afternoon I gave myself an hour to drive nine miles to a medical appointment planned months ago. An hour was 2-3x the customary travel time when 99 was functioning. I was fine with that, this was a one-off trip, I thought I knew what to expect. Evidently I left just as the bus caught fire. When my hour was up I had not even reached I-5. I canceled my appointment. Then it took most of another hour to get home.

    Regarding the breezy citations of Braess’ Paradox, dig deeper. It is not a guaranteed effect.

  23. Fred B

    Sorry guys,but I strongly disagree. The space that bike lanes take, with the amount of people they transport,doesn’t justify their existence. Good for you if your a bike rider. Most people live too far away to ride to work, or need there vehicle for their job. Not every is physically capable of biking. Bike lanes create a haphazard for drivers of vehicles. One more thing to watch out for, smaller traffic lanes, less parking spaces. Can’t carry the quantity of items that many drivers need in their everyday job. But like everyone that has an agenda, I respect that you will keep fighting for something you believe in and love.

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