If Seattle really wants to get serious about too many cars, it should go all Italian on the problem and turn South Lake Union into a limited traffic zone.
I don’t write headlines. So when I opened the print edition of the paper and saw my last column, at first I winced.
“Time to Go Carless in SLU,” it read (the SLU standing for South Lake Union).
That column was endorsing a city plan to close one car lane in each direction on 10 blocks of one street in favor of transit. That hardly qualifies as going carless.
But then some readers got me thinking: Why not embrace that headline? Why shouldn’t Seattle do something bold, as other cities have done, to finally take a major whack at our chronic congestion?
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“Kicking cars off a street, Minneapolis did this downtown in … 1968,” one reader wrote. “Welcome out of the dark ages, Seattle!”
“Seattle can’t turn a lane of a few blocks of Westlake over to the bus without everyone squealing about our poor cars?” wondered another.
“Your column made me think of what London does: They have to pay a fee to drive into the city center,” wrote another. “Seattle isn’t there yet but maybe someday. Then let the street riots begin!”
What London did to really shake things up is called congestion pricing. They set up a cordon of 1,360 photo tolling cameras around their perpetually gridlocked zone of downtown. Anyone who drives inside the zone is charged about $15.
Traffic plummeted about 30 percent, though it has crept back up now that the system has been in place for 12 years.
I am not a fan of photo-tolling. It gouges the poor, and I guarantee city government here would use it as a cash-generating machine.
But South Lake Union is about to become impassable. I have been reviewing some of the development plans for the boomtown neighborhood and am amazed they are all being approved lickety-split.
Just take the three proposed new developments closest to my office, along four blocks of Fairview Avenue. They will generate 12,000 daily car trips between them, according to the developers. All of that traffic will be dumped onto roads, such as Fairview and Denny, that are gridlocked already at about 25,000 cars each per day.
It’s going to be total meltdown.
So how about Seattle tries a road-rationing program instead?
It could work like this: We turn South Lake Union, the source of most of the growth and new traffic in downtown, into what in Italy they call a Zone of Traffic Limitation (ZTL). I was driving around in Italy last year and many cities there have camera-enforced zones that you simply can’t drive into without the right license plate.
In South Lake Union, we could set it up so even-numbered license plates can enter on Monday and Wednesday, odd-numbered plates on Tuesday and Thursday. People who live there would be exempt, along with taxis, Car2Go type services and freight. But Amazon jungle commuters would be forced to leave their cars somewhere else two days a week, or face hefty fines.
Every Friday we could turn the cameras off. We don’t want to go too crazy.
We could keep some major streets, such as Mercer, Fairview and Westlake, out of the zone so drivers can pass through without being charged.
The effect on traffic would be instantly noticeable. When Beijing put in an odd-even license-plate scheme, traffic dropped by a third. It crept back up and Beijing cut access even further, so that now each license plate gets access to the zone only one day a week.
Turning South Lake Union into a “zona traffico limitato” would be fair in that it puts the restriction on the growth itself. Unless you violate the zone, it’s free, so it needn’t soak working stiffs like a toll. It could turn the neighborhood into an Italianate car-free workers’ paradise!
And for all you who pointed out that because I drive into South Lake Union every day, the real enemy here is me. Well, this has the side benefit of taking care of that little problem, too.