Quite possibly the most common topic of frustration for those that work near any major city. But that’s just it: traffic is a product of a mass of people commuting to and near major cities…plus construction, rain, poor driving, bridges going up, etcetera, etcetera.
Location, Location, Location
In all seriousness, it truly is the nature of the beast. Companies know that the city is the place to be, so they swarm to lay claim to the best cities. Employees flock and everything else follows: businesses, shops, restaurants, bars, more supporting businesses, more housing, changes and improvements to city infrastructure, new residents, more tourists, and MORE traffic. In Seattle’s case, the city is experiencing these activities in a short timeline, the city and businesses are experimenting with ways of improvement, and all of the growth is impacting Seattle more than we anticipated.
By the way, this isn’t meant to be a rant piece. As we’re watching Seattle’s real estate market influence and be influenced by outside factors, traffic has come up on both sides of the conversation. This is a brief examination of Seattle’s traffic as a driver (pun intended) and the effect of the real estate market. Each transportation “system” has its own very long and boring story, so we’ll do our best to keep our eyes on the road and talk about how the system played a part in the evolution and growth of the city. So, buckle up…let’s go for a ride.
The good and bad of Seattle Transportation
Seattle has grown up to include the largest Ferry system in the United States, the first municipally-owned streetcar line in the United States, one boring project that took longer than expected, the nation’s first private free-floating bike share marketplace, is currently the 9th congested U.S. city, and has decreased single drivers by more than 4,500.
1: The Streetcar
One of the first mass transportation systems Seattle was the streetcar, which launched in 1884. Initially, independently owned, the 48 miles of streetcar track and 22 miles of cable railways sprawled across Seattle and was a huge contributor to the creation of downtown, as we know it today, and several neighborhood centers, at the end of each line.
In 1902, the city purchased the streetcar system, making it the first municipally-owned streetcar line in the United States. In 1939, Seattle was granted a $10.2 million loan from the government to pay off the $4 million debt, from the purchase of the streetcar system, and to organize a new Seattle Transit System with electric, trackless trolleys and motorbuses, instead of streetcars. By 1941, automobiles and buses flooded the streets. Streetcars were taken to scrap yards, and rail lines were pulled up or paved over.
Inevitably, automobiles and buses in the downtown streets of Seattle caused a lot of congestion, during the late 1930s and 1940s.
2: Sound Transit and King Country “Metro” Transit
A few short years, after the Seattle Transit System was established, ridership reached an all-time high with 130 million riders (1944).
For nearly 30 years, the Seattle Transit System operated trackless trolleys and diesel buses within Seattle and without much change. Proposals were made to improve the systems and expand the routes, but voters rejected them on numerous occasions. Even as I-5 was being built through Seattle (1957-1967), the request to include transit right-of-way in the design was denied due to an estimated $16 million increase in the budget.
In 1965, a new company called Metropolitan Transit Corporation provided suburban service to Tacoma, Everett, Auburn, and Kent.
Due to decreased ridership (31 million), Metropolitan Transit Corporation and Seattle Transit System were purchased by King County for $7.7 million, in 1972. King County “Metro” Transit began operating on January 1, 1973 and increased ridership every year for the next 10 years (64.8 million in 1985).
After ridership hit 75.6 million passengers per year, a vote passed to create a “leaner” system, in 1996. The new system formed Sound Transit to serve Seattle and delegated Metro Transit to focus on suburban areas. This 2 division system is a lot like Metropolitan Transit Corporation and Seattle Transit System, before 1972, but Sound Transit services would include Link light rail, Sounder trains, ST Express Bus, Tacoma Link light rail, and soon, Bus Rapid Transit.
In 2016, Sound Transit 3 was approved, which launched light rail extensions to Everett, Tacoma, downtown Redmond, Kirkland, Issaquah, Ballard, and West Seattle; bus rapid transit on I-405; and Sounder south expansions. However, the completed project won’t be realized until 2041.
When the Link light rail extensions are completed, an estimated 600,000 passengers will ride the Link each day, compared to 81,000 daily riders in 2018. New stations are scheduled to open in 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024, 2030, 2031, 2035, 2036, 2039 and 2041.
2017 was a record-breaking year for ridership in Seattle, according to National Transit Database. 155 million passengers utilized any of the 10 transit options from King County Metro, Sound Transit, and Metro RapidRide.
3: Ah yes, the Alaskan Way Viaduct
The Alaskan Way Viaduct was a long-awaited solution to the city’s traffic problem, during the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. Planning for the Alaskan Way Viaduct began in the early 1930s, was open for public use in 1953, and the final on-ramp at Columbia Street opened in 1966. While it did free up traffic congestion downtown, designed to carry 60,000 vehicles per day, it now carries more than 110,000 vehicles per day, which was a major factor in the decision to replace the Viaduct.
Urgency came about when 6.8 magnitude earthquake struck Seattle, in 2001, and damaged several sections of the Viaduct. The Viaduct was left standing, but it sunk several inches and engineers agreed that if the quake lasted a few moments longer the viaduct would have collapsed.
An intense research process and studies of more than 90 alternatives lasted nearly a decade. After numerous meetings, votes, and public discussion, an emerging technology surfaced as a solution to the Viaduct: a bored tunnel.
A section connecting SR 99 to 1st Ave S was demolished in 2011, which marked the approval of the Federal Highway Administration and the kickoff of the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Project.
3.5: SR 99 and Surface Streets: The Viaduct Replacement
The Alaskan Way Viaduct and Battery Street Tunnel will close January 11th, 2019. The 2-mile long tunnel that Bertha bored will be the permanent replacement, in addition to several connections, a new Alaskan Way surface street, and a beautiful Waterfront to enjoy the Puget Sound.
The new tunnel is planned to open 1-2 weeks after the Viaduct and Battery Street Tunnel close. The tunnel will be free to use when it first opens, in early 2019. Tolling could begin as soon as summer 2019. Toll rates will range from $1 to $2.25 with a Good To Go! pass, depending on the time of day.
WSDOT is estimating 6 months for the complete removal of the Viaduct, on and off ramps, and refurbishing surface streets.
4: Sharing the Road
In 1991 the State of Washington passed the Commute Trip Reduction (CTR) Law. The law requires employers with more than 100 full-time employees to implement commuting programs to help reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and other air pollutants, decrease traffic congestion, and reduce energy consumption.
As part of the CTR, the city of Seattle created an aggressive initiative to reduce the city’s drive-alone rate (DAR). From 2010 to 2017, DAR has decreased by 10% (4,500 fewer single drivers) in downtown Seattle. This is significant! During this same period, Seattle’s population grew by 116,000 people, downtown Seattle saw an increase of 60,000 jobs, yet there are 4,500 fewer single drivers on the road than there were in 2010. This drop in DAR is largely due to the improvements and increased capacity of King County Metro and Sound Transit, as the combined systems increased downtown riders by 41,500/day.
The traffic conversation wouldn’t be complete without talking about car sharing (ReachNow, Car2go, and Zipcar), ride-sharing/hailing (Lyft, Uber, ReachNow, and scoop), and bike sharing (Lime, JUMP, Lyft) services. These sharing services were welcomed because of the CTR.
Founded in 2000, Flexcar was the first car-sharing service in Seattle. Flexcar had over 1,300 active members sharing 40 cars before Zipcar purchased the company in 2007. Like Zipcar, Flexcar vehicles had home locations and members had to pay an annual fee.
Seattle conducted a pilot for its Free-Floating Car Sharing Program in 2013, with 330 Car2go vehicles. ReachNow entered Seattle in 2016. This Free-Floating Car Sharing Program is what allows Car2go and ReachNow vehicles to be parked almost anywhere throughout the city and driven by anyone with an account.
Between Car2go and ReachNow there are close to 1,400 vehicles and *200,000 members throughout Seattle and the region.
Ride Sharing / Car Hailing
Uber and Lyft entered Seattle in 2014 when each company was allowed 150 drivers on the road at a time. This quickly fizzled and today Uber has about 14,000 drivers in Seattle. There are more than 28,000 licensed (TNC) drivers in King County.
Scoop entered Seattle (March 2017) offering a ride-sharing service that partners with employers to offer commuters a carpooling option. ReachNow began offering Car Hailing services, in June 2017.
Seattle’s dockless (aka Free-Floating Bike Share Program) bike share pilot program started in 2017 with Spin, Lime, and ofo. In just 6 months, the 3 companies had 10,000 bikes throughout Seattle and had completed 468,000 rides; in May 2018 there were more than 200,000 rides taken.
Now that the pilot program is over, Seattle has decided to allow 20,000 bikes, improve parking conditions, and issue permits to 4 companies: Jump (by Uber), Lime, Lyft, and one other company has yet to be determined.
5: Seattle has a passenger along for the ride
Of course, the recent increase in traffic and planning for future traffic doesn’t stop when you exit Seattle city limits. Sea-Tac airport is experiencing crowding and has nearly 100 projects underway to mitigate its growing pains. These are estimated at more than $3.2 Billion through 2022. One international arrival terminal has a capacity for 1,200 passengers per hour but has recently been taking on over 2,000 passengers per hour. Sea-Tac’s research is projecting more than 66 million annual travelers by 2034 – more than 1 million more passengers each year – a huge leap from the 47 million passengers in 2017.
What does this all mean?
The City of Seattle has routinely budgeted about half of traffic/transportation spending on Congestion Relief. The city even created a performance dashboard to keep them accountable and provide some transparency. Slowly but surely, it’s getting better. Stay patient out there.
Thanks for reading and congratulations on getting through all of this history and numbers. Let us know your thoughts.