Transit riders, pedestrians and drivers across the Puget Sound region say they have specific strategies for coping with long, daily commutes — some more creative than most.
The sound of Dorothy Downes’ harmonica isn’t the point — that’s not why the Skagit County woman occasionally plays the instrument while stopped on Interstate 5 driving to and from work in Seattle.
“It is the commitment to self-care and a healthy coping strategy,” she said.
A “Happy Birthday” or holiday song requires deep breathing that lowers frustration and increases alertness on the road, said Downes, a registered nurse.
Four tips for surviving stressful commutes
• Rely on app-based GPS services. They can show traffic delays and road closures, hopefully getting you home faster.
• Twitter can be handy, too. Follow @seattledot for live traffic updates in Seattle. WSDOT uses @wsdot and @wsdot_traffic. (But if you’re driving, don’t check your phone while you’re behind the wheel — distracted driving kills.)
• Plan ahead. Preparing a music playlist to match your mood or scenery can do a lot for making time fly. Or, do research in advance for a new podcast series or audiobook.
• Find a buddy. Carpooling not only makes for fewer cars on the road, but you can swap coping strategies.
Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, CenturyLink, Kemper Development Co., Sabey Corp., Seattle Children’s hospital and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.
Nowadays, a trick like hers for surviving long, daily commutes in the Seattle area is just a part of the Rain City package. With a swelling population challenging transit systems and maxing out major roadways, people throughout the Puget Sound region say they have found their own ways to deal with the growing congestion.
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Over weeks, The Seattle Times fielded dozens of responses via emails and phone calls from transit riders, drivers, pedestrians and others who shared how they manage transportation headaches. The methods range from as simple as choosing the right music playlist for commuting to as complicated as changing jobs, daily schedules and even homes.
“This may sound passive aggressive but I take sick satisfaction in taking pics of drivers in the HOV lane with only one person in the car,” said one woman, describing how she passes time while stopped on Highway 520, heading from Redmond to Seattle.
“I don’t do anything with the photos because I’m convinced it would result in bad karma,” she said. “Just seeing people realize what I’m doing” is enough.
Grace Lee, 30, who works in downtown Seattle, said she makes a point to linger in the city after work, whether by meeting friends for happy hour or working out, to avoid making her drive home to Puyallup during rush hour.
“I can rant about this topic for hours,” she said.
Whether frustrated or inspired by Seattle’s growth, these stories come as Sound Transit maps out plans to expand light-rail and bus service over the coming decades.
Still, getting around the region — and enjoying it — will take patience and maybe a shift in behavior.
“There are too many people and cars now,” said Chris Alton, 48, who said his IT support business in Magnolia has given up some clients over the years because technicians can’t get around like they used to. “It seems as if in a blink of an eye we have become San Francisco. ”
Views change outlook
Not all Seattle-area commuters are frustrated.
With waterfront views and a quickly changing urban environment, the city’s scenery makes for enjoyable commutes, a few said. Some people who walk or bike to work in Seattle said the same, emphasizing traffic jams as part of the landscape.
Biking “gives me some freedom; side streets offer a quiet right of way and a scenic alternative to I-5 or Aurora,” Jimmy Matsuura, 29, said of his roughly four-mile ride to work from Seattle’s Bitter Lake neighborhood to the University of Washington.
Data published in February by Commute Seattle, a nonprofit funded by business and transportation agencies, showed that as the number of people who work in and around downtown Seattle grows, a larger share are walking, bicycling, carpooling and telecommuting. Only 30 percent drive alone, according to the report.
Malachi Church said he looks forward to riding his motorcycle to respond to urgent work issues as an environmental specialist, enjoying views such as the Lake Washington Ship Canal on the way.
Church, 20, lives on a Fremont sailboat, where he takes special care in queuing up music for the rides on his phone, usually by artists such as The Kinks, or Seattle’s Nirvana and Alice In Chains. He slips in earbuds, presses play and gets “all psyched up,” he said.
“Riding around the Seattle area, listening to Seattle rock, taking in a view of Seattle — other riders come alongside you and you give a wave,” Church said. “I have a great time. ”
Many respondents said they, too, rely on special playlists, radio shows, audiobooks or podcasts to improve their daily trips.
Nancy Whittaker, 55, a self-described aggressive driver, said with the right audiobook, she mellows out on the road, heading to Seattle’s University District from Kirkland. Listening to news, on the other hand, worsens her mood, she said.
Paul Janders, 61, of Ballard, said comedy helps him stay calm while driving.
“Listening to a little Louis C.K., Kevin Hart, etc., immediately makes me laugh and puts a smile on my face,” he said in an email, adding that slow traffic no longer seems like a big deal.
Driving costs money
For Ginny Bear, a piano technician, more time on the road can mean less time making money. She starts each day at her West Seattle home, where she uses Google Maps to calculate multiple trips daily to places such as churches and schools to tune pianos. The destinations can range as far north as Edmonds, as east as Sammamish and as south as Kent.
“I don’t mind driving, and sometimes I play my Norwegian language educational CD to make this time more productive,” said Bear, 65. “But time on the road isn’t financially productive.”
Charles Forsher, 72, also tries to make good use of his travel time: He sometimes incorporates Buddhist meditation practices — deep breathing and self reflection — while riding Metro Transit’s Route 5 bus in North Seattle. Other bus commuters said they usually catch up on emails or the news.
Some people shared more dramatic stories of coping with traffic congestion. They change daily schedules, jobs or even homes to avoid peak travel times or dense areas, such as Capitol Hill or downtown.
Scott Souchock, 55, said he now gets up at the crack of dawn for a 6 a.m. shift as a graphic designer on Capitol Hill to avoid messy traffic in the city’s Montlake neighborhood. “I couldn’t handle the stress anymore,” he said.
For Arthur Hopkins, 81, of Federal Way, traffic stress hasn’t ended with retirement. He avoids I-5 and takes “back roads” on his occasional drives to Seattle.
Hopkins said he’s looking forward to seeing how Sound Transit 3’s light-rail expansion changes commuting, though he’s unsure if he and his wife have patience for the area’s gridlock in the meantime.
“We’re thinking of moving to a small city, maybe in Oregon, because of it,” he said.
Many respondents said they’ve indeed moved to avoid the traffic. A couple even said it pushed them out of Washington state entirely.
“How do we cope with Seattle traffic?” one woman wrote. “My family and I packed up our stuff and moved to France this summer, that’s how.”
Got road rage?
Do you feel rage on the road? Or, have you been a victim of aggressive driving? Please contact reporter Jessica Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-2532 to share your story.