Monday, September 25, 2006

It's Time to Get Medieval: When no plan is the plan.

So now this crack-pot third option of the 'don't build it, and they'll come' system where the Seattle Viaduct is torn down and replaced with...wait for it... NOTHING except some cosmetic enhancements to the surface street grid has now supposedly shot into (distant) second place billing. As of this morning, many punidts are putting the ixnay on the viaduct rebuild option suggesting that the city council resolution pretty much just leaves the tunnel option. By virtue of the fact that only a complete git would think the tunnel option is feasible, this leaves the door open to crackpot ventures such as what's being offered by The People's Waterfront Coalition, or PWC.

Their plan to move over 110,000 cars a day is summed up as thus:

o We don't need a highway
o We can't afford a megaproject
o Elliot Bay needs our help
o See what we could have instead of concrete.

Allow me to retort. Listening to a radio program in which a spokesperson for this idea spelled out their ideas was so fantastically ignorant of larger issues, that it was painful sit idly by while she spoke. One of the primary disastrous lines of thinking with every one involved is one that is completely Seattle-centric: Everyone driving around Seattle lives in and is destined for... Seattle.

It comes as a huge surprise to many people- reporters who live in... Seattle, city officials who live in... Seattle and the political groups gnashing teeth about this who all live in... Seattle. Who the hell are these people? The greater Seattle area contains about 2 million people. Seattle boasts about 565,000+ people. That means that the diff between 2 million and 565,000 live... elsewhere. A lot of these cars are not coming from and going to Seattle, but passing through. Which means that a high-speed thoroughfare is the only reasonable solution to moving that large number of cars. Sure, they plan to beef the whole 'surface street' debacle with 'improved' public transit. They also presume... PRESUME that some 25% of all trips would convert to public transit. Words such as 'challenge' are often used to describe how people would be driven (like lambs to the slaughter) to this improved public transit.

The fact of the matter is that there are so many things wrong with this plan, it's difficult to know where to even start. So I guess I'll start at the most obvious problems. Seattle is a city on a narrow strip of land, which divides a northern set of major suburbs with a southern set of suburbs. This strip of land is surrounded by water on two sides. There are only two major thoroughfares (freeways) which take cars at high speed (read no traffic lights or surface street congestion) between these two major areas: I5 and Highway 99. If you erase Highway 99, you eliminate one of those two major thoroughfares. Completely.

What this group seems to refuse to acknowledge is that there just might be a significant number of people who want to travel from an area south of downtown to an area generally north of downtown. What the group laughably points out is that they're removing a couple of miles of freeway with traffic moving at 60 miles per hour, and replacing it with surface streets with traffic moving at 25 miles per hour. "Big whoop" is their basic message when they point this out.

Guess what? It is a Big Whoop. A freeway usually takes people through an area at a fairly high speed, which suddenly terminates in a grid at 25 miles per hour, with traffic lights, pedestrians, buses stopping and cross-traffic will back up dramatically during peak periods, especially when the grid becomes... gridlocked. Imagine taking a the downtown section of I5 out and replacing it with surface streets. The effect of this backup will be dramatic to both northbound and southbound travelers who don't intend to stop in Seattle, but fully intend to pass through the downtown core, destined for places as far away as Magnolia, Queen Anne, or Boeing Field for those traveling southbound. This doesn't even begin to account for people traveling to places even further along the corridor, such as North Seattle, Edmonds, or in the South end, Tukwila, Burien or Des Moines.

The spokespeople for PWC repeatedly point to San Francisco's Embarcadero. They refer to "Embarcadero" so often, you're convinced they're shouting out a new dance step. First off, San Francisco and the Embarcadero are woefully poor comparisons to Seattle's viaduct situation. The Embarcadero wasn't so much a freeway as it was a long onramp to State Route 480. The Embarcadero was, quite simply a kind of landing strip, which got people into San Francisco. The Viaduct, Senator, is no Embarcadero.

The larger part of a plan like this one always contains measures to spin its failure to be comprehensive, as a feature instead of a bug. The obvious bug in the plan is that two major population centers not located downtown will become relatively disconnected from each other and as such driving between them will become a frustrating affair. This, in the eyes of the PWC is a feature, or as they refer to it a “disincentive for excessive driving”.

Imagine, if you will, living in Magnolia and wanting to take a quick trip to Tukwila to look at and possibly purchase some furniture at one of the many outlets that exist in Southcenter. According to the PWC, this would be ‘excessive driving’ and as such, you’re supposed to plant your butt into a bus, take all the transfers and exchanges that you will have to take to get that far south, make a purchase of a new endtable, hand carry it to a local bus stop in Tukwila a quarter of a mile from the furniture store… you get the idea. Then there’s this other nagging problem that some of the people traveling along the viaduct are destined for places which aren’t pedestrian friendly and are not within the control of the City of Seattle. These situations more often than not require that you have some kind of transportation waiting for you at your destination.

The fact of the matter is, it’s difficult to get around the surface grid that is Seattle. Yes, a comprehensive light rail system would do wonders. I would love there to be a rail or subway stop a block from my house, and be able to get anywhere in the central core of Seattle, quickly and easily, without having to drive. But we don’t have that comprehensive public transit system. And sorry, buses don’t count. The bus system is fantastically cranky, onerous and time consuming to take especially when going to disparate parts of town. And it’s subject to all the same traffic jams that everyone else is. So adding more buses does nothing to resolve the real issues we face.

The PWC’s plan is full of crazy harebrained schemes, which will supposedly improve flow by making it harder to get to your destination. On I5, they suddenly switch from a Seattle-centric vision to one that assumes no one wants to come here.

  • Reduce number of ramps downtown, which means less weaving

That’s correct, with fewer places and ways to get downtown, less weaving will take place, because there’ll be no way to get off I5.

  • Consider freight-only lanes or allowing freight on HOV lanes

Great, reduce the number of available lanes that exist on the already clogged I5, knowing that all the old Viaduct traffic will also now be on I5 as well, clogging it further. That’s a smashing idea: Increase traffic and reduce capacity.

  • Consider signage north and south of Seattle to send thru-traffic on I-405

Have these people ever been on 405? Why the hell should I have to drive all the way around lake Washington on a clogged, two lane freeway that’s perpetually jammed?

  • Charge tolls at peak periods to reduce rush hour demand

Read: make it more difficult to get around so people stay home in frustration.
They take this ‘frustration’ plan even further:

Reduce demand for highway-driving with denser, more walkable neighborhoods, incentives for non-car travel (better transit coordination, pedestrian and bike facilities) and aggressive trip reduction measures (peak-hour tolls, parking taxes, etc.)

I used to live in a walkable neighborhood. I miss it. No, really, I do. But I still used the freeways. Eliminating one still doesn’t make any sense. Let me give these fruitbats one piece of major advice: frustrating drivers doesn’t make them want to quit driving, it makes them want to build more freeways. Again, put in a comprehensive rail and train system, and you might attract some transit converts. But with a bus system, you’ll only annoy them to the point where they’ll want to do violence on their elected officials. Bus systems are great if you live those in-between distances from work: Too far to walk- especially in bad weather, too close to justify driving. But once you have to start making transfers- especially more than one, the bus trip gets long and it gets ugly. Public transit only converts people when they can get to their destination faster than it would have had they driven. But if it takes longer than a car trip, you’re losing riders. Add luggage, groceries, or heavy items to carry, and it’s all over but the cryin’.

One unintentionally funny statement on the PWC’s web page is that they excoriate Sound Transit for being “50% over budget to build half promised system, not yet constructed”. The Sound Transit system would be the primary thing that would be needed to augment the PWC’s surface grid/walkable neighborhood/get people out of their cars plan. Yet it’s used as an example of government inability to build projects in a cost effective and efficient manner.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a great idea to me. Since I'm a non-resident I'll just plan to avoid the area all together. I wonder if Bremerton or Takoma can pick up more port traffic?