Lots of people figured the city’s plan to kick cars out of two lanes of Westlake Avenue downtown would obviously cause more traffic gridlock. Then two weeks ago the city went ahead and did it.
What would happen if you kicked cars off half the lanes of a big downtown arterial?
Probably gridlock. Right?
That was pretty much the feeling a year ago when the city proposed dropping two car lanes from more than a mile of busy Westlake Avenue North downtown to make way for transit. The Seattle Times story on this in March 2015 was greeted by 488 online comments, most of them lampooning it as a traffic disaster in the making.
“What other rapidly growing city solves its traffic flow problems by narrowing the lanes of many of its arterial streets?” one said. “Only in Seattle!”
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Talk radio took up the charge. The GOP-led website Shift, which usually focuses on state politics, also took a break from that to ridicule Seattle.
“In what world does taking out two lanes on a highly congested stretch of land make traffic for drivers better?” a posting said. “The latest in liberals’ attempts to resolve Seattle traffic congestion illustrates the preposterous and irrational logic of the far left.”
Well two weeks ago, this preposterous left-wing craziness actually went into effect!
Did you hear anything about it? Maybe some traffic reports about the congestion it caused? Some tweets from hacked-off drivers?
Me neither. What happened is they cut the car capacity of Westlake Avenue in half, and nobody noticed.
Says city traffic engineer Dongho Chang: “We haven’t heard of any operational issues with Westlake so far.” That’s engineer-speak for: “It’s working!”
I drove Westlake four days this week, morning and evening, curious to see what it’s like when a big downtown road is put on a diet.
It’s early, but the cars are flowing about as freely in one lane as they did in two. How is that possible?
Jarrett Walker, a transit consultant who favors repurposing streets like this, laughed when I called to ask: Where did the cars go?
“Anytime you take a road lane away for transit, business interests and others panic,” he said. “But what you’re seeing happen on Westlake is actually quite common.”
Walker said it’s the principle of “induced demand” — car traffic is partly a function of how much space you provide for it. If you take some space away, people usually make changes in mode, time or route of travel. It makes it seem as if “the cars have vanished from the network.”
It’s possible cars diverted to parallel streets such as Dexter or Fairview, he said. But for all the uproar about it, Westlake probably had more lane capacity than it needed for cars. So squeezing the cars to one lane isn’t causing a bottleneck.
Chang said the city is collecting data on the corridor, to judge if the experiment is working. It won’t have any hard numbers to report for at least a month.
The city forecast that bus and streetcar travel times would improve by 20 to 40 percent. We’ll have to wait for the data to know if that’s happening.
I saw buses and streetcars still get delayed by right-turning cars, especially at Westlake and Denny. Sometimes when a car ahead of me was turning left, cars would jam up a bit because you can no longer go into the right lane to get around (you risk a $136 fine if you enter the transit lanes). So it’s hardly perfect. But these kinds of little delays are common on countless roads in the city.
Walker says repurposing streets for transit is actually a “completely conservative thing to do.” Done right, it wrings more efficient use out of fixed infrastructure for a low cost. Paris closed a lane of traffic in favor of transit on most every arterial in the city.
The public would support more of this here, too — as long as the lanes are used for high-capacity, fast, real transit. People voted for more of this in theory as part of the Let’s Move transportation levy last fall.
Now, some parts of the new light rail plan call for completing lines long after most of us will be in nursing homes. Why not get started earlier, and much cheaper, by squeezing the cars on some more arterials a la Westlake?
We’re going to be called preposterous left-wing loons no matter what. Might as well go crazy.