So what would be better than the roads-and-transit ballot proposal?

A leading critic of Proposition 1 takes up the challenge and proposes his notion of a better way to address the transportation problems of the Puget Sound region. Some of the solutions are surprisingly modest, like allowing less parking on Seattle arterials.
Crosscut archive image.

A bottleneck on a major arterial: traffic lights at Aurora Avenue North and North 85th Street.

A leading critic of Proposition 1 takes up the challenge and proposes his notion of a better way to address the transportation problems of the Puget Sound region. Some of the solutions are surprisingly modest, like allowing less parking on Seattle arterials.

Both friends and enemies call me on the carpet for criticizing the tri-county roads-and-transit ballot measure, Proposition 1. They say that we have to do something, and that I offer no viable alternative. Fair enough.

My argument has not been against trains or roads as such. It is simply that the package proposes enormous expenditures in central Puget Sound for relatively little improvement to transportation, and that it fails to take into account the inevitable upcoming constraints on the use of our cars. Specifically, I have argued that the rail system usurps a giant share of transport investment but will deliver a tiny fraction of trips. Proposition 1, in my view, is a simple failure of elementary cost-benefit or opportunity-cost arithmetic, a skeletal system that accesses only a tiny fraction of where people live or work.

I have further argued that the system unfairly concentrates service on downtown Seattle, as it if were the only place that mattered, and concentrates benefits on educated and affluent professionals. Two other fatal flaws, in my view, are the inexcusably regressive and unfair tax burden on the 98 percent of the citizenry who won't use the trains (whereas road investments are paid by road users through gas taxes); and a failure to better accommodate the movement of goods that are so essential to the daily functioning of the economy.

As for the highways portion of the package, I have argued that the proposal also overemphasizes the same mega-project approach. In other words, Proposition 1 is precisely the same-old same-old "we can build our way out of congestion" mentality, a mindset that pretends that we do not have to change our ways. But we do need to "think anew," and so here is my roadmap to this new way of approaching our transportation challenges.

Let's start with some basic assumptions.

  1. The real cost of private automobiles (specifically SOV, or single-occupancy vehicle use) will gradually rise, enough to induce more people to evaluate alternatives like public transit or carpooling, or to accept some forms of direct payment, like congestion pricing.
  2. Planning and the market will both act to concentrate development somewhat, although much less than planners would prefer. Such increases in density will favor higher transit shares. A planning goal is a greater balance of jobs and housing, to reduce long-distance commuting. However, actual planning policies serve to segregate by household type and income, thus raising the length of the average commute. The rail portion of Proposition 1 serves mainly the commuting of suburban professionals to downtown Seattle.
  3. The voters have already approved the first stage of Sound Transit light rail. The downtown-to-SeaTac route should be operational, and the downtown-to-UW link has perhaps a reasonable chance of completion, even if the upcoming package fails. Extending to Northgate is not impossible.

Given these assumptions, what are the smart alternative strategies?

The first goal is to maximize the capacity of the road system to accommodate both people and goods, as efficiently as possible, under a strategy to increase transit and carpool use substantially, through targeted enhancements to both the freeway and arterial road systems, and though implementation of increased demand management.

Since I am assuming that the rail system will be only the central link from SeaTac to the University of Washington, or Northgate, via downtown Seattle, I am relying on buses carrying possibly several times more passengers within 30 years.

A key component of a superior bus system will be seamless express-bus and bus-rapid-transit service on the entire freeway network, connecting all major centers. These routes are where the trains would go under the Sound Transit extensions in Proposition 1, but I have in mind a much more complete network by using buses. My scheme would require dedicated transit/HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes in both directions, starting with Interstate 90 from Seattle to Bellevue as a priority test.

Enhanced bus express service will be needed on a large network of non-freeway arterials, as well, which would require both some reconstruction of selected arterial highways and some form of preferential transit treatment. The most critical is Highway 99 from Marysville through Tacoma, but there are many other prospective routes. The broader Metro Transit and Sound Transit bus networks are not bad, although with improved publicity, cheaper passes, etc., service can potentially be much increased. In fact, why not free passes for elderly, youth, the poor, maybe to anyone who takes transit at least three days a week?

Serious attention should be given to adding some form of jitney service, especially in lower-density, far-suburban areas. Planners have long overemphasized the shares of jobs in "major centers," whereas in the real world more than half of the jobs are dispersed in many smaller concentrations. For these outlying job centers, greater incentives for carpooling and ride sharing make sense.

A second priority in my alternative approach is to increase flow capacity by making better use of existing freeways and arterial roads.

If you are not going to add many or any more freeway lane miles, your strategy depends most on constraining the number of vehicles, but also on design improvements. Constraining the numbers in turn will rely on some form of demand management.

Turning to arterial roads, where we do have a large system of arterial highways that carry a significant share of traffic, my perception, having driven in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and elsewhere, is that ours may be the worst of the lot. The main reason is that we pretend our arterials are just neighborhood roads, where they are really alternatives to freeways, directly serving residential and job concentrations. Here are a few of the problems, some of which involve simple, low-cost changes in practice, others more expensive reconstruction (and political courage):

  • Parking is allowed right up to signals, so that potential turners hold up traffic in through lanes.
  • Non-enforcement of parking restrictions.
  • Delivery trucks have to use the middle of arterials for temporary parking.
  • Allowing parking to take precedence over traffic flow, especially in the city of Seattle. Former Mayor Paul Schell realized this but was beaten up for even mentioning it. The related issue is the conversion of four-lane roads to two lanes, again on the belief that these are just neighborhood roadways. Seattle's reduction of off-street parking requirements is also precisely the wrong, counter-productive course to take.
  • Intersections that simply have too much traffic, leading to long delays. The Seattle region suffers from a relative absence of grade-separated major intersections. Consider the disaster if we did not have Broad and Mercer streets going under Aurora Avenue North, or grade separation at North 40th Street and Aurora, and North 45th Street and Aurora. We have signals at 85th, 105th, 145th, and 175th. I suggest there are many more intersections, city and suburban, for which separation might be considered.

Finally, we come to the need for demand management.

The term demand management refers to carrot/stick or cost/benefit ways to limit traffic to sustainable flows on both freeways and arterials. The main tool is selective tolls - selective as to which sections of roads, and selective as to times of day or to differential charges by time of day, type of vehicle, etc. Congestion pricing refers to a charge which serves to prevent undue congestion through charging for driving in times or places where demand would otherwise be excessive.

Charging tolls is politically unpopular in the West, though a way of life for many East Coast cities. Congestion pricing has proven to be very popular in London and some other cities. Given the need for more money to build these improvements, tolls might soon be more politically palatable, since they have a double benefit: raising money for transportation and saving money by not having to build as much new road capacity.

The bottom line for any alternative package to Proposition 1 is to realize that urban transportation is expensive, and that driving our cars or taking transit will not be fun, but at least we should get as much product - that is, passenger miles - as possible for our investments and expenditures. OK, a train ride may seem sexier than a bus ride. But we simply have to consider the very high costs of vast new construction that reaches so few users. That sobering up leads, I hope, to admitting that we must begin to change our behavior.


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