I hope you all had a fine holiday. I had a fine one, myself.
During the holiday break I slept late (well, for me, 7AM is late). Each morning as my wife snoozed in, I’d get up, throw on my old-man schmatta, turn up the heat, start a pot of coffee, and slipper outside into the drizzling wet to retrieve my moistened newspaper. Back inside, I’d pour myself a chunk of joe, settle into my big buffalo chair, and, by the light of the early morning drear, decipher the grey-on-grey type that was smudged across my paper’s wet, see-through pages.
I took great pleasure in this. It was quiet. The only sounds were the exhalation of the furnace, the ticking of the clock, and the drip of rain in the downspout. Sometimes the cat would climb up and join me as I read. It was a lovely way to start each day.
Except for the morning of December 30.
That morning, the Seattle Times, in a massive brain-fart of editorial doofishness, turned a quarter of the op-ed page over to Gage Stowe, a newcomer to our shores, so he could complain about one of Seattle’s greatest flaws: traffic. I mean, they even gave him a lead-in on the front-page banner: “Seattle newbie: Why is traffic so bad?”
I’ll spare you the trouble of reading Stowe’s whinging blather; it went like this: Wah-wah-wah it’s so hard to get around here wah-waah it’s not like other places snurfle-sniff but I can’t give up my car wah-wah-wah. That’s pretty much it. He complains that he actually has to plan his trips (gasp!) It’s so bad that he’s actually (quelle horreur!) started listening to audiobooks during his trips.
Yes, Stowe, in all his wisdom and with his six months’ experience living in Seattle, can’t understand why our traffic is so bad.
Here’s a clue, Stowe: It isn’t. Well, okay, yes, it is, but it is not the case (as Stowe implies) that other places around the country and the world are completely free from traffic problems. In California, I’ve experienced traffic jams so long and tight that I’ve literally run out of gas. In New York, it once took me 30 minutes to traverse a single mile. In Britain, I’ve taken transports that stopped so often I could have gotten out and jogged to London in less time. And don’t even get me started on the traffic in Jerusalem.
Basically, if Stowe had lived anywhere except Utah and Seattle, if he’d experienced any other major metropolitan city (like, oh, I don’t know, Portland), or if he’d just looked around and given it a little thought, he might have realized that Seattle’s traffic woes are both expected and understandable. But he hasn’t, and he didn’t. He offered no insight to our apathy over gridlock, and saw no reason for our having “let traffic get this bad.”
The fact is, Seattle does have a traffic problem, as do most major cities. The reasons behind our traffic woes are unique to Seattle–it doesn’t take a Rhodes scholar to figure it out–but since Stowe spent zero effort on actually answering his question, I’ll do it for him.
Seattle’s traffic problems are a direct result of two things: geography and short-sightedness.
Anyone who ever played the early version of SimCity knows that the hardest cities in which to manage traffic were those where large bodies of water complicated the landscape. Bodies of water are barriers to road traffic, and our standard solution (e.g., bridges) become natural choke-points. The major Seattle metropolitan area is studded with bodies of water. Ponds, lakes, rivers, bays, inlets, canals, and wetlands gleam across our map, and each one presents a challenge to traffic. Major arterials contort themselves around lakes and along shorelines. Bridges large and small–cantilevered, suspension, trestled, and floating–all do their best to funnel traffic across their spans, but the key word there is funnel; there are never as many bridges as their could be roads, were the water not present. The result is that the Seattle roadmap is a connected series of bottlenecks, easily clogged by the daily volume of traffic.
Which leads me to short-sightedness. Ours comes in two flavors.
Politically, we’ve been short-sighted. We don’t adequately fund our mass transit, and have voted down propositions for monorail, light-rail, and other options for decades. Back in the ’80s, when Portland, Oregon bit the bullet and invested in their MAX light rail system, Seattle was ignoring the problem entirely. Later, in the ’90s, Seattle jumped on the “$30 car tabs” bandwagon, which gutted transportation budgets and led to a contraction in our existing Metro bus system. And, now that we’ve finally decided light rail is a good idea, we must go to extravagant lengths to create it, including digging a tunnel from downtown to the U-district to avoid–can you guess?–a body of water.
As individuals, also, Seattleites are short-sighted. Any commuter with an ounce of observational acumen will see that all those single-occupancy vehicles cannot possibly be filled solely with sales reps like Stowe. Our HOV lanes are thinly used, so much so that we’ve even instituted a way for SOV drivers to pay to use the HOV lanes. The rising cost of urban living fueled a suburban boom that only put more drivers on the road for longer distances. This stressed an already stressed system, which resulted in regular and predictable traffic congestion. In short, we don’t have a culture of using mass transit or riding bicycles or of living and working locally; we have a commuter culture which eschews investment in roadways and infrastructure and engenders an apathy toward the status quo.
The other thing Stowe didn’t bother to do was to discuss any sort of solution. Beyond dreaming of getting a different job so he could walk to work, his whinge-fest offered no advice. Again, here, I will attempt to fill in his abysmal gaps.
- Consider your commute when you consider a residence. Is it near a bus line or train? What will your commute be like?
- Take mass transit. It might be slower than driving, but at least you’re not driving. You can read a book. Or split the difference and drive to a Park-and-Ride lot.
- Don’t vote against infrastructure improvements. Doing so only ensures you’ll have fewer commuting options and will drive on increasingly crappy roads. You may not use mass transit, but if you make it available to more folks, the driver next to you on the road might use it.
- Look into schedule changes. You may not be able to shift your work schedule, but if you shift your commute schedule by as little as 30 minutes you can often save you an hour on the road each day. Spend that extra time reading a book.
- Telecommute. No commute is faster.
- Investigate subsidies for mass transit. Many companies will subsidize a bus pass, making it a much smarter financial choice.
I understand that many people cannot change their hours or work from home. Many people (like Stowe, a sales rep) use their car in their work. This, however, in no way accounts for all the SOVs currently parked on Interstate-5, waiting their turn to enter the city.
There are limits to what we can do but, in the end, if we don’t make any changes, nothing will change.