Last Monday’s traffic debacle is another opportunity to discuss whether Seattle’s making the right decisions about traffic.
AS the city of Seattle explains away its response to last Monday’s traffic debacle, area residents are shaking their heads and wondering when it will happen again.
They felt the same way after a 2015 fish-truck crash crippled the city. Mayor Ed Murray promised that Seattle would respond better in the future, based in part on an accident-response manual it was developing.
“The steps we are taking will help improve our response time and get traffic flowing after incidents as quickly as possible,” he said then.
City officials bristled when The Times revealed this week that the manual still isn’t done. They said it’s basically complete, just not yet bound into a manual.
The format is irrelevant. What matters is whether officials did what they promised and that it was effective. This is especially important when the outcome has far-reaching effects on safety, livability and economic activity.
Yes, Monday’s crash of a propane truck that closed Interstate 5 was an extraordinary event. Emergency responders are to be commended for preventing further injury.
Even so, the incident and paralyzing traffic that affected tens of thousands of people was a painful reminder of essential needs that Seattle, the regional hub, must fulfill.
It’s also another opportunity to discuss whether Seattle should place a higher priority on reducing congestion. No question it should. That would improve traffic overall and better position the city for accidents.
Because Seattle straddles state freeways at their busiest points, it should be ready to absorb the traffic when they’re disrupted.
For instance, more traffic police were needed at key intersections far from Monday’s accident. Perhaps the 1,239 new city employees Murray has hired could be cross-trained to provide emergency traffic control.
Major incidents will keep happening, and their effects are worsened because Seattle eliminated numerous arterial lanes in recent years. This reduced capacity hurt on Monday.
Lanes were replaced with bicycle paths. The problem isn’t adding bike paths, it’s that the city did so by reducing general traffic capacity. This makes the street network less resilient and capable of handling surges — and more dependent on I-5.
Murray should consider the network’s brittleness as he prepares to reconfigure downtown streets. His One Center City plan will likely eliminate more general-purpose lanes, cutting arterial capacity adjacent to I-5. A potpourri of new bike lanes, streetcars and bus lanes are being considered on First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth avenues. Meanwhile the viaduct is being replaced with a smaller-capacity tunnel.
How will these changes affect traffic problems, especially when accidents occur?
Monday’s gridlock highlighted the folly of Seattle’s utopian, anti-car transportation planning.
Despite extensive street reconfigurations, the share of trips taken by bicycle hasn’t grown. Yet the number of vehicles owned, drivers and miles driven continue to grow — as does congestion.
Seattle will always be a busy city with lots of traffic within and through its borders. So infrastructure planning should be based on overall need, not ideology and special-interest lobbying.
Policy should be guided by total capacity and demand, not cherry-picked statistics and wishful assumptions.
Transit levies were pitched as ways to provide relief from traffic jams. Yet jams continue, and most people still drive; more than 80 percent of commuters in the I-5 corridor still use cars and carpools.
Lines of buses stuck in dedicated transit lanes Monday emphasized that bus riders also suffer from Seattle’s diminished traffic capacity.
Light rail was an alternative for some travelers Monday but it was not, and never will be, an option for most people. It’s a supplement to roads, not a replacement.
A dubious campaign promise of Sound Transit was that a light-rail line can handle the equivalent of 14 lanes of I-5 through downtown. If only that happened Monday.
If Seattle wants to remain the regional economic center, it must be able to handle regional traffic, come rain or come shine.