The Road to Relief?

Drowning in Traffic: Seattle's Traffic Future

Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center, suspects that Seattle, and other major U.S. cities, will follow patterns seen in many European and Asian cities with rampant congestion:

  • Car size will decrease and more mopeds, motorcycles and bicycles will be on the road.
  • People will continue to move back into Seattle's downtown areas to be closer to work and other amenities.
  • Drivers will find coping mechanisms, including high-tech wireless Web devices, to help them navigate more effectively or decide when and when not to drive.
  • Light rail will come. "The best thing about that is once it's built, it can't be taken away, like the HOV lanes," he says.
  • And mass transit use will rise. But that won't rid the area of congestion.

"No country in the world has a lack of congestion as a result of mass transit," Hallenbeck says. However, it will be a means to move quickly in an increasingly crowded community.

Dan Dailey, UW electrical engineering research professor, says that he sees "a lot of promise in human-powered transportation, although I have an obvious bias in that direction." More and safer pathways for bicycles are a must, he admits, before a lot of people will consider that option.

And, Hallenbeck adds, roadways will eventually be expanded. But that process will be slow, expensive and painful. And it won't solve the problem.

"You can't build your way out of congestion," Dailey says. "It's been proven over and over again—there's no ambiguity about that. No city in the world has ever done it."

They agree that the key to dealing with congestion will be changing how we do things. In light of such events as the passage of I-695, which slashed taxes that provided transportation funding, change may not come easily. Or quickly.

Says Dailey: "I think we're going to drown in our traffic a little longer before we learn how to swim."

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Rob Harrill is the engineering news writer in the UW Office of News and Information. He commutes to work by bus from Everett.

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