Kicking cars out of some street lanes in Seattle’s boomiest neighborhood may seem radical. But working there is enough to convince you something’s got to give.
Seattle’s decision to kick cars off two lanes of a major street through the heart of its fastest-growing neighborhood is definitely radical.
It sure got the “war on cars” crowd all stirred up, as some accused the city of abusing drivers or holding a vendetta against the automobile.
But as someone who commutes by car every day to that same neighborhood, I can tell you the move is not only the right one, it was inevitable.
It’s one of the first signs Seattle finally is starting to get serious about facing up to its huge growth and traffic boom — with the Amazon jungle of South Lake Union at Ground Zero.
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When I first came to work in South Lake Union in the early 1990s, free on-street parking was plentiful. Imagine that! There was only one place to eat — a club-sandwich-type diner called “The Family Affair.” (OK, the 13 Coins has always been here too, but it’s too rich for my journalist’s wallet.)
Fast forward to today. It’s so hard to find even paid parking that yellow-shirted valets vie in the street to park your car for you. One of the last lots, the current Seattle Times lot where I park, is due to be redeveloped into one of the largest residential complexes in the city’s history — nearly 2,000 units in four towers totaling 146 stories (which is nearly two Columbia Towers).
The underground parking garage will be bigger than the garage for Safeco Field — 2,580 spots versus Safeco’s 2,000.
This is the story of boomtown Seattle, reflected in one parking lot. It’s driven by good things, such as jobs and economic prosperity. But when it comes to cars, it’s a classic tragedy of the commons.
Stand in my parking lot at, say, 5 p.m. on any weekday, and you’ll see cars lined up almost motionless along Denny to the west and down Fairview toward Lake Union. This gridlock in turn stalls out the buses. Add another estimated 5,000 car trips per day from this one development in our parking lot and it doesn’t take a transportation engineer to forecast “gridlockapocalypse.”
This isn’t a war on cars. It’s a war of cars. The streets are a depleted resource that realistically can’t be widened to help us drivers. To date we drivers have swamped boomtown while the city has basically done nothing to help anybody.
Until now. The headline news is they’re planning to bar cars from two lanes of a mile of Westlake Avenue so the streetcar won’t get stuck in traffic. But the streetcar — more of a toy than real mass transit — isn’t the big news. The plan that will actually help thousands of people daily is to run buses, including a bus-rapid transit line, on the same car-free road lanes.
The RapidRide Line C alone carries 8,000 riders per day. When it’s extended on Westlake to Amazon in those dedicated lanes, that number will soar. The Metro bus No. 40 on the same route also carries about 8,000 riders per weekday (and that’s stuck in traffic.) Freeing these buses is huge.
What’s more, in a few years the city’s plan is to kick cars out of two lanes on First Avenue downtown to connect the streetcar and the dedicated bus lanes from South Lake Union all the way through downtown to the stadium district.
As anti-car as all this may sound — it will probably make driving and parking down here more difficult than it already is — it’s also by far the most cost-effective way to move more people through a congested city. The other options are even more radical, such as barring new development (goodbye Amazon), or building new road rights of way at incredible cost (hello Bertha).
Bigger cities are already taking back some streets from cars (Chicago, for one). It’s not about waging war. It’s just the math of the big city commons. Which is that they keep making more cars, but they can’t make more streets.
So something’s got to give. If anything it’s overdue that it’s finally the cars.