by Stuart Eskenazi photographed by Ken Lambert Shock of shocks, we Seattleites are stuck once again. When asked whether we preferred to...

Share story

Shock of shocks, we Seattleites are stuck once again.

When asked whether we preferred to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel or another elevated highway, we voted that we preferred neither. We can be such snots when it comes to transportation.

Intellectually, we know we have to get out of our cars. And yet we don’t want to get out of our cars because we aren’t satisfied with the public transit alternative. And we aren’t satisfied with our public transit because we’ve been slow to invest in it. And we’ve been slow to invest in it because we really don’t want to get out of our cars.

We vote for a monorail but never build it. We look at Sound Transit with trepidation, not anticipation. We let the South Lake Union streetcar be branded a boondoggle, not a boon. We bellyache incessantly at the construction messes necessary to achieve progress. (And not without good reason. Have you seen South Lake Union recently?)

We have important decisions ahead on the viaduct, and if history is any indication, a series of detours will impede us. We’ll think we know the way to get there only to find out that, really, we don’t. We’ll hit road blocks. We’ll reconsider our direction. We’ll commission several studies to try another route. Each will reach a different conclusion.

And we’ll debate it all much in the same way we argue over whether the most efficient way through Southeast Seattle is Rainier or MLK. (No, not MLK! It’s a complete mess because of Sound Transit! Take Rainier. Definitely Rainier. Or Beacon. Yes, by all means, go Beacon.)

Maybe we’re just exhausted from all the transportation decisions we have to make every day.

Should I take the Fremont, Ballard or Aurora bridge? Should I risk the Montlake interchange or pop on over to Roosevelt? Should I get off the West Seattle Bridge at 99 or keep going to I-5? Is it faster around the north or south end of Green Lake? 50th or 45th? Denny or Mercer? Fifth or Second? First or Fourth?

And remind me again what street I need to take to get me the hell off the west face of Queen Anne Hill.

Why is it always so hard for us? Why can’t we get where we need to go?

Well, we’ve been conditioned that way.

In Seattle, getting from Point A to Point B almost always is an odyssey. Sure, we can blame our topography. But we also are just flat-out stubborn.

As the seagull flies, it’s a straight shot from Magnolia Bluff to Madison Park — across Interbay, over Queen Anne, past Eastlake, through north Capitol Hill, Montlake, the Arboretum and Broadmoor. West to east, it’s six direct miles.

This being Seattle, I study the situation before deciding the best way to get there from here. I consult with MapQuest, Google and Yahoo! for driving directions. But the information highway can’t agree on the most efficient route from Magnolia to Madison Park.

MapQuest suggests an 8.5-mile, estimated 23-minute drive that has me hop onto I-5 at Mercer and cut through Montlake to East Madison Street. Google suggests a 7.3-mile, 28-minute route that has me skip the freeway by turning onto Fairview at Mercer, then going Denny to cut across Capitol Hill. Yahoo! wants me to avoid Mercer altogether by taking Elliott all the way to Denny and cutting through town that way.

Yahoo! estimates the 7.1-mile trip at 20 minutes. Yahoo! obviously never has crossed Denny during rush hour.

One drive. Three sets of driving directions.

How is this possible?

Or, to put it another way: Howe. Is this possible?

Howe Street, see, begins on Magnolia Bluff at a viewpoint overlooking Puget Sound (Point A) and ends at Madison Park when it spills into Lake Washington (Point B). So I decide to make the drive by trying to follow Howe Street the whole way.

“Howe Street? You can’t get from Magnolia to Madison Park via Howe Street?”

Well, yeah. That’s my point.

Before examining why we can’t get there from here, let’s consider how we got here in the first place.

They say it’s not easy being beautiful, and alas, Seattle is a victim of its own svelte figure, complicated by its many hills and curvaceous bodies of water.

“I can’t control the glaciers; they were here before me,” says Wayne Wentz, a city traffic engineer whose job is to manage Seattle’s wheeled herds across 4,230 miles of road lanes and through 975 signalized intersections. With the help of 20 live-action, 360-degree cameras that broadcast the traffic situation back to a control center on the 37th floor of a downtown office tower, Wentz and his sidekicks can trip signals remotely to get traffic moving more expeditiously.

“We have the ability to make signal changes, but often we may not, because doing so could cause back-ups on the cross-street corridors,” Wentz says.

It’s always something, isn’t it?

Once upon a time, when Seattle had too many hills, we knocked one down to create what today is Belltown. That was smart. When we didn’t have enough water, we dug a canal to connect Lake Washington, Lake Union and Puget Sound to make Seattle more industrially viable. Traffic-wise, though, that was not wise.

Yet it was understandable, given a hierarchy, dictated by federal law, that gives preference to marine traffic over land traffic ever since the Lake Washington Ship Canal was christened back in 1917. Although several North End neighborhoods rely on one of the bridges over the canal to get around, when Biff and his yacht-club buddies want to take out the sailboat to toast sundown on the Sound, the rest of us have to wait as the draw bridge goes up to let them pass.

David Leask, senior operator for the Ballard Bridge, says he gets few complaints from delayed motorists. His wife, when she worked north of the bridge, used to let him have it at home for raising the bridge during her lunch break, thus making it impossible for her and her work pals to grab a quick bite at Chinook’s in Interbay.

“I once had a lady flip me off,” Leask adds. “I don’t know if she was late to day care or what. But it’s rare when someone will get out of their car to flip me the bird. Like I always say, when waving at me, I want to see all five fingers.”

We put up with it because we’ve always put up with it. We don’t question it because, hey, we’re part marine mammal here.

We also don’t question such mysteries of faith as why we can’t connect nonstop to northbound 99 from I-5 in Seattle. Or why West Seattle Bridge traffic must merge into a single lane to get onto the freeway. Or why I-5, 520 and neighborhood traffic all must compete along Montlake Boulevard. Or why Mercer is such an ungodly mess.

Ryan Plut of Renton enjoys shopping at Pike Place Market, catching a show at the 5th Avenue Theatre and hanging out at the Central Library. Sometimes, he’ll take the bus downtown. Usually, though, he’ll drive into town in his green Chrysler Concorde with its “I’d rather be futzing around on my boat” license-plate frame.

Getting downtown has become such a pain, he’s quit going as much.

“I’ve just had it up to here,” he says. “Dealing with trying to find a parking spot, pedestrians holding me up from turning, bicycles creeping along at 15 miles per hour in my lane, buses standing nose-to-tail so tight I can’t get into the curb lane for the next turn, trucks standing there with a ramp down while unloading merchandise to a business, and traffic, always traffic, trying to find a parking spot or wait for that pedestrian, bus, bicycle or truck.

“I wish they’d just get out of my way!”

A project manager who has worked in the transportation field for 22 years, Plut is not a transportation planner. But when this magazine asked readers to submit their visions of Seattle, Plut sketched out a redesign of the downtown traffic grid, closing off more than half the streets to create either leafy pedestrian malls or dedicated parking loops with angled stalls. Bike lanes would run the length of downtown. The streets remaining open to traffic would be one-way, with with dedicated bus lanes and no parking.

“Once you cruise around and spend a half-hour looking for parking, and notice that everyone else is doing the same thing, you start to realize that if people could just find a place to park immediately, traffic could really be reduced,” Plut says.

He believes his plan would result in a net gain of street parking downtown.

“Imagine driving and never dealing with an unloading truck or parallel parker,” Plut sighs. “Never having to walk more than a block or two from your car. Moving around downtown, walking, cycling, skateboarding or in a wheelchair, and never meeting a vehicle or having to smell exhaust. Imagine lunching outdoors at a quiet sidewalk café under a leafy canopy of trees while the barista delivers your mocha. Imagine strolling to a performance at the 5th Avenue Theatre without having to wait for the stretch Hummer parked on the crosswalk to move.”

Someone asks you for driving directions in Seattle. This is how you answer: “Well, there’s the way that I go, but that’s kind of confusing even though it’s the shortest distance, so I’ll just give you the long way because it’s easier to explain.”

So here we are, dealing with Howe.

Howe Street is the shortest distance between Magnolia and Madison Park, but this mostly residential road definitely is not the way to go.

From the viewpoint in Magnolia, West Howe meanders for about 10 blocks or so before it dead-ends at two flights of steps. It reconnects on the other side of the street as a one-block, semi-private drive that dead-ends at a telephone pole, a magnolia tree and a pretty view of downtown in the distance. There is a steep dropoff below to Port of Seattle property at Interbay.

On the west face of Queen Anne, Howe offers a straightforward route on and off the hill. But only those in the know use it because the rest of us are on West McGraw Street — the arterial! — cursing, because it abruptly ends shy of where we needed to go.

Howe also ends abruptly as it heads east across the hill, colliding into a steep flight of stairs at Eighth Avenue West. On the other side of the steps, Howe continues for a measly five blocks before it runs into a playground. Then, Howe starts anew, running for seven blocks before the road ends, again, then restarts two blocks later. For a block.

On the other side of Aurora, Howe has no reason to exist but does anyway, extending maybe 100 feet between the red diamonds of a “Road End” sign and Dexter Avenue North, near the Swedish Cultural Center.

Howe then disappears for a bit, submerged beneath Lake Union.

Howe emerges from the drink at Eastlake Avenue East, extending two blocks before running into I-5.

It starts over on the east side of the freeway with a flight of steps before crossing 10th Avenue East. The Lakeview Cemetery mocks you over your right shoulder before Howe dead-ends, again, this time at a house on 15th Avenue East.

Howe disappears one more time as Interlaken Park winds its way through the neighborhood. But Howe isn’t really gone. It’s just hiding in Montlake, where it reappears as a three-block, alley-like road lined with houses. Here, Howe runs diagonally instead of east-west. Why? I have no idea.

Howe disappears again at the Arboretum and the private Broadmoor Golf Club. On the other side of the fence, Howe returns for three blocks, then dead-ends at a flat-roof house behind a hedge and a fire hydrant.

Howe’s final leg is a one-block veer off East Madison Street, ending at the beach.

I have sinned. I have made this trip in a car. Tsk, tsk.

“Personally, I am already making choices about driving less, walking more and using transit whenever I can,” City Councilman Peter Steinbrueck said during a recent online chat with Seattle Times readers. One reader had taken issue with Steinbrueck’s position that the viaduct be replaced with a surface street and improved transit options, accusing him of “living in a false reality.”

Here’s my reality: If I took the bus from Magnolia to Madison Park, I’d have to transfer downtown and the trip would take a minimum of an hour and 10 minutes.

Don’t expect sympathy from Steinbrueck, Mayor Greg Nickels or other local policymakers who 1) conveniently work downtown and 2) are pushing the rest of us to get out of our cars. We’re just caught up in their exhaust.

Cough, cough. In case you’ve missed it, Seattle (a city known for its outstanding neighborhoods) is in the process of redesigning its neighborhoods as self-sustaining urban villages where cars are like nowhere, man, and everyone takes the bus, bikes or walks — and sugar cubes fall from the sky and turn to rose petals when they hit the ground. Each urban village is centered by a mini-downtown with boutique-style shops that sell all the essentials of life — extra-firm tofu, free-trade coffee and rosemary-mint soap. New mixed-use buildings — retail space with housing on top — line the streets, pretending not to be ugly.

These new buildings make financial sense because a new city policy governing several neighborhoods — Capitol Hill, First Hill, Lower Queen Anne, the University District, Northgate and South Lake Union — no longer requires developers to provide parking spaces with their buildings.

Seattle math: More people plus less parking equals better neighborhoods.

If we want to continue enjoying our neighborhoods, we’ll have no choice but to get out of our cars, right?

Hmm. Or we can just stop going to those neighborhoods because there is nowhere to park.

Robert Sondheim is the co-owner of Rosebud, a restaurant and cocktail bar in the Pike/Pine section of Capitol Hill.

“A majority of our customers are walk-ins who live in the neighborhood, but we also get a lot of people from Bellevue and other parts of the city of Seattle,” he says.

As surface parking lots are developed into buildings without public parking, street parking in Pike/Pine becomes tougher to find.

“There is a great concern among business owners about where our customers are going to park,” Sondheim says. “People want that Doris Day parking where they pull up in front and walk right in.”

Liz Dunn is a developer who is invested both in Pike/Pine and in the urban-village concept of neighborhoods. She contends that too much required parking can do terrible things to a neighborhood’s character because of the cost to develop each parking space: $40,000, at a minimum. By not having to provide excessive required parking, developers can financially justify building on a smaller scale — renovations or ground-up construction — that makes a neighborhood more charming, eclectic and aesthetically pleasing to walk around in.

The best way to deal with a lack of parking in neighborhoods such as Pike/Pine is more efficient public transit to get people there, Dunn says.

“In an ideal world, you want to put public-transit infrastructure in and let density follow immediately,” she says. “But in Seattle, we’re never going to get there that way. So I am absolutely fine with building the density first, because we’re never going to get the transit built until the city is just stuck.”

Fine. But I live in Ballard, and I don’t want to be stuck there. I like going to Pike/Pine.

“And I want you to come to Pike/Pine,” Dunn says, at which point I start whining about how finding parking there on Friday and Saturday nights is impossible.

“Take a cab if it’s that bad,” she says. “You can afford a cab more than you can afford a car.”

Excuse me, but cabs are expensive. And I need a car to get to work, make runs to Home Depot and take my dog to the groomer.

Here’s the kicker. So does Dunn.

“I do own a car,” says Dunn, who lives downtown. “I drive a Jetta station wagon that runs on biodiesel. When I go to Ballard, I drive, and I wish I didn’t have to drive. I would take a streetcar to Ballard if I could.”

But she can’t. She’s stuck. Like so many of the rest of us.

Unless Seattle figures out a way to get there from here.

Stuart Eskenazi is a Seattle Times staff writer. Ken Lambert is a Times staff photographer.