In our 12th edition of Behind the Byline, our series helping you get to know the journalists who bring you the news, we talk to Traffic Lab reporter Mike Lindblom about Seattle's ever changing transportation scene.
Traffic Lab reporter Mike Lindblom was born in Seattle in 1962, the same year the Space Needle opened. Since then, the city’s population, skyscrapers and scope of traffic have all gotten much bigger.
The facts of Mike’s life make it no surprise that he ended up a transportation reporter: At 6 years old, he started a newspaper for his neighborhood in Aurora Village. As a teen, he was a paperboy for The Seattle Times. In college, his various side jobs had him driving a school bus, box trucks full of steel tent equipment, food trucks and a trailer full of hot tubs, back and forth across the state to make summer deliveries. One summer, he biked across America.
After a handful of reporting gigs around Washington state, Mike landed at The Times in 1997. “My family thought I made it when I got hired here,” he says.
One of Mike’s first assignments was to cover the Seattle Monorail Project proposal, which made him perhaps the only reporter in the world to have a full-time monorail beat. But in Seattle, it just made sense. As Mike has observed over the years, this city has a distinct transportation scene.
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“[Traffic Lab has] three reporters, which is probably more than other cities of the same size. We also spend a lot of time introducing new concepts and educating people about, for instance, how you lift a 4-million-pound cutter head out of the ground, ” Mike said. “The problems here that would be just a tweet or nothing at all in D.C. or New York can generate a front-page story in Seattle. And for good reason: We’re paying twice as much as most cities, and far more than any other city in the U.S., to develop transit. We also have the No. 3 gas tax, and some of the nation’s biggest highway projects, with 520 and Highway 99, as well.”
As for how Mike himself gets around? It’s a mix. When he first started at The Times, he drove to the newsroom’s South Lake Union offices. Growing congestion has forced him to commute by bike or bus instead. When he wants to leave Seattle, a ferry is his favorite way to go. But he tries to fairly cover all types of transportation; he knows readers are incredibly passionate about their favorite modes.
To give me a better idea of what he writes about on a daily basis, Mike suggested we go for a bike ride. One problem: I hadn’t ridden a bike in 10 years.
Mike didn’t do much to soothe my nerves: “Oh, there is no such thing as safe bike riding in the city center. It’s all dangerous here.” And he wasn’t just trying to mess with me. A few years ago, Mike went bike riding on Second Avenue with a Rutgers professor who said afterward that “It’s as bad as a major avenue on Manhattan. I think it’s maybe even worse.”
To my relief, we took the Westlake Trail, which is a little more protected. We quickly found a couple of LimeBikes in South Lake Union, and Mike logged their numbers to add to Traffic Lab’s ongoing data set of functioning bike-share bikes.
“My reporting is influenced by what I see and hear making my way around the city. When that abutment was slumping 2 inches in Sodo, that was based on when I was taking the bus and the whole thing took a huge bump,” Mike said, glancing back at me every 10 seconds or so to make sure I hadn’t fallen into the street. “There are a few things I do differently, though. When Bertha was stalled, I would go out Friday nights and climb on the viaduct pillar and try to look at the rescue pit to see if any unmentioned work was going on, which did actually happen once.”
After about a mile, we stopped on our bikes and found a spot with a few benches. Mike noticed that the chain on his LimeBike was loose and probably wouldn’t survive the ride back. He quickly found a replacement, as there seems to be a never-ending supply of LimeBikes in the city.
The bike ride ended up being much less harrowing than I thought it would be — and Mike pointed out a handful of safety hazards along the route that I wouldn’t have noticed on my own. It made me wonder how many other things I, or anyone else, would never notice about our daily methods of transportation, that Mike does.
Lately, Mike has been busy covering Seattle’s massive Highway 99 project, helping answer readers’ questions about how to get around when the Alaskan Way Viaduct closes, when the new tunnel opens, and the periods in between. Mike intimately understands commuters’ concerns; he estimates that he’s taken about 5,000 trips on or under the viaduct by car, bus and bike since 1979.
Mike’s reporting generally has a theme each year. In 2017, it was distracted-driving laws. In 2018, it was inflation — transportation projects getting big and out of hand. He hasn’t chosen a theme yet for 2019, but he thinks it might be safety. The topic is timely: His 16-year-old daughter is learning to drive. You’d think learning to drive from a transportation reporter, with all his expertise, would be hitting the jackpot. But he’s still a teenager’s dad. “She doesn’t let me coach her anymore when she’s behind the wheel.”
NOTABLE STORIES BY MIKE LINDBLOM
When does the viaduct close? How much is the tunnel toll? Your guide to Seattle’s Highway 99 project
Traffic Lab has received questions from nearly 600 readers about the tunnel project. They range from the cost of tolls and how much traffic will use the tunnel to who decided to build it, anyway?
National safety board calls out the “diffusion of responsibility” by four rail agencies that didn’t challenge an unsafe curve design of the track near DuPont where the derailment occurred.
Interstate 405 on the Eastside serves 900,000 people a day, and parts of the freeway haven’t been expanded since 1984. That will change starting next year.
The lack of a barrier separating oncoming traffic on the Aurora Bridge is being pointed out in the multiple lawsuits stemming from the 2015 Ride the Ducks crash that killed five people and injured 71 others.
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