The Seattle Times LiveWire forum included four leading transportation thinkers and offered hopeful glimpses of the future, though no silver bullet to solve gridlock.
Someday, the Interstate 5 express lanes might become a two-way toll route. Driverless cars will find their own parking slots in downtown Seattle. Light-rail networks and shuttle buses will make commuting more affordable for the suburban poor.
Those were just three possibilities raised by four of the region’s leading transportation thinkers at The Seattle Times LiveWire forum Thursday night, at the University of Washington.
Moderator Thanh Tan, a Times opinion writer, saluted the Kane Hall audience for making it through congestion to show up at the event, which, after all, carried the title, “Gridlocked: Driving solutions to our region’s traffic jams.” Seattle ranks seventh in national rankings for delay.
One immediate solution is on the way in Seattle. The city will retime traffic signals downtown within the next year, said Scott Kubly, director of the Seattle Department of Transportation.
That announcement earned him some applause.
Signals on Mercer Street will also get an upgrade, with lights that respond to traffic flow.
Signal timing can be effective in reducing congestion — some 10 percent in a Los Angeles project, said Bryan Mistele, CEO of the INRIX traffic-data firm.
To reach the UW, speaker Jarrett Walker, a Portland-based consultant, rode a “crush loaded” bus where transit staff helped pack people in. “I can appreciate the struggles of taking transit in the city,” said Walker, author of “Human Transit.”
Mistele said he arrived in a Tesla, “and it drove me from Redmond to Montlake without me touching the steering wheel. These are production vehicles.” The first autonomous cars will start hitting the market in two to three years, he predicted.
Kubly said he usually walks 45 minutes to work. Like an ecosystem, he said, the transportation system must serve all users — transit, cars, bicycling, walking — or it would become an unhealthy monoculture.
On the possibility of two-way I-5 express lanes, which would help transit escape gridlock, UW professor and traffic expert Mark Hallenbeck said: “There are incredibly expensive changes that have to happen on either end to get people in and out.” Hallenbeck noted afterward he hasn’t heard of a pending proposal, but it’s in the mix.
Meanwhile, enthusiasts for self-driving cars, like Mistele, wonder if they will reduce congestion. Among other benefits, they’d cut the estimated 30 percent of central-city delay caused just by searches for parking, he said.
“I agree with the car guy,” replied Kubly, often a target for residents who resent bike lanes and “road diets” that reduce lanes or speeds.
A more fundamental problem is geometry, said Walker. Even self-driving cars consume precious space. As with the automobile, frequent transit service is a means to freedom, he said. “Not everyone wants a car, not everyone owns a car, not everyone wants to drive. Not everyone should drive,” he said.
The LiveWire series is devoted to vital issues affecting the region, sponsored by The Seattle Times. Other sponsors are Microsoft, UW and Sabey.