OP-ED: A vision for a more vibrant downtown with fewer cars, more transit, and less pollution
By Mayor Jenny Durkan
In the next few years, we will continue to rebuild and reimagine downtown Seattle.
Here are a few steps we are taking together: The viaduct will finally come down, and we’ll open our new 99 tunnel. We’ll reconnect our downtown to the sea and redevelop the waterfront. We’ll renew Seattle Center and improve our arena (where we can cheer on the championship-winning Seattle Storm and welcome professional hockey to our city). We’ll expand our Convention Center, construct dozens of new buildings, and begin the process of bringing Sound Transit to all corners of our city.
These improvements will transform things in ways we cannot yet imagine. But as we build our future city, these mega projects often will lead to mega gridlock. Our bad traffic is going to get a lot worse.
It’s time to do things differently. We can reinvent our approach to transportation while also reducing carbon pollution. We have an awesome chance to realize a vision for a more vibrant and accessible downtown. We can build this future with fewer cars, more transit, and less pollution.
Achieving that vision will not be easy.
We must make hard, smart decisions about how we move residents, commuters, and freight in and out of our city. These decisions, including the pause of the Center City Connector Streetcar, will be made with transparency and full information on costs, so that we can ensure the highest return on our investments of taxpayer dollars. And as the other Washington fails to lead, we will enact innovative transportation policies to combat climate change.
First, we must reduce the impact of traffic disruptions on our residents and businesses. In the past week, the City has announced several short-term actions on transportation downtown to increase mobility as major public and private construction projects begin. You can read about some of these decisions here. This plan includes everything from better signaling, to dedicated bus routes, to safer bike and pedestrian corridors, to absorbing the thousands of buses that will come out of the transit tunnel and onto our downtown streets. Due to the sheer number of buses added to the streets with existing traffic patterns, I agreed that we should delay restricting the capacity of 4th Avenue with the construction of a dedicated bike lane. But we will go forward with a range of other bike infrastructure projects, including accelerating 2nd Avenue to Dearborn.
Here are my priorities for the future of transportation downtown:
- Reduced numbers of single-occupancy vehicles downtown, especially during peak times;
- Increased access to transit in underserved neighborhoods and communities;
- Additional capacity on popular routes to reduce overcrowding;
- Accelerated light rail;
- Safer pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, especially during the upcoming period of maximum constraint; and
- Effective management of our largest capital projects.
We’ve also announced bold transportation climate goals. I hope you’ll take a look at our full plan here.
This plan starts by tackling our emissions from cars, buses, and trucks. Two-thirds of Seattle's emissions comes from passenger vehicles, which pollute our air and harm the environment.
That's why I announced on Wednesday that we will be one of the first cities in the country to study congestion pricing in our downtown core.
Many cities across the world have implemented a congestion pricing plan aimed to reduce the number of vehicles traveling on gridlocked streets. This past week, a study found that after Stockholm implemented congestion pricing, traffic reduced by 20 percent. Stockholm also experienced a significant improvement in community health. Childhood asthma cases fell by nearly 50 percent, and soot particles in the air dropped by 15 percent.
Seattle is still years away from implementing such a proposal, and this shift will take significant study and engagement with businesses and communities, to ensure the plan will promote equity and expand our economy. In the meantime, tackling traffic and climate cannot wait. We need a strategy now to address emissions and congestion on our most crowded streets.
A critical component of reducing gridlock downtown is smart investments in transit. We must ensure people have access to reliable, efficient, and equitable transit options, so that our streets, as well as our air and water, stay unclogged. This year, I’m working to expand our bus service using the Seattle Transportation Benefit District funds, so commuters and visitors headed downtown on our most popular routes, as well as underserved routes, have more access to bus service.
We know Seattleites are already moving towards a more transit-oriented future. According to the 2017 Center City Commuter Mode Split Survey, single-occupancy vehicle trips fell in the last decade, even as more than 100,000 people moved to Seattle and more than 60,000 jobs were added downtown. Bus and light rail ridership skyrocketed as well. That is good news, but we can still do better.
I have set ambitious goals for the next few years: a reduction in peak-hour trips by another 1,200 this year and 3,000 in 2019. I’ll work with the City Council to incentivize telecommuting; partner with navigation applications and local business partners to encourage commuters to leave downtown at staggered times; and support innovative options for first and last mile trips such as bike share and microtransit.
I know that some people need their cars for a range of reasons, and I also know many prefer to drive. Our goal is to reduce single-occupancy trips among drivers who can switch to transit. For those who need their own vehicles, we should aim to make environmentally-conscious transportation options desirable and feasible.
The City’s electrified vehicle fleet leads the nation, with 500 vehicles and 188 electric charging stations. But we can do more for the average driver and commuter. By the end of the year, we will have 20 fast-charging stations around Seattle, modeled off our first municipally-owned station in Beacon Hill. We will work with developers, businesses, and industry to increase our charging infrastructure and reduce the economic barriers electrification presents for many. I also want to work with stakeholders to develop recommendations for electrifying all rideshare vehicles and taxis in Seattle as quickly as possible.
Putting all these pieces together will create a less congested, cleaner, and more vibrant Emerald City. I am taking concrete, pragmatic steps – and making tough decisions based on hard data – to ensure that we make the most of the awesome opportunities ahead of us.
The current direction of Seattle's traffic planning is adding to congestion. Light Rail primarily takes people out of buses. Buses and Van Pools are flexible and cost efficient. Street Cars and Light Rail are heavily subsidized but provide little or no flexibility while making it more difficult for automobiles. Bicycles lanes take up far more space per person than the lanes they replace that were used by automobiles and thus add to the current congestion.
Congestion and lack of free parking make it far easier and cheaper to go to Bellevue to shop or have dinner than to go downtown in Seattle. The center of the city will be available only to those who live there or live near the mass transit stops. Who would ever plan mass transit without park-and-ride lots?
In the long run there may be less congestion with fewer cars but there is no adequate alternative to driving one's car today for most of us. And, in the long run we will all be dead.
Fortunately autonomous vehicles will be here before long to bail us out of the current congestion and lack of parking.