A truth we all must face: Traffic is terrible. Seattle’s 2015 traffic congestion ranked fourth worst in the nation, slimly losing out to New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.1 Seattle ranked second worst in evening congestion.
If that wasn’t bad enough, traffic congestion is only expected to get worse, as the city infrastructure struggles to integrate population growth. Seattle is growing at a frenetic pace. For the third consecutive year, Seattle was among the top five cities in percentage growth, adding 15,000 new residents — a 2.3-percent growth spurt — from July 1, 2014 to July 1, 2015.2 This trend is expected to continue.
Many of our conversations about public transportation focus on single-
occupancy vehicle commuters and whether asking people to give up their cars is feasible. We talk about people making the choice to commute. For many, there is no choice.
Mass transit is an economic equality issue and a racial equality issue.3 People living in poverty and people of color are significantly more likely to rely solely on public transportation. Improving the reliability and accessibility of public transportation will provide an option for these communities to access areas that would otherwise be out of reach. While the wealthy among us may talk about the conveniences of our vehicles, those with less economic advantage are focused on finding any reliable and affordable transportation to work and school.
Seattle is left struggling with the results of this incredible growth with already congested roads. There is no capacity in our city for more roads.4 Mass transit is the only way forward. What shape mass transit takes is the problem we face. No choice we make is going to be without drawbacks, but taking no action is not an option. We cannot build our city around single-
occupancy vehicles. There is simply no room.
Among other attempts to combat traffic problems, Seattle created “Challenge Seattle,” a public-private partnership with plans to reduce Seattle traffic congestion by 50 percent in five years.5 Seattle also has purchased “adaptive-signal timing” software designed to change the timing of green lights downtown to adapt to traffic patterns in real time.6
One of the most significant plans to combat congestion in Seattle is the proposed $50-billion light rail project that would provide transportation from Everett, Lynnwood, Redmond and Issaquah to Seattle, Bellevue, Renton and Tacoma. It is a fantastically visionary plan.7 (One that would be unnecessary if Seattle had accepted almost a billion dollars in federal transit funding in 1968 and 1970.)8
Currently, the light rail spans from UW to SeaTac, arriving every 6 to 10 minutes from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. The light rail runs every 15 minutes from 5–6 a.m. and from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. The light rail serves 50,000 to 60,000 people per day, with a one-day record of 72,000 people on April 8, when the Capitol Hill/UW link opened.9 Sound Transit estimates that with the proposed expansion, light rail would serve more than 350,000 people daily by 2030.
Seriously considering any plan that will not be completed for two decades should lead anyone to take pause. Any such project, whether started now or in the future, will take decades to finish. So, that period of hesitation should be used to seriously consider “ST3” and the future of our city. We should build real mass transit for Seattle, but at the cost of $50 billion are we aiming too high?
1 Geekwire, “Study: Traffic in Seattle still horrible, ranks 2nd-worst in U.S. for evening rush hour congestion,” tinyurl.com/jv6k3f5 (March 22, 2016).
2 The Seattle Times, “U.S. Census: Seattle now fourth for growth among 50 biggest U.S. cities,” tinyurl.com/h9md3hz (May 19, 2016).
3 The Atlantic Monthly, “Stranded: How America’s Failing Public Transportation Increases Inequality,” tinyurl.com/obxmhdn (May 16, 2015); Center for Social Inclusion, “Access to Public Transit is a Matter of Racial Equity,” tinyurl.com/z6m8v2c (April 9, 2015).
4 Next City, “As Seattle Booms, City Works to Cut Driving Downtown,” tinyurl.com/zkw6q3q (July 27, 2015).
6 The Seattle Times, “Seattle Spending 651K on Software to Improve Traffic Flow,” tinyurl.com/gomu47s (May 17, 2016).
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