WE SLEEP AT HOME and work at the office. But we live on the road—in our cars and buses and trains, on our bikes or feet or scooters or skateboards. Transport and traffic shape our days, our environment, even our politics. Read how you can beat the traffic, avoid it, or live with it—whatever you ride or drive.
WHY TRAFFIC BACKS UP
Traffic is remarkably complex; scientists use game theory, chaos theory, fluid-flow theory, even string theory to explain it. Mark Hallenbeck, director of UW’s Washington State Transportation Center, prefers what he calls the Wile E. Coyote Theorem.
Coyote chases Road Runner off a cliff—and keeps running, untroubled, until he stops, glances down sheepishly, and plummets to earth. Likewise, says Hallenbeck, freeway drivers routinely perform the impossible, as long as they don’t notice they’re doing it.
In theory, maximum traffic flow is about 2,000 vehicles per lane per hour, which allows two seconds’ stopping distance between each. But morning rush-hour volumes reach 2,400 vehicles. Then something happens: an accident, a traffic stop or breakdown, a catchy billboard. One driver slows to gawk. The next driver must brake harder to avoid colliding, the next one harder still. The faith that kept them going at untenably close distance is broken. “The coyote looks down and he’s screwed,” says Hallenbeck. “Ten cars later, you have a traffic jam.”
You don’t need an awful lot of people to get congestion: Richland, population 45,000, has 15-minute morning and afternoon rush “hours.” In larger cities, notes Hallenbeck, “the peak spreads until it’s no longer two peaks. It’s flat”—like Highway 520, filled to capacity throughout the day.
“Given the opportunity, people will all go to work at 8am and return at 5. Companies like you there at 8, and no one wants to go early.” That’s why adding highway capacity doesn’t eliminate congestion. Commuters shift their schedules to drive as near as they can to the preferred time. Given the chance, says Hallenbeck, “they’ll all go again at 8. If you truly wanted a congestion-free I-5 with people going whenever they want, you’d need about 22 lanes in each direction.”
STATE OF THE ART: TRACKING JAMS BEFORE THEY HAPPEN
Bill Gates was still in high school when he and Paul Allen started their first company, Traf-o-Data, based on the then-vanguard notion of using computers to collect and analyze traffic data. Traf-o-Data lapsed when its founders couldn’t find a buyer for it. But it planted a seed that sprouted five years ago, when Microsoft spun off its traffic technologies as an independent company, Inrix.
Tracking traffic used to depend on anecdotal nuggets such as accident and chopper reports. In the 1990s Washington and other states graduated to monitoring flow continuously with buried sensors. Fine, unless there are no sensors. And they only tell you how traffic is flowing now, not how it will in 15 minutes or an hour.
Inrix augments official sensor data with real-time GPS data from over a million mobile points: taxis, trucks, and delivery vans in 1,000 commercial fleets that contract with Inrix (and in return receive its information on traffic conditions). This, boasts CEO Bryan Mistele, lets Inrix monitor “not just the major freeways but arterials, side streets, and I-90 all the way across Snoqualmie Pass.” Its Smart Driver Network crunches this data with weather reports, school schedules, sports events, and even protest marches to delineate not only current but upcoming traffic conditions—a MapQuest that scopes out traffic as well as routes, and sees into the future.
So far Inrix has sold its tracking and forecasting services to businesses and agencies ranging from automakers (Ford and BMW) to state transportation departments—22 so far. Washington’s DOT isn’t among them: “We continue to have discussions,” says Mistele. Inrix recently launched a free iPhone app. The catch: Whenever you use Inrix Traffic!, it tracks your location and speed. You become another data point in the great traffic calculus.
STATE OF THE ART: BIKE IT YOUR WAY
For years, cyclists have pushed Google Maps for a “Bike There” option that would show the best trails and biker-friendly roads to a given destination. But Google, stung by criticism of its unreliable walking directions, deferred.
Now a student-faculty team at the University of British Columbia has gone where mighty Google fears to tread. “People wanted it now,” says PhD candidate Meghan Winters, who has extensively studied cycling habits. “And for just Vancouver, we figured this was something that we could put together in about six months.”
Winters and UBC’s Cycling in Cities team launched their Cycling Route Planner in June 2008, Canada’s official Bike Month. It combines a Google Maps interface with everything from U.S. Geological Survey vegetation data to elevations provided by a company called DMTI Spatial to air pollution data recycled from another study. Users choose what’s important to them. Need to get across town in an hour but you hate hills, choke on exhaust, and insist on cheery, tree-lined streets? Whip out your trusty smartphone or laptop.
That is, if you’re in Vancouver. But Winters says other towns could easily adapt this tool. “Starting from scratch, it took us a little while longer, but we’d be happy to share the code with other cities.” The closest thing Seattle has is SDOT’s bicycling guide map, which displays bike lanes, popular routes, and topography but doesn’t approach the UBC planner’s interactivity and depth. The way the high-tech and cycling cultures intersect here, it seems only a matter of time.
Best Urban Bicycling Secret
Even some regular bicyclists don’t realize they can legally use Seattle’s sidewalks—usually the safest, sometimes the fastest, occasionally the only way to go. They just have to mind their speed and yield to pedestrians.
Best Accidental Bicycling Aid
Seattle has uncounted thousands of street-corner curb cuts and some 40,000 more on its to-do list. They’re installed to help the disabled and elderly get about. But they also enable bicycles to shift between the sidewalks and roadways, making them essential to safe, efficient two-wheeled travel.
STATE OF THE ART: MAGIC BUS INFO
You’re stranded at a stop, slicked with drizzle, and there’s no bus in sight despite what the timetable says. Who you gonna call? Metro reports bus delays and ETAs online, but not in very intuitive form. That gave one bus commuter, Joe Heck, an idea. “When the iPhone became available, I thought, Let’s put a really nice interface on [the Metro information] and put it in my hand.” Last year Heck released the resulting app, SeattleBus. For $4.99 it not only tells bus stop castaways how long they have to wait but lets users store favorite stops and pinpoint the nearest stop via the iPhone’s nifty geolocation.
By the time SeattleBus arrived, a UW grad student named Brian Ferris had channeled his transit tribulations into creating another real-time tracking system. Ferris’s OneBusAway began as a website and expanded from there. He added a phone number “so anyone with a cellphone could punch it in and get real-time arrival information.” (Dial 206-456-0609, listen to the instructions, and key in your stop number; or text the service.) An Explore tool came later, thanks to Kari Watkins, a UW PhD candidate in engineering. Type in anything from “bars” to “doctors,” and the system scans the Yelp database to find those most accessible via transit.
OneBusAway seeks to expand by integrating service alerts (delays due to events, holidays, or poor weather) and getting Metro and Sound Transit to post the system on their websites. “Instead of King County spending money to reinvent the wheel,” Ferris says brightly, “they can just have us help them.”
You Can Park, But You Can't Hide
The curbside arms race between motorists trying to overstay their welcomes and parking enforcement officers trying to make them follow the rules seems to be tilting decisively toward the enforcers. The Seattle Police Department has begun deploying a dazzling array of new and repurposed technologies to catch wayward parkers. Just in time; the city’s decision not to build park-and-rides by the new light rail stations has boosted what William Edwards, SPD’s parking enforcement director, calls “park and hide” commuting—parking free on residential or industrial streets and taking transit downtown—and stirred complaints from SoDo, Columbia City, and other neighborhoods. To them and to others trying to game the system, Parking Enforcement has a simple message: We’ve got your number, and your GPS coordinates.
Bicycle (Volcanic Model)
Where Used Pay-station areas downtown and International District, Restricted Parking zones around Southeast Seattle lightrail stations.
Cost $2,760, including clothing and additional gear.
How Many 10
How It Stacks Up Fastest, most efficient (as well as cheapest and greenest) way to patrol dense areas. Can ride lightrail between stations. Officers who volunteer to ride the bikes loves them. Relatively hazardous; one officer injured wrist in a training fall, and another received scrapes when hit by a car.
Where Used Pay-station areas downtown and in other close-in neighborhoods.
How Many 7
How It Stacks Up Proven efficiency: can climb Seattle’s hills, navigate among parked cars, boost officer productivity. Some officers tip and fall up. Must plug in to recharge.
T3 Motion Electric Mobility Vehicle
Where Used Downtown, International District
How Many 3
How It Stacks Up The chariotlike T3 appears promising but is still in trial. With three wheels, feels more stable than Segway but is less powerful; can’t climb hills. No wait while charging; battery packs swap out.
Go-4 Interceptor Scooter
Where Used Throughout Seattle
How It Stacks UpThree-wheeled gasoline-powered scooters replaced familiar Cushmans seven to eight years ago; some now being mothballed as new vehicles are phased in. Theoretically safer (with roll ball) but less efficient in pay station areas than bicycles, Segways, and T3 chariots. Sliding doors let officers chalk wheels from the seat, but they must disembark to read pay stickers and leave tickets.
Autovu License-Plate Reader From Genetec
Where Used Time zones in SoDo, Ballard, West Seattle, U District, Queen Anne
How Many 2 (in trial)
How It Stacks Up Replaces traditional tire chalking. Its camera, computer, and global positioning system automatically read, record, and compare license plates, tire positions, and GPS coordinates (like reading fingerprints) to spot vehicles overstaying time limits. Gathers data on parking patterns. Promising results, but costly.
Not So Fast
Seattle police gun (their motors) for aggresive drivers
Officer J. Dean Shirey has been a Seattle police officer for 32 years and a traffic cop for the past 15, but he’s having too much fun to retire. And the toys—er, tools—have gotten too cool. Two years ago Shirey’s sergeant, Steve Ameden, organized a special Aggressive Drivers Response Team, an elite Delta Force within the Traffic Division. Shirey, who looks like a cross between The A-Team’s George Peppard and The Naked Gun’s Leslie Nielsen, is its old man. Forget Crown Vics; ADRT officers drive six Harleys and 10 Dodge Chargers with 5.7-liter, 340-horsepower Hemi engines that do “160 out of the box.”
Aggressive driving is an unusual meta-offense. The law doesn’t mention it; when police nab aggressors, they ticket them for speeding or reckless or negligent driving. Scientists and drivers’ ed teachers have long known that faster speeds mean worse crashes; impact increases exponentially with speed, and a crash at 35 miles per hour causes a third more front-end damage than one at 30. Researchers are just starting to prove that speeding leads to more as well as worse accidents, though cops know it from experience. A 1993 Australian study found that every three miles per hour driven above a mean traffic speed of 37 doubles the driver’s risk of crashing.
Shirey can be a stickler; he once delivered a jaywalking ticket in the hospital to a pedestrian who’d gotten struck by a car, after determining the unlucky walker had crossed against the light. But no cop busts everyone driving over the limit. “Patrol officers used to generally ticket at 10 miles over. We [on the ADRT] use the speed limit plus 15 as the cutoff.” Shirey’s like a batter waiting for the right pitch. “While you go after the 12s and 13s, the 25s will whisk right by you.”
ADRT officers range citywide, but Shirey favors the West Seattle Bridge and Admiral Way’s long descent to it, prime speeder habitat. One day I accompanied him, and he pointed out excesses my untrained eye couldn’t spot: “Watch the van, he’s going to make a break. The black car and the white SUV are playing ‘push,’ making each other go faster. That guy’s doing about 58. I’ve been tested at estimating speeds. I’m good within five miles an hour.”
Those were all “precursors to aggressive driving,” Shirey explained, but not flagrant enough to chase down. Suddenly he got his pitch: A beige Honda flew onto the highway and cut across three lanes. “There’s our guy! He’s doing 80.” Shirey’s Charger leapt out of the chute, siren screaming. “There’s no way I could do this in a Crown Vic,” he said calmly. The Honda pulled over and Shirey approached warily; Hondas are car thieves’ favorite targets.
The driver was no carjacker, joyrider, or imbiber—just a young hospital attendant late to work. “A real nice guy, meek as can be.” Shirey let him off with a warning. “I told him, ‘You work at Harborview, you see the broken bodies. The next time you hear someone talk about aggressive driving, just remind yourself, That was me.’
“I think he got the message.”
See all intersections with traffic cameras HERE.