It’s a parking lot out there: WSDOT reports freeway congestion getting worse

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    Interstate 5 traffic (Photo courtesy Community Transit)

    We’ve been hearing it for years.

    “The traffic is worse than ever.”

    “I spend almost as much time getting to my job as I spend actually working.”

    “Is there ever a time of day when I-5 isn’t jammed?”

    Take heart; it’s not your imagination. And the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) has the numbers to prove it.

    According to the WSDOT’s just-published 2017 Corridor Capacity Report, traffic congestion along the I-5 corridor has been steadily building over the years, to the point where morning commuters can expect to spend an excruciating 94 minutes in stop-and-go traffic to make the 23-mile trip from Everett to Seattle.

    Yes, 94 minutes. Enough time to watch both the local AND national news (including commercials), get a root canal or take in Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, all with time to spare.

    Oh, and that will just get you there. You still gotta drive home at the end of the day.

    This chart compares how commute times have grown since the 2014 study for commuters using general purpose lanes, HOV lanes, and mass transit. The bars indicate both “average” (50 percent at your destination on time) and “reliable” (95 percent chance to arrive at your destination on time) commute times. (Source – WSDOT 2017 Corridor Capacity Report)

    But you get a break here. According to the same report, the evening commute takes a mere 72 minutes. Doing the math, that means a person living in Everett who works a Monday-through-Friday job in Seattle and commutes in peak rush-hour traffic will spend more than 13 hours behind the wheel each week, adding up to a staggering one month per year looking at the person’s bumper in front of you as you navigate “the five.”

    The report couches these figures in a metric it calls “reliable commute time,” which reflects the amount of time a commuter would need to budget to arrive on time at the destination 95 percent of the time. In other words, you need to leave home early enough to drive for 94 minutes, plus the additional time it takes you to park and get to your workplace. And if you do this, you’ll only be late one time in 20. Folks who like to live on the edge (or have a very understanding boss) might want to budget only the average commute duration of 56 minutes, but according to the report this means you’ll be late for work half the time.

    Using statistics and indicators gathered over the years, the report traces changes in traffic volume, traffic delays (defined as traffic flowing at less than 85 percent of the posted speed limit), vehicle emissions, park-and-ride lot utilization, mass transit ridership and capacity, toll and HOV lane usage, and more.

    While the report covers the congestion issue from a statewide perspective including the Vancouver, Tri-Cities, and Spokane areas, it makes no bones about I-5 being the most extreme case, responsible for 58 percent of the Puget Sound region’s traffic delay. According to the report, “more than 2.5 billion person-miles were traveled between Federal Way and Everett in 2016, a 2.9 percent increase over 2014,” and that “nearly 78 percent of I-5’s peak-period direction miles are routinely congested,” with the segments leading to downtown Seattle leading the pack. And, the report says, it “would have been worse” without the presence of HOV lanes and mass transit options including buses, rail and park and ride lots — which the report also says typically fill to beyond capacity, with many commuters forced to park in non-designated spaces.

    This chart shows how traffic delays have increased over the past five years on major Puget Sound area traffic corridors. Note that I-5 lead the pack, with a whopping 57.6 percent increase in vehicle hour delays over this period. (Source: WSDOT)

    What’s behind it? According to the report, our booming economy is the key culprit.

    Employment is up 9.2 percent above 2007 pre-recession levels, and in 2016 Washington State reached 3.245 million non-farm workers, up 5.8 percent since 2014. The majority of these jobs are in the greater Seattle/Bellevue area, where employment has grown by 4.9 percent and unemployment is at a nine-year low. But our double-digit increases in housing costs mean many of these workers simply can’t afford to live close to their jobs.

    Pushed out of the city by this high-priced housing market, many are forced to live in ever more distant suburbs and commute to work on I-5. And it’s not just north and south of the city. Many are finding housing further east and west of I-5, adding pressure on adjacent corridors that provide access to the interstate such as State Highway 2 and I-405. Locally this has led to the recent completion of the 238th Street east-west corridor  through Edmonds and Mountlake Terrace, and the planned Harbor Reach Corridor in Mukilteo.

    And it’s more than slow commutes and crowded roads. More vehicles spending more time on our roads hits numerous other quality-of-life issues, including greenhouse emissions and water quality. The report cites a 2013 (the most recent year these data are available) Department of Ecology study that found transportation-related activities are responsible for 42.8 percent of all greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. A recent report from NOAA implicated high levels of vehicle traffic with sharp increases in salmon mortality in a number of western Washington streams, including those flowing through Edmonds.

    So what does the future hold?

    Look for more HOV and toll lanes, expanded park and ride lots, and more mass transit options. Telecommute if you can, even if it’s only a day or two each week. If you must drive, talk to your employer about a flexible schedule that will allow you to avoid peak traffic times.

    And to help ensure a more comfortable commute, postpone that second cup of coffee until after you arrive at work.

    — By Larry Vogel

    8 COMMENTS

    1. Thank you Larry, this explains my increased fuel costs & elevated blood pressure when I make the trek into the city!

    2. Great article Larry. There’s more than two solutions to this problem. The first and most, politically correct, is rent control, more freeways, more buses, above ground light rail. However, the Chinese have experienced growth beyond ours and they’ve learned that more roads mean more people driving. People are willing to spend 90 minutes behind the wheel each way to get from their house to their job regardless. If you build more roads/lanes that create more capacity, not only will you exacerbate the current congestion with construction, but you’ll also encourage people to just live further away to and from even cheaper houses that are still 90 minutes away. Roads are like goldfish bowls; the bigger the bowl the bigger the fish. The pay lanes are an interesting idea, but why not use the money for road maintenance only (apportion) and reduce gas tax given the new revenue? That’s progressive. Buses are a joke. They are too much money to operate, they take up too much room, disrupt traffic and ***buses are almost always near empty***. A game I play with my sons is to count how many people are on a bus before it passes. On average, maybe one out of every three buses on the road are out of service, then those in service usually only have about 4 people riding; or they are filled to capacity as people get packed in like sardines during the narrow peak demand. Buses have a horrible intermittency problem, but still require the lanes, the bus stops, the maintenance [and all] when they are low demand (the solution to buses is below). Above ground light rail is worse than buses for all the same reasons. Light rail works… only if it is under-ground in the city or above-ground cross country (why we don’t have high speed rail connecting east coast to west coast is beyond me). DC has a great subway, New York is okay (both run with outlays year over year), but Portland’s new trains did not stimulate development and most growth is outside of their Urban Grown Boundary – even with huge subsidies MAX failed to meet most goals. The UGB creates sprawl as Portland workers would rather drive through the boundary and pay less for a house in a world with a supposedly growing economy, yet stagnant wages. Rent control is a horrible idea. There’s really not a lot of debate to be had about that. It doesn’t keep low-wage workers in the city. Every product is a three legged stool; price, quality, availability. Reduce price artificially, and quality and availability are also reduced. Rent control gets baked into the bottom line for housing, which then becomes cost of labor as white-color workers demand higher pay (employers still need to make a buck), which increases prices in the city, and the depressed price controls just end up creating poorer living conditions that are more expensive.

      Seattle will be the epicenter of the next real-estate collapse. I’ll write about that in another time, so really we’re worrying about a problem that will solve itself soon, and manifest another way, bigger than we are imagining. The solution to roads is Buses. Every major city has waged a decade’s long war against private curb-side busing. Right here in Seattle, most all of the Chinese-run buses have been shut down. Uber could run 12-person buses during peak demand picking up and dropping off people curb-side via algorithmic routes. Uber is already doing ride sharing and this would be an easy step, especially if passengers were willing to walk a block or two and drop-off locations could be aggregated. All the city would have to do is re-sanction these operations (i.e. twelve passenger Uber), and then reduce the public buses as people choose Uber at cheaper rates and shorter transit times. De-zone. City planners are now trying to force mixed commercial-residential spaces, when before they banned mixed use. The road infrastructure was mostly created when commercial and residential were artificially separated. Roads, cars and parking lots take up a tremendous amount of real-estate, thus causing Urban Sprawl. It is knee-jerk to build more roads/lanes (and trains) in congested suburban areas to solve the problem of over-construction of roads and sprawl in the first place. De-zone and let residential living spaces be located more organically so less people commute via cars. Make building codes easier. If you disagree with that, then look at the celebrated Pike Place Market, which grew organically and is the crown jewel of Seattle. You’d never get a permit to build another one (is that what makes the Pike Place Market so valuable, that all the new buildings aren’t so nice despite the central planning and codes?). Get heavy trucks off the road and onto heavy [not light] rail. Reduce truck weights to 50k pounds systematically. The entire western region of the country is mostly federal land up to Virginia. Easements and eminent domain would be minimal if we built heavy rails, but property rights become a crony shit-show when building light transits in already developed areas. Trucks do almost all damage to the roads. Road construction and maintenance is subsidize by gas taxes and artificially-low registration fees for big trucks. Trucks hit bridges, force cars to be bigger to be safer, trucks require wider lanes. It’s a national issue mostly; Washington could be someone to start building heavy rail, putting long-haul truckers to work on rails shipping heavy cargo, reducing emissions, expediting delivery times. Smaller lorries would serves the city and suburbs in safer trucks from distribution centers well outside the suburb. We could all drive small cars in narrower lanes that are perfectly safe on roads with other small cars. If anyone wants sources, please ask.

    3. Matthew – have you ever taken the Rapid Ride E bus to/from Aurora Village around 7 am or 5 pm? Early mornings and late afternoons are the worst time to catch it – it’s standing room only. Even early afternoon can be bad. The 41 from Northgate is another route that tends to be standing room only. So, I don’t what routes you’re seeing that are running virtually empty but just know that the commuter routes tend to be full – you can add the 301 to the list.

      • Yes, I mentioned that buses at peak times are packed to the gills. Run the experiment your self. Count how many people are riding nominally on every bus you see. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. My friend in Bothell commutes via bus, what is otherwise a 30 drive takes him an hour forty-minutes. The bus is packed, but otherwise they are out of service or empty.

        Bus intermittency can be solved with smaller metro vans that pick up strangers and take then to their ballpark destination via algorithmic routes. These would operate like uber with no set schedules. The number of vans is scalable by demand, and parked for non-peak hours. No bus stops. No bus lanes. No transfers. No waiting for the bus to the extent that people do. Lanes could be narrowed and added to the existing infrastructure.

    4. I’m not aware of anyone calling for “unfettered” immigration. Can you let us know who suggested such a thing?

    5. Matt Richardson, you have a lot of knowledge. Probably a lot to digest, but we can already see how a system like uber is cheaper and very convenient. Take away many of the rules and let us experience what will happen. Glad you pointed out the faults of rent control.

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