Photo by Amy Baldwin

Photo by Amy Baldwin

It’s been a bumpy ride for Seattle commuters who have been on board for some of the most congested traffic on the continent last year.

Seattle was recently ranked fifth worst for traffic congestion out of 57 North American cities for the third quarter of 2012, according to the TomTom Congestion Index. Los Angeles, Vancouver, San Francisco and Honolulu were the only cities to not fare better.

As bad as things seem now, traffic is likely to get even worse. The city expects to add more than 200,000 residents and as many jobs by 2030. 

Adjusting to this growth has been laid out extensively by city planners in Seattle’s Transit Master Plan, which is already manifesting. In 2012, commuters faced a year of tolls on the aging state Route 520 Bridge, saw the four-decade-old Ride Free Area brought to a halt and witnessed new light rail and RapidRide buses come to fruition.

However, logistics and funding have been obstacles in effectively addressing the city’s traffic woes, said Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) spokesperson Peg Nielsen.

“What makes Seattle beautiful and a desirable place to live also creates transportation challenges: our unique topography,” she said. “We are a city surrounded by water and hills. This makes circulation in parts of our city challenging and sometimes leaves drivers confused or frustrated due to conflicting grids and choke points into and out of Seattle.”

Nielsen said the city also faces large maintenance backlogs, sidewalk needs, bridge repair, and rehabilitation and seismic upgrades, among other things.

Much of this backlog has been funded through Bridging the Gap funding, a nine-year transportation maintenance and improvement levy approved by voters in 2006.

“This levy has allowed us to accomplish an enormous amount of work, including repaving some major streets, making transit spot improvements, making sidewalks more accessible through the addition of curb ramps and more,” Nielsen said.


Construction barriers

City planners hope that projects laid forth by the Transit Master Plan will allow Seattle to adapt to the projected growth in jobs and population. But for some commuters, all the construction in preparation for that growth is having a negative impact on city life.

“Construction is a big deal,” said Carrie Carriveau, who often commutes from Tacoma to visit her family in Seattle. “I don’t know how long [the current transit construction] is going to take, but it’s made things really complicated.”

Carriveau said she would like to see construction zones more easily marked and avoidable, as well as lit better at night.

Alisa Brooks, who drives to her job in Queen Anne from Shoreline, said Seattle traffic is currently the worst she has ever experienced. She said much of her delay comes at the Mercer corridor, a major choke point caused by construction and a reduction in eastbound lanes for commercial trucks.

“They’re redoing the whole Mercer corridor here, so at any given stage, traffic is horrible,” Brooks said. “It can take sometimes 20 minutes just to get [from Second Avenue] to Dexter [Avenue], since I have few ways back north without being affected by the Mercer project. I’d say, on the whole, it’s added 10 or 15 minutes on my commute to Shoreline.”


Public transportation 

In tackling the traffic problem at the county level, King County Metro is working to offer as much transit as possible to get as many people off the road as possible, said King County Department of Transportation spokesperson Rochelle Ogershok.

“There is a direct connection between transit and the economic vitality of a community,” she said. 

Metro is the largest transit agency in the Northwest (and one of the 10 largest in the nation) and also sports the largest vanpool program in the nation.  Public transportation saves motorists in the Puget Sound region more than $300 million annually in transportation costs, according to the Texas Transportation Institute.

“Clearly, transit plays a major role in keeping cars off the road, which reduces congestion and helps our environment,” Ogershok said. “Total ridership in 2011 was about 112.8 million trips (Metro bus, DART, SLU Streetcar).  We’re expecting roughly a 2.3-percent increase in 2012 when final ridership numbers are in.”

Ogershok said the problems caused by chokepoints into and out of the city can be reduced with effective use of public transit. “Our area has a limited number of major corridors because of the constraints of Lake Washington, Elliott Bay, the Duwamish River and the ship canal,” she said. 

Public transit across Lake Washington has seen a dramatic increase since tolls were instated on the SR 520 bridge. “Metro has seen a 25-percent increase in ridership, and we now carry more than 15 percent of all the daily person trips across the [SR 520] bridge,” Ogershok said.

Tolling on SR 520 is expected to raise $1 billion overall toward the $4.13 billion SR 520 bridge-replacement and HOV program, which builds 12.8 miles of safety and mobility improvements from Interstate 5 in Seattle to state Route 202 in Redmond.


People matter

The city has said its highest priority in its efforts to decrease traffic congestion is keeping users of the transportation system safe. SDOT is using a combination of education, street improvements, enforcement and evaluation techniques to reach its long-term goal of zero fatalities or serious injuries by 2030, according to Nielsen. 

Some Seattle residents say the key to reducing traffic and keeping commuters safe requires that individual commuters be more aware of their surroundings.

Drew Frye bikes every day from the top of Queen Anne to his job on Roy Street. He said it is much more dangerous than it needs to be for commuters who choose to bike in Seattle.

“A lot of places, there aren’t bike lanes,” Frye said. “So if I want to go through the downtown area, I’ll have to stick to certain roads that have bike lanes in the right direction. A lot of times, I’ve noticed drivers whipping into the bike lane without signaling; I barely have enough time to stop.”

Frye said that in his hometown of Santa Cruz, Calif., there were more bike lanes and drivers were more aware of bikers.

“I just don’t trust any of the drivers [in Seattle],” Frye said. “I would like to see people looking and not cutting off bikers because if I run into the back of a car, I could get really hurt, whereas the driver would be totally fine. It’s in my best interest — maybe financially for them, it’s in their interest, too — but I would like to see them looking out for the bikers the way I look out for the cars.”

Amy Bragg, originally from Dallas, commutes to the International District south on state Route 99. She thinks that drivers need to speed up on the highways.

“I think that Washington drivers are very timid; they’re too passive [as] drivers,” she said. “If you merge, you need to merge whenever you put on your blinker.”