On Tuesday, March 24, an overturned fish truck turned Seattle into a parking lot, giving residents of this traffic-clogged city yet another reminder of the pitfalls of a transportation system built almost entirely around automobiles.
The truck was headed south on State Route 99 carrying a load of frozen cod when it tipped, blocking all southbound lanes of one of just two main north-south arteries through the city. (This is the same highway that will someday run underneath Seattle if the tunnel-boring machine Bertha can ever be repaired.) That was at 2:23 p.m., as people were beginning to leave jobs downtown and tailgaters were rolling in for a Sounders soccer game at the nearby CenturyLink Field — an event that was projected to draw 39,000 fans.
As city crews struggled to right the truck and move it from the road, traffic backed up as far as the University District, five miles away, snarling Interstate 5 and secondary streets throughout the city. By the time the highway was finally reopened, at 11:37 p.m., the wreck — plus three more accidents downtown, including one involving a bus and a pedestrian, and a police manhunt in the nearby International District — had stranded commuters in traffic for hours. Local media dubbed it the Seattle Standstill.
The fish truck incident may have been a particularly epic example, but the Standstill is a regular feature in this city, which, according to TomTom, a company that makes GPS devices, has the fourth worst traffic in the country, worse than New York, Miami, and Washington, D.C.
“What’s surprised me most is the fragility of the system,” says Scott Kubly, who took over as the city’s transportation director last July. “Almost every day there’s a crash that impacts our system, and ends up snarling traffic for everybody.”
Part of the problem is simple geography. Seattle is sandwiched between Puget Sound and Lake Washington, and pinched by other lakes and water bodies as well. North-south travel bottlenecks at a handful of bridges, as does any travel to suburbs to the east. (To go west, you’ll have to take a ferry, which creates its own set of challenges.)
The other issue is infrastructure, or lack thereof. “Look at San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Boston — they all have very big, strong rail networks, using dedicated or separated access,” Kubly says. “Right now, we have one light rail line from the south, and a couple more on the way. There’s probably not another city in the country that needs to make that kind of investment more than we need to.”
An expanded light rail network is a decade away, at least. In the meantime, Kubly and his colleagues are left to make better use of the city’s existing tangle of roads while tens of thousands of new jobs and residents rush in. To make matters worse, the funding mechanism that has paid roughly a quarter of the cost of maintaining the city’s streets for the past decade is about to expire, leaving officials to wonder where the money will come from.
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photo courtesy: Daniel Penner