An atlas for Seattle's traffic hell

Let Mossback play Dante as we navigate a rush hour inferno.

Traffic in downtown Seattle. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

First off, if you don’t drive or are anti-car, you can stop reading right now. This column is for people who need to drive — at least some of the time — in the increasingly hellish drivescape of Seattle.

Driving in Seattle officially sucks, but it’s not just because of the broken street grids left to us by our forebears and geography, nor is it just the traffic volumes, though that’s a problem. There are other factors adding to difficulties. The following is based on my observations.

Disappearing landmarks

One big problem is that some of the best aids in getting around the city are vanishing, thanks to the massive development that is eliminating familiar buildings.

Precisely because the grid has never worked in this glacier-scarred landscape, Seattleites have used other navigation methods, including mnemonic devices like Jesus Christ Made Seattle Under Protest (or Pressure) to get around downtown.

Using tricks and landmarks to navigate isn’t just important for us mortals, but also for the Seattle Police Department and the Seattle Fire Department. Lt. Kenny Stuart of the Seattle Fire Department, where he’s president of the local firefighters union, tells me that the department uses JCMSUP to get around town fast. SFD has other memory tricks, such as “Pike poles go up” and “Pine trees fall down” to clarify which direction Pike and Pine, downtown one-way streets, go in relation to Capitol Hill.

He says firefighters memorize landmarks such as neighborhood icons, like longstanding bars or businesses, to help them respond quickly and accurately. Kevin O’Neill of the Seattle Police Department Traffic Division tells me that learning landmarks is an essential part of training for officers patrolling the city in their vehicles.

Locals in general have long used physical landmarks instead of street coordinates to get around. We used to be able to give directions by saying thing like, “Turn left at the Pink Elephant sign”; or, “It’s right across from Hat ’n’ Boots.” Not any more.

No one is helped by directions like, “Hey, you know where that massive high-rise is going up in the Denny Triangle? Head north to that other place where massive high-rises are going up. You know, the place with the cranes.”

The Lyft dryft

Newcomers and old-timers are turning increasingly to GPS. Which is full of flaws. I have a friend who could not find a place she was looking for in Fremont because her GPS kept indicating it was on the Aurora Bridge. I recently plotted a route across town to avoid South Lake Union at rush hour, and the navigation on my iPhone led me to a place where it insisted I turn right where there was a large sign saying, “No right turn.” As a result, I was forced to turn left … into South Lake Union at rush hour! I was never seen again.

Beyond the accuracy flaws, there is the distraction factor. People at stop lights checking their navigation or their phone slow down everyone’s chance to get through an intersection. If the so-called “California stop” is rolling through stop signs, we have the “Seattle slows,” which is the Prius driver who slooowly accelerates at a green light while trying to figure out where their smartphone is telling them to go.

I have noticed what I’ll dub the Lyft dryft — ride-share drivers for Lyft or Uber who change lanes slowly, without signaling, as they try to find their fares. The streets are filled with drivers unfamiliar with the city and/or working a second or third job and are thus tired. They double park, they weave, they dryft — heedless to the rest of us who know where we want to go and how to get there.

A subset problem related to ride share: riders who stand at crosswalks and corners and look as if they are going to cross the street. You stop to let them go but they don’t, because they are either waiting for a ride or staring down at their phone and don’t see you. This adds an unnecessary wrinkle when trying to give pedestrians the right of way. Pedestrians: make eye contact with drivers. Drivers: seek eye contact with pedestrians. Things will go better. Traffic is stop-and-go enough; inattention just adds to the problem.

Too many trucks

I haven’t done research on this, so my impression is strictly anecdotal, but along with the proliferation of autos in the city has been a proliferation of trucks, vans, delivery vehicles and construction-related equipment. It makes sense because Amazon, right? Home delivery services have proliferated. These vehicles are not only slow and clog streets, but they make it difficult for the rest of us to see ahead. Have you been stuck in an intersection because the truck ahead of you has blocked your vision of a green light or the speed of traffic ahead? Have you been unable to see lane markings because a lumbering double-trailered, debris-hauling semi made it impossible to anticipate your next move?

I think congestion on major arterials is pushing delivery drivers to find alternative routes, so trucks are using streets they never used before, like Lake Washington Boulevard,  which was designed for bikes and horseless carriages. And GPS is still feeding oversized vehicles into the Washington Park Arboretum, where a low-slung bridge (actually a foot bridge carrying a sewer line) occasionally strips off or peels its lid like a sardine can. And even those trucks that escape this trap can do so only by getting off onto a narrow, traffic-circle-choked neighborhood street. Brilliant.

The surrealism of street markings

Our streets often send us messages that make little practical sense, or can’t been seen. Traffic volumes are greater, so traffic indicators on the street, like turn-only lanes, are no longer visible because the backup of cars hides them. The result: People have to shift lanes at intersections or block two lanes by getting stuck in between. Turn-only lane markings need to be placed hundreds of feet further back to reflect the real volumes on some streets.

Then there is the incoherence of downtown street markings where bus lanes are also bike lanes, and car lanes switch from block to block, forcing traffic to shift from a car lane that suddenly becomes a bus lane in a short space and creating gridlock (yes, I am talking about you, Pine Street). There are also times when getting into an empty bus lane a block early to turn right makes more congestion sense than staying in gridlock where you are getting nowhere and helping nobody.

Another gripe: The city created a bus-only lane on Denny Way (a good thing), but the westbound car lane now jogs abruptly and the lane markings, old and new, seem to suggest to some that the oncoming lane is instead a “suicide lane” for drivers going either direction. More than once I have had cars coming right at me head on. Nothing like a home commute adrenaline rush!

Many markings all over Seattle are also faded and worn off. There needs to be more clarity in street markings.

A driving summit?

There are a lot of bad drivers out there, and every one of us also makes mistakes or occasionally hacks the street system to find a workaround. We have also lost consensus on Seattle’s driving culture (are we polite, aggressive or passive aggressive?) and even pedestrian culture (jaywalking, yes or no?) and bike culture (whose rules do bike riders have to follow and when? is weaving in and out of cars OK?). Should we drive more like New York, California or old Ballard? Do we believe in signaling or not? Is driving a communal activity or an everyone-for-themselves one? What new navigation landmarks or mnemonic devices do we need to help everyone get around?

Maybe consciously sitting down to talk about it all would help us work out some of the kinks. Perhaps we can move from Seattle driving Hell toward something more like automotive Purgatory.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.