The Seattle metro area nosedived from 6th to 14th place in the latest U.S. traffic congestion rankings by INRIX, the big traffic-data company in Kirkland.
You didn’t drive any faster in 2019, though. New counting methods for the 2019 Global Traffic Scorecard, released Sunday night, reveal how the area’s traffic is influenced by several job centers, so a 95-minute drive from Everett into downtown Seattle represents only part of the equation.
Overall, the average Seattle-region car commuter last year lost 74 hours to traffic delays, compared to going the speed limit, the scorecard said.
But an average commuter to downtown Seattle lost a full 99 hours, compared to 41 hours of delay traveling to the Overlake area of Redmond, home to Microsoft.
“We’re one of the more polycentric cities in the country,” said INRIX chief analyst Trevor Reed. “Redmond adds 50,000 population in the city during the daytime.”
Downtown Bellevue and Seattle’s University District are top destinations, while thousands more go to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, warehouses in the Green River Valley, or to Boeing at Paine Field in Everett.
The INRIX report arrives during a big drop in traffic, when companies across the region are asking employees to work remotely and public health officials advocate “social distancing” in hopes of reducing the spread of the coronavirus. INRIX says highway speeds last week were over 10 mph faster than normal.
Boston was crowned the nation’s most congested city, at 149 gridlocked hours, followed by Chicago, Philadelphia, New York City and Washington, D.C.
Portland ascended to 8th place with 89 hours of delay, a 10% increase. The riverside city, dominated by freeway flyovers, ranked worst in the top 10 for “incident impact,” such as a crippling crash or drawspan openings on the Columbia River I-5 bridges, built in 1917 and 1958. Jobs are concentrated downtown.
Vancouver, B.C., with 54 hours of delay, would rank only 23rd, near Minneapolis, if placed in the U.S. chart. Vancouver benefits from multiple job centers. While its drivers going downtown averaged 90 hours yearly of delay, outlying New Westminster consumed only 30 commuter hours a year, and dense Richmond just 50 hours.
Reed says Vancouver’s lack of central-city freeways helps lower congestion, compared to Seattle where half the downtown streets gridlock as collector lanes for drivers waiting to enter Interstate 5. The B.C. SkyTrain network, buses, and growing bike-lane connections are robust enough to keep car trips under 50% of peak-time travel in Vancouver itself, he said.
A new metric is “last mile” congestion. Downtown Seattle endures world-class slowdowns at 11 mph, reflecting stop-and-go trips in freeway funnels such as Howell Street or Fifth Avenue.
INRIX last year reported delays of 138 hours a year for people who traveled at the most-congested time of day. But that number focused on the worst commutes, such as Everett to Seattle.
Conditions on I-5 haven’t improved since then.
“During peak hours it’s been a failure or breakdown state for 10 or 20 years,” Reed said. “We’ve reached a performance floor on I-5 and I-405, there’s not a lot of room for it to deteriorate further.”
INRIX added ratings for transit and bicycling. Though Seattle ranks sixth in big-city transit ridership per capita, the region ranks as red, meaning most drivers would spend twice much time commuting if they traveled by bus or train.
“At the end of the day, it’s pretty difficult to commute in from Lake Stevens to Seattle by bus,” Reed said. The gridlocked cities of Boston and Washington, D.C., among others, rated green for transit. Regional and Amtrak commute trains go 45 miles from Providence, R.I., to Boston in 35 minutes or slightly longer.
Seattle rated red for bicycling, and bike-friendly Portland only yellow, due to difficult rides between suburbs. Vancouver, B.C., attained green.
Multiple employment centers are a smart alternative to gridlock, Reed said. He praised the Spring District, between downtown Bellevue and Overlake, where apartments and office campuses are being built to match the 2023 completion of two Sound Transit light-rail stations.
That timing will let people travel without using clogged highways, from day one, he said. Across the lake, redevelopment around next year’s Northgate Station should pay off in perhaps 75% of non-driving trips by the 2030s, he predicted.
Congestion pricing, coming soon to New York City, can also reduce delay, he said. Highway 520 tolls are partly a traffic-lowering strategy, and the Interstate 405 express toll lanes are being extended by 2024 from Bellevue to Renton, to go with new bus-rapid transit on I-405 and Highway 518 from Lynnwood to Burien.
Toll lanes have performed well, but only for people who pay, he said.
“The growth we expect, and continue to have, will probably outweigh any improvement in the general-purpose lane performance.”