I sought out Mark Hallenbeck because I wanted answers to the region’s transportation problems, and because I wanted to gripe about my own traffic frustrations and let him confirm the injustice of it.
I don’t like sitting in traffic, or finding the route I’ve chosen blocked by construction or an accident or for no apparent reason, and that seems to happen all the time now. We had a couple of major traffic snarls last week that focused my attention and I heard Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center, explaining why they happened on KUOW, so I went to his office to find out how to fix the system.
On the radio, he expounded on his Wile E. Coyote theory. Basically, our roads are beyond maxed out, but like Wile E. when he’s just run off a cliff, we keep moving until suddenly the laws of nature take hold and down we go. It takes only the smallest blip to crash the overtaxed system. (Or should I say undertaxed and overburdened?)
Maybe an engineer would suggest building more roads and more transit, but maybe not. As Hallenbeck tells his University of Washington students, it depends.
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Hallenbeck has spent decades on this stuff, but instead of plying me with data, he got all philosophical. Perspective is everything, he said, and people need to be nice and share and be equitable. “We need a Nelson Mandela of transportation,” he said.
Drivers get mad at cyclists and cyclists at drivers. People want better roads where they travel, but don’t want to pay for roads for anyone else (or even for themselves, expecting someone else to pick up the tab). Mass transit thrives with density, but not everyone likes density.
“Equity is the right answer,” he said, “but finding and being able to sell that is the hard part.” Political gridlock, anti-tax sentiment and public expectations that don’t match current circumstances make it hard.
Hallenbeck said he’s kind of an Eisenhower Republican, a nearly extinct species, who believes in making compromises for the common good. We don’t always act as if we realize we are interdependent because we are seeing things only from our own perspective, and usually not accurately.
Like, how bad is traffic really? Well, it’s bad, but Hallenbeck’s family moved from Bellevue to Southern California, where he lived until coming to the UW for college. There’s traffic and then there’s serious traffic, but if you’re stuck it all feels bad.
Hallenbeck used to drive to the UW from the Eastside — 45 minutes in the morning and an hour and a half in the evening. He did that for 25 years, living in a house with 3½ garages, and enough room for his kids to play soccer.
But after the children were gone, the commute made no sense, so he and his wife moved to a smaller house just north of the UW, and for the past five years he’s been commuting by bike, about eight minutes in the morning and 12 minutes, slightly uphill, in the evening.
Hallenbeck isn’t a political cyclist, he said. He does it not to save the environment or make a statement, but because it’s what makes sense to him. And instead of arriving home stressed by traffic, the exertion of biking and the need for intense attention to the road clears his mind of work stress by the time he arrives home.
He thinks that the cycle tracks Seattle is building will cause an explosion of biking because protected bike lanes will make cycling safe enough for more people.
And financially there is logic to reserving space for bikes. Roads cost a lot to maintain, and our tax system makes that work reliant on per-gallon gasoline taxes, which have been bringing in less money as cars become more efficient. People don’t want to pay for better roads, so dedicating more space to bikes reduces costs to the public.
Does the city of Seattle care about car commuters from Mill Creek, he asks? Do those commuters care about Seattle’s needs? Do people in different parts of the region want to pay for infrastructure where they don’t live, but that ultimately benefits them? Only if someone can explain that well enough. That didn’t happen with Metro’s recent transportation package which failed to pass in April’s election, he said.
No matter what, though, change is going to happen, he said, and people will adapt to it. “We’re a big city now.”
On cue, I got a flier in the mail from Sound Transit, inviting people to a series of meetings on its plans for the future. It asked “How will a million new neighbors change our region?” Well, I guess it depends — on us.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org